The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t beaten the New Jersey Devils in three tries this season and are 1-4-1 in their last five against the scrappy swamp residents who have quickly and aggressively tried to copy the Penguins speed game since 2016-17. New Jersey occupies last place in the Metro Division, is struggling without injured Hart Trophy-winning winger Taylor Hall, and only last weekend finally received stellar play from top goalie Cory Schneider.
And they’ve still spanked the Penguins like unworthy upstarts.
New Jersey has outscored the Penguins 15-6 in three games, including a beatdown 6-3 win on Jan. 28 and a pair of wins one week apart in November.
“Usually when we have troubles with teams, it’s been a lot of self-inflicted goals against,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “There’s a fine line between winning an losing. You can’t give teams any freebies.”
Part of the reason has been the Penguins lack of focus against bad teams. The depths to which the teams sometimes sinks against lackluster competition would be funny if the Penguins were more than one point ahead of Carolina for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference (the Penguins are also tied with Montreal). The Penguins are 2-7-1 against last place teams.
The plodding, trapping New Jersey Devils are long gone. Factor the simple speed game which New Jersey has adopted and the Penguins have had their hands full, and their eyes distracted.
“They work really hard. They’re fast and they put a lot of pressure on you,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby who was named the NHL Third Star of the Week, yesterday. “Regardless of where we are at (in the standings), we should expect that.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has in the past sternly challenged his team and called out their commitment when playing the NHL lesser-lights. “It’s a mindset,” he has repeated several times this season which translated means the Penguins are mentally engaged.
“I just think we’ve got to better in the games we’ve played. Give them credit. They’ve played three good games against us,” Sullivan said Tuesday. “New Jersey plays a hard structured game. We understand that’s the type of game we’re up against. Our players are well aware. There are no surprises out there.”
Crosby did concede, “I don’t think we’ve played our best in some of those games. One for sure, it was a pretty tight game going into the third and we gave up the lead late in the game.”
The only time the teams have been close on the scoreboard was Nov. 13 in New Jersey. The Penguins lost 4-2 as New Jersey scored the eventual game-winner just eight minutes into the third period. The Penguins have lost the other two games by four and three goals, respectively.
New Jersey has recently been very kind, or unkind to the Penguins, depending on your perspective. It was Nov. 17, 2015, when the Penguins had a blood-letting closed-door meeting following a terrible loss to New Jersey. Just a couple of weeks later, the Penguins hired Mike Sullivan as their coach.
Sunday, the Penguins flirted with disaster, as they squandered a two-goal lead to the New York Rangers before Sullivan instituted sweeping line changes for the third period. The Penguins launched themselves to 6-5 win over New York and while momentum can be difficult to carry, the feels and the cohesive lines may stick tonight.
The Penguins will have to beat bad teams and play well against good teams to make the playoffs.
“It’s commitment. It’s focus and making sure we bring it every night,” Sullivan said. “Consistency. That’s what it takes to have success.”
The Penguins lines have been as inconsistent as their play. Perhaps tonight both will carry over from Sunday. Or, we’ll be writing about the consistency of losing against last place teams.