Over this season with Taylor Hall, I’ve been using the phrase “Superstars make superstar plays” more and more. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils were beaten in overtime by one. Sidney Crosby was able to get a breakaway in overtime. He beat Keith Kinkaid with a shot, only to ring it off the post. Crosby batted in the rebounded puck in mid-air to score. It was very much a play where it’s hard to be that mad at. That’s just an impressive display of skill. And such a display decided the game; a 3-4 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Superstars make superstar plays and Crosby is a superstar.
Crosby is also a fast healer. Late in the third, Crosby went down in pain after a draw in New Jersey’s end of the rink. I didn’t get a clear sight of what happened. As near as I could tell, Travis Zajac shoved him. I’m learning now that it was an apparent butt-end of his stick that caught him. Regardless, Crosby went down, play stopped, he went to the bench with 2:58 left in regulation, and returned to the ice 1:41 to go. He looked just fine since then, and clearly he was in overtime.
In any case, the game as a whole was a largely even one. Both teams played with a lot of pace and with a lot bad decisions. Both teams had runs of play where they just faltered at moving the puck. All three periods were littered with breakout passes right to the other team or to nobody, missed passes or bad clearances right to icings (16 in total tonight, which is a high number), plenty of all-or-nothing plays (as in, if it works, it works and if not, nothing will happen for you), and just lost pucks. There were even some missed shooting opportunities ranging from Phil Kessel doing nothing with a giveaway by (I think) Andy Greene in the second period to Taylor Hall deferring from an open shot in the high slot in the third period. As a result, both teams ebbed and flowed on offense.
This is not to say the game was boring or a grind. There was a lot of excitement and movement. Lots of skating, lots of effort, and lots of eventual chippiness. There was just not a lot of good execution. While the Penguins held an advantage by a few shots (total was 35-31 in favor of the Pens) and 5-on-5 attempts (48-41 in favor of the Pens), I thought the play was even overall. Had either team play sharper for a period or so, then it could have made the difference in regulation.
All the same, this game being evenly played benefited both teams as it went to overtime. New Jersey obviously needed this game for their own playoff race. With recent results, Pittsburgh’s hold on second place stopped being safe and so they needed points too. That each got at least one - and Pittsburgh got a second one - means both got something out of this one. While I cannot help but feel that the Devils could have won this game, I’m not bothered by how it ended. Every point counts and the Devils got one. They did so in a game where they hung with the Penguins instead of relying on Keith Kinkaid or a line or a player to drag them beyond regulation. That’s another positive in addition to the tangible positive in the standings.
While it was not as sharply played as it could (or should) have been, this was a better 5-on-5 performance than the Devils’ rollercoaster OT win at Pittsburgh. While Kinkaid was beaten four times, I thought he had a better game in net than Matt Murray. While there were a lot of plays gone wrong or left begging for something better, there were plenty of very good moves that did lead to all three Devils goals. While the Penguins’ power play was frightening on paper and in some of their movement, the Devils’ special teams did their job well and the Devils’ own mystery box of a power play did yield a goal. There were good things about this game, but not enough of them to get the win. At least it came down to one of the best in the world doing something incredibly difficult to do after regulation.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik has this recap at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Allow Me to Criticize Someone on the OT Goal: Taylor Hall, man. What was that?
Overtime lasted all of 19 seconds so here is a quick run down of what happened. Pittsburgh won the draw. Devils force them back. Murray decides to play the puck out to his teammate. Puck goes off said teammate’s skates. Devils recover with all three skaters in Pittsburgh’s end. Pittsburgh had two. Puck is moved from Greene to Hall by the blueline. Hall tries a pass to Nico Hischier. Crosby’s stick deflected it as he skated forward, and Kris Letang intercepted it. Letang found Crosby all alone. Greene hustled back down the middle so Kinkaid could focus on Crosby. Crosby wielded his magical hand-eye coordination after hitting the post to score.
I’m not mad about Crosby doing what he did on the breakaway, but the root cause of this issue was Hall’s pass. In 3-on-3, possession is even more important. Crosby provided the pressure and Hall still went with the pass even with Letang getting in between him and his target. Even if Crosby didn’t get a piece of it, Letang could have cut it off and hit Crosby for a wide-open opportunity. Making matters worse was that the Devils had the benefit of a turnover in Pittsburgh’s end and all they did with it was ultimately turn it back over.
This is not to say that Hall cost the Devils this game or had a bad game. Oh, no. Hall contributed quite a bit to this game. Seven shots on net; the Devils out-shooting the Penguins 10-7 when he’s on the ice in 5-on-5 play; and facing a lot of Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Carl Hagelin and generally winning that match-up. Hall’s biggest contribution was an important and good-looking power play goal in the second period. And Hall in overtime is generally something the Devils should want all the time. Tonight, he made pass that went awry that led to the game winner. It happens, although I kind of wish it did not.
Nastiness: The game got a lot more physical with arguments building up as time went on. Whether it was due to the importance of this game or how the game was going, both teams just had enough of each other by about mid-way through the game. It started with Miles Wood and Matt Hunwick having a verbal confrontation as play went on before it led to a fight. Blake Coleman lipped off (yeah, what he said can’t be said on this site) and had some scrumms with Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist, who was all about slashing Devils by the end of the game. The Devils weren’t happy about Crosby going off - and presumably not when he returned. Hornqvist and John Moore went at after regulation, which meant they spent their overtime period in the penalty box.
There was a smaller yet costlier moment much earlier. As @crash_land pointed out to me on Twitter after the game, Riley Sheahan tripped up Will Butcher at the blueline, which helped create the 2-on-1 that Conor Sheary scored on in the first period seconds after the Devils scored first. Even in the highlight clip at NHL.com,the Pittsburgh announcers called it out as an “undetected interference call.” Points for honesty, I suppose. But in retrospect, it was setting a tone for what would become a heated game.
Speaking Of...Let’s Talk Goals Against Keith Kinkaid: While he gave up four, I do not think he had a bad night. I think the goals against weren’t really his fault. They certainly were not soft. He didn’t have a period of contentiousness like Murray’s first period where every other shot against yielded a juicy rebound and he did give up a soft one. Kinkaid made some tough stops too in order to keep the score where it was. I thought he was OK. Let’s go through the goals against.
First, Sheary scored on a 2-on-1 thanks to Butcher being down on the play, which was thanks to Sheahan subtlety taking him down. Keith Kinkaid had no real chance on that shot. Interestingly enough, Sheahan got a similar opportunity in the third period and without an uncalled penalty to help create it. But he could not lift the puck, so Kinkaid stopped it.
The second goal came from a breakdown in Devils coverage. First, Miles Wood has the puck knocked away from him on offense by Jamie Oleksiak. Crosby punches it forward to Bryan Rust. While Greene knocked down Rust, the Penguin did rim the puck back to Brian Dumoulin. At this time, all five Devils are on the right side of the ice. The defenseman fired the puck around the corner, Rust let it go, and Carl Hagelin obtains the puck behind the net heading towards the wide open left side. Hagelin sees Kris Letang come down to the inside of the left circle and Letang hammers a one-timer above Kinkaid. It’s a great play, it’s a very hard shot for Kinkaid to stop there, and it’s all thanks to the Devils not paying attention on that play to what was happening off the puck. Hagelin and Letang were able to do what they did without much notice.
The third goal against, well, it was a literal bad bounce. Hornqvist fired a shot from the center point. Right by the blueline. It gets through some traffic, it hits the post to Kinkaid’s left, and the puck ricochets in off Kinkaid. I think it looks worse than it was. With the Greene and Sheahan cutting across as the shot was fired, I don’t think Kinkaid actually saw the shot. If not there, then Brian Gibbons going on one knee to try and block that shot did not help his vision either.
The fourth goal, well, I went into that one already. Kinkaid was beaten on the shot - and then on a rebound in mid-air. I’m sympathetic to him in that regard. It’s Crosby. Few are going to ever be able to do that.
So Goalies for the Weekend Are...?: They have to be split. The Isles and Habs are playing for nothing. Kinkaid is not so hot that he can just stand on his head, and the Devils skaters should be able to do well against both teams. Personally, I would give Cory Schneider the Montreal game as the Isles still have some super-dangerous offensive talent that could cause problems for the Devils. Either works. I just want the starts to be split.
Let’s Talk Goals by New Jersey: The goals by New Jersey were sweet ones at least.
First, Nico Hischier won a puck from Malkin in the neutral zone. Hischier got it away, tried to settle it, and he did. As the Penguins were in the neutral zone, there was a huge passing lane to Kyle Palmieri. One great diagonal pass later, Palmieri was one-on-one with Murray. He put it in five-hole to put the Devils up 1-0. Hischier’s 50th point was hard-earned as trying to win a puck like that from Malkin of all players is quite difficult. Hischier had a good night as he was arguably New Jersey’s best player in 5-on-5 play. His pass to Palmieri could not have been better and Palmieri made Murray look real bad. Well done.
Second, Taylor Hall sniped one on the power play which made the game 2-2 in the second period. This all started thanks to Josh Jooris’ clearing attempt being denied by Will Butcher. It hit the defenseman, the puck stayed in the zone, and Butcher recovered. As he turned to his right, he saw Hall drifting away to the weaker side of the ice. Hall took a pass, skated up, and fired a fantastic shot off the far post and into the net. Patrick Maroon set a perfect screen on Murray to help ensure this shot would succeed. While it came off a favorable bounce from a denied zone exit, the Devils made it a successful play.
Third, the Devils broke the tie thanks to a wonderful individual effort from Blake Coleman. Coleman was a pest. He did not get much going forward over the whole game. But when he did, you could not help but notice him. Coleman flew in to deny a pass at the Penguins blueline from Justin Schultz. After intercepting it, he had a little give-and-go with Travis Zajac. This allowed Coleman to get enough space past Schultz and get around Olli Maatta’s angle. Murray made a great first save and Coleman made a better second-effort to put in his own rebound. It was a great play by Coleman.
Again, these were are lovely plays in a game where a lot of attempts just did not work for one reason or another. It’s a good thing to see the Devils do this as well as go up first in 0-0 and 2-2 score-situations. They did not last, but at least the Devils were able to get something going against Murray.
A Matchup Non-Success: I was played with some of John Hynes’ decisions against Carolina. They did not work out so well tonight. John Hynes decided to match Zajac’s line against Crosby’s. This was a win for Crosby in the run of play. That line generated more attempts than the other forward lines as well as decisively out-shooting them. I understood the logic, but I’m surprised they kept with it - possibly on the basis that they did not score against them.
Another match-up failure was against Conor Sheary. Sheary, Sheahan, and Hornqvist saw the Pavel Zacha (yes, he played tonight) centered line more than the others and they handedly won that match-up. In the handful of minutes against the line of Hischier, Palmieri, and Hall, Sheary and company were just doing whatever they wanted on offense. It’s one thing to have a Crosby-centered or a Malkin-center line dominate. It’s another when it’s from depth players, even if Sheahan cheated to help Sheary score Pittsburgh’s first goal.
Around the Division: I have some good news. The Devils received some help. Ottawa beat Florida in overtime. While it would have been great for lowly Ottawa to win it in regulation, this means the Cats gained no ground on the Devils. So the Devils stay three points ahead of them with Florida having a game in hand. In other words, the Devils still control their destiny. That’s important.
I have some not so good news. Columbus embarrassed Calgary 5-1, so any hope of the Jackets falling is fading and fast. The Pittsburgh faithful must be glad they pulled out a ‘W’ tonight because an overtime loss would have meant Columbus would have tied them in points. Since Philly won last night, the Devils’ one point means they’re three points behind them for the first wild card spot. Not getting that second point hurts any hope of moving up.
All the same, the result against the Penguins does not change what the Devils need to do. They need wins. Their next five games are likely going to be against teams that have nothing to play for. The Isles, Montreal, and Our Hated Rivals are playing for lottery balls and pride. Toronto is locked in to finishing third in the Atlantic; they cannot catch Boston or Tampa Bay and Florida will not reach them. Washington is on the final opponent of the season for New Jersey; by then, they may have locked up the division - which is the best they can do too. The opportunities are there, the Devils need to make them a reality.
One Last Thought: Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene had a real rough go of it tonight. Vatanen’s passes were especially poor, especially in the first period. I am pleased the Devils were able to generate 31 shots in spite of that. I do hope this defensive pairing rebounds in a big way in this coming weekend.
Your Take: The Devils lost in overtime, 3-4, to Pittsburgh. Their situation for the playoffs is unchanged thanks to Ottawa being bros. I thought it was an even game decided by one ridiculous play in overtime. What did you think? Who excelled on the Devils tonight? Who did not, in your view? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this overtime loss in the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.