Today’s NHL Predictions features a Metropolitan division rivalry game between the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. This is the first meeting between the two teams, with the Devils winning all four meetings last season. The Devils (7-6-1) have been on a three-game losing skid, and have lost four out of five without Jack Hughes. On the flip side, the Penguins (8-6-0) are on a five-game win streak after starting the year slowly.
The Devils are coming off a 6-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night. The trends of not creating enough offence, poor in-zone defending, and below-replacement-level goaltending have the Devils reeling. However, reinforcements may be on the way. Defenseman Colin Miller has been activated off of IR, but most importantly, Jack Hughes will meet with the team in Pittsburgh and is on track to play this Saturday. This matchup with the Penguins may be pure survival while they wait for their superstar to return to the lineup.
NHL Predictions: New Jersey vs. Pittsburgh
Three Keys to Victory
Goaltending, Goaltending, Goaltending
The key to victory for most nights will be the Devil’s goaltending until proven otherwise. It has been horrendous, plain and simple. Lindy Ruff rode Vitek Vanecek for a large stretch of games, but his play continued to spiral. The hope was that Akira Schmid, who had only started four games before Tuesday night, could provide a spark. Early on he was locked in and allowed the Devils to keep it close early, but once Winnipeg scored one the floodgates opened. Neither Devils goalie has played well this season, with both being in the bottom 12 in goals saved above expected among goalies who’ve played five or more games. Vanecek sits near the bottom with a -3.6 GSAE and Schmid is close by with a -2.4 GSAE. It remains to be seen who gets the start, but knowing Ruff he’ll likely turn to Vanecek.
Slow Down Pittsburgh at 5v5
The Devils come into tonight’s game at a major disadvantage at 5v5. The Penguins are the league’s highest-scoring team at 5v5 with 40 goals and have the second-best goal differential at +14. Stats tell a much worse story for the Devils. They give up the seventh most goals at 5v5 with 34 but have the second-worst goal differential at -12. Putting it simply, the Penguins at 5v5: good. The Devils at 5v5: bad. Despite an aging roster, the Penguins still have plenty of firepower with Sidney Crosby (19 points), Jake Guentzel (18 points), Evgeni Malkin (17 points), and Erik Karlsson (15 points) all over a point per game. This Devils defensive unit which has struggled all season long, could be in for a long night if they don’t start making quick reads and getting the puck out of the zone in transition fast.
Can Anyone Get a Shorty?
In the four matchups last season, the Devils scored two shorthanded goals, both of which were game-winning goals. The only caveat is that both were scored by now-injured Nico Hischier. This season the Penguins have given up two shorthanded goals already and are near the basement on the power play. The Devils only have one shorthanded goal this year but have deployed Jesper Bratt on the penalty kill to use his speed and aggressiveness in trying to force turnovers. With goals coming at a premium at 5v5 for the Devils, they’ll have to find different ways to score. They are already doing it on the powerplay, but a shorthanded goal could go a long way in building some confidence.
The Devils enter tonight’s game sputtering. The Penguins enter tonight red hot. Conventional wisdom says the Penguins should win this game comfortably. They’re the better 5v5 team, have the better goaltending by a wide margin, and are fully healthy. It feels as if the Devils are trying to just survive while Hughes and Hischier are out, and unfortunately, it isn’t working. At full health, the Devils would be the betting favourite, but being without their top two centres has clearly killed them. Hockey is a weird game and sometimes the unexpected happens. The vibes should be higher with Hughes’s return imminent, and they should be desperate and willing to scratch and claw their way to two points. If they win it won’t be pretty.
Prediction: Devils win 4-3
Main Photo Credit: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports