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Penguins’ woes against last-place teams continue with loss to Devils

Jonathan Bombulie
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A shot by the Devils’ Travis Zajac (not pictured) gets past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray as he is screened by New Jersey’s Blake Coleman (right) with Matt Cullen defending during the first period.
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Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid blocks a shot as Patric Hornqvist looks for the rebound with Andy Greene (center) defending.
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Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jack Johnson (73) and New Jersey Devils’ Drew Stafford (18) collide during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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 two assists and the Devils handed the Penguins a 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’re also 0-3 this season against the last-place Devils, who are 16-23-7 when playing against anyone else in the league.

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 away 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.

Coming into Monday night’s game, the Penguins were well aware they have had a problem taking care of business against bottom-feeding teams this season.

In fact, after morning skate, their coach was willing to grant them no excuses for their 1-6-1 record against the four teams that entered Monday in last place in the league’s four divisions — New Jersey, Ottawa, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“I don’t think it’s coincidence,” Mike Sullivan said. “It’s about a mindset and making sure that we play the game with a certain level of urgency that’s required to have success in this league. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing. I think every team in this league is good. They all have good players. I think sometimes the standings can be deceiving. My experience has been that if you don’t bring your best game, then you’re going to run the risk of getting beat.”

The Penguins didn’t bring their best game. And they got beat.

With about seven minutes left in the first period, a high Steven Santini dump-in into the left-wing corner took a bounce off the glass and past Letang, right to Miles Wood on the half-wall. He fed Zajac, who scored on a shot through traffic from the left faceoff dot.

Less than two minutes later, the Devils ran their lead to 2-0.

Damon Severson crossed the blue line on a routine entry into the offensive zone and took a wrister from the center of the ice that beat goalie Matt Murray to the glove side.

The Penguins created a few notable offensive chances on the two power plays they were awarded in the first period, but they could get nothing past goalie Keith Kinkaid.

They finally scored with the second power-play unit on the ice at the tail end of the penalty that yielded Boyle’s short-handed goal. Marcus Pettersson made a cross-ice pass to Derick Brassard in the right faceoff circle, and his shot beat Kinkaid low to the blocker side.

The Devils answered shortly thereafter. Zajac settled down a bouncing puck on the rush enough to slip a pass to Blake Coleman on the right wing for a shot to the top corner of the net to make it 4-1.

Kyle Palmieri and Zacha added power-play goals in the third period after Brassard was given a major penalty for a hit on defenseman Sami Vatanen. Matt Cullen scored short-handed on the same power play.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.