Well, it's not really news now. The Devils lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1, ending their 5 game winning streak. Not a good way to end the month, but the Devils have at least crawled themselves away from the bottom of the league with the streak. The Penguins fans should be happy with the result, they got a win, Sidney Crosby made all the goals happen either directly or indirectly. That shouldn't surprise anyone as, well, Crosby is an elite player with elite skills. Crosby clearly enjoyed himself out there (especially without John Madden covering him), as he's a great improviser. In a game where a lot of plays went awry due to constant battles for the puck, leading to numerous turnovers, Crosby excelled. Pensburgh has a nice summary of the game here.
But I'm more concerned with how the Devils lost. I feared this would happen, but not really like this. Tom Gulitti really sums it up well for the Devils but I'm going to be a little less polite than he is at Fire & Ice.
First and foremost, the defense got blown up in this game. Maybe that's more of a testament to the Pittsburgh offense, but Paul Martin and Bryce Salvador really couldn't do much against Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together. Ultimately, we saw that you can beat that pairing with speed. Salvador is definitely not fast and Martin, while not slow, isn't going to keep up with some of the fastest in the league. Martin dug the Devils hole a little further by taking a silly holding call during a 4-on-4 in the third period. Thankfully, the Devils penalty killers did a good job there. I'd go as far to say that only Colin White came out of the game looking good with a +1, killing the penalties he was on the ice for (5:01 shorthanded), and 7 hits.
The biggest indictment of the team's performance as a whole, and I'm including the backcheckers here, is that they really could have prevented each of the goals scored by Pittsburgh. Paul Martin was caught in an odd position, allowing Crosby to not only pick up the loose puck caused by Scott Clemmensen. Had he been in a better position, that goal doesn't happen. For the power play goal by the Penguins - and I'd like to point out that 1 for 5 should be expected of a team with a home power play rate of about 20%, so it means the Devils were dumb in taking some of those calls - Petr Sykora was wide open in the slot. I know the team is down a man, but no one should be that open at the crease; someone needs to be there to lock his stick, knock Sykora down, et al. And on the fourth goal, an empty net goal, the defense got burned and could only trip up Crosby - which meant nothing because he scored anyway. Brutal.
And the third goal. Well, let me sum this up with three phrases and use it as a segue into my other complaints.
1. Why in the hell was Barry Tallackson on the ice in a 4 on 4? Nevermind why he lost the puck, that was just a bad break. Why was he out there at all, with Dainius Zubrus, on a 4 on 4 when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out there. Were the other forwards missing?
2. Why in the hell was Scott Clemmensen poking at the puck at all?
3. Why in the hell was no one covering Sidney Crosby at all? Where was the defenseman, or forward, or anyone?
Item #2 focuses on Clemmensen and tonight his use of the stick really failed him. It didn't work in the first period and was caught on all fours as Crosby slid it in for his first goal. It didn't work in the second period, when he charged out to poke it to...someone? He really should have stayed in net, as he had a much better chance trying to stop Evgeni Malkin shooting the puck instead of doing what he actually did. He made some tough saves, but his mistakes cost the Devils tonight. Until this game, you could argue that Clemmensen has played well enough to keep getting starts. Maybe the sting of the loss is still there, but now I'd like to see Kevin Weekes get a start against Philadelphia or Montreal in the coming week.
Ultimately, items #1 and #3 point to coaching issues. For starters, while John Madden was out, Jay Pandolfo played in this game - really, he did - why didn't Sutter try to shadow Crosby? I know the Devils are on the road and don't get the last change, but it would have been worth trying after the first period. Second, Gulitti reported earlier - and I noted this in the game thread - that Dainius Zubrus was sick. If you watched the game, you'd notice that Zubrus stopped getting shifts in the third; as Rich Chere reported, he just wasn't well enough to keep playing. The big question that Gulitti asked and that I'm asking here why the solutions to replace Zubrus' spot were Barry Tallackson and Sheldon Brookbank.
I'm serious, the Devils are down by 2 goals and the third player with Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta were a depth defenseman playing forward on some shifts and a rookie power forward who has never shown much skill with the puck and got minutes for some reason I can't figure out on other shifts. He didn't even look to Mike Rupp, who scored the only goal for the Devils against Pittsburgh. Gulitti is asking why Parise didn't move up to that line (a capital idea!). But there were many other options that Sutter could have done. Why not Zajac if it has to be a center? Why not Petr Vrana, who actually played with Elias earlier this season? Why in the hell was it Tallackson/Brookbank? Sutter chose poorly tonight, really poorly.
I'm not even going to get into the offense, they just struggled to maintain momentum all game after Travis Zajac took a high sticking call during a rather good power play in the first. In the large scheme of things, this will not mean much. Everyone loses games, but given how it was lost, it's particularly frustrating. It'd be one thing if it was Sidney Crosby just owning everyone on the ice; but errors by the defense, Clemmensen, and Sutter sunk the Devils. The team will have 4 days to think about correcting this, hopefully they will do better against Philadelphia.