Lundqvist Happens: New Jersey Devils Succumb Despite Outplaying New York Rangers in 3-1 Loss

Losing to a rival hurts. It's not just another loss. It's a loss to a team whose fanbase will lionize it and use it for bragging rights until the next game.  It's a loss to a team who we despise, so seeing them benefit from the game instead of the team we love is a disappointment at best.

That all said, I can't get really angry or despondent about tonight's 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers. Believe it or not, the New Jersey Devils put out their best effort all month.  Yes, even better than the 3-0 win over Phoenix, where the Coyotes were just way sloppier than the Devils.  No, tonight, the Devils came out strong, they didn't relent after the first goal allowed, they didn't relent after the Rangers went up 2-1 in the second period, and they didn't give up on the game. They were only "done" with 6 seconds left, after the game-icing empty net goal. Tonight, the Devils were aggressive, they initiated plays, and they sliced through the Rangers defense to put up 44 shots on net according to the game summary. There was one team who dominated 5-on-5 play, and it was the home team who out-shot the Rangers 37-20 at evens per the event summary.  The Devils put up a performance that would win hockey games way more often than not.

The main reason why the Devils did not win and why the Rangers did was Henrik Lundqvist. He was brilliant. The Devils attacked him from all different angles, all different situations save for shorthanded ones, and Lundqvist either came up big or he was fortunate to not have one of the many rebounds the Devils got to end up in his net more than once.  I understand he's on a rival, but you have to respect quality when you see it and he was both great and lucky tonight.  The Rangers skaters should be treating Lundqvist to whatever he wants, be it steaks, seafood, or soup.  Lundqvist was the reason the Rangers did get blown out of the Rock, much less get the two points.

Moral victories don't mean much in the standings.  On the other hand, this season is lost for New Jersey anyway, so it's nice to at least have some consolation out of the game.  The Devils outplayed their opponents for the first time in a while and the only reason why they didn't win was because their goalie was hot and the Devils remain the unluckiest team in the NHL.   After all, he game winning goal was a Michal Rozsival shot going wide that went off Andy Greene's elbow and in.  Rangers fans who are honest with themselves will agree it was a fluke. 

The main point is that while losing to this team sucks, how the Devils played can and should be appreciated.  If this is a sign of things to come, the wins will eventually come and luck will finally turn New Jersey's way. I have a few more things to say about tonight's game along with a video of the game's highlights from NHL after the jump.

To really hammer home the point of how well the Devils did tonight, I would like to let you know about this blog George Ays maintains: Tracking the NY Rangers. Ays has been recording scoring chances for each Rangers game; here's his count from tonight's game.   As the tagline says: "The numbers don't lie. They just don't agree with you;" and such the Devils really rolled the Rangers.  The Devils out-chanced the visitors 22-9 at even strength among 26-15 overall.  If you wanted to see New Jersey crash the net, they did that. If you wanted them to set up the perimeter shot, they did that too.  The issue for New Jersey's offense tonight wasn't their shot selection. Just that Lundqvist was fantastic and the Devils remain unlucky; especially Jason Arnott, who had a shot at an empty net deflected away by Artem Anisimov's stick and another later that was either deflected high or just shot high.

For a break down of the count from the Devils perspective, George was kind enough to run the script again.  Here's the count for the individual Devils.  Among them all, Mattias Tedenby was one of the Devils stand outs. He was on the ice for 11 chances at even strength, 14 total, and was counted for creating 6 total (1 was a missed shot).  Tedenby had a great night with Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac, and the scoring chance counts further justifies this feeling beyond just having 5 shots on net and an assist on Zajac's goal-mouth scramble goal.  Thanks, George.

Given the large disparity in shots, the Devils clearly dominated at Corsi per Time On Ice's shots.  Despite the Devils having a net Corsi of +22, only three Devils had low Corsi nights: Rod Pelley (0), Adam Mair (+1), Tim Sestito (0).  All three seemed decent enough, they skated hard, they threw plenty of hits, but they didn't create too much: only 3 shots on net total among the three of them.  In fact, Mair was one of two Devils who didn't have a shot on net - more on the other guy a little later.

The head to head 5-on-5 ice time chart from Time on Ice may explain why their Corsi was a bit low.  Mair, Pelley, and Sestito - and I'll group those three together since Lemaire got them together the most - were used largely against the lower lines on New York.  Jacques Lemaire didn't stick to straight match-ups, so they got minutes against Ruslan Fedotenko and Brian Boyle among other Rangers.  It just so happens that those two were the most prolific Ranger shooters: Fedotenko put 4 on net and Boyle put up 6 on net, including the Rangers' first goal.   Yes, those two alone represented 10 out of the Rangers' 26 shots tonight, so whoever was out against them (e.g. Anton Volchenkov) was going to be pinned back a little more than they'd like. Admittedly, I'm not sure whether they saw enough of them to drive it down; but given their lack of offense, it's not going to take much to have the Corsi hang low.

Vladimir Zharkov, on the other hand, registered no shots on net, but did quite well with a +8 Corsi in his first NHL game this season. Zharkov looked great with David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus, often going in first on the dump-and-chase which set up several cycles.  He was only on the ice for 5 shots against while being present for 10 shots by his teammates in 8:01 of even strength ice time.  Lemaire felt confident enough in the speedy winger's play to give him significant power play time.  That's quite impressive for such limited minutes.   Yes, it's only one game, but it's a sign he belongs in New Jersey.  I hate to be an "I told you so," but I told you so.

Overall, I can't really fault the offense for not putting up more than one goal - not tonight.  What was interesting was how it took the Rangers two periods before trying to stop the dump-and-chase and to tighten up their own positioning.  The Devils, who have struggled when they have tried to chase pucks all season, were actually succeeding with that strategy en route to their 36 shots in the game's first 40 minutes.  I was surprised that the Rangers didn't figure that out sooner; I'm sure John Tortarella did and let his players hear about it - even with a 2-1 lead.

The only time where the Devils' offense wasn't rampaging was on the power play.  Granted, you want to set up a good shot on a power play instead of bombing away; but it was a bit tepid tonight.  Over 8 minutes, the Devils only got 6 shots on net.  They still ran the umbrella, but I got a sense that they were "hanging on to their sticks too tight," especially on the ones in the third period.  I also didn't understand why Ilya Kovalchuk was on for every second of those man advantages. Yeah, he was having a good game and he's an amazing shooter, Lundqvist made some nice sprawling saves on some Kovalchuk slapshots, but he could have been given a little rest on some of them.  If only so the Devils didn't throw the fourth line out there after the power play.

At least the other half of special teams was solid. The penalty kill held the Rangers to only 6 shots across 8 minutes of power play time, including 4 straight because Arnott decided that arguing with the ref on a ticky-tack was smart (it wasn't).  The Devils were aggressive when necessary, passive when the Rangers were just looking to settle, and cleared the puck consistently well.   Again, amid all the things that have went awry this season, the penalty kill has been the most consistently good thing about this season.

What was surprisingly good was the defense.  Again, the Devils held the Rangers to only 26 shots, but they were smart about it.  They didn't turn the puck over to hang Martin Brodeur out to dry.  They communicated with each other. They didn't do needless things.  They were focused and it showed.  The checks were strong and clean, particularly  the one Matthew Corrente threw at Sean Avery.  They even held Marian Gaborik to only 2 shots on net.  Yes, I'm praising the Devils defensive effort for doing what they are supposed to do; but given the last 5 games (all losses),  it's a definite step in the right direction.  The breakdowns were few and far between, and when that happened, Brodeur rose to the occasion.  

Admittedly, Brodeur didn't start off the game so well.  Brodeur over-committed on the make-shift 2-on-1 by Boyle and Fedotenko, giving Boyle a great angle to shoot at the far post.  Brodeur tried to reach back, couldn't, and so not long after Zajac's goal did it get tied.  If Brodeur put himself in better position, then he'd stop it easily.  That said, Brodeur got stronger as the game went on and played more like, well, Brodeur.  He made several "big saves" when the Rangers set up a great shot or on a rebound that the Devils defenders didn't swarm. Funny how he got beat on a shot he should have stopped early, but he stopped all the other ones where the Rangers probably should have scored.  Again, the only other time he was beat was on a literal fluke: a Michal Rozsival shot that was going wide hits off the elbow of Andy Greene - who otherwise had a very fine game - and goes shortside.   It's right there in the game highlights per NHL.com:

Throughout the other games in December, we've seen the Devils shoot themselves in the foot, they get down on themselves, and the offense really only shows up in the third period when the other team has just about won the game.   While it extends the losing streak to 6, tonight was different.  I hope it's because of what Lemaire's been doing with this roster since being named the interim head coach; then I have reason to believe for better times ahead.  It's important that the Devils come away from tonight's 3-1 loss to Our Hated Rivals that they can play solid defense, their goaltender will make big saves as needed, they can be initiators, and they don't have to be down in the game before launching lots of shots on the goaltender.  That's big considering how the last 3 months have went for the Devils.

Hence, I can't get mad over the effort I saw tonight despite the disappointing result.  Lundqvist and bad luck happens.  Repeat the positives, improve the negatives (e.g. don't clear it over the glass, Zajac; don't chirp at the refs, Arnott), and success will come.  Such is life.

That's my take on the game.  What's your take?  Who do you think did well for either side? Who do you think stunk it up for either side? Do you think the Devils will build on this game as I hope? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all who commented in the Gamethread; and thank you, the best Devils fans on the Internet, for reading.

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