Penguins finally get better of Devils
NEWARK, N.J. — Under normal circumstances, a victory over the last-place New Jersey Devils in mid-February wouldn’t be cause for much celebration.
Under these circumstances, no one would blame the Pittsburgh Penguins if they passed around champagne bottles the whole flight home.
Bryan Rust scored a tiebreaking goal in the second period, and the Penguins secured a 4-3 victory Tuesday night. It was their first victory in four tries against the Devils this season.
“They had our number this year,” said defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, who had the goal that ended up being the winner. “It felt good to come in here and get the win.”
The victory helped the Penguins quite a bit in the standings. It moved them into sole possession of third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points up on Columbus and two points behind second-place Washington. It also bumped them three points clear of ninth-place Carolina in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
More importantly, though, a dominant second period gave a blueprint for how they need to play to emerge as a legitimate contender.
With the score tied 2-2 after one, the Penguins turned in one of their best possession periods in weeks, taking a 20-11 advantage in shot attempts, routinely pinning the Devils in their end.
“When we talk about a team identity and how we’re trying to play and what’s Penguins hockey look like, that’s it,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re defending up the ice with our puck pursuit. It’s a five-man unit, and it’s cooperative play.”
It also produced a pair of goals, the first stemming from an impressive individual effort by Jake Guentzel midway through the period.
Guentzel picked up a puck near the right-wing boards in the defensive zone, then flew diagonally through the neutral zone. When no Devils defender stepped up to stop his progress, Guentzel scooted up the left-wing boards and shuffled a pass to Rust at the left hash marks for a shot past goalie Keith Kinkaid.
The Penguins made it 4-2 with less than three minutes left in the period.
At the tail end of a tenacious offensive-zone shift by the second line of Zach Aston-Reese, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, Ruhwedel scored on a shot from the blue line.
It was the first goal of the season for Ruhwedel, who spent weeks at a time as a healthy scratch until Olli Maatta was injured Feb. 11. It also was the fifth goal scored by a Penguins defenseman in the last two games.
“That second period was really good by us,” Ruhwedel said. “We were in the offensive zone a lot. Guys were moving their feet. It was fun to be a part of.”
Second period aside, the Penguins showed, at times, how they suffered three losses to the Devils earlier in the season.
With less than five minutes left in the third, Matt Murray gave up a goal on a slowly sliding Miles Wood shot from the left wing to make it 4-3.
“I thought he was pretty solid for the most part,” Sullivan said of Murray. “Obviously that one that squeaked in, the third one, it is what it is.”
In the first period, the Penguins committed several blunders. Jesper Bratt got lost in coverage off a defensive-zone faceoff for a goal, and Marcus Johansson stripped a puck off the stick of Kessel for another.
The Penguins fought back in the first with goals by Aston-Reese and Nick Bjugstad before pulling away in the second.
“They had our number,” Aston-Reese said. “It was nice to get that one, especially going down the stretch into the playoffs. Those are important wins.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .