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New Jersey Devils Valiant but Can't Overcome Atrocious First Period in 3-2 Loss to Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils had one of their worst first period performances and fell behind 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had one of their best second and third period performances to make it 3-2 but couldn't complete the comeback. This recap tries to figure it all out.

Pictured: The third time Marc-Andre Fleury was beaten tonight.  Except Adam Henrique hit the post.
Pictured: The third time Marc-Andre Fleury was beaten tonight. Except Adam Henrique hit the post.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

On Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils went up early and botched the game due in part of bad goaltending. Tonight, the Devils went up against the Pittsburgh Penguins and did the reverse but with bad goaltending.  They got destroyed, demolished, dominated, and whatever d-word you want in the first period.   Cory Schneider couldn't handle and cover a dump-in, yes a mere dump-in, and Pascal Dupuis poked the loose puck in.  Bad decisions by Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas led to Chris Connor getting the puck all alone in the slot.  Schneider was hung out to dry but he had a chance to make a stop and didn't make one.   Simon Despres fired a long shot on an attacking shift, Schneider didn't cleanly stop it, and the rebound bounced to a wide-open (thanks to Adam Henrique and Gelinas) Jayson Megna for an easy put back.   The Pens went up 12-7 in shots, owned most of the period, and went up 3-0.  Schneider was bad, Merrill-Gelinas was bad, and the team struggled to string three passes going forward.  Only the fourth line didn't look bad, which says a lot by itself.  Devils fans around the world were insipid.  Even Chico said it was the worst period of the season and I think he may have been right.

Yet, the Devils did not just take the big deficit and give up on the game.  Sure, score effects would suggest the Devils would attack more.  I don't know how to calculate how much it should have been, but the Devils probably exceeded that. Right from the start, the Devils seemingly borrowed a bulldozer to apply pressure.  They swarmed the net, they won pucks along the boards, they drew an early call, they kept gaining Pittsburgh's zone with ease.  Shots came in fast and furious on Marc-Andre Fleury.  The pressure would be rewarded.  A shot by Anton Volchenkov was re-directed by Patrik Elias to surprise Fleury.  Less than a minute later, the Travis Zajac line pounded the Pens.  Zajac collected a rebounded puck to feed Jaromir Jagr.  Jagr's shot trickled behind Fleury and Dainius Zubrus poked it in to ensure it would be 3-2. All of a sudden, it's a game.  Dan Bylsma took a timeout which did nothing.  The dominance was easily seen by those who saw it; the Devils out-shot the Pens 19-5.  Even the two power plays had moments of effectiveness.  It was fantastic.

And it continued into the third!   The first shot on net came from Jagr and he had this smirk where you knew that he knew that they're going to force Fleury to play perfect hockey to keep it 3-2.  Unfortunately, Fleury pretty much played perfect hockey.  While the Pens were able to get a handful of decent shifts at times, most of the action was tilted in Pittsburgh's end.  They had all kinds of opportunities. Long shots with rebounds and deflections.  Jam plays where Fleury had to hold the line wit all of his might.   Adam Henrique had a rebound opportunity that beat the goalie but not the post.  Damien Brunner was sprung for a breakaway from the blueline only to be robbed by Fleury's glove. Steve Bernier had a wide open net on a rebound but the puck was too close his body and Fleury still had to desperately get his stick down to deny his backhander.  Michael Ryder and Reid Boucher had a two-on-one where Sidney Crosby had to go the length of the rink to backcheck Boucher to help him put his one-timer wide.  Even during the tail end of Henrique's penalty at the end of the game (playing with a broken stick), the Devils pulled Schneider and the Devils owned the zone.  They just needed one more bounce, one more inch, one more something. But 13 shots on net were all stopped.  It was a valiant effort, certainly one that a fan hopes to see after such a terrible start.

But as Peter DeBoer told the press on TV, "This is about points," and the Devils didn't get any.  They arguably deserved something but performances require results for justification.  It's easy to say that the lesson is obvious: don't play like doormats in the first period and concede three goals.  I'd love to say it's as simple as "play a full 60," though Pittsburgh just got two points for 20 minutes dominance.  Honestly, I don't think the Devils would have been so fired up if the Penguins didn't go up 3-0.  It's only natural to relax a little when you're up by a big lead. Especially when you have two of the best players in the world who could turn a game on it's ear at any moment - and Sidney Crosby nearly did it in the third.  So good on the Devils to take more than full advantage of that, though it was what ultimately doomed them.  DeBoer also said "I put this on me."  I'm sure some may want to hear some ownership of that (and the dimmer fans want him fired for it), but he's not the one bungling pucks off his stick.

My main concern is that eventually this all wears on an organization.  How many times have we seen this last season?  The Devils would play, and I use this genuinely as possible, awesome periods or awesome stretches and yet come away with a loss.  We'd see great performances like we did tonight, first period aside, end up with little more than additions to personal statistics.   How long can this continue? I wish I knew.  As much as I love the point made with their play; that this is a proud organization and they want to put up fights and the coaches clearly have their players' attention and they did this against a really good Pittsburgh team and so forth.  But it's a 3-2 loss all the same.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Devils Time on Ice Report | The Extra Skater Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Mike Darnay has a quick recap up at PensBurgh with highlighted moments and praise for Fleury. As he should. #29 stole points for his team tonight.

The Game Highlights: It was the Marc-Andre Fleury show after the first period. So many highlights from

This Also Makes Me Want to Scream in Frustration: The Devils are one of the least shooting and attempting teams in the NHL.  They not only out-shot a first-place Pittsburgh team on their ice 39-23, but they also out-attempted them 84-41.  Clearly, this was an uncommonly offensive night from the Devils and much of it coming from just the second and third periods make that stand out.   Clearly, Pittsburgh had the superior goalie tonight.

Also Making Me Grunt in an Annoyed Fashion: The Devils largely kept Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check.  Pittsburgh's leader in shots tonight was Craig Adams.  Craig. Adams.

85% 87%: That's Cory Schneider's save percentage from this game.  The first one was mishandled. The dump-in by Chris Kunitz went right to him, I have no idea how he didn't know he had it or how he couldn't smother it.  That's simply an awful goal to give up, never mind it being the first of the game.   I understand he was hung out to dry but don't tell me he had no chance against Chris Connor.  And he really had to fight off that Despres shot before Megna put home the rebound, even though Henrique and Gelinas looked stupid for leaving him there.  I was hoping that after a bad game from Brodeur, I'd see a good one from Schneider.  Now, I don't know who should be starting tomorrow.   Yes, Schneider has the better save percentage over the season, but that certainly took a hit that will put him closer to Martin Brodeur's low numbers.  Yes, he had to make some stops later to ensure a comeback effort would stay alive but, like Brodeur in Columbus, he had to keep pushing pucks away, so to speak.  And I agree he's the better goalie on paper.  But if the idea is to reward performance, then Schneider certainly didn't earn it tonight.  Simple as. He was bad.

Rookies Sometimes Play Like Rookies: The Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas pairing was horrid.   They were picked on to a point where DeBoer had to split them up.  The second goal allowed can be attributed to them, Merrill got caught in the neutral zone as he mishandled a pass, and Gelinas stupidly tried to check Brandon Sutter by the boards on the ensuing rush.  That was a 2-on-1.   Sutter read the play right and got the puck away before the point of impact. I didn't think Gelinas was in a good position on the Megna goal.  Merrill was just bad on the puck with missed attempts, poor passes, and just strange decisions.  I think the breaking point for the pairing came after the Devils' first power play of the second.  Merrill collected the puck after time expired and instead of a simple pass to his teammate, he chipped it off the boards right to a Penguin.  He immediately springs another one into the zone, Gelinas gets torched, Schneider makes a save, and Merrill flings the rebound right into traffic.   At least Gelinas brought The Truth with four shots on net out of seven attempts. Merrill didn't do much.   I wish DeBoer figured out this pairing wasn't working after the first alone but at least he caught on.   I know in the long run, this was just a bad night and that this will happen with rookie defenders.  Still, they were dire together tonight.

The Fourths: For the first ten minutes, the Devils only had a few shots on net and they came from the fourth line.  Tim Sestito, Jacob Josefson (surely he's earned another game?), and Cam Janssen were very good in their role tonight.  I'm not kidding you.  I'm not trolling you. I'm not making fun.  The trio may have only had two shots between them but they kept getting the puck in deep.  They earned - yes, earned - third period shifts.  They didn't get caught out there; in fact, the Pens didn't even get a shot attempt when Sestito was on the ice.  They had a bunch for Josefson and Jannsen but both came out well ahead in attempt differential.  As much as fans (including me) snark about the "energy" they bring, they actually brought energy in this game.  They actually spelled the other lines effectively and kept up pressure.  They were the one unit that wasn't absolute garbage in the first period.   Well done, fourth liners.

Czech Wizard: Patrik Elias and his line was absolutely fantastic in the second and third periods.  They more than doubled-up in shots taken compared to shots against.  Elias was moving the puck so effectively, it almost wasn't fair at times.  His re-direction was fortunate but that unit deserved some result for their strong play.  Steve Bernier had five shots on net and Damien Brunner had six, with plenty of thanks from #26.  They hit the Pens with so many different looks from up-close-and-dirty plays to wide-open chances.  Bylsma had little answer for them; it certainly wasn't Despres and Robert Bortuzzo.  I feel so bad, especially now in retrospect, that Bernier or Brunner didn't score on their chances.  But if Elias can keep making plays for these guys, then they will keep getting great looks and they'll have to result in goals at some point.

Train In Service: Anton Volchenkov had a very good game in my opinion.  He was active on the puck with two shots on net out of seven attempts. While it wasn't the smartest of shots, Elias turned one from the boards into the Devils' first goal.  Meanwhile, the play often went forward when he was on the ice.  He even drew a cross-checking call from Kunitz.  Yes, Volchenkov drew a penalty instead of taking one.  I don't know if he'll be this solid in the future but he definitely was effective tonight.

Special Teams: The Devils' power play had their usual stretches of being unable to gain the zone.  When they did, they got six shots on net over two advantages.  On their lone penalty kill, the Devils had to not only get a stop but attack.  They managed to do so with two shots and get an extra skater situation going late.  Given how super-duper the Pens have been on special teams this season, that was a real feat.

The Henrique Line Wasn't So Good: While the Elias line was pinning guys back, the Zajac line did their usual work (see: Jagr with five shots on net), and the fourths playing well, one unit wasn't so hot even during the final forty minutes.  The trio of Boucher, Henrique, and Ryder didn't get much done tonight.  While they were very good in all attempts in 5-on-5, they got out-shot by a decent margin. Two shots on net combined on a night where the team got 39 isn't good.  It may be acceptable for a fourth line, who's role is very simple: get the puck in deep and don't do something stupid.  For this unit, the expectation has to be higher.  Ryder and Boucher were just "there" until they got sprung on a two-on-one off a bad neutral zone play by a Penguins defender.  Other than that, that was really it for them.  Henrique had a rough night.  He got caught alone on Megna's goal against, he hit a post on a rebound as one of the his few offensive moments, and he took a call for kicking a puck while holding onto a broken stick in a futile effort of offense.  Henrique nearly redeemed himself for the penalty when he re-directed a puck just wide; but, alas, it wasn't to be.   He'll be fine for sure but that unit just wasn't so good despite the team steamrolling Pittsburgh's defense.

Who Got Steamrolled the Most: Kris Letang: A -18 in 5-on-5 play, out-shot 5-11 in 5-on-5 play, and no shots on net. You know, Pittsburgh's top healthy defenseman.  He also left Derek Engelland alone in front with a Lithuanian Freight Train as he chased Zajac to the loose puck that led to the second goal against.   Olli Maatta certainly wasn't much better but Maatta isn't expected to be the main man with three regulars out injured.

Bloomed: As much grief as I've given him and others have given him for being so poor at times, Fleury was supreme tonight.  It wouldn't surprise me if someone makes sure Hockey Canada gets tape on him from this game. On some nights, he can be absolutely brilliant.

Stay Safe: Weather reports are calling for a significant amount of snow (and later turning to rain, so possibly ice) in northern and central New Jersey tomorrow.  The NHL will play tomorrow's game against Tampa Bay as long as both teams and officials are present at the Rock.  And the Lightning should be since they've been off.  If you're not sure if you can make it to the Rock safely, then please do not try.  It's only a game.

One Other Reminder: The Devils Annual Toys For Tots collection is on Wednesday, December 18 when the team plays Ottawa. Say what you want about toys, but they tend to make a lot more sense and provide easier-to-understand feelings than games like this one.

Your Take: Well, how do you see this game now that it ended with a 3-2 loss?  Do you think the Devils will eventually break through with something good soon? Do you think they'll fade from not getting a result?  Do you think we've seen this once or twice before? How do you even feel about what transpired?  Upset and mad at the bad start? Heartened by the other two periods?  Was there a stand out player or a specific goat? Let me know your answers and your other thoughts about this loss in the comments.  Thanks to those who followed along in the Gamethread and @InLouWeTrust on Twitter.  Thank you for reading.