By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)
Another reunion is in the works for tonight as the New Jersey Devils (9-6-1) will host the Pittsburgh Penguins (10-6-0) at Prudential Center. When Dan Bylsma and the Buffalo Sabres visited CONSOL Energy Center for the first time earlier this season, it was a big deal since it was the first time he was behind a bench in the arena since the Penguins fired him a couple summers ago. While tonight’s game is not in Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ players and management will see some familiar faces in New Jersey. Ray Shero, the former Penguins general manager who led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup in 2009 under Bylsma, now is trying to turn around a Devils team that hasn’t been very competitive in the past few years. One of Shero’s first moves was to bring in former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes to be the head coach in New Jersey. Hynes interviewed for the Penguins job, but obviously did not get it. Hynes is a good coach and seems to be a perfect fit for a team like the Devils. Hynes and Shero also decided to claim Bobby Farnham off waivers from the Penguins a few weeks ago so there will be plenty of familiarity between these two teams tonight. Although Hynes only left the Penguins organization this offseason, only three active players on the current Pittsburgh roster played for Hynes. Those players are Beau Bennett, Brian Dumoulin and Jeff Zatkoff. Zatkoff is expected to get the start in goal tonight for the Penguins.
The Penguins seem to be getting their game where they want it to be after an 0-3 start to the season. They are 10-2 in their last 12 games and have beaten some good teams in that stretch such as Montreal, Nashville and Washington. Some of the games haven’t been as pretty as they would like, but the result is what matters to them at this point. Marc-Andre Fleury has stole a couple games for Pittsburgh already this year and who knows what their record would be without him. The Penguins have been giving up a lot of shots and scoring chances, but the puck isn’t going in the net, fortunately for them. One good adjustment Mike Johnston made last game was inserting Olli Maatta onto the top defensive pairing next to Kris Letang. It was a bit strange when Johnston didn’t originally put those two together at the beginning of the season like he said he would, but it looks like it was just to ease Maatta back in after having so many health issues the past two seasons. Letang and Ian Cole were not working well together at all, which isn’t a big surprise because Cole had never played that many minutes per game in the NHL before. Heading into Thursday night, only four defensemen had a -11 or worse plus/minus rating. Both Cole and Letang were on that list. I’m not a huge fan of that statistic, but when your top pairing defensemen have drastic numbers like that, there clearly is a problem. I’m sure Letang misses Paul Martin, who was by far his favorite defensive partner. Maatta is probably the closest guy to Martin the Penguins have, which should boost Letang’s performance a bit. Maatta can skate, has the ability to contribute on both ends of the ice and has great vision. This pairing should be fun to watch all season long. So now what happens to the other pairings? Well, in my opinion, the pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Brian Dumoulin should not be touched. They have looked great together of late and you can tell they both have confidence. Dumoulin has been really solid, even going back to last year’s postseason where he was forced to play as a result of so many injuries on the blue line. That experience certainly helped him prepare for his first full NHL season and it looks like it’s paying dividends. A couple years ago, Scott Harrington was ranked above Dumoulin on the Penguins’ depth chart, but last year’s performance helped Dumoulin change that. Johnston should consider giving Cole a night off since he has lost some confidence. Adam Clendening could use some time on the ice as well, since he has only played in one game this season. Johnston scratched Scuderi in that one game that Clendening played and it paid off. Scuderi played much better after that and the same could happen with Cole.
Johnston also shifted his forward lines, promoting Bennett to the first line with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis, which pushed Patric Hornqvist to the third line with Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz. It is definitely an interesting change as both Kunitz and Hornqvist have 20-goal seasons on their resume, but it will create some matchup issues for opposing teams. Most third lines won’t be able to handle that much talent and physicality at once, which should benefit the trio. It also creates an opportunity for Bennett to show what he can do in the top-six. Johnston made the right move by leaving the second line alone as David Perron seems comfortable with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. For the first time in a long time, Pittsburgh has four legitimate scoring lines with Sergei Plotnikov as a healthy scratch. That’s a pretty good situation to have. Even if someone does get hurt, it’s nice to know that a guy like Plotnikov can go right in and help contribute.
New Jersey is coming off a big 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night in which in rookie Sergey Kalinin scored a power-play goal with 2:27 remaining in the third period to break a 2-2 tie. After starting the season 0-3-1, the Devils have really turned things around, winning 7 of their last 10 games. New Jersey, who is typically known for their defensive style, are actually scoring more goals per game than the Penguins, which sounds insane. A big part of that success has come from a couple additions Shero made over the offseason, signing Lee Stempniak and trading for Kyle Palmieri. Stempniak, a former Penguin, is currently playing top-six minutes in New Jersey and it has paid off. He has recorded 3 goals and 9 assists in 16 games so far this season on the Devils’ most productive line with Mike Cammalleri and Adam Henrique. Cammalleri’s 14 points (5 goals and 9 assists) is tied with Palmieri for the team lead in points. Speaking of Palmieri, his 6 goals and 8 assists so far this season seems worth a second and third round pick, which is what the Devils sent to the Anaheim Ducks for the 24-year-old. An opportunity on the first line has clearly paid big dividends for the young player. New Jersey’s defense is nowhere near where it was ten years ago, but they are a very young group. Five of their top six defensemen are under the age of 28, including one 21-year-old, a pair of 23-year-olds and one 24-year-old. The veteran of the group is captain Andy Greene, who is now 33 years old. While the Devils’ defense is fairly young, the man behind them has plenty of experience. Cory Schneider, who will most likely make the start tonight for New Jersey, is having another good season, recording a, 8-4-1 record with a .924 save-percentage and 2.13 goals-against average. The 29-year-old currently ranks fourth among NHL goaltenders with 8 wins.
With an improves offensive attack, Shero’s Devils certainly should provide a good divisional test for Pittsburgh, especially in a back-t0-back situation. New Jersey has a great mix of young players and veterans to make a playoff push this season and we all know how the Penguins have struggled in recent years with the Devils. Most New Jersey games aren’t very entertaining, but with the Hynes/Shero factor mixed with more offense, this one should be much better than previous meetings.