It was entirely possible the New Jersey Devils could have entered the All Star Game break with five wins in a row. It would be their longest winning streak of this season. It would also help them in the standings, keeping down teams with games in hand on them. There will be many more games within the division, but for time being, this could have been seen as a big victory should the Devils get it. They didn't get it. The Devils lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 0-2. The Devils didn't go into the break strong. They got outplayed for a majority of the game, they were a catastrophe on defense in the second period, and they got shutout for the fifth time this season. Extending the streak was possible until the game actually happened.
Well, that's not entirely true. The Devils had an excellent start to the game. They out-shot the Penguins 11-3 in the first fourteen minutes of the game. These weren't weak, routine shots. These included some excellent scoring chances. Bobby Farnham took a puck in and nearly popped in his own rebound in mid air. Saved. Lee Stempniak took a turnover, passed it to Mike Cammalleri, he passed to Adam Henrique in the high slot for a one-timer. Saved. Jordin Tootoo surprised the Penguins with a turnaround slapshot. Saved. Joseph Blandisi pulls away from a Penguin and makes a makeshift 2-on-1. Kyle Palmieri hit Blandisi's saucer pass perfectly and Blandisi was present for a rebound. Saved and saved again. Cammalleri has Henrique wide open on the goalie's flank - the pass missed but a shot followed. Saved. Marc-Andre Fleury was in net for Pittsburgh and he was brilliant. As frustrating as it was that he made those saves, the Devils kept coming at Pittsburgh and kept creating chances. Good chances. Dangerous chances. No worries.
At the 14:48 mark, things started to fall apart. Kyle Palmieri tripped Olli Maatta off a faceoff. A little later, Kris Letang fired a long shot into a load of bodies and Sidney Crosby pots in a rebound past an unaware Cory Schneider to make it 0-1. That was bad. What followed was worse. After the first intermission, the Penguins just dominated the Devils. Possession shifts? Pittsburgh pinned back the Devils repeatedly; especially their bottom six and third pairing on defense. Rushes up ice? You know it, the Penguins just kept hitting back whenever the Devils tried to attack. Chaos around the net? Absolutely, the Penguins were fighting for loose pucks and trying to jam one past Cory Schneider. Schneider was absolutely fantastic in the second. But the Devils played like he needed to be perfect and he wasn't. Late in the second, Carl Hagelin led a makeshift 2-on-1 with Phil Kessel. Eric Gelinas didn't really deny Hagelin, Jordin Tootoo didn't keep up with Kessel (he should've), and one pass across to Kessel yielded a powerful one-timer goal to make it 0-2. By the end of the second, the Devils conceded sixteen shots on net out of twenty one attempts - all in 5-on-5 play. Typically, most teams down a goal or two would be more aggressive and therefore push possession against the team that's leading. They don't play like being down a goal or two is akin to climbing a mountain. The 2015-16 Devils are not most teams. And so the Penguins simply kept doing whatever they wanted.
The third period was more even, but the Devils never made a great effort to tie up the game until maybe near the end of the game. Shots were even at 8-8 and that was boosted by the Devils having a power play and an extra skater in the final two minutes or so. All they got offensively was Seth Helgeson hitting the post on a long shot and Cammalleri ringing one off the post on a one-timer during their fourth and final power play tonight. Again, most teams down two goals tend to push forward. The Devils struggled - as usual this season - to really do that. In retrospect, it surprises me a little that the Devils were so successful in the run of play to begin this game given how it went. The first fifteen minutes or so was great for the Devils. The last forty five minutes was great for the Penguins - and they had a lead the entire time. They were just that much better than New Jersey tonight.
Ultimately, this was another game where Schneider put in a great performance, some players had good nights, but the general play of the team was lackluster at best and it yielded a loss. While poor games will happen, the beginning of this game and parts of their now-former winning streak showed me (and probably you) that this team can play quite well. They'll need to do that a lot more often and learn ways to not keep falling apart when they don't get that all important lead (Aside: Read that post Alex if you haven't, it's good) if they're serious about making the playoffs this season. The team will have a week to start addressing it in theory.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik has this recap at PensBurgh, so go check that out.
The Game Highlights: This video from NHL.com features two Penguins goals and plenty of reasons why Schneider's going to Nashville this weekend:
The Return of the Terrible, Awful, No Good, Nothing Doing Power Play: The Devils had four power plays tonight. They all lasted the full two minutes. The last one came with three minutes left in regulation and they spent the final minute with Schneider out of the net. The result? One shot. One post. That's it. They gave up more shots (two) than they took. Eight minutes of the Penguins playing with four skaters and the Devils really could not find the net. By my count, they had only four attempts on net. I think they may have set up in Pittsburgh's end of the rink maybe four times tonight. Again, they had four power plays lasting eight minutes of this hockey game. Once again, zone entries were terrible and it made an already good penalty killing team look even better.
\While power plays make up only a portion of the game, I still have this crazy expectation that a team with one extra skater on the ice should be able to generate some offensive opportunities. Clearly, I need to lower it further for the Devils. It's one thing to go 0-for-4 on the power play, it's another to do so with only one actual SOG across all of them. And it's miserable to watch. Yet, I think I'm going to re-watch this and some of the others from their awful power play streak to highlight what I think the issue is: just trying to get set up.
Pittsburgh's power play? Well, they scored the one goal they needed to win. Their second one only yielded one shot, but they actually had the puck on their collective sticks for more than five seconds at a time. Clearly, they were superior.
Blegh: The Devils called up Marc-Andre Gragnani in case David Schlemko and/or Adam Larsson were too sick to play tonight. They weren't too sick to play tonight. Larsson got hammered in possession but he was at least where a defenseman should be tonight. And he was going up against Sidney Crosby's line (Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Matt Cullen, who had some amazing misses tonight) and saw plenty of Evgeni Malkin's unit (Malkin, Kessel, Hagelin). I was mostly fine with 5-6. The pairing of David Schlemko and Eric Gelinas was just sickening to watch tonight.
Schlemko and Gelinas didn't have a match-up that really stuck out against them in terms of ice time. In terms of possession, pretty much most Penguins did well against them. Schlemko was absolutely off the puck. He missed pucks that were slowly coming his way. He was getting lost in his own end of the rink. The only real positive I can say of him is that he got four shots on net. There was that at least. He was present for many more being allowed. Gelinas looked like the exact opposite defenseman that he played like in Winnipeg. In Manitoba, Gelinas looked composed, in control, and made a lot of simple, calm decisions. Tonight, he was just a mess. They commonly played behind the line of Tuomo Ruutu, Reid Boucher, and Jacob Josefson. They had a bad night as well. As a result, they were all "free" in competition tonight throughout all three periods. They were the wrong kind of sick tonight. It nearly made me sick to witness it.
Schneider Was Great, Was Anyone Else?: Great? No. Pretty good? Sure. Let's go with that. Consolation prizes could be given out to other Devils. While they were protected in terms of ice time, Damon Severson and Seth Helgeson were better than they were in Winnipeg. Helgeson really only made one critical error: a straight up give away to Kessel at New Jersey's blueline. He followed that with coming one of the closest Devils to score tonight on the same shift. Other than that, he yielded little drama. Always a good thing for a defenseman.
The best forward line tonight was the Henrique line. They had the best chances in the first period. Henrique and Stempniak both tied among Devils forwards for the most shots with three each. Cammalleri was making good reads - save for missing Henrique for a lay-up in the first period. In terms of the run of play, these three were the best at going forward. They did disappear from that for stretches in this game. Still, they were the best of the bunch. So there's that.
No Containment: In retrospect, it was foolish of me to think the Devils could hold back the Malkin line. They were very good at going forward. The three combined for seven of Pittsburgh's 31 shots on net tonight, including the insurance goal in the second period. The Devils didn't have much of an answer for them. The Devils did play better against the Crosby line, but there were plenty of events going both ways. So while the Devils looked great in the first against them, they would make up some of the difference in the following two periods. That said, Crosby, Hornqvist, and Cullen combined for ten shots tonight - including five for Cullen and not two near-empty nets he should have scored on. Pittsburgh's top six played close to what one would expect from them and New Jersey struggled with them either all game or for plenty of parts of it. They did right by Fleury, who was astounding in the beginning of this game.
One Last Thought: While being on the wrong end of a four-point swing isn't a good thing, the Devils will play the Penguins two more times this season and they have a lot of games within the Metropolitan Division next month. Should the Devils get results against them, they'll be fine standings-wise. The concerning part is if the Caps, Isles, Rangers, and Flyers do to the Devils what the Penguins to do them tonight. Therefore, I just see this as one bad loss that cut short what could have been a fine five-game winning streak going into the break.
Your Take: The Devils got outplayed and deserve to hold this 0-2 L out of Pittsburgh. What did you make of tonight's game? What could have the Devils done differently instead of being outplayed for the latter 45 minutes of this game? Who do you think played well aside from Schneider? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
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