Those who were worried about the New Jersey Devils doing something positive like start a three-game winning streak do not need to worry. After being them three times earlier this season, the New Jersey Devils fell short to the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. There is no sweep of the Pens to laugh about in this lost season for the Devils.
The best way I can describe this game with a food item would be a sandwich without the middle. The first period had positives and a competitive effort. The third period was filled with shots, attempts, and a legitimate desire to want to make a comeback. The second period was just not good as the Devils spent the first fifteen minutes of it getting bodied and giving Matt Murray little to work with. It was also in that period where the Penguins turned a 2-2 game into a 2-4 game. That fourth goal would hold up to give Pittsburgh the win.
At least the Devils tried to make it a game. There have been many nights this season where the Devils would go down a score or two and/or have a bad period and you may have well called the game at that point. I can appreciate that the Devils wanted to tie it up and absolutely made Murray work with a 16-shot period. Murray was mostly good with his lone goal allowed in the third period being a huge exception. On another night, the equalizer could have been there. Maybe Nico Hischier hits the net and not the post on a third-period power play. Maybe Marcus Johansson - who I have a lot more to say about a bit later - finished another one of his seven non-goal scoring shots of the evening. Maybe Jesper Bratt does not get robbed on a shot in the second period similar to the one he scored on in the first period Maybe some of those odd man rushes that went awry were executed better. Most of all, maybe Keith Kinkaid does not give up a tissue-paper-soft goal in the game and the Devils would not have needed a four-plus goal effort to get a point out of this one. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Not tonight.
With the team where they are in the standings, perhaps this kind of loss is the best case scenario. Overall, the Devils were respectable in this defeat. Those who are adhering to the teachings of Sherman Abrams get what they want: a regulation loss. Those who do not want the Devils to be utter trash to watch got to see a legitimate effort. An uneven one, but with some excellent individual performances. And those who want to see the Devils get a nice return by February 25, well, you got to see that tonight too. There is no sweep of the Penguins - and I feel strangely fine with that.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights of tonight’s game:
Trade Value - INTENSIFYING: Marcus Johansson arguably had one of his best games as a Devil. It was definitely one of his best from an offensive standpoint. Johansson had a two point night with eight shots on net. Johansson had a great primary assist where he sent a diagonal pass from the right sideboards to Jesper Bratt in the left circle. Bratt finished the play when he put his shot to the far post. Later, Johansson styled and profiled on Matt Murray with a pin-point-perfect backhand shot that went bar-down and in. Johansson swooped in, took a bouncing puck that got away from Phil Kessel, and posterized Murray a second later. They were excellent highlights. And there could have been more. He nearly hooked up Bratt in the second period on a play similar the goal in the first period. He powered through to the net and forced some tough close shots on Murray, including a rebound try not long before the third goal where Murray just robbed him with the pad.
Johansson’s night was more than just what he did himself. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 21-18 and out-shot the Penguins 15-6. The high danger chances were 7-2 in favor of NJ with Johansson on the ice too. That’s just fantastic and Johansson was a big reason why the shots and high-danger chances were so much in New Jersey’s favor. His line with Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier were very good as a whole. The trio combined for over a third of the Devils’ 36 shots on net. Given that there have been many nights where Johansson’s contributions were minimal, this was astounding to witness. He was certainly New Jersey’s best player tonight.
Johansson’s production has grown in recent weeks. Since January 19, assuming I did not miscount, Johansson has 12 points in his last 13 games. It has not been in one streak but more of two clusters. Five points in four games from January 19 to February 2 and the current one where he has seven in his last six. They were the sorts of scoring plays that makes some Devils fans want to keep him. I’m of the opinion that he’s relatively hot now and this may not last, so Ray Shero should be a bit more demanding with the calls for Johansson. According to Elliotte Friedman’s latest 31 Thoughts post at Sportsnet, there may be four or five teams already interested. Shero should send them a clip of that goal just to entice them more.
Trade Value - STANDSTILLING: Ben Lovejoy had an OK game. I did not like how he was caught puck-watching on the first goal. I understand he hustled back to the middle of the defensive zone but his eyes were locked on Sidney Crosby behind the net. I understand that it’s Sidney Crosby but if he has the puck and he’s looking out from behind the net, then he’s looking for an open man. He found it in Zach Aston-Reese and while the pass was not an easy one, Crosby made it look easy and Aston-Reese slammed a one-timer into the net to tie it up 1-1 in the first. That was a mistake. But Lovejoy did not make other memorable errors like that one. He took no penalties. When he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Pittsburgh 20-16 and out-shot them 16-8, so he was not picked on. Lovejoy even had three shots on net. I do not think a game like this one would convince another team that they really should acquire Lovejoy. I also do not think a game like this one would convince another team to stay away. We’ll see if he has any suitors for what he is.
Trade Value - FLATLINING: Keith Kinkaid was not good again. He was beaten four times out of 28 shots and at least two of those are shots he would want to have back. Late in the first period, he was beaten to the top corner on his shortside during a penalty kill by Nick Bjugstad. It was an excellently well-placed shot, so I would not call that one soft. The two in the second period, well, that was different.
First: Jake Guentzel powered through down the right side to force a 3-on-2 rush. Guentzel sent a pass across to Bryan Rust, who did not take a clean shot. The puck knuckled on him but it went right to Kinkaid. Live, it looked like he made the save only for the puck to trickle through his legs. That was a terrible goal to allow (though Murray would top it later). Second: Much later in the second period, the Penguins pinned the Devils back, which was the story for much of that period. Kinkaid made a save on Aston-Reese and Hischier got in the way to deny a rebound opportunity for Phil Kessel. However, the Devils could not pick up possession so Pittsburgh kept their attack going. It ended with a long, curving slapshot from defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. Kinkaid swiped at it and the puck just eluded him. It was a very difficult curve on the puck; but it looked real bad when it happened.
The good news is that Kinkaid was not beaten in the third period and did not make a terrible decision with the puck on his own stick. The bad news is that Kinkaid is slumping to a degree. Similar to where Schneider was for much of 2018 only without an injury to recover from to point to. If you were inclined to wanting to see the Devils win, then it may be fair to ask why Schneider did not get this start. The Devils have a day off between their next four games. They had one yesterday. It would have worked. Alas, what is done is done.
Depth Mattered: The Devils held Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to no shots tonight, Kessel and Kris Letange were kept off the scoresheet entirely, and Crosby was kept to one shot and his one assist to Aston-Reese. Yet, the Penguins managed to get four goals and win the game. Usually, Pittsburgh’s aces tend to lead the way in terms of scoring. At least one of them usually does. Not tonight but Pittsburgh definitely made it work.
To be fair, when Letang and Crosby were on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the run of play was definitely in Pittsburgh’s favor. However, it was the other guys that did the damage. Aston-Reese finished the feed from Crosby; Bjugstad sniped a corner for a power play goal; and both Rust and Ruhwedel were fortunate to score. Not that these guys dominated the run of play (Aston-Reese did not) but they made their mark and showed the Devils and those attending the game that Pittsburgh can still manage. In other words, their depth mattered tonight.
As for the Devils, well, they do not have a lot of great depth between injuries and the state of their team in general. It was a mixed bag of sorts. I liked a lot of what Kevin Rooney did. Even though the run of play was slightly in Pittsburgh’s favor overall, Rooney did a good job in terms of skating forward and was strong on the penalty kill. Eric Gryba and Lovejoy were not a nightmare pairing; they handled their business well enough. On the flipside, Drew Stafford and Brett Seney were rather bad and Pittsburgh enjoyed their time on the ice tonight. Say what you want about players like Stefan Noesen or Pavel Zacha but their inclusion (or the inclusion of a certain man named Taylor) would have kept another player out that may have been out of his depth and a possibly better player would have been there. All the same, the bottom six did not contribute to the scoresheet like Pittsburgh’s did and I cannot help but think that difference is worth noting.
The Return of Coleman: Blake Coleman returned to the lineup tonight, which meant Nick Lappin was sent down and Kurtis Gabriel was scratched. Case in point about having better players keeping lesser fill-ins out. That said, this was not a very good return for Coleman. He did not make much impact on the game. When he was on the ice, there were few shots and attempts in general. His 12:27 of ice time yielded one shot, one faceoff win out of three, and one penalty. The penalty was an tripping call (initially interference) with under three minutes left in regulation. I think it was not a good call. He skated backwards into Brian Dumolin, who took a tumble at his blueline. It looked more like an accident than anything else. Still, Coleman did not have much of an impact on this game. At least that is better than someone like Gabriel just eating up shifts for nothing.
Fired Up Wood: Miles Wood made himself noticeable tonight. He was skating hard. He was pushing forward. He made some miscues, like botching a pass to Zajac for a two-on-one in the second period (to be fair, Letang bodied him up). But he finished the night with five shots on net, the run of play was in NJ’s favor when he was on the ice, and an accidental goal. Wood was trying to ward off a Penguin as he skated the puck forward. He did not get a clean shot on net. He sort-of pushed the puck towards the net as he was being pressured to skate towards the corner. Somehow, someway, this slow-moving puck on the ice got through Murray. Seriously, the puck went just through his legs. It was easily the worst goal allowed by either goaltender tonight. This amazingly happened after the shift where Murray denied Johansson three times in a row, including a rebound try that forced a big pad save. I do not get it but it happened. It gave the Devils some late hope as it made it 3-4 with 4:50 left to play. The comeback did not happen, but this was a better game from Wood than his return from injury. There is that at least.
900: Congratulations to Travis Zajac for playing in his 900th game this evening. 1,000 should be two seasons away.
Big Heads: The Devils debuted a race between three people in oversized heads resembling Ken Daneyko, Chico, and Patrik Elias. Dano won the inaugural race as the Chico runner took a spill. The broadcast did indeed show clips of Chico claiming his man was bumped and Daneyko celebrating his head’s victory.
Given that tonight was 90’s Night, I would have thought a return of SCORE-O would have been more appropriate. But that’s me.
The Sherman Abrams Section: No sweep? So what. No points? That’s better. The loss keeps the Devils in 27th with 54 points. Only two other game going on tonight has an impact: #25 Arizona vs. #29 Edmonton; and #26 Anaheim vs. Minnesota. It’s 1-0 in favor of Arizona as of this writing; so cheer for a three-point game. And Edmonton to win said three-point game. As for Anaheim, you should want them to win somehow. Oh, and cheer on Detroit tomorrow.
One Last Thought: You know who else did not like the Devils losing to Pittsburgh tonight? Carolina. Oh well.
Your Take: The Devils lost 3-4 to Pittsburgh. It was competitive, watchable, and respectable. But it was still a loss. What is your take on this game? How great was Johansson? Who else on the Devils did you think had a good game tonight? Who on the Devils did you think had a poor night tonight? What can the Devils take out of this one before their game with Ottawa on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to CJ for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account and those who commented during the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.