The New Jersey Devils didn't show up for the first period, they showed up for the second, and then the common sense on defense and special teams didn't show up in the third period. NHL.com has their recap up, Tom Gulitti already has some quick words after the game (including a Jacques Lemaire quote worth your while), and Die by the Blade has their recap already up. They all start off with the truism that the Buffalo Sabres got off to a quick start and that was essentially it.
This is true, but I don't think it adequately sums up the game. Tonight was a thoroughly poor game at both ends of the rink for the New Jersey Devils. What makes it frustrating was that the game was winnable when it was 2-1 in the second period. Did the Devils build on it? While the Devils earned scoring chances more frequently on Ryan Miller, Miller rose to the task in every case. Yet, despite out-shooting the Sabres, the Sabres capitalized on their scoring chances with relative ease in the third period. So the answer to that is a big, fat no.
I would have liked to have seen the Devils at least grind out a point, to make a statement that the team as-is is formidable without Paul Martin or Jay Pandolfo. Yet, even if those two were perfectly healthy, would that have changed the outcome of the game? I think not.
The defense was making all kinds of poor decisions with the puck. The Buffalo forecheck was quite successful in applying pressure, and I have to say that they must have rattled the Devils defense. Why else would Bryce Salvador be attempting touch passes or drop passes in his own zone? Why else would Mike Mottau play so stand-offish - most notably in not clearing the giant screen in front of Brodeur which helped Jason Pominville score the team's sole power play goal of the game? Why else would Johnny Oduya be so tentative with his positioning and reactions - most notably, not doing anything to Clarke MacArthur as he scored the game's first goal)? Why else would the forwards be inconsistent with their backchecking - most notably on no forward picking up Paul Gaustad wide expletiving open in the crease for the easy tap in the third?
In my opinion, Paul Martin or a backchecking Jay Pandolfo doesn't prevent Oduya, Salvador, Mottau, et al from having such poor nights. Honestly, the only defenseman I'd say was good was Andy Greene and that's really because he got the game's sole goal for New Jersey.
The offense was no better. True, the Devils out-shot Buffalo; but the Sabres defense did a good job cleaning up all those deflected shots that went wide and they generally won the battles along the board. In each case, Buffalo often made the easy clearance. True, the power play got a goal. Good job Andy Greene. But the breakouts were poor at best, and that drop pass at the first blue line didn't fool any of the Buffalo penalty killers. This was exposed on later power plays in the game, cutting short the number of chances for the Devils to set-up in each case. Well, with the exception of the TOO MANY MEN ON THE ICE CALL DURING A POWER PLAY - which killed that PP moreso than the Devils own puck movement. Even when the Devils did get the puck in Buffalo's zone and had an opportunity, Ryan Miller was massive.
In terms of players, I felt Brian Rolston had a good night (6 shots). Zach Parise may have got 7 shots on net, but I felt he was inconsistent with his passing, especially on the power play. But at least he was there. David Clarkson had a poor night with 0 shots and not much vigor on the ice. Nicklas Bergfors also had a quiet night. Overall, the play from the forwards was inconsistent and when you're down by 2 goals early, that's a tall order that the Devils didn't meet tonight.
To summarize, this was charity night for the Devils in that the Devils defense gave plenty of pucks for Buffalo's offense to take and the Devils' offense gave plenty of pucks for Buffalo's defense to clear. Especially in that first period. Forget the soft goal that Martin Brodeur gave up to Tim Kennedy (who Johnny Oduya just watched peel out with the puck behind the net and get into the circle for his shot, by the way), Brodeur had no real chance on the other three goals and he didn't get the goal support necessary to pull out the win.
But the game was winnable at 2-1. The Devils could have played with more confidence after getting one back in the second period (and on a power play, no less). Momentum could have been built. Pressure could have been placed on the Sabres. Instead, they just quelled Buffalo, took two penalties (and killed them nicely) instead of trying to take over the game. Once the third began, Buffalo put away the high quality scoring chance, played with less aggression and with more intelligence (though I'm sure Lindy Ruff isn't happy with 4 minor penalties by his team), and that was that.
It wasn't that the Devils slept through the game, they were really out of sync in terms of passing, in terms of coverage on defense, in terms of clearing the puck, and in terms of overall play. The Sabres, on the other hand, were very much in sync and took advantage whenever they could.
Yes, the Sabres got off to a quick start, but Jacques Lemaire said it best with respect to level of effort (via Gulitti):
"I know the games we played here were [against] good teams, but still I’m looking at the effort overall. The effort overall has got to be better. We said all along that there’s parity in the league and if you’re not playing 60 minutes, you’re in trouble. You look at Buffalo, they played pretty much 60 minutes. They didn’t look as good when we were at our best, but they just kept playing."
Whereas the Devils had all the answers on Saturday night in Pittsburgh, they really didn't have too many for Buffalo. Credit Buffalo for the win, they are a deep team with an effective forecheck and an excellent goaltender. They didn't win on the fast start, they won thanks to their consistent effort as Lemaire noted. Against Pittsburgh, the Devils' effort was there for 60 minutes; for tonight, it was for 15-20 and as we see from the score, that leads to a loss. It's unfortunate that the Devils now have to get it together in short order as they play in Boston tomorrow night.