NEWARK, NJ — Truth be told, it’s been a rocky start for the New Jersey Devils. But it’s not how you start — it’s how you finish.
With just five wins in 17 games entering Friday night’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins — and six losses at home when playing with a lead in the third period — it has been a season of missed opportunities so far for the Devils. Much was expected… and so far not much has been delivered.
But on Military Appreciation Night, the Devils marched to the beat of their own drum, rallying the troops with a pair of goals from Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman while goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood held the fort with 38 saves on 39 shots en route to a 2-1 triumph over the Penguins Friday Night at Prudential Center.
Coleman’s goal, with 4.1 seconds left in the second period, came at the most opportune time for the Devils, turning the tide in the game — and perhaps their season. Most importantly, the team dug in, held the line and did not let another lead slip away in the third.
“Guys were committed — all four lines, three sets of D — and it was no secret Blackwood was an absolute stud tonight,” said Coleman, whose unassisted goal proved to be the game-winner. “Everybody bought-in — the little battles, the blocked shots, the things that don’t show up (on the scoresheet) — it was evident and you could see it in everybody… Guys wanted to be out there and make a difference.”
The Penguins cut the deficit to one when Jack Johnson scored with eight minutes remaining in regulation, but Blackwood would not yield again.
“Everyone was battling out there — guys were getting into it,” Blackwood said. “(Pittsburgh) had a heavy forecheck. They’re really good in the offensive zone creating chances off the forecheck (but) guys were getting into shot lanes, blocking shots, getting their sticks into lanes, sticks on pucks.. a little mayhem there at the end but we were able to hold that one down and get the two points.”
With two wins in their last three, the Devils (6-8-4) are just six points back of Pittsburgh for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Optimism has returned for the moment but Devils’ coach John Hynes knows the road is long and it will take a full 82-game schedule to decide their fate.
“It’s a process we have to go through here,” Hynes said. “It can’t be about trying to get to the end, trying to find a way to win. We need to do the right things under pressure and put pucks away.
“Tonight, we were fortunate because our goalie made some big saves in that situation,” Hynes said. “But a big part of that is finding your way through it and get the saves when you need it, when you have the breakdowns. Some of it is mental and confidence and understanding — we just need to go through it, progress and get better.”
Zajac opened the scoring 6:59 into the action, assisted by Jesper Bratt. Blackwood withstood the Pittsburgh onslaught with 13 saves in the first and 15 more in the second before Coleman converted in the waning moments of the middle frame.
“Kind of surprised myself,” Coleman said with a laugh, “but it’s been an emphasis in my head to get to the net a little bit more, get more chances, get some offense. Sometimes it takes an ugly one to get you back.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 16, 2019
“It was big,” Hynes said of Coleman’s fourth goal of the season. “We’ve had some things go against us with goals going in at the end of periods. We know what that’s like.
“Coleman played really well tonight. With his physicality and how tenacious he was, and to put one in the net was a good reward for all hard work they bring most nights. It was nice to get that one and go up by two goals. We’ll certainly take that one at the end of a period.”
Pittsburgh, which drops to 10-7-2, was without team captain Sidney Crosby as well as top defenseman Kris Letang. Crosby just underwent core muscle surgery which will knock him out for six weeks, while injuries continue to linger for Letang who has not played since Nov. 4. Adding further insult to injury, centerman Nick Bjugstad left the game in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return for the Penguins, which outshot New Jersey 39-21 in the game.
Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray is not making excuses and did not mince words after the team’s third loss in their last five.
“Average at best. I mean, I’ve got to be better if we want to win the game,” Murray said of his performance. “We were the better team out there, and we deserved better.”
“It’s a tough one, I think we would have liked that second goal (back),” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It was one of those fluky ones, he didn’t field it clean. It was kind of a nothing play that wound up in the back of our net.”
The win felt pretty good for Devils’ team captain Andy Greene.
“Obviously, we have some battle scars there,” Greene said. “It was big for us. It’s important for us when we get into these situations to keep improving, get better and more comfortable with it.
“They’re a really good team off the rush. They generate a lot of chances off that but we limited their chances,” Greene said. “We had to battle and defend and play defense. I thought we did a good job and stayed within our structure.”
Want one of these jerseys, worn at our Military Appreciation Night presented by @Prudential?
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 16, 2019
Related: Rivalry Renewed! Devils beat Rangers
New Jersey is back at it Saturday night in Montreal. Former goaltender Keith Kinkaid is expected to get the start for the Canadiens. Pittsburgh will host the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“War in the trenches and our skill will come through,” Coleman said. “Guys were willing, guys wanted to block shots. Two points — it feels pretty good.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
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