New Jersey is the latest opponent to drop an organic puck into the Pittsburgh Penguins’ holiday punch bowl.
The Devils defeated them, 4-2, at PPG Paints Arena Friday night, extending the Penguins’ skid to close out 2022 to 0-2-2.
A victory would have allowed the Penguins (19-11-6) to tie New Jersey for second place in the Metropolitan Division; the defeat doomed them to enter the new year tied with the New York Islanders and New York Rangers for fourth in the Metro.
The Penguins not only failed to score on nine power plays, but gave up what proved to be the game-winning goal late in the second period during one of those chances with the extra man.
“They did a good job putting a lot of pressure on us,” Rickard Rakell said. “The chances were still there. … It’s tough to win a hockey game when you get that many chances (and can’t score).
“It started to get a little frustrating when it doesn’t go your way. You lose your confidence. When you’re a confident power play, it seems to go in any kind of way. But when the frustration starts creeping in, it’s like a brick wall back there.”
The Penguins played without defenseman Kris Letang, who is listed as day-to-day because of an unspecified lower-body injury. He was replaced by former Devil Ty Smith, who made his Penguins debut playing on his off-side on the No. 3 pairing. Smith also worked on the No. 1 unit during most of the Penguins’ power plays.
“I thought that, for the most part, (Smith) did a real good job,” Mike Sullivan said.
The first period was decidedly low-event — the teams combined for just 17 shots, 11 of them by the Devils — but Evgeni Malkin provided a highlight with an excellent individual effort with about 5 1/2 minutes to go before intermission.
He stole the puck from New Jersey defenseman Dougie Hamilton inside the Penguins’ zone, then broke in alone on goalie Vitek Vanecek before sticking a shot over his glove at 14:26 to put the Penguins up, 1-0.
The goal was Malkin’s 12th of the season and his 1,179th career point, moving him past Sergei Fedorov and into second place on the NHL’s all-time list of Russian-born scorers. He trails only Washington left winger Alex Ovechkin, who has 1,451.
Rakell, on his knees, had a chance to add to the Penguins’ advantage with about four minutes to go, but Vanecek was able to deny him on a shot from the inner edge of the left circle as well as on the rebound.
Rakell recorded four of his team-high five shots during the first period.
New Jersey thought it had pulled even at 3:21 of the second, when Hamilton beat Tristan Jarry from inside the right circle, but the goal was disallowed immediately because of goaltender interference.
Devils coach Lindy Ruff challenged the ruling that Erik Haula had interfered with Jarry, but a video review confirmed that he had skated into Jarry’s blocker as Hamilton was shooting.
New Jersey was assessed a penalty because of the failed challenge, but the Penguins were unable to capitalize on it and Teddy Blueger tripped Hamilton 21 seconds after the Devils returned to full strength.
There was controversy again after Jack Hughes stuck a shot behind Jarry to pull New Jersey even at 6:18, but this time it was the Penguins who were upset. There didn’t seem to be any question about the legitimacy of Hughes’ goal, but the Penguins were sufficiently upset that they picked up a bench minor for abuse of officials.
Hughes’ goal was the third power-play score the Penguins allowed in less than two games after being perfect on the penalty-kill in the previous seven.
Jeff Carter restored the Penguins’ lead at 12:30, when he tried to slide a pass to P.O Joseph at the front lip of the crease, but the puck caromed into the net before it reached Joseph, who initially was credited with the goal.
In keeping with the evening’s recurring theme, the Devils were given a minor penalty — this one, for delay of game — before play resumed, apparently because they did not line up at center ice for the subsequent faceoff quickly enough to suit the officials.
But for the fifth time to that point of the game, the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to manufacture a goal while they had an extra man.
That proved to be costly when Hamilton scored from the inner edge of the right circle to make it 2-2.
Not scoring on their first five power plays was bad for the Pittsburgh Penguins; giving up a shorthanded goal on the sixth was infinitely worse.
But that’s what happened with 37.1 seconds to go before intermission, as Nico Hischier, from the right dot, threw a shot that got past Jarry on the far side, putting New Jersey in front to stay.
The Devils had an extended 5-on-3 power play when Carter was called for interference with 12.8 seconds left in the second and Brian Dumoulin went for high-sticking 26 seconds into the third, but the Penguins made it through that stretch unscathed.
Their power play had another chance for redemption when Haula got a double-minor for high-sticking at 9:02, but again was unable to convert and Hughes hit an empty net with 4.1 seconds left in regulation to close out the scoring.
“The game was there for us to win it,” Rickard Rakell said. “We just have to keep digging in, and do whatever it takes to win.”