Improved Devils primed for Penguins
|Kovalchuk leads the Devils with 13 goals.|
This will be the third of six meetings with the Penguins, who will be without Sidney Crosby (concussion). Evgeni Malkin (leg) is not expected to play.
“Crosby’s definitely a big part of their team, but you don’t become that good of a team because of one player,” said Martin Brodeur, who is likely to make his fifth straight start. “For them it’s a challenge not having him and trying to perform anyway. They’ve been playing well without him. Malkin, [Jordan] Staal’s back. You kind of trade off Crosby for Staal. It’s pretty good to be able to do that, take out a big guy like that and bring another one in.”
The Devils (13-29-3) swept last year's season series, but have dropped their first two meetings with Pittsburgh (29-14-4) this year. The most recent, a 2-1 setback at CONSOL Energy Center on Dec. 6.
"Last year we won all six, this year they’ve been having the upper hand, so definitely we’re going to try and even it out as much as we can," Brodeur said. "Teams are teams for us. Everybody’s better than us. We’re 30th in the standings anyway, so it’s a challenge every night to try to keep doing what we do and make progress towards getting better every day."
The Devils are coming back to the Rock for the first time in 11 days. While they were gone, they snapped an 11-game road losing streak and looked more like the team that captured a division title last season.
That has them feeling more like themselves again.
“It’s always nicer to come around and be yourself when you can,” Brodeur said. “Sometimes when you lose, it’s tough being your own guy, your own person. So hopefully winning brings that back, guys’ personalities and everything. It’s much more enjoyable, there’s no doubt about that.”
The biggest difference is on the scoresheet. They tallied a season-high six goals against Tampa Bay on Jan. 9 and have potted five in two of their three games since then.
“Didn’t matter how well we played, if we didn’t score that many goals, it would’ve been tough for us to get a few points on the road the way we’ve done,” Brodeur said. “We’ve scored 18 goals in the last four games, usually it took us 10 games to do that, even more. It’s no secret. We’re playing better, there’s no doubt about it, but I think the offensive spark that we’re having right now helps some of the faults that maybe we still have in our game.”
A resurgent Ilya Kovalchuk has three goals, five assists in four games, including two two-point outings, and has played well on a line with Travis Zajac and rookie Nick Palmieri.
With five goals and 11 assists in his last 20 games, Zajac has been one of the most consistent Devils over the past six weeks. Palmieri has two goals and an assist in eight games since being recalled from Albany (AHL).
“I think overall, we play harder, that’s why,” Kovalchuk said. “My line, they create way more room for me. It looks like it’s working a little bit. We have lots of opportunities and we score some goals.”
They’re playing better because they’re practicing better.
“You can tell our practices are a lot more intense,” Kovalchuk said. “We see game situations in practice, we play 5-on-5, 3-on-3, 3-on-2, backcheck, forecheck, so that helps. All the guys get into game shape and we just can play on the same level for 60 minutes or 65 if we need to. I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Kovalchuk credits Jacques Lemaire for having made a big impact since taking over behind the Devils’ bench on Dec. 23. The team has gone 4-7-1 since.
“When the team didn’t do well, you always want to change something, so that’s what happened,” Kovalchuk said. “He’s very experienced. He knows how to motivate guys and that’s what he does. He’s always intense as a coach and I think that gives us a lot of energy as well because he really wants to win and wants our team to do well. When you see that you want to play even harder.”
Lemaire has seen the difference. He was asked after Wednesday’s practice why the Devils are putting wins together in the season’s second half.
“Why? Because the guys are playing hard,” he said. “The guys are playing together. They believe they can do it a little more. They’re skating. They want to succeed.”
To Lemaire, the first-half struggles can be attributed to injuries to key players. He mentioned the absences of Bryce Salvador, who has not played this season because of a concussion, and Matt Taormina, out since October with an ankle injury.
Zach Parise, last year’s leading scorer, has been sidelined since late October and needed knee surgery.
“When you lose defensemen that are important to you and you lose your top player, you have to be affected a little bit,” said Lemaire. “You have to be. I mentioned that often, by losing they dug a hole and the rest you know. But if Sal was one of our top defensive defensemen last year, he didn’t play this year. Taormina is a guy that can play the power play. By having these guys injured, they had to call the kids from the minors and they were not ready. Then the other guys lost confidence. That’s how it goes. But with all the guys, you get your confidence back, it’s not a bad team. It’s a good team.”
Even without Crosby and Malkin, Lemaire knows the Penguins are not to be taken lightly. The Devils hope to stay hot Thursday, when they face-off against one of the League's elite.
“I think it’ll be more important against Pittsburgh to play our game, to be good in every aspect of the game,” Lemaire said. “This is a team that has good talent. They have good D. They’re good everywhere, they’re strong everywhere. So it’s a good reason to really focus on what’s important for us to do.”