If the 3-0 win over Montreal on Thursday was one step forward, then tonight's 6-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres was an incredibly large leap backwards. Where, exactly, I do not know; but I fear the worst may yet to come for the New Jersey Devils. They don't get the luxury of having a day to practice or meet or ride bikes until they are exhausted or whatever. The Devils will play Our Hated Rivals tomorrow night and then embark on a road trip that features teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Chicago.
If you want the short version here it is: The Devils were terrible tonight. Terrible to start, terrible in the middle, and terrible in the end. All of the good things they did in Montreal, they not only didn't do them tonight but seemingly forgot how to do them. The only positive is that the Devils didn't get shutout. Forget the 7-2 loss to Washington, this was, by far, the worst loss of the season.
Before continuing, let me congratulate the Buffalo Sabres. You had a rough time of it on Friday, but you pulled together tonight and took advantage of a team that was just about asking to get dominated for 40 minutes. Not only that, but when the Devils did score a consolation goal in what was essentially garbage time, you roared back with a goal of your own - again making the most of another careless error by a Devils skater. You played so well that you fully deserved to be up 5-0 after two periods. Pat yourselves on the back, go treat yourself with a cookie, get down with your bad self to some Melee Beats, whatever you do for congratulations, do it. The same goes for the fans, like those at Die by the Blade. You faced a team that clearly was playing stupid on the ice, and made them pay the price repeatedly.
As for the Devils, well, I've obviously have plenty more to say and almost no praise. Here's the game summary and event summary from NHL.com. After the jump is the rest of the recap, a highlight video from NHL.com (highlights applicable for Sabres fans only), and a section about the Ilya Kovalchuk situation.When a team plays poorly in a hockey game, several words are used to describe the performance. A few of them come to my mind initially with respect to tonight's game?
"Flat" is one, in that the team didn't come out with the vigor and passion to at least show that they really wanted to win the game. I think that would best apply to a second period where the Devils got dominated on shots 14-4, in terms of penalty minutes 6-0, and on the scoreboard 3-0. The Mites on Ice (I believe it was the Red Bank Generals?) in the first intermission showed more pep than the Devils did in that period. Sure, the Devils came out with more shots in the third period and even scored a goal - but that was garbage time; they didn't do that enough in the prior 40 minutes when it was a game.
"Sloppy" is another one, most applicable to the Devils' passing tonight. Forget the lack of a player, the entire team seemingly struggled to complete three passes at times. This was most apparent in the second period. Not coincidentally they only got 4 shots on Ryan Miller, who did well but didn't have to be brilliant tonight. Through the neutral zone and over the blueline, the Devils were consistently out of sync when it came to moving the puck. I don't know if it was just a perfect storm of bad nights, a lack of communication, a lack of focus, or whatever. Admittedly, the puck movement got better in the third period, but again, by the point the game was out of doubt and ultimately meaningless.
"Soft" comes up occassionaly; I'd apply it here not for the Devils' physical game but to their penetration on offense. Buffalo clearly learned their lessons from the last game and without an Ilya Kovalchuk to defend, it became simpler for the visitors. Have a guy in deep to collect the dump-in, have a guy hang in the high slot to breakout from the dump, and push ahead. Otherwise, just stand up at the blueline and keep them to the outside. Nothing fancy, but entirely effective. Soft would be an appropriate word for two of the four goals Johan Hedberg gave up tonight: the Drew Stafford wrister that opened up the game and the Tyler Ennis poke that completed a comedy of errors in the Devils' end.
"Uninspired" is a polite one if you want to talk about the lack of leadership and emotion on the ice. It goes hand in hand with "flat;" but it would be a good one to describe the team's performance tonight. As Buffalo piled up the goals, the more the Devils seemed less interested in trying to make it a game. That's not just on the fault of team captain Jamie Langenbrunner, but also on other players who are supposed leaders. Where was the get-up-and-at-them mentality after a 2-0 first period by Buffalo? Why did Zach Parise disappear except for showing up at the doorstep for the team's lone goal tonight? Did anyone in the locker room at either intermission say or do anything in terms of motivation?
I could go on and on, and I'm sure you can name some too. I'll end it with the most succinct one: "Excremental." OK, it's not really a common word. You may be more familiar with a profane version of it as it literally refers to something like fecal matter. Example: "The Devils' performance was excremental overall, you may even still smell it in Newark tomorrow."
It would also be the most appropriate word for the defense tonight. If I were to grade it, I'd give it an M for mindless. Like last Saturday's home game, the Devils got torched on errors by the skaters in front of the goaltender. I did say that Hedberg gave up two soft ones, but the Ennis goal wouldn't have happened if Henrik Tallinder didn't fall down with the puck and if Matthew Corrente did something - anything - to Ennis on the ensuing play instead of just standing there. Tyler Meyers wouldn't have scored in the first period had he not have all the time in the world (helped out by Patrik Elias just chilling in his vicinity) to wind up and blast it past Hedberg. The goals by Patrick Kaleta (Andy Greene standing around on the rebound) and Thomas Vanek (first on flank, Zajac was late, Magnan was in passing lane; second off his own rebound after turnover by Mattew Corrente) were not on either goaltender, but on the guys in front of them. After playing a tidy, if simple, game in their own zone that was key to winning 3-0 on the road; the Devils played like they completely forgot it tonight. If you want video evidence, here's the "highlights" from NHL.com:
Jamie Langenbrunner told the press, reported here by Tom Gulitti, that the players felt "horrible" that Hedberg got jeered by the fans and suffered out there. Good. I hope you all felt horrible. You all should be. Nearly everyone in red save for Martin Brodeur (who came in relief on his supposed night off) and maybe the fourth line (whatever, good to see Rod Pelley is OK) were horrible tonight. You played smart on Thursday and two days later, it's like you all collectively forgot about all that and replaced those good lessons with nincompoopery on the ice. Boo.
The offense slumped yet again, leading to more pressure on the defense, who were bad in the 40 minutes when it was an actual game. No goalie's going to have a good night in that situation, and it's compounded when said goalie (Hedberg, not Brodeur) lets in two creampuffs. It wasn't a sellout, but a decent crowd that showed no restraint in voicing their displeasure for the excremental (there's that word again!) performance. I can't blame them at all, as the Devils finished October 0-4-1 at home with an absolute stinker. Again: Boo.
Speaking of blame, the fans are getting more restless with head coach John MacLean. Wait, let me put this up first.
I AM NOW TALKING ABOUT ILYA KOVALCHUK IN CASE YOU WANTED TO KNOW
Just before tonight's game it was revealed that Ilya Kovalchuk would be scratched tonight and replaced by Alexander Vasyunov, called up from Albany. I don't want to beat up on him since he was called up literally today for this bizarre scratch. No, Kovalchuk isn't hurt. No, there doesn't seem to be an emergency or anything as to explain the move. The official word was that he was a healthy scratch and John MacLean has told the media, again reported in this post by Gulitti, that scratching him was his decision. MacLean wants to take responsibility? Fine.
Let me be clear, I don't think Ilya Kovalchuk playing tonight would have guaranteed a win. The defense didn't do pylon impersonations on the ice because Kovalchuk wasn't on the bench. He would have boosted the offense and possibly make the power play look somewhat threatening (Secret Message to Adam Oates: Whatever it is you're doing, stop. Do something else.). But Kovalchuk doesn't necessarily equal wins.
I feel like there's a lot more going on here because it was absolutely bizarre, nevermind dumb, for MacLean (who is taking responsibility for this move) to scratch Ilya Kovalchuk tonight. The Devils were coming off a 3-0 win on the road; and in said game, the team as a whole played well, which has been a rarity this season. Why make a big change like that? Why make it so close to game time? If it was because he isn't playing well, then why wasn't David Clarkson or Langenbrunner or other players who have done far less than Kovalchuk scratched instead or earlier? To send a message that the Devils can play well without him? I hope that wasn't the point, as tonight blew up that message and dissolved any future leverage for whatever reason to sit Kovalchuk.
What worries me the most is this: Based on the quotes by Langenbrunner and Zubrus that Gulitti reported, the players didn't know that Kovalchuk wasn't playing until late - and don't even know why. I don't know if there are any locker room issues, but I can't imagine this will be good for relations. Again, I don't know why Kovalchuk was scratrched; and for all I know, he'll be back on the ice tomorrow (he better be) and this will be forgotten. But that this is an issue now - this early in the season, this early into the contract, is worrying.
I AM ESSENTIALLY DONE WITH THE KOVALCHUK SCRATCH ISSUE HERE, MOVING ON TO A BIG PICTURE ENDING
The lack of goals has been one thing; I'm still sure that over time, the Devils will get more breaks, get more goals, and then eventually have nothing to worry about. However, I'm starting to get worried that the defensemen - the veterans mostly, not even the kids - keep making fundamental errors in their own zone and the forwards aren't helping. I'm getting worried about the team's intensity and effort after goals and in the second period. I'm getting worried that MacLean and his staff are in over their head. I've been saying not to panic as panicking never helps; but with the Kovalchuk scratch along with how the team played tonight, it's hard to deny the temptation.
Basically, the next 6 games are all huge for New Jersey and MacLean and they have no one else but themselves to blame to put themselves in that spot. Just like they have no one else but themselves to blame for tonight's flat, sloppy, soft, uninspired, and excremental performance. And they can't feel bad for themselves for too long because they got a game at MSG tomorrow night.
Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread who stuck it out and commented on tonight's horror show of a game. Thank you for reading this recap. Tomorrow morning will have the division snapshot first with the Rangers-Devils preview coming later in the day. In the meantime, please leave your thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. What angered you the most? Who was the biggest disappointment? What else did you notice that was good/bad that I missed? Feel free to share your answers to all this and more.