Who: New Jersey Devils (18-23-7, 43 points, last place in the Metropolitan Division, tied for last Eastern Conference) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (26-16-6; 58 points, 4th place in Metropolitan Division, Wild Card #2)
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet in Pittsburgh, MSG+ in the NY/NJ area, Sportsnet in Canada
Opponent Track: Like the Pens, Jersey has also been idle since January 19th and enjoyed their bye week and the All-Star break. The bye came at a great time for NJ, as they lost the last three games they played prior to it (Anaheim, NYI and Columbus) and overall have lost six of their last eight and seven of their last ten in the month of January.
Pens Refresh: Pittsburgh got their bye after finishing their last major western swing of the season by going just 2-3-0 against the three California teams and the two desert teams of Arizona and Vegas.
Season Series: The Devils have always given the Pens a lot of trouble and this year is no different with NJ winning the first two games in 2018-19. First the Devs won 5-1 in Pittsburgh way back on November 5th, then NJ won in Jersey 4-2 on Nov. 13th. After tonight there’s one more PIT/NJ matchup on February 19th.
SBN Team Counterpart: All About the Jersey
Tale of the tape
—By the numbers the Devils, well they’re bottom half of the league in just about every category. And in the very important goals against and 5v5 save percentage, both of which they rank 27th in a 31 team league, that’s another tough sign. Looking at the above screams “below average team” and that’s what the standings reflect as well.
—So it’s surprising for a team that can’t get stops at even strength, the penalty kill has been a real strength – tied with the Pens group, in fact.
—But, 5v5 should be key. NJ has allowed 108 goals at full strength, only four teams have given up more. The Pens are their inverse, scoring 118 5v5 goals, to which only four teams have scored more. You never know what could happen first game back from break for both teams and who might have their legs or might start slow, but tonight should be a real chance for Pittsburgh to flex their offensive muscle and win a 4-2 or 5-3 type of game.
Player stats at a glance
—Pavel Zacha took a stint in the AHL earlier this season. So many young players come into the league these days and are game-changers from Day 1 and Zacha isn’t that at the NHL level, though the 6th overall pick from 2015 is developing into a fairly sturdy third line center with a good two-way game. Still, getting drafted just before guys like Zach Werenski, Timo Meier and Mikko Rantanen is a tough look for old friend Ray Shero.
—Also it’s tough to say for a guy who just turned 20, but Nico Hischier seems more like “pretty good player” than “franchise changing #1 overall pick”. He’s certainly far better than a Nail Yakupov-type of #1 overall but it seems unfortunate for NJ they got the #1 pick in a year there wasn’t a McDavid or Matthews front-end star at the top of the draft. It’s also got to sting a bit to see fellow 2016-draftees like Miro Heiskanen and Elias Pettersson show out at the All-Star game. It’s hindsight to say NJ should have went a different direction, just more a comment about timing.
—It’s never not jarring to see Cory Schneider’s fall from grace. I say it every preview but just can’t help it. Also Keith Kinkaid who was very respectable in a backup or 1A/1B type role in 2016-17 and 2017-18 (.914 save%) has been drastically worse this year as well.
Possible Lines (based on Sunday practice)
Note: their all-star Nick Palmieri missed practice as well but is expected to play tonight
Injury list: Taylor Hall, Ben Lovejoy, Stefan Noesen
—Figures to be an uphill battle for the Devs with Taylor Hall not being on the road trip to Pittsburgh. Hall as the reigning MVP is impossible to replace and the lineup without him lacks a lot of skill.
—Wood missed the last three games but practiced on Sunday and seems set to make his return. Lovejoy wasn’t as lucky as he’s been place on the IR.
—Keith Kinkaid will start. The backup will be Cam Johnson.
Hynes on the hot seat?
One thing I’ve noticed is Devils fans, generally speaking, have never seemed all that comfortable or excited about coach John Hynes. Many are grumbling already about the possibility of the organization moving on without him, but AAtJ thinks he has a little bit of rope:
…the short answer is probably along the lines of Shero acknowledges that this roster still needs work and he believes Hynes is a good development coach. I think the implosion of the goaltending situation has also allowed Hynes to get the proverbial mulligan for this season. I think the Devils wanted some stability heading into an important summer for them and so they wouldn’t have to add a coaching search to everything else that needs to happen. If they struggle next year, Hynes’ leash will not be so long, but for now, the organization feels like they can still move forward with him.
Tough spot for Hynes being as his franchise goalie in Schneider has totally collapsed and his lineup has Taylor Hall and about 17 warm bodies in it that are just “guys on a team” and not really all that impactful of players. I’m not sure what NJD fans want out of the coach (aside from winning), which is just going to be a tall task given the constraints.
All About the Jersey also has one of the best game previews on the SBN network, so I def recommend checking it out here to get their perspective on this game.
And now for the Pens
Check the game notes, eh bud?
Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:
—The big change looks to be trying Rust on the left wing, where he hasn’t played too much this season.
—Neither Aston-Reese nor Schultz participated in the team practice, though both were said to have skated prior to the group. No real progress there following the bye but it figures that Schultz could be close to ramping up his involvement soon.