With help from Jussi Jokinen, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury protects the net as Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils tries to pass in front to teammate Michael Ryder during the second period Tuesday in Newark, N.J.
Paul Bereswill / Getty Images
Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils falls into Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury during the second period Tuesday in Newark, N.J.
By Dave Molinari / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NEWARK, N.J. -- It is the first of January, far too early to contemplate playoff matchups that probably won't be set for at least three more months.
And when that time comes, the Penguins are sure to say -- with good reason -- that how they'll fare in the postseason will have more to do with their own performance than the club they are facing.
Still, they couldn't be blamed for hoping that their first best-of-seven series in the spring is against someone other than New Jersey.
Not because they can't beat the Devils -- they do it with regularity at Consol Energy Center -- but because New Jersey consistently gives them fits at the Prudential Center.
New Jersey's 2-1 victory Tuesday dropped the Penguins' record there to 2-10-2 in their past 14 visits, and the storyline was as predictable as the ending.
The Devils got the first goal of the game, forcing the Penguins to play from behind all afternoon. And when New Jersey took a 2-0 lead, well, that simply was too much for the Penguins to overcome.
Against the Devils, anyway.
"We can beat them [in a playoff series], but it's not going to be easy," said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who scored the only goal for the Penguins. "They're always a tough game. They're hard to play against."
Particularly in Newark, where the Penguins find goals almost as tough to come up with as points.
"We weren't able to get more than a goal," coach Dan Bylsma said. "You're not going to win many against this team when you do that."
The Penguins could have had at least one more, however, and it might have altered the course of the game.
Shortly after Adam Henrique of the Devils had flipped a shot over the glove of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 1:38 of the opening period, Chris Kunitz had the puck on his stick and an open net just a few feet away.
That's the same Chris Kunitz who ranks second only to Sidney Crosby on the team with 21 goals, and who does his best work in and around the crease.
Not this time, though.
"It was just far enough away from my forehand that I probably should have just put it on my backhand and pushed it into the net," Kunitz said. "I just tried to flick it toward the net, and it just kept going wide."
An opportunity -- not only to tie the score, but to prevent the Devils from going into lockdown, as they do so well when playing with a lead -- had been lost.
"If I bury that maybe it's a different game," Kunitz said.
It certainly could have given the Penguins a reasonable chance to score more than two goals for just the fourth time in their past 17 visits to New Jersey.
The Penguins generated just 20 shots on goalie Martin Brodeur, although their offense did jell more as the game progressed.
"The last 30 minutes were better for our team than the first 30," Bylsma said.
Trouble is, by the time the game was 23 minutes old, the Devils were up a couple of goals, after Michael Ryder had beaten Fleury at 2:45 of the second period.
The Devils' defensive structure, coupled with Brodeur's routinely excellent work against the Penguins, makes the challenge of coming back from a one-goal deficit, let alone two, against them far more daunting than almost any other club.
"They find a goal or two, get a lead, and they put the clamps on," Niskanen said. "They make you earn every inch."
The Penguins' goal came when Niskanen took a feed from Crosby and hammered a shot past Brodeur from the top of the right circle at 6:58 of the second period.
That got them within striking distance, and New Jersey was unable to push them farther away for the balance of the game. At the same time, the Penguins were unable to get any closer, perhaps because their league-leading power play had only one chance, with less than five minutes to go in regulation.
"When we get one, you have to make sure you capitalize," Crosby said.
The Penguins (29-12-1) couldn't, and their run of eight consecutive victories against Metropolitan Division opponents ended.
Bylsma praised his players for not straying from their game plan -- "We kept at it. We kept playing" -- but that wasn't enough to change what has become a terribly predictable ending.
"We had stretches," Kunitz said. "We just didn't get enough goals."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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