On paper, this weekend's home-and-home set with the Pittsburgh Penguins was going to be one of the toughest challenges for the New Jersey Devils all season. The Penguins were riding a hot streak of five straight wins going into the weekend and were a top team in most, if not all, statistical categories. They have a powerful offense led by two of the best players in the world, a solid defense, and good enough goaltending to be one of the strongest teams in the National Hockey League. Yes, they were without Kris Letang, but the Penguins have enough quality to play well against anyone. The New Jersey Devils, heading into the weekend with three straight wins, met the challenge and reigned supreme by 10:04 PM EST on Sunday, February 10, 2013. They beat the Penguins 3-1 on Saturday and they prevailed 3-1 in their house tonight.
Unlike Saturday's game, most of it was spent in 5-on-5. Also unlike Saturday's game, the Penguins established dominance early. They attacked, attacked, and then attacked some more. The Devils struggled to make passes out of their zone and within the neutral zone, making it easier for the Penguins to get back on offense. In total, the Devils were out-shot 10-4 in the first and out-attempted 23-6. It was all Penguins hockey with two exceptions. The first was Johan Hedberg. The Moose was most definitely in control as he denied everyone on everything early on from Brandon Sutter in a two-on-one to Sidney Crosby on a rebound by the left post to Evgeni Malkin on a power play one-timer. Hedberg kept the Devils alive. The second exception was one shift by the line of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and David Clarkson. Henrique chipped a puck off the glass out of the zone and Clarkson caught it in stride. With Elias in support, the Devils had a two-on-one until Deryk Engelland came back to mess up Clarkson. Clarkson held on and fired a banger to the top right corner to make it 1-0 New Jersey. It was absolutely a goal against the run of play, but thanks largely to Moose, the Devils got out of the period with the lead.
What transpired in the second period was one of the best, if not the best, performances by the New Jersey Devils in this season. The Devils started hitting more of their passes going forward, they were able to stop Pittsburgh before they could get their chances, and so the Devils were able to get the puck into Pittsburgh's end and make things happen. After getting crushed on the shot count and in attempts in the first period, it was the Devils' turn to pin back Pittsburgh and we saw it from all four lines. Yes, even Krys Barch was able to gain the zone and help create something that led to shots and attempts. Not only did the Devils out-shoot the Pens 13-5, they increased their lead to 3-0. Stefan Matteau denied Paul Martin at the blueline and sprung Ilya Kovalchuk for a two-on-one. Kovalchuk ripped a five-star shot through Tomas Vokoun's five-hole for the first score. The second came on the power play. Patrik Elias' shot was briefly stopped by Clarkson at the crease and #23 banged it in before Brooks Orpik clobbered him. It was 3-0 New Jersey and the game continued to go their way. The only real error was Stephen Gionta taking a slashing call while fighting for a puck near the end of the period.
Gionta's minor penalty gave the Penguins a lifeline when James Neal finished off a tic-tac-toe play with a one-timer within the first minute of the third period. The skaters were out of sorts, Anton Volchenkov failed to deny the pass to Neal despite his dive, and Moose had no chance on the shot. One Volchenkov-dive-denied two-on-one later and the Devils began to attack as they did in the second period. It didn't dawn on me until a few minutes into the third that the Penguins only had that one shot by Neal for a while. As it turned out, it took Pittsburgh half of the period to get a second shot on net. In the interim, the Devils were getting the puck deep, putting up attempts, and keeping Pittsburgh at bay. After Pittsburgh got that second shot, the game shifted to Pittsburgh pressing out of necessity and the Devils just clearing it out. They got some bad match-ups that they escaped from; they later got some solid clears; and they got away with a few calls. Still, the Devils held the Penguins to only seven post-Neal-goal shots before they pulled Vokoun and even then they only got the one after that. They weathered a storm that looked hairy at times but ultimately didn't throw Moose or the skaters off.
It's because of that poor first period and that not-so-good last ten minutes of the game that I can't say the Devils really had a high quality performance. But those "60 minute efforts" are rare for any team. It's impressive that they followed up a wild and heavily special-teams active game with a win largely coming from 5-on-5 play. It's fantastic that they held a team with Crosby, Malkin, and Neal among other players that was losing for a majority of the game to only 24 shots total. It is glorious to see Moose get his pads or his glove on nearly everything. It speaks volumes of quality of the Devils that they swept this weekend home-and-home against a team as good as Pittsburgh - and that they did it without squeaking by after regulation or just scraping by. They did more than just extend their winning streak to five games. The Devils played two effective games and came out deserved winners.
The Opposition Opinion: For the opposition's take on their second loss in a row, check out James Conley's recap at Pensburgh. He claims the Devils put the Penguins fans at the CONSOL center to sleep. You know, I get unhappy, angry, and/or tense, not tired, when I'm at the Rock and I see the opposition is bulldozing through the Devils. I guess Pittsburgh fans are different.
The Game Highlights: WARNING: This video from NHL.com will make you yell one-word phrases like "CLARKY!", "KOVY!", "SCAR!", and/or "MOOOOOOSE!" Be considerate of others in your area as you watch this video:
The Corsi Breakdown & Charts: It's an away game so I'm able to whip these up rather quickly and still put out a recap without it being terribly late in the evening. Also, the period-by-period breakdown shows an incredible swing in the game. Remember that Corsi counts all shooting attempts for and against: goals, shots on net, blocks, and misses. This is all from even strength, non-empty net situations. Lastly, all original data came from the official play by play log for this game at NHL.com.
In the first period, the Penguins led 19-6 in shooting attempts at even strength. The Devils were that pinned back for the first twenty minutes. Clarkson's goal was the third shot of the period for New Jersey and they would only generate one more shot later: a shot by Jacob Josefson. It really did come against the run of play.
In the second period, the Devils led 25-10 in Corsi. That's ridiculous. The Devils were leading 1-0 and they just swamped the Penguins. Score effects don't normally suggest that, but that's what happened tonight. The Devils clicked a lot more often on their passes, the Pens struggled at times in their own end, and as a result, Vokoun and his defenders were very busy. The Devils' top two lines did most of the damage but they got good shifts out of the bottom six as well. Pittsburgh's own attempts only came one at a time and it took them 7:25 before they got a shot on Moose.
The third period had the Devils lead 13-11 in Corsi, which is also ridiculous considering they were up two goals for a majority of the period. Again, usually the team that's losing is going to rack up the attempts because they have a sizeable lead to make up. Throw in the fact that the Devils got caught icing a few times in the second half of that period and just didn't bother to attack much late in the game and it's even more mind-boggling. The Penguins had the puck on their sticks but they just didn't fire it as much as one may have hoped. Credit Moose for stopping those that did get through, but credit the skaters for holding their position and not getting caught out of it often.
So in a second game of a back-to-back that wasn't filled with penalties, the Devils got a lead and managed to out-attempt the Penguins, one of the best teams in the league in this category, at even strength. Amazing. Here's how the Penguins broke down:
During the game, Dan Bylsma gave plenty of extra shifts to Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. So sometimes they were together, and those times went pretty well. When they were apart, well, Crosby was fine but Malkin did not. Crosby's other linemates included Chris Kunitz, who did quite well on the attack. Malkin's included Neal, who wasn't so strong at evens, and Zach Boychuk, who was beaten a lot at evens and his biggest highlight was flubbing a one-on-one with Moose. None of the other forwards stuck out too much other than Pascal Dupuis. Dupuis had as many shots on net as Crosby with four (Malkin had five to lead team) and he did well with #87. Away from him, well, he struggled to get forward. Tonight, I'm sure Bylsma wished he had two Crosbys.
With Kris Letang out, Bylsma has really worked Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik hard. They were successful in the possession game, usually because they followed Crosby. They each played over 22 minutes at even strength (Martin had 28:52 total!) so they got a lot of time in their own end as well. Unfortunately for them, the good Corsi differentials don't erase a rookie blocking Martin and then turning that puck over to Kovalchuk to skate a long way forward for a score. The rest of the defense, well, they played a lot of it because they were often in their own end. I enjoy seeing that the Devils to pick on the ex-Islander Dylan Reese for 18:15 to 24 attempts against. It's lovely.
The Devils' chart doesn't have too many eye-popping numbers. Also, I forgot to delete the (C) and (A)s from the roster report I copied into the chart. Sorry about that.
The top two forward lines actually ended up mostly at even or just below it. They generated a lot of attempts but given how the Penguins rolled through the Devils in the first period and that sort-of onslaught in the second half of the third, they also saw a lot of attempts against. The lone exception: Adam Henrique. When Stephen Gionta was out of action, he filled in and he did a lot of good work with the bottom six. Ryan Carter (+7) and Jacob Josefson (+6) don't get positive values like that without his help tonight. Clearly, Henrique had a good game.
What's more impressive was the defense tonight. Bryce Salvador, along with Mark Fayne, actually came out ahead in Corsi differential. That's especially good for the captain since he usually sees a lot of the opposition in his end during his ice time. He's had a lot of negative Corsi games, so a positive one against Pittsburgh in 19:07 of even strength ice time on the road is really worth highlighting. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene stayed above zero which was good, since they each played over 22 minutes at evens. Again, that's big given the quality of the opposition. The new third pairing of Anton Volchenkov and Marek Zidlicky didn't get lit up too much.
Of course, I could have summed up the Devils' performance at evens by stating this: Krys Barch played 9:42 tonight and wasn't negative in Corsi despite the last of his 12 shifts required him to play 1:35 in his own end. And that last shift came past the halfway mark of the third period. When Krys Barch plays that much and wasn't a net negative, what more do you want me to say?
Clarkson Continues to Make Me Look Foolish - And I Love It: I know I was the one who said that Clarkson was on a hot streak and we shouldn't expect it to continue a little over a week ago. I am happy to see him make me look foolish for dialing down the enthusiasm as he scored his eighth and ninth goal of the season tonight. To put that in perspective, only one man in the NHL has more goals than Clarkson: Tomas Vanek with 11.
While Clarkson wasn't an automatic attempt per shift guy, when that Henrique line was able to establish their presence, he looked great. Clarkson won pucks, he kept cycling when he could, and he kept at it. Of course his biggest accomplishments were his two goals. The first was excellent; he demonstrated a lot of strength to keep the puck while Engelland harassed him and then pull it to the top corner. It was sensational as it was surprising since the Devils spent so little time on offense in the first period. The second goal was quite good, he took down Elias shot and put it in around Vokoun's right leg. He managed to evade Brooks Orpik except for after he scored when the defender just hit the unaware winger hard. Clarkson was OK and he tacked on two more shots to make it five out of six attempts for the evening. The right winger remains more than all right on the second line and he proved his spot with another strong game tonight. Eventually he's got to cool off (right? right?) but for now, let's enjoy the
Sore Stevie G: Stephen Gionta didn't have that good of a game tonight. He took two penalties, he got beaten pretty badly in Corsi, he didn't generate a single shot attempt, and he went 2-for-10 on faceoffs. I do feel bad for the diminutive center. Very early in the second period, he lost an edge on a forecheck and slid real hard into the boards. It looked and sounded painful. After a discussion with the trainer and getting up on his own power, he went to the locker room and missed several minutes. He did return later in the period and played six minutes or so total. I hope he hasn't sustained an injury and played through it.
Congratulations: Stefan Matteau earned his first assist in the NHL when he found Kovalchuk in the neutral zone after stopping Paul Martin at the blueline. It was a primary and a legit pass. Matteau did well in terms of possession and he played 13:57 tonight. I'm sure the lead allowed him more minutes than usual, but he was pretty good tonight. He had a shot and threw his body around quite a bit.
Not So Good: While Moose was great, I can't say the same for Vokoun. I'm not sure how he got caught up on Clarkson's first goal, maybe the bodies in front got in his way. But he really didn't look good on the other two goals. A five-hole goal on an open, clear shot is pretty bad. On Clarkson's second, he was already down and he's turned away from Clarkson (see the big picture at the top of this recap). That made it easier for Clarkson to bury the puck. He could've been better for Pittsburgh in my opinion. Of course, since Crosby and Malkin put up nine shots of all kinds and none get through Hedberg, I wouldn't say Vokoun lost the game for the Pens. He just didn't help enough.
Not a Half-Game Hero: Ilya Kovalchuk only played 21:42 tonight. He had three shots out of six attempts and torched Vokoun's five hole on a two-on-one I'm sure many Devils fans were screaming at their TVs, radios, or computers for him to shoot it. Well, he did it. That's now five points in three games so if he's heating up, well, thank you Tomas Vokoun for keeping your legs open. In general, I liked how he played after the first period - something I can say for pretty much all of the skaters
Not Quite Clean but Called As If: With only four minor penalties called, tonight's game was not the massive penaltyfest like it was on Saturday. The Devils ended up with three of them and they were legit calls. Gionta did block out Pascal Dupuis illegally in the midst of some chaos and a loose puck in the slot, which I'm fine with to prevent a scoring opportunity. He also slashed Dustin Jeffrey, in which the Devils paid the price. Anton Volchenkov's clearance over the glass was just a brain-fart late in the first period. Legit calls, but the PK only got beaten once and it was on a slick play, too. The rest was solid as one could ask for: two shots allowed on two opportunities.
I was a little surprised the refs let as much as they did go tonight, much to the Devils' benefit. I felt Mark Fayne got away with a cross-check late in the third period and Ryan Carter did hit Crosby down way, way behind the play too. On the Penguins side, I was very surprised Orpik didn't get anything for hitting Clarkson after he scored his second goal. Clarkson was not at all prepared and Orpik obviously came in late. It was an unsafe move and Clarkson could've been hurt by it. Thankfully, he didn't appear to hurt anything after falling down. All the same, both teams kept most of their cool tonight. I'm sure both Bylsma and DeBoer insisted that their team avoid taking over eight penalties after Saturday's discipline debacle.
A Streak Snapped, but It's OK: Moose was beaten on a great one-timer by James Neal, ending a shutout streak since Hedberg got scored on by Nathan Horton in the Boston game. Moose was in control from start to finish and he even played the puck smartly. I don't know what's gotten into him, but I hope he keeps it up. With a back-to-back later this week, I'm looking forward to seeing him again.
I'll Admit It: I yelled "Whoo" when Krys Barch gained the zone and won a puck that eventually led to a shot on net. Sure, I did it for the goals and other plays (e.g. Steve Bernier and his slick hands by the crease for his two shots), but how often do you see Barch doing anything positive on the ice?
Top Defender: The Andy Greene and Adam Larsson pairing did well tonight in my eyes. Larsson didn't make any facepalm-worthy errors and Greene was just on top of his game. They had to be with the Penguins attacking early and often and they helped out Moose as much as they could. Put it this way, the only part of the game they didn't do so well in was getting shots on net; they combined for five attempts blocked. DeBoer gave them the most minutes tonight at even strength and in total ice time and they earned it.
Top Adam: Henrique looks like he's getting into a groove. He's not going to keep shooting at a rate well above 30%, but more games like this and he'll keep contributing in other ways. Keep it up.
Top of the Atlantic For Now: A streak continues to five games and the Devils are at the top of the Atlantic Division with a lead. I'd be lying if I said the Devils would have done this before the season. Yet they've fully earned their spot in the standings based on how they've been playing in these last five games. Let's hope it continues before a fortunate two-day break in the schedule.
Now that you know my take on tonight's game, I want to know yours. How thrilled are you that the Devils swept the Penguins in this home-and-home set? How surprised were you to see the Devils play so well after a poor first period? Which Devil did you like the most tonight: Hedberg, Clarkson, Henrique, Kovalchuk, Greene or someone else? How impressed were you by how the Corsi broke down? What would you like the Devils to do differently for the next game based on what you've seen tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along the game in the gamethread and with @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.