Last week, the New Jersey Devils visited Pittsburgh Penguins with a winless streak and a need to win a game. They won 5-1. Tonight, the Devils hosted the Penguins after a seven-game road trip from hell where the Devils lost all three games after that 5-1 win by three-plus goal margins. They badly needed another win. They won this one 4-2. Two words come to mind with this victory.
The first word is justice. There were plenty of moments where the referees Dan O’Rourke and Graham Skilliter made an impact that could have cost the Devils tonight. Three points come to mind:
- In the second period, while Phil Kessel was trying to fight Brett Seney, Will Butcher sprung Jesper Bratt for a breakaway. Bratt scores while Kessel and Seney fought well away from the play. The goal siren went, the goal song played, the score showed 3-1 New Jersey, but the goal was waved off due to the whistle going for the Seney-Kessel fight. It was close, but the game played on.
- In the third period, Sidney Crosby charged up the ice with the puck and got ahead of Blake Coleman. Crosby turned into Chris Kreider and charged to the net and into Keith Kinkaid. He took out Kinkaid’s right pad. Jake Guentzel potted in the loose puck to make it 2-2. Kinkaid was mad. John Hynes was mad. I was mad. The Rock - except for the Pens fans and people not paying attention in attendance - was mad. Hynes challenged the goal for goaltender interference and it somehow, somehow held up under review. The explanation was that Coleman pushed Crosby. How. Seriously, look at this clip from @NJViDs. If Coleman touched him, it was well before #87 turned into the New York Goalie Charger and reached the crease. The only Devil that could have touched him at that point was Sami Vatanen, and he didn’t do that either. Crosby is not this 90 pound weakling where the slightest touch would send him careening anywhere like a cannonball. He knew exactly what he was doing and he and his team got away with it with an important goal. The fans booed mercilessly for minutes. They were right. Boo, indeed.
- And the refs let a lot go in favor of the Pens as time went on. I know its common for refs to ease up on whistles as the third period nears its end. But Pavel Zacha was literally on one knee and faced the boards before being checkedright into them from behind. No call. When Casey DeSmith was pulled for an extra skater, one of the first entries by Pittsburgh became a thing when Andy Greene got taken out in the left (Kinkaid’s left) corner and Travis Zajac was mugged twice as the Pens tried (and did) win possession. During this struggle, Joey Anderson had a clearance hit the top of the glass before going out. The Pens went to the ref like a bunch of soccer players trying to please/argue/yell their case and I’m sitting there wondering where was the hooking call on Anderson that led to that clearance going astray. AATJ user HouseRich said it best in the Gamethread - and well before this late game no-call nonsense: “The Pittsburgh Penguins. Taking liberties since whenever Crosby came into the league.” That may seem like sore winning, but I think it has a point tonight.
So when this happened, I thought of one word: Justice.
Travis Zajac gave Taylor Hall a pass to put the man into space down the middle, and Hall finished it by making DeSmith look like a chump with a cool shot through his legs. There would be no fight or some other nonsense behind the play to wipe it away. There would be no phantom goaltender interference call. There would be no coaches’ challenge out of nowhere to take the goalie way. There would be no complaint from Crosby or Kessel or anyone. This was as definitive as it could be. The Devils made it 3-2. It does not always happen in this sport, but justice was served.
And it continued to be served as the Devils battled through the fouls, kept Pittsburgh at bay as much as possible, they won some key faceoffs to lighten the pressure, Keith Kinkaid made the stops that were needed, the defense made the blocks and won the battles as needed for exits. Hall secured the win by dekeing out a lollygagging Evgeni Malkin and putting home an empty netter. I repeat: justice.
The other word that comes to mind is resilient. I was really mad with the Devils during this road trip with their performances. When I wrote up the Ottawa recap, I was frustrated more than any other time in recent memory with the Devils. I was livid about how the Devils just played like they were bound to lose when the scoreboard said otherwise. This continued to a degree in Toronto and Winnipeg and arguably happened to a degree in Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Brooklyn. With that in mind, I was pleased to see how well the Devils responded to some adversity in tonight’s game. The Devils showed some resiliency to when bad things happened. Without Nico Hischier or Brian Boyle, the team could have been in trouble from the start. The first half of the first period was pretty much all Devils hockey and they even scored on their first shift of the game. It was a great start for a team not at full strength.
It was not perfect. The Devils’ play was pretty lackadaisical after the Penguins’ first goal in the first period. After twelve minutes plus of controlling the game, the Pens got a goal and the Devils were getting pinned back more and more. I was concerned when this continued at the start of the second period when the Pens did have some good shifts. Especially a long and horrid one for the Devils that ended with Ben Lovejoy earning a delay of game call. But the Devils killed that minor penalty and started winning small plays. A puck battle here, a neutral zone stop there, and some passes. Next thing you know, the Devils are moving the puck more often, they’re firing more shots, and they’re sticking around a little more in Pittsburgh’s end. Then Damon Severson took a Taylor Hall feed and fired a laser to the top right (DeSmith’s right) corner. That goal was so pin-point, I don’t think he would have stopped it even if he wasn’t screened. The Devils followed that up with even more. While the Pens had a chance here and there, the ice was tilting in New Jersey’s direction, they took a lead in the process, and they kept it going. That is how to respond to the other team having a strong start to a period that followed some successful minutes to close the last one in a 1-1 game.
What’s more is that the Devils never really fell apart when other bad things happened. Bratt’s goal was taken away? Fine. They kept going. Crosby runs Kinkaid and Guentzel ties it up? OK, they kept threatening. While the devils only fired four shots in the third period, they took eleven attempts in total and they could have had more if Pittsburgh did not scramble back several times on defense to thwart the Devils. Thanks to Pittsburgh being out of sorts - Kris Letang was in the offensive zone from a pinch gone wrong, Kessel tried to trap Zajac with Brian Dumolin on the left boards - Hall got an opportunity to score and he did. The Devils did not respond to any of the hooks, slashes, and other dubious moves of the Penguins with their own nonsense. Nor did they try to beef with the refs over not calling the Penguins for anything. The Devils could have attacked more, sure, but they did enough to keep them honest and their defensive effort was actually present and effective. If this were the road trip from hell, the Devils could have collapsed at any of these points and maybe others too. But the Devils tonight did not and that was a big reason why they earned a 4-2 win tonight.
I’m not ready to say that the slump is over. Let’s see how things go in Philly on Thursday as well as the back-to-back set this weekend. But that is in the future. Tonight, the Rock saw justice; the Rock saw resilience; and so the Rock saw a win tonight. This is a good start as any.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik has this recap at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com here is a highlight video with four, count them, four points from Taylor Hall.
The 2017-18 NHL MVP Did Not Need to Run Any Goalies Tonight for a Score, Sidney: Taylor Hall was at the core of all four Devils goals tonight. A quick summary of each one:
- While he only had a secondary on the first goal, he effectively created it. His shot -the second of the whole game - was a long one that DeSmith could not handle. Damon Severson, who had the primary assist, fished a puck away from DeSmith at the top of the crease and Travis Zajac fished it away again before putting it home. It was not a cheap secondary. It was not noise, to use a McCurdy-ism. It was also bad on DeSmith.
- His primary assist to Severson for Goal #2 was very well placed. He beat Riley Sheahan from behind the net with a pass to Severson. Hall made that pass look easy, but it never is with pressure coming at you. Thanks to Kessel being lazy on defense, Severson stepped up to the high slot and crushed the pass for a score.
- Hall’s goal was magnificent. Thank you, Letang, for failing on a pinch. Thank you, Kessel and Dumoulin, for trying to double-team Zajac and fail. Thank you, Kyle Palmieri, for passing it up to Zajac in the neutral zone. Thank you, Zajac, for settling the puck and getting it over to an open Hall. Thank you, Hall, for finishing it. Thank you, DeSmith, for being a bad goalie.
- The ENG. Malkin was mad because Hall let him skate by so he could ensure a clear shot. Malkin flung the puck back into the net after the goal in disgust. Aw.
Hall was not just a four-point man tonight. He was a six-shot, eight-attempt, 2-for-3-on-faceoffs, Letang-and-Jack Johnson-beating, run-of-play-winning man with four-points tonight. In 5-on-5 play, when he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 19-14 and out-shot them 13-7. When Hall was on the ice against Letang, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 17-11 and out-shot them 14-5 in 5-on-5 play. When Hall was on the ice against Johnson, it was awesome. The Devils then out-attempted Pittsburgh 14-4 and out-shot them 12-1. Oh, and multiple goals were scored in that match-up. All that and he nor his teammates did not need to run the goalie to get those goals. Hall was better than Crosby and pretty much all of the Penguins tonight.
The Run of Play With Them, Good; The Actual Play, Uh...: The only two Devils with superior CF%s than Hall tonight were Mirco Mueller and Ben Lovejoy. I thought Mueller played alright. He was burnt once or twice but the Penguins never took full advantage so it was a wash. Mueller was otherwise responsible enough and did not cause much distress.
Lovejoy had a more bizarre night. First, he had six shots on net. Lovejoy had six shots on net. I know you have to take what’s open but surely the Devils could have worked a little harder to find a shot from just about anyone else. While that is good, Lovejoy’s penalty was really avoidable. It was a mistake after a shift where he and his teammates were bodied for about a minute and a half. Worse, Lovejoy was responsible for the first goal against, a power play goal. He did not take the penalty. That would be Stefan Noesen, who high-sticked Guentzel in Pittsburgh’s end. But Lovejoy was at the right post when Crosby sent in a puck that way. Kessel got his stick past Lovejoy’s to tap it in between the post and Kinkaid’s right skate. Lovejoy was literally in the best position to make a play and he just failed to make it. It was a precarious spot, yes; he could have scored himself. Live at the arena, I thought he did touch it in himself. Instead, Kessel just made him look like a pylon and tied up the game quickly after Noesen went to the box. The 5-on-5 numbers for Lovejoy look really good but the penalty and that non-defense on the PK left a sour taste in my mouth.
Fun with Stats or Sami Vatanen Wasn’t Bad Except for a Few Minutes: While Mueller had a CF% above 60%, his regular partner Sami Vatanen had one of the worst on the Devils tonight. When he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 14-21 and out-shot 7-10. How can this be? Thanks to the Linemates section of Natural Stat Trick’s Game Stats, I can tell you where the issue was. When Vatanen and Mueller were together, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 14-10 and out-shot them 7-4. Vatanen and Mueller were together for 16:13, a majority of Vatanen’s 20:45 5-on-5 ice time. The issue was with those remaining minutes.
- Vatanen and Lovejoy: 1:57 long, out-attempted 0-4, out-shot 0-3
- Vatanen and Will Butcher: 1:19 long, out-attempted 0-2, out-shot 0-2
- Vatanen and Andy Greene: 1:16 long, out-attempted 0-1, out-shot 0-1
- Vatanen and Severson: 0:54 long, out-attempted 0-5, out-shot 0-1
While the damage was minimal - no goals against - that’s less than four minutes where the Devils were pinned back for what appeared to be a shift or two. That’s a combined -12 in attempts and -7 in shots for #45 in 5-on-5 play. That’s how one defender can have a starkly different CF% than his partner.
Mighty Kinkaid: Keith Kinkaid was dialed in tonight and put in a great performance. Neither goal against was his fault. I still do not think Guentzel’s goal should have stood. Other than playing the puck outside of his net, Kinkaid was composed and locked in when it came to making saves. Compared to DeSmith, who was giving up loose pucks and rebounds like they were on sale, Kinkaid looked like a wall. He did very well on the 29 shots he had a chance at. He also bailed his teammates and himself out on with his most impressive save of the night.
In the second period, the Devils had a power play after Bratt’s disallowed goal that was generating nothing. Bryan Rust made a clearance, got ahead of Marcus Johansson, and fired a shot to his right. Kinkaid got his arm on it but it was not enough. The puck trickled back, it touched the post, and Kinkaid cleared the puck off the line with his glove. It was a huge play as a shorty would have been both deflating and equalizing. Since the Devils won and did not get shot up or lit up for four more goals or something like that, we can say it was a big save at a big moment. But seriously, Kinkaid did very well and I think we should (and will) see him start on Thursday night.
Check the Gameflow: The Devils led in attempts and shots in 5-on-5 play and were just behind in all situations thanks to the Penguins 5-on-6 attack towards the end of the game. The Gameflow Graph at Natural Stat Trick is representative of how the game went tonight. While there were some swings Pittsburgh’s way, they never made up what the Devils did. It’s another sign that the Devils really did a good job. It reflects how they made their zone exits and breakouts, how they made plays and found space to attack through the neutral zone (Pittsburgh was bad in the neutral zone tonight), and how they worked in both ends to their benefit and cut back on huge mistakes (thank you, Damon Severson). Yes, the Pens put up 31 but it was a far better defensive effort than the past several weeks.
The Return of Zacha: Once again, Pavel Zacha had no points tonight. Once again, Pavel Zacha’s 5-on-5 numbers were OK but not super impressive. Once again, Pavel Zacha was an asset on the penalty kill - which was perfect when he was able to get on the ice. Once again, Pavel Zacha was putting in a lot of good work and was a big reason why his line won their match up against Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, and Carl Hagelin. Wait, what?
Yes, when Zacha was up against either of those three, the Devils out-attempted and out-shot their competition. While Zacha, Johansson, and Bratt did not hook up for a goal tonight, they were a reason why the Penguins did not go off on an offensive rampage when down a goal or late in the game. They took care of business in their own end and hit back appropriately on offense. I would have liked to have seen more, sure; but a line taking care of their responsibilities was a sight after two-to-three weeks where it wasn’t happening. Consider this: Zacha was on the ice after DeSmith was pulled and the Pens had an extra skater. For 51 seconds, he and his teammates did their job and helped secure the ENG for the win. Also consider he set the screen up for Severson’s blast too. He was not a waste of space just because he was pointless tonight. I hope the coaches realize that too tonight.
Zajac Rising: Zajac created the game winning goal, scored in close on the first shift for the game’s first goal, won plenty of faceoffs (13 wins, 8 losses), and stayed above 50% CF% and SF%. He fit in quite nicely with Hall and Palmieri. I’d rather see Nico Hischier in between those two. However, Zajac did a really good job tonight and I would not mind another game or two of 9-19-21.
Was Anyone on the Devils Bad In the Run of Play?: The fourth line. Miles Wood was a non-factor and I’m surprised more are not making a bigger deal about this given his contract extension last summer. Jean-Sebastien Dea did not play like he had a point to prove like he did last week in Pittsburgh. Stefan Noesen helped create Hall’s ENG, which was a nice touch after a game of not getting much done plus taking a bad high-sticking penalty on offense that led to Pittsburgh’s first goal. I’m more concerned about Wood than any of the other three. What do you do to have him be more effective? Who do you play him with? I don’t know at this point.
Two Final Thoughts: Tonight was Martin Brodeur Hall of Fame Night. Brodeur looks spiffy in his Hockey Hall of Fame jacket. It was great to see him on the ice and drop the puck. It was great to see him answer some questions with E.J. Hradek, which was aired during the second intermission. It was great that the foregone conclusion of Brodeur being in the Hall of Fame is now reality. I’d like to think the Devils did him proud tonight with this performance - not just with the win.
Lastly, a song for Pittsburgh (to this cadence): Can we play you? Can we play you? Can we play you every night?
Your Take: The Devils won a game and earned this 4-2 victory. This was good. This was fun. This was great to experience live. I’m sure it was great to watch. Can the Devils build on this? I hope so because, well, I do not want to see another three-game winless run filled with abysmal performances. What do you think? Who impressed you the most? What are your takeaways from such a win? What can the Devils use from tonight to better prepare for Thursday’s game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account at Twitter. Thank you for reading.