Thursday night was a night of jubilation and glory. The New Jersey Devils ended their losing streak in a big way with a big 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Prior to the game, there was much from Ray Shero about the need for the Devils to play harder. That message and surely others was received. It was great on the ice and it was a great feeling for most, if not all, Devils fans. After tonight’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was made clear that the feeling would last for only one night. The Penguins decisively smacked the Devils down with a 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh. Much more was made clear with this game:
- The Penguins are a far superior team than the Devils and the Flyers.
- The Penguins not only have loads of talent at forward, but they all play on the same page as opposed to the scrambling often seen by the Devils.
- The Penguins really dominated the game right from the get-go.
I cannot emphasize enough how well the Penguins played in the first period. They out-shot the Devils 10-2 and out-attempted them 27-4. That is not a typo. The Devils had only four shooting attempts in the first twenty minutes. The Penguins swarmed, swarmed, and swarmed some more. Sidney Crosby sniped a power play goal that hit the back bar eleven minutes into the period. The Devils’ response? It wasn’t to try to make Marc-Andre Fleury earn his money. It wasn’t to threaten the Penguins in the run of play. With their concessions of the puck and poor decision making, it was to get swarmed some more. Cory Schneider did well to keep the game from getting out of hand, But that did not last.
The Penguin domination continued for most of the second period. The Devils showed a little more life on offense, but the Penguins hit back just as hard. They also doubled their lead on a shift where a unit of Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Michael Cammalleri, Jon Merrill, and Seth Helgeson were bodied. Merrill and Helgeson were the biggest flaws among that unit and it appeared that Merrill tried to clear a loose puck after a shooting attempt, it hit off Helgeson and possibly Eric Fehr and went into the net. It was just bad stuff followed by, well, more bad stuff. The Devils earned a power play when Bryan Rust interfered Hall and during said power play, Ian Cole was called for a cross-check. The resulting 5-on-3 generated not much. Just after the 5-on-3 period ended, P.A. Parenteau was assessed an interference minor for knocking Fleury’s stick away, which killed the rest of Cole’s minor. The Penguins, you guessed it, swarmed the net with their abbreviated power play. How bad was it? After that advantage, the Devils had seven shots on net while Crosby alone had five shots on net.
There would be a sign of hope at the 13:24 mark. Hall found John Moore in the high slot for a shot on net. Fleury stopped the shot and Kyle Palmieri slid in the loose puck for a goal. The goal counted after a review failed for goaltender interference. That sparked the Devils’ offense to start attacking and shooting more. And they did. Pavel Zacha fed Andy Greene for a great one-on-one chance where Greene hit the post. The Devils started to have shifts in Pittsburgh’s end of the rink. There was even an odd man rush where Ben Lovejoy - Ben Lovejoy - came down the middle for a good shot on net. It was as if the Devils realized that being down a goal should lead to more shots on net or something. Alas, that one-goal deficit didn’t last into intermission. In the final minute, defenseman Chad Ruhwedel fired a wrist shot as Patric Hornqvist and Parenteau came across Schneider. That shot made it through and the Devils were down two goals again. It hurt the cause, certainly. As much as it hurt that the Devils spent about six minutes of the first forty minutes actually playing competitive ice hockey. It was a productive six or so minutes with fourteen shots on net (!), but it wasn’t enough (Pittsburgh put up seventeen shots in the period)
Would there be more competitive ice hockey in the third period? Yes and no. From a shots and attempts standpoint, sure. The Devils out-attempted the Penguins 18-16 and the Devils were only out-shot 8-12. Did that matter? No. The Penguins had the better chances. More importantly, they scored another goal. With Greene and Chris Kunitz in front of Schneider, an open Hornqvist rifled in a shot to make it 4-1 in favor of Pittsburgh. That score stood up as the Devils did not threaten much to reduce that lead and Schneider at least made additional saves.
In total, the Penguins out-attempted, out-shot, out-chanced, out-hustled, out-worked, out-played the Devils. A far cry from what happened on Thursday against the Second Rate Rivals.
What irks me the most is that John Hynes iced the same lineup as he did on Thursday. Cory Schneider did pick up a 16-save shutout on Thursday and so there wasn’t much reason to question his fatigue. He was far from being the problem tonight; but was there really a need to start him for a second straight night against a far better Pittsburgh team? Helgeson and Merrill were a defensive pairing and they were not only responsible for a goal against, but they were constantly pinned back and added nothing to an offensive attack that needed anything. Luke Gazdic played like Luke Gazdic. He didn’t even fight or do anything “tough” so I’m not sure what his inclusion brought to the table. The chip and chase with Miles Wood yielded a few offensive bursts but more often just gave Pittsburgh the puck to attack with. Could the Devils’ effort have been better? I guess. Was the absence of Nick Lappin and Devante Smith-Pelly that important? Not really. But the Devils were so thoroughly beaten by the Penguins that it was very clear that throwing out the same lineup and tactics from Thursday night was a bad choice. Just as much as it was clear that the Devils players were out-classed. On this eve of Christmas Eve, the Devils earned a lump of coal for how they played tonight (and for the better part of the last four weeks).
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Shift Chart | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik at PensBurgh called it a comfortable victory for the Penguins. It sure was, seeing as the Penguins out-shot the Devils 39-24 and won 4-1.
The Most Damaged: Every Devil was in the red when it came to attempt-differential in 5-on-5 play. Only John Moore was present for more shots by the Devils (9) than shots against (8) in 5-on-5 play; everyone else was out-shot. The best of the worst was Moore, Palmieri, Beau Bennett (who had a couple of useful chip passes to lead his teammates), and Travis Zajac.
The worst of the worst? On defense, Helgeson-Merrill was the pairing with the worst shots for percentage while Damon Severson and Ben Lovejoy faced the most attempts against with twenty. At forward, Vernon Fiddler, Miles Wood, and Michael Cammalleri were right near the bottom in terms of attempt differential. Those three forwards played on separate lines, so that should give you a further perspective on how poorly the whole team played tonight.
I will give a special mention to the fourth line of Fiddler, Sergey Kalinin, and Gazdic. No, a different fourth line would not guarantee a different result. But this trio was just terrible at generating anything. Worse, their most common defensive pairing behind them were Merrill and Helgeson. They didn’t play a lot together, but Pittsburgh made sure to have good players go up against them and, guess what, the Penguins succeeded. At the moment, I would rather not see 20-38-51-7-39 together in a NHL game this season.
The Damage Dealers: Sidney Crosby styled and profiled on the Devils with seven shots on net and a sweet power play goal. When he bodied up Greene early in the game, I had a feeling it would be a long night for the Devils’ defense. And it was. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh’s other all-world forward, picked up three shots on net, seven shooting attempts, two assists, and a +11 in attempt differential. He was a star too. Eric Fehr, who was credited for the second goal against the Devils tonight, had three additional shots on net as Pittsburgh’s fourth line was functional in ways the Devils’ fourth line could only dream of being. Pittsburgh’s “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel may have dominated the least among the four Penguins lines, but they definitely contributed with a combined eight of Pittsburgh’s 39 shots on net tonight. This isn’t to disrespect Pittsburgh’s defense, which was led in ice time by Justin Schultz tonight and was quite good. But the forwards were the stars for the Penguins tonight. They brought the pain to the Devils, who just took it and said, “Thanks, may I please have some more?”
Oh, That 5-on-3: I had two realizations during the 40-second 5-on-3 situation the Devils did have tonight. First, as nice as it was to see the Devils generate two shots on the delayed call on Cole, the Devils really should’ve conceded possession immediately to have more time on the 5-on-3 situation. Second, the formation basically limited the Devils. With Parenteau and Hall set up on the goal line and facing out from the line, they were effectively forced to just turn and/or pass the puck whenever they received it. While passing the puck into the middle can be and did look dangerous, it meant the Penguins’ three penalty killers and Fleury knew that only three players were going to shoot the puck. After all, by the time Hall or Parenteau could turn to give themselves a better angle to shoot, a defender could get in the way and/or Fleury could be in position for the shot. It wasn’t the worst 5-on-3 attempt, but the Devils continue to be hamstrung in those rare situations by a formation that limits two shooters - good shooters in Parenteau and Hall - from the get-go.
The Disappointment: The Devils won big on Thursday to end a seven game losing streak. In that seven game losing streak, five of them were decisive routs where there was no question who the superior team was. (And if you want to know what those were: 12/8 in Montreal, 12/9 vs. St. Louis, 12/11 in Manhattan, 12/15 in St. Louis, and 12/20 vs. Nashville) Tonight’s game was right with those five losses. That’s the disappointing thing. It’s one thing to lose to a top-tier team like the Penguins. It’s another to just not really compete with them. The Penguins’ game plan was on point. Their puck carriers had options whereas the Devils did not - many teammates were not options for when the Devils did have the puck. The Devils may have talked about wanting to take away time and space from any potential shooters whereas the Penguins actually did that. The Devils defense came off a night where they allowed 16 shots all game and were torched for 39 shots with 17 shots coming in the second period alone. It was just sad to see the Devils just get rolled again and again and again. It was a performance worth a lump of coal. It was that disappointing in my eyes. So much for progress.
And the Devils get to play this team again on Tuesday.
One Last Thought: In the larger picture, tonight showed that the Devils have a long way to go - and it’s going to take more than effort to get to where they want to be.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-4 to Pittsburgh and looked bad in doing so. What were your thoughts on the game? Please leave them in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for taking care of the game preview this morning. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on the site account on Twitter, @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading and have a Merry Christmas. NHL hockey will return on Tuesday.