As I emphasized in the preview, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a very good team this season. This afternoon, the New Jersey Devils saw why. The Penguins eventually took the game over from about the halfway mark in terms of possession and shots. While that's to be expected to a point since the Penguins were losing, the Devils had to be alert at all times. An attempted pass into traffic or a bad clearance would end up giving the Penguins a chance to rush up ice, settle the game down, or whatever it is they felt they needed. The Penguins may have been down throughout the game, but they certainly didn't get deflated or give up. They made adjustments (namely in discipline), they had better control in the neutral zone, and they certainly put a good day's work.
It's because of how Pittsburgh played that makes today's win by the New Jersey Devils even sweeter. The Devils didn't catch Pittsburgh on a bad day, nor did they find a match-up and beat them over and over. Pittsburgh played as well as one would expect, and the Devils weren't deterred. Their top line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz got going, yet the Devils didn't panic by getting loose against the other Penguin lines or get totally caught out of position. It wasn't a pretty performance, but it got the job done over an opponent who has been very good this season.
Sure, not everything about the Devils' performance was ideal. Their power play was unsurprisingly tepid and came close to a shorthanded disaster a couple of times. The penalty killers allowed quite a few shots on net, more than usual; and the Pens did convert on one of their opportunities. The Devils could have made more of an effort to attack in the second period as well as in parts of the third. As a result, the Penguins out-shot the Devils 21-11 in those two periods and the Devils were mired with a -12 in Corsi with no Devil finishing positive. However, what good they did outweighed the bad.
Martin Brodeur had a fantastic game; coming up huge in parts of the game to keep the Devils up. They nearly scored on the play that led to the penalty shot and scored on it. As bad as the PP has been, they did convert in a situation they should have converted on as well as not allowing a shorthanded goal. They didn't lose their cool when Pittsburgh scored in the third period; as they only allowed 3 shots on net in between Kunitz' goal and Parise's game icing ENG. That's even more impressive when you consider Anton Volchenkov didn't play beyond two short shifts in the second period; Tom Gulitti reported that he had a "lower body strain." That the Devils got an ENG is big in of itself, preventing any last minute heartbreakers The Devils did quite a lot right on the final day of 2011 and so they earned two points in regulation.
I have a few more thoughts on today's game after the jump. For an opposition point of view, check out PensBurgh for a recap later on.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: Do you like Kovalchuk scoring on a penalty shot, an actual 5-on-3 goal, big saves from both goalies, and a few hits? You should check out this highlight video from NHL.com then:
Masterful Marty: The three stars of the game were deserving to a point, but I'm really shocked that Martin Brodeur wasn't given one of them. He made 29 saves out of 30 shots on net, and many of them were tough. 14 of them came from Pittsburgh's top line. One of them was a goal against, where Kunitz got around Brodeur on a Matt Niskanen "shot" that hit the backboards and went straight ahead on a power play. Not at all a bad goal or even a bad play; just a bad bounce for NJ. It shouldn't mar the massive save he made on Matt Cooke in the slot; or denying Tyler Kennedy on a breakaway. It shouldn't sully the fact he denied all 6 of Evgeni Malkin's shots on net. It shouldn't overtake the fact that Brodeur was solid in all aspects of his game this afternoon. Any loose pucks off his saves were cleared out either by him or his defenders; he handled the puck well behind his net; and he was aware of where he needed to be at all times. Brodeur had a fantastic game. He was a big reason why the Devils won this game. I'm surprised the media didn't feel that way. (Aside: Tom Gulitti is not a voter and doesn't understand why he didn't his due either. Hmm.)
KovalchuKing: Ilya Kovalchuk had a very fine game today. He had more shots on net than the rest of the Devils with 5. He attempted more than the rest of the Devils with 9 shooting attempts. When it comes to possession, he was a -4 in Corsi. That isn't good; but it was one of the better values on a Devils team that finished at -12 this afternoon. Plus, the two even strength shots on net he was on the ice for were his. He even backchecked well, even though he really shouldn't have on the power play, but he did.
Oh, and he scored on a penalty shot, the result of Brooks Orpik intentionally covering the puck after an Adam Larsson shot hit the post and created a fracas in front. It was a great finish and an important goal. It didn't just get the Devils on the board, but it was also taking advantage of big opportunity early enough in the game. Given how good the Penguins are at controlling the puck, any chance to get a one-on-one with Marc-Andre Fleury is important. Kovalchuk made it count.
He also had a pretty big hand in other two goals scored by New Jersey. The box score will show them as secondary assists; but they weren't at all coincidental. After some frustrating failures to gain the zone on an extended 5-on-3 in the first period, the Devils got set up and Kovalchuk found Patrik Elias wide open to the left of the net with a great pass. Elias had the whole net, but hit the inside of the right post. David Clarkson cleaned up the loose puck, so he (thankfully) got the goal. It doesn't happen if Kovalchuk didn't make that pass to Elias, though. Kovalchuk also blocked a Jordan Staal attempt up the boards when Pittsburgh was in a 6-on-5 situation. That block prevented a Pittsburgh attack and allowed Elias to keep the puck in the zone. Elias found Parise, who put it into the empty net to seal off the game.
Kovalchuk clearly had a hand on every goal scored by the Devils this afternoon. The media rewarded him the first star of the game. Well earned.
Poor Patrik?: Patrik Elias had every reason to feel some frustration this afternoon. He hit the post on the 5-on-3 power play with the whole net wide open. Three of his four shots on net saw him throw his head back in frustration as Fleury stopped them, each more agonizingly close than the last. Overall, it wasn't a bad day for him at all. He did get two assists; he was good at the dot by going 10-for-17; he was a -2 in Corsi on a day where he was mostly matched-up with Malkin's line (so was Petr Sykora, Dainius Zubrus was even somehow); and at least Fleury robbed him a few times, it wasn't like he was all alone in front of the net and failed to put a shot on net - like Dainius Zubrus in the first period.
This Power Play Makes Me Shake My Head At Times: By now, I've mentioned that the Devils power play A) scored a 5-on-3 goal and B) didn't allow a shorthanded goal. That in of itself is good. Yet, I was left wanting by their performance this afternoon. Thanks to Aaron Asham spitting verbals at the ref after a high-sticking call and Jordan Staal slashing Parise, the Devils had an extended 5-on-3 near the end of first period. While they scored one goal, that would be their only shot on a two-minute long two-man advantage. And even that didn't happen because the Devils struggled just to get into the Penguins end of the rink to set up a play.
On the other four 5-on-4 situations, the Devils got 5 shots on net. So for 9:39 worth of power play time, the Devils got 6 shots on net. That's not so good. Moreover, the Penguins decided to key on Kovalchuk, forcing the Devils to go low to varying levels of non-success. It almost turned into disaster when Parise forced a pass through coverage on a backdoor play which turned into a rush up ice for Pittsburgh. Other times, it just was cleared out. Pittsburgh has been very good on the penalty kill, so I suppose I should just be happy with the PPG and the penalty shot goal. Still, I think the Devils could have done more.
Loose Penalty Killers: While the Penguins took four first period minors and two more later on, the Devils weren't strangers to the penalty box with four minors of their own - including the game's final three. Pittsburgh has a good power play and they flexed their metaphorical muscle with 9 shots on net across all four opportunities. The Devils were aggressive and were able to rush the puck up ice for a few opportunities; namely a Parise breakaway and a two-on-two situation where Parise found Henrique alone in front of the net. Both didn't result in a shot on net, though Henrique's should've counted since Fleury did make a save. Still, Pittsburgh didn't freak out when New Jersey was able to bust up their plays early. They eventually did set up a few times and got several shots on net when they did. Oh, and they did score a goal, thanks to a good bounce off the boards. I'm not so concerned about the goal. The fact that Pittsburgh generated a nearly a third of their total offense on the PP tells me it wasn't the best of nights for the Devils PK. That's more concerning, their good moments aside.
Five on the Blueline: A big reason for that may be the fact that Anton Volchenkov picked up an injury during the game. He only played 5:04 overall, with only two short shifts after a long PK shift. During that kill in the first period must be where Volchenkov picked up his "lower body strain." This meant Henrik Tallinder had to play over 21 minutes in his return; as well as more minutes for Bryce Salvador (23:50 overall, 4:49 on the PK) and Mark Fayne (24:23, 3:23 PP, 2:05 PK). Even Kurtis Foster had to take some shorthanded shifts, given his 2:27 of SH TOI. I really do hope Volchenkov's injury is minor since he has been such an important part of the most consistently excellent part of the Devils team: the PK units. Still, it's impressive that most of the Devils defense didn't get wrecked while short a player.
Beaten: Bryce Salvador got stuck with some tough match-ups and he suffered for it. He ended up at -10 Corsi, the worst of the Devils skaters' this evening. He did see Malkin more often than any other forward, followed by Tyler Kennedy and James Neal. Those are difficult draws so it shouldn't be so surprising he didn't do so well against them. Yet, he took a lot of minutes, filling up some of Volchenkov's role; and so he really got worked over. What about the other defensemen? They were -3 or -4, including Fayne - who played more minutes than Salvador against similar match-ups.
In terms of forwards, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson both did the worst at -7. What makes that disappointing is that the most common forwards they faced were Matt Cooke, Steve Sullivan, and Tyler Kennedy. While they're good players in their own right, that's not a good match-up to lose. Especially since Cooke and Kennedy each had a chance that Brodeur had to make huge stops on to bail out the team. Zajac had it worse. At least Clarkson can be credited for the PPG, 2 other shots on net, and 2 attempts blocked. Zajac had no shots on net and went 5-for-10 on faceoffs to go with his negative possession. Better luck next game, boys.
The Tedenby-Sestito Swap: Mattias Tedenby did OK today. He got two shots on net, he wasn't totally useless in his own end, and he drew the high-sticking penalty on Asham. Yet, he didn't see the ice with Zajac and Clarkson in the third period save for three shifts. Only one came after Kunitz' goal, which I think was the reason why Peter DeBoer swapped him and Tim Sestito. DeBoer doesn't trust Tedenby in a one-goal game, and since Zajac and Clarkson weren't exactly stoppers out there, he didn't want that unit to be exposed. So he put the Devils' Energy Source on the wing. Sestito, believe it or not, wasn't terrible. He finished the game at -3 Corsi; but he wasn't exposed on that side of the ice by Pittsburgh. The Penguins only got one shot on net when he was on the ice in between Kunitz' and Parise's goals. Until Tedenby gets better or gains favor with the coaches, I suspect we'll see this more often.
Note for : When you lose the puck in the offensive zone, I can sympathize that you really want it back. With Cam Janssen and Sestito as linemates, I know that's not going to happen too often. Still, you can't just lunge a guy's skates - Deryk Engalland's in this case - to get it back. It was a dumb tripping call and it was made worse by the fact it was in the third period with the Pens down 2-0. Thankfully, the Penguins didn't capitalize. (They did when Fayne took a more defensible hooking call to prevent Malkin from doing Malkin-things.) Still, Ryan Carter, you need to be cooler in that situation.
Fireworks: I didn't stick around for them, but they looked nice from the train leaving Newark Penn Station.
One Final Note: By this time last season, the Devils played 37 games and won 10 of them. With this win, the Devils have played 37 games and won 21 of them. Count your blessings.
That's my take on today's game, now I want to read yours. Who do you think did the best for the Devils this afternoon? How big is today's win, given how well Pittsburgh played? How did you think the special teams played? Did the performance fill you with confidence in the team as the Devils head into a new, busier calender year of the 2011-12 season? How did you react when Parise put in that empty net goal to secure the win? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the gamethread or @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading and have a safe and pleasant New Year's celebration.