After limping through a mediocre western road trip heading into their midseason break, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a week away from the rink to get their minds right.
Instead, they got pretty much everything wrong Monday night against the New Jersey Devils.
Travis Zajac had a goal and three assists, and the Devils handed the Penguins a thorough 6-3 beating at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins are 3-5-0 since an eight-game winning streak came to an end Jan. 6.
They also are 0-3 this season against the last-place Devils, having been outscored 15-6 in those games.
“I think they’ve just outworked us, plain and simple,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “You look at the games, they’ve worked harder. They’ve deserved it. As disappointing as that is and as much as you don’t like saying it, that’s the truth.”
It wasn’t hard to pinpoint the ugliest moment of the night.
It came with the Penguins on the power play, already down 2-0 early in the second period.
Evgeni Malkin couldn’t handle a pass back to him in the defensive zone and turned a puck over to Pavel Zacha along the boards. Malkin was shielded by the Devils forward as he angled his way toward the net. Zacha’s pass eluded Kris Letang’s stick and found Brian Boyle, who had a step on Phil Kessel, streaking to the far post for the goal.
The Penguins have allowed 11 short-handed goals this season, most in the NHL.
“It’s 11,” Crosby said, dumbfounded. “I think it could probably be a couple different things depending on the play. It’s not a stat we’re proud of, that’s for sure.”
Aside from the obvious impact the goal had on the scoreboard, it also shined a light on some of the problems that have plagued the Penguins regularly throughout the season.
It was evidence of a casual approach to mistakes with the puck that is a hallmark of all the team’s worst efforts of the year.
“A lot of games are won before the puck drops,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “For me, it starts with a mindset going in. Are you ready to play? Are you more determined than your opponent? We can control those things.”
The play also illustrated Malkin’s woes with the puck. He’s a minus-10 in his past five games and minus-20 for the season.
“Obviously, we’d like him to have more of a positive impact on the game,” Sullivan said. “He’s such a talented player, and he’s such an accomplished player and I know how much he cares about this team and this organization and trying to help us win. Part of my responsibility as his coach and our staff is we’re trying to help Geno through this process to try to help him capture his very best game.”
The Penguins fell behind 2-0 in a two-minute span of the first period. The first goal came after a high dump-in by Steven Santini into the left-wing corner bounced past Letang and onto Miles Wood’s stick for a pass to Zajac. The second came on a long-range wrister from Damon Severson.
Jack Johnson left the game with an injury with about 12 minutes left in the third period. Sullivan did not have an update on his condition.
Derick Brassard and Matt Cullen scored for the Penguins, who fell to 1-7-1 against the four teams currently in last place in the NHL’s four divisions: New Jersey, Ottawa, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“The foundation of the game is just rooted in competitive spirit,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got to be willing to invest emotionally, first and foremost. When you do, that’s usually when players and teams are at their best.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.