The New Jersey Devils have been one of the hottest teams this season, losing only one game in regulation for a 6-1-3 record – that loss was a 5-1 setback in Pittsburgh Feb. 2. The Devils are one-point behind the Penguins in the Atlantic Division race, setting up a big home-and-home series this weekend.
Devils head coach Peter DeBoer told Tom Gulitti of The Record, “We know what (the Penguins) are about. They gave us a pretty good lesson in Pittsburgh last week, so we’ve got to take a deep breath here and try to refuel and get ready because it’s four big points, a division rival and we need to play better than the last time we played against them.”
Since the lopsided loss to the Penguins, the Devils have won three straight games, allowing only three total goals in those contests. Team defense has always been a key to New Jersey’s success, and this season is no exception. The Devils rank fifth (tied) in the NHL as of Friday in goals against per game at 2.10.
A big part of team defense is penalty killing, and the Devils are hotter than hell (see what I did there?) when it comes to the PK. New Jersey’s PK was arguably its best asset last season. The Devils finished with the top-ranked killing percentage (89.6%) in the NHL and their current season kill rate (87.8%) ranks sixth. They’ve successfully killed off the last 19 disadvantages.
The Devils’ PK hasn’t just been a source of defense for the team, it’s also contributed to the offense. New Jersey leads the league with three shorthanded goals, two from star forward Ilya Kovalchuk. One of those shorthanded scores came against Pittsburgh by Andy Greene. The Devils also led the NHL last season with 15 shorthanded tallies. They’re a dangerous team, even when down a man.
The Devils offense has been led by the trio of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique and David Clarkson. The ageless Elias, 36, and breakout star Clarkson lead the team in scoring with 13 points each. Clarkson is a finisher in this league. He paces the squad with seven goals, building off the 30 he potted last season. Henrique missed the first five games of the season while recovering from a broken thumb. He’s hit the ground running (or skating) since his return, netting three goals and four points in five games.
The Devils boast a strong defensive corps, led by captain Bryce Salvador and the physical Anton Volchenkov. But as with every season, the success of New Jersey is directly linked to the play of their Hall of Fame netminder. Brodeur is playing at his usual elite level, posting a 5-1-2 record with a 2.44 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. He has held opponent to two goals or less in five of his eight starts, including his 120th career shutout, although the Penguins scored five on him the last time these teams met. Brodeur will start Saturday, his 1,200th career game. Wow.
DEVILS: ILYA KOVALCHUK
The Penguins better keep an eye on Kovalchuk, who has tortured them during his career. Kovalchuk has 48 points (24G-24A) in 43 games against the Penguins in his lifetime. Kovalchuk is the type of player that general managers daydream about having on their team. He’s a brilliant two-way talent that is in a category of his own. His offense speaks for itself. Kovalchuk may be the deadliest goal scorer in the NHL. He’s scored 50 goals twice in his career and has scored 40 goals six times. His lowest goal output was 29 in his rookie season in 2001-02. Kovalchuk is also a brilliant defender, who is persistent in his backchecking and a valuable penalty killer. He adds a scoring threat to the PK – evidenced by his five shorthanded goals in the last two seasons.
PENGUINS: SIDNEY CROSBY
The Penguins captain is back in a groove. Crosby is riding a six-game point streak (2G-10A) after a three-point night (1G-2A) Thursday against Washington. He is second in the NHL with 12 assists and ranks third (tied) in points with 17 (5G-12A). The last time these teams met, Crosby netted a goal and added two assists for three points. When Crosby is rolling like he is now, there is no team in the league that can stop him, including the defensively sound Devils.
D Kris Letang, lower body
D Matt Niskanen, lower body
F Dainius Zubrus, upper body