Almost is Never Enough: The New Jersey Devils Fall in 5-4 Shootout Loss to Buffalo Sabres

It is a cliche in sports that a team has to play the all X number of minutes to win, where X equals the amount of time in regulation for that sport.  I would like to flip that cliche.  A team has to play well at all aspects of the game to win.

The New Jersey Devils did not do that tonight in their 5-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Newark this evening.

The big story out of this game will be Ilya Kovalchuk's error.  In the shootout, down 2-1 after Derek Roy scored to put Buffalo ahead, Kovalchuk came out on the ice.  The crowd, which was larger than I expected, all got up on their feet to see the big star on NJ try and keep hope alive for that elusive first win at home.  He then proceeded to lose the puck off his stick going down the middle of the ice, ending the game.  The Devils fans were booing in disgust, the NHL now has a brand new blooper, and critics can cackle further about "Kovalchoke" or "Kovaljoke" or some other Averyesque (meaning: not as clever as you think but you'll repeat it anyway) quip.

Between that and firing a slapshot to the high glass on a clear shot at Jhonas Enroth late in the third, no one's really happy with Kovalchuk.  That's fair and I understand that. I will say that, yes, he's never been a great shootout performer (9 for 37 lifetime); and even if he did score, all it would do would keep the shootout going.  Clearly, he was frustrated tonight andput 3 shots on net right at Enroth.  But that's not good enough with Zach Parise out and the team hurting for goals, he needs to disregard (or talk it out or embrace it or whatever) the pressure and produce.  Whether or not he has a $100 million deal or just a $5 million deal, the player has to perform.  Kovalchuk really hasn't yet, and so while I may not agree with all of the criticism he has received and will receive; he's certainly worthy of some of it.  I was disappointed in how he did tonight, but I'll go more into that later.

That said, I can't honestly say that Kovalchuk botched this game  He could have salvaged it.  He could have made up for a lot of other people's errors by scoring a goal. But the defeat should be laid on his shoulders. Yet, the true culprits for how tonight went down was the collective defensive performance New Jersey Devils.  Even when the offense finally gets some breaks and scores some goals, it doesn't excuse a lackadaisical effort in one's own zone.  The Devils put one out and so instead of possibly winning the game in regulation, the Buffalo Sabres made them pay the price, forced the game to to extra time, and won out in the end via shootout.   Die by the Blade and other Sabres fans have every reason to be pleased; as Devils fans have every reason to be angry or just disgusted (or both).

John MacLean said on Tuesday the Devils needed a win.  They didn't get that because the effort wasn't there in both ends.  I repeat: almost is never enough.   This is also not enough for my thoughts on the game, so please continue after the jump for more.

Before laying into the defense, I want praise the offense.  The story of this season so far was that the Devils just could not score goals. Just could not get any breaks.  Well, the Devils got both of that tonight. 

Jason Arnott, who had a great game tonight, scored twice out of his 5 shots on goal.  His first was off a rebound and the second on a blistering slapshot through a multi-player screen. David Clarkson was in the right place, right time when Alexander Vasyunov threw a puck to the slot to re-direct it into the net for a second, not-as-fluky goal. Jamie Langenbrunner had a positive to his game when he did what Vasyunov did, threw the puck to the slot, and it went in off of Chris Butler's skate and went in. 

They weren't the four greatest goals scored, each had an element of luck to them.  But for a team that needed to score badly, those breaks were like an oasis in the desert.   When I harped about how the team just needs to have better luck to score more goals, this was what I'm talking about. Hopefully, the team can get some confidence out of scoring 4 non-empty net goals tonight and get some breaks in future games.

There were other positives by the offense.  It may have been confirmation bias, but I noticed that the Devils did seem to swarm around the net more often tonight.  It certainly worked since Arnott scored by going to the net, Clarkson and Chris Butler were at the crease for their goals, and Arnott got his second thanks to a monster slapshot going through a monster screen consisting of Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson.   Those who support the notion of "crash the net" to get goals got vindicated by the Devils tonight.

Faceoffs were another area of strength for New Jersey, the team won 38 out of 60.  The main centers of Arnott, Zubrus, and Travis Zajac all won at least 60% of their draws.  The only Devil who didn't win at least half of their draws was Patrik Elias, who took only one draw after Arnott got thrown out of one and lost it.  Not that it necessarily led to a lot, but that additional possession from the start isn't a bad thing.

And the power play, well, they scored a goal!   The units only put up 3 shots on net and there's still quite a bit of work to do in terms of establishing a strategy.  As well as basics like handling the puck, as Andy Greene caused a shorthanded chance by falling to the ground to prevent the puck from going out. All Buffalo did was take it and go up ice while Greene had to get up.  I like the intent but in practice, it was dumb.  That gripe aside, Devils fans can rejoice that the Devils scored a rare power play goal thanks to Jason Arnott's slapshot.

Even the youth did fairly well tonight.  Mattias Tedenby earned his first NHL point in his first NHL game, a secondary assist on Arnott's first goal from all the way in the Devils' end.  He did get pounded a bit physically, but his quickness and tenaciousness showed tonight.   He had only one listed shot on goal, but it was a beaut, right in the circle. He played 14:25, so MacLean trusted him enough to not totally protect him.  Alexander Vasyunov picked up his second career assist on Clarkson's goal and got 15:08. Stephen Gionta showed plenty of hustle on the fourth line, though only one shot, but he did earn a little (as in 26 seconds) of PK time.  Though he may have had a hand in a crucial error.

Now to the criticism, and this will flow into the defensive performance.   I've already dealt with Kovalchuk, but his line wasn't so good tonight.  Zajac, Kovalchuk, and Langenbrunner combined for 8 shots on goal. That's not bad.  As a whole, though, Buffalo was the dominant team when they were on the ice at even strength.  Look at the Corsi chart from Time on Ice.  Those three put up the worst Corsi and Fenwick numbers among all Devils forwards tonight.  I'm not sure if Lindy Ruff went power for power, but if he did, then MacLean's got to know that line was failing there.  Again, it may be confirmation bias, but Langenbrunner was especially spotty with his passes tonight. He sometimes missed his own teammates entirely and mishandled simple passes from them.   I got a sense that Langenbrunner's performance just made it harder for that line at times, and it may have contributed as to why Buffalo just pounded them at evens.  At least the captain can say he got a goal and scored in the shootout.

As a whole, the Devils' Corsi isn't negative from top to bottom since the Sabres only led 28-26 in shots at 5-on-5.  Overall, though, Buffalo took full advantage of their power plays with 7 shots and racked up 7 more at 4-on-4 hockey.  Anyone who was hoping before the game whether Johan Hedberg would not be left out to dry quickly learned that wasn't happening tonight.  Amid those 42 shots and 4 goals allowed, the Sabres had multiple free looks on rebounds, they set up good shots through screens, and they stretched him out, forcing Hedberg to go post-to-post a few times.   Hedberg, to his credit, did very well tonight and bailed out the Devils numerous times. This loss isn't on him either.  If anything he was let down tonight.

That Hedberg had to bail the Devils defense out multiple times tonight a tall is an indictment the defensive effort.  Throw in being responsible on the 4 goals allowed, the 42 shots allowed overall, a second period of allowing 17 shots on goal, the PK nearly getting torched on each of the 7 shots by Buffalo's PP, and some other errors, and I'm absolutely livid by the defensive performance.

Per the game summary, the Devils gave up Buffalo's two goals within 10 seconds of each other despite a complete different set of skaters on each.  And Buffalo's third goal came not even 2 minutes after Arnott's then go-ahead power play goal.  Per the event summary, the Devils had few answers for Tim Connolly (7 shots) and Jason Pominville (6 shots) while Derek Roy (4 shots, goal) and Tyler Ennis (4 shots, goal) made their marks.  Combining all three, Tyler Myers had a great night with a +8 Corsi, a goal (the third one), two assists, and had little problems jumping up on offense.   The Devils defense - which includes the defensemen and the forwards backchecking - suffered greatly tonight, and that's with four veteran defenseman, a rookie who has been with the team from the start in Matt Taormina, and Olivier Magnan-Grenier who has been OK so far in his call up.

Guess which defensemen got exposed tonight?  Hint: It wasn't the two rookies.

The videotape shows who was at fault, where, and how. Here's the highlight video from NHL.com.  You'll see  the Devils goals, but do pay attention to the goals Buffalo scored and you'll see why I'm livid.

For those who can't view the video and/or want my thoughts on for each goal allowed:

First goal: The video doesn't do it justice, but the Kovalchuk-Zajac-Langenbrunner pairing was getting dominated and pinned back with Greene and Anton Volchenkov.  Buffalo just kept cycling around and putting up shots.  It was one of those shifts where you knew something bad was about to happen.  Well, it did.  A long shot got stopped by Hedberg, and Pominville was wide open in the high slot. The forwards tried to pressure the guys up top, which failed. Greene was on Hecht in front; and Volchenkov was caught in a no man's land.  Greene may have screened Hedberg based on where he was too.  Bad shift by New Jersey and it resulted in a goal.

Second goal: This goal was horrid to watch.  Right after the first goal, 5 new Devils skaters, and all of them slept-walked on this play.  How else to explain allowing another goal 13 seconds after allowing one?  Derek Roy, the team's top scorer and best player so far this season, just jaunts over the blueline, winds up, and hits either a great shot or a got a great deflection off of Henrik Tallinder's stick.  My question: Why was Tallinder so far back on the initial rush, forcing him to make a lot of ground in very little time on Roy?  Thank heavens MacLean called a timeout.

Third goal: Buffalo just carries it over to start this play. Andrej Sekera gets it to Rob Niedermayer and the four Devils in camera frame are all facing Niedermayer.  Adam Mair was up on Sekera.  Anyway, Greene and Taormina for some reason go after him, Rod Pelley is up against another Sabre at the crease, and Gionta's in the right circle.  Niedermayer has the lane to pass it diagonally to a wide open Tyler Myers. The last time Tyler Myers got open in Newark, he scored. Guess what? He scored! Adam Mair hustled over but he had no chance to get to Myers just as Hedberg could do little but slide over to try and stop the slapshot.   This leads me to some more questions: Why in the world were all five of the skaters on the right side of the ice when that pass was made?  Gionta started on the left and went right. Mair was still at the point.  Why did both defensemen go into the corner?

Fourth goal: How do you blow a 4-3 lead in the third on home ice?  There are many ways.  Henrik Tallinder went with Uncommitted Defending, first by being on Tyler Ennis - the eventual scorer - then lunging at the left post to try and stop Myers.  The lunge, of course, opened up the passing lane for Myers to put in Myers pass right at point blank range.  Colin White decided on Being Out of Position first, since he should have been where Langenbrunner was (just standing at the right post, forcing Myers to go left) and then proceded to go with Not Helping by being close to Ennis but doing nothing when Tallinder made his move.  Awful, awful, awful on White and Tallinder there.

In total, the Devils undercut whatever breaks they did get on offense by being poor in their own end. Whether it was by being overwhelmed (GA #1), caught sleeping and not pressuring the other team's top scorer (GA #2), leaving players wide open in wide spaces in your own zone (GA #3), or a combined failure by the defensive pairing (GA #4).    While the attention will be put on Ilya Kovalchuk, the harsh reality is that if the Devils did better in their own zone tonight, a few of these goals may not have happened - and perhaps the Devils would have won this important game in regulation instead of losing in the shootout.

The Devils almost got what they needed to win this game tonight.   But guess what? Almost is never enough.

Thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread. Thanks to you for reading this recap. Please leave your thoughts and feelings about tonight's game in the comments.  Know this, Devils, this Friday's game is a must-win.

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