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Recap: Penguins fall to Devils to slide into Winter Classic

The power play goes 0 for 9 and the Pens lose again

NHL: DEC 30 Devils at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Penguins only allowed one 5-on-5 goal last night against the New Jersey Devils. Considering Pittsburgh was without Kris Letang due to injury and long since missing Jeff Petry, sounds like the type of fact that should work in their favor. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t meaningful as they allowed a goal while short handed and on the power play that also failed to score on nine attempts.

Add in an empty net goal and that made four scores for New Jersey, which also matches the number of games the Pens have dropped (0-2-2) heading into the Winter Classic in Boston against the league-leading Bruins.

It was the special teams time that determined the outcome of the game. Right from the start, the officials established a very tight game when they sent a Devil player to the box just 1:26 into the first period. Kasperi Kapanen would be the next to go just over two minutes later. Those two penalties would be the first of 14 total calls made on the night — including both benches getting rung up for head coach violations. NJ’s Lindy Ruff delayed the game, Mike Sullivan was issued a minor for abuse of officials after totally blowing his top and screaming at the refs for an extended amount of time.

It was the Pittsburgh power play that had the biggest impact on the game, they did not score with 16:27 of total time on the night, and in fact allowed what ended up being the game-winning goal in the second period on Nico Hischier’s short-handed strike for the Devils.

“In our minds, the power-play guys had a significant influence on [the Jeff Carter] goal,” Sullivan said after the game. “The whole game was special teams. There was no flow in the game. It was just all special teams, for the most part. That’s where the game tonight was won and lost. But if you’re asking me for my assessment of where we’re at, yeah, our power play - we’d like it to be better. But it’s been pretty darn good for a while. I think we’ve got to think in terms of how do we do a better job controlling 5-on-5 play.”

Some of those efforts resulted in new lines and strategy, which has been well over-due in some cases. Carter was moved to the wing and Teddy Blueger was promoted to center that defensive-minded line with Brock McGinn.

Struggling defenseman Brian Dumoulin was moved to the third pair and played a season-low 13:31. That figure could be a bit misleading due to the extreme amount of power play time, but there’s also no denying or confusing the fact that Dumoulin’s 9:33 of even strength ice time was the lowest among Penguin defenders in the game.

“When you look at how our team’s played here over the last stretch of games, probably the last six or seven games, I think the script has flipped a little bit with respect to our team,” Sullivan explained. “For the first 20-plus games, we were controlling 5-on-5 play, and generating a lot of scoring chances 5-on-5, and scoring goals 5-on-5.

“Our special teams was struggling a little bit. The reverse effect is what’s going on right now. There’s been a number of games where our 5-on-5 play, our underlying numbers aren’t where they need to be. So we need to do a better job controlling 5-on-5 play, generating more opportunities 5-on-5, and I think that’ll translate into goals.”

Sullivan is correct in that regard, but now finds himself needing to deal with another extended win-less streak this season where the different aspects of the team just aren’t quite coming together to pull off winning hockey. Against the Devils, you could blame the power play for the way the game played out — but it’s also the same power play that operated at a 39.0% clip in the month of December entering the game. That’s the type of flow that doesn’t last forever, and unfortunately for the Pens it was a night where the power play couldn’t find answers without Letang.

As a result, the Penguins find themselves still looking up at the Devils in a crowded section of the standings.