Woah. This game in a word: woah. The New Jersey Devils did not just beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 tonight. No, this was a dominating performance by the Devils. The score was a lot closer than the play on the ice. How bad was it? The Devils out-shot the Penguins 21-6 by the halfway mark of the game. By the end of the second period, the Devils out-shot the Pens 16-4 in the second period and 29-10 in total. At some point during the second period, Chris Fieldhouse tweeted at the site account that Travis Zajac rendered the Penguins without a 5-on-5 shooting attempt and was present for 14 Devils attempts. If turnovers were counted, the Penguins would have had at least twenty of them. The Penguins weren’t just limited to 16 shots on net, but no individual Penguin had more than two tonight. The Penguins were so out of it, I almost want to question if the real Penguins players actually showed up. The Penguins conceded possession, botched passes, and looked completely out of sync. The Devils never really stopped pressuring them, winning pucks in all three zones, and kept up the pace. This was a dominant 3-1 win by New Jersey.
I would have to think fatigue played a factor for the Penguins. That 7-4 win over Washington on Friday night was not a blowout win. It was a close game where the Pens just pulled away from it. That would explain the first period or so. But the second was so, so much worse for Pittsburgh. They had maybe three attacking shifts in the whole period and one of those ended with Jake Guentzel fouling Jesper Bratt for a power play. The Penguins were more competent and threatening in the third period. That’s concerning because if there’s a team that can salvage a crummy performance, it’s the team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the league’s second leading scorer in Phil Kessel. When Malkin scored, I became worried. When I kept seeing the Penguins handle pucks like grenades and just miss their mark over and over at whatever they tried to do, I was less worried. And when Travis Zajac tipped in Damon Severson’s shot for the third goal of the game, I was confident the Devils could make it a win over a Penguins squad that has been surging in the division standings.
A lot of Devils looked good tonight. The best player for New Jersey was easy to identify. It was Travis Zajac. He was a boss tonight. His main matchup was Sidney Crosby. Normally, ten minutes of ice time against Crosby does not end well. Tonight, when Zajac and Crosby were on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Pittsburgh 15-7, out-shot them 10-3, and out-scored them 3-0. Crosby should’ve scored in the second period when he had a wide open net at a sharp angle. He missed, which was a big sign that it wasn’t Pittsburgh’s night at all. But back to #19. He was excellent in between energetic and feisty wingers, Coleman and Noesen. He was firing away with five shots on net, which is a rarity for him. Zajac was rewarded with a three-point night. In order: He stashed in a loose puck that goalie Casey DeSmith knocked his way early in the second, he was the tic in a tic-tac-toe like play for Coleman’s goal, and he tipped in Severson’s shot in the third period. That’s huge for someone who has not been able to contribute much. Wrecking Crosby in 5-on-5 play and producing on all three goals is impressive. It could have been worse for Pittsburgh. Noesen nearly had two goals himself; DeSmith robbed him twice with his legs. Coleman had two other shots that troubled the goalie whilst picking off many passes and making good plays in both ends of the rink. This line was great and Zajac was the standout in the middle of it.
Of course, this wasn’t just one line damaging Pittsburgh. When Taylor Hall was with Brian Boyle and Drew Stafford, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 11-1. While the whole unit wasn’t as strong, Kyle Palmieri and Pavel Zacha were active in going forward as Miles Wood kept streaking down the wing over and over. The Pens had no answer for Wood. As a result, the Devils out-shot the Penguins 7-2 when Wood was on the ice. Defensive pairings? Pick any of them other than Ben Lovejoy and Mirco Mueller because they were winning too. The power play, yes the Devils power play, was functional and were close to scoring on their seven shots out of three opportunities.
The Devils as a whole out-attempted Pittsburgh 58-36 and out-shot them 27-18 in 5-on-5 play tonight. Half the team had a CF% higher than 60%, which is outstanding. Everybody except Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen registered at least one shot on net - and those two had three attempts of their own. All of the defensemen were above the breakeven mark in CF% too and only when Mirco Mueller was on the ice were the Devils out-shot in 5-on-5 play. Even then it was only 6-7 and Mueller came close to scoring himself, hitting iron after a Devils power play. The only sub-50% CF% player tonight was Bratt, who drew a penalty and received a gift of a heinous turnover by Kris Letang, or whoever had his jersey on tonight. When you can point something good about the players with the not-so-hot-looking stats, then that should highlight how good of a night it was.
The defense was great in keeping Pittsburgh to just 16 shots. The neutral zone play was great. The offense was a destructive force from forechecking to bombing 38 shots on DeSmith. The Devils’ performance was excellent in the face of a putrid one by the Penguins. This was a dominant 3-1 win.
The Opposition Opinion: This recap is by The Kessel Run at PensBurgh about how the Devils snapped the Penguins’ winning streak.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Coleman Goal: If you want a summation about how this game went, then check out this goal:
Ian Cole Olli Maatta had a chance to clear the zone or make a pass up ice, decided to do neither and whiffed on a clearance with Stefan Noesen in his grill. That’s a turnover. Coleman touches it back for Zajac, Zajac passes it down to Noesen, and Noesen passes it back to Coleman for an angled shot for the score. Cole Maatta and Justin Schultz were just behind the play after the turnover and none of the forwards got back in time to help - and didn’t exactly rush to do so. Penguins made errors and the Devils made them suffer for it. Repeat for the better part of sixty minutes.
A Point Streak Continues: Taylor Hall picked up a secondary assist on Zajac’s second goal to keep his point streak going. Some would argue that secondary assists are fake or that they do not mean much. This one certainly was legitimate. Hall gained the zone on a carry-in, protected the puck, and tossed it back to Severson. Severson shot it, Zajac got a touch on it, and it’s 3-1. That’s not a cheap ‘A’ given to a guy with a streak.
Hall played a ton tonight. While Hall-Hischier-Bratt wasn’t dominant against Malkin, Carl Hagelin, and Phil Kessel, Hall was great on his extra shifts with Boyle and Stafford. In total, he played over 25 minutes, took four shots out of nine attempts, and drew a slash from Letang in the first period. Hall was very good tonight like many other Devils tonight.
Goaltending Not An Issue: Keith Kinkaid did not have a lot of shots against him. He had more attempts go astray than at him. But he did deny Tom Kuhnhackl big time, he stuffed Riley Sheahan on an open one-timer in the slot in the second period, and he protected his net well. Kinkaid was also good outside of the crease when it came to handling the puck. I was worried for him when he was hit in the throat in the third period. But he stayed in the net and finished the game with aplomb. I’m happy for him. I’m sure the Devils are happy that Kinkaid’s form has improved as Cory Schneider remains out.
On the other end, Casey DeSmith was someone I was not familiar with. He’s Pittsburgh’s Alex Lyon or Ken Appleby, if you will. He’s a called-up goaltender hoping to stick around with his opportunity to perform. Tonight was not his first NHL start, it was his seventh. Given that the Devils hit him with a deluge of rubber, I thought he did well. He showed up to play for Pittsburgh tonight. He did his job as well as he could. He was apt to smother the puck as much as he could - Zajac’s first goal, notwithstanding - and his glove got a workout. I don’t know if he’s a long term answer in net for Pittsburgh but he was far from the problem tonight.
A Criticism?: Criticisms I have of the Devils are somewhat minute. I wish Wood didn’t take that hooking penalty early in the game. We didn’t know that the Penguins were going to put up a miserable performance. Giving a team with Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel an early power play is almost daring them to score. Fortunately, the penalty killers and Kinkaid did a great job with it. (Aside: Great discipline tonight by the Devils with only one minor penalty!) I wish the Devils just did more with Pittsburgh’s turnovers. With 38 shots on net, I’m not saying the Devils weren’t good. A lot of their decisions and passes were right tonight. But it could have been far, far, far worse for Pittsburgh if the Devils either fired right away or made a different read. There were a few shifts in the third period where the Devils got into some trouble in their own end that could’ve ended earlier with some clears. I guess the only other notable point was not playing John Quenneville. Why call him up and not play him? Then again, going with eleven forwards and seven defensemen clearly worked out tonight. It’s not like Quenneville was going to add anything more to what was an awesome game by the Devils. Admittedly, these are fairly minor points.
Overall, I don’t have a whole lot to dislike. The gameplan by the coaches was very good. Special teams were functional; even though the power play didn’t score, their process was very good. The 5-on-5 play was great. I really liked how the Devils played tonight; they took full advantage of a Penguins team that was looking to do anything but play this game.
A Correct Challenge: For all of the carping that the Devils never get the call, they got one tonight. In the third period, Kinkaid was hit in the throat by a Penguin and went down. Amid the action, Crosby took a shot from the goal line and the puck went in off a fallen Kinkaid’s helmet. Initially, the referee called for a goal. Then the referees had a conference by the scorer’s table and ruled no goal for goaltender interference. The big scoreboard at the Rock showed multiple angles of Kinkaid getting hit with an appropriate outcry. Pittsburgh’s head coach, Mike Sullivan, hoped it would have been overturned to get them within a goal and challenged it. After quite sometime, the ruling stayed and the challenged failed.
In other words, the officials did not give Sidney Crosby a goal and the officials did not put the Penguins back in the game within a goal. No need to espouse any conspiracy theories regarding officiating and Devils games tonight.
Announced Sellout: I’m happy to report that an announced sellout crowd at the Rock got to see Pittsburgh put in one of the worst performances they could have put on the ice. There were a lot of Penguins fans there, which makes sense as they are a popular team. I’m happy to report that they got to see their favorite team come up empty over and over and over and over tonight. The Rock looked full from my vantage point, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a legitimate sold out crowd. I’m not surprised given that it was a Saturday night against a popular team; but it was notable all the same.
Around the Division: This win puts the Devils back in second place. Nashville smashed Our Hated Rivals, 5-2, which is always a good thing to see. The Islanders edged Columbus 4-3 in regulation. That is a favorable result in that Columbus is closer to New Jersey than the Isles. Philly lost in a shootout to Ottawa, so they got a crucial point in that every point is crucial in this division. The important one for New Jersey was their game and they won it, so be happy about that.
One Last Thought: The Devils are on a winning streak. Now that’s how you start a month.
Your Take: The Devils won 3-1 in regulation and dominated a Penguins team that played like they were heading back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton after this one. What did you think of this game? Who was the best player for the Devils in your opinion? If it is not Zajac, then why not? Who, if anyone, did not play well for the Devils? More entertainingly, who was the worst Penguin in your opinion? (For me, it was Letang.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. January Month in Review will be on Monday. Snapshot on Sunday morning. Thank you for reading.