Back-to-back falling flat: Penguins lose to Devils again

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Pete DeBoer sounded like a worried man, and for good reason.

Several of them, actually.

It was late Saturday morning, and his New Jersey Devils were about to begin a home-and-home series against the Penguins.

DeBoer, aware that the Penguins had spanked New Jersey, 5-1, a week earlier, told reporters of the importance of neutralizing their speed, of avoiding penalties and of playing defense as a five-man unit from one end of the rink to the other.

And of the consequences for failing to do any of that.

"You can't let up in any zone, or give this team any room anywhere on the ice," he said. "Or they'll make you pay for it."

Although DeBoer's players couldn't hear those words, they absorbed every syllable of his message.

Enough to earn two 3-1 victories, including one Sunday night at Consol Energy Center that ran their winning streak to five games and tightened their hold on first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Penguins, conversely, have lost consecutive games for the second time this season and slipped to 8-5 after generating just two goals, both on power plays, in 120 minutes in their lost weekend.

Although stingy team defense has long been the cornerstone of the Devils' game, New Jersey has added a dimension to it with an emphasis on keeping the play 180 or so feet away from its goaltender.

When the Devils can force opponents to invest a lot of time and energy in preventing goals, as happened Sunday night, there isn't much left to try to generate offense of their own.

"They do a good job of wearing you down in your own zone," Penguins right winger James Neal said. "As good as any team does."

There's nothing flashy about the Devils' approach. They methodically move the puck through the neutral zone and into the opposing team's end and work to keep it there for as long as possible, and they are opportunistic when the pressure they exert forces a mistake.

"We want to control the puck down low, get chances from the point and battle it out in front of the net," Devils center Ryan Carter said. "I think that frustrated them, without the chance to get their feet going. It takes away their offense."

That's a pretty sound game plan. Or, DeBoer suggested Sunday night, a good strategy for survival.

"When you look at that roster, they have a way of instilling a little bit of fear into your belly, as far as how you have to play the game," he said. "Or you're going to get burned."

The Penguins helped to shut down their own offense Saturday by spending to much time in the penalty box, but had to play down a man just once in the rematch. And even though the Devils turned that opportunity into a goal, discipline wasn't an issue for the Penguins the way it had been the previous day.

"We didn't spend as much time in the box, but we still spent all that time in [our defensive] zone," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "We've got to find ways to get out of there."

Devils goalie Johan Hedberg withstood an early assault -- the Penguins recorded the first six shots of the game -- and was rewarded when David Clarkson threw a shot over the glove of Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun from above the right hash at 13:06 for the only goal of the first period.

Ilya Kovalchuk made it 2-0 by beating Vokoun from the left dot at 11:27 of the second, and it didn't take long for things to deteriorate further for the Penguins.

They picked up their only penalty of the game when Neal was sent off for cross-checking at 12:09 of the middle period, and Clarkson punched in a rebound at 13:20 to put New Jersey up by three.

Neal countered with a power-play goal 15 seconds into the third period, ending Hedberg's shutout bid with a shot from below the right dot.

That was the only puck the Penguins got past him, though, in part because New Jersey promptly forced the Penguins to resume playing in their own end.

"When you spend 30 seconds, 40 seconds in the [defensive] zone, you just have enough energy to get off the ice," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's really what they did really well, especially the latter half of the game."

It was the fourth time this season the Penguins have trailed after two periods. And the fourth time they have lost when that happened.

"We have to find ways ... to try to come from behind," center Brandon Sutter said. "We haven't really had that comeback win yet."

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Dave Molinari: or Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published February 11, 2013 5:00 AM


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