Pens vs. Devils: 17 October 2007

You'd think, with the unbalanced schedule, that the Penguins would have played a division game by now. The NHL's scheduling computer operates on some complex calculus that mere mortals can't possibly understand, however. Thus, we get only two Atlantic Division games in October, but burn off two Western Conference games, and both Montreal home dates, in the first month of the season.

In hindsight, the tone was set before the teams even took the ice. Mellon Arena's crappy sound system was acting up again, and PA announcer John Barbaro's voice was creating tons of feedback. He got through the Devils starters and the scratches before stopping to give the audio engineers a chance to figure things out. As a result, he ran out of time to announce the referees, linesmen, and off-ice officials before the intro video started.

I think they were offended.

Right off the opening faceoff, Gary Roberts and David Clarkson got into a scuffle near the benches. Clarkson dropped his gloves, which should have earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct call, but the refs let it slide. In fact, the refs were letting things slide for most of the first period. The first penalty wasn't called until 16:28.

Most of the first looked like typical Penguins hockey: Soft defense and big rebounds from Marc-Andre Fleury. Meanwhile, New Jersey was (you might want to be sitting down for this) attacking! Instead of numbing teams to death with The Trap, new coach Brent Sutter has the Devils playing a more aggressive, up-tempo game.

You see where this is headed, don't you? Two goals by New Jersey before the period's half done.

First, Jay Pandolfo wristed home a rebound to make it 1-0 Devils. Fleury was down to his right to stop a wrap-around attempt, and made it across to the opposite post while the puck was bouncing around in the slot, but didn't get up in time to stop Pandolfo from roofing it.

About three minutes later, the Devils got a slow, awkward 2-on-1, and Clarkson fed John Madden for a slap shot that made it 2-0.

Then the most famous facial hair in Pittsburgh made its presence felt. The Pens battled through the neutral zone, and Ryan Whitney gained the blue line, slowed to look for options, and saw Max Talbot driving the net through the left circle. Whitney threaded a perfect pass onto Max's tape for an easy tip-in behind Martin Brodeur. 2-1 Devils.

Not long after, Danius Zubrus was called for slashing, and the Pens power play went to… um, we are on a power play, right? The first unit didn't seem to think so. After a minute of sloppy puck control, Coach Therrien sent the second unit over the boards, and they got the job done. Petr Sykora set up Sergei Gonchar for a blast from the center point, and Roberts deflected it home to tie the game 2-2. A late penalty on Madden gave the Pens most of a power play to start the second.

The first PP unit got straightened out. Evgeni Malkin dished it Sidney Crosby at the right point. Crosby then demonstrated how difficult it is to knock him off the puck, as he skated along the boards, behind the net, and all the way to the left half-boards, before he passed it to Gonchar at the center point again. No deflection necessary this time, and the Pens have a 3-2 lead.

At this point, the Pens were starting to look good. They had some good cycles in the Devils' zone, and Fleury seemed to be settling down. Then Jarkko Ruutu got a reputation call for hooking. Talbot had a good breakaway chance on the penalty kill, but his backhand shot was easily stopped by Brodeur.

Then Sydor got called for hooking just after the Ruutu penalty expired. Seems that the refs had made some adjustments in the locker room, too, and started calling things tighter, right? Travis Zajac converted on the Sydor penalty with a sharp-angle wrist shot over Fleury's glove hand to tie it again, 3-3.

And then things started to go downhill.

Another tight hooking call, this one on Sykora, killed a breakaway chance for Sid. The Pens killed that penalty, then went right back to the box again, as Recchi was called for a ticky-tack holding call on a hit that looked like it would have started a good forecheck. The Pens killed that one, too.

Then somebody greased the skids.

A nice lead pass by Brooks Orpik sprung Malkin and Jordan Staal on a two-man breakaway during a line change. Behind the play, a scrum developed in front of the benches. With the line change in progress, both teams ended up with too many men on the ice. By most counts, the Pens and Devils each had at least 7 skaters on the ice. A linesman can whistle a play dead for too many men, but they were tied up in the scrum. No on-ice official made a move to stop play before Malkin beat Brodeur to make it 4-3 Pens. No, scratch that.

The refs made two bone-headed decisions. First, they retroactively called the play dead before the goal was scored. A referee has the ability to call a play dead if, for example, the puck crosses the goal line as he's raising his whistle to his mouth. That's a fair cop. Who wants a hockey game to be decided by the reaction time of a ref's whistle hand? But you can't tell me that the three or four seconds it took for the play away from the bench to develop counts as "reaction time."  How far back can a ref go before deciding, "Yeah, I should have blown the play dead there"? Then, to compound the error, they only called too many men on the Penguins!

By the way, did I mention that the scrum started because Sid was face-washed down to the ice, in full view of every human being not wearing an orange armband, and no penalty was called.

Therrien couldn't really argue with the refs because 16,990 paying customers were booing at the tops of their lungs. For the entire TV timeout that followed. I couldn't begin to tell you what the trivia challenge was that night because every time they turned up poor Val Porter's mic so she could be heard over the boos, the boos just got louder.

The Pens had almost killed the penalty when the refs struck again. With three seconds left on the too-many-men minor, two things happened simultaneously:

  1. Max Talbot took a high stick to the face
  2. Sergei Gonchar tapped somebody on the leg with his stick.

Pittsburgh penalty, number 55, Sergei Gonchar, two minutes for hooking.

More screaming from the Mellon Arena faithful.

It looked like Sykora, who had been serving the bench minor, would save the day. He picked up the puck in the neutral zone as he exited the penalty box, and got another breakaway chance on Brodeur, but his wrist shot was gloved down.

On the ensuing faceoff, New Jersey had six skaters on the ice as the linesman was ready to drop the puck. Instead of calling a too many men or delay of game penalty, the refs allowed the extra skater to return to the bench. The last three fans who didn't think the Pens were getting screwed finally conceded.

Rock bottom came at 14:48 of the second.

With the Devils collapsing around the net, Brian Gionta crashes into Fleury, then Whitney crashes into Gionta. Gionta figures that the best way to get up from the fall is to push himself up from Fleury's chest. Meanwhile, Fleury, pinned to the ice by an opposing player, is in no position to find the puck. It's loose in the crease and in full view of the ref, who is so intent on the puck, that he doesn't see that Gionta is on top of Fleury, just a few millimeters to the left of the puck. Zajac pokes it home to make the score 4-3 Devils.

Fleury snaps.

As soon as he's free of the dogpile he was at the bottom of, he jumps up, throws the net off its moorings, and charges the ref who called the goal. The linesmen have to jump in to restrain him.

Michel Therrien snaps.

He's at the front of the bench, door open, screaming at anybody and everybody in black and white stripes.

Mellon Arena snaps.

Beers, programs, obscenities, and promotional mouse pads come raining down onto the ice.

In 2:24 of game time, the referees went from merely calling a bad game to losing all control of the game. In the end, Devils defenseman Andy Greene may have stopped a full-scale riot. By committing a puck-over-glass delay of game penalty, he forced the officials to give Pittsburgh a power play and settle the crowd down a little bit. Erik Christensen had a beautiful chance at a rebound with Brodeur out to dry, but he whiffed on the shot. The Devils were able to kill the penalty.

Then the refs, desperate to call some even-up penalties, gave the Pens about a minute and a half of 5-on-3 time after calling minors on Zach Parise and Paul Martin. Malkin punched in a close-range slapper to tie the game at 4-4.

Then Malone snapped.

With less than thirty seconds left in the period, he got caught for holding. He had picked up the puck to give it to the linesman before realizing that he was the one being called. Once he found that out, he spiked the puck at the referee's feet. In a rare moment of wisdom, the ref let that go. But Malone wouldn't stop barking on his way to the box and, as the ref was signaling the holding call to the penalty timekeeper, Ryan slammed his stick into the glass next to the penalty box door. That was the last straw, and he picked up an extra unsportsmanlike conduct minor. That gave New Jersey 3½ minutes of power play time to being the third.

Mercifully for the fans, the refs swallowed their whistles for the third. Unfortunately, that brought the Pens right back to the way they were playing in the first: Soft defense and big rebounds from Marc-Andre Fleury. Malkin was threading needles with his passes, and Sid was channeling his frustration into furiously intense play, but when they weren't on the ice, New Jersey had the upper hand.

Pittsburgh's defense finally broke at 10:38, when Aaron Asham snuck through the back door behind Orpik, and tapped home a pass from Parise. 5-4 Devils, and The Trap is now in effect.

Wait, did I say that the refs swallowed their whistles? I spoke too soon. Sid hammered somebody with a clean, hard shoulder check, and a ref immediately put his hand up and signaled… tripping?! Here come the mouse pads again – wait, Asham just went after Crosby and took a retaliation call. Never mind. Roberts and Asham squared off in the scrum, and the whole thing ended up a wash. Crosby and Roberts, two each, Asham, four, all for roughing.

By the way, did I mention that this was a national game on TSN?

With Fleury pulled for a sixth attacker, a linesman gives us one last twist of the knife with a questionable, and very late, offside call on a rush.

Final Score: Devils 5, Penguins 4, coefficient of drag of a mouse pad thrown by a drunken, angry hockey fan: 0.89.

Three Stars:

  1. Travis Zajac (2G)
  2. Sergei Gonchar (1G, 1A)
  3. Zach Parise (3A)

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