On this warm evening in New Jersey, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Rock. The Pittsburgh Penguins needed to get a win in this game. Or even just a point. The wildcard race in the Eastern Conference is so tight that every game counts. Mostly because of all of the previous games Pittsburgh squandered. New Jersey already clinched their playoff spot. Their playoff fate is likely to be second in the Metropolitan Division as they do not control their fate over Carolina and Our Hated Rivals would need to surpass the Devils by multiple points with four games left in the season. Would the Devils suffer to what should be a win-hungry Penguins team? A team filled with veterans that Know What It Takes to win important games? A team coached by someone very smart?
Absolutely not! The Devils crushed the Penguins, 5-1. Pittsburgh’s game plan was stupid and the Devils ripped it apart with rush up the ice after rush up the ice. Pittsburgh’s tendency to generate loads of shots in 5-on-5 was dulled by New Jersey pinning them back over and over. Once Bastian got the first shot on net after a few minutes in the first period, it was on as Tristan Jarry was pelted with 35 more of them in the rest of the game. Did the Penguins try to slow the game down with goalie freezes and the like? Nope. Did the Penguins try to keep pace with the Devils? Tried, yes, but with not as much success given how many pucks the Devils won in the neutral zone and in their own zone after Penguin entries. Did the Penguins take undisciplined penalties to hand the Devils even more opportunities to attack? Yes - and they paid for it. Did the Penguins adjust at all? They gave up a near 5-on-1 rush prior to Dawson Mercer’s third goal in the third period. They totally did not adjust. The Penguins went into the Rock expecting an arithmetic test and received a Calc II exam. They failed as the Devils took them to school repeatedly.
To be fair, the Devils were coming off one of their worst losses of the season in Winnipeg. Whether you blame the schedule, the travel, the fatigue, or just the lackluster performance from everyone involved, it does not matter. That 1-6 loss sucked. The Devils were clearly challenged to do better. By bouncing back this evening, they made an example out of Pittsburgh of how much better they could be. It was not as tightly played as their 2-1 win over Our Hated Rivals, but the team effort was a lot stronger than the past weekend. One-on-one defending against the Penguins was smarter. The penalty kill units were fantastic. Ryan Graves had a great time in his own end. The passing on offense was more meaningful and effective. Were there some bad turnovers? Yeah. Were there some missed opportunities? Yes. The Devils carried on and did not let it get into their heads, doubling down on errors. The Devils paid a lot more attention to detail, their effort level was much higher, and the Devils had the correct mindset on the ice. The Penguins could not stop the Devils going forward through the neutral zone all night long, so the Devils kept doing it all night long. With this in mind, a blowout win is not so surprising.
As with most blowout wins, there is much for the Devils fan - a Person Who Matters - to celebrate. Dawson Mercer scored his first ever hat trick. I’m sorry. DAWGson Mercer earned his first ever hat trick by burying three pucks past Tristan Jarry. Mercer finished a great pass from Nico Hischier in a 2-on-1 to make it 2-0 in the first period. Within the final minute of the second period, John Marino put a long shot on Jarry. The goalie fumbled the rebound and Mercer piled in the loose puck to make it 4-0. Then there was that aforementioned near 5-on-1 rush. Hischier played the puck up to Marino. Michael McLeod stretched his leg back to stay onside, then rushed ahead. Marino fed McLeod in front as Hischier followed McLeod. Jarry threw his whole body to his left to make the save. Hischier collected the rebound and swept the puck in front for Mercer to put it into an empty net to make it 5-0. The Rock erupted. Cheers were had by all except for the pockets of yellow and black in the stands. Hats were thrown. Barking noises were, well, made by me alone. Mercer was the standout forward in a game filled with offensive goodness by the Devils.
But wait, there’s more. Vitek Vanecek may have only faced 23 shots on net and 53 total attempts, but he was on point this evening. Vanecek denied Drew O’Connor on a rush in the first period. He crashed back with Graves to deny an early PPG that could have changed the whole course of how this game would go. Vanecek robbed Sidney Crosby of a tip-in front. There were some strong saves in that game. Vanecek was bailed out by the post twice. But the only shot that beat him was Bryan Rust’s redirection of a Pierre-Olivier Joseph shot from the center point. At that point, it made the score 5-1. So who cares. Just as this game was a bounce back performance for the Devils, this was a big one from the goalie. Getting him in form ahead of the postseason is a very good thing to see.
There is even more. As noted earlier, Ryan Graves had a great night. While Dougie Hamilton scored and John Marino created one of Mercer’s goals (and technically had a hand in the third one), Graves did not commit a questionable turnover like those two (one was squandered by Pittsburgh, the other led to a post shot by Mikael Granlund). Graves was solid as a safe in his own zone this evening. He was great for the penalty killing units, which had a fantastic outing by going 4-for-4 on kills and yielding just four shots on net. His clearances worked. He did not take any penalties or get caught cheating on a pinch. He was in position for five shots on net and he put them all on net. When he took a shift, the Devils out-attempted the Graves picked up a secondary assist on Mercer’s second goal, but his game this evening was even better than just that one point. I hope this means he is out of his defensive slump.
And I can - and will - go on. The larger point is that this was a wonderful game by the Devils. This was a dominant performance featuring Dawson Mercer’s hat trick. There was no real concern that the Penguins were going to make a mighty comeback and they came nowhere close to doing so. The Devils started this game with the intent of proving their greatness and ended the game with a 5-1 result that confirms it. The hunger and desire of Pittsburgh meant nothing in Newark this evening. You love to see it. I know I did.
The Game Highlights: Absolutely well worth your time to watch the highlights of this game. Here they are from NHL.com.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik is not happy as per his recap at PensBurgh.
Welcome Back, Bastian: Nathan Bastian returned to the lineup. He was slotted next to McLeod and Miles Wood. His first few shifts were telling. He skated hard. He threw hits. He fought for pucks. He played like he had a point to prove and that point was “Please do not sit me for Yegor Sharangovich or Curtis Lazar.” While his effectiveness faded as time went on, Bastian had a decent return with 2 shots, 2 missed shots, and solid work on what was a great night from the penalty killing units. I think the next few nights will be important for Bastian to show that he deserves to be in the lineup. I think this returning effort puts him in a position to prove that. We shall see if he does it.
Wait, They Played?: Adding to Pittsburgh’s woes, I am writing this section to remind me and inform you that the following Penguins played in this game tonight: Jason Zucker, Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter, Rickard Rakell, and Evgeni Malkin. The five I just mentioned are valuable parts of the Penguins’ offense and their team as a whole. The five combined for three shots (Rakell had one, Malkin had two) and two penalties - with the Zucker one being punished by the Devils power play.
Some of Pittsburgh’s issues this season can be pointed to their depth not being so good. However, when several core players - especially on an offensive-minded Penguins team - just disappear for stretches and make little impact on the game, then that is a bigger problem. Crosby may have had his dander up a bit, but he at least pushed to make plays and try to get something going. Granlund at least hit a post. Rust tipped in a shot. Those other five forwards? Anonymous - and it only helped the Devils really own the game on the shot-count (37-23!) as well as on the scoreboard (5-1).
By the way, I did notice a lot of Brian Dumoulin. Mostly because the Devils out-shot the Penguins 14-11 when he took a shift in 5-on-5. Plus, the Devils out-done the Pens in expected goals 1.28 to 0.8 when he was out there. He was in over his head and it showed. If only they had a responsible and respectable defenseman named John on their blueline.
Power Play Punishing: The Devils’ power play received some unexpected work with third period penalties by Drew O’Connor and Guentzel. The latter featured Kevin Bahl, which was a bad idea as Ryan Poehling torched him for a shorthanded rush that Vanecek stopped as the Penguin slid into him. It also had a whole shift from the fourth line. But the PP did get some important success. During Zucker’s penalty, Jeff Petry cleared a puck over the glass. He tried to chip it off the glass but he missed it. The refs caught it. In the ensuing 5-on-3 for 28 seconds, the Devils needed just 18 before The Big Deal found Timo Meier backdoor with a slappass to make it 3-0. At 2-0, a team could think a comeback is certainly possible with a score. 3-0, though, and the dread set in. And it did set in. Overall, the Devils put up seven shots over four power plays and conceded just one shorthanded chance. Far better than just four shots, five shorthanded shots (!!), and no goals.
Oh, and the high sticking call on Timo Meier was a makeup for nothing being called on Michael McLeod crunching a Penguin into the endboards that probably should have been given a boarding call. No matter.
The Milestones in Progress: Plenty of stretch goals and milestone markers remain in play with four games left in the season. Here is a quick summary:
- With the Devils’ win, they now have 49 wins this season. One more and this team becomes the second ever team in franchise history to reach 50. They play Columbus on Thursday, go to Boston on Saturday, host Buffalo next Tuesday, and go to Washington next Thursday. I say they do it.
- Hamilton opened the scoring with a great shot through traffic in the first period. He got some help with a Penguin in front, but a goal is a goal and it is his 21st of the season. He has cleared Rob Ramage on the all-time list for goals by a defenseman. Hamilton just needs one more goal to tie the franchise leader, Barry Beck.
- Hamilton also had an assist on Meier’s power play goal in the second period. He now has 73 points. He is five away from tying Scott Stevens’ record of 78 in a season.
- The Big Deal set up Timo Meier for a PPG. He is at 91 points now and just needs five to tie Patrik Elias for the single season record in points. Hughes also had a strangely good night at the dot, not that it mattered a whole lot.
- Timo Meier’s PPG is his seventh with the Devils. Three remaining to tie Ilya Kovalchuk when the Devils traded for him.
- Nico Hischier went past the 70 point mark and I missed it. My bad. The captain is on a four-game point streak with two assists tonight, both on Mercer’s goals. He is now at 75 points. I do not think he will get to 80 but if he stays this hot, it is not impossible.
- Jesper Bratt picked up a secondary assist on Hamilton’s goal. He is now at 69 points; he is one away from 70.
- Keep an eye on the DAWG. The pack within his chest powered him to a hat trick and now sits at 27 goals this season. 30 is entirely possible, albeit a challenge. I did not expect this but who expected Mercer to continue to be the third most productive player from the 2020 NHL Draft Class? Three more points and he hits 100 in his career - and this is just his second NHL season.
Nitpicking and Other Notes: Miles Wood was sprung for a breakaway in the second period, only to have a Penguin catch up to him and Jarry deny the shot. Wood also took down Joseph from behind with a really silly foul in the offensive zone. If Wood is not able to clear away with great speed and he is still taking avoidable calls, then what is his purpose again? Since Lindy Ruff is trying things out at this point of the season, can Sharangovich get a game at left wing? To be fair to Wood - he did backcheck tonight. He put in some effort there. Whereas McLeod and Bastian were putting in work, Wood was the third best player on his own line.
While Meier got on the board on the power play, this was not such a good night for Jesper Boqvist, Erik Haula, and Meier. They were the only Devils to get out-shot by a good margin in 5-on-5 despite the Devils out-shooting the Penguins 24-18 in 5-on-5. For all of the complaints about switching up lines, Ruff would not have to do it so much if all of the lines worked better. Still, this line was not a huge concern since the others more than picked up the slack.
On a more positive note: Damon Severson did not do anything catastrophic, silly, or plain stupid. He had a fairly good game.
On another more positive note: Ondrej Palat picked up a primary assist on Hamilton’s goal. Palat was buzzing in the offensive zone with Hughes and Bratt all night long. It is a bit unlucky they did not score more than they did; but Palat was busting through Penguins defenders and finding spaces to keep attacks going. This was a far better performance from the veteran winger than in recent weeks. And he has hit the scoresheet, which may mean he is thawing out from what has been a month or so of little production.
The Damage Done by This Game in the Standings: The Devils’ win temporarily put them up five points over Our Hated Rivals. They play Tampa Bay tomorrow, so if the Lightning can do the Devils a solid and beat them in regulation, then second place in the division is all but locked up. With four games left, making up a five-point difference is very difficult. Sure, a team can get five points in four games. The problem is that they have to out earn the team ahead of them by five. And if they are ahead of them, then they are probably a better team and so it is unlikely for them to catch up. To that end, Carolina beating Ottawa in OT keeps the Hurricanes up by three over the Devils while still holding a game in hand on them means it is unlikely for the Devils to catch Carolina unless they slip up big time.
Of course, the damage was really done to the Penguins this evening. For one, their own odds took a near 14% hit to knock it down to 47.6% just by losing in regulation per Moneypuck. For another, Florida beat Buffalo 2-1 in regulation. A three-point game would have been a nightmare as it would put Buffalo, who has two games in hand on Pittsburgh, within at least four points of the Penguins. While that did not happen, Florida is now in the first wild card spot with 87 points and 34 regulation wins and the Islanders are in second with 87 points and 33 regulation wins. Pittsburgh is behind by a point and are behind in the first tiebreaker by at least four. They are not out of the playoff picture but their next four games went from important to critical. Sorry, Pittsburgh. And, you’re welcome, Florida, Islanders, and (I guess) Buffalo.
Broomed: This 5-1 win also means the Devils won all four games against Pittsburgh this season. This win was by the biggest margin of the four. It was arguably the most dominant of the four. I fully understand and agree that it would be best if the Devils could somehow face Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs. Problem is: The Devils may have helped keep the Penguins out of the playoffs entirely. Oh well.
The Rough Stuff: One thing I noticed during the game is that the Penguins kept trying to body up the Devils. Physical shoves here and there after whistles. Penguins trying to stand up Devils off the rush or in the corners. Crosby was already incensed over a McLeod check that he nearly started a melee on his own. There was plenty of jawjacking and why-I-oughtas in the first two periods.
Did it work? Not at all. The Devils rushed down the Penguins regardless and put up 36 shots on net in all situations to the Penguins’ 23. The Devils doubled-up the Penguins in scoring chances in all situations and more than doubled them in high-danger chances. They could not really stop Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier or Ondrej Palat or Jesper Bratt or Tomas Tatar or Dawson Mercer enough to render them a non-threat. They could not keep the Devils from activating defensemen, either through the neutral zone or after setting up in the Penguins’ end of the rink. They got frustrated and mad and it did them little to no good in the actual game.
It is worth pointing out that while some teams like to “be heavy,” the Devils were more than comfortable pushing back every so often with their arms and pushing forward very often with the puck. The rough stuff or whatever Pittsburgh attempted did not keep the Devils from just playing as they wished. Something to keep in mind when the playoffs begin.
One Last Thought: Cynical as it seems but this may have been the last meaningful game of the regular season. Outside of preparing for the postseason and milestones for the players and teams, the next four games have little in terms of actual stakes. Again, they are:
- Thursday, April 6 - vs. Columbus. I want the Devils to smash Columbus as payback for many years of the Blue Jackets confounding the Devils. But Columbus has been out of the playoff picture for months now and are “competing” for 32nd place with Chicago. NJ should beat them. The Jackets who want more lottery balls want that to happen. I hope it does. But that does not mean this game means much.
- Saturday, April 8 - at Boston. Boston has locked up the President’s Trophy already. I do not expect the Devils to somehow be one of the few to leave Boston with a point, much less two. The B’s are just that good. Still, whether the Devils win or lose means nothing. The Bruins will still be first in the NHL and the Devils are still going to the playoffs.
- Tuesday, April 11 - vs. Buffalo. This one could become meaningful if Buffalo wins games in hand and if Florida, the Islanders, and Pittsburgh all suffer to keep the Sabres close enough in the standings to make a late-season crash possible. I doubt it, though. A loss for Buffalo almost seals their fate.
- Thursday, April 13 - at Washington. With Florida winning 2-1 tonight, the Capitals are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. It’s game #82. By this day, we shall pretty much know who the Devils are facing in the first round. The Capitals’ season will be done after this one. It is already a “whatever” game.
Of course, plans can change should Our Hated Rivals get hot or Carolina gets cold. Yet, for right now, these four games are just tune-up games where we can appreciate the games as they are and really hope for no injuries. That is a great thing to write after the past four seasons.
Your Take: The Devils smacked down Pittsburgh for a 5-1 win. How great was Mercer’s hat trick? Would you agree that Vanecek and Graves had far better nights? Will the Devils carry on this effort into their game against Columbus on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the victory in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter, and thank you for reading.