NEWARK, N.J. -- It has been easy to overlook, but the Penguins are threatening to become downright, well, average on faceoffs.
And while that might not sound like much, it's a significant step for a team that has hovered at or near the bottom of the NHL rankings for the past several seasons.
The Penguins enter their game at 7:08 tonight against New Jersey at the Prudential Center ranked 18th in the league, with a success rate of 49.5 percent.
- Matchup: Penguins at New Jersey Devils, 7:08 p.m. today, Prudential Center.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh; WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Martin Brodeur for Devils.
- Penguins: Lost to Devils, 5-4, at Mellon Arena Oct. 17. ... Have scored 18 of their 37 goals during second period, when New Jersey has been outscored, 17-9. ... Did not allow power-play goal in four of past seven games.
- Devils: Are 2-1 at Prudential Center. ... Forwards Dainius Zubrus (no goals 13 games), Patrik Elias (none in eight) and Travis Zajac (none in seven) are in slumps. ... Have gone 2-6 in games decided by two or more goals.
- Hidden stat: Devils are 0-5-1 when allowing first goal of game.
Much of their improvement can be attributed to -- gee, who'd have guessed? -- Sidney Crosby, who has gone from the mid- and high-40s to a 54.6 winning percentage, best among Penguins who have handled more than one draw.
Crosby is 159-132. Adam Hall, who has gone 52-49 for a success rate of 51.5 percent, is the only other Penguin (among those taking more than one faceoff) to win more than he has lost.
The numbers for the rest of the team: Gary Roberts, 1-0; Tyler Kennedy, 1-0; Mark Recchi, 4-4; Petr Sykora, 1-1; Maxime Talbot, 71-73; Erik Christensen, 27-32; Jordan Staal, 53-74; Evgeni Malkin, 11-19; and Colby Armstrong, 1-2.
Good effort against Islanders
Coach Michel Therrien said after the Penguins' 3-2 loss Saturday night on Long Island that he had no problem with his players' effort, and underscored that by calling off a practice scheduled for yesterday afternoon at Montclair State University.
"The intensity level was there [against the Islanders]," Therrien said. "The guys are working hard. They give what they've got. Eventually, if we keep focusing like this, we're going to be able to turn it around."
Therrien also gave a favorable assessment of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 36 of 39 shots while making his first start in a week.
"He was good," Therrien said. "Made some key saves."
Sykora to replace Whitney
Winger Sykora has been chosen to fill in for Ryan Whitney, who has a sore groin, on the point opposite Sergei Gonchar on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Sykora was not on the ice when the Penguins got their lone man-advantage goal Saturday and logged just two minutes, 23 seconds of ice time while they had the extra man -- the Islanders were assessed only two penalties -- so it was difficult to assess the impact of his presence there, although he figures to approach the job a bit differently than Whitney.
"He's more of a shooter," Crosby said, "so he might shoot the puck a little more from that area."
Gonchar said that Sykora "moves the puck well," but agreed that "we'll probably need some time to adjust."
The Penguins have at least one man-advantage goal in each of their first 13 games and can tie the franchise record by scoring one tonight.
Brodeur off to slow start
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is off to a fairly ordinary start -- he is 4-6-1, with a 2.72 goals-against average and .896 save percentage -- especially by the extraordinary standards he has established for himself.
Although he has 92 career shutouts, Brodeur has not gotten one in his past 28 starts, since a 1-0 victory at Mellon Arena Feb. 27. That's one of five (the most of any active goalie) he has recorded in 136 appearances against the Penguins.
Penguins president David Morehouse and a contingent of team officials will tour the Prudential Center today. They also visited the building about a month ago, when the finishing touches were being put on it. ... Right winger Colby Armstrong was a healthy scratch Saturday for the first time since his rookie season in the American Hockey League, 2002-03. Asked if he was told why he lost his place in the lineup, Armstrong said, "I just have to play better."