When you're changing goalies less than 2 minutes into the game, you know it's going to be a bad night. The fans certainly felt that way. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Before I talk about tonight's 5-1 loss by the New Jersey Devils, I want to talk about what I did on Wednesday night. I assure you, this has a point. I went to the Rock to see the New Jersey Nets play against Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant and Devin Harris were injured, but I was hoping to see a decent enough game. As a casual Nets fan, I knew full well that this season's team may not have a lot of high expectations, at least they cannot possibly be as bad as last season's squad.
The game of basketball, like hockey, is a game of flow. There are runs of play where one team looks good and the other doesn't. Only in basketball, it can be quelled with fouls, timeouts, and changing the tempo through playcalling. The Nets looked poor at times, but when it looked like the Thunder were about to run away with it, the Nets were able to fight their way back into it, got some baskets, and kept the game close. Yes, Anthony Morrow hit the clutchest of three-pointers to force overtime with a little over a second left. Yes, the Nets had the final possession in each overtime period only to be unable to pull away with a late winner in the first two OTs and an equalizer in the third one. Yes, some Net (I forget who) senslessly fouled Jeff Green in the act of shooting a three-pointer near the end of the second OT which led to the third one. The Nets shot themselves in the foot and could have won if more than just one Net moves about when Jordan Farmer tries to drive, but at least they only lost in triple-overtime.
The point of this story is that while I didn't expect a whole lot out of the Nets, they never gave up on the game. They got some breaks, the use of timeouts were good, and most of all, they made adjustments when necessary. The Nets aren't expected to go to the postseason, it wasn't a big crowd, but they didn't get on the court
The New Jersey Devils could learn a lot from the Nets team that I saw that night. Instead, the Montreal Canadiens scored two quick ones early, every Devil not named Mattias Tedenby seemingly decided to give up on the game, and so Montreal cruised to a 5-1 win. Check out Habs Eyes on the Prize for a recap later on. There's a game "highlights" video and further thoughts on tonight's "effort" by the home team after the jump.
First, the "highlights" video. They are only highlights if you support Montreal, hate New Jersey, and/or love Jason Arnott goals.
Second, let me talk about the Canadiens first. They were fantastic. Of course, getting two goals within the first 100 seconds of the game certainly boosts the confidence. However, the Canadiens didn't let up. I'm sure they didn't want to blow another lead like they did on Wednesday night against
Toronto Edmonton (thanks for catching the original error, Cruisin4aBruisin). Mission accomplished. Carey Price was superb, the Montreal defense was fine, their offense was certainly punishing, and they played like they earned a shutout. They didn't get it, thanks to Patrik Elias setting up Jason Arnott for a goal in the third period.
The most impressive aspect of their performance comes from how balanced their attack was. Not only did they take a commanding lead and kept firing rubber on net, but check the ice time for Habs from the event summary. Only four Montreal players logged over 20 minutes of ice time: Roman Hamrlik, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, and Josh Gorges. I thought they were more than fine. Only Gorges and Gill took the worst Corsi at 5-on-5, but they faced the sharpest (and I use that term loosely) part of the Devils' attack somewhat regularly. The forwards all got reasonable amounts of ice time, and with the lead, Jacques Martin was free to roll his lines to do so. No one was gassed, no one was overworked, and with a Devils team playing with no sense of cohesion, they straight up out-shot the Devils in every period (and at even strength).
Do I like seeing the New Jersey Devils, the team I support and love, getting beat on? No. Do I appreciate observing the guys in red being made to look like AI on easy mode in a video game? No. But I can respect a team that doesn't hold back. I'm a believer that if there's time on the clock and you're still playing, you keep doing what you can to win. Montreal was clearly the better team and while I don't like that they crushed New Jersey in nearly all facets of tonight's game, I give them their credit.
Now, let's talk about the New Jersey Devils. Here are a set of quotes from head coach John MacLean, as reported by Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice.
"It’s disappointing," MacLean said. "They outplayed us in every aspect of the game. They were prepared to play and we weren’t."
When asked why his team wasn’t prepared, MacLean said. "I don’t know. You would have to ask a lot of them. We knew Montreal was coming off an overtime loss (to Edmonton Wednesday), giving up a lead. They were ready. Our guys for some reason thought they would have time to get into it. But when you play like that against a good hockey club like Montreal, they embarrass you."
First off, I'm so glad that someone actually asked the appropriate follow-up question to MacLean's first statement. Second, I now wonder if someone actually asked the equally appropriate follow-up of, "You don't know why they were prepared? You're the head coach of this team, you had 4 days without a game, you practiced for 2 of them, and you expect us
That would be what I would ask. But I'm a fan and I admit I wouldn't say it with the proper tone or possibly have the courage to ask it at all. After all, I know nothing about anything. In a way, I'm a little impressed that MacLean honestly had the moxie to give that answer, presumably with a straight face. Let's take a step back. From Gulitti earlier in the day, here's what John MacLean had to say about the team's form before tonight's 5-1 shellacking by Montreal:
"We’ve been playing a better game overall," Devils coach John MacLean said after the team’s morning skate today. "Our whole game has been better overall. I can’t stress enough that we’ve been a little more desperate as far as if somebody makes a mistake we’re covering up for him. It’s been a collective group effort, which we need night in and night out, and that’s something we’re starting to get."
Better overall. Really.
Let's recap the last three games: 3 goals scored, 2 wins by shootout, 4 goals allowed, 1 shutout loss, and only outshooting the opposition in 2 periods in regulation. The Devils weren't coming into tonight having played well. Not from what I saw against Calgary, the Isles, and Philly. The offense remained dulled after the now complete anomaly that was the 5-0 win over Washington. But MacLean and presumably his staff felt otherwise. Maybe he and his staff saw something different in those games.
Yet, more and more, I'm becoming convinced that MacLean doesn't know what he's doing. Montreal scores two quick ones early: he throws out Johan Hedberg and puts in Mike McKenna. The Devils still get pounded in the first period, they come out in the second and look, well, like they have been in most second periods this season. They were housed even worse as Montreal tacked 3 more on - including a power play goal from Scott Gomez that elicited few boos. Sure, he was booed during the goal announcement, but that he scored a goal, down low and uncovered, to then make it 4-0 and the response was tepid for him. There was much more booing at the end of the period, signifying the fans disgust with the team's performance.
Once again, another night of botched passes, wasted offense, a lack of communication, guys not helping properly on defense, and any other fundamental error you could dream up. Montreal looked fresh, composed, and in control even when a play broke down or during one of the rare times the Devils had the puck in their end of the rink for more than a few seconds. That was the team that played last night. The Devils had 4 days off and clearly took most of today off as well. What did MacLean and his staff do? Change the lines. Nothing different on either power play (first one wasted, at least the 5-on-3 put shots on net). Nothing different tactically. Just MacLean moving a lot of guys around and then say something like this (reported by Gulitti) after the game:
MacLean changed up his lines in the third period, essentially because that was his only option.
"You’re trying everything to see if you can get somebody going," he said. "I could have benched nine guys, but you can’t, so you have to try to see if somebody can get going."
When MacLean was asked why Ilya Kovalchuk (no goals in eight games, one in 16 contests) played with Adam Mair and Stephen Gionta in the third, he made it clear Kovalchuik was one of the players he would have liked to bench.
"It’s just the way it worked out," MacLean said. "Guys were playing in different positions. Everybody had to work. As I said, one of probably nine that I could have (benched)."
Yeah. Guys certainly got going, they all happened to be representing the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. Seriously, you have a slumping Ilya Kovalchuk and your message is, "Well, you're not producing or playing well, Ilya, so I'm going to have you play with two forwards who aren't remotely offensive players so you'll look even worse." What was the message for other forwards who were struggling, "I'll only punish Kovalchuk, but you're protected." What about the goalies? "Hedberg, you were so hot last week, but you gave up a wraparound you should have stopped. I'm putting in McKenna so you can think about it." Is that the message? "Other guys, I'm putting in the third string goalie, I hope this inspires you?" Is that the message?
I have more questions: Why not keep the same lines from the last week and just force them to tough it out through a bad game, possibly coming out stronger? Why not give those lines different instructions, or change their ice time allotment? Why not give Hedberg a little more leeway; it's not like playing McKenna will suddenly make the offense shoot any better? Why is just accepted that all he can do is change lines?
Say what you want about Jacques Lemaire, but his line changes at least had some logic to them. I have no idea what MacLean is doing but throwing crap at a wall and hoping it sticks. To me, that's the sign of a coach who doesn't know what he's doing. Maybe tonight will turn out to be one really bad night, and I can only speak for myself; but I cannot accept the answer of "I don't know" from a head coach of a professional hockey team as to why they weren't prepared. I cannot accept "trying to get guys going" when jumbling up ineffective lines into more ineffective lines. I cannot accept how MacLean, Adam Oates, and Larry Robinson have managed games in this manner.
That all said, the players aren't without blame. MacLean is 1000% correct that he could have benched most of tonight's team. Ilya Kovalchuk followed up a fairly good performance on Saturday with a fairly nondescript one tonight. I'm sure because he's the big name with the big contract that he's going to take a lot of the blame, fairly or unfairly. I don't think Kovalchuk is above criticism. He had a poor night tonight. He should do better than just 2 shots on goal. At least in the Philly game, his rushing with the puck penetrated the zone. Tonight, he didn't rush all that much and in the few times it did, the Montreal defense got a stop every time.
But to be quite honest, it's not just him who was bad. It was most of the forwards. Travis Zajac at least went 10-for-17 on faceoffs, but other than that was mostly a non-factor tonight. David Clarkson was outright terrible, and unfortunately seemed to head to the bench near the end of the game clutching his left arm. Brian Rolston was just as bad as Clarkson, I don't know if he even completed most of his passes in the night. (And of course, MacLean kept those two together.) Jason Arnott and Patrik Elias were downright invisible at times, though I can't actually say they were completely invisible thanks to their goal and assist. So they had that one positive shift, wish they did more tonight. Speaking of invisible, I'd like to welcome Jamie Langenbrunner back to playing hockey with 4 shots being blocked by Montreal as his contribution. Hopefully, the captain can take the proverbial next step on Saturday and do something more meaningful in a game. Dainius Zubrus also picked up an assist on that Arnott goal, but the Lithuanian Freight Train wasn't running on full schedule. The fourth line wasn't too terrible, actually, other than Rod Pelley drowning at evens. But all that really means is that Stephen Gionta and Adam Mair weren't destroyed regularly; it's nothing to be really thrilled about.
Basically, I believe that just because Kovalchuk signed a $100 million deal over 15 years doesn't excuse the rest of the team when they suck too. The guys I mentioned in the paragraph above didn't do their jobs well either and deserve criticism as well.
I think the only forward I can say I wasn't disgruntled with was Mattias Tedenby. He hustled on every shift. He attacked the puck when he could. Tedenby forced his way through with 5 shots on goal and was one of the few Devils to get a shot on net off a rush; as opposed to other rushes that ended with no shots on net (mostly every one involving Clarkson and/or Rolston). He ended up with a mighty +11 on Corsi per Time on Ice's charts. (though Fenwick has him at a more modest +4). But he's a silver lining in a massive and increasingly dark cloud that is this offense. Again, the team does not approach the opposition's zone consistently, the team forces too much with the puck as-is, and when they do establish position - especially on a power play - there's not enough movement to force the defense to do something other than hold their spot.
The forwards were bad. The defense wasn't good either. I have yet to figure out what Colin White and Henrik Tallinder were thinking for the first goal against. It definitely wasn't, "Hey, a loose puck, let's get it before someone like Brian Gionta puts it home." While those two recovered somewhat (Tallinder can be seen on the Gomez goal, but I think he was in a "no man's land" given his position), Andy Greene and Mark Fayne had struggled in their end for more than just a handful of shifts. They were the pairing out there when Lars Ellers went on a jaunt and got a wraparound goal past Hedberg, as well as the duo who couldn't stop Tom Pyatt from jamming in the third goal. They didn't get too much better, but the bleeding stopped. Incidentally, I was a little surprised that Fayne played more than Anton Volchenkov tonight. But then Volchenkov didn't really stick out from what I saw save for the occasional hit. Maybe he should get more ice time? At least more than a rookie?
Overall, the D allowed 32 shots on Hedberg and McKenna; and they were made to look a little foolish at times by the Montreal attack. In a way I'm sympathetic, since the Devils' terrible offense only served to help Montreal keep attacking throughout the game. But tonight's defensive effort wasn't as stout as it was against, say, Calgary last Wednesday.
Johan Hedberg is probably wishing he had that wraparound goal back. Perhaps he should have held onto Hamrlik's shot, too, but a Devils skater should have been there as protection in case it got loose. So I'd only fault Hedberg for one of those two, in my opinion. I don't know what to think about Mike McKenna. He got thrown out to the wolves in a non-ideal situation: down 2 goals with under 58 minutes left to play in regulation. I noticed he went down into the butterfly quite a bit; but I felt he really only got burnt by it on the fifth goal against. The goals by Pyatt and Gomez were right at the crease, whacking at a loose puck/rebound. McKenna can at least say he stopped Tomas Plekanec on a penalty shot along with stopping a lot of Montreal shots from all over (including 6 from defenseman Yannick Weber).
Truthfully, I don't like writing these kind of harsh recaps; but I don't know how else to describe this game. This was not a case of some bad luck or bad breaks; the performance by the players tonight was something awful. The execution was lacking. The hustle, outside of Tedenby, was inconsistent and not where it needed to be. The offense's bright spot was that it avoided the shutout, whereas the defense and the goalies got beat 5 times. MacLean can be rightfully criticized, but to be frank, the guys wearing red didn't do New Jersey proud by just going through the motions. They deserved all of the boos and jeers from the Rock tonight. No, it wasn't a large crowd, but that's no excuse to play like garbage despite what some may imply.
Frustration begets frustration, and so a disgusted reaction is entirely understandable. I'm certainly disgusted. I wish I had the answers to get the Devils going because I certainly don't like seeing them get pounded by anyone. Now, the Devils will get to face a rival who's likely thinking revenge for last week. Here's hoping the team and the coaches can sort it out - getting prepared should be the first step.
Anyway, thanks for reading. What did I miss from tonight's game? What don't you agree with? Do you think any Devil other than Tedenby had a decent night? Do you have any actual suggestions on what should be done going forward? Please share your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.