(SportsNetwork.com) - Although the teams are part of a new division this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils will renew their rivalry in Thursday's battle in the Steel City.
The Penguins and Devils have grown accustomed to each other over their years battling it out in the old Atlantic Division, but Pittsburgh and New Jersey are now members of the Metropolitan Division thanks to the NHL's realignment plan for the 2013-14 season. Joining the Devils and Pens in the Metro are all of their remaining former Atlantic Division members (Flyers, Rangers, Islanders) as well as Carolina, Columbus and Washington.
While Pittsburgh made it to the Eastern Conference finals last spring after winning the Atlantic, the Devils missed the postseason one year after going all the way to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. It marked the second time in three seasons that New Jersey was left out of the playoffs.
Although the Devils earned praise for acquiring a future replacement for Martin Brodeur in goaltender Cory Schneider back in June, the club's 2013-14 playoff chances were dealt a major blow when star forward Ilya Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL in July.
At just 30 years of age, Kovalchuk opted to leave $77 million over 12 years on the table by retiring. Then, less than a week after ending his NHL career, he signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League.
In addition to losing Kovy, the Devils also watched David Clarkson, the team's goal-scoring leader in 2013, leave the nest to sign a lucrative deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That means New Jersey, a team that finished 28th in team offense last season, is going to need big offensive years from its returning players and offseason acquisitions Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder to stay afloat this season.
The 41-year-old Jagr enters the season with a lower-body injury, but he expects to play in the opener, as does Devils forward Patrik Elias, who has battled a groin injury of late.
One player who won't be on the ice at the start of Thursday's game is Brodeur, who will see his streak of 18 straight starts in season openers for the Devils come to an end.
On Wednesday, New Jersey announced Schneider, who was 17-9-4 with a 2.11 GAA for the Vancouver Canucks last season, will get the call in the season opener. Devils head coach Peter DeBoer said his decision to go with Schneider is related to the recent passing of Brodeur's father, Denis, who died on Sept. 26 at the age of 82. The future Hall of Famer left the team to attend his father's funeral in Montreal, and DeBoer said he was going with Schneider to give the 41-year-old Brodeur extra time to prepare.
Schneider was acquired to eventually take over the No. 1 goaltending job from Brodeur, but both netminders are expected to get considerable playing time in 2013-14.
"I know I must have a streak, but I don't know how long it is," Brodeur said of not getting the start. "It doesn't matter. It's not a big thing. It's durability. I'm part of the lineup regardless."
The last time the Devils used a goaltender other than Brodeur to start a season was in 1993-94, when Chris Terreri began the year between the pipes.
While New Jersey enters this season without its most dangerous offensive weapon of the last few years, the Penguins still boast skaters like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz on their roster.
Pittsburgh easily led the NHL with an average of 3.38 goals per game last season and Dan Bylsma's club should be every bit as potent in 2013-14. However, Letang, one of the best offensive defenseman in the world, is on injured reserve to begin this season and Neal is questionable for Thursday's opener with an upper-body injury.
Even without Letang and possibly Neal the Penguins have more than enough scoring to get by. Stopping the opposition from scoring is another matter, as the Pens have issues on the blue line and in the crease.
The goaltending situation is less than stellar, especially since Tomas Vokoun is set to miss the first 3-to-6 months of the season after undergoing a procedure to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis. Vokoun was the backup to Marc-Andre Fleury last season, but took over the No. 1 job after Fleury stumbled in the playoffs.
Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win a Stanley Cup tile in 2009, has struggled regaining his previous form over the last few seasons. Fleury was solid during the 2013 regular season, going 23-8-0 with a 2.39 GAA before registering a 3.52 GAA and .883 save percentage in five playoff appearances last spring.
Jeff Zatkoff will serve as the backup to Fleury until Vokoun is able to return.
"I want to go with the goaltending we have here and see how we do," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said in light of the Vokoun injury. "Like anything, you'll evaluate as you go ... right now I want to go with this and see how we do. I want to give Jeff the opportunity, which I think he's deserved."
The Devils claimed three of four meetings against the Penguins last season and have taken three in a row and six of the last nine encounters in this series. However, New Jersey hasn't fared well in Pittsburgh in recent seasons, losing six of its past eight tilts in the Steel City.