New Jersey Devils Take a Step Back in 3-1 Loss to the Montreal Canadiens

So much for continued improvement.  Tonight, the many Devils fans and a significant number of vocal Canadiens fans (thousands have traveled and when you travel far, you're going to want to bring the noise - full credit to them) witnessed a Devils team that had some breakdowns in coverage that burned them and thanks to a very strong goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak, that was sealed the game for Montreal.

Honestly, I felt the New Jersey Devils did a lot of things better than the Montreal Canadiens tonight.  The Devils were better in terms of amount of possession; they had more varied attacks and attacked the defense more often than Montreal; and they clearly had more shots on net (32-24).  There were stretches where the Devils didn't look so good, like in the final 10 minutes of the first period, most of the second, and for the first few minutes after Montreal's third goal.  Yet, that didn't necessarily mean Montreal took complete advantage of those stretches to play well.  After all, Montreal had 14 shots in the first and then had 10 in the next 40 minutes. 

They did, however, take advantage of two glorious scoring chances, got a good break off what I believe was a double deflection, and Jaroslav Halak literally rose to the occassion.  The only area where the Canadiens' defense did well tonight was in defending the slot, but other than that, Halak really bailed out Montreal.  Even when losing, the

Instead of building on what they accomplished on Wednesday against Florida, they weren't able to get the job done against Montreal. They now go to Long Island against an opponent that will be looking forward to hit a fatigued and injury-depleted Devils team with more of the speed that led to their big win earlier in the week.  Fun.  NHL.com has their recap up complete with links to all of the stats.  Dave Stubbs has this congratulatory (if not a complete picture) quick recap at Habs Inside/Out.   Read on for my further detailed thoughts on tonight's game.

Here's the highlight video of tonight's game from NHL.com.  Notice how much of Jaroslav Halak you get to see, especially on Jamie Langenbrunner.

The more I think about it, I'm not sure if I can put the loss fully on the offense.  Yes, they didn't get the job done. Yes, Zach Parise was sprung for a breakaway just after 5 minutes into the game and scored.  Yes, they had scoring chances of their own that they didn't finish on.  Yes, there was some aspects worth criticism, like the awfully inconsistent passing in the second period that stunted New Jersey's advances.  Johnny Oduya was symbolic of how bad it was, lots of medium-to-long range passes getting picked off or put into coverage that just left the period at a stand still. However, overall, they basically threw everything and the kitchen sink at Jaroslav Halak, and he came out shining.

The Devils put 31 on Halak, were blocked 11 times, and missed the net (mostly just wide, trying to get a deflection or a screen) 14 times.  A testament to how often the Devils had the puck and that they weren't afraid to fire it.  If you're one of the few who loves to yell or grouse "SHOOOOOT" this was your game.    The Devils had all kinds of shots: The Devils got into the slot for shots, took them from the point, fired them from the circle, and in-between. If there was a lane, they made an attempt and if not, they tried to use traffic and hope for a bounce.  They crashed the net, they took long shots, angled shots, attempted screens and deflections, and all of that. 

There were two exceptions as to what kind of shots the Devils had made tonight.  The first type were shots off rebounds, in which the Devils didn't get too many of because Montreal did a good job defending the slot tonight.   There were a few if only because Halak gave up some big ones.  The most memorable of which was Jamie Langenbrunner did get to one in the third period.  He made a move that would normally give him the space to score, a position where most goalies are pretty much beaten.  Somehow, someway, Halak just swallowed it up among his many important saves.   In retrospect, that was the key moment of the game. Langenbrunner did his part correctly, but it wasn't enough to beat Halak tonight.     Halak came up huge on a Devil who was having a fantastic night on a shot that normally becomes a goal.  Instead of an equalizer, the Devils remained down by 1.  Something to give a boost to the visiting team.

The other type of shot were one-timers around or in the slot.  The Devils really didn't have any.  The Canadiens, despite getting much less on Brodeur, had two and unsurprisingly they scored on them.  That's how the game was won for Montreal.    Halak was the hero tonight and if it wasn't for him, the Canadiens lose this game in a bad way.  Montreal was quite opportunistic tonight but it worked.  They scored on Martin Brodeur when they had the best chance to do so and Halak bailed them out of everything else.   Frustrating and it leaves one to wonder what you can honestly ask of the team.

One thing is certain, the Devils defense gave up the slot too much tonight.  Two of the three Canadiens goals were in that area.  White jerseys were flying in and out of that area without much coverage.  Yes, a defense that only allowed 24 shots is somewhat laudable.   The only defenseman who I thought was noticiably bad was Mike Mottau and had a huge hand in the first goal of the game.  

Before Benoit Pouliot's goal, Mottau had his glove knocked off or fell off and he decided to go get it.  Now, as the play went behind the net, while Mottau's up ice to get his glove, the slot's wide open for Pouliot to set up.  Patrick Davis got next to him, but he was on the wrong side.  Scott Gomez  (who the fans booed repeatedly, his passes were nice but I felt he tried to do too much) gets a chance to pass it to Pouliot and it's an easy one-timer for him.   Davis should have been on Pouliot's stick side, so it's on him.  But Mottau should have kept at the play regardless of his glove.   Had he done that, he would have properly shifted over to the slot since his partner was behind the net where the puck was.  Given that Mottau is more experienced than Davis at defending, I would think Mottau would have been in the right position.  Instead, he took a chance and it led to a goal against.  Incidentally, in the third period, Josh Gorges lost his glove while backchecking in the corner but he kept his position and helped get his team a stop (by which I mean a save by Halak that he covered) - he didn't leave the puck carrier with space to make a killer pass.

I also thought Mottau got his stick off a deflection of Mathieu Darche which was on a Brian Gionta (who actually played, I really didn't notice him much despite his 6 shots on net) shot. That's really just a bad break and given how the second period went for both teams, the 2-1 score flattered Montreal.  

Mottau was on the ice for the third one against, but I can't blame him fully for that one.  If anything, when the initial play went behind the net, Jay Pandolfo skates to the bench for some reason.  Was it fatigue? It wasn't an equipment problem.  All of the sudden, while Bryce Salvador is battling Darche for the puck, Pandolfo skates off.  Rob Niedermayer was the second man behind the net but he didn't help Salvador in his efforts.  Since Pandolfo was coming off, this left a lot of space on the left side of the slot.   Mottau was on the right side of the slot looking to defend any passes. Well, a pass came and Mottau reacted too slowly.  Andrei Markov, a defenseman who is excellent at jumping up on the play, got the pass with no problem.  Mottau looked like a pylon there, but who was on the right side of the slot?  Not Pandolfo, not Niedermayer who was still behind the net for some reason, but Mike Cammalleri all alone!  Markov feeds Cammalleri across the slot, Brodeur's hung out to dry, and that's goal #3 as Brian Rolston is seen trailing to that spot after the goal.  Not that Rolston could have done anything unless he had a jet pack or something.

All the same, in each of the three goals, Mottau had some hand in what happened and on two of them, he could have done better.  At least Oduya's poor play was relegated to passing and really for only a period. In general, giving up the slot is a terrible idea even with a goaltender of Martin Brodeur's caliber. You're basically asking the other team to have a free, point-blank shot on the goalie or his flank.  Since it led to two goals against, it clearly sticks out more than the general play of the defense (24 shots against), Andy Greene's night (27:15, 5 blocked shots!)  and how awesome the penalty killing units were against a top power play like Montreal's (big thanks to Jamie Langenbrunner on those).

And the last one hurt because prior to that play, the Devils were putting some serious pressure on Montreal.  After an odd matching minor to Zach Parise and Markov, Parise flew out of the box to join Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer in crashing the net and buzzing down low with the puck.  Prior to that, the Devils were flying in the third period with many shots, some really good chances, and a whole lot of hustle.  When Cammalleri scored, it took the wind out New Jersey's sails until about 5 minutes left when a "kid line" of Nicklas Bergfors, Vladimir Zharkov, and Ben Walter got a good offensive shift in play.   Alas, Halak was too good tonight to overcome the deficit.

What makes this frustrating is that a number of forwards had some very good games. Dean McAmmond was flying all over the place as if he was ten years younger.  While 2 shots on net wasn't much to write home about, going 5 for 7 on faceoffs was good to see.  The top line collectively had a great night.  Parise scored on the breakaway early and was just all over the place. Sure, he only had 3 shots on net but he got a lot of attention from the Montreal defense.  But he spent most of the night getting shots set up for Travis Zajac, who had 5 shots on net and was meshing well with Parise and Langenbrunner on the attack.  Langenbrunner was the best Devil tonight by far.  He set up Parise's breakaway.  He had a mindboggling 8 shots on net and forced Halak to come up big on him 3 times.  Those three were dynamic and would have run roughshod over a goaltender who wasn't playing out of his mind. Unfortunately, Halak was playing out of his mind and leaving me and many Devils fans to wonder that if he isn't the starter in Montreal, then why not?

Injuries may be taking their toll as the recent replacement call ups had a quieter night.  Ben Walter had a quiet debut, I suppose.  He played 8:31, won 2 out of 4 faceoffs, took a minor, and didn't put much else up on the boxscore.  Patrick Davis stayed mostly on the third line and looked decent, even though he wasn't in the right position on Pouliot for the first goal against.  He had 3 hits and a good steal.  Nick Palmieri really was quiet.  I would think all three would play again tomorrow, so maybe they'll come out with more fire in their skates.  Still, I got a sense that Patrik Elias (great vision, would have set up a lot of plays), David Clarkson (physical player, deft skill, works well in the slot), or Dainius Zubrus (great size and strength, dominate the boards, give Montreal a headache on defense) would have made a huge difference.   Of course, they're still out but my point is that I think they were missed.   Maybe they would have found a way to break Halak again.

Not that the Canadiens won decisively or easily, but they did largely on Halak's back and from some coverage breakdowns by the Devils on defense.  It's over and done and now the Devils have to find the energy to match the Islanders and get some revenge with a win.  Unless the Devils want to slip back into a slump - and I don't think Lemaire will allow that - a good performance tomorrow night is crucial.  Thanks to Steve for the GameThread, and of course thanks to all the commenters and readers.  Please leave your thoughts, questions, concerns, and other feelings on tonight's game in the comments.

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