Small Victories by New Jersey Devils Mean Little After 3-2 Loss to Ottawa Senators

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils lost to the Ottawa Senators 3-2.  The loss was their fourth straight overall and their seventh straight defeat on the road (last road win was in Chicago on November 3).  As with all losses, it hurts.  It drives the Devils down deeper into the abyss.  It's another blow to the confidence of all involved from the players on the ice to the fans who support the team.

That's really sad because tonight's performance wasn't all that bad.   There were stretches were the Devils got beat on, but New Jersey hit back later in the game.  There are some not-insignificant positives to take from the game amid the negatives.  There was one really controversial decision made by the referee late in the game that definitely effected the final result. 

Alas, it will ultimately be seen as hollow by most since the Devils lost yet another game.  Only those in Stage 5b, the stage of Acceptance, would be willing to at least recognize said positives.  Consider them to be small victories. Even then, they are right to feel bad after this one.  While one could argue the Devils were pretty good, "pretty good" wasn't enough to win.

Please check out Silver Seven for a recap later from the Ottawa perspective.  Read on after a jump to see a video of the game's highlights from NHL.com, and further commentary about tonight's game.

Let's jump right into some positives, some of the smaller victories from tonight's game by New Jersey.  One of the most significant ones was the play of the New Jersey Devils in the second period.  That's not a typo, I do mean the second period.

The first wasn't so great.  The Devils had to kill two penalties, they were outshot 13-7, the Senators had more effective possession of the puck, and were up 1-0 thanks to Erik Karlsson's goal.  A low wrist shot that bounced off the ice through several bodies, meaning Martin Brodeur didn't see it.  If only that puck hit a body. If only Karlsson couldn't hold onto the puck. If only Andy Greene didn't fire a bouncing puck towards Ilya Kovalchuk as a result of pressure from 2 Senators. If only the Devils had more offense in that first period.  If only, if only, if only.   Not a good first period.

So that's the situation heading into the second period. Given the Devils' recurring poor performances in the middle period, Devils fans were on edge.  At least, I was on edge.  But by the time the second intermission rolled around, after the dust settled, it wasn't so bad for New Jersey.  Both teams scored 2 goals in the second, but the 5-on-5 Corsi swung New Jersey's way, the Devils caught a break, they didn't get too discouraged after Ottawa scored two straight goals and responded to one of them, and the Devils even out-shot the Senators 13-6.  No, really. It's in the NHL's game summary if you don't believe me.  I wouldn't say the Devils won the period since it was 3-2 by the end of it.  Out of most of the second periods we've seen this season, though, I would say this was definitely one of the better ones.

This leads me to the second signficant positive from tonight's game: special teams.  The penalty kill was strong.  The Devils took four minors tonight; three of them in the offensive zone (definitely a negative). All of them stemmed from over-zealousness: hooking a guy in a battle for the puck (Brian Rolston), shoving down a player in front of the other team's crease (Jamie Langenbrunner), shoving down a player in front of your own crease (Matt Corrente), and flinging a stick into an opponent's face behind their net (Dainius Zubrus). There's aggression, and then there's carelessness.  Fortunately, the PK units were ready to bail them out.  They limited Ottawa's power play to only 7 shots on net in 8 minutes, they got several clears including a shot on net of their own, and Martin Brodeur made some big-time stops on some of those 7 that did get through. Based on the game's event summary, offer up some big thanks to Colin White (5:13) and Rod Pelley (4:35) for logging heavy minutes at shorthanded situations tonight.

Yet the penalty killers weren't as impressive as the power play.  They went 2-for-3 (maybe 3-for-3, more on that later) tonight with 8 shots on net.  They got penetration into the zone, they were able to set up well, the players looked for and took shots both down low and up top, and they got two power play goals.  Can you believe that the Devils are 5-for-10 on the power play in their last 3 road games?  The same Devils who only had one going into this road trip, if I recall correctly?  I don't know if this Adam Oates' handiwork, the players responding differently, or someone else taking over on PP duty.  Whatever it is, keep it up.

The third significant positive from tonight's game was Martin Brodeur.  Coming back from injury, I felt he was quite fine tonight.  I don't think he can be faulted for the three goals allowed as he didn't see the first or third ones and the second one was off a rebound.  Brodeur was repeatedly forced to make some heads-up saves on about a third of Ottawa's 29 shots on net tonight, and he came through.   He even picked up an assist on the Devils' first goal. Do I think Brodeur should play tomorrow night?  While he faced a good amount of work tonight, I really wouldn't mind it if he does. It's not like he was poor tonight. Plus, I doubt he'll be incredibly tired after not playing for a few weeks.

Speaking of goals, here's the highlight video from NHL.com.  You'll see that the Devils got one break whereas the Senators got three (two on goals, one waved-off goal).

To recap in words: Karlsson scored through a screen off a broken play.  Patrik Elias scores his third straight PPG in as many games thanks to Pascal Leclaire misplaying the shot with his glove. The one good significant break for the Devils.  Milan Michalek was open in the slot and a rebound went right to him, which he just ripped it into the net. (Who should have had Michalek, Mr. Pelley?) Jarkko Ruutu picks up a loose puck by Chris Neil, flings it back, hits Brodeur's right shoulder, and bounces in - a total fluke goal.  Dainius Zubrus fires a rocket of a one-timer for a second PPG for NJ (and look at Kovalchuk and Langenbrunner on that play to fully appreciate how much of a team effort that one was). And that was that in terms of goals.   Karlsson and Ruutu were fortunate to score, as was Elias.

Ultimately, the breaks weren't in favor of New Jersey tonight beyond the goals by Erik Karlsson and Jarkko Ruutu. Ilya Kovalchuk, who picked up assists on both goals tonight, had a great chance off a rebound.  A chance where he probably scores most of the time, and the shot careens off the crossbar. In the third period, Jason Arnott had the puck right at the doorstep, waited for Pascal Leclaire to make a move, but he couldn't elevate the puck high enough.  Later on, Henrik Tallinder bombs a shot from above the right circle that clanged off the post.  Then, as you saw in the video, there was the waved-off goal.

Now, let's talk about that no-goal call.  The third power play for NJ was winding down and it was a good one with multiple shots on net.  The third line is out there as the PP is winding down, and Rolston is able to get a shot down low. He jams it before getting pushed away, only for the puck to be loose.  David Clarkson does the right thing by driving to the net.  It goes off his stick, off his skate, and goes in. A dirty goal, but a big one.  And the referee immediately waves off the goal.  After a video review, the call stood leaving a very bewildered Clarkson, John MacLean, and 19 other Devils. 

After the Gamethread, Matt Ventolo looked up the official rule for kicking and goals, Rule 49.2. Here's the citation from the rulebook:

49.2 Goals – Kicking the puck shall be permitted in all zones. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who uses a distinct kicking motion to propel the puck into the net. A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who kicks a puck that deflects into the net off any player, goalkeeper or official.

A puck that deflects into the net off an attacking player’s skate who does not use a distinct kicking motion is a legitimate goal. A puck that is directed into the net by an attacking player’s skate shall be a legitimate goal as long as no distinct kicking motion is evident. The following should clarify deflections following a kicked puck that enters the goal:

(i) A kicked puck that deflects off the body of any player of either team (including the goalkeeper) shall be ruled no goal.

(ii) A kicked puck that deflects off the stick of any player (excluding the goalkeeper’s stick) shall be ruled a good goal.

(iii) A goal will be allowed when an attacking player kicks the puck and the puck deflects off his own stick and then into the net.

A goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who kicks any equipment (stick, glove, helmet, etc.) at the puck, including kicking the blade of his own stick, causing the puck to cross the goal line.

Now, Steve Cangelosi got the official word from Mike Murphy, the NHL's VP of Hockey Operations, after the game as to the reasoning for the call. Tom Gulitti got the same message and posted it at Fire & Ice. 

"We ruled the puck was propelled into the net with a distinct kicking motion," NHL senior VP of Hockey Operations Mike Murphy told me via e-mail: "We also looked to see if the puck was touched by Clarkson’s stick which it was not."

Recall that Clarkson first hit the puck, which went off his stick, and then it hit his skate to knock it in. The refs and the "war room" in Toronto saw that as a "distinct kicking motion." 

How?  Clarkson's skate was on the ice the whole time. He didn't swing his foot or his leg as you would expect by kicking it - so I don't see the intent or any "distinct kicking motion" there.   Did it get knocked forward because of his skate? Of course the puck was going to be knocked forward because Clarkson was going forward.  I'm not a physicist, but I'm pretty sure that's how the dynamics would operate in this case.  Clarkson was going to the net strong with force.  His momentum would have him keep going forward until some force impeded him or made him to stop or change direction.  The puck, being lighter than Clarkson and on ice, would likely go in Clarkson's direction.  Clarkson did not intend to hit the puck with his skate, it just happened, and it went forward like Clarkson did.  Thanks to the multiple replays in slow motion, the viewers got to see that clearly. A simple call.

If the refs and the "war room" in Toronto honestly expected Clarkson to somehow get his foot out of the way or hit the puck with his stick after contact from his skate, then I don't think they really grasp how quick the play was happening or the reality of the situation.  An even more warped reality if they were just looking for whether the puck hit his stick after it his skate in the act of gliding.

Basically, I think the refs and the NHL got it wrong.

That all said, as much as I feel the decision was harsh, the Devils didn't lose the game because the refs didn't give the Devils that third power play goal.  Do I think the Devils would keep it at 3-3 to take it beyond regulation? Sure. But I could easily say that would have happened if the Devils didn't hit the post twice.  Or if someone (not the D, White and Tallinder were covering Sens down low) picked up Michalek in the slot to prevent him from scoring.

On a similar note, I felt the Devils could have done more in the third period.  Sure, by the end of the game, it was clear the Devils had the puck more.  Just look at the 5-on-5 Corsi chart from Time on Ice and see all of the positives on New Jersey's side.  Pretty impressive given the shots at 5-on-5 were only 22-21 in favor of the Devils.  Yet, the Devils did not start off or end the period well.  Ottawa put up 6 on net (aided by the power play they had, of course) in the 9 minutes the Devils went between their first shot in the third period and their second according to the official play by play record of tonight's game.

9 minutes without a shot on goal!  That's pretty bad for a team that needs a goal to tie the game up!   And then the Devils struggle to get out of their zone until the final minute of the game, so Brodeur's not pulled until there's about 55 second left, and is not able to set-up with 6 forwards in a late effort for the equalizer.   A little before Zubrus' penalty and afterwards until the no-goal call on Clarkson, the Devils looked primed for a game-tying goal.  They could have done much better over the whole third period, though (along with the first period, too).

Plus, while the Devils attempted a lot of shots tonight, many were blocked.  20, according to the scorer of tonight's game.  Granted, most were due to Arnott, who got stuffed 4 times, and the  defense overall.  Each of the 6 defensemen had at least one of their attempts blocked tonight, a total of 11.  While the Devils ultimately put 31 on Leclaire, it only makes it harder on yourself to keep firing shots into shinpads instead of the goalie. Yes, Corsi was in their favor at evens, but the shooting could have been better at times.

Another aspect of the game that hurt the Devils' chances would be discipline, since they spent 4 of their 8 minutes on the PK in that crucial third period.  Though, I won't belabor that point further as I already went over that while praising the penalty killers.

My whole point is that while there's plenty of positives from tonight's game and the Devils weren't bad tonight, it was - once again - not good enough. There were small victories, but not enough to earn an actual victory for the Devils.  It would have been nice for the refs to have counted Clarkson's goal.  But they didn't and the Devils lost again due to other parts of the game outside of that call. Going forward, I have to wonder whether they will build on whatever good things they have done tonight for tomorrow's game against Detroit.  To be honest, I don't know given what we've seen this season.

Anyway, that's my take on tonight's game. What's yours?  Do you agree with the positives I saw from New Jersey's performance?  Were there others I missed?  What do you think the Devils should have done better tonight?  Please leave all of your thoughts and feelings on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.  Note: The Detroit-New Jersey preview will be up tomorrow morning.

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