For the first time this season, this team has lost three consecutive games in regulation. This is the second time the team has went winless in three, but they did get a point in that stand. To end this road trip, the Devils got diddly and squat on the board. While I haven't seen today's game against the Islanders, between the highlights and stats from NHL.com, Steve's recap, and this post-game post by Tom Gulitti where the team is clearly concerned, I can safely say it definitely was the worst of the three losses. It was the first time the Devils lost while being shutout (they were shutout against the Rangers last week, but it wasn't a loss) and the first time since New Year's Eve 2009 where the Devils just fell flat on their faces in Chicago.
So what now? Well, I have a few thoughts about some disturbing trends over the last few games. If we're going to groan about the team's recent performances - and it's groan-worthy - then I want to at least point out some common faults in each of these three losses. I don't really have any clear solutions, this is more of an airing out of what I feel has really be the issues in these three games. That said, we can discuss that in the comments.
Common Problem #1: Early Two-Goal Deficits. In each of these three losses the Devils have given up two goals in the first period. Already as the game gets going, the Devils have found themselves down early. In the Phoenix game, Matthew Lombardi deflected a shot past Brodeur 13:16 into the first period. In the Colorado game, Paul Stastny found the right side of Chris Stewart on Brodeur's flank for an easy tap-in 3:17 into the first. In the Islanders game today, Matt Moulson got his own rebound in the slot and backhands it in 1:07 into the first. The last two games have seen the opposition get one on the board early and every reason to feel good. While the Devils have made numerous comebacks all season long, these aren't any less easy to overcome.
Especially when the opposition tacks another one one before intermission. In the Phoenix and Colorado games, those were big. Peter Mueller burnt Colin White for a breakaway and scored at 19:29 in Phoenix; and T.J. Galiardi beat Brodeur from the left circle at 18:32. While the Islanders wasted no time doubling their lead (3:44 into the first and nearly had so many more), who knows how the other two would have turned out if the Devils didn't concede a second goal so close to intermission. Recovering from a one goal lead is one thing, but two is difficult against oppositions who can play tight defense and have strong goaltending in net. This quote from Jamie Langenbrunner is on point from Gulitti's post-game post:
"We’ve got to find that sense of urgency again," Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "It’s definitely missing at the start of games. If you don’t show up early, it’s tough to catch up every night."
Too true and we've seen that. But what in the world can one do about that? Do the Devils need Martin Brodeur to play out of his mind over and over? Does the coaching staff - or, you know, the captain - have to shape up on motivation? Obviously, spotting your opponent two goals early in the game isn't a good way to win hockey games. The Devils did tie it up in Phoenix, were denied in Colorado, and had zero shot of doing so on Long Island. All the more reason to stop the bleeding of goals.
Common Problem #2. Defensive Breakdowns. This can be extended to the 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay, but let's focus only on these three losses.
In Phoenix, the defense was directly responsible for allowing a breakaway to Peter Mueller (White) and re-directing a Vernon Fiddler pass into the net due to a stick check by Matt Winnic (Mark Fraser). Fraser, of course, high sticked Winnic and saw the Coyotes tack on a power play goal from Zybnek Michalek through an uncovered screen. So that's 3 goals that with smarter defending, they may not happen.
In Colorado, Stastny beat his man to drive the net and White left Stewart at the crease. Mike Mottau dropped in to cover him but he was on the wrong side and could do nothing. Had White stayed with his man and let Brodeur challenge the shooter, maybe that goal doesn't happen either.
And today against the Islanders, Moulson was wide open in the slot because Andy Greene felt he had to cover the same man Rob Niedermayer was covering for the first goal; the Mark Streit power play goal may have been screened by the entire PK because they were all playing so deep; and the other two goals were deflections. Had Greene play up on Moulson and the PK keep a man in the high slot to challenge Streit, maybe those two goals don't happen.
So with three deflections and 6 goals that could have been prevented with better defending, I don't think Martin Brodeur starting all these games is really the issue. If Brodeur was giving up soft goals and making bad reads, then sure, I would agree that he would need a rest. But most of these are not on Brodeur here. Lemaire certainly isn't blaming the netminders (nor does he see Brodeur as tired). The defense is allowing high quality scoring chances and the opposition is, guess what, making the most of them. Sure, the Islanders game was absolute nightmare with 42 shots and countless chances allowed; but only allowing 19 to Phoenix or 28 to Colorado doesn't mean much if those 19/28 shots are generall fantastic opportunities.
Yann Danis getting a start won't fix the defense. And I didn't even bring up the recent issues the Devils have had on breakouts; where they struggle against a heavy forecheck and early in the game. Maybe it's time to re-distribute the ice time more evenly so Andy Greene and Mike Mottau aren't playing 24+ minutes on most nights to keep them fresh. Maybe it's time to mix up the defensive pairings for a little bit. Maybe they need to work on positioning, breakouts, and decision making in practice, because in these three games, the opposition has made the most of the Devils' defensive mistakes.
Disturbing Trend #3. The Power Play. The last time the New Jersey Devils have scored a power play goal was back on January 5, in the 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars. I'm not even going to count the power play chances since then, but the big number is 0 in 6 games. I thought about making this an entirely separate post, but it's quite clear changes need to be made. In the Phoenix game, the Devils had 4 shots on 3 power plays totaling 3:34 (14 seconds of a 5-on-3 killed by a hooking call on Travis Zajac). In the Colorado game, the Devils put up 11 shots across 4 power plays totaling 7:31 (Rob Niedermayer's goaltending interference call wiped out a late PP in the first). On Long Island, the Devils had no shots at all over 2 power plays totaling 2:35 (a Jamie Langenbrunner tripping call shortened the Devils PP in the third period).
In each of these three games, one power play was terminated prematurely by a Devils penalty, and each power play ranged from not bad (moving the puck around, getting shots on net, but no goal) to awful (difficulties getting possession in the other team's zone). That's what bothers me the most.
I can understand a power play being killed off by a goaltender playing big. After all, even the best power play in the league only converts on average 1 out of every 4 attempts. But the lack of consistency on these man advantages stunts the offense. On a power play, in my opinion, I want to see the Devils at least move the puck around, pressure the opposition, and take a high quality, clean shot. Something that's more easily done with one less player on the other team. Only on that last power play in the Colorado game did they really do that well. There needs to be more of that, but that's not happening. It's clearly a crap-shoot right now with the only consistency is that the Devils aren't scoring goals on these chances.
It's clear that Jacques Lemaire misses David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus because even in the Colorado game, Devils fans got to see Colin White and Andrew Peters get a PP shift just to be a screen. But Zubrus and Clarkson aren't coming back in the next few games. Until then, Lemaire should consider mixing up his power play units just to spark the units. The first unit of Parise-Zajac-Bergfors-Langenbrunner-Greene isn't working. Without Patrik Elias, the second unit is pretty sparse on paper outside of Brian Rolston and his big shot.
I'm not saying PPGs are the only way to success, but getting at least one is great for momentum - especially since the Devils have had to attempt comebacks in each of these three games. A power play goal could have led to completions of those comebacks instead of the game ending in a loss.
Disturbing Trend #4. Offense Has Chosen Quantity over Quality. In the Phoenix game, the Devils offense put 34 shots on Ilya Bryzgalov and while some were great chances, a good number of them were easy saves. I felt the Devils controlled the puck more and had more time on the attack in that one. In the Colorado game, the Avs sat on their lead but their defense held the Devils to seemingly take most of their 38 shots on goal from outside the slot. Craig Anderson did have to make big saves in the third period, but it wasn't until the third where the Devils really challenged him. On Long Island, well, it was an easy game for Rick DiPietro.
With each successive loss, the Devils offense has suffered from getting less and less quality shots on net. What I mean are shots from the slot, shots off rebounds, shots off cross-ice passes and passes into space, and shots that generally require the goaltender to make a big stop. Where the Devils were able to put three past Bryzgalov, they didn't even get close to three in their next two games combined. What if Brian Rolston didn't get that shot off from that breakaway or fire that slap shot in the third period?
The Devils were without Patrik Elias for the second and third periods in Colorado and in today's game, yes, but I find it hard to believe that a team with Zach Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, and Rolston are struggling this much. The talent is still there, but the results aren't there. Here's what some of the players had to say to Tom Gulitti about the offensive woes after today's game:
"I don’t know (how many shots) we had, but it couldn’t have been too many," Langenbrunner said. "We’ve got to make him work. Obviously, he hasn’t played a lot lately and we wanted to make it hard on him and we didn’t do that. It’s hard to get shots, though, when you’re spending most of the game in your end."
"We’re just not sharp," left wing Zach Parise said. "I don’t know whether it’s (being) tired or what. We’re not making good plays. We got to beat to the puck everywhere. It’s tough to win games when you’re losing every race."
Both Parise and Langenbrunner raise some good points, but these are the men who are supposed to make it happen. When will they go for it? Moreover, it would be great if rookie Nicklas Bergfors (0 points in last 5 games) can get productive again. It would be fine if Rob Niedermayer (1 goal in last 5 games, lone goal in Colorado game) and Dean McAmmond (0 points in last 5 games) can step up and be more useful on offense. It would be wonderful if Vladimir Zharkov picked up some points to go with his hustle and vision, since he's been around in Zubrus' absence.
In general, I would like to see the Devils crash the net and actually be a bit more selective with their shooting. That's hard to do when the team is down 2-0 early, but their current approach isn't yielding much in terms of goals. Something's got to change and given that no one in Lowell appears to be able to provide a lift, it's got to come tactically from Lemaire and physically from the players themselves. Especially while Clarkson and Zubrus remain injured and Elias is out for a few days.
I apologize for not having much of a clear direction, but again, this was an airing out of the problems I've noticed across all three games. I'll surely have much more of an opinion on the Islanders game when I see it all, but from all indications it was an utter failure by the Devils and the Islanders were magnificent in taking advantage. As it is, the Devils lost three games in a row and to prevent this from becoming a genuine slump, these are the issues I think the team needs to address the most to break this losing streak. Hopefully that will happen on Wednesday night against the Florida Panthers.
Maybe you feel injuries are finally catching up to the team, maybe you feel some players who have been playing well are "coming back to Earth," maybe you feel something entirely different. Please offer your thoughts in the comments.