Tonight, the New Jersey Devils followed their 5-2 win over Florida with a 3-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The win makes it a five-point week for the Devils, it puts them in fifth place in the East for the time being, and it starts off their four-game road trip on the right foot. In a results-oriented business, the Devils simply succeeded over a top opponent. That's quite nice, to say the least.
However, the performance wasn't as nice as the final score looked. The Penguins crushed the Devils in the first period in every way imaginable except for the scoreboard, which ended 1-0. The Penguins out-shot the Devils 12-3, they held New Jersey to no shots on net in the final 8 minutes of the period, and driven the Devils' Corsi down to -12. At times, I thought I was watching the Devils play Boston again. It was a wonder that Pittsburgh didn't score more goals than the absolute rocket from distance fired by Evgeni Malkin. Credit for that has to go to the goaltender, Martin Brodeur.
The Devils did play better in the second period, at least on offense. The Devils were able to get through the neutral zone and start getting into spaces among the Penguins defense. As the shot count ran up, the game looked more even. The Penguins still stormed the net with impunity, forcing Brodeur to be great some more times. New Jersey equalized on a shorthanded breakaway, as Adam Henrique put a shot on Marc-Andre Fleury low and put his own rebound in. While there was a quick whistle, Fleury never had the puck, so the goal stood. A few minutes later, Henrique won a faceoff, Zach Parise kept the puck away from Paul Martin and fed Kovalchuk high in the zone, and he hammered a shot past Fleury's right to make it 2-1. The Devils continued to attack as the game got more wide open. Fleury had to come up big, Brodeur had to come up big, and the Devils came out of the second period winning as both teams got 17 shots on net. The Devils were still behind in shots 29-20 and their Corsi only improved to -9.
The Devils' third period woes never came about in the sense of goals. In fact, the Devils scored one early; on the power play, of all situations. The Devils looked close to lose the puck on several occasions, but the Elias line plus Kurtis Foster and Kovalchuk kept possession alive. A series of quick passes came out of nowhere. From Zubrus to Foster to Kovalchuk to Elias to Zubrus who banged one home in close. It's 3-1 and the Devils scored a power play goal they really haven't scored on all season. The Devils were forced to defend more, which would be expected given the score. The Devils never gave up on attacking when they had the chance; but Pittsburgh certainly attacked a lot more often. Still, Martin Brodeur faced test after test as Penguin after Penguin would fire a puck on net. Shots off deflections, one-timers, rebounds, jams at the net, shots from distance, you name it, Brodeur stopped it. The Penguins won in shots 42-27. They were the superior possession team as the Devils had a -14 in Corsi. They lost 3-1 namely because they couldn't solve Brodeur more than once in spite of having and firing the puck more often.
At the same time, the Devils do not win this game without Brodeur's performance. It wasn't so much the defense was making terrible mistakes and Brodeur bailed them out; they were just getting beat regularly. After all, Pittsburgh has been an excellent possession team like Boston. This did not concern Brodeur, who got in front of nearly every shot he saw. In his last start, Boston fired six past him - as is their wont this season. Tonight, he played like that never happened. His reward is a win and a big bump to his save percentage (41 out of 42 shots, 35 out of 36 at evens). The one that beat him was a great shot by Pittsburgh's top scorer that he may not have even seen. Even if one thinks it was a soft one to allow, Brodeur more than made up for it in the rest of the game. The usual criticism of Brodeur, that he's washed up or that he is a clearly inferior goaltender on the team, really looks stupid after a night like this. No, he's not going to turn back the clock and play like he did in, say, 2003. I know it'll return when a goal is allowed or whatever. Somehow, he wasn't named the first star of the game by tonight's attending media. That's fine, the performance speaks for itself anyhow.
In any case, I have more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump. Check out PensBurgh later for a recap from a Penguins-based perspective.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: If you want to see bombs from above the slot, a shorthanded goal, a power play goal, and a lot of Martin Brodeur saves, then you want to see this highlight video from NHL.com:
Your First Star of the Game is a Rich Russian Scapegoat: The media named Ilya Kovalchuk tonight's first star of the game. I think Brodeur was better and more important, but Kovalchuk certainly had a great night. Kovalchuk not only scored the eventual game winning goal, but his decision to quickly pass to Patrik Elias in the slot on the power play proved fruitful as Elias one-touched to Dainius Zubrus for a goal. The Penguins had no real answer for Kovalchuk tonight. He had 8 shots on net out of 13 attempts, the most by one player on either team tonight. 6 of those 8 came at even strength with the other 2 came during a penalty kill. Kovalchuk nearly scored on the penalty kill after Henrique's goal, first nearly catching Fleury in an awkward position from distance; the second on a breakaway where he got robbed by a pad stop on his own rebound. Kovalchuk even got a good shot on net while out there with the fourth line, a rare occurrence. I think his only real miscue tonight was deciding to slapshot a bouncing puck in a one-on-one situation with Fleury in the second period. If one's main complaint about a player is that he pulled a Rolston at one point in the game, then that player must have done a lot right.
It wasn't all offense with Kovalchuk. No, #17 backchecked hard, he made good passes into the neutral zone on breakouts, and he gave a hard effort in all 22 shifts of his 22 minute night. The most impressive stat in my opinion from Kovalchuk was his +6 Corsi. On a night where the Devils got ripped apart in Corsi, Kovalchuk was not only positive but he had the best value on his team. Even above his linemates Parise (+2) and Henrique (-1). Moreover, Kovalchuk mostly saw the defensive pairing of Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin along with Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, and Matt Cooke. Normally, Jordan Staal centers that unit, but he was injured. Even so, those are three checking forwards with two very good defenders behind them. They couldn't quell Kovalchuk. Like Brodeur, he was fantastic and his play tonight should silence a lot of criticism. I feel Brodeur was more important for tonight's win; but I would say Kovalchuk was by far the Devils' best skater tonight. Of course, like Brodeur, the criticism will immediately continue when something doesn't go right.
The Sacrificed: Even with all of their injuries, one thing has been constant with this Penguins team: James Neal, Evgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz are a ridiculously good line. They definitely flexed their muscle tonight. They combined for 12 shots on net, they were able to get the puck in down low, throw it to their D when needed (how else would Deryk Engelland get 5 shots on net?) and maintain possession. Dan Bylsma leaned on them heavily since each played at least 24 minutes tonight. I can't blame him given how well they were moving the puck and generating shots on net throughout the night.
As a result, whoever got that match-up really suffered tonight. For the Devils that would be forwards Elias, Zubrus, and Petr Sykora with defenseman Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne. Unsurprisingly, their Corsi values were all in the toilet. Among those five, Elias was "the best" at -11 and Tallinder was the worst at -15. It wasn't like those guys made error after error; they were just out-classed. As with most the Devils defense tonight, they had to be concerned with reacting after shots and getting clearances then because they weren't able to prevent the Pens from getting shots. Since Brodeur played so well, this worked out.
The five skaters I mentioned here were essentially sacrificed to Pittsburgh's top players. The idea, I think, was for them to suffer, hope they don't give Pittsburgh too many easy shots, and rely on the other lines to succeed. Well, the first and third happened. I can't say they were really successful on the second since the Malkin line got so many shots on net and attempted so many shots. That said, their play didn't lead to a GA; Malkin got his goal when the Henrique line was out there. Again, credit Brodeur.
The Beating of Taormina and the Dubious Return of Palmieri: Two other Devils stuck out for being so low in possession. The first was Matt Taormina, who was a -10. This is odd since he didn't face a lot of tough competition; he mostly saw Richard Park, Steve Sullivan, and Colin McDonald. Those three combined for 8 shots on net, including one by McDonald that Brodeur absolutely robbed in a point-blank situation. I liked how Taormina played around the net in cleaning up pucks, but he wasn't at all that good in prevention. Somehow Taormina got 17:24 tonight, more than his more successful partner Kurtis Foster's 12:46. I don't think Foster was hurt, he got shifts in the third period. Perhaps Taormina got rolled over in the time away from Foster?
Still, I liked what Taormina did tonight more than Nick Palmieri. Palmieri was called up from Albany and thankfully replaced Cam Janssen. I can't say he played well at all. Palmieri only played 7:17 and picked up a -11 in Corsi mostly going against the Park line. He played less than his linemates Ryan Carter and Eric Boulton; but he somehow got a vastly worse value than either of them (Carter: -5, Boulton: -4). On top of that, he had a chance off an early rebound and put it wide of the net. That was his lone offensive opportunity. Not good. I would still keep Palmieri in the lineup over Cam Janssen, though.
Your (Somewhat) Improved Bottom Six: While Palmieri wasn't good, his call up helped Peter DeBoer decide to not play two goons and a useless forward tonight. Janssen and Tim Sestito were out, Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby were back in. The reformed third line of Steve Zalewski, Tedenby, and David Clarkson wasn't bad. Each forward was positive in possession and combined for six shots on net. Tedenby had 3 of them and he really hustled out there. Unlike Palmieri, Tedenby got the message that this was his chance to show the coaches he deserves to play regularly. I think he did just that tonight. I have no complaints about Zalewski or Clarkson, except one thing I'll get to in a moment.
The fourth line of Palmieri, Carter, and Boulton were not positive, but they weren't horrible either. Boulton surprisingly had a productive game. He had three decent-to-good shots on net and nearly had a fourth when he nearly took a puck away right in front of Fleury. After a long time of doing nothing, I can honestly say Boulton did something good in a hockey game. I'd like to think he understood the message sent by Janssen getting benched; and I hope it continues in future games. Carter was a typical fourth-line center, not much good but not an albatross.
Curiously, DeBoer played these two lines nearly evenly with each non-Palmieri forward playing 9-11 minutes. The 3-1 score certainly made it comfortable for DeBoer to give these two to get a handful of shifts in the third period. I would have liked to have seen the Zalewski line get rewarded with more ice time. Maybe we will do so in the next game - with or without Zalewski centering them, that depends on whether Travis Zajac will get healthy. All the same, I think Sestito and Janssen should sit for a few more games. They are not missed.
Both, Yes Both, Special Teams Were Great Tonight: This game had a lot of bodies crashing around but the refs only called five penalties tonight. Two of them were in a matching-minor situation, so the Devils only had to go to the PK twice and the PP once. Once again, the Devils penalty kill was successful. The penalty kill was counter-punching well in the second period. While the Penguins got four shots on net, the Devils responded with four of their own - and a goal. The only bad part about it was that they were on the PK at all because Eric Boulton backed into Fleury all on his own. It was a bad penalty to take, but the Devils turned it into a positive.
The second penalty was very dubious as Henrik Tallinder batted a puck in mid-air over the glass. Tallinder was clearly in the neutral zone, so unless the refs really thought the puck was over the blueline, that call shouldn't have been made. Despite the pressure for the Pens to make it a game in the third period on the power play, they only got two shots on net and the Devils did a good job clearing the puck otherwise. The bad call was a non-factor and the PK was ultimately good this evening.
The power play was successful, though not cleanly. The Devils struggled to maintain possession early on in the power play. The Penguins' penalty killers are quite good as well, and they forced the Devils along the perimeter. It didn't help that the Elias line missed passes along the boards. Just as I was thinking about a cute title for that for this recap (Missed Board Connections), all of a sudden the play began. Zubrus across the ice to Foster, who quickly played it to Kovalchuk, who gave it to Elias, who got it right to Zubrus for a one-timer goal. It was as pretty as a tic-tac-toe play could be and it came from the ugly Devils power play. I don't even know if the PP scored a goal like that this season. I'm glad it did as it made the game 3-1 early in the third, giving Brodeur and the team a cushion should Pittsburgh put one of the many pucks on net into the net. As for the PP, it was their lone shot on net on their only opportunity of the night. Given that they scored on it, I can't complain too loudly.
The Second Pairing Wasn't All That Great: Adam Larsson and Bryce Salvador played 22:36 and 19:15 at evens, respectively. They played almost as much as Tallinder and Fayne. Given that they were a +3 and +4 in Corsi, respectively, I would like to think they had a good night. Upon further review of the numbers, they really didn't. They faced nearly as many shots against as Tallinder and Fayne while not going against the Malkin line. They had the same issues as the rest of the defense: really bad at prevention, but not making a lot of heinous gaffes. Why were they positive in Corsi? They were mostly behind the Henrique line, who put up enough offense while they're on the ice to improve their possession. In addition to Kovalchuk's 6 shots at evens, Parise and Henrique each had 2. And outside of that line, the bottom six did chip in some shots. Tallinder and Fayne were mostly with the Elias line, who generated no shots on net at evens. Hence, the second pairing looked better than the first. Make of that what you will.
Faceoff Woes: Like the Boston game, the Devils got dominated on faceoffs. The team went 21-for-55. Elias was horrid at 4-for-17, which helped the Malkin line steamroll them this evening. Henrique was the best on New Jersey by going 8-for-15. One of those wins turned out to be important as it led to Kovalchuk's goal; though, Parise really deserves credit for keeping the puck away from Martin and feeding Kovalchuk beautifully. Carter was average at 4-for-8 and Zalewski followed up a good faceoff night with a miserable 4-for-13. Even without Jordan Staal in the lineup, Pittsburgh's centers were able to obtain possession early. Especially Malkin (17-for-26) and Park (8-for-10).
Cold Water: As great as the Devils got the win, I really can't say they fully deserved it. Yes, the goals they scored were great and they did have other chances to score too. They didn't sit on 3-1 for most of the third period. However, the Penguins really had the better of possession tonight and they forced Brodeur to be great. Some of their shots went awry and they didn't always make the most of their chances (e.g. Kunitz being all alone with Brodeur and deciding to pass it away to a covered Neal in a worse position). On another night, Pittsburgh probably wins this game even with a strong goaltending performance. The Devils got away with having the game open up, got away with having a terrible first period, and got away with a comeback win. I'm glad they won, but allowing 42 shots and hoping either Brodeur or Hedberg stops 41 of them isn't a good gameplan to carry into future games.
Warm Water: Again, Pittsburgh is a really, really good team. Like Boston, Pittsburgh has and can out-shoot an opponent heavily. Their top line is among the best in the league and Malkin is one of the world's best hockey players. We saw that tonight and the damage was limited to one goal by Malkin and a whole lot of shots. Moreover, that the Devils responded to their first period woes with a superior offensive second period is an encouraging sign since this team normally doesn't generate a lot of shots of their own. They can (and should) do it more often if it can mean not allowing 17 by the other team. Even so, the Devils' final Corsi value was only -2 worse from their terrible first period. On top of that, their special teams played real well. While it's not smart for a team to rely on their goaltender to play out of his mind, the Devils got that out of Brodeur tonight and didn't squander it. As I said at the beginning, this is a results-oriented business, and so we can feel good that they got a result.
Those are my thoughts for tonight's win, now I want to know yours. While I wasn't a fan of Pittsburgh heavily outshooting, what did you think of the Devils' performance overall this evening? Would you agree that Brodeur and/or Kovalchuk silenced a lot of critics tonight? If not, what more do they have to do? What did you think of the Devils' bottom six without Sestito and Janssen? How impressed were you that the Devils didn't get quick-whistled out of Henrique's shorthanded goal? How impressed were you that the power play scored their goal as they did? What should the Devils try to do differently in their next game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's win in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread for reading and commenting during the game as well as to everyone who followed the occasional tweets from @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.