For a team that has nothing to play for, they certainly didn't go down without a fight in Pittsburgh. The New Jersey Devils lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2. The score is flattering for the home team, which was 3-2 game up until Pascal Dupuis iced it with a shorthanded empty netter with a little over a minute left in the game.
Even though the Penguins went up 3-1 just 91 seconds into the third period, the Devils roared back and certainly made a game of it. They went on to out-shoot the Penguins 10-8, they pulled within one, and forced Marc-Andre Fleury to bail out his team several times. Many will lament the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk drew a tripping call with 1:41 left in the game and the Devils power play proceeded to do nothing of importance except for Craig Adams taking it away from Kovalchuk, feeding it to Dupuis, and catching Johan Hedberg being pulled on the long shot. (Hedberg threw his stick on the play so the goal was definitely going to count.) Blame will be laid equally. On Kovalchuk for having it taken away. On the coaches for pulling Hedberg before they got possession in deep. On the power play in general, which has been bad all season. A potential equalizer wasted.
I think the reason why the Devils lost tonight has more to do with their actions for most of the game. They took three penalties in the first period, and all three of them were easy calls for the refs to make. The Devils gave up one there. The Devils didn't play to the whistle just after scoring their first goal, that led to Pittsburgh's second. And the Devils lost a board battle and no one was in a position to recover. Hedberg held out to dry and that's their third. Mental mistakes on all of them. Pittsburgh's too good of a team in terms of defense and possession to make those errors for. Throw in Marc-Andre Fleury playing well and it's a receipe for defeat.
The big positive is that the Devils didn't throw in the towel after Chris Kunitz' goal in the third period. They made a game of it. They came at the Penguins hard on offense. Brian Rolston got them within one and bombed a few more on net. Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk had shots that Fleury had to come up big on. Mattias Tedenby was (somehow) going in for battles for the puck along the boards and (somehow) winning a few. Even the fourth line was making the Penguins sweat. They put in a strong effort in late, it just should have came earlier in the game. That's admirable in that the games don't really mean anything for New Jersey this season now, but they still want to try and win them. In that sense, this game set a bar for the next three to play out the season.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Pittsburgh-based perspective on tonight's game, please check out Frank D's recap at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: For those who want to see video of the game's highlights, here they are from NHL.com:
I Miss Colin White and Anton Volchenkov: Mark Fraser played 15:12 and Jay Leach got 17:36. Fraser finished as one of the few Devils with a positive Corsi tonight (+3), while Leach. Yet, from what I saw, both weren't very good. Fraser was poor on the puck all night long and his positive Corsi is a result from playing with Henrik Tallinder (+4). I think his jockstrap is still on the ice at the CONSOL from Jordan Staal blowing past him on the Penguins' second power play. Staal easily scored since Hedberg decided to dive early, giving the shooter the whole upper half of the net. While that goal was as much on Moose and the penalized (Nick Palmieri), Fraser shares some blame too. That wasn't the only time he got caught out on a GA. Fraser was flailing his stick and missed Tyler Kennedy's pass to Chris Kunitz down low. Kunitz then had the lane (and a fallen Moose) to score. In hindsight, he either should have went right at Kennedy or Kunitz or dived down to block any puck movement. Instead, his waving of the stick did little to stop the pass. Fraser looked poor tonight.
As for Leach, he played mostly with Mark Fayne (seriously) and was pinned back over and over. He was smart to keep his game simple, but he was overwhelmed at times. His big moment where he looked dumb was on Pittsburgh's second goal of the game. While backing up, he shifts his position to give Maxime Talbot a shooting lane. This not only hurt because Talbot put a shot on net but also because it allowed Pascal Dupuis to come across Hedberg. So Hedberg makes the stop, Dupuis get himself free to put the rebound in, it's 2-1 just over a minute after the Devils tied up the game, and am I wondering where Leach went.
Basically, I hope White and Volchenkov are healthy soon.
Young Guys Doing Dumb Things: Anssi Salmela tripping Alexei Kovalev on defense was dumb. Nick Palmieri battling with Jordan Staal well away from the play in front of a ref was dumb and ultimately costly. Jacob Josefson hitting a Mark Letestu with a high stick was dumb and carried over about a minute into the second period. While the Devils' PK unit did well to hold Pittsburgh to two shots on three power plays, they got burnt on the Palmieri minor for a goal and had to spend 4:31 not able to attack. Given how even the first period was, that could have made some difference. Fortunately, the Devils played much more disciplined hockey - or at least less obvious infractions - for the rest of the game and didn't take any more penalties. Still, three minors in the first is never good and it had a role in tonight's loss.
Not A Repeat of the Last Devils-Penguins Game: Thankfully, no. The Devils did, indeed, make multiple passes to each other. The Penguins were able to get scoring opportunities of their own. While a good portion of this game was defensive work and grinding along boards, this game had more flow and more offense from both teams. It was infinitely more watchable than the last Devils-Penguins game.
Congratulations: David Steckel scored his first goal as a New Jersey Devil tonight. Before the goal, I noticed that Jacques Lemaire switched up the lines. He switched Adam Mair with Nick Palmieri, of all possible changes. Rod Pelley crashed in behind the net on the forecheck, got the puck instead of Ben Lovejoy, and slid a pass into the slot hoping for a Devil. Steckel got the loose puck and rifled it past the keeper. It was a fortunate play since Pelley was hoping Palmieri or Steckel would get it; but the finish was nice and the goal was important. It also snapped a road scoreless streak, too. Congratulations to Mr. Steckel.
With Steckel's goal, the following current roster players have not scored for New Jersey this season: White (injured), Volchenkov (injured), Leach, and Fraser.
The Penguins Are a Possession-Based Team: They'll fight you in the corners. They'll battle along the boards. They'll throw up multiple forecheckers at times, sit back in a 1-2-2 in others, and almost always seemingly pressing hard on the puck carrier. This wins them the puck many times and when they do, they make attempts at the net. They led in total attempts at 47-37, and had the better of Corsi by the end of the game. The Devils held a slight edge at +1 after the first, -3 after the second, and finished the game -5. Recall that the Devils were losing for most of it. Finishing negative in that situation is not good. The Penguins certainly held the Devils in check. There was a stretch of the third period where the Devils were bossing the Pens around, but Pittsburgh clamped down with about 6-7 minutes left and moved the puck up enough for a few attempts and to pin the Devils back.
The Zajac-Staal Matchup: At even strength, Travis Zajac (+2 Corsi, 4 SOG) and Ilya Kovalchuk (-3 Corsi, 3 SOG) saw plenty of Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek as well as Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, and Tyler Kennedy. This is the same match-up that Dan Bylsma has looked for (and got) in the last two Devils-Penguins games. Unlike the last game, the Devils didn't get housed by it. Staal and Kennedy were +1, Michalek was a 0, Kunitz was -1, and Martin was -3. Zajac and Kovalchuk had some of the best shots the Devils had all night, too. They weren't just firing weak shots from the perimeter; they forced Fleury to earn his pay.
That's rather impressive given that the Zajac line undergone some in-game changes. The duo started off with Palmieri as usual; but as time went on (second period at some point) Dainius Zubrus (0 Corsi, 0 SOG) and Adam Mair (-6 Corsi, 2 SOG) switching with each other as the game went on. Only when Mair was out there that they got forced back in their own end. The Penguins can at least claim they had the better of scoring in the match-up as the Zajac line got no goals for, the Staal line (Kunitz' goal in the third period, Mair with Zajac and Kovalchuk) did get one. Oh, and the win, of course. But the Staal line didn't "own" the Zajac line like in the last game, which is good.
I will say that putting Mair with Zajac and Kovalchuk was weird. They had their moments where it didn't look bad, but overall, I think it held them back more than they should have been. That would explain why Zubrus got some shifts with the duo in the third period.
Reminder - Play to the Whistle: Incidentally, the Zajac line (with Mair) got tagged on Dupuis' goal too. But they aren't at fault. that was a weird situation where the Devils changed the lines as the Penguins were rushing up ice. Zubrus' face got struck with something - the puck? - and slowly went to the bench. For a moment or two it seemed like there would be a whistle, but there wasn't. The Devils put out guys as Talbot and Dupuis were streaking up ice and then the scoring play happens. Another example of guys getting hit with minuses even though they had nothing to do with the play. More importantly, the Devils' initial hesitation cost them. Play to the whistle, guys.
Noticeable Things Not on the Scoresheet: I really liked how Mattias Tedenby (0 Corsi, 2 SOG) looked with Patrik Elias (-3 Corsi, 0 SOG) and Brian Rolston (0 Corsi, 5 SOG). Tedenby set up Rolston beautifully for his goal in the third period, but I was more impressed with Tedenby throwing some hits and going into the walls against Penguins far larger and meaner than him. To me, it confirms that once he gets stronger (and improves his defense), then he could develop into a force to be reckoned with. Stupid penalty aside, I really appreciated Jacob Josefson backchecking several times to prevent Pittsburgh from continuing/starting their attack as well as his 6-for-8 winning percentage on draws.
Moving on to defense, I also felt Mark Fayne had a good game. He put a few strong shots on net, rolled mostly with Jay Leach and only suffered half of his Corsi (-4), and looked poised in 20 minutes of work. The pairing of Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela was pretty good too. They each played a little over 20 minutes, Salmela had 3 shots on net, and only suffered a little in Corsi.
I Mentioned It Once But It Warrants Mentioning Again: Johan Hedberg made some big stops, but his decision on Staal's goal was a head-scratcher. Why did he lunge so early? Did he really think he'd force Staal to shoot earlier or possibly get a piece of it? He just looked so bad on that one. I'm not mad about the third one (he was hung out to dry) or the second (no help on the rebound), but that first one made me groan, "Oh, Moose." (Similarly, throwing your stick on an empty net try, Johan? You're 37, you should know that only makes the shot an automatic goal.)
Where Was David Clarkson?: The event summary says he played 11:42 over 15 shifts. But what did he contribute to the game? I'd like to know.
Locked into the Top 10: The loss guarantees that the Devils will finish no higher than 22nd in the league. Therefore, the Devils will definitely pick in the top 10 in the 2011 Entry Draft. Yay, I guess.
That's my take on tonight's game. What do you think the Devils should do differently for tomorrow night's game with Toronto? Who impressed you? Who didn't impress you? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to the commenters in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.