NEWARK, N.J. – Alex Goligoski couldn’t believe his eyes. The New Jersey Devils were really going to play an NHL game with only 15 skaters.
“It was very weird seeing only three lines on the scout sheet prior to the game,” Goligoski said. “I didn’t think it was real. We knew then that we had to make them work a little harder and keep them honest. We were definitely aware of what they had.”
Goligoski and Mark Letestu scored goals within a three-minute span covering the first and second periods to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-1 victory over the undermanned New Jersey Devils on Monday.
The Devils fell to 0-2-1, their worst start since the 2001-02 season.
“It was a little different,” Patrik Elias said. “But it was not an issue at all. It’s not like it was the 80th game of the season or anything. It was our third game. No one was out there too long. We played smart.”
The Devils played the game with a franchise-low 15 healthy skaters due to injuries to Anton Volchenkov and Brian Rolston. They also waived forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond just as he was supposed to begin a one-game suspension for instigating a fight against Washington.
“We don’t use excuses,” said John MacLean, who is still searching for his first victory as a head coach. “We had enough players. We just needed to compete better.”
The Devils began the season with only 20 players due to salary cap limitations.
Elias scored a third period goal to cut the Penguins’ lead in half, but Brent Johnson made nine saves over the final nine minutes to secure the victory.
Johnson made 30 saves in all to earn the win. Martin Brodeur made 28 for the Devils.
Former Devils defenceman Paul Martin, who signed with Pittsburgh over the summer, scored on an empty net with 10.9 seconds left. Martin also had an assist earlier in the game.
The Penguins scored with just 1:04 remaining in the first period, when Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk gave the puck away at his own blue line, set up by a fine check by Eric Tangardi.
Tangardi’s check forced Kovalchuk to lose the puck and an alert Alex Goligoski skated in and unleashed a slap shot past Brodeur.
“Eric made a good play and I was there to capitalize on it,” Goligoski said. “It was a good team effort.”
The Penguins struck again in the opening minutes of the second period, scoring a power-play goal 2:32 into the period with Elias in the penalty box for holding. Letestu deflected home a shot from Martin, giving the Penguins a 2-0 advantage.
Trailing by two goals, the Devils seemed to gain some momentum after killing off a 5-on-3 situation midway through the second period.
But the Devils never really threatened Johnson through two periods, being held at bay by the physical Penguins.
The Devils finally got one past Johnson, when Jason Arnott won a faceoff and sent it back to Elias, who blasted a slap shot into the net at the 8:20 mark of the third period.
The Devils had a golden opportunity to tie the game with three minutes remaining in regulation, when Travis Zajac made a steal in the Pittsburgh zone, skated in free on a sprawling Johnson, but jammed the back-handed attempt right into the right post instead of tucking it home.
“Sometimes things like that happen,” MacLean said. “The puck is going to bounce that way sometimes. You just have to keep battling through it.”
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said that Leblond being placed on waivers had nothing to do with his actions or possible suspension.
“It had nothing to do with the other evening,” Lamoriello said. “It had to do with making a decision as far as whether we add another different type of forward, depending on injuries. But I didn’t like what transpired at the end of the game.”
The Devils have not made a decision as to whether to send Leblond to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Lowell if Leblond clears waivers. The 25-year-old Leblond played in 27 regular season games and five playoff games for the Devils last season, collecting two assists and 48 penalty minutes.
“It’s not the way we wanted to start,” Elias said. “We know what we’re doing wrong. We have to play 60 minutes, put it all together and get some consistency. We have to get back to doing what we do best.”
NOTES: Fans booed Martin, who played six seasons with the Devils before heading to the Penguins with a US$25 million, five-year contract. Martin, who only played in 22 games last season with New Jersey due to a broken forearm, received an assist on the Penguins’ second goal of the game. … The Penguins snapped a seven-game losing streak against the Devils, dating back to April of 2009. It was the first time the Penguins won in New Jersey since Dec. 26, 2008. The Devils won all six games played between the teams last year. … The loss gave the Devils their worst start to a season since 2001-02, when they lost their first four.