The New Jersey Devils sit atop the Atlantic Division after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Prudential Center on Saturday, taking advantage of sloppy play from their rivals down the stretch. In addition to leading a division that produced four, 100-point playoff teams last season, the New Jersey Devils are also first in the entire Eastern Conference – at least for today.
After a convincing 3-1 win yesterday that saw the Pittsburgh Penguins, particularly Evgeni Malkin, self destruct in the third period, New Jersey visits the Penguins for the second half of a home-and-home divisional battle. Malkin took a penalty to negate what would have been a crucial power play for the Penguins late in the game and was visibly frustrated by Devils goaltending. The Penguins then took a string of foolish penalties to help put the game away as the Devils converted two power play goals in the third period. Though sloppy play down the stretch iced the game, the New Jersey Devils played one of their most complete games of the season to control play and avenge their only regulation loss to date.
Martin Brodeur will yield to Johan Hedberg on Sunday after a spectacular night in net as a battle of backup goaltenders will decide first place in the East. Hedberg has been phenomenal in limited appearances this year, but will have his work cut out for him against a motivated and talented Penguins offense.
Stefan Matteau scored the first goal of his NHL career to tie the game at one, Bobby Butler was phenomenal in the third period, and the power play finished off the Penguins with two late goals. The defense, which had struggled during the Devils’ overtime losing streak, again put together a solid outing, keeping their collective points streak alive after a beautiful pass from Andy Greene set up Matteau’s goal. If New Jersey can put together another complete effort on Sunday, they can hold onto first place in the conference at the quarter-way mark of a lockout-shortened season.
In both games with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, the third period has determined the winner. In the first meeting between these two teams, the New Jersey Devils appeared overmatched before finally collapsing late. Yesterday, New Jersey controlled play before forcing the Penguins into the mistakes that would ultimately decide the game when the Devils attack finally broke through.
Ilya Kovalchuk assisted on both third period goals on the power play, but was on the ice for more than half the game when all was said and done. After 30:01 of ice time, Kovalchuk’s stamina will again be tested on Sunday. Can Kovy be effective on a back-to-back after so much playing time, manning the point on the power play and double shifting early in a tight game?
If the Devils can find a way to match the energy level and consistency of Saturday’s effort, New Jersey will find themselves atop the Eastern Conference when the day ends. The Penguins will not be nearly as sloppy as they were yesterday, but New Jersey forced many of Pittsburgh’s mistakes. A strong forecheck and solid goaltending could lead to another upset win for the Devils.
New Jersey 3 – Pittsburgh 2