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New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter questioned his team's commitment after a tough home loss before the All-Star break. The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins came to town, New Jersey's play compelled him to do the same.
The first-place Devils (28-18-3) look to begin the NHL's second half on a stronger note Tuesday night when they host the Penguins (27-18-4), who are looking for their fourth straight win in New Jersey.
The Devils have won three games in Pittsburgh this season, but when they hosted the Penguins on Nov. 5 in the only meeting at the Prudential Center, they lost 5-0. Goaltender Martin Brodeur was pulled early in the third period, and Sutter was not pleased with his team's effort.
"I'm not going to sugar coat it," Sutter said after that loss. "Our commitment (here) was unacceptable. To come to the rink like that doesn't cut it."
Sutter was similarly outraged after the Devils' performance in their last game before All-Star weekend. New Jersey led Montreal 3-1 after two periods on Thursday, but ended up losing 4-3.
The Canadiens outshot the Devils 32-13 in the game - 20-3 in the third period.
"I'm disappointed in the whole team and its commitment to win. Their play was brutal," Sutter said. "They already had their plans to head to (Las) Vegas or wherever the hell they're going before the game was half over. It's totally unacceptable. Everything it takes to win a hockey game, we didn't do. It was a total lack of effort from everyone.
"It tells you that this is not a mentally strong hockey team."
Only the New York Rangers have scored fewer goals than the Devils' 121. Zach Parise leads the team with 18 goals, but other than scoring twice in a 7-3 rout of Philadelphia on Jan. 22, he hasn't found the net in 10 games this month.
Considering the Devils' offensive struggles, solid goaltending has been critical to their success, and Brodeur hasn't disappointed. He's 10-4-0 with a 1.76 goals-against average since Dec. 21.
Brodeur, however, has started the Devils' last three home games against Pittsburgh and lost them all, posting a 4.80 GAA. The Penguins had never previously won three consecutive games in New Jersey.
The Devils lost three of their final five games before the break, but are still tied for the top spot in the Atlantic Division with Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh is one point behind the Devils and Flyers in the NHL's tightest division race, with only five points separating first place (59) from the last-place New York Islanders and Rangers (54).
The Penguins lost consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 11-13 right before All-Star weekend. They fell 6-5 in a shootout against Washington on Jan. 21 and 4-3 to Philadelphia on Thursday.
Pittsburgh is still getting used to not having captain and reigning Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Crosby is expected to be out until March after suffering a high ankle sprain against Tampa Bay on Jan. 18.
But Evgeni Malkin, Crosby's replacement in the All-Star game, has helped pick up the offensive slack. He has seven goals in his last five games and leads the team with 27 on the season.
"A lot of times when he played in Russia, he was the go-to guy, and I think he's used to the pressure that comes with that," Crosby said. "Hopefully, it's not something where he has to put it all on his shoulders. I don't think he can do that - nobody can do that."
Malkin has seven goals and seven assists in 12 career games against the Devils.