The First Period
The Mercer line nearly opened the scoring early for the New Jersey Devils, as Jesper Bratt dropped the puck for Marian Studenic, who set Mercer up for a redirection. The puck was loose high, but Tristan Jarry reached behind to keep Dawson Mercer from batting the puck into the net.
The Pittsburgh Penguins took the first penalty of the game, with Dominik Simon going to the box for slashing Andreas Johnsson. Nate Bastian joined the first wave of the power play, with Hughes, Zacha, Bratt, and Hamilton. There was an early scramble off a Hamilton shot, but the puck went wide of goal from Zacha. Zacha later created a netside chance for Bastian, who shot the puck off the side of the net. There was a lengthy battle for the puck in the corner, and Hamilton held the clear in with 20 seconds left - but his shot was blocked.
Marian Studenic was then tripped by Sidney Crosby eight minutes and 29 seconds in. Nate Bastian had a turnaround shot off a Hamilton rebound that was saved. The Penguins cleared, and the Devils worked back up ice. Jack Hughes made a bad pass to the top of the zone, and Teddy Blueger poked it past Dougie Hamilton. Jon Gillies tried to go down but left the five hole wide open. 1-0, Penguins.
The second unit of the power play featured Tatar, Mercer, Smith, Severson, and Johnsson. They did not get a shot on goal and mostly chased the puck.
After the goal against, Pavel Zacha saucered a pass across to Damon Severson on the rush, who made Jarry kick the puck out to Yegor Sharangovich. However, Sharangovich fanned on the puck and got spun around. Shortly after, Pavel Zacha got the puck in the neutral zone after intercepting a breakout and passed back to center ice - but the pass went right through his target and got to Sidney Crosby, who was defended well by Jonas Siegenthaler in a one-on-one. Nathan Bastian let the puck go by him for no reason.
Through one, the Devils had held the Penguins to only four shots. They trailed 1-0.
Devils are hard-matching the McLeod line with the Crosby line. That is how McLeod, Vesey and Bastian end up as the forward leaders in 5-on-5 time on ice.— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) December 20, 2021
Given that, and Nate Bastian's new home on PP1, he led the forwards in overall TOI (7:14) that period.
The Second Period
At the start of the second period, Marian Studenic tried to do everything by himself, dumping in from the red line and getting on the puck behind the net. However, the Devils did not come to support. Bahl and Hamilton then defended a rush, and Bahl went down low as Hamilton stood in no-man’s land, pressuring neither the pass recipient nor puck carrier. Danton Heinen got a pass across, and hit the corner with his shot. 2-0, Penguins.
The Devils would not stay down by two for too long. Ty Smith got the puck from Yegor Sharangovich, and Smith’s shot through a screen was deflected from low to high by Janne Kuokkanen for his fourth goal of the season. 1-2.
During the stoppage, Tristan Jarry got a double minor for an “attempted” butt-end to Mason Geertsen, who responded with a cross-check (a “successful” butt-end would be a match penalty). The Devils thus got a two-minute power play. Dominik Simon and Danton Heinen served for the Penguins.
The NHL just doesn't call their own rulebook. Tristan Jarry should not be in the game, he should have been given a major penalty for butt-ending— Driving Play (@DrivingPlay) December 20, 2021
The first unit started the power play, and Pavel Zacha won the draw back with Bastian. Bastian almost set Zacha up at the netfront, but the Penguins tipped the pass away. The Devils were sent back down ice twice by the Penguins, and then got bac into the offensive zone. Hamilton took a shot that deflected high and wide, and the Penguins cleared.
The second unit got the puck deep into the zone and played catch around the boards before working it back high. They got no shots. After the power play expired, Mercer got the puck from Severson and backhanded the puck off Kris Letang to Johnsson, who shot it right into Jarry.
Just past the halfway mark, the Devils took a penalty. Jimmy Vesey went off for cross-checking. The penalty kill did very well, getting on the puck multiple times and sending it down the ice. The Penguins did not register a shot on their power play.
Jon Gillies made a great save with Evan Rodrigues on top of him with six and a half to play, gloving a shot while on his back. The Devils shortly after went back to the penalty kill, as Michael McLeod was called for high-sticking - even though he thought Rodrigues was high-sticked. He was right.
Michael McLeod was assessed a 2 minute minor penalty for high sticking on this play……what?? pic.twitter.com/fOu3OloKNM— Josh (@joshlangerr) December 20, 2021
Pavel Zacha poked the puck ahead on the penalty kill and was tripped up by Kris Letang as he was about to get a breakaway. The referees awarded a minor penalty instead of a penalty shot, as Zacha did not have complete control, I guess.
Mason Geertsen laid a big hit on Dominik Simon who was trying to cut through the Devils defense in the final few minutes. The Penguins, thankfully, did not retaliate. On the offensive end, Yegor Sharangovich had a two-on-one with Kuokkanen but fired the puck way over the net, and Pavel Zacha missed a cutting redirection wide.
The Force is strong here pic.twitter.com/1aR809lNXN— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 20, 2021
After two, the Devils had held the Penguins to 13 shots, and trailed 2-1.
The Third Period
The Devils started the third poorly, as the Penguins controlled most of play in the first three or so minutes. Jon Gillies made a few saves - none of them too strenuous. The McLeod line worked the puck up ice a few times in the fourth minute, but Jimmy Vesey had a backhand snuffed out with a block, and their passing was not too crisp.
After Jason Zucker set up Teddy Blueger in front of the net - forcing Gillies to make a couple netfront saves - Siegenthaler and Zucker got into a wrestling match after the whistle. They got matching minors, and play went to four-on-four. Tomas Tatar got the only shot of four-on-four with 10 seconds remaining on the penalties, as he shot the puck into Jarry’s padding on the rush.
Janne Kuokkanen failed to clear the defensive zone with under 11 minutes to play, and Mike Matheson slapped a shot past Jon Gillies with 10:29 to play. 3-1, Penguins.
As Dougie Hamilton was cutting across the net off a feed from Jesper Bratt, Hamilton’s stick was knocked out of his hands. There was no call. Andreas Johnsson was writhing on the ice after a cross check by Matheson, as Johnsson went hard into the boards. Two minutes.
After a slap shot in the high slot by Zacha was saved, Hamilton kept in a clear and passed across to Pavel Zacha. Zacha sent it back high, and Hamilton’s slap shot was deflected by Nathan Bastian. 3-2.
The Devils then largely failed to capitalize on momentum in the following four minutes. They generated very little zone time, and Kevin Bahl had to snuff out a potential breakaway after another terrible Jack Hughes turnover. Bahl just got a stick on the puck.
The Devils pulled Gillies with over two minutes to play. Jack Hughes had a one-timer at a bad angle, but no rebound came from it. With 1:21 to play, the Devils called timeout. After the stoppage, the Devils sent out Zacha, Sharangovich, Bratt, Mercer, Hamilton, and Severson. Zacha won the draw against Crosby, but a bad pass from Severson made the Devils have to recollect. Bratt fired a dump-in, and Jarry nearly lost the puck behind the net. The Devils had to recollect again with 45 seconds to play. The Penguins averted an icing with a good play by Aston-Reese, and the Devils got a last-second breakaway for Andreas Johnsson - who was denied with a high save by Jarry.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Pensburgh’s recap.
The Players Are Not the Problem
Last night, Lindy Ruff made a decision to call out his top players. These were his words, per Amanda Stein:
Our top guys are the ones that hurt us. I thought our bottom forwards gave us a good night, great on the kill, score the first goal, shorthanded goal...all the good stuff. Our top guys have to be harder to play against...they have to be harder on the puck. They have to win more battles. They have to create more odd-numbered situations themselves, speed, drive in the middle. All those little things add up by the end of the game.
It does not help that Lindy Ruff chose to match Michael McLeod against Sidney Crosby. This kept his skilled players off the ice and made it harder to claw back.
The 5-on-5 ice time tonight was just.....— Alex Chauvancy (@AlexC_THW) December 20, 2021
It's not like McLeod's line shutdown Crosby. Crosby had an xG% of 84.77 percent. His line just didn't score.
The consequence? The Devils only generated 0.95 xG and 24 shot attempts at 5v5 b/c their top guys didn't play enough pic.twitter.com/jENaILJtTp
Pitting your fourth line against Sidney Crosby and giving your most skilled guys less ice time is not the way to win. Michael McLeod is not Travis Zajac. Neither Jimmy Vesey nor Nathan Bastian are Blake Coleman. While Shero and Hynes had a working strategy for dealing with Sidney Crosby, Lindy Ruff goes for the discount version of that. Michael McLeod can lead a fine fourth line - but he should not shadow Sidney Crosby. He needs to be in a situation where he can create some chaos with Bastian - but they created none at even strength tonight.
Worst of all was how Jack Hughes responded to Ruff effectively calling him out. And this is where I say: Lindy Ruff is losing the room. Ruff replaced Pavel Zacha on the first line with Andreas Johnsson. The result? (CJ, if you’re reading, you might want to brace yourself:) Tatar-Hughes-Johnsson had one shot as a line in 8:09 tonight with a 10.95 xGF%, after Tatar-Hughes-Zacha had a 13-3 shots advantage last night with an 83.98 xGF% in 12:22.
In total, Jack Hughes had a 3.69 xGF% at five-on-five tonight. Pavel Zacha, demoted to the Sharangovich-Kuokkanen line, had the least ice time of any Devil at 7:01 and had an 88.63 xGF%. Jack Hughes had two giveaways at five-on-five and the fatal one on the power play that led to Blueger’s shorthanded goal. Every time Jack Hughes stepped on the ice, the Devils practically played shorthanded. He did not flash his speed once, did not stickhandle through anyone, did not try to do anything by himself, missed passes horribly, and did not backcheck after his power play giveaway. I know it is weird to say that I do not think Jack Hughes deserves blame - but Ruff took a big gamble calling out his top players. That gamble has backfired - as Hughes looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on the ice - and Ruff might want to take notes from Paul Maurice at this point.
Does this look like a team that wants to win?
Since the Devils had no top forward to rely on, they were absolutely cratered in the third period. Alex wrote an article recently: “Down Late, the Devils Can’t Tilt the Ice” - this rang true tonight.
The Devils took less than 25% of the 5v5 shots in the third period and had 9.3 percent of the xG share. That's brings them to a total of 33.8% of the shots and 29% of the xG share at 5v5 on the night according to @NatStatTrick pic.twitter.com/bRJ3uN3VMf— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) December 20, 2021
The Devils were riding right alongside the Penguins for most of the night. Once the third period began, they just fell apart. Here’s a look at tonight’s team five-on-five expected goal share chart from Natural Stat Trick.
This reflected what I saw pretty well. The Devils let up a flurry of chances early in the third, started to slow the Penguins down - then absolutely broke down in front of Gillies. After Gillies bailed them out, the Devils did approximately nothing for awhile before Kuokkanen made a bad giveaway on a weak defensive zone clear - and Gillies had a screen right on top of him, leading to the game-winning goal against. Just when the Devils slow the bleeding, they make terrible mistakes. And what happened after the power play goal? As I said in the recap earlier - nothing, until Dougie got that one chance as he cut across the low slot, and then when the Devils pulled Gillies.
It might have helped to have a working Hughes line - like Zacha-Hughes-Tatar, which I will mention again led Detroit in shots 13-3 in their time together last night, which included a 9-3 shots advantage over the Bertuzzi-Larkin-Raymond line. They also had a 70.95 xGF% and 80.00 CF% in over nine minutes against the DeKeyser-Seider pairing. Sometimes goaltending just does not hold up their end of the bargain. But, that is no reason to break up what was a well-performing line and say they were “the ones that hurt us”. Instead, Ruff marched the McLeod line out into the waning moments of the game against Sidney Crosby. Here’s your 15th loss in 18 games.
I wonder what Patrik Elias is doing right now.
What did you think of tonight’s game? What did you think of Lindy Ruff’s deployment choices tonight? How did the power play feel with Nathan Bastian? What did you see in Jack Hughes tonight? How did you feel about Bahl and Hamilton? How about Gillies? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.