While a slew of injuries hasn’t helped, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been playing mediocre hockey for over a month now – particularly away from Consol Energy Center.
With six of their next eight games on the road, the Penguins’ disappointing stretch could grow even worse starting Friday night against the New Jersey Devils.
Pittsburgh (27-13-8) seems to have plateaued following a stellar start in which it averaged 3.13 goals while winning 22 of its first 32 contests – tied for the second-most victories in the NHL through Dec. 20.
Since then, however, the Penguins have dropped 11 of 16, including five of their last six after a 4-0 loss at Washington on Wednesday followed Tuesday’s home win over Winnipeg.
"When you come off a break like that and play two in a row, it taxes you more than normal," captain Sidney Crosby said of the six-day All-Star hiatus. "So we’re just trying to regroup. Competing allows a lot of things to happen, a lot of good things. As long as we focus on that, usually the other stuff kind of takes care of itself."
Pittsburgh has averaged only 2.56 goals over its last 16 games while allowing 3.13. Those issues have been especially evident away from home, where the Penguins have won just once in their last nine while going 4 for 30 on the power play in that span.
"You can’t just keep saying there’s more time left in the season. You want to fix these things as soon as they happen," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "I don’t think it’s certainly any time to panic yet, but we certainly would like to get our fingers on the problem immediately."
The Devils (18-22-8) have dominated the Penguins in New Jersey in recent years, winning 13 of the past 15 meetings at the Prudential Center, including the previous five. Pittsburgh has managed only six goals over those five contests after a 3-1 loss Dec. 29.
Cory Schneider, who stopped 27 shots in that victory, has won each of his last two starts and owns a 1.16 goals-against average over his last five at home. Schneider leads all NHL goaltenders with 42 starts and will match a career high with another Friday.
He’ll likely be opposed by Marc-Andre Fleury, which would mark the netminders’ fourth meeting this season. Prior to New Jersey’s win Dec. 29, Fleury helped the Penguins win two matchups with the Devils in Pittsburgh, including a 29-save shutout Dec. 2.
Fleury’s career against New Jersey has been feast or famine. He has recorded five shutouts against the Devils – his best mark versus any team – but, including overtime and shootout defeats, has also lost to New Jersey 27 times, more than any other opponent.
He’ll face a Devils offense that ranks toward the bottom of the NHL with 2.21 goals per game, yet managed to pick up a 2-1 shootout win over Toronto on Wednesday behind 29 saves from Schneider. Adam Larsson scored with 2:50 left in the third to force overtime.
"Any win is a good win for us at this point," veteran center Patrick Elias said. "It wasn’t an easy game coming off the (All-Star) break. We just didn’t have it going. Schneids kept us in there for the first two."
The Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin (lower body), who will miss his fourth straight game. The ninth-year center and Crosby are tied for the team lead with 51 points.