Perhaps it was fitting that the Penguins closed out 2011 the way it began—with a disappointing 3-1 loss. After all, the year was none too kind to the boys from the ‘Burgh. Starting with Sidney Crosby’s concussion on New Year’s Day and continuing with a spate of misfortune to rival the Ten Plagues of Egypt, the Pens endured more than their share of travesty and travail over the past 12 months.
Fresh off Thursday’s deflating loss to the Flyers, the Penguins were hoping to right the ship against the improving New Jersey Devils (8-3 in their last 11 games) and gain some momentum heading into the New Year. Instead, the black and gold served up a foul-smelling effort that packed all the aroma of rotten eggs.
With the notable exceptions of Evgeni Malkin (a game-high six shots) and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens appeared to miss the wake-up call for the 3 o’clock matinee game at the Prudential Center. Predictably, the Devils took full advantage. Following a brilliant stop by Fleury on Patrik Elias with five minutes left in the opening frame, Ilya Kovalchuk was awarded a penalty shot. The Jersey sniper flew down the left side of the zone and rifled the puck through Fleury’s pads to give the Devils a 1-0 lead.
The slumbering Pens quickly downshifted from dismal to downright deplorable. Arron Asham was whistled for high-sticking at 17:57 and argued his way to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Not to be outdone, Jordan Staal picked up a slashing minor 25 seconds later. Working on an extended 5-on-3 power play, the Devils’ David Clarkson cashed in 23 seconds before the buzzer.
Backed by the air-tight goaltending of 39-year-old marvel Martin Brodeur, New Jersey controlled play through the early stages of the second period. However, at the 12-minute mark Tyler Kennedy provided his teammates with a much needed whiff of smelling salts. The “Little Tiger” drilled Adam Larsson into the wall and set sail on a two-on-none with Matt Cooke. Denied on a glove save by the wily Brodeur, Kennedy returned to the bench and slammed his stick against the boards in disgust. It was the first real display of emotion by the black and gold all afternoon.
The Penguins finally woke up. Suddenly skating with passion and purpose, they were rewarded with a power-play goal midway through the final period. Steve Sullivan worked the puck off the boards and slid a cross-ice pass to Matt Niskanen at the left point. Rather than shoot through traffic, the Pens’ defender wisely hammered the puck off the end boards. The carom bounced directly to Chris Kunitz, who swatted the rubber past Brodeur at the left post.
Fleury kept his team in the game with a stunning save on Elias from point-blank range at 14:22. A minute later Brodeur returned the favor when he robbed the snake-bitten Cooke of a sure goal from the doorstep. Zach Parise took the air out of the surging Penguins’ sails when potted an empty netter in the closing moments.
Malkin’s points streak was halted at nine games … Kennedy’s streak (a career-best five games) was snapped as well … The Penguins out-shot the Devils 30-20 … Deryk Engelland returned to action after serving a three-game suspension … The Pens were 1-for-4 on the power play … Asham (lower-body injury) and Pascal Dupuis (upper-body injury) were forced from the game … Alexandre Picard and Jason Williams were returned to Wilkes-Barre … Robert Bortuzzo, Sidney Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Richard Park were scratches.
The Penguins (21-13-4) are off until January 6, when they host the division-leading Rangers (23-9-4) at CONSOL Energy Center. The Rangers beat the Pens 4-3 in New York on Nov. 29.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.