PITTSBURGH — On a night the Penguins probably deserved to win, then seemed definitely destined to lose, they split the difference against a desperate playoff contender, losing in overtime to New Jersey, 4-3, on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Against a staggering Devils team that had gone 13-16 since mid-January, the Penguins rallied from two goals down to earn a point, but Taylor Hall capped a typically dynamic night with a breakaway goal just 27 seconds into overtime.
The Penguins completed a compact comeback with 9:08 remaining in the third, when Phil Kessel bulled through a check and beat Keith Kinkaid along the ice. Derick Brassard snatched a quick Conor Sheary pass and churned up ice, pushing the Devils’ defenders back and making room for a drop pass to Kessel, who buried his 30th in timely fashion.
Both teams had their looks after that, with Michael Grabner missing on a short-handed breakaway and Justin Schultz unable to bury from the slot at the end of a three-on-one rush. With exactly one minute left in regulation, Schultz cleared the rebound of a John Moore shot off the left post, setting up sudden death.
“They play well, they skate well,” Brassard said of New Jersey. “I think it was a pretty entertaining game for everyone.”
The Penguins (42-27-6) have lost consecutive overtime games for the first time in a season in which they’ve largely dominated three-on-three sessions. They are 3-2-2 since a three-game win streak and are one point up on the Blue Jackets for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
“I thought we regrouped,” Sullivan said. “I loved the third period. We had all kinds of chances and we climbed back in the game. But we’re having mental lapses and you can’t have that at this time of the year.”
New Jersey (38-28-8) broke a two-game losing streak and has won all three games against Pittsburgh this season, with one matchup left to go before the playoffs. With the win, the Devils put themselves three points up on the surging Panthers for the Eastern Conference’s second and final wild-card position.
The course of the game drastically shifted with a handful of moments in the middle of the second period, when the score was 1-1.
Mere moments after Kris Letang‘s great chance from the right circle bounced off Kinkaid’s body and wide of the left post, Blake Coleman lowered his shoulder, powered around Brassard and one-handed a backhand shot over a retreating Matt Murray at 7:20.
The Penguins appeared to have orchestrated a pushback, with Patric Hörnqvist drawing a tripping penalty behind the Devils’ net, but Carl Hagelin was whistled for a questionable goalie interference infraction to even things up. On cue, Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel vacated the front of the Penguins’ goal at 8:54, allowing 2017 top overall pick Nico Hischier to guide John Moore‘s pass behind Murray.
“When you’re playing well in the first period, and you feel like you’re controlling the game,” Brassard said, “you give up three goals and it feels like a killer, a little bit.”
With the score 3-1, the Devils found their legs and hemmed the Penguins in their own end for several shifts, turning a game that seemed lost into a semi-comfortable edge entering the third. At least as comfortable as things get against the two-time defending champs on their home ice.
The mood Uptown picked up significantly when Brian Dumoulin unloaded a slapper that ripped over Kinkaid’s right shoulder at 3:13 of the third. Credit Crosby’s clean faceoff win for the opportunity that cut the margin to 3-2.
“Points are huge right now,” Dumoulin said. “We saw what we could do in the third period when we apply pressure and work as a five-man unit. If we keep doing that, we see the result.”
At the start at the game, the Devils had the look of a team at the hind end of a six-game cross-country excursion, getting out-attempted 13-5 in the opening minutes and trailing 1-0 at the first intermission.
Kinkaid did all he could to keep New Jersey solvent, but he couldn’t prevent Crosby from patiently gathering a loose puck in his skates and flipping it into a half-open net at 2:29. Jamie Oleksiak‘s quick wrister triggered the opportunity.
Early in the second, Bryan Rust had a sterling chance to make it a 2-0 lead, but he inexplicably held onto the puck after Crosby fed him in the low slot. With only New Jersey’s Andy Greene between him and the open net, Rust deked and fired wide from a sharp angle.
That mistake loomed when Devils standout rookie defenseman Will Butcher knotted it up on a power-play wrister from above the left circle. It sailed through a screen and past Murray for a 1-1 score 5:15 into the second.
Postgame Report Card
Matt Murray: C
Murray himself characterized his play as “average.” That sounds about right, since at least three of the four goals were stoppable. (I’m giving some grace on the Hall breakaway, with the Devils star in the midst of his best season.) It’s been a busy two games back for Murray, with 39 shots faced in Brooklyn on Tuesday and 34 more against the Devils, but he still has to knock off some rust.
On the positive side, Murray stoned Hall on an early rush and held his own on a few goalmouth scrambles in the second. However, he could’ve held his ground better on the Coleman goal — which appeared to surprise him — and the Hischier tap-in caught him out of position outside his post. (More input from Murray in our Penguins Locker Room feature!)
Sullivan didn’t exactly rush to the defense of Murray afterward, either.
“It’s tough to evaluate right after a game like that,” Sullivan said. “It’s an emotional game. I thought he made some timely saves when the opportunities presented themselves. But when you don’t win, everybody’s gotta take some ownership, right?”
Penalty kill: C
The Penguins went short-handed just twice, with the penalty kill getting an important victory late in the second after Oleksiak shot the puck over the glass. Allowing a goal there, with the Devils already up 3-1, would’ve almost certainly spelled defeat.
But Butcher’s goal from 50 feet was at least partially the result of an inadvertent screen on Murray by either Oleksiak or Olli Määttä, to say nothing of the easy zone entry that preceded it. The Penguins’ PK continues its late-season decline, having allowed at least one goal in five of six games.
“Luckily, we still have time to fix it,” Oleksiak said. “Just take a look at the video and commit to it a little bit more.”
Derick Brassard: B+
The only thing holding the fleet-footed center from an ‘A’ grade was his feeble defense on Coleman’s goal, but otherwise this might’ve been Brassard’s finest game as a Penguin. He was moving his feet from the front of his own net all the way to the Devils’ crease, generating seven shot attempts for himself alone.
He asserted himself with the body as well, winning a puck battle in front of the Penguins’ bench to set up Letang’s big second-period opportunity that just missed. Brassard’s poise on the game-tying rush was also notable. Don’t sleep on the developing connection between him and Kessel.
Bryan Rust: B-
Rust ended up with four shot attempts and did the usual Rust things, driving play north to the tune of a remarkable plus-19 shot-attempt differential at even strength. Only Jake Guentzel and Crosby were better on this night, at plus-20.
However, the scoring chance I mentioned in the recap above simply has to go in the net. Crosby has been let down by shoddy finishing on his line this season, so don’t be surprised if Rust stays with Evgeni Malkin — where he finished the game — or ends up alongside Brassard when Zach Aston-Reese makes his return.
PPG Paints Arena crowd: A
While social media was ablaze with freakouts of all shapes and sizes, the folks in attendance helped lift the Penguins’ energy early in the third, when the home team clearly had regrouped in the dressing room.
It’s been a pretty quiet regular season at the Paint Can, but the crowd was in playoff form Friday. They were rewarded with a wildly entertaining third period.
They were opportunistic, but overall not the type of effort one would expect from a team in need of points. End of a trip or not, they were fortunate Kinkaid was on his game early and that the Penguins got frustrated by some bad breaks in the second period.