The Devils had spent their last two games beating the Montreal Canadiens and the St. Louis Blues by football scores, putting up a touchdown and extra point for seven goals in each game.
Today, however, Super Bowl Sunday, when the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals will square off for the Vince Lombardi Trophy later this evening, the Devils were beaten by a much more modest 4-2 score line by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Devils had played five times before on Super Bowl Sunday, coming into today with a 4-0-1 record (that “1” was a 4-4 tie – against the Islanders in 1990), but the Penguins were playing for first place in the Metropolitan Division with a win.
There were a few changes to the Devils lineup necessitated by injury.
Leading scorer Jesper Bratt (upper body injury) was out along with Christian Jaros (a healthy scratch) and Andreas Johnsson – who was a late scratch while dealing with a lower body injury. He was replaced by Marian Studenic. Janne Kuokkanen (wrist injury) was placed on Injured Reserve yesterday.
Returning was All-Star Jack Hughes from COVID protocol. He started the game skating on a line with Yegor Sharangovich and Nico Hischier. Although Jack and the captain were excited to play together on the same line prior to the game, it did not last long as coach Lindy Ruff split them up to redistribute scoring around the lineup a little better.
Pittsburgh did have Evgeni Malkin in as he was cleared from COVID protocol by puck drop. There was some speculation that he would not play for them today.
In goal, the Devils were back to Jon Gillies, who not only achieved his first two wins as a Devil over the past road trip, he also notched his first NHL point with an assist in the victory at St. Louis on Thursday.
Today, he made 31 saves on 34 total shots for a .912 save percentage. He was equal to all six Pittsburgh power play shots – as the Pens went, officially, 0-for-3 on the man advantage (although we will get into a technicality on that a little later). At even strength, he stopped 25 of the Penguins’ 28 attempts.
Pittsburgh countered with Tristan Jarry – a 2022 All-Star – who made 28 saves on 30 total Devils shots for a .933 afternoon save percentage. On special teams, he stopped the Devils’ lone shorthanded chance and two power play shots. As a team. The Devils were 0-for-2 on the power play. Jarry turned aside 25 of 27 shots at five-versus-five play.
The Devils were in their third uniforms tonight.
Also of note, the Pens’ Sidney Crosby is one goal away from his 500th career NHL goal. Going into this game, he had been held off the scoresheet without a point versus the Devils – a divisional team that he scores a lot against. He would once again be Michael McLeod’s responsibility defensively.
Following a scoreless first period, where Gillies made a huge save on Jeff Carter midway through the frame, the second period would see a similar start.
Sharangovich had a shorthanded chance (Colton White was off for a tripping call) where he made a beautiful move around the Pittsburgh defense and then was stopped by Jarry. Jarry had to really fight off the chance as he was playing deep in his net. Still, an impressive play Sharangovich and save by Jarry.
Then, with 13:59 to go in the second, the Devils had seemed to grab a lead when PK Subban skated the puck coast-to-coast. He was stopped initially by Jarry and the Devils collapsed in on the net. Studenic put the puck in, but Subban had fallen onto Jarry, impeding his ability to make the save.
The goal was waved off on the ice as the referee cited incidental contact between Subban and Jarry. There was not enough there for a goalie interference penalty, but the goal would not count.
The Devils would gain the lead for real with 7:02 gone in the second when Pavel Zacha backhanded a pass to Sharangovich while Zacha was along the right half wall. Sharangovich peeled back to relieve a little bit of pressure in the middle of the ice and then fed Jack Hughes on the left side of the ice.
Hughes snapped a quick shot off while he was all alone, basically one-on-one with Jarry. He scored to make it 1-0 Devils. The secondary assist, awarded to Zacha, was his 100th NHL assist, so congratulations to him on that milestone.
Following the Hughes goal, it was Gillies and McLeod who came up big, with Gillies making a big save on the Pens, the puck hitting the post behind him and then bouncing into the air with McLeod batting it away to safety to preserve the lead.
However, Pittsburgh would end up tying things prior to the break.
At 13:16 gone by in the second, Jonas Siegenthaler attempted to pass the puck out of the far corner and turned the puck over. Brian Boyle got it behind the Devils net and moved it to Chad Ruhwedel at the near half wall. He passed to Mike Matheson in the middle of the ice and Matheson took a half slapper that he perfectly placed over Gillies’ glove and in to tie the game at one.
The third period would quite a bit of action between the teams.
It began with the Devils killing a penalty. The team had taken a too many men on the ice bench minor at 18:30 gone by in the second, meaning that it would last at least 30 seconds into the third.
Just 36 seconds into the third period, six seconds after the penalty ended, Kris Letang passed off of the far half wall to Bryan Rust at the point. Rust blasted a shot by Gillies to give the Pens a 2-1 lead. Crosby had the secondary assist, his first point of the season against the Devils.
Although it was an even strength goal technically, it was one of those that for all intents and purposes was still a power play goal. Tomas Tatar, who was serving the penalty for New Jersey, had come out of the box, but did not have enough time to jump back into the play to even things out.
So Pittsburgh now had their first lead of the afternoon, but the Devils would strike to knot things again.
At 2:51 gone by in the second, Nico Hischier and Tatar played give and go along the right side boards. Nico got the puck back and shot from near the near side faceoff circle. His shot hit Letang’s leg, then ricocheted off of the near post and the back of Jarry’s leg and into the Pens’ net. Damon Severson had the secondary assist on the game-tying goal.
For Hischier, that extends his goal-scoring streak to four games (his longest such streak since 2018, when he also had a four-game goal streak).
The Devils had fought back and would continue to fight through the pressure.
The Penguins spent a good portion of the middle of the third period applying that pressure to the Devils, sustaining possession in the New Jersey zone and creating chance after chance.
But Gillies, on his way to being named the game’s third star, simply battled to keep the Devils in things. He did all he could to keep the puck out of the Devils net before the 6:58 mark when Zach Aston-Reese moved the puck from the half wall to Matheson at the point. Matheson threw the puck on goal, just trying to get it on net and create another chance. Boyle, the big body in front, was there to overpower his way to the rebound and score, making it 3-2 Penguins.
It was a bit heartbreaking as the Devils and Gillies had worked hard to keep Pittsburgh off the board at that point. But the Pens are just a good, deep team and, with too much sustained pressure, that goal was almost inevitable.
So now the Devils were playing from behind late. Gillies would be pulled with about two minutes or so left in the game which now gave Crosby the potential to score his 500th NHL goal into the empty net.
For the record, according to Steve Cangialosi, the last NHL player to score his 500th goal into an empty net was Keith Tkachuk.
But instead, it was Jake Guentzel who would ice the game for the Pens. He scored into the vacated New Jersey net at the 18:53 mark of the third from Rust and Crosby (so close…) to give us our final score of 4-2.
The Devils were outshot 35-30 and won 45-percent of the game’s draws. Zacha led individually with a 70-percent winning percentage.
The Devils ended the game with six accumulated penalty minutes as a team while Pittsburgh had four. The Devils were edged in hits 20-19, evening the gap a little more against the Pens with Mason Geertsen back in the lineup for the third straight game. The Devils had 20 blocked shots to the Pens’ ten while Pittsburgh had 13 team giveaways to the Devils’ nine.
Severson led all Devils skaters in time on ice with 24:36 (including 1:56 on the power play and 5:32 killing penalties). Ty Smith had slightly more power play time at 1:58 out of his 18:42 of total TOI to lead the defensemen in that category.
For the forwards, Sharangovich led in total ice time with 20:55 logged (2:00 of PP time and 2:47 of PK time included in that). McLeod led the forwards in shorthanded time with 3:31 out of his 14:11 of total time and Tatar was the leader in power play time with 2:04 out of his 14:51 of total time logged.
Shots on goal were led by Hughes with five. Hits by Geertsen with five. Blocks by Ryan Graves with four. Personal giveaways were led by Hughes and Siegenthaler with two each while personal takeaways were led by Jimmy Vesey with two.
Next up, another steep challenge for the Devils as they welcome the Tampa Bay Lightning to Newark on Tuesday, which will precede more than a week off for the Devils. Puck drop for the Tampa game is 7 PM on MSG+.
We will have coverage for you following the finish right here. Until then, enjoy the big game tonight, whether you have a rooting interest or not and we’ll see you on Tuesday night for Devils hockey!