PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were challenged before the bye week by their head coach Mike Sullivan to buy into their team identity. The players said the right things over the past two days in preparation for the first game after the break. And after Sullivan doubled-down yesterday on the challenge to commit to playing better hockey, the Penguins flatlined in a dreary 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins are now 1-7-1 against last place teams. Worse, they were bereft of life and spirit in the first period. A pair of trailers were uncovered by backchecking forwards and both tickled the twine behind Murray.
“We talked a lot about getting this backstretch of the year off to a good start, you know, we didn’t have it. There’s no reason for that,” said Matt Cullen. “Once again we weren’t smart with the puck. We made some poor decisions and in general made it easier on them.”
Midway through the first period, noted Penguins menace Travis Zajac was left alone in the left wing circle. Zajac (12) took a quick stride and a sharp far side wrist shot later, the Devils had the first goal of the game. Zajac has 45 points (17g, 28a) in 63 games against the Penguins.
Five minutes later, the Penguins had not yet necessitated themselves. New Jersey defenseman Damon Severson had a country mile worth of space through the neutral zone and into the Penguins zone. Unfortunately for the Penguins, Severson didn’t need all of the room afforded to him. From beyond the circles, Severson (7) wristed it past Matt Murray.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now could beat up the Penguins play in the first two periods, but that would be an abuse of a corpse. New Jersey scored two more goals in the second period to pitchfork the Penguins chances.
“Overall, we didn’t play good enough,” said a disgusted Patric Hornqvist. “They won a lot of 50-50 pucks and that can’t happen.”
Just a few minutes into the second period, the Penguins yielded their 11th shorthanded goal this season. In an ugly culmination of events, Evgeni Malkin misplayed a pass from Sidney Crosby in the defensive zone. Pavel Zacha pounced on the free puck as Phil Kessel covered Brian Boyle from behind. Boyle (13) was unabated to the net.
Later in the second period, New Jersey emptied what little life was left in the arena. As Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang converged on a center driver–Zajac who strolled through the neutral zone without care–Blake Coleman was left uncovered on the right wing. The Penguins were again spectators to an open winger as Coleman (18) roofed the shot over Murray.
After Coleman’s goal, the Penguins already weak legs were gone.
Penguins center Derick Brassard who is twisting in the wind heading towards the trade deadline scored a power-play goal in the middle of the second period. Just 90 seconds after the New Jersey shortie made it 3-0, Brassard (9) snapped one past Keith Kincaid.
Brassard was ejected midway through the third period after elbowing New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen. Brassard was also given a 10-minute misconduct.
The teams traded goals in the remainder of the third period.
“They just outworked us. Plain and simple,” said Sidney Crosby as he shook his head.
After the Brassard penalty, Kyle Palmieri scored a power play for a 5-1 lead and less than one minute later, Penguins center Matt Cullen (5) stole the puck from Kincaid behind the New Jersey net and netted an easy goal.
Zacha (8) and Penguins winger Bryan Rust (12) traded goals in garbage time.