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No Pretending: Devils Uninspiring in 5-2 Loss to Penguins

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The Devils had a knock back into reality by a playoff team tonight, and it doesn’t get easier from here.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils
Falling.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

First Period: Nico Hischier had the first opportunity with a shot on Matt Murray about half a minute in, but it was turned aside. The Devils then lost possession, and iced the puck from the defensive zone 56 seconds in. No harm was done by Pittsburgh though.

The Devils had a hard time getting any offense going the next few minutes, as no shot was put on goal by either team until after the first line got back on nearly four minutes in. Nico Hischier had a redirection attempt saved by Matt Murray on the rush.

Matt Tennyson dove onto the ice four and a half minutes into the game to prevent a two-on-one pass from being completed. On the other end, he took his first shot with the team since early in the season, which was knocked onto the pad and frozen by Murray.

Janne Kuokkanen had an excellent shift five and a half minutes into the game on the fourth line. He kept possession well, fighting off jostling from a defenseman as he skated around the zone. After circling, he dropped the puck for John Hayden, who sent it to Kevin Rooney for a netfront attempt. Murray froze the puck, however.

The Penguins had a great opportunity seven minutes into the game as Kyle Palmieri turned it over in the defensive zone. A shot from the faceoff circle went way wide, however. Jason Zucker took the shot.

Nonetheless, the Penguins struck first eight minutes and 29 seconds into the period. From the boards outside of the face off circle, a shot from Evan Rodrigues made it through a screen and past Blackwood. 1-0, Penguins.

The first line pressured back, however, getting some zone time with the puck right around the net against Evgeni Malkin’s line before the Penguins took possession again. The Penguins iced the puck a shift later with nine minutes left in the period.

The first penalty of the game came for delay of game just after the icing, at the 11:04 mark in the first. Jack Johnson took the penalty.

In the power play, Jack Hughes had a wraparound chance about 45 seconds in, but didn’t complete the move quick enough. The Devils then had to retreat and reset with less than a minute in the advantage. With the second unit on, Jesoer Bratt deked out Teddy Blueger but Miles Wood got knocked down in the corner and the Penguins cleared. On the next re-entry the puck went from Pavel Zacha to Nikita Gusev on the rush, and Goose sniped on Murray. 1-1. P.K. Subban got the secondary assist.

The Devils had a terrible sequence with six minutes to play, as Damon Severson and Miles Wood turned the puck over consecutively and allowed multiple Penguins attempts. The Devils then took a penalty with 4:49 to play, as John Hayden went to the box for two minutes for hooking. Travis Zajac, Joey Anderson, Damon Severson, and Mirco Mueller made up the first unit of the penalty kill, abd Blackwood made an early couple of stops on Patric Hornqvist in front of the net before covering 18 seconds in.

The Devils got a clear off the draw, and Travis Zajac skated the puck down the ice 45 seconds in, before changing off for Kevin Rooney, as Zacha was already on. The second unit did great, with P.K. Subban forcing Murray to glove a three-zone slap shot with 40 seconds remaining. The Penguins were called for offsides with 13 seconds left, as the puck bounced on Marino. The penalty was then officially killed on the next sequence, but the Penguins kept pressuring until Nico Hischier took a pass away and skated it out.

In the last minute of the period, neither team was able to get anything going, and the period ended with the shot count seven to six in favor of the Penguins. The score remained 1-1.

Second Period: The second period started with a Pittsburgh attack that lasted until the end of the first line’s shift. Blackwood had to make one save on a chance right in front of the net.

The next few minutes were slow, as the Devils and Penguins were both unable to create space in the offensive zone. There were multiple offsides in the fourth minute of the period that also slowed the game down.

The Devils would not contain Pittsburgh for much longer, though. Following a failed entry by the Hischier line, the Penguins turned it around and Justin Schultz snapped it from the faceoff circle past Blackwood as Hischier tried to block the shot. 2-1, Penguins.

Matt Tennyson rocked Patric Hornqvist in front of Blackwood five minutes into the period as Hornqvist drove the net. Hornqvist lost his stick and skated off to the bench.

On the next shift, Bryan Rust walked Matt Tennyson with a chip off the boards to gain the zone. Tennyson then caught up and knocked him down from behind, and there was no call made for cross-checking.

The Devils went to the penalty kill seven minutes and 17 seconds into the period, as Jack Hughes went off for tripping.

On the penalty kill, the Zajac unit (with Subban in place of Severson) did a good job keeping the puck to the outside if the zone. Malkin had one of his shots go wide and another blocked, and Blackwood had to make one save on Hornqvist to the side of the net before the penalty was killed. Off the kill, the puck came to Jack Hughes out of the box. Hughes went in on Murray, but the shot was turned away.

Kyle Palmieri knocked Lafferty onto the ice behind Murray’s net 11 and a half minutes into the period. I was surprised there was no penalty, as from my vantage point it looked like Palmieri’s elbow was a little high. But, upon looking at the replay, it looked a clean hit.

Jesper Bratt went to the box with seven minutes and 17 seconds to play, as the Devils took a bench minor for too many men on the ice. On the kill, Pavel Zacha kicked a Sidney Crosby pass out of the zone a minute into the kill, potentially preventing a one-timer from the faceoff circle. Travis Zajac cleared the puck with a few seconds left to complete the uneventful kill.

The Penguins iced the puck with four minutes and 43 seconds left, and Kuokkanen began to line up with the Hischier line. They were unable to get anything set-up, however.

Kyle Palmieri nearly scored a wraparound goal in the last minute of the second period, but it was kept out after nearly passing the goal line. The period ended 2-1, with the shot count at 20-10, Penguins.

Third Period: The second period started with an icing call, so the Devils got an offensive zone draw. Hischier won the draw, and Palmieri put a weak shot on the side of net that was turned aside by Murray. On the other end at just after the minute mark, Patrick Marleau’s point shot was covered by Blackwood. A minute and 16 seconds into the period, Gusev lost a draw after Zacha had been kicked - and MacKenzie Blackwood was forced to make a great pad save on a move by Rodrigues, who tried to deke him out of position.

Kevin Rooney had a two-on-one with Kuokkanen past three minutes into the period, but his shot went high and wide.

Nico Hischier was high sticked three minutes and 36 seconds into the period by Sidney Crosby behind Blackwood. He got a two-minute minor. The second unit started for the Devils. Kris Letang took a penalty for slashing the stick out of Miles Wood’s hands. The Devils had a five-on-three for 1:42.

Jack Hughes lost the draw, and Subban collected the clear. The Devils then failed to keep the zone, as a Hughes pass went past Subban. Murray covered the puck with 1:14 left in the five-on-three. After play resumed, the Devils only seemed to manage a couple shots on net. It was pathetic, and the first unit should not be the first unit.

Evgeni Malkin extended the Penguins lead seven minutes and 11 seconds into the period after P.K. Subban passed directly to the Penguins. His wrist shot on a rush trickled past Blackwood. Kris Letang got the assist. 3-1, Penguins.

The first line would not let the night end there. Nico Hischier stripped the puck away high in the Pittsburgh zone and flipped it high ahead to Miles Wood, who had a partial breakaway and wristed the puck above Murray’s glove. 3-2.

Miles Wood made up for it, though. Playing the puck by Blackwood, he sent it right to Evgeni Malkin, who scored. 4-2. This was after a really good shift by the Devils, and then another terrible turnover by P.K. Subban that allowed their forecheck to gain possession. Damon Severson then took a cross-checking minor, but that penalty was killed.

The Devils pulled Blackwood with about two minutes to play, and didn’t really do anything with the opportunity. After the referee got knocked down in a corner scrum for the puck, Letang sent the puck down the ice into the net. The game thus finished 5-2, Penguins.

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 writers over at Pensburgh have a recap.

Time to Move Forward: I noticed something very repetitive about the New Jersey Devils’ turnovers tonight - they were predominantly caused by hesitancy, spin moves, drop-backs, and the like. P.K. Subban had the most notable example in the third period with the score at 3-2 when he had a breakout opportunity and chose not to take it, instead deciding to curl back and try to escape the defenseman. That did not work, and the Penguins forecheck took possession. As stated earlier in the recap, Wood turned it over again which led to Malkin’s second tally of the night.

The Devils do not play a downhill game by any means. Even though they laid out some big hits tonight, they are not a net-driving team of power forward scorers and (competent) defensively-minded defensemen. They cede momentum at every turn of the game. On the power play, they don’t shoot - they cycle. When they breakout, their drop passes often delay or prevent the Devils from gaining the zone. This idea is, however, pervasive even in Subban’s even strength decisions. His unforced error broke the momentum from the goal that Miles Wood scored minutes earlier, and prevented the Devils from making a comeback. The Devils need to just pass it forward - at least get the puck out of the zone against a faster forecheck.

This also applies to Alain Nasreddine’s time with the Devils. 11 points down, the Devils were in a position to at least pretend that they were contending. Nasreddine’s Devils had 12 shots through two periods, and finished with a paltry 22 shots to 33 for the Penguins. Even in the third period, with the Devils down and getting a nearly-full five-on-three, the Penguins outshot the Devils 13 to 10 in the third period.

The stats get worse though.

At even strength, the Devils managed to hold an expected goals advantage through two periods at 1.33 xGF to 1.05 xGA. That’s a 55.88 xGF%. In the third period alone, minus the 0.85 iXG that Kris Letang got for his empty net goal, the Penguins had a 0.44 expected goals to the Devils’ 0.28. This is indicative of a totally team that totally flatlined in energy in the third period despite being down in score.

Unworkable: The second line of Jack Hughes, Travis Zajac, and Joey Anderson is totally broken, and Alain Nasreddine refuses to fix it. I would argue that Hughes should not be on the wing of Travis Zajac, whose lack of speed is a hindrance to Hughes at even strength. In five minutes and 16 seconds together, the line had one CF to 10 CA for a 9.09 CF%, got outshot five to one, and gave up a goal. Their expected goals ratio was 0.03 xGF to 0.35, which works out to a 8.09 xGF%.

Hughes should not be at wing at this point of the season. I would hope that the idea that the Devils can make the playoffs goes out the door tonight, as a team being honest with its own development outlook might play Hughes at center. At this point, learning his position at an NHL level is more important than trying to play spoiler with a top six line that doesn’t even work anyway.

Your Thoughts: What did you think about tonight’s game? Did you enjoy watching some of it? How did you feel about the return of Matt Tennyson? How would you rearrange the lines after tonight? Should Jack Hughes move back to center, and should Travis Zajac move to wing? Should Hughes play without Zajac? How did you feel about Janne Kuokkanen? Do you hope to see him on higher lines in the future? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Additionally, this was the first game I’ve ever written a recap for live from The Rock. Did you feel this was different from my normal work that I write while watching broadcasts? And if so, leave any feedback below.

As always, whether you followed along in the gamethread, or on Twitter @AATJerseyBlog. thanks for reading. This is Chris - goodnight.