The Pittsburgh Penguins have charged out of the Olympic break with four straight victories and are looking to continue their winning ways tonight as they head to Carolina for the first game of a five game road trip.
A win against the surprisingly resurgent Hurricanes (8-1-1 in their last 10 games) would be a terrific way to start off their five game swing, but the two games that I have my eye on are the Pens’ dates with the Devils.
Pittsburgh currently holds a three point lead over the Devils in the Atlantic Division race (New Jersey also has one less game played), and the Penguins could strengthen their grip on their first place position by defeating New Jersey twice at “The Rock” in Newark.
Two wins against the Devils would also go a long way to restoring the Penguin’s confidence when it comes to playing against their division foes from “The Garden State.”
The Penguins have been victimized by the Devils, each time, in their first four meetings with the team this season. Three of those four Devil victories have come on Mellon Arena ice.
The Devils and their all-world goaltender Martin Brodeur have smothered the Penguins' usually potent offense with their suffocating defensive style of hockey that fans around the NHL have come to recognize (and for the most part loathe) under head coach Jacques Lemaire.
The Penguins have been outscored by their New Jersey rival 14-2 in those four contests and showed little ability to penetrate the trap system the Devils employ.
With their superstars being denied time and space in the neutral zone to build up speed and create offensive zone penetration the Pittsburgh attack has sputtered. They also have had difficulty establishing the forecheck, unable to keep their rare dump-ins away from Brodeur, the Devil’s puck moving netminder.
Both teams have undergone some monumental changes since their last meeting in NJ on Dec. 30, 2009.
New Jersey was able to land the most talented offensive threat available on the NHL trading block in super sniper Ilya Kovalchuk. Meanwhile, the Penguins traded for puck rushing defenseman Jordan Leopold and goal scoring winger Alexei Ponikarovsky to beef up their own lineup for another post season run.
The Devils have been playing sub-.500 hockey since the New Year and have been mediocre (2-2) coming out of the Olympic break.
The Penguins also had their share of struggles after the start of 2010, but have, as previously mentioned, roared out of the gates in their post-Olympic return to action with a four-game winning streak and have collected points in eight consecutive contests.
Pittsburgh’s late season surge (which seems to be a yearly event nowadays), however, would lose a significant amount of steam if they can’t walk away from “The Rock” with two wins in their hockey bags.
This late in the season, all five games on this current road excursion are important (don’t forget the Penguins undefeated five game road trip from last season was a major catalyst to their post season success), but the other three contests against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Boston do not hold nearly as much weight, in the standings or in the inner workings of the Pen’s psyche, as the two meetings with the Devils.
I am well aware that dominating a team in the regular season does not necessarily transfer over into similar success against that same club when the playoffs roll around. On the other hand, I do have to believe that if the Devils are able to sweep the Penguins in six meetings this year and they run into each other during the NHL’s annual spring fling, that New Jersey will hold a psychological edge over the Penguins at the start of the series.
The Penguins have an opportunity in front of them to erase the problems they have had with the Devils this season by beating them twice, in their own house, in the span of five days.
New Jersey would still hold a four games to two edge for the season series, but the four point swing would go a long way towards locking up Pittsburgh’s second division crown in the past three seasons and a guaranteed top-three conference finish.
Perhaps, more importantly, it would erase any doubt that may have crept into the Penguin players' sub-conscious minds that they can dance with and dispose of the Devils in a best-of-seven series, if necessary.