Just as it did with past teams, the temptation also proved too great for the latest iteration of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Hall of Fame-laden team couldn’t resist when their opponent, the New Jersey Devils, opened up the style of play. The Penguins opened their game, too, but sloppy mistakes and turnovers were their doom. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said his team lacked a spark, and New Jersey outplayed them again in a 5-2 win at PPG Paints Arena.
The Devils have won six in a row against the Penguins, going back to 2021-22.
And the Penguins blew a golden opportunity to notch a win against a division rival. New Jersey was playing without their top three players, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Timo Meier.
That’s the equivalent of the Penguins playing without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel. Yet New Jersey hung five on the Penguins, who chased the next goal all night. Instead of leaping into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference one week before Thanksgiving, the Penguins allowed the Devils to leapfrog them in the standings.
“In any area, we weren’t really good. I think we didn’t execute well — we had a couple of goals, and then they got it back right away,” Crosby said in a hushed tone. “So they were the desperate team. I thought they just played better. They outworked us. Some nights, you’re not going to have your best, but we beat ourselves again.”
The game started well. The Penguins had several odd-man rushes, including successive shifts with a three-on-one, a two-on-one, and a three-on-one.
They registered just one shot on those chances until Bryan Rust converted a breakaway. And that was the end of the odd-man rushes. New Jersey adjusted, but the Penguins did not.
Instead, the Penguins were increasingly open through the first 40 minutes. The structured play that sustained the five-game winning streak they carried into the start of the game gave way to long cross-ice passes into traffic, drive-thru chances rather than sustained pressure holding onto pucks, and some uninspired stretches of play.
The amount of neutral zone turnovers was stunning. Pick your player. Malkin, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, down to Chad Ruhwedel.
New Jersey grew bolder to attack the puck at center ice, and especially at the defensive blue line. Their puck pressure was handsomely rewarded with gifts from all Penguins lines and defensemen.
There wasn’t one goat. There was a pasture full of them on Thursday.
By the end of the game, the Penguins more resembled the team that faceplanted in the first nine games of the season. Earlier in the third period, Jesper Bratt swooped through the offensive zone uncovered and beat Jarry top-shelf while traveling parallel to the net.
Everything about the play was soft, except the red lights on the glass signaling what would be the end of the Penguins’ winning streak.
Two more goals, 20 seconds apart midway through the period, as Penguins defensemen couldn’t keep up with oncoming Devils forwards, and Penguins forwards were nowhere in sight, sealed the deal.
“I don’t know that there was anything specific,” said coach Mike Sullivan. “We just weren’t very good — We just weren’t very good. I’m not going to rationalize. We just weren’t good enough.”
If there was a game to retrench into the counterattack 1-2-2 structure that the Penguins deployed against Colorado and Anaheim, this was it. Instead, the Penguins were a toothless bunch, chasing the puck and the game, flailing about with long passes and hockey reserved for a game of shinny.
The Penguins did not properly adjust to the Devils’ rush attack and puck pressure.
And this is just my .02: when the Penguins needed a spark, there wasn’t anyone to provide it. No one delivered a crunching hit. No one charged the net and punched someone. No one dragged the Penguins into the fight.
It can’t be Sidney Crosby EVERY night.
Pittsburgh Penguins Report Card
It wasn’t the worst effort the Penguins would put forth this season, but grading on the curve what they could have done to a depleted Devils roster, they lost their heads and never recovered.
Several years ago, Sullivan explained that a team trying to score wasn’t as good as a team that maintained its details and process. It basically means a chasing offense is bad, and staying within the game will create more chances anyway.
New Jersey suckered the Penguins into something akin to a track meet. The Penguins had five odd-man rushes in the first six minutes with a lightning-quick transition game and a flawed New Jersey tactic of pushing four in the rush, but then New Jersey adjusted. The Penguins didn’t. The Penguins chased offense, trying to compete with New Jersey’s rush game instead of flexing their low game.
“They’re opportunistic. They generated some good chances off of (the neutral zone turnovers),” Crosby said. “But it’s hard to say fresh off the game. I think that if we created a little more zone time, we probably wouldn’t have to worry about that as much.”
After two seasons of not beating the Devils, there are common themes. It seems every loss features the Penguins playing an open, sloppy game as if they’ve accepted the Devils’ invitation to see which team is better on the rush.
Hint: it’s not the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Power Play: F
My goodness. It wasn’t just ineffective on Thursday. It swung the game to New Jersey. The Penguins led 1-0 near the end of the first period until a brutal power play chance punctured their hull. The Penguins PP2 turned the puck over at the red line, giving New Jersey a two-on-one. Curtiz Lazar zipped the shot through an awkward stance by Tristan Jarry.
The Penguins never led again.
The power play was 0-for-3 with 4:41 of man-advantage time. They generated … wait for it … one shot.
It’s regressing again.
Bottom Six: F
Let’s lump the bottom two lines into one category for efficiency. Otherwise, I’d write the same thing twice.
The Penguins’ bottom two lines had a combined three shot attempts, according to NaturalStatTrick.com, and yielded 18 in the first 57 minutes. In case you’re not good at math, that’s a really bad ratio.
The Penguins’ third and fourth lines should have feasted on the substitutes at the bottom of the Devils’ lineup but instead were the main course.
On a tough nite when the team lacks a spark, it’s up to the third or fourth line to find a way to deliver one. Instead, they got served.
The worst moment was the shift after the Penguins claimed a 2-1 lead early in the second period. Center Noel Acciari tried a two-zone cross-ice pass. It was predictably intercepted, and New Jersey quickly transitioned. Tristan Jarry didn’t handle Erik Haula’s soft shot well, but no one covered Nathan Bastian coming to the back post. Bastian easily popped the rebound.
New Jersey scored just 38 seconds after the Penguins claimed their second final lead.
“Those are critical moments in games that we’ve got to take better control of,” Sullivan said. “End of periods. Beginning of periods. After goals are scored. Either side of those moments goes a long way to dictate outcomes. And we’ve got to do a better job controlling those.”
Tristan Jarry: No Bueno
Public service announcement: you can’t sit quietly and watch Jarry play a handful of good games in a row and then pounce on a bad game. One stinker in the face of some very good play doesn’t prove he’s a bad goalie.
But, yes, Jarry wasn’t good on Thursday. The second goal illustrated Jarry’s rough night and the team’s lack of defensive coverage.
“They just put a soft puck on (net). It’s hard — it’s spinning like crazy,” Jarry said. “So it goes off my blocker, and I make another save. It ended up bouncing to the back post, and I wasn’t able to get there.”
Jarry served a pizza, but no one covered Nathan Bastian at the back door. It was subpar on all levels from all players.
Now, we’ll see how they react. They lost five of six, then won five in a row. How will they fare against another speedy nemesis, the Carolina Hurricanes, on Saturday?