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Penguins Six-Pack: More Net Losses; A Potential Game-Changer



Dawson Mercer Erik Karlsson Tristan Jarry

NEWARK, N.J. — Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins are well aware of how important the areas around both nets are.

That many goals are scored and surrendered there. That games routinely are won and lost within a stick’s-length of the crease.

They just don’t often play like it.

Witness their 5-2 loss to New Jersey at Prudential Center Tuesday night, when the Devils claimed a couple of points in large part because they dominated the territory around the net at each end of the ice.

“They won the battle in front of our net,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “They won the battle in front of their net.”

Although it’s hardly the first time that’s happened this season, the problem was particularly obvious in this game.

“We have to defend harder,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “They got inside position. We didn’t control our net-front nearly as much as we should have, if you look at some of the goals they scored.”

Like the one Timo Meier got during a power play in the second period, when he hovered near the crease and tipped a Luke Hughes shot past Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry.

“Their first power-play goal was a wrist shot, a point shot, and they got a deflection in front,” Sullivan said. “That’s just too easy. … We have to be stingier at the net-front.”

Here are six other observations from the Penguins-Devils game:

1. Another stagnant start

The Penguins often talk about the importance of getting a good start.

Occasionally, they actually do it.

Tuesday night was not one of those times.

They were veritable no-shows for nearly the first half of the opening period, and easily could have faced a much greater deficit than the Devils’ 1-0 lead at the first intermission.

“The start was disappointing,” Sullivan said. “They came out with a lot of pace. We didn’t match the urgency.”

That might have cost the Penguins an opportunity to get an early upper hand in the game, had they been ready to take advantage of the chances that could have been created if they hadn’t been flat-footed during the early stages of the game.

“They were pretty aggressive,” Sidney Crosby said. “If we execute, we probably get at least two, maybe three, 2-on-1s. Maybe that makes a difference. They came pretty hard, and we didn’t execute.”

2. What might have been

Awful as the Penguins were during the early part of the first period, they nearly got out of it tied.

Devils goalie Jake Allen made a spectacular stop on Sidney Crosby with about 80 seconds to go before intermission, then rejected a Marcus Pettersson follow-up a couple of seconds later.

“If I put that one in, maybe it’s a different game,” Crosby said.

As it was, the Pittsburgh Penguins did pull even, although it didin’t happen until 7:16 of the second period, when Pettersson got a measure of revenge by scoring their first goal.

3. Minor penalties, major costs

Evgeni Malkin has long had a penchant for taking ill-considered, unnecessary — and often costly — penalties, like, say, tripping minors deep in the opponent’s end.

The one he committed at 13:30 of the second period, when the game was tied, 1-1, can be added to the list, as he was sent off for hooking New Jersey center Jack Hughes in the neutral zone.

While Malkin was in the penalty box, Meier scored the goal that put the Devils in front to stay.

But while Sullivan didn’t absolve Malkin of culpability for the penalty, he suggested it was not a stand-alone failing.

“It started with our lack of puck-management in the offensive zone,” he said.

Sullivan added that a poor decision there “feeds their transition game, and we end up spending whatever it was — 25 or 30 seconds in our defensive zone — defending, and then we get tired. And when you get tired, that’s when you make mistakes and you tend to take penalties. … It’s a snowball effect. It’s not just any one thing. It’s the accumulation of events.”

4. On the dot

The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the game as the NHL’s top faceoff team, winning 54.9 percent of their draws.

For a while, it didn’t seem as if they’d finish the evening in the No. 1 spot.

That’s because the Devils, who ranked fourth in the league, dominated them on draws during the opening period, winning 10 of 16.

They were particularly successful against Crosby, who went 1-6 during the first 20 minutes.

Both Crosby and his teammates bounced back, at least on draws, during the final two periods. The Penguins actually finished with a 30-29 edge, and Crosby was able to improve his record to 11-14.

That was enough to swell his league-leading total of faceoff wins for the season to 905.

5. All in the family

Devils defenseman Brendan Smith hooked Penguins winger Reilly Smith, who just happens to be his little brother, with just over five minutes to go in the opening period.

Referees Dan O’Rourke and Kelly Sutherland did not see fit to penalize Brendan Smith, although it’s possible he later was sent to bed without his supper.

6. Devil of a season

Devils defenseman John Marino, a former Penguin, sat out the game because of an apparent hand injury.

Marino had been cast as New Jersey’s primary shutdown defenseman this season, but has struggled in that role.

He has four goals and 19 assists in 65 games, which isn’t bad offensive output, but has a plus-minus rating of minus-12 that is second-worst among Devils defensemen. He was a career-best plus-21 in 2022-23 and, barring a radical turnaround, will finish on the negative side of Even for the first time in five seasons as a pro.

Still, Marino is having a better season than the defenseman the Penguins got in return for him, Ty Smith.

Smith, who had one goal and three assists in nine games with the Pittsburgh Penguins during his season-plus on their depth chart, went to Carolina in the Jake Guentzel trade, although he remains with the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre because the Hurricanes do not have an American Hockey League affiliate this season.