Just as the Penguins did last season, the New Jersey Devils are making some pleasing discoveries about their team the hard way this season.
The Devils entered their game at Mellon Arena last night down several regular players because of injury, none bigger than the elbow surgery that has future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur out for most of the season.
Yet, just as the Penguins did during long-term injuries last season to center Sidney Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and assorted problems that sidelined others, the Devils have begun to close the gaps. They had won five games in a row going into last night.
It hasn't just been Brodeur who has been injured. The laundry list at the moment also includes centers John Madden (foot), Brian Rolston (ankle) and Bobby Holik (finger), and defenseman Andy Greene (hand).
"The focus gets turned up in these situations," New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "Sometimes maybe you were looking at someone else to do the job and now everybody's looking at themselves.
"Guys get experience they normally wouldn't have and in situations they definitely wouldn't have. It can make your team deeper and better."
For the Penguins, it was center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Ty Conklin who stood out the most in the absence of injured teammates.
Devils coach Brent Sutter sees things spread more evenly with his team.
"You lose those guys, it has some kind of impact on your team," he said. "The biggest thing is to settle down and recognize that these guys are gone, out of the lineup, let's get our guys playing up to their potential. The guys have really responded well to it.
"I see a real commitment to being a team, with everybody wanting to do well, supporting each other, especially during the last few games."
A day after Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff called Malkin "the modern-day [Jaromir] Jagr," Sutter couldn't argue.
"He's a big guy who has great hands, can really shot the puck," Sutter said of Malkin, who entered last night leading the NHL with 37 points. "He's a big horse. You can play him at center, wing, point on the power play. He does it all well."
Defenseman Ryan Whitney, recovering from foot surgery, accompanied the Penguins on their just-completed trip to Long Island and Buffalo so that he could skate every day. Whitney doesn't have a means of accurately charting his progress -- after all, this is his first experience with such an operation -- but seems reasonably satisfied with how he is coming along.
"It feels good," he said. "Obviously, I'd like to be feeling really good, but it will just take a little bit longer, a couple more weeks, and, hopefully, I'll be ready [to begin playing]."
There is, he said, at least one criterion he would like to have met before that happens:
"The foot I had surgery on isn't as strong as the other one, and I'd like it to be before I come back."
Fourteen of the Penguins' first 22 games were settled by one goal, with the Penguins winning eight. The New York Rangers (10) and Detroit (9) were the only teams with more one-goal victories going into games last night. One-goal decisions have almost been the norm in the NHL this season; every team has been involved in at least eight.
"You have to get used to it," Crosby said. "The teams are so close, and it's a competitive league. I don't think you're going to see tons of blowouts."