File this under What the Hell?! Or stronger language if you prefer. The Pittsburgh Penguins scored just six goals in their previous three games and scored five goals in the first 22 minutes on Tuesday night. They tried to coast past the crumbling New Jersey Devils who have just two wins in their last 15 games. The Penguins led 6-0, including a gifted a highlight reel softie by New Jersey starter Scott Wedgewood and the Penguins smiled until New Jersey mounted a six-goal third period.
Yes, New Jersey scored six, YES SIX, goals in the third period. And the Penguins were serving up the chances with end-to-end sloppy play.
“It’s two points. At this time of year…it’s a win,” Evan Rodrigues said simply.
Sidney Crosby (18) scored the chili goal midway through the third period with a tight-angle one-timer. It should have been a laugher, but Crosby’s goal became the necessary space between a victory and a historically embarrassing blown lead. The Penguins eventually won and that was the GWG.
New Jersey was 2-10-2 in its previous 14 but has battled the Penguins to a near-even draw in five games this season. By the middle of the second period, New Jersey was ready to crawl under a stool at Shales. However, it appeared the Penguins beat them there.
“We just took our foot off the gas pedal. That was really it,” Rodrigues said. “They have a lot of skill on that team and we turned it into a run and gun game. They started capitalizing. It’s not something you like to see happen.”
Despite the Penguins offensive outburst, only four Penguins had multiple points, Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Evan Rodrigues, and Jared McCann. Otherwise, 13 Penguins including goalie Tristan Jarry had single points.
The game was decided by the end of the first period.
Nearly four minutes into the game, the Penguins game plan emerged. The team controlled the corners and deployed the low-to-high game. From the point, defenseman Mike Matheson (5) whistled a snapshot past Wedgewood. 1-0.
Cody Ceci earned an assist for his sixth point in seven games.
Four minutes later, the Penguins game added the speed rush. Sidney Crosby sprang Bryan Rust on a breakaway. Rust swept across Wedgewood and tucked it inside the far post. 2-0.
Then 45 seconds later Brian Dumoulin scored a goal which will be shown in the season-ending highlights. Dumoulin easily skated to the red line and flipped a backhander into the New Jersey zone. Dumoulin’s (3) chip was on goal and is bounced right past Wedgewood. Oops. 3-0.
Late in the first period, the Penguins disposed of any myths of a competitive game. Another speed rush with the Penguins’ second line centered by Jeff Carter gained the zone. Jared McCann pushed a bouncing puck towards Carter in the slot and Carter (9) slapped it like a bouncing foam puck in gym class. 4-0.
Scott Wedgewood was done after the first period. He stopped nine of 13 shots before it was Aaron Dell’s turn to face the onslaught.
In the first 72 seconds of the second period, Evan Rodrigues showed the unheralded offensive skills he’s flashed this season with the Penguins. After a defensive play and subsequent dump-in by Zach Aston-Reese, Rodrigues tracked the puck and made a nearly blind backhand pass to Teddy Blueger in the slot. Blueger (6) whipped it past Dell. 5-0.
Later in the second period, the Penguins power play which was previously neglected from the fun got its chance. The power play featured tape-to-tape passes as the New Jersey PK waved the white flag. Jason Zucker retrieved a couple of loose pucks and Rodrigues (7) finished with a quick wrist shot. 6-0.
The Penguins were lax in the third period and the scoreboard tightened when New Jersey scored three goals in the first nine minutes.
“We weren’t quite as detail-oriented. We were sloppy,” Rust said. “We need to do a better job of realizing that after a one or two goals.”
With New Jersey on the power play, captain and former first-overall pick Nico Hischier earned a 5v3 power play when he embellished his grazing contact with Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry. Ten seconds later, Hischier finished a one-timer to break the shutout. 6-1.
Several minutes later, Yegor Sharangovich (11) intercepted Kris Letang’s pass and scored a shorthanded breakaway. 6-2.
Nathan Bastian (3) made things interesting when he deflected Will Butcher’s point shot to make the game 6-3 with 11 minutes remaining.
Crosby’s snipe made it 7-3 but the Pittsburgh Penguins could not tighten their game and New Jersey scored a fifth goal in the final period.
With eight minutes left, Jack Hughes capitalized on a Letang misplay and zipped a left-wing wrister past Jarry. 7-4. And one minute later, Nolan Foote (1) scored his first NHL goal. And everyone wondered if New Jersey could complete the mountainous comeback.
The Pittsburgh Penguins finally closed the store, but not without one more goal and another late chance by New Jersey. Andreas Johansson (4) scored an unassisted goal with 39 seconds remaining. And Jarry had to make one more save in the final seconds.
Jarry stopped 24 of 30 and a laugher turned into dark humor. The Penguins did pull within one point of the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders for the East Division lead.