The Pittsburgh Penguins knew that they would be facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. What they did not know is which team would have home ice advantage in the series. That was settled tonight as the Penguins beat the Devils 7-4 tonight at Prudential Center. The Blue Jackets also lost to the Winnipeg Jets, 5-4 to seal that deal.
As for the Devils, they managed to hang with a very good team for most of the game, only fading late. This is yet another building block on the team’s long journey back to respectability.
In roster news, Jacob Josefson was back in, having missed the last 17 games to injury. Josefson is a restricted free agent at the end of this season, so anything he does will be an audition for him as to whether or not the Devils bring him back for next season. John Hynes talked about a lack of finishing ability but did praise Josefson’s “competitiveness on the puck” that he has shown in the few games he has played in this injury-shortened season so far.
The Devils are still without Devante Smith-Pelly (injury) and Dalton Prout (suspension) but also scratched Steven Santini, Luke Gazdic and Joseph Blandisi from the lineup. Michael Kapla slotted back in on defense.
Pittsburgh were without Cameron Gaunce, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Tom Sestito, Dominik Simon and Mark Streit. They are also going to miss Kris Letang for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. He is going to have surgery on his neck for a herniated disc.
In goal, the Devils faced Matt Murray, who is a lifetime 3-0-0 coming into tonight against them. He made 34 saves as the Devils peppered him with 38 shots for a .895 save percentage. The Devils continued their goalie rotation, going with Cory Schneider tonight. He made 21 saves on 28 shots for a .750 save percentage. Basically, Pittsburgh scored on 25 percent of their shots in this game.
The Devils actually scored first in this game when former Penguin Beau Bennett powered around the Pittsburgh net and threw it in front to Stefan Noesen, who was stopped on a one-timer. Then, as the Pens’ defenseman was trying to clear the crease, he shot it into Murray’s blocker and the puck went into the net. It was an ugly goal, but it counted. Josefson had the secondary assist on that goal which came at 4:59.
The Devils kept the lead for almost ten minutes until the 14:24 mark when Miles Wood dinged one off the post in the Pittsburgh end and then the Pens took it and went the other way. Bryan Rust ended up scoring from Nick Bonino to tie things up at one.
And before the period was out, the Penguins would take the 2-1 lead to bring into the second period. Jake Guentzel scored at 17:07 from Bonino and Justin Schultz. That one came when Ben Thomson came out of the penalty box, with the Devils having just killed off a penalty, and had a breakaway. He was hauled down and Pittsburgh took the puck the other way again and scored.
In the second period, the Devils tied things up just ten seconds in when John Moore scored his defense-leading eleventh goal of the season. It came when Travis Zajac intercepted a Pens’ clearing attempt. He gave to Adam Henrique on the break in. He dropped to Kyle Palmieri, who fed Moore in the slot. Moore pulled the trigger and found the back of the net to tie it up at two.
But, it was a period where six total goals were scored and the Penguins would not be kept out of that. Josh Archibald scored at the 2:09 mark to give Pittsburgh back the lead. He got assists from Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney. The Pens had taken back the lead at 3-2.
Conor Sheary added to that lead when he scored at 3:05 from Sidney Crosby and Guentzel. The Devils were now being doubled up, but it would not last too long.
Taylor Hall got to twenty goals on the year at 5:34 on the power play. That goal came when Travis Zajac won a faceoff deep in the Pittsburgh zone back to Andy Greene at the far point. He slid it across to Hall, who fired from the top of the near faceoff circle, beating Murray and cutting the Pens’ lead to 4-3.
But the Pens would answer back with a power play goal of their own. Patric Hornqvist scored at 7:45 from Phil Kessel and Crosby to retake a two goal lead. It was now 5-3 Pittsburgh. The Devils finished the night 1-for-3 on the power play while the Penguins were 2-for-3 with the extra skater.
But, in this high scoring period, it was the Devils who had the last say. At 18:36, Zajac and Kyle Palmieri weaved into the Penguins’ zone, trading the puck back and forth. Eventually, Zajac to a shot in close as he got down by the net, the rebound came out to Palmieri and he tucked the rebound home to score the final goal of the evening for the Devils. It was now 5-4 Penguins and the Devils seemed to be in this thing going into the third period.
But in that final frame, the wheels fell off for New Jersey. It began just 1:56 into the third stanza when Matt Cullen scored shorthanded for Pittsburgh from Tom Kuhnhackl and Ron Hainsey. That made it 6-4.
The Devils had a chance midway through the third period when Hall took a lob pass out of the New Jersey zone, settled it down with his hand and broke in on a breakaway. He was stopped by Murray.
The Pens then put the finishing touches on their 50th victory of the year when Bonino scored 16:53 into the third period from Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel to make it 7-4 and to put the game out of reach.
So, while the Devils hung in there against the high-flying Penguins, they could not pull out a victory. That is what separates the contenders from the pretenders in today’s NHL, really. That ability to withstand a high-scoring game, take a punch if you will. Maybe it is not what it was in the 1980’s and early-90’s, in terms of really high scoring games, but it is still there.
The Penguins end up sweeping the season series from the Devils with five wins in five meetings. The Devils will look next to their final home game of the year against the New York Islanders on Saturday. This will be Patrik Elias’ final lap game, where he will be taking the warmup skate with the team. The Isles are also still mathematically alive and in the playoff hunt with their win over Carolina tonight, so the Devils have the chance to play spoiler once again. I will also be attending this game, so my report on it will be a little bit late.