After Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres where the Penguins were not satisfied with the way they played, the players spoke about how they needed to get back into the right habits in their remaining two regular-season games to be ready for playoffs.
They weren’t able to completely do that on Thursday in New Jersey. But the positive is that Pittsburgh still has Saturday’s finale against Carolina to rectify the parts of their game that have been lacking these last two contests.
Tonight, the Penguins built a 2-0 lead that stood for almost two periods until Travis Zajac scored with just 1:27 left in the second frame to make it 2-1. That was the first of three straight goals by New Jersey, who battled back despite being down after 40 minutes for a 3-2 win at Prudential Center – the non-playoff bound Devils’ last game in front of their home crowd.
Matt Cooke and Jussi Jokinen scored for Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves in his second straight start. The Penguins mustered just 18 shots at Johan Hedberg, making his first start since March 19.
“I don’t think we did all the little details you need to do if you want to win hockey games,” Jokinen said. “If we play like this, we are not going to win. So I think this is a good wakeup call for us. We need to have a good last game on Saturday. Get some confidence and play the right way, get a win and go from there.”
Coach Dan Bylsma tinkered with his lines for Thursday’s game, moving Beau Bennett to a line with Iginla and Evgeni Malkin. He reunited Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, having them flank Jokinen. Tyler Kennedy returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch in the last game and played on the fourth line with Tanner Glass and Craig Adams (Joe Vitale did not make the trip and is day-to-day with a lower-body injury).
Bennett skated on a line with Malkin and James Neal earlier this season. He had the skill and the smarts to hang with those two, and he showed that he could play with Malkin and a future Hall of Famer in Iginla on Thursday. They created a lot of chances against the Devils, with Bennett and Malkin using their craftiness to connect for a few pretty plays.
But overall, arguably Pittsburgh’s strongest line on Thursday was the combination of Morrow, Sutter and Cooke. That’s a line the Penguins could utilize in the offseason, which would certainly cause their opponent a lot of headaches.
They combined for the first goal of the game. Sutter threw a centering pass to the front of the net from the corner, where Morrow had already set up shop creating traffic. Cooke, playing right wing, was able to collect the loose biscuit and put it in the oven. Cooke now has a three-game point streak, as he had assists in back-to-back games coming into tonight.
The three of them created a few more similar chances with hard work on the forecheck and by being relentless around the net. They combined for nine of Pittsburgh’s 18 shots (Sutter – 4; Morrow – 3; Cooke – 2).
Despite missing a lot of games in this shortened season due to injury or illness (13 total), Letang seems to never miss a stride when he gets back in the lineup. With the primary assist on Jokinen’s goal Thursday, Letang has recorded points in six straight games (though it doesn’t count as an official streak because he missed a game because of food poisoning during it). Letang now has 36 points (5G-36A) in 34 games, tied for first with Montreal’s P.K. Subban. Letang is the only defenseman in the NHL averaging a point per game this year.
Letang led a blue line missing Brooks Orpik, who did not make the trip and is day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday’s game vs. Buffalo. He played a game-high 26:07 minutes.
Letang’s assist came on the power play, which is now 10-for-33 (30.3 percent) in the last seven games. During that stretch the Penguins have scored at least once on the man-advantage in six of the seven games. It was a perfect pass that allowed Jokinen to seamlessly enter the offensive zone, where he sniped a shot in the far corner past Hedberg for his fifth in nine games with the Penguins.
“It’s a really good executed play by everybody,” Jokinen said of the goal. “In that breakout, you need all five guys knowing what we’re doing and having good timing. The biggest thing is (Letang) hitting me with that perfect pass. Just a great pass from him.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo