I have to admit, I didn't make it out to any of the three preseason games at the Rock. I went to a more meaningful (and infuriating) Rutgers-UNC football game instead of the first one. I covered the Jersey Tour in New Brunswick and Rutgers instead of going to the second. I was sick for the third. So tonight was my first in-person look at the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils.
During the first period, the upper bowl was full and the lower bowl had some large pockets of empty seats. But those filled up a little more in the second. I can buy this game being a sellout, but it wasn't a full house. It definitely sounded like one at times, though. I got to say, the atmosphere - especially in the pregame (I loved the intro video and the giant pull-over USA flag in Sections 11-13) and in the third period - really was electric and I savored every moment of being part of my fellow fans cheering on the New Jersey Devils. It was like being surrounded with good, dear friends. That was fantastic.
Unfortunately, the Devils were not fantastic. The Devils and Dallas Stars played an up-and-down game in regulation. The game winning goal came on a 2-on-1 that all started with a misfired pass by Andy Greene. The Devils lost in overtime 4-3 to the Stars. However, I cannot help but feel the Devils lost the game, or at least made it that much harder to win, before overtime.
Yes, they didn't get pasted like they did in last season's home opener. The result was disappointing.; but we can at least rationalize the performance by saying that New Jersey got a point. Still, there's plenty to criticize as well as praise in New Jersey's effort on both offense and especially defense. NHL.com has their game summary and event summary up if you're interested in the official stats from tonight's game. Check out Defending Big D for a recap of tonight's game from a Dallas' fan perspective. Please continue after the jump to see what deserves cheers and what deserves jeers.
For those who missed tonight's game or would like to see the game's top moments, here are the highlights from NHL.com:
If tonight's game had to have a theme, then it would be how mistakes cost a team. Early in the game, Dallas made some critical errors leading to two quick goals by the ZIP line. Granted, Kari Lehtonen exacerbated the mistake by leaving his five hole open on Travis Zajac's goal and eating a deke by Zach Parise before his goal. In Brandon Worley's recap, he singled out Trevor Daley - but Daley eventually recovered if only by not making so many critical mistakes.
Since the second goal, Dallas as a whole decided to play with more care. Even if they didn't have the puck in New Jersey's end, they made a point to play with possession. Even if they didn't get quality shots, if they were open, they put a few on Martin Brodeur. Even if they lose possession, there were always white jerseys either on the blueline or protecting the middle to prevent New Jersey from hitting back on a counter attack. Despite an early 2-0 lead, Devils struggled to respond to Dallas' possession game in the first period and ultimately didn't until Brendan Morrow's one-timer just past the midway point of the first period. (Note: Matt Taormina, welcome to the NHL, where it's expected for you to cover streaking forwards. Otherwise they score on a goaltender's flank as Morrow did). The Devils seemingly made a point of it to possess the puck more, protect it through the neutral zone, and get more rubber on Lehtonen by the end of the period.
Then mistakes creeped up in the second period. No, that's a lie. Mistakes just barged through the door and made themselves comfortable since the Devils' first play with the puck was for defenseman Matt Taormina to make a pass to a Star in the center circle. Here, the Devils were just messy. Defensemen either made awful turnovers or poor clearances; forwards struggled to get the puck in deep to establish some position before getting some shots; and the Devils seemingly chased a patient Dallas team all over the ice. The Devils seemed to panic in their own end in the second period. Combined with the stops Dallas got on defense, the mistakes the Devils made kept pinning them in their own end for much of the period. No wonder Dallas got back into this game.
Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene were definitely not playing as well as they have in the past, and looked out of their element on both goals against in the second. I didn't notice Anton Volchenkov making much of a difference. I got mad when I did notice Mark Fraser for letting Steve Ott goad him into taking penalties twice - one while the Devils were on offense, he was cross-checking and jaw-jacking at Ott in the middle of the play. But other than that, he was unremarkable. Who actually noticed Alexander Urbom since he played 8:57 all night long? (Colin White had the most memorable turnover when he fired the puck up the middle to a Star, leading to Martin Brodeur bailing out the Devils yet again. But White was probably the best defenseman of the bunch if only for not repeating the same errors and doing the work of at least 1.5 defensemen throughout the night. That doesn't absolve White, though, as he didn't really rise above the mindless errors of the second. Taormina looked like he belonged in the AHL at times - throughout the game, much less the second period. That, along with his no shots on goal, makes his total ice time of 21:38 - leading the defense - all the more shocking. It wasn't just that the Stars owned the period, but the Devils defense helped them do it whilst the forwards were unable to take some of the pressure off.
Basically, the Devils forced passes, made ill-advised clearances, and couldn't break down a stout Dallas defense in the second. They were outshot 12-5, they didn't have the puck too much, and New Jersey literally scored a goal against the run of play. The refs let the players play all night long, but they tagged Steve Ott with a charge on Urbom. The Devils' power play was near-useless and set up only one shot in most of the 92 seconds it lasted. And that shot never happened because a Star pasted the target man in the circle with a check and cleared the puck. Yet, Patrik Elias found Jason Arnott open, and he let loose with a bomb from the point to score. Entirely in spite of how the Devils were playing. As with the story of the period, the Devils fell apart in their own end, as Rod Pelley, Tallinder, and Greene looked poor as Brad Richards scored at point-blank range in front of Brodeur shortly after Arnott's unlikely goal.
This all makes the third period even more bizarre. I don't know who said what, but the Devils seemed to figure out Dallas much more. Save for one or two shifts and one shot that rang off the pipe hard, the Devils pretty much limited the Stars in the third. The Devils went on to out-shoot the Stars 13-3, force Lehtonen to play big (he did), and they did it with more than just the ZIP line (combined for 2 goals, 6 shots, took inches, turned them into feet, did well). It's how Arnott got 5 shots tonight. It's how Dainius Zubrus got 3 shots and helped his linemates Brian Rolston and David Clarkson get 2 and 3 respectively. Not that they got all of their shots in the third period, but that all three full lines were active. The only useless forwards in the third (and in the game) were Pelley (awful game) and Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond (who at least hit dudes well). So much for the canard that the Devils are going to be a one-line team. Yes, they didn't score, but if they can put up those kinds of performances up - they will and in bunches.
If there is one area that the forwards were bad at, it was on faceoffs. OK, that's really for centers, but the Devils were just bad at the faceoff dot tonight. 15 wins out of 38 in total; Zajac was the best by going 7 for 14. Yes, Pelley, Zubrus, and Arnott combined for 8 wins out of 21.
Alas, overtime was the result of it all. Given the stretches where the Devils did well (early and end of first period, third period) and where they got pounded (middle of first period, second period), perhaps it was fitting the goal was scored on a rush resulting from a missed pass. Yes, some will point to Tallinder not really committing to the open man on that 2-on-1. Some may argue that Brodeur should have stopped that one. I disagree, the only weak goal was Loui Eriksson's first goal where he reached for it and missed (though the defense should have cleared the puck prior to that event). Brodeur came out to cut off the angle and challenged him appropriately; I think Eriksson's shot was just well-placed, right off the cross-bar and in. If you're looking at someone to blame for the OT winner, blame Greene for firing a backhanded pass across the ice to no one. It's easy to say so now, but he could and should have shot it or dumped it into the corner given his position. But now, he risked trying to find someone with a pass. He missed and Eriksson picked that up and went off to the races.
Yep, a mistake by a Devils defenseman was the source of the game winning goal for Dallas. Just as mistakes cost the Devils on the other three goals allowed.
So I don't fault Brodeur tonight or the offense not getting that fourth goal in the third. They weren't top-heavy or shut down by any particular player on Dallas. The Devils' atrocious second period performance, especially on defense, allowed Dallas to equalize and hang with New Jersey the rest of the way. That undercut them, but at least they got the game to overtime. It could have been far worse. Don't mistake me, Dallas played a fine game. The big guns on Dallas Jamie Benn (5 SOG), Adam Burish (4 SOG), Eriksson (2 goals), Richards (1 goal, 1 assist, 3 SOG), and Mike Ribeiro (1 assist, 3 SOG) swarmed the Devils, particularly in the second. It can even be argued that if Daley and Lehtonen didn't screw up in the first, then Dallas would have won by a more comfortable margin.
Mistakes matter, is really the main takeaway from tonight's game. It's true that they happen all the time in all games; but it was really obvious tonight.
The Devils won't have much time to fix them. I agree it's fixable; the veteran defensemen like Tallinder, Greene, et al can't be as dumb as they were at times in a second straight game. Especially not against the Washington Capitals, a team who can and will murdalize teams if they aren't sharp enough. But that's for the preview. For now, please share your thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the GameThread who checked it out and commented; and of course, thank you for reading.