Who: New Jersey Devils (22-11-2, 46 points, 2nd place Metropolitan Division) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (19-10-6, 44 points, 4th place Metropolitan Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sports Network Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) for the Western PA market, MSG-SN for the visitors, Sportsnet and TVAs in Canada
Opponent Track: Perhaps no team has had a more fascinating and unpredictable season than New Jersey so far. They weren’t picked to make the playoffs by too many, but fired off an incredible 13-game winning streak that saw them go a month between losses (Oct. 24 - Nov 23) and be the NHL’s hottest and best team for a while. Since that point, they’ve been average going 6-7-2 in the last 15 games. It’s even worse in the last three weeks, NJ has just a 1-7-1 record. NJ has played once since the Christmas break, losing 3-1 to Boston at home on Wednesday night.
Pens Path Ahead: It’s time to bundle up and head to Boston, the outdoor game is finally here! The Winter Classic is Monday afternoon at 2:00pm for Pittsburgh’s next game. After that they stay on the road and head west to Vegas next Thursday (Jan 5th) and to Arizona’s rinky dink rink on Sunday Jan 8th.
Season Series: The Pens will be in Jersey on Sunday January 22nd for the next matchup between these division rivals, and then the Devils will be back in Pittsburgh on Saturday February 18th for their second and final trip to Western PA. The fourth and final game of the season series takes place in one of the last games of the season on April 4th from the Prudential Center.
Hidden stat: New Jersey’s 12-2-2 away record this season is tied with Vegas for the best road points% in the NHL this season, but they are also 1-1-1 in their previous three away games.
Getting to know the Devils
SB Nation counterpart: All About the Jersey
Tomas Tatar - Nico Hischier - Fabian Zetterlund
Erik Haula - Jack Hughes - Jesper Bratt
Igor Sharangovich - Jesper Boqvist - Dawson Mercer
Miles Wood - Michael McLeod - Tyce Thompson
Jonas Siegenthaler / Dougie Hamilton
Kevin Bahl / Damon Severson
Nikita Okhotiuk / Brendan Smith
Goalies: Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood
Scratches: Alexander Holtz, Tyler Wotherspoon
IR: John Marino, Ryan Graves, Ondrej Palat, Nathan Bastian, Jonathan Bernier
—Old friend John Marino is out on a week-to-week basis after getting injured on Decemebr 20th. He started out his NJD stint really hot, putting up eight points (2G+6A) in his first 16 games and averaging 21:37, leading to consternation in some Pittsburgh quarters that perhaps he was flourishing and finding a new gear elsewhere. It’s been a tale of two halves for him, after that hot 16 games start, in the next 16 his production has gone way down (1G+0A) and now he’s hurt. Overall, Marino is what he is- a solid defensive defender, a good skater, but also with limits on just how much he is willing to push the envelope and be able to create offensively.
—Graves is another recent IR addition, which makes the lower pairs even weaker to be missing two key players on the backend.
—Tyce Thompson, brother of Buffalo star Tage, is up from the AHL. The younger brother is “only” 6’1” and not as lanky as his brother and only has nine NHL games under his belt to this point. Interestingly, he’s already competed against the Pens in two of them.
—In an era of mega-star first overall picks centers, Jack Hughes might not have the overwhelming production of Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, but the NJ 2019 first overall pick is coming into his own as a really good player in his own right. Now in his fourth NHL season, Hughes has progressed and improved steadily along the way. With his skating, hands and brain, he’s one of the most fluid, slick and dynamic young players in the game with his style of play.
—Last season was among a career-worst year for Dougie Hamilton with lows in goals (9), assists (21), points (30) and a rotten -22 plus/minus (which, while that stat has it’s limitations and can be team-dependent in nature, you aren’t going to often find a -22 who had a good year unless it’s on the golf course). He dealt with injuries that limited him to 62 games and a tough adjustment period to NJ, leaving many to wonder how he would bounce back in 2022-23. It’s been answered resoundingly as back to the old Dougie (the good one). Through just 35 games he’s almost already matched his statistical season last year and is playing much better.
—And don’t sleep on Jonas Siegenthaler as being a reason helping with the Hamilton turnaround. The 25-year old Swiss-born player has quietly developed into one of the most effective and under-rated players in the entire NHL. Siegenthaler won’t pop off the page with extreme skill or offense, but he’s as steady as they come and an example of one of the finest defensive defenseman in the NHL today given his defensive impacts.
Head to head
—The key to the Devils’ success has been their incredibly impressive control of play at 5v5 in shot-based metrics. New Jersey averages a total of 35.1 shots per game (2nd in the NHL) and only allows 26.6 shots against (also 2nd in the NHL). This has translated into scoring a lot of 5v5 goals, and not allowing very many against them. Unsurprisingly, that is a very sound formula and basis for winning a lot of hockey games.
—There are some cracks in the armor though, as have started to show in the last few weeks. Outside of a brief red-hot period from the typically very average goalie Vanecek, the Devils’ goaltending is of questionable reliability. Their power play and skill to finish in general is shoddy, their goals have been the result of territorial dominance and quantity of shots more than quality of players to finish, for the most part. (It doesn’t help that Ondrej Palat, who they signed as a free agent to score 50 points a year has been limited to only six games so far due to injury).
And now for the Pens...
Potential Game Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Rickard Rakell
Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Brock McGinn - Jeff Carter - Danton Heinen
Drew O’Connor - Teddy Blueger -Kasperi Kapanen
Marcus Pettersson / Kris Letang*
Brian Dumoulin / Jan Rutta
P.O. Joseph / Mark Friedman
Goalies: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith)
Scratches: Ty Smith, Drake Caggilua, Chad Ruhwedel (injured)
IR: Jeff Petry (upper body, LTIR, out until at least January 8th), Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald
—Things have possibly gone from bad to worse for the Pens, with Kris Letang absent from practice yesterday. Coach Mike Sullivan was typically short on specifics about the injury and Letang’s future status, but did call it an “evaluation for injury” and not a less serious “maintenance day”, which could suggest Letang might miss game time. Without Letang, the Pens arguably would only have one defender who functions and performs and top-four level healthy, and as a result the shuffling of pairs and overall talent level is not very fun to think about.
—The other injured players were all status quo at practice yesterday as compared to recent days. Poehling was able to practice again but Ruhwedel, Archibald (and Petry) were not participants.
—That said, what a way for Ty Smith to potentially make his Pittsburgh NHL debut, should Letang in fact be out of this one. Probably not the way he drew it up, but maybe he can do that thing were a player has a very inspired game competing against his former team that we see so often around the NHL.
PensBurgh’s Penguins Player to Ponder
Per Bob Grove, Jake Guentzel gone five games without a goal, which marks only the second time in the calendar year of 2022 that this has happened (joining a February cold spell)...Bryan Rust is enjoying the home cookin’, he’s got points in seven straight games at PPG Paints Arena (4G+8A).