Thoughts: Game 36 – Two coaches are better than one goal; Pens lose to NJ 3-1

By: Meesh Shanmugam

Here’s a link to the Postgame Thoughts archive, in case you want to catch up on what you may have missed.

Devils 3  Pens 1

Record: 22-9-5

Goals
Crosby (11) from Kunitz, Pouliot

Click here to read the goal assessments

Gm 36 - Goals

Penalties
Bortuzzo (fighting) – Inconsequential (drops the gloves with Tootoo off of a defensive zone faceoff and they both receive majors)
Ebbett (boarding) – Stupid (skates towards the boards where the puck is being played and hits Gionta right in the back in his numbers into the boards)
Bortuzzo (fighting) – Inconsequential (gets forced into a fight as Tootoo grabs him, throws a punch, and then they drop the gloves and each receive a fighting major)
Despres (slashing) – Bad (tries to prevent Ruutu from playing a loose puck in the neutral zone and chops down on his stick, breaking it for a slashing penalty)
Team (too many men) – Stupid (Either Goc or Sutter comes onto the ice without changing man-for-man, giving the Penguins 7 guys on the ice with the goalie pulled)

Notable Players

Forwards

Gm 36 - Forwards

Sidney Crosby – Though the losses keep adding up, there was at least a bit of hope in this one as Crosby scored a beautiful backhand goal in a significantly better game than we’ve seen over the past few weeks from him. The goal was mostly an individual effort as he received the puck in the neutral zone from Kunitz, turned on the jets through the neutral zone, turned Greene inside out at the Devils blue line, and finally backhanded the puck over Schneider’s left shoulder. His performance was more than just a goal though. His puck management numbers were much better with three takeaways and three forced turnovers to go against only one giveaway and two lost pucks. Crosby will need to go on a goal-scoring tear to change the look of his recent trends, but that shouldn’t be a problem if he can string together more games like this one.

Crosby certainly looked more like himself as he made Andy Greene look like a pylon. (Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

Crosby certainly looked more like himself as he made Andy Greene look like a pylon. (Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

Bobby Farnham – Farnham may struggle to get on the score sheet, but his limited ice time has been used well in terms of physicality and peskiness. Farnham drew two penalties (unfortunately wasted by the lifeless powerplay), recorded 2 shots, and blocked a shot while receiving occasional shifts on the 3rd and 4th lines. His willingness to battle for the puck continues to draw stick infractions and his speed to a loose puck drew an interference call in the 3rd period as well. Farnham may not be able to finish the job, but at least he’s getting the guys out that should be able to do that for him.

Chris Kunitz – Kunitz had a very inconsistent game that featured promising moments (six shots on net), good decisions (pass the puck to Crosby so he can go score), a lack of control (three lost pucks in the offensive zone), and stupidity (a defensive zone giveaway that led to a goal). After a couple of games where it looked like he was trending up, this game was an overall step backward for Kunitz. His puck management was iffy at best and the costly giveaway in the 3rd period for the 3rd goal against was a back-breaker for the Penguins. On the plus side, it’s definitely nice to see him getting the puck on net more. However, he needs to put the puck in the net if he’s going to fail with other fundamentals.

Defensemen/Goalies

Gm 36 - Defense

Simon Despres – Opposite of Kunitz, Despres rebounded from a slight step back last game to really take control of the Penguins’ offensive pressure at times against the Devils. He was mostly stellar in the defensive zone with two takeaways and three forced turnovers, but he was also at fault on Jagr’s goal as he backed up way too far into the zone and gave Jagr too much space to get a clean shot off on Fleury. Aside from that one mistake that ended up on the scoreboard though, Despres was one of the only Penguins that showed promise throughout the game. Once the Penguins went down 3-1 in the 3rd period, he really stepped up his game to keep the puck in the offensive zone, get the puck on net (team-leading seven shots), and retrieve the puck in the neutral zone as quickly as possible. One of those instances cost him a slashing penalty in the neutral zone, which was bad, but also somewhat understandable given the need for a goal and the lack of offense that the team has shown lately. Overall, even with a bad penalty and a goal at fault for, I thought this was a really good game for Despres and it demonstrated that he is very willing to take on more responsibility and increase his role.

Bad penalties become much more acceptable when you're performing at a high level. (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

Bad penalties become much more acceptable when you’re performing at a high level. (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

Derrick Pouliot – Pouliot was another guy who demonstrated he’s ready for a bigger role with this team. He was placed on the top powerplay and shined at times with his willingness to skate with the puck and his quick shot. Though he only recorded two shots on net, both shots were memorable as they were released so quickly that Schneider couldn’t get a clean glove on either and both produced rebounds off of his glove. That’s a great sign whether you’re looking for Pouliot to score goals or to create rebounds for others to finish off. He also had a solid night defensively with only one lost coverage on a breakaway in the 3rd period when the team was pushing up and no major giveaways. Meanwhile, he had three forced turnovers, a takeaway, a pass interception, and a broken-up play – all in the defensive zone. Pouliot’s play, and likely his relationship with Johnston, will lead to some very difficult decisions for the team as the defense gets healthy. It’s already clear that he has passed up Harrington and Dumoulin on the depth chart…are Bortuzzo and Scuderi next?

Robert Bortuzzo – Speaking of, aside from the incidents with Tootoo (which will be covered below), Bortuzzo had a dismal night with the puck yet again. I marked him down for three giveaways and three lost pucks with no takeaways or forced turnovers of any sort. Bortuzzo was knocked off of the puck numerous times as the Devils clearly made it a focus to throw the body at him after the Jagr hit from a month ago. Whether he was distracted by that or he’s still getting up to speed after coming back from an injury, this was another subpar game for him. With young defensemen pushing to get NHL playing time, Bortuzzo can’t afford to have many performances like this one.

Misc. Thoughts

Powerplay Woes – As was mentioned on the broadcast, the Pens powerplay has somehow gone completely dead at this point with a dead-last ranking over the past month in the NHL. The biggest issue that I continue to see is that it’s a perimeter powerplay. Defenders are easily getting to lanes to block shots and there is rarely an element of surprise or quickness from high-percentage areas. Remember how James Neal used to always find that soft spot in the middle of the zone where he could rip a quick shot from or pass it back to a perimeter guy for a quick shot? (This isn’t limited to Neal, everyone on the current powerplay has done it, but he is the easiest example to recall visually.) Only one player looked for that soft spot and it was Kunitz for one shot that resulted in a nice save. The Penguins need to work more on their backside movement and finding those loose areas of coverage more towards the middle of the zone to get out of this funk. Crashing the net and shooting for rebounds (remember pass off the pads?) would not be a bad idea either. This perimeter look is just too easy to defend no matter who is on the ice. Another issue, though not limited to the powerplay, is just missed quality chances. Crosby and Letang both missed the net on multiple shots from inside the faceoff circles. Back to that pass off the pads idea, stop looking for the snipe and just get the puck on net until the offense awakens and loosens up a bit.

Bortuzzo/Tootoo Incidents – I had no issue with the first Bortuzzo/Tootoo fight, but the second one was absolute garbage and it was appalling that Tootoo wasn’t given any sort of punishment beyond his 5 minute major for fighting. After Bortuzzo was already held to draw a penalty, Tootoo first whacked Bortuzzo in the face with a high stick (uncalled), then basically jumped him (while facing him) to get into another fight that Bortuzzo wasn’t ready for. Tootoo proceeded to get Bortuzzo’s helmet off and then dropped Bortuzzo to the ice so that his head landed on it as well. The latter part is *possibly* an inherent danger with accepting a fight, but the entire sequence leading up to it seemed dirty to me. It’s hard to take the idea of player safety seriously when that incident ends with just a five minute major for fighting.

Um, maybe this shouldn't happen... (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

Um, maybe this shouldn’t happen… (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

Timing is Everything – The Penguins have struggled in many facets due to the plethora of injuries and lack of depth recently, but the one thing that can’t be explained by those issues is the timing of goals allowed. Yet again, there was another goal allowed near the intermission (Jagr’s less than 2 minutes before the 2nd intermission). The team had their struggles on offense, but they played well enough to reasonably think a win was possible. Letting up Jagr’s goal late in the 2nd was a deflating moment for a currently fragile (physically and mentally) team on a tough-break losing streak. While the trend of losing needs to come to an end, it would be a good start for the Pens to stop walking into the locker room already feeling slightly defeated after allowing a recent goal.

Next Game: 12/31 vs Carolina, 7pm

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