Worthy results are rarely easy. The New Jersey Devils demonstrated that this evening. They visited the Pittsburgh Penguins, where Pittsburgh won their last eleven games at home - and ten were in regulation. They took on a roster featuring two all-world players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a recently-extended Patric Hornqvist, a challenging Phil Kessel, a recently-acquired Derick Brassard, and a well-coached crew that makes them legitimate contenders out of the Metropolitan Division. And the Devils would not have the benefit they had on February 3, when the Penguins played the night before. After sixty minutes of shooting attempts, shots, failed zone exits leading to danger, breaks into open space, and a myriad of loose pucks, the Devils hung on by the end of regulation with a 3-2 score. The Devils beat the Penguins in regulation.
More specifically, they tipped them. The eventual game winning goal came in the third period and as a total surprise. Seconds before the score, Stefan Noesen set up Travis Zajac in the slot. Pass, shot, and a big stop by Casey DeSmith. The puck popped to the right side boards. Andy Greene collected the puck and fired a shot towards the net. It tipped off Noesen’s stick and the puck snuck under DeSmith’s right arm at the right post. The Devils took the 3-2 lead from that tip. A lead restoration given that Matt Hunwick tied up the game in the second period when he tipped a shot-pass from Jake Guentzel in the slot. Noesen’s tip was a difference maker. Easily the most important tip of the night.
The second most important tip? Andy Greene’s left skate. In the dying seconds and with the extra skater, Justin Schultz hammered a slapshot through traffic. Keith Kinkaid made the stop. The rebound bounced out to the slot and right to Sidney Crosby. The Sidney Crosby. The same Crosby who haunts all other thirty teams in the league. The same Crosby who put home the game’s first goal, a loose puck in the crease after Brian Dumolin’s shot. The same Crosby who led Pittsburgh with seven shots on net and ten individual shooting attempts. The same Crosby that when he was on the ice, Pittsburgh out-attempted the Devils 25-10 and out-shot them 15-6 in 5-on-5 play (total attempts and shots were close to even: 55-53 for Pittsburgh, 34-33 for New Jersey). If there is anyone in the world you want to have on a rebound opportunity, it’s Sidney Crosby. And he took an attempt. He must have saw the right side of the net being available. Only for the shot to carom away thanks to Greene’s skate just gliding into the shot. It was a fortunate tip that helped secure the 3-2 lead late.
Of course, the game was not all about deflections that just broke the right (or wrong) away. This was very much a hard-fought game for both teams. Shots ended up being even at 38-38. Total attempts in all situations were 67-61 in favor of Pittsburgh, which isn’t bad at all given that the game was in Pittsburgh and the Devils held a lead longer than the Pens did. While the Penguins were rolling quite a bit in the first period, the Devils hit back with several free-flowing plays of their own; a second period that they did very well in all aspects; and didn’t completely give up on their offense in the third period. The Devils’ entry passes were a highlight. The Devils needed Keith Kinkaid to be amazing and he absolutely was. The Devils forced DeSmith to play above his level - and he did. Both teams went to the net a lot; but Kinkaid was only beaten twice as DeSmith was beaten five times: three goals, two posts. At the same time, after a first period of quite a few odd man rushes back, the Devils at least helped Kinkaid out by keeping those to a minimum in the second and third periods. And that’s something else I appreciated; the Devils adjusted to the game instead of trying to force it to go their way. I think that helped in tonight’s winning effort.
At this point of the season - the Stretch Run, if you will - winning efforts by any means are crucial. That the Devils were able to pick up two points in regulation over a tough team in a tough building is massive no matter how you view the performance. That said, the Devils’ performance was better than it may have felt, particularly during that nerve-wracking end of regulation. I see that as a big takeaway as they enter a month full of difficult games. Tonight: the Devils tipped the Pens. Onto the next one; may they find a way to make that a win too.
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 Natural Stat Trick Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: The Kessel Run has this recap up at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Fantastic Kinkaid: Kinkaid only made two big errors - and only paid for one of them. Dumolin’s shot went through his legs. He may have kicked it out with the inside of one of his pad and Crosby pounced on that. Later, Kinkaid fell out of his crease trying to play a puck and left the net open. Thankfully, Pittsburgh was not in a position to take advantage. That said, Kinkaid more than redeemed himself for those two errors. Those five stops on Malkin alone redeemed him. A point-blank stop on Hornqvist in front redeemed him. That big left pad stop on Guentzel in front with about two minutes to go redeemed him. The man made 36 saves, with most of Pittsburgh’s pressure coming around his area and in the slot. Kinkaid was fantastic tonight. His performance was crucial to the Devils’ success, whether it was keeping the Penguins to just one goal in a 17-shot first period or just getting in front of the shot in the last five minutes of the game or so.
And the Hunwick goal certainly wasn’t his fault. That’s just a bad break against him. If you want to fault someone on that, then make it Pavel Zacha for A) not getting the exit earlier on the shift and B) getting pylon’ed by Hunwick. In his defense for B, it was a minute-long shift for him.
But Don’t Hate on Zacha Too Much...: While Zacha could have done better or even something on Hunwick, he was one of several Devils I was impressed with tonight. Zacha had five shots on net tonight. He was absolutely robbed early in the game by DeSmith on a one-timer in a 2-on-1 situation. Zacha created a juicy rebound for Kyle Palmieri that just didn’t go. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Pens 16-14 and out-shot them 10-7. Not bad given his most common matchups included Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, and Kris Letang. Zacha was one of many Devils just hustling to where he needed to go and generally being positive. If only one of his shots went in.
Speaking of Hustle: I liked what I saw out of Jesper Bratt tonight. Once again, he played fewer than ten minutes. But he did a lot more in those ten minutes that was positive and offensive. He led some rushes. He set up Zacha for that one-timer that DeSmith robbed him on. He used his speed smartly. He was more of a creator in helping others (e.g. Zacha) get shots on net. Natural Stat Trick’s on-ice numbers agree: when Bratt was out there, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 15-7 and out-shot them 8-4. Like Zacha, his most common matchups included Kessel, Brassard, and Letang. But when Bratt went away from Zacha, it wasn’t so good for Zacha. I hope the coaches took some notice and will give Bratt some more shifts in future games. If only for taking on two Penguins late in the game and forcing his way through to get a one-handed shot off on net that released some pressure. That play alone should be rewarded with something.
You know who else hustles? Michael Grabner? In spots, his speed gave the Penguins problems. Whether it was backchecking, forechecking, or just going forward to make a play, he was more noticeable in doing so tonight. He was also close to scoring: he hit a post in the first period and received a breakaway thanks to a great pass by Travis Zajac. Grabner didn’t score but he did draw a slash from Kris Letang, which proved to be important.
Damon Severson did very well on offense. He had one shot on net, one shot that hit the post, and he started quite a few offensive plays. He picked up two primary assists and did quite a bit of good work in his own end tonight. Not getting crushed in attempts or shots against Crosby, Guentzel, and Hornqvist in 5-on-5 play is definitely good work.
Lastly, and I’m not being snarky, Travis Zajac definitely had a good night. He was making a point of it to be mobile and to rush up to help create offense when the opportunity presented itself. While he was kept to two shots on net, Zajac helped Noesen and Grabner get opportunities. While lines were changing, Zajac helped out as well. Zajac was very good on the PK. Most of all, Zajac and his line was thrown out there as much as possible against Malkin’s unit. While Malkin had five shots on net, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins in that matchup (12-10) and were only out-shot by one (7-8). It was a tough assignment, but I thought he did well in it.
Top Lines Doing Top Line Things: Both team’s top lines were top lines. Crosby’s unit was dominant and mostly by Crosby, as noted earlier in this recap. But it’s Sidney Crosby. Of course he does that. The Devils’ top line was not as dominant in the run of play. In fact, Palmieri ended up with the second worst CF% on the team and even Taylor Hall was kept below 50% CF%. But they produced quite a bit of offense - and that played a big role in tonight’s game.
First, Palmieri was tied with Zacha with five shots on net. Palmieri scored on DeSmith with a great wrister from the top of the right circle. He fired it between the out-stretched legs of Jamie Oleskiak. Whether that screened or forced DeSmith to guess, I do not know, but it beat him. Palmieri left the game during the second period but would return to action. I’m not sure exactly what caused it but he was flying early on. I was happy to see him get a goal.
Second, Taylor Hall keeps on producing. He had the secondary assist on Palmieri’s goal. You know that slash Grabner drew? Hall converted that power play. After Damon Severson hit the crossbar from the high slot, the puck fell to Hall. It was a sharp angle and Brian Boyle had to jump to get out of the way. But Hall fired it in, which made it 2-1 at the time. While Hall only had three shots on net, his two points played a role in this win on top of extending his gargantuan point streak to 22 games.
Third, Nico Hischier, well, he didn’t produce tonight. His performance was nothing to write home about although it wasn’t bad either. He did get one great scoring chance in the second period and he helped Hall and Palmieri get forward a number of times.
Still, the Devils’ top line factored in two of the three goals scored tonight. Given who they faced up against, that’s a positive in light of how the run of play went.
Special Teams Were a Positive Too: Special teams definitely factored in the Devils’ win tonight. As the Devils received just one power play, they made it count. The official mark is one goal out of two shots. Severson’s shot hit iron, so you can mentally mark it as three if you’d like. While the Devils’ power play did not dominate, it got the job done and that was big at the time it happened.
The Devils’ penalty kill did very well against the mighty Penguin power play. I was not happy with Ben Lovejoy, who otherwise had another fine game on the third pairing, getting caught for a subtle hook on Conor Sheary near the end of the first period. Kinkaid denied Malkin late and then the Devils opened the second period by just keeping the Penguins away. Blake Coleman, Zajac, Grabner, and others were great. Ditto on a second penalty kill in the second period, a result of Boyle apparently holding Hunwick in the neutral zone. I thought it would be interference, but that is beside the point. Grabner and Zajac had shorthanded tries and the Penguins were kept shotless. The PK was more than OK. That also helped the cause.
A Failed Challenge: John Hynes decided to challenge the first goal against for goaltender interference. There was not much of a sign of one and so it was a short review to confirm the call on the ice. I’m still not sure what Hynes and his staff saw that made them decide to go for it. As a result, Hynes lost his timeout pretty early in the game. It would have been nice to have used at the end, but it’s no big deal now.
Six of Eighteen: Fun fact: Six of the last 18 icing calls in this game were icing calls against the Devils. One or two were close calls, but they were made. These six all happened in the third period after the Devils went up 3-2. I can appreciate wanting to just get the puck away and get 30 seconds or so to catch one’s breath. I can also appreciate wanting to break up the game somewhat, rather than have the Penguins just roll through the game as they would have lied. Giving Pittsburgh more offensive zone starts was a gamble. It did not hurt them, though.
Another Fun Fact: Noesen played in his 100th career NHL game - and made a big difference in tonight’s results. It’s a game to remember for the winger.
Around the Division: Beating Pittsburgh now places the Devils two point behind them. The Devils have a game in hand on Pittsburgh; however, since the Pens have more ROW (34) than New Jersey (29), tying them will not be enough. Elsewhere in the division, Washington won today to re-take first place and Philly was idle tonight after beating Montreal 1-0 in a shootout last night. At least the Devils are five and four points behind those two teams, respectively. Columbus also won yesterday; they remain five points back given that the Devils won tonight. Carolina lost in OT so their one point earned puts them in a tie in points with the Isles. Both teams are nine points behind the Devils. Ultimately, this result was a good one to help the Devils stabilize their playoff position. They’re now closer to the top three teams than the three teams below them.
One Last Thought: Devils finish February with a 8-6-0 record. The month in review will be up on Monday, but I have to point out that a winning month is a good thing after a slumping January. March awaits, though.
Your Take: The Devils tipped the Penguins in a 3-2 victory that wasn’t easy for either side. I liked the performance and I had plenty to praise. What did you make of this victory? Who did you like on the Devils tonight? Who did not have such a good game in your eyes? What can the Devils learn from this game that they can apply for their upcoming back-to-back set? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.