The New Jersey Devils hosted a Pittsburgh Penguins team that won their last 3 games all without Sidney Crosby, have been very good at 5-on-5 this season, and have beaten the Devils twice earlier this season. Sure, they were without Evgeni Malkin as well and they decided to play Brent Johnson instead of Marc-Andre Fleury. It's still a tough opponent. I tried to my opinion clear in the preview for this game. What I didn't expect that they would be tough in terms of their behavior, not in terms of how good of an opponent they were.
I don't like using childish phrases, but this team could have been Goonsburgh and no one would have noticed. Three times the Penguins ran Martin Brodeur, getting caught twice for goaltender interference and the other being a ridiculous non-call on Matt Cooke (among others) when he just straight up shoved Brodeur down. The M.O. of Mike Rupp's game must have been to obstruct as much as possible; his main highlight was cross checking, then holding, and then hooking Mark Fraser behind the net within 5 seconds without a call. Defensively, it was Brooks Orpik toeing the line of infractions. I knew going into this game that Pittsburgh was a league leader in penalties, and hockey's a gritty game by nature - but the Penguins decided somewhere in the second period that if they can't beat the Devils in hockey, they'll try to beat them physically.
Like the rest of Pittsburgh's gameplan, it didn't work. Martin Brodeur was on his game, earning his 114th career shutout; with excellent support by the guys in front of him. While he got the first star of the game, I wish someone gave a star to Jacques Lemaire. Some fans may not want to hear it, but the Devils played the trap tonight. Lemaire figured that even without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh likes to play up tempo, aggressive hockey. The Penguins came out that way and so the Devils set themselves up in a 1-2-2. The result? 23 shots on net all game from Pittsburgh, a team that averages 31.8 per game this season. Lemaire's gameplan worked well consistently, frustrating the Penguins more with their defensive work than the Penguins' attempts to throw the Devils off their game with some dirty play - which only succeeded one time, when Jason Arnott got tagged for a retaliatory trip.
The Penguins were snared by the Devils tonight in a solid effort largely due to their excellent strategy. The 2-0 final score was well deserved and it's another piece of evidence that the Devils are, in fact, improving. I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Pittsburgh take, please check out FrankD's disheartened recap at Pensburgh.
Before continuing further, here's a video of the game's highlights from NHL.com:
As the video shows, the Devils got off to a strong start. Brian Rolston scored on the Devils' first shot of the game, which is impressive enough. More impressively was Nick Palmieri's goal. Paul Martin makes a rare defensive mistake, choosing to make a no-look backhanded pass behind his net. He assumed that it would get to Zybnek Michalek without a problem. He assumed wrong, as Palmieri stole it, curled around, got Johnson thinking he'd go outside and instead beat him low. A great individual effort by Palmieri and it further emphasized the Devils' control of the first period.
Over time, the Penguins did manage to out-shoot the Devils per the game summary. That's understandable since they were down 2 goals. Of course, a team that's down by 2 is going to attack more. What was different was that it didn't really take place until the third period. By then, the Devils were more than comfortable in their defensive set-up. It may have meant fewer risks on offense, but it ensured there was always help down low. As a result, the Penguins had, what, one glorious open shot on net in the third? An Aaron Asham shot off a dumped-in puck that Brodeur stopped seemingly with ease? If that's all they gave up, then that's perfectly fine in my opinion.
At the same time, I wouldn't say the Devils totally sat on the lead. There were times where they did just that; but then there would be a rush by the Brian Rolston-Patrik Elias-Dainius Zubrus line where Elias is set up for a great chance but he misses the net or it goes to Johnson or he loses the puck. There would be the occasional and incredibly electric rush by Mattias Tedenby and Vladimir Zharkov; there were two times they set each other up for cross-ice chances to the slot, one thwarted by a risky stop by Kris Letang and the other stopped by Zharkov not getting the pass and instead literally crashing the net. A little more accuracy here and there and perhaps they would have put up a third goal on Johnson.
That all said, the Devils could have tried to attack a little more. The Corsi chart for the game at Time on Ice shows that most of the action tended to be in New Jersey's end; but again, the Devils led in most of this game so it's not too terrible. The best Corsi player on New Jersey was Elias. Elias really did have a fine night with a +3 and 3 shots on goal, including one real sweet looking finish that Johnson got . You should see it in the highlights 3:30 into the video. The worst on New Jersey was Zharkov and Tedenby at -6 each; when they went forward it was great but that didn't happen as much as I would have liked. Hopefully, they'll continue to play with each other because when they got going, it was great - just don't blink or you may miss them.
For the other side, Pittsburgh was at it's best possession-wise when Alex Goligoski (21:38 ES TOI) and Ben Lovejoy (13:20 ES TOI) were on the ice. Dan Bylsma clearly gave Goligoski the minutes; but what of Lovejoy? Based on the head-to-head ice time chart at Time on Ice, Lovejoy played with Goligoski the most at evens. I'm thinking Goligoski was the real driver of the play between the two. The Pittsburgh forwards? Inconsistent would be my best guess, thanks to the Devils' trap slowing them down.
One other area that could have been better for New Jersey was the power play. They had good possession and I understand that the Penguins have an excellent penalty killing unit. However, 4 shots on net over 8 minutes of total power play time isn't good. Their decision to move the puck around was smart, but that final pass for a shot - especially that Ilya Kovalchuk one-timer on the right side - wasn't solid. I think that for a one-timer to be at it's most effective, the pass needs to be accurate. Setting up Kovalchuk for a one-timer isn't a bad idea at all on a power play. It's going to be a hard shot always, as proven when he broke his stick on a shot, sending half of it into the first few rows in Section 5 over the protective netting. However, there needs to be other shots to set up when the opposition is holding still waiting for it to come. Some diversity among their shot selection could have gotten them more looks on net at 5-on-4 tonight, as well as open up that one-timer. Ultimately, more work needs to be done.
Strangely enough, the Penguins' lack of discipline led to some interesting ice time totals per the game's event summary. Kovalchuk only got 12:18 of ES TOI, less than Rolston, Elias, and Palmieri among others. In total, he played over 20 because of all of that power play time. In fact, I was surprised to see Rolston up with 21:29 played tonight - also boosted by heavy minutes on special teams. Only Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder played more than he did. That Lemaire kept going to Rolston in all of these situations is a sign of confidence in the player. He's not the same guy I was wishing he'd go back to Albany weeks ago. No, he'll not live up to the contract, but he's at least putting in good work.
Speaking of good work, Brodeur was, well, himself. For a guy who's old, washed up, overrated, and so forth, he's pretty good. I await the mea culpas from various people who proclaimed his career done earlier this month, but I won't hold my breath.
Lastly, at the risk of belaboring the point, I'm astonished at how Penguins have fallen to the Devils' trap so easily over and over again. It's not like no one else in the league ever uses a 1-2-2. It's not like these guys are all new to hockey and never have seen it. It's not like Dan Bylsma is a dummy (though sending out your fourth line on regular shifts in the third period in a 2-0 deficit isn't smart). I have a feeling the Penguins will be looking at how to address a trapping team closely in their next practice. As well as to not get too rough when the going gets tough.
As for the Devils, they put in another competitive, watchable, and sensible team performance. They did it with a defensive system that matched up great against tonight's opponent and requires good communication and teamwork. The season is pretty much lost, but the Devils showed another sign tonight that they will not be the consistent pushovers they were in 2010. That's just as big as the 2-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in my eyes.
Thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread. What's your biggest takeaway from tonight's 2-0 win? Were you impressed with how well the trap worked? Did you think Pittsburgh was as dirty as I thought they were? What would you like to see differently on the power play (note: don't say traffic in front, there was plenty of that - to a fault, as it busted up some passes)? Please leave all of your answers as well as other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.