Zajac Line Comes Through as Devils Defeat Penguins

The Devils had a very important meeting with the other team from Pennsylvania following their victory over the Flyers on Thursday. These guys just happened to be the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs and one of the hottest teams in the NHL the last month. All the Devils did was play as complete a game as they could with the Travis Zajac line of him, Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman producing all three goals in a 3-1 win.

And don’t look now, but the Devils have won three straight coming out of the All-Star break and are 4-2-0 against Metropolitan Division foes since their bye week in January.

One of the bigger news stories of the last day was that John Quenneville was called up from AHL Binghamton. With that, Steven Santini was sent down in order to get some playing time so that he would not be rusty when called upon to fill in for injuries. Also sent down on a conditioning assignment was Jimmy Hayes (who was also a healthy scratch tonight for the New Jersey club). Quenneville did not play and he and Cory Schneider were the other Devils’ scratches along with Hayes. The Devils again went with eleven forwards and seven defensemen, meaning Taylor Hall was going to be double shifted a lot come the crucial parts of the game.

Pittsburgh was missing Patric Hornqvist, who was injured and did not make the trip to Newark. The Pens were coming off of a 7-4 drubbing of Washington on home ice where they scored four goals in the third period. To say the Penguins have a high-octane offense is very much an understatement. But the Devils were able to contain them tonight, as we shall see.

In net, Keith Kinkaid continued to be the man for the Devils with Cory Schneider out with injury. He made 15 saves on just 16 shots against. Kinkaid got his first career win over the Pens and his tenth of the season so far – notching a career high there. Those shots against were a huge story early on. The Devils outshot Pittsburgh 13-6 in the first period and 16-4 in the second. They limited the Pens’ chances and, thus, neutralized their attack. Devils coach John Hynes said that he wanted the team to “play fast, but disciplined” and it showed.

The Penguins had a rookie backup in net for them, as Casey DeSmith made the start, giving Matt Murray a night off. He made 35 saves on 38 Devils shots on goal.

Besides the lopsided shot total, the first period also saw Stefan Noesen and Ian Cole drop the gloves in a scrap. That was the only other Devils penalty on the night besides a Miles Wood hooking call 1:34 into the game. The Devils, whose penalty kill came into the game clicking at 82.5-percent, which was tied for seventh in the NHL overall, was not tested and, thus, the Pens’ power play spent little time on the ice. Overall, the Penguins were 0-for-1 on the man advantage with a single shot. The Devils were 0-for-3 with seven shots on goal.

After a scoreless first, Travis Zajac got the scoring off to a start 30 seconds into the second period. It came when Blake Coleman had the puck down low and banked it off the boards behind his back to Zajac, who was in on the doorstep. Zajac was able to stuff it by DeSmith to give the Devils the 1-0 lead. Noesen had the secondary assist on the play, giving that line their first points of the night.

The Devils would double their lead at the 3:05 mark of the second when Noesen kept the puck in on the forecheck and Zajac, Noesen and Coleman played tic-tac-toe around the net, before the puck landed on Coleman’s stick. He ripped one past DeSmith from the top of the far faceoff circle to make it 2-0 Devils.

In the third period, 6:16 in, Evgeni Malkin – the NHL’s player of the month for January – struck on a Devils’ defensive breakdown. He got assists from Cole and Phil Kessel to cut the Devils’ lead to 2-1.

But the resilient Devils bounced back: at 9:51, Zajac got his second when Sami Vatanen hit Taylor Hall with a breakout pass. Hall skated into the Penguins’ zone and curled around at the goal line. He dished back to Damon Severson at the near point. Severson fired on net and Zajac, camped out in front of the Pens’ goal, redirected it by DeSmith to make it 3-1 Devils.

And, although that was your final, it almost did not end up that way. At the 7:06 mark of the third, Keith Kinkaid was knocked down in his crease with a high stick by a Penguins player. No whistle was blown to end play, but Sidney Crosby shot from an odd angle and banked the puck in to the Devils’ goal off of Kinkaid’s mask. The officials met and made the ruling that the call on the ice was no goal, due to goaltender interference.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan used his coach’s challenge to dispute this, but replay showed that Kinkaid was interfered with and the call on the ice stood: no goal. New Jersey finally caught a break on instant replay. This was due to an edict passed down to the on-ice officials earlier this week, according to MSG’s Steve Cangialosi, that the officials streamline reviews and not look too hard for anything that might not be there. The score remained 3-1, Devils.

From there to about the two minutes remaining in the game mark, was back-and-forth, end-to-end pure hockey goodness, as Pittsburgh frantically tried to tie things up. The Devils kept pushing back though and by the time DeSmith was pulled, the Devils met that with resistance too.

Once the final buzzer went off, the entire line of Zajac, Coleman and Noesen went one-two-three in the three stars voting. The Devils had also done something they did not do all of last year: beat the Penguins. Last season, they were swept in the season’s five game series. That win also allowed them to leapfrog Pittsburgh into second place in the Metro Division. It was two crucial points, to be sure.

Stats-wise, Taylor Hall led in ice time with 25:58. He also extended his personal points-scoring streak to ten games with the assist on Zajac’s second goal. Zajac led in shots with five, Coleman led in hits with three, Andy Greene led in blocks with three and Zajac and Coleman each had two takeaways. The Devils won 55-percent of the game’s faceoffs.

Next up, the Devils travel north to Ottawa on Tuesday for a tilt with the Senators – who just came off of a hard-fought shootout win over the Flyers today. Hopefully for the Devils, they will be able to sustain their streak and show that the complete effort put forth tonight was no fluke.

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