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Penguins and Devils Battle for First Place

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Head coaches often stress that one game is never more important than the next in an 82-game regular season. Such a statement is especially true when the two combatants are fighting for Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division supremacy.

Monday night’s meeting between the Penguins and the New Jersey Devils at 7:30 p.m. at Mellon Arena is set up for such a showdown. Although the Devils have won the first two games between the teams in the season series, each boasts a league-leading 25 wins and 51 points on their resume. Despite their identical point totals, there are not two teams more polar opposite in the way they play the game.

To help break down Monday’s battle for first place we talked to someone who has a great feel for both teams – Devils play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick. Because he also serves as the No. 1 voice on national broadcasts for Versus and NBC, Emrick has called more than his fair share of Penguins games the past two seasons, making him an expert on how well these two match up.

“It’s the firepower versus the defense,” Emrick said. “Which is going to prevail? The answer is on some nights one will and on other nights the other will.”

Based upon the percentages of the past two seasons it should be the Penguins’ turn to tally a checkmark in the win column as Pittsburgh has taken the season series each year, 3-1-2 in 2008-09 and 4-3-1 in ’07-08. Both teams come into the game hot, as the Penguins have posted an 8-1-1 mark in their past 10 games while New Jersey has gone 8-2 in the same stretch.

That these two teams are fighting to claim the Atlantic Division title should come as no surprise as each organization has been the epitome of a successful franchise. They have combined to win the past four division crowns (New Jersey, 3; Pittsburgh 1). Additionally, with three championships apiece, Pittsburgh and New Jersey have captured six of the 18 Stanley Cups awarded between 1991 and 2009.

Success starts at the top for both organizations. Lou Lamoriello has been the general manager in New Jersey since 1987-88 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month after building the three Stanley Cup champions, eight division champions and leading his team to the postseason 19 times in 21 chances. His defense-first mentality might bore some fans to death, but you can’t argue with his results.

In four seasons with the Penguins Ray Shero has built an impressive resume himself. His teams have qualified for the playoffs all three years he has been in charge, have made back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Final and have one championship. He has shown a magical touch at the trading deadline with acquisitions such as Gary Roberts, Marian Hossa and Bill Guerin. 

“Both of these operations are first-class,” Emrick said. “(The general managers) are hockey lifers. I don’t think you can have a greater commitment than you are always on the watch as hard of a job as it might be. You are always striving for excellence.

“Both of these guys, although they aren’t necessarily influenced by each other, understand there is a right way to do things. Lou has a motto from Vince Lombardi above his desk. ‘There is a right and a wrong way to do everything. You never should apologize for doing what you think is the right way.’”

For the Penguins that right way has been building an offensive arsenal unrivaled by most teams in the league. Centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have won two of the past three Art Ross Trophies while the team’s 116 goals ranks second in the National Hockey League behind Washington heading into Sunday’s action. They have scored four or more goals in 28 of the 61 games head coach Dan Bylsma has been behind the bench, winning all 28.

“It is a different way that’s for sure,” Emrick said. “One is all committed to defense. It’s not like defense is all ignored in Pittsburgh it’s just their calling card has always been winning scoring titles. The Devils don’t win scoring titles but they do win Jennings Trophies. It shows that you can succeed in two different ways.”

New Jersey takes a different approach because future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur serves as the engine which fuels the Devils’ ship. Brodeur has captured four William Jennings Trophies for the lowest goals-against average in the league and he has the Devils making a run at a fifth as only the Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres have allowed fewer goals than the 75 surrendered by New Jersey.

Because Bylsma employs an up-tempo, puck-possession system predicated on maintaining the puck in the offensive zone and firing shots from all angles while the Devils, under Jacques Lemaire, prefer a passive, neutral-zone trap that stifles their opposition, Emrick believes neither team receives their just do for their all-around play.

“One thing people lose sight of is the Penguins are a pretty good defensive team and the Devils are a pretty good offensive team,” Emrick said. “It’s easier to pigeonhole them and categorize them like they are but they have other things they bring to the table.”

As Crosby, Malkin and Brodeur rack up most of the headlines for these two teams, emerging stars Marc-Andre Fleury, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac have begun making names for themselves the past two seasons. The trio has forced fans to serve notice that for the completely different styles these two teams play, each ranks among the most complete squads in the NHL.

A dramatic, Cup-clinching save on Nicklas Lidstrom as time was expiring in Game 7 of the Cup Final this past June cemented Fleury’s status as a big-game netminder. His 21 victories in ’09-10, more than anyone in the league not named Brodeur, has allowed him to serve notice he will be staying in the upper echelon of goaltenders for the foreseeable future.

“Fleury in particular, has a tremendous record as a goaltender in Pittsburgh,” Emrick said. “That includes the playoffs. He just has a marvelous home record. That is always a challenge for the Devils to get (the puck) past him (in Pittsburgh). He is really highly skilled.”

Parise and Zajac have a high skill level themselves. Paired together last season the duo is New Jersey’s version of Crosby and Malkin. Zajac’s passing skills allowed Parise to score 45 goals last season, third-best in the league behind Alexander Ovechkin and Jeff Carter. They have been dynamite against the Penguins this season with Zajac registering five points (1G-4A) and Parise four (2G-2A).

“That is one thing they rarely do – break those two up,” Emrick said. “Jacques changes right wingers a lot. There aren’t many times you will have three guys play together like the two of them and (Jamie) Langenbrunner did for 88-straight regular-season and playoff games until earlier this year.”

It’s highly unlikely Parise and Zajac will be separated Monday night but one thing that will be broken is one of these team’s winning streaks. The Penguins come in having won five-straight games and the Devils are on a four-game winning streak. Whichever team skates away victorious on Monday will have more than their win streak in tact, but more importantly the pole position in both the NHL standings and the Atlantic Division.


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