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Even in a brutal loss, the Penguins may have found their game

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NEWARK, NJ — The Penguins got off to a bad start in New Jersey and suffered an abrupt conclusion.

In the meantime, however, they found what they were looking for.

It’s been an uneven month of hockey for the Penguins, and although Sunday ended in a 2-1 overtime loss to the top-flight Devils, a dominating display of two-way hockey was ultimately put on by the team at Mike Sullivan.

“We played well enough to win,” Sullivan said.

It’s undeniable.

The Penguins were at their best in the second period, when they outshot the Devils 12-2 and completely dominated the game. They were also good in the first and third periods.

Marcus Pettersson appeared to win the game in overtime, but the Penguins were called for too many men on the ice. Pettersson jumped over the boards, replacing Jeff Petry, and was called for the penalty after scoring.

Everyone in the Penguins locker room, from Pettersson to Sullivan, agreed with the call.

“I have to be better,” Pettersson said.

The Penguins need to be better than they’ve been playing for the past few weeks, and Sunday gave hope that they’re starting to turn the corner.

Frankly, they played better on Sunday than they did in most of their wins.

Jack Hughes scored 56 seconds into the game to give the Devils an immediate lead.

Sidney Crosby, however, scored on a one-timer at 6:25 of the first period to even things up.

From then on, the Penguins took control of the game for the majority of regulation time, playing a stifling defensive style that hasn’t really been their forte this season.

“We did a lot of good things,” Crosby said. “We had good chances. It was a tight hockey game. We just have to find ways to win these games.

Dougie Hamilton won the game in overtime on the ensuing power play with Pettersson in the penalty area.

“We did a lot of good things today,” Petry said. “It’s a bit difficult to lose one. You don’t always know what they’re going to call those calls from too many men, especially in overtime. I was getting to the bench as fast as I could because I could see what was going on.

Ten post-match observations

• It was the right decision for Pettersson.

The Penguins have been guilty of jumping over the boards at the start of overtime several times over the years. Evgeni Malkin was penalized for this twice in one season a few years ago.

This team has been atrocious in overtime all season, so maybe they felt pressured to cheat. Although Pittsburgh took him to New Jersey for most of the afternoon, the Devils were the more dangerous team when the game went three-on-three.

If the Penguins don’t make the playoffs or get the seed they were hoping for, they’ll probably be able to thank their lackluster overtime performance. They are missing a lot of extra points this season, which hasn’t been a problem in the past.

• Crosby never misses a thing and he was slightly annoyed by something that happened in the first half.

I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know what he was referring to. But here’s what the captain said regarding the Pettersson penalty:

“I wish they called the one in the first half. But it was definitely too many men on us. That’s how it goes. It’s the right call.

• Speaking of Crosby, I thought he looked different on Sunday, and in a good way.

If you watch the Penguins closely, you’ll agree that Crosby hasn’t been at his best since the Christmas break. It’s just gone and a bit lifeless in some games.

This might be Crosby’s best game since the break. Maybe it turns out. From the first shift, Crosby was extremely alert and playing with laser focus. When he’s at his best, it shows right away. The bursts of speed through the neutral zone, the display of reduced power and his bizarre vision were on display against the Devils.

He hasn’t been at his best and he knows it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Crosby is about to leave on a tear. It is from. And from what I saw on Sunday, he’s starting to get back to his usual rhythm.

• The Penguins were exceptional in the second period.

It could have been the best period of the season for the Penguins even though they failed to score. Truly.

They had the puck for long stretches, they didn’t allow any odd man runs, and they put down the Devils’ considerable lineup of gifted forwards.

Sullivan was pleased with his team’s performance and particularly liked what he saw in the second period. Naturally. Also, the Penguins are still playing without Kris Letang and Jan Rutta, two important players on the right side of their blue line.

What the Penguins did defensively on Sunday stood out. It’s hard to criticize what they did.

• Except for that first minute.

I’ve never seen a team mentally ill like the Penguins, which is peculiar considering they bill themselves as the oldest team in the NHL.

Well, they did it again.

Monday against Anaheim, the Penguins gave up a two-on-one just 10 seconds from regulation time.

Against the Devils, they got creative and allowed a three-on-one 15 seconds into regulation.

It’s a total lack of focus, and it should never happen. To make matters worse, Tristan Jarry, who has otherwise looked superb in his two games since returning from injury, allowed a gruesome goal for Hughes to start the scoring.

So give the Penguins credit for playing a great game. But the first-minute mental lapses were team-wide and unacceptable.

• I spoke with Petry after the match about his performance.

He is satisfied with his first two games in the lineup, as he should be. The veteran defenseman had a great game against the Devils two days after looking sharp in his comeback against Ottawa.

“I feel good,” he said. “Physically I feel really good. Reading and reacting to the defensive side of the game is different when you get into the action of the game. It still has to continue to build for me. But it’s getting there.”

Don’t underestimate its importance. Of course, Letang is the No. 1 guy and will return to normal responsibilities upon his return. But Petry is going to be a big minute eater for the Penguins, and they need him to play at a high level. He was good against the Devils, bringing needed composure.

• Ryan Poehling returned to the roster after missing the past few weeks with injury and has been one of the Penguins’ best forwards.

Poehling had three shots on goal, came within inches of the deciding goal in the second period and was there all afternoon. His size and his skating were missed.

We talk at length about the bottom six and their dissatisfaction. Poehling’s presence may not be enough to overturn that fact, but he will make the Penguins better. It is good.

• The shame of this game was that Pettersson was one of the Penguins’ best players.

He didn’t have the game winner, and considering how quickly he jumped off the bench, he didn’t deserve it. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t play an impressive game. His defensive work stood out even on a day when everyone’s defensive work was outstanding.

• Brian Dumoulin has been an easy target for the fans this season, and he hasn’t had a great campaign.

It’s the worst season of his life.

However, he’s been playing better in recent games despite playing way, way too many minutes. No, he’s not the player he used to be. Yes, this is almost certainly his last season in Pittsburgh. But there is no evidence of a lack of effort, nor of a lack of pride displayed by Dumoulin. He’s playing better now than he was a few weeks ago, at least.

• Next up is a home game against Florida on Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena. It’s a big.

The Panthers and Islanders trail the Penguins for the last wild card spot by three points. However, the Penguins have games in hand on both. It’s not too early to start thinking about that stuff.

I will say this, though: If the Penguins keep playing like they did on Sunday, they will qualify for the playoffs. It was a solid performance.

(Photo by Sidney Crosby and Miles Wood: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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