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What To Watch For: Pens vs. Devils

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (21-12-4) vs. DEVILS (20-15-1)

WHEN: Dec. 31, 2011 - 3:00 pm  |  WHERE: Prudential Center

WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Penguins visit the Garden State for the first time this season for a New Year’s Eve matinee against division rival New Jersey.

The Devils are playing some good hockey as of late as they’ve won eight of their last 11 games. After missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996, they’re currently sixth in the Eastern Conference with 41 points under head coach Peter DeBoer, in his first campaign with New Jersey – five behind fifth-place Pittsburgh.

The key to New Jersey’s recent success has been balanced scoring, which is an area they struggled mightily in last season. They are currently tied with Philadelphia for a league-high seven players with double-digit goal totals. One of those players is former Penguin Petr Sykora, who scored twice in the Devils’ last game, a 3-1 win over Buffalo on Wednesday. Sykora, who signed a one-year deal with the Devils after attending training camp on a tryout, now has seven points in his last six outings playing left wing on a line with Patrik Elias and Danius Zubrus.

Elias, the team leader in goals, points and assists, earned helpers on both of Sykora’s goals to give him 12 points (5G-7A) in his 11 games. To no one’s surprise, star forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise join Elias and Sykora in having double-digit goal totals. However, a guy like rookie Adam Henrique is a bit of an unexpected name on that list. The 21-year-old Henrique, who has 28 points (10G-18A) through 33 games, has been outstanding centering Parise and Kovalchuk on the top line while usual No. 1 middleman Travis Zajac works to regain his form after a significant injury.

Saturday will be Zajac’s sixth game back after missing all of training camp, the preseason and the Devils' first 30 regular-season games with an Achilles tendon injury. He’s been centering the third line with Mattias Tedenby and David Clarkson (who’s got 12 goals and 83 hits) in the meantime.

The Devils had been battling through some injuries to their blue line, but should be getting some good news on that front Saturday as Henrik Tallinder is expecting to make his return to the lineup after missing six straight with back spasms. Tallinder, who ranks second in minutes played among defensemen, will be a welcome addition as another top four blueliner in Andy Greene is still on injured reserve with a non-displaced toe fracture.

The workload so far this season has been balanced between goalies Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, as Brodeur has started 21 games to Hedberg’s 18. Hall of Famer Brodeur has started four of the last five and is likely to go Saturday, but there is a chance Hedberg could be in net.

DEVILS – ADAM HENRIQUE: The Devils rookie has been outstanding for his team this season. The 21-year-old center was recalled from Albany of the American Hockey League on Oct. 22 after fellow middleman Jacob Josefsen went down with a broken clavicle, and Henrique never looked back. He’s tied for second on the team with 18 assists and ranks third with 28 points. Henrique, the Devils’ third-round pick (82nd overall) in the 2008 NHL Draft, posted 25 goals and 50 points with Albany in 2010-11 after spending four seasons with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League. There, the intelligent two-way center won back-to-back Memorial Cups while being named MVP of the 2010 OHL playoffs.

PENGUINS – JORDAN STAAL: I know we highlighted the Penguins center on Thursday, but considering Staal’s recent performances against New Jersey, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on again Saturday. The 23-year-old center scored twice in Pittsburgh’s 4-1 win over New Jersey on Oct. 22 to give him three goals and an assist in his last two meetings with the Devils. Overall, Staal has goals in three straight games entering today. That gives him a total of 15 for the season, tying him for second on the team (with Evgeni Malkin). With 15 goals and 21 points in 32 games, Staal projects to score a career-high 36 goals (previous high was 29 in ’06-07) and 51 points (previous high is 49, achieved twice).

The Devils currently have the NHL’s top-ranked penalty kill, which has allowed just 10 goals on 132 shorthanded chances for an incredible 92.4-percent success rate. New Jersey has allowed just three power-play goals at home, going 58-for-61 at the Prudential Center this season. The Devils did not allow a power-play goal through their first ten-plus home games this season (0-39).

New Jersey has also been outstanding when the game stretches past 60 minutes, as the Devils are 10-1 in games decided after regulation and 8-1 in the shootout. They have a league-leading 21 points in regulation.

The Penguins enter Saturday’s contest with a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1) against New Jersey. Since the beginning of last season, the Penguins are 5-1-1 in their last seven games against the Devils. Pittsburgh’s only regulation loss during that stretch was a 2-0 setback on Jan. 20 of last season at the Prudential Center. But despite their recent domination of the series, the Penguins have gone 1-4-1 in their last six road games versus New Jersey.

With a win against the Devils, head coach Dan Bylsma moves into sole possession of second place on the franchise's all-time wins list with 136, passing his predecessor Michel Therrien (135) and trailing Ed Johnston (232). Bylsma has established himself as one of the top head coaches in the NHL since taking over Feb. 15, 2009. He enters the game with a career mark of 135-67-23. In his first 110 home games, Bylsma has compiled a record of 71-30-9.

Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland has served his three-game suspension for his hit on Marcus Kruger on Dec. 20 and will make his return to the lineup Saturday. He missed the Dec. 23 game at Winnipeg, the Dec. 27 contest vs. Carolina and the Dec. 29 tilt vs. Philadelphia.

To make room for Engelland, the Penguins re-assigned defenseman Alexandre Picard (as well as forward Jason Williams) to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday. Head coach Dan Bylsma said that forward Richard Park not be with the team when they go to New Jersey. He did add that defenseman Paul Martin will be with the team, but is unlikely to play.

For New Jersey, the Devils' website reported that top four defenseman Henrik Tallinder is expected to make his return to the lineup Saturday after missing six games with back spasms. He hasn't played since the Devils' shootout win in Florida on Dec. 13.

D Robert Bortuzzo, concussion-like symptoms
C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body
F Richard Park, fractured foot

D Henrik Tallinder, back spasms
D Andy Greene, non-displaced toe fracture
C Jacob Josefson, broken right clavicle

Author: Michelle Crechiolo

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