What to Watch For: Pens vs. Devils
Saturday, 03.24.2012 / 11:00 PM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 25, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
The Devils further cemented their hold on sixth place in the Eastern Conference by getting a point in their 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto on Friday. New Jersey currently has a four-point lead over seventh-place Ottawa and a six-point cushion on eighth-place Buffalo.
The Devils have a solid position within the postseason bubble as the regular season winds down, but their scoring woes continue as they had just five goals in five games entering Friday’s contest before their three-goal output vs. the Leafs gave them eight in their last six. Their top producers are mired in slumps as Ilya Kovalchuk has one goal in his last six contests; Patrik Elias is goalless over that same span; Zach Parise has two goals in his last 11 games and David Clarkson has zero tallies through seven outings.
Kovalchuk and Parise are New Jersey’s top two goal scorers with 31 and 29 goals, respectively, and have been linemates virtually all season – since October 25. However, head coach Pete DeBoer split them up Friday and completely reworked his combos in hopes of generating more offense. It appears DeBoer is going to stick with those new lines for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh as they practiced in those combinations Saturday.
Added to the mix is center Travis Zajac, who has played just eight games this season with an Achilles heel injury. Both DeBoer and Zajac confirmed on Saturday that the plan is for Zajac to return to the lineup Sunday against the Penguins. Zajac will provide a huge boost to New Jersey’s lineup, as he is an effective two-way center who’s produced two 20-goal seasons out of his last three and is excellent in the faceoff circle.
At practice, Zajac centered a line with Alexei Ponikarovsky on his left and Kovalchuck on his right. The rest of the combos looked like this: Parise-Elias-Dainius Zubrus; Petr Sykora-Adam Henrique-Clarkson; Ryan Carter-Jacob Josefson-Steve Bernier.
DEVILS: TRAVIS ZAJAC
It’s been a tough year for Zajac, who’s been battling through an Achilles heel injury since the offseason. He underwent surgery before the season started and missed the first 30 games of the regular season before returning for eight appearances. Unfortunately, Zajac began experiencing soreness and weakness in the area and had to shut it down. Sunday will mark his first game back since Jan. 2, and the Devils are thrilled to get their top-line center back into the mix. Zajac is one of those players who makes his linemates better. The sizeable center has scoring upside (he’s scored 20-plus goals in two of his last three seasons), is defensively responsible and excellent in the faceoff circle. He said he’s “very anxious” to see game action, so it’d be wise to underestimate what Zajac can do with the adrenaline coursing through his veins.
PENGUINS: MATT COOKE
Matt Cooke just keeps rolling. The Penguins winger recorded his third two-goal outing in his last six games against the Senators on Saturday. He now has seven goals and two assists over that span and has extended his career-high to 19 tallies. The veteran forward has been thriving with captain Sidney Crosby as his center, who’s helped create a lot of chances for their line and has put the puck in areas that Cooke can get to many times since they were put together March 15. Credit must be given to Cooke for providing the finishing ability.
The Penguins clinched a postseason berth for the sixth consecutive season. That’s the second-longest streak in franchise history behind the 11 straight seasons the team made the playoffs between 1991-2001.
The Penguins enter Sunday's game riding a season-high nine-game home winning streak dating back to a 2-0 win against the New York Rangers on Feb. 21. It’s the longest active home winning streak in the NHL.
With a win Sunday, the Penguins will establish only the third home winning streak of 10 or more games in franchise history. It will mark the team’s first 10-game home winning streak since a 10-game home winning streak from Mar. 9-Apr. 9, 1993.
The Penguins enter Sunday’s game with 26 home victories this season. With a win, they will establish the third-highest single- season home victory total in team history (1995-96, 32 wins; 1992-93, 31 wins).
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury equaled his career high on Thursday by winning his 40th game of the season. He also won 40 games back in 2006-07. Fleury needs one victory to establish a career high and three to tie Tom Barrasso’s single-season franchise record of 43 (1992-93).
Fleury, whose 40 wins tie him with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne for the league lead, is vying to become just the third netminder in team history to lead the league in wins (Barrasso, ’92-93; Ken Wregget, 1994-95, 25 wins). Fleury is also closing in on another of Barrasso’s records – the Penguins all-time franchise win mark. Fleury, who has 224 career victories, is two wins shy of equaling Barrasso’s mark (226).
Fleury carries a 12-game unbeaten streak into Sunday’s contest (11-0-1) – the third-longest unbeaten stretch of his career and his longest since going a career-best 14 games without a regulation loss last season from Nov. 12-Dec. 11, 2010 (13-0-1). Fleury is 21-2-2 in his last 25 starts overall dating back to Jan. 13 at Florida.
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen left the team's Thursday game against Nashville halfway through the second period with an upper-body injury. Head coach Dan Bylsma said that he and forward Joe Vitale will not make the trip to Ottawa with the team and their statuses for Sunday's game vs. New Jersey are uncertain.
"Joe Vitale and Matt Niskanen will not be going on the trip with us and they probably won’t be playing through the weekend," Bylsma said.
Goalie Brent Johnson has been cleared for full practice and participated in his first skate with the team on Friday. While he'd like to get in a game before the playoffs, he is still not 100 percent and is just taking it day by day.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said when Johnson is healthy, he will be the backup goalie to Marc-Andre Fleury.
"He’s on a rehab schedule. Like to see him continue to do well in that," Bylsma said. "If that’s the case, he’ll be in practice next week a couple of times. If that continues to go well, then we’ll be looking to get him back in a game at some point."
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (15)
D Matt Niskanen, upper-body (1)
F Joe Vitale, undisclosed (4)
D Henrik Tallinder (acute thrombophlebitis of lower leg (30)
C Travis Zajac, Achilles heel soreness (37)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo