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A closer look at the weirdest Penguins game of 2021

Against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, April 20, the Penguins became the first NHL team to win a game in which they were outscored by five in the third period. What did this 7-6 victory expose about the Penguins’ weaknesses?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins
New Jersey’s Jack Hughes skates against Pittsburgh defensemen Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci on March 21, 2021.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Penguins made NHL history on Tuesday, April 20, when they became the first team to ever win a game after being outscored by five goals in the final frame.

Thanks to a Devils comeback attempt that fell just short, that record is now 1-270-0.

The Penguins walked out of what was nearly one of the worst blown leads in hockey history with a full two points, but this sudden breakdown exposed some of the weaknesses that have been lingering for the Penguins even as they’ve surged to the top of the division.

Let’s run through what went wrong on each of the six Devils goals this past Tuesday.

The goals against

1. Nico Hischier, 0:41. The problem on this 5-on-3 goal just 43 seconds into the third period is the penalty that put the Penguins into that position in the first place. Pittsburgh begins the period already missing Kris Letang when Tristan Jarry stepped out of his crease to hip-check Hischier, who went crashing to the ice and drew the overlapping penalty that led to the first goal against.

2. Yegor Sharangovich, 5:14. Here, the Penguins’ confidence appeared to begin its rapid unraveling. Letang gets the puck at the blue line and puts a bad pass on the stick of Sharangovich, who tears down the side in a breakaway and bodies Letang on the backcheck to score.

3. Nathan Bastian, 8:48. The Devils’ first even-strength tally of the night sees Bastian planted firmly in front of Jarry as the Devils set up in the zone. Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci are in front of the net, but when Ceci cycles up the ice to follow the puck, he is replaced by Evan Rodrigues. Neither Rodrigues nor Matheson block Bastian from the play, and he scores on a screened Jarry.

4. Jack Hughes, 12:52. Jason Zucker’s line gets sloppy in the offensive zone, and the Devils make them pay by rattling the takeaway around the boards and onto the rush, where Dumoulin and Letang both drift towards the puck-carrier and leave Hughes open to score at the left side.

5. Nolan Foote, 13:56. Jake Guentzel’s limp clear sends a puck trickling into the neutral zone, where the Devils grab it and pour into the zone before the Teddy Blueger line finishes changing. While the Penguins are still setting up, the Devils score on a nice passing play.

6. Andreas Johnsson, 19:19. A harmless dump-in by New Jersey goes awry for the Penguins when Matheson’s clear attempt fails and the Devils get set up in the zone. In a move reminiscent of the play leading up to the Devils’ first tally, Jarry leaves his crease to play the puck. He is still resetting when the Devils score their sixth and final goal of the night from a bad angle.

What patterns can we find here to explain what was nearly one of the most embarrassing collapses in franchise history?

The obvious explanation is that the Penguins began the third period with a six-goal lead, so things like killing off that initial 5-on-3 didn’t feel as vital as it would have otherwise.

The credit also goes to New Jersey, which solidly outplayed the Penguins for significant stretches of this final frame. Yarangovich’s strength against Letang’s attempted backcheck was impressive; the passing play that set up the Devils’ fifth goal was an eye-catching display of talent.

But some of what caused this horrific third-period breakdown was the Penguins themselves. Three lingering problems stick out in a re-watch. They have been minor issues for a while, but it’s when all three go poorly at once that the Penguins’ structure begins to break down.

The reasons why

1. The lackluster Jason Zucker line. Back in January, Zucker was moved down from the second to third line. Since then, he’s faded into a bit of a non-factor on the ice. In 20 games since the beginning of February, he’s registered eight points (5-3—8) and a minus-7 rating.

The good news is, the addition of Los Angeles Kings veteran Jeff Carter has improved the effectiveness of this line immensely. Since Carter joined McCann and Zucker after the April 12 trade deadline, the line’s effectiveness turned around. With Carter at center, the trio has been an offensive positive for the Penguins. They’ve scored four goals and allowed only three; according to Natural Stat Trick, the previous iteration of Zucker’s line allowed more goals against than they tallied goals for.

The sloppy offensive possession we saw from this line during the third period of Tuesday’s game was likely a sign of new linemates still clicking and hubris from a significant lead, not a fundamental flaw with the line. That was confirmed on Thursday, when they put up a solid performance in the Penguins’ decisive 5-1 rematch victory.

2. Matheson’s defensive decision-making. We’ve talked before about Matheson’s impact on the scoreboard, and his skating is some of the finest we’ve seen in a Penguins offensive defenseman since Letang. His defensive decision-making, however, has caused Pittsburgh some problems. As Adam Gretz said as the time of the cap-unfriendly Matheson-for-Hornqvist trade, Matheson’s lowlight reel is nearly as striking as his highlights, and it was the latter that stuck out during Tuesday’s third period.

The most egregious came on the Devils’ sixth goal. At this point, with the Devils sniffing at a tied game in the final minutes of the third, the Penguins no longer had the excuse of being lulled into complacency by a comfortable lead.

Watch Matheson on the dump-in. With just 45 seconds left on the clock, the Penguins clinging to a two-goal advantage and no Devils immediately pressing him for possession, his best chance might be to just wing the puck out of the zone and risk the icing call. Instead, he attempts to bounce a tricky pass off the boards to Sidney Crosby in a dangerous complication of a straightforward situation, which sums up a good portion of Matheson’s errors in his own zone.

3. Jarry’s brash puck-handling. The Penguins saw a pioneer of goaltender puckhandling take their net when Tom Barrasso, who once registered eight assists in a single season, played in Pittsburgh from 1989 to 1999.

Jarry’s mistakes on Tuesday show the downside of having a young goaltender with Barrasso-esque confident in their stickhandling: mistakes are instantly costly, something we saw twice in this third period against the Devils. As Jarry settles into his role as an NHL starter— and one of the most frequent puck-carriers in the League— it’s inevitable that we’ll see mistakes like the ones that nearly sunk the Penguins on Tuesday.

But all those stressful moments could end up being worth it, as long as we get a repeat of this moment for the Penguins: