This is a photo of Colby Armstrong's first goal; I'm using it to point you to Brian Rolston's facial expression in the background. I don't know about you, but to me it says "Oops, I crapped my pants" since Rolston set up Armstrong for the shot that beat Martin Brodeur here. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
While New Jersey gets socked with a blizzard featuring heavy accumulation of snow, the New Jersey Devils goaltenders keep getting socked with an accumulation of errors. There's a state of emergency in New Jersey, yet there has yet to be any action called for the Devils skaters who commit these terrible errors. The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't have the strongest of starts or the sharpest of games. However, they did well enough to keep up with the Devils and to pounce when opportunity presented itself. Therefore, the Leafs earned their 4-1 win against the Devils. The Devils faithful - both the few at the Rock and the many at home staying in due to the storm - aren't happy by it and they aren't surprised by it. They saw this - the team's fifth straight loss - once before.
That is because they have. The Devils looked great on the penalty kill. According to the event summary, the Devils only allowed 3 shots on net and no goals in 6:08 of Toronto power play time. The Devils were fine on the power play, scoring their sole goal in the dying seconds of a man advantage, along with putting up 10 shots on net in 8:30 of power play time according to the game summary. However, they were inferior at 5-on-5 hockey, and once again, they lost the game there. They were outscored 0-4 at evens, and despite being down for much of the game, they only put up one more shot than Toronto at 5-on-5 (19-20) per the event summary. Whereas you expect (and we have seen this) the losing team to be more aggressive and attempt more shots, the Devils finished the game mostly negative in Corsi per the chart at Time on Ice. A net Corsi of -7 at 5-on-5 hockey in a 4-1 loss. That's just bad.
I wouldn't start yelling at Jacques Lemaire, not for a while yet. The Devils were getting beat on for most of the last 3 months, that's not going to change with a couple of games or a couple of practices. It will take time for the Devils to be a competitive team. Until then, teams of all kinds from the Leafs to the Islanders to the Capitals to the Thrashers to the Red Wings to the Canadiens and so forth will continue to out-do the Devils. This game against Toronto was just another instance.
Fair play to the Leafs for taking full advantage and so they came away with a deserved and decisive victory over a team simply giving those types of games away. The people at Pension Plan Puppets should be pleased with tonight's performance. Go check that blog out for a recap from their perspective. Since we've seen this type of loss by the Devils before, I only have a little more to say after the jump.
I would only like to make one major point regarding tonight's game. But first, let's look at the damage.
While critics will immediately point out that the Devils have allowed 24 goals - and scored only 5 - on their current 5-game losing streak, the majority of these goals allowed are easily preventable if the skaters were competent on the plays where they happened. I've been explaining them in recaps all season long; : 4 of the 5 goals allowed against Washington would fit into this category. While not in a list, I detailed how 4 of the 5 goals allowed against the Islanders were also largely on the skaters. Tonight was no different. Here's the highlights video from NHL.com, which includes the goals:
Here's what I saw:
Brian Rolston attempts a cross-ice pass in his own zone. Kris Versteeg gets his stick in the way of Rolston's on the follow-through, but that doesn't change the fact that Rolston wanted to move the puck in his own zone across the slot with Leafs still in the area. The puck goes right up to a lurking Colby Armstrong in the slot. Armstrong goes in and scores. It wasn't as brutal as Langenbrunner's giveaway to Josh Bailey on Thursday night but it was right up there. If you needed more of a reason why Rolston was waived, then I can't name a better one than what he did here.
Right after the Devils kill a Leafs power play, Kris Versteeg carries the puck into the zone against 3 Devils. Versteeg somehow loses it, Dainius Zubrus can't knock the puck away so Versteeg re-collects and gets a shot off. Martin Brodeur stops it but there's a rebound. Colin White hangs at the top of the crease, Zubrus went past the net after Versteeg's shot, and Henrik Tallinder is slow to react as John Mitchell just steps in to put it home easily.
Clarke MacArthur beats Anton Volchenkov on a dump-and-chase. While David Clarkson and Anssi Salmela set up in the slot, MacArthur turns to find Nikolai Kulemin open above the slot with no one really on him. Patrik Elias lunges but Kulemin has him beat; while Mikhail Grabovski goes to stand right in front of Brodeur with no one noticing. Salmela steps up on Kulemin, Kulemin gets around both to curl a shot short-side through an uncovered Grabovski (jumping) screen. That's goal #3 and yes, Grabovski was not only untouched but actually jumped at the time of the shot - one of the few times I ever saw that actually work. Clarkson only got to Grabovski after the puck's in the net.
So Johan Hedberg is in the net for the third period. With a 3-0 deficit, he's not seeing a lot of action. After Mitchell is stopped in the Devils' end, New Jersey breaks out. Mattias Tedenby Jamie Langenbrunner in the neutral zone. The captain misplays it and so loses it to Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle looks up, sees Armstrong with acres of space in front of him, and feeds him into the Devils end. So it's essentially a one-on-one between Hedberg and Armstrong, and Armstrong scored his second of the game through Hedberg's legs. A weak goal to allow, but the turnover in the neutral zone created the situation.
By my count that's 3 out of 4 goals where the skaters could have done something simple and expected to prevent the play where the goal against happened. Yes, a goaltender is sometimes called upon to make saves in tough situations, but because they are tough situations, a save isn't automatic. You cannot win many hockey games when the team commits errors of this sort and the goalie fails to produce a miraculous save that bails them out. Expecting those saves to happen is as foolhardy as it is not a winning gameplan regardless of it's Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Roberto Luongo, or Vesa Toskala in net. It's not even a gameplan.
Ultimately, this leads me to my major point: Lemaire's first priority should be to get the Devils skaters to stop being so dumb when it comes to defense and possession. As I have written here over and over, as I've said on Talking Red over and over, and as I've seen over and over, these are fundamentals. These are not an issues such that a new talent would change everything or a new system would hide it. It's basic stuff that these guys have done before here, on other teams, and what they have been doing since they were kids. Don't attempt cross-ice passes in your own zone unless it's completely safe. Block out the front of the net for rebounds. Collect the pass before moving ahead. Communicate to each other where the puck is and where players are. And these don't even include some of the penalties (Adam Mair, please learn to control yourself in the offensive zone) or other failures going forward since they aren't directly leading to the Devils losing hockey games (though they don't help at all).
I believe naming Lemaire the caretaker head coach for this season was the right choice because he emphasizes defense, he has experience, and he will make players accountable. Lemaire, the time is now to crack the whip on whoever needs it (e.g. Rolston, Langenbrunner, Salmela, etc.) and get to work.
Oh, and Lou, the NHL holiday roster freeze ends at midnight tonight. I'm not going to be so naive as to expect sweeping changes on Monday. Yet, I'd like to remind the Devils that they can start doing so - or threaten to do so - very shortly.
Yes, the offense continues to sputter - my own confirmation bias pointed out a lot of Devils missing rebounds in the Leafs' end. To me, it's all the more reason to reduce the defensive zone gaffes. This way the team isn't going to be down by 2 or more goals for most of the game and force the offense to do what has been incredibly rare for them this season. Ergo, it's imperative that the Devils can stop making games that much harder on themselves due to their own carelessness. Tonight's loss to Toronto was just another statement of what has been obvious to the fans for months now.
That's my take on the game. It's not as detailed as it usually is, but feel free to give me your opinion on the game. Do you think some Devils did well? If so, who and why? What Devils do you think were bad and why? What do you want to realistically see out of this team for Wednesday's game against Our Hated Rivals? What did you see out of tonight's game that was worth pointing out, both good or bad, for either team? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's loss in the comments. As always, thanks to the commenters in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.