Devils Fight Hard, Cannot Overcome Penguins Offense

After a scintillating win over their Turnpike rivals last night, the Devils traveled to Western Pennsylvania to take on the defending Stanley Cup champs on St. Patrick’s Day. They put up a valiant effort before being put away by the Pens, 6-4. The win gave Pittsburgh four wins in four chances against the Devils and moved them to within a point of Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Before we begin, I just want to acknowledge that today, March 17, is the eighth anniversary of two of the biggest milestones in Devils history. On St. Patrick’s Day, 2009, the Devils defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2. With that win, Martin Brodeur passed Patrick Roy as the all-time NHL wins leader for goaltenders with 552. Patrik Elias also assisted on a Brian Gionta goal at 16:56 of the second period, shorthanded, to pass John MacLean as the Devils’ all-time leading scorer. One of the greatest nights in franchise history and one that will never be forgotten.

The Devils’ lineup stayed almost exactly the same as last night. Michael Cammalleri, Blake Coleman, Jacob Josefson and Devante Smith-Pelly remain out with injury. Steven Santini was again a healthy scratch. The Penguins were missing Cameron Gaunce, Carl Hagelin, Ron Hainsey and Evgeni Malkin (who is currently out with an upper body injury).

Going back to the same lineup as last night also meant going back to Keith Kinkaid in net. Kinkaid was solid tonight, keeping the Devils in a game that could very easily have gotten out of hand. He made 37 saves on 42 Penguins shots for a .881 save percentage. Pittsburgh countered with Matt Murray. He made 32 saves on 36 Devils shots for a .889 save percentage. Both teams combined for 79 shots on goal (Pittsburgh added an empty net goal later in the game) – with New Jersey firing 36 while Pittsburgh contributed 43.

The Devils actually got the scoring kicked off when Kyle Palmieri continued his hot streak at 5:35 of the first. He took a no-look behind-the-back pass from Taylor Hall and streaked into the Penguins’ zone, beating Murray under the left pad. John Moore had the secondary assist. Just like that, the Devils had the 1-0 lead.

But it would not last long. Pittsburgh showed good pushback when, at 6:37, Phil Kessel scored from Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen to tie things up at one. The Pens would grab a 2-1 lead at the 13:30 mark when Jake Guentzel scored from Brian Dumoulin and Sidney Crosby. The Penguins’ high-flying offense had struck again in a snap.

But the Devils showed that they had some pushback as well, tying the game at two just 32 seconds after the Guentzel goal. Stefan Noesen, playing in his first ever career game against the Penguins, scored when John Quenneville dumped it into the Pens’ zone. Pavel Zacha grabbed it and centered it to Noesen, who layed it into the goal to tie things up. The Devils were showing that they could go toe-to-toe (at least for the time being) with the champs.

In a penalty-filled first period, one in which the Devils spent way too much time in the box, the Devils ended up down 5-on-3 at 18:12 when Joseph Blandisi went off for holding and, while that delayed penalty was in effect, Dalton Prout was nabbed for cross checking. On the ensuing 5-on-3, Crosby found the back of the net at 19:45 from Mark Streit and Justin Schultz. You can never give Crosby time and space and he had it on the 5-on-3 and found twine. It was 3-2 Pens going into the first intermission. Both teams were 1-for-4 on the power play.

The second period was a bit of a wild one. The scoring started at 15:47 when Nick Bonino extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 4-2 with assists to Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl.

The Devils kept pace when, at 19:09, Jon Merrill gained the Pens’ zone and gave up to Adam Henrique just inside the blue line. He fired and Beau Bennett, the former Penguin, was there to hammer home the rebound. Pittsburgh now led 4-3.

But it was late in the period when things got really strange. The Devils nearly tied things up with seconds left on the clock. Phil Kessel then grabbed a loose puck and skated the other way. He was in on a clear breakaway and was hooked from behind by Ben Lovejoy. Referee Brian Pochmara called a penalty shot with 21.8 seconds left and Kinkaid stopped Kessel.

Off the ensuing faceoff, the Devils then went the other way with an almost carbon copy of the play on Kessel. Taylor Hall was in on a break and the Pittsburgh defender hooked his hands. This time, referee Jean Hebert did not call a penalty shot, but instead gave Justin Schultz, the Pens player involved in the play, a slashing minor. Devils coach John Hynes argued that there should have been a penalty shot on the play, due to the similarity to the Lovejoy/Kessel play, and the Devils were hit with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct (served by Nick Lappin) thus negating their power play that would have commenced on fresh ice in the third period.

It was a bizarre last minute of play, but one that would have, had things been kept cooler, put the Devils in the driver’s seat going into the third. Instead it was four-on-four for the first almost two full minutes.

Then, at 5:17 into the third, Pittsburgh retook a two goal lead when Rowney notched his first NHL goal from Kuhnhackl and Tom Sestito. It was 5-3 Penguins and things were looking dim for the Devils.

But Kyle Palmieri was there to drag the Devils back into it when he scored his second of the game at 16:29. It was set up when Bonino was called for hooking at 3:39 left in the period. With the Devils now on the power play, Travis Zajac won a faceoff deep in the Pittsburgh zone, he got it over to Joseph Blandisi, who moved it to the corner. There, Palmieri forced the turnover, Blandisi took a shot and Palmieri skated in to jam at the rebound and put it home. Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan used his challenge on this goal, saying that Murray was interfered with before the puck entered the net. The officials disagreed after a review and the call on the ice stood as a good goal.

The Devils had now pulled to within one, making it 5-4. With about 3:31 left in the game. Palmieri has been working at a torrid pace, as that was his tenth goal in the last twelve games.

The Devils pulled Kinkaid with about 1:22 left in the game but the Penguins iced the game with just over half a minute left at 19:26 when Crosby deposited his 37th of the year into the empty net from Conor Sheary. That made it 6-4, putting the game out of reach and killing the Devils’ rally.

So, next up for the Devils, a date Sunday with the Columbus Blue Jackets, yet another top three team in the Metro Division. I will actually be attending this game, which is a 1 PM start, so my post will be a little bit late. It is a long shot, but hopefully the Devils can get back on the winning track against another tough, offensively powerful opponent.

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