The Devils came into the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh looking for a fifth consecutive win and to gain some ground on a team they were battling with for a playoff spot. In the end, the homecoming for Ray Shero and John Hynes would be spoiled as the Devils just could not find the back of the net.
It was a good week that was for the Devils. Lee Stempniak was named the NHL’s second star of the week between goaltenders Semyon Varlamov of the Avalanche and Brian Elliott of the Blues. Stempniak had a goal and an assist against Calgary on January 19 and then two goals against Winnipeg on January 23. Stempniak had previously played for both of those teams. His 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points is second on the Devils in scoring. Congratulations to Lee Stempniak on being named the second star of the week in the NHL.
The Devils had some health problems over the weekend. Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique both had the flu, which they caught from Sergey Kalinin. The two Adams took antibiotics and rested prior to the Pittsburgh game and were able to suit up for that game.
Kalinin was assigned to Albany of the AHL due to his illness. The NHL Devils called up Marc-Andre Gragnani as an extra man just in case they needed him, but he was a healthy scratch on the night. Kalinin’s situation was purely “procedural” and he will likely be back in the lineup in New Jersey after the All-Star break.
Several Penguins alumni were making their returns to Pittsburgh. Tyler Kennedy, who won a Cup with the Pens in 2009, was a healthy scratch for the Devils. Bobby Farnham and Stempniak are both former Penguins. John Hynes, of course, coached the Penguins AHL affiliate and was behind the bench for New Jersey tonight. But the big returns were former Pens and current Devils GM, Ray Shero and Devils Assistant General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, who worked in the same role (among others) for the Penguins. They got a tribute video on the big board at Consol Energy Center during the first period, a very classy move by the Pittsburgh organization to pay tribute to an architect of a Stanley Cup team in the Steel City. Shero had not been back to the Pittsburgh arena since he was let go by the Pens.
As for the game itself, the Devils All-Star representative Cory Schneider made the start between the pipes for New Jersey. He would go on to make 29 stops on 31 Penguins shots. For the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury got the nod, going a perfect 25 for 25 on the night. It was the fifth time the Devils were shutout this season.
The Consol Energy Center has been kind of a tough place for the Devils since opening in 2010-11. That trend would continue tonight. Sidney Crosby scored a nice goal as he was falling away from the net at a sharp angle on the power play at 15:27 of the first from Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang. This was after Kyle Palmieri went off for tripping up Olli Maatta at 14:48.
Pittsburgh was 1-for-2 on the power play while the Devils went 0-for-4. Not a good night for Devils special teams. Coach Hynes felt that the team was just outworked on the power play. The first period ended as Joseph Blandisi and Evgeni Malkin jostled in the corner. Nothing came out of this, but it was nice to see the rookie mixing it up with one of the NHL’s biggest stars, not being intimidated.
The second period saw Letang being stopped on a wraparound attempt at 12:26. Andy Greene, as usual, had good positioning, blocking the wraparound that would have gone into an open net. It kept the score 1-0 and allowed the Devils to stay in the game at that point. Of note is that Cory was very good at times, standing on his head as the Penguins are definitely back to being the Penguins, not the team the Devils saw at the Prudential Center back in November.
The second goal of the game came at 15:21 of the second when Phil Kessel took a nifty pass from former Ranger Carl Hagelin to put the Pens up 2-0. Derrick Pouliot got the secondary assist. The Devils dodged a bullet right after when Matt Cullen shot wide of an open net on a shot that might have been tipped by a Devils player in front.
The Devils would have their chances, hitting a post late in the third and pulling Schneider for a 6-on-4 while Pittsburgh’s Maatta was in the box for tripping Blandisi. They hit the pipe during that sequence too. But it was not to be as time ran out on the Devils’ hopes. The Penguins came away with a 2-0 victory.
Next up, the All-Star break will see most players go off for some rest and relaxation. Only Cory will be playing any hockey during the next seven days. When the team reconvenes, it will be back in New Jersey with a big one. The Rangers come to Newark next Tuesday in what could have huge playoff implications. As Steve Cangialosi pointed out during tonight’s post game show, they play their rivals from across the Hudson River three times next month. The way they perform against them, if those three games are lopsided, could have a deep impact on where each team ends up playoff-wise. We will see where the chips fall after the All-Star break, as right now the Devils go into the break on the outside looking in with the loss to the Pens. Hopefully they can get back on track starting with their arch-rivals.