The Pittsburgh Penguins hit the road on Wednesday night eager to put their struggles behind them as they head to New Jersey thirsty for a win against the Devils. After a tremendous start, the Penguins (15-8-4) have struggled in their last 8-games, posting a 3-4-1 record. The Devils, on the other hand, have lost just once in their last 8-games in a 4-1 defeat to the Penguins. Against the Devils, the Penguins are 1-0-1 on the season and 5-0-1 in their last 6-matchups.
The Penguins have struggled to find consistency lately and have been riddled with injuries, particularly in their defensive lineup. Normally feared for their unstoppable powerplay, a double threat powerplay unit that includes the NHL’s top-2 scorers in Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins are simply middle of the pack so far this season on the man advantage. In the 4-3 loss to Buffalo on Monday night, the Penguins went just 1-for-8 on the man advantage, including three 5-on-3 scenarios. On the injured list are 4 of the Penguins’ top defensemen. Having started the season without their top-2 defensemen in Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, the Penguins made a move to bring in Philippe Boucher in trade for Darryl Sydor. However, Boucher’s services have been lost for the past several games due to an unspecified injury. More recently, the physical presence of Hal Gill has been sidelined for 2-4 weeks with a shoulder injury. This has increased the burden on the young Penguins’ defense as Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, and now call-up Ben Lovejoy are being called upon to rapidly develop their defensive skills. In addition to the defensive challenges, the Penguins have been playing without the services of #1 goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as he has been sidelined for several games with an unspecified injury. Fortunately for the Penguins, backup netminder Dany Sabourin has played very well and posted a 2.13 Goals Against Average and a 0.923 save percentage.
Adding to the Penguins injury woes is a lack of offensive consistency on the wings. After starting the season on fire, Miroslav Satan has posted just 2-goals in his last 14-games. Peter Sykora and Pascal Dupuis have also struggled. Sykora has just 4-goals in his last 14-games and Dupuis has just 1-goal in his last 18. Coming off from a 2-goal performance, Ruslan Fedotenko could be starting to develop some chemistry on the Malkin line with 3-goals in his last 3-games, but he has totaled just 5 across his last 14-games. After a brief period of productivity, Max Talbot has also dried up with no goals in his last 12-games. Fireplug Tyler Kennedy is out of the lineup with an injury which has led to a round of call-ups.
New Jersey suffered a huge blow in early November when franchise goaltender Martin Brodeur’s was sidelined until at least March 09 for elbow surgery. Before Brodeur’s early exit to the injured reserve list, he led his Devils to a 6-2-2 record. With Brodeur out of the lineup, the Devils struggled mightily as they dropped 5 of the first 6-games without him. But the Devils have since found what it takes to win without Martin Brodeur in the lineup as they have gone on a 7-1-0 tear in their last 8-games. The Devils have cashed in on their tight defensive play and the stonewall backstop of Scott Clemensen. Clemensen has posted a 6-3-0 record this season with 2.32 goals-against average and 0.922 save percentage. “He’s having an opportunity to play on a regular basis, which has obviously helped him. He played very well in the American League last year, when he was playing. It’s a combination of all those things. He’s a confident person, he’s very calm. He doesn’t get rattled very much,” noted Devils’ coach Brett Sutter.
The Penguins will have their work cut out for them as they face off against the red hot Devils. Unless the Penguins can get some jump out of their wingers and crisp outlet passes by their defensive corps, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin alone will be hard pressed to break through the stifling New Jersey defense. Pittsburgh has been frustrated by teams that employ the trap, and the New Jersey Devils are masters at that tight defensive system. Unless the Penguins can find a way to get through the neutral zone, expect that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be hemmed in all evening. Because of the tight defensive game that the Devils play, the Penguins will need to keep their feet moving to try and draw penalties and then find ways to convert on their powerplay chances. With the New Jersey penalty kill falling in the bottom 5 of the NHL, it could be the deciding factor for the Penguins and an opportunity to get their special teams back on track. When all is said and done, I think we can expect a low-scoring, defensive juggernaut between these two teams.
What better way for Satan to dump his scoring funk than to find a way to beat the devils.