Devils fall short to Penguins despite a goal from Hughes in return, Hischier extends goal streak to four in defeat

It didn’t quite end the way they wanted it to. Even with captain Nico Hischier staying hot by getting the tying goal to extend his goal streak to four, the Devils wound up on the wrong side of a tough 4-2 loss to the Penguins in Newark this afternoon.

The defeat prevented them from picking up a third straight win, which would’ve constituted as a winning streak. Instead, the Pens did enough to earn the victory that moved them into first place in the Metropolitan Division. They are a point up on the Hurricanes and four ahead of the forever idle Rangers.

It was a winnable game. But in a season series where the road team has prevailed in each match-up, the home ice didn’t matter. Especially considering the Devils last two wins came on the road against Montreal and St. Louis.

Even the return of star center Jack Hughes wasn’t enough to get the victory. Back after missing time due to COVID Protocol, the 20-year old All-Star scored his career high 13th goal in just 29 games. For the season, the former top pick has 28 points (13-15-28). In Year Three, Hughes has certainly been productive. His offensive improvement was expected. He still has to work on being more responsible defensively.

Jon Gillies made another start in net. Without Mackenzie Blackwood or Jonathan Bernier, it’s the 28-year old journeyman who coach Lindy Ruff has relied on. With recent ’20 third round pick Nico Daws backing up, it makes sense to lean on the more experienced Gillies.

He was okay. Facing one of the league’s top teams, Gillies made 31 saves on 34 shots. However, he’ll tell you that he should’ve had at least one goal. But overall, he played well enough for a third string netminder. As much of an issue as it’s been this season, goaltending wasn’t why they lost.

Following a scoreless first period where each side had eight shots apiece, it was the Devils who struck first. On a good play started by Pavel Zacha in the neutral zone, he got the puck to Yegor Sharangovich, who was able to lead Hughes into the Pittsburgh zone. The crafty top center was able to beat Tristan Jarry with a good wrist shot blocker side up top for his 13th at 7:02. The shot even impressed the Pens feed.

Following the goal, the Pens nearly came right back. But a quick reacting Gillies was able to get across and kick out a Jake Guentzel point blank shot to rob the top Pittsburgh finisher. It was a great save that kept the Devils in front.

However, the one-goal lead was short lived. On a strong cycle from former Devil Brian Boyle, Chad Ruhwedel passed the puck to Mike Matheson, whose long shot from the blue line snuck past a visibly frustrated Gillies to tie the score at 13:16. It was one he should’ve had with the puck going right past his glove and in.

The Devils would take an undisciplined bench minor with 90 seconds left in the second. Although they didn’t score on the power play which extended 30 seconds into the third period of a tie game, the Penguins technically took advantage when a Kris Letang one-timer was redirected home by Bryan Rust at 36 seconds of the third. The goal came six seconds after the penalty expired.

Now trailing by one, the Devils got a good bounce to even it back up 2:15 later. After receiving a pass from Tomas Tatar, Hischier was able to find enough room to take a shot from the right circle that took a Devils’ carom right off Letang and the post for lucky number 13 at 2:51. The goal extended his goal streak to four straight. Over the last four games, he has five goals and an assist. Hischier is up to 30 points (13-17-30) in 43 games.

Another minor penalty hurt their momentum. Nathan Bastian got called for tripping Jarry, who could’ve had one himself. Although they again successfully killed another Penguins power play, the Devils couldn’t get any momentum off of it.

Instead, it was the hard work of the Pittsburgh checking line that made the difference in a game where Sidney Crosby was kept from scoring his 500th goal and the returning Evgeni Malkin (Covid Protocol) was a non-factor. On a good forecheck from Staten Island native Zach Aston-Reese, he fed Matheson for a long shot that rebounded off Gillies right to Boyle, who out-muscled Ty Smith to get his sixth on the rebound at 6:58.

It’s astonishing that Boyle wasn’t on a roster last year. Now 37, the veteran center still is getting it done in a fourth line checking role on a deep Pens roster. He can still effectively kill penalties and take a few draws while also scoring the occasional goal. His grunt work proved to be the difference in this one. He finished with a goal and assist.

Although they had their chances in the third with 13 shots, the Devils never could find the equalizer against Jarry. That also included a power play Tatar drew on defensive defenseman Brian Dumoulin with under nine minutes left. They went 0-for-2 on the man-advantage.

If there was an area Pittsburgh excelled at, it was keeping most of the Devils’ shots to the outside. There weren’t many openings for Hughes or Hischier. Hughes got one good shot on Jarry from the left circle. But it was low and easily handled by the Pittsburgh starter. If he was able to see it, he stopped it.

Once time got near the one-minute mark, Ruff lifted Gillies for an extra attacker. However, strong defensive work from Crosby got the puck to Rust for a two-on-one. He passed for Guentzel, who deposited his 24th into a vacated net with 67 seconds left. That sent fans to the exits.

It wasn’t so much that the effort wasn’t there. It was the Pens simply doing enough to win on Super Bowl Sunday. They got more contributions from their supporting cast. That allowed them to come away with the two points.

It won’t get any easier for the Devils. The two-time defending champion Lightning visit The Prudential Center on Tuesday at 7 PM. This is the make up game for one that was postponed in early January.

It’s the only game on the schedule due to the mandatory bye week. I don’t get the need for it. They just had an All-Star break. You get a Christmas break too and for American teams, most have Thanksgiving off. It doesn’t make much sense.

The Devils fell to 17-27-5 in 49 games. After Tuesday, they don’t play again until the following Thursday on February 24 at the Pens. That will be followed by a back-to-back at Chicago.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Jon Gillies, Devils 31 saves on 34 shots

2nd 🌟 Mike Matheson, Pens goal (7), plus 🍎, 4 SOG, +1 in 16:04)

1st 🌟 Brian Boyle, Pens game-winning goal (6th), assist, 3-for-5 on face-offs, +1 in 10:42)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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