A three-goal first period proved just enough for the Pittsburgh Penguins to hold on Friday night to beat the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, winning for the seventh time in eight games.
After one of the strongest periods of the season in the first, Pittsburgh won despite being dominated by New Jersey in the second and third periods, due in large part to the exceptional play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
“They had some Grade A opportunities that we gave up, breakaways and 2-on-1s,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Marc-Andre had to make a handful of excellent saves. Not to mention the end of the game where there were flurries and pucks to the net, pucks in the blue paint. He had to be strong around the crease.”
A pair of Pittsburgh penalties in the second period allowed the Devils to show signs of life, as they closed a deficit that was 3-1. Goals from Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus highlighted a second period dominated by the Devils, one in which they outshot Pittsburgh 19-5.
The chances came aplenty on two Devils’ power-play opportunities in that second period. Pittsburgh managed to kill off both chances and improved as a unit to a perfect 12-for-12 over its past five games.
Fleury excelled despite facing 41 shots, making 39 saves including a key breakaway save with just over twelve minutes remaining in the game on Devils forward Damien Brunner.
“I think it’s not like a shootout where everything happens quicker (on the breakaway),” Fleury said. “I just covered as much net as I could.”
The outstanding performance from Fleury was every bit necessary. After scoring three in the first, the Penguins struggled to breakout of their own zone and establish a forecheck behind the New Jersey defense. The constant pressure was bending the Penguins until the final horn, but Fleury would not let them break.
“They came out hard in the second and sent a lot of guys to the net, looking for rebounds, tips and screens,” Fleury said. “Even though they scored two goals, I think we didn’t panic. Still focused on the game. They just missed the stick on the back door at the end (laughs). A good break for us.”
The Pittsburgh victory improved its record to 18-2 when scoring the first goal of the game, a marker second to only Colorado who has yet to lose when scoring the first goal.
Having scored only one goal since Nov. 15, Pascal Dupuis came into the game hungry for goals. On his first shift of the game, he made sure to silence any critics. It took Dupuis just 41 seconds to get the puck past New Jersey netminder Corey Schneider and open the scoring for Pittsburgh.
A Chris Kunitz dump-in turned into a scoring chance when Schneider fumbled the puck and couldn’t corral it underneath his leg pads. Dupuis rushed in and got a stick to the puck that floated out from under the glove of Schneider to push it across the red line.
“Kind of a dirty goal off the goalie (laughs),” Dupuis said. “I took at whack at it and twisted him around a little. Whistle didn’t blow so I took another whack at it and it went in.”
Seven minutes later with the Penguins still pressing forward, Joe Vitale and Brandon Sutter made a pair of fantastic plays along the board to spring linemate Chris Conner for a breakaway. Conner, playing in his 10th game this season, walked in between the circles and fired a wrist shot past the right blocker of Schneider to put the Penguins up two goals early on.
Head coach Dan Bylsma used the following words to describe forward Jayson Megna after morning skate on Friday: skill, speed and puck-distributor. But on his first-period tally, his fourth of the season, it was all about grit.
Megna looked as if he took a page out of the playbook of teammate Kunitz on his first-period score, crashing the net, banging around down low with defenders and depositing a rebound for a score.
After battling in front of Schneider with Devils defenseman Adam Henrique, Megna escaped the scrum and positioned himself above the blue paint with his stick patiently waiting on the ice. A Simon Despres slap shot bounced off the pads of Schneider and nicely onto the blade of Megna, who slid the puck off the left post and in to put Pittsburgh up 3-0 heading into the first intermission, a goal that proved to be the game-winner.
“I was just trying to get a good net-front screen,” Megna said. “Had a good battle there in front. Great shot by ‘Simon’ that found its way on to the net. Kicked out right in front of me and saw a little bit of an opening. I think I made it way too close than it had to be, going off the post. Just getting to the front of the net trying to create some traffic and fortunately it went in.”
Author: Dave Uhrmacher