Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Martin, Pens hold off shorthanded Devils

Even the Devils' favorite opponent wasn't the elixir for their inauspicious start. Perhaps facing former teammate Paul Martin had something to do with it in yesterday's 3-1 loss at The Rock. He was predictably booed by fans that attended the Columbus Day late matinee that followed the Islanders' comeback win over the Rangers. The less than sellout crowd (12,880) didn't have much to cheer for as their team struggled to find twine against Pen backup Brent Johnson, who came up large late en route to 30 saves.

In a game notorious for New Jersey dressing only 15 skaters with John MacLean down to nine forwards due to their tumultuous cap/injury situation (no Rolston or Volchenkov), his team didn't muster much the first two periods. Held to 16 shots (8 each), they fell behind the Penguins on goals by Alex Goligoski (high glove slapper) and Mark Letestu (PPG rebound). Amazingly, that made it eight straight goals allowed since the Cap debacle. Somewhat unexpected considering the firepower they now possess. If company man Ilya Kovalchuk has more scraps than goals thus far, then his turnover that led to a late Goligoski first period tally sure didn't help the cause. Halfway through, MacLean tinkered his lines sending Kovalchuk out with lone goalscorer Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott while reforming ZZ Popp. It nearly paid off.

With the crowd dead, the Devils finally came to life when Arnott won a faceoff clean back to Elias, whose one-timer finally solved Johnson at 8:20 of the third. Despite being three short on the bench, MacLean didn't make any excuses. His club certainly tried their best to get it tied, finally taking it to the Pens. However, a razor sharp Johnson wouldn't allow them to force overtime- coming up with nine saves in the final nine minutes including a sparkler on an Andy Greene laser thru traffic. He also denied David Clarkson from in tight and got a piece of Kovalchuk's putback near the right post keeping it out.

The closest they came to tying it was a great individual effort by top center Travis Zajac, who went around a defenseman and then nearly tucked the puck in with a sprawled Johnson calmly pushing the puck behind the net with help from Craig Adams. He turned aside 14 of 15 during the Devil barrage to help Pittsburgh dp something they didn't last season. Come away with a win in this rivalry. They got the two points despite Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being held off the scoresheet. Paying greater attention to detail, the more defensive minded Pens did a good job coming back. On a roster minus injured Jordan Staal without many scoring threats for Sid and Geno to get the puck to, that's how Dan Byslma's club must play.

It helped to have the steady Martin on their side. He picked up an assist on Letestu's power play goal that put them ahead 2-zip in the second. Then sealed it by lugging the puck out and scoring into an empty net at 19:49. A good return for a player who rarely shows emotion but did crack a smile on the bench afterwards.

The Devils only had two power plays compared to the Pens' six, which MacLean's penalty killing unit did a respectable job on aside from Letestu's rebound tally that may have caromed off Henrik Tallinder. They even killed off a five-on-three in which their opponent was far too predictable. It gave them a chance to comeback. Something they'd done against this team in the past. Perhaps that's why Byslma went with Johnson instead of Marc-Andre Fleury, who the Devs owned. In relief last year, the former Blue who once got his name into the record books due to three consecutive shutouts for his first three wins one postseason (2002), was steadier than the No.1 starter. No shock that he stifled the Devil attack and was named No.1 star.

As for the NHLPA making a big stick over Lou Lamoriello listing only 15 skaters in yesterday's lineup, come on. Both Brian Rolston and Anton Volchenkov got hurt and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond lost his head and a place on the roster after getting suspended for a fight he instigated. He was placed on waivers Monday. What choice did the Devs have here? They're up against it. Until the Devil architecht can find a way to free up space- something he did by waiving Leblond for the possible Adam Mair signing, it's going to be an uphill climb.

Still, a team that boasts a front six of Kovalchuk, Zajac, Zach Parise, Arnott, Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner shouldn't have issues scoring. Since leading Dallas 2-0 in their home opener, they've been outscored 14-4. It's added up to the club's worst start since '01-02. It should be noted that they nearly began '09-10 similarly until a frantic rally over the Lightning got them going. The difference is that team didn't face the expectations this one has. There's a lot more pressure this time. Maybe they're squeezing their sticks. All it will take is one explosion to get it righted. It probably won't get easier when they visit Buffalo tomorrow.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Patrik Elias, NJD (1st of season, 3 SOG in 18:47)
2nd Star-Paul Martin, Pit (ENG-1st as Pen, assist 2 SOG, takeaway, blocked shot in 26:41)
1st Star-Brent Johnson, Pit (30 saves incl.14/15 in 3rd)

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