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A week ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were arguably number one in the NHL’s toughest division.
Not so much anymore.
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Sydney Crosby and Company slips, the final push to a 6-1 loss to New Jersey last Thursday night, pushing and crossing the Penguins for three goals in the first seven minutes.
“We have to improve,” Crosby said after the Penguins fell to third place in the Metropolitan Division behind Carolina and the New York Rangers. “We are not playing as we can now.”
Pittsburgh went 14-5 in its current skid time, which the Penguins have never led. They’ve conceded five goals in each of their last five games at PPG Paints Arena. It’s not a hockey game that leads to a playoff boost.
“I think we have to play smarter,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We can’t fight in some cases and I think that’s been the case in recent games.”
The Penguins are still in great shape to reach the playoffs in the 16th season. Meanwhile, the injured Devils have been in freefall for three months. For at least one night, New Jersey showed what could happen as Jasper Brat scored twice in the opening six minutes and Rocky Nico Dos saved 37.
“Of course, every time a team scores like us, it makes the goalkeeper’s job a little bit easier,” Dos said. “I thought we all did a good job tonight.”
The Devils wasted no time in giving their 21-year-old goaltender some breathing space.
Brat tapped a loose puck just 1:16 into the game for his 15th goal of the season and scored his 16th goal less than five minutes later and gave the Devils a jolt after missing two games through injury at the top of the body. Bratt’s second goal was scored 58 seconds later by Yeiger Sharangovic 3-0 and the Devils were in control.
Dawson Mercer, Damon Severson and Nico Hissier also scored for the Devils, who won only the third time in their last 12 games. DOS held off a wave of penguins in the second round to win for the first time since making its NHL debut in October.
“He (DOS) should be given a lot of confidence,” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said. “His reading was good. It happened. He was fast. I think his east-west movement was as good as we’ve seen outside of any goalkeeper this year. So he must be very happy with himself.
Evgeny Malkin scored his seventh goal of the season for the Penguins, but Tristan Jerry made it to 41 for the first time this season when Severson went 5-1 midgame from a blast point.
The All-Star stopped 14 of 19 shots he faced, although his biggest problem was the weak defense that gave the Devils many open appearances.
“We missed some really good opportunities,” Crosby said. “It’s something that we as a team have to be better at defensively and limit those possibilities.”
Two of New Jersey’s first three goals came shortly after the defensive zone turnover. Sullivan called a timeout and immediately walked into his club. Lashing appeared to give his team a boost, but Dos, who had an .862 save percentage in four appearances, held on.
In the first half of the second period came the best work from the Germans. Pittsburgh pinned New Jersey on its own edge for long stretches and 10 straight shots. DOS moved everyone to one side and Mercer made it 4-0 when Hughes forced a turnover from Marcus Peterson behind the Penguins net and ran Mercer forward.
Malkin’s power play goal gave Pittsburgh a brief life, Severson’s outburst from the point chased Jerry and the Devils were on their way.
“There’s definitely frustration out there,” Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson said. “Our job is to win the hockey game and when you don’t it’s frustrating.”
comments: Devils star defenseman Dougie Hamilton went 19:12 in his first game since Jan. 2. … Penguins forward Jeff Carter was awarded a double-minor after Mercer’s high stick that Mercer scattered on the ice. … New Jersey went 2 for 5 on the power play. The Penguins were 1 for 4. … Peterson was on the bench in the second half. He finished with just 8:54 of ice time.
Devil: Going to Chicago on Friday.
Penguins: Host the New York Rangers on Saturday.