Lowell Devils Fall to Hartford Wolf Pack in OT, 3-2; Possible Lessons for NJ?

The Lowell Devils, the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, hosted the Hartford Wolf Pack, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, in a regular season contest at the Prudential Center tonight. In a game filled with physical play, penalties (13 total power plays), and shots on net (Lowell led 39-28), the Wolf Pack prevailed when Brodie Dupont beat Mike McKenna late in overtime. If you're interested in the game's stats, here's the official game summary from the AHL's website; and here is the official boxscore/gamesheet also from the AHL.

With cheap, general admission tickets - $15 for adults, $10 for kids - there were plenty of large families in addition to local Devils and Rangers fans in the lower bowl.  Official attendance tonight was listed at 5,458 and that's not too bad for an AHL game.  Especially when you consider that Lowell averages 2,053 per game (as of 1/29 per this article from the Lowell Sun) and Hartford averages 3,554 (per this Sports Business Daily article through 1/4).   I'm not sure how much the lower bowl at the Rock can contain, but I don't think that number is terribly far apart from what I saw. 

The larger question for New Jersey is whether they made enough money to justify doing this more often next season.  I mean, I'm sure there's a pretty substantial cost to opening the arena, getting staff prepared, and setting up the rink for essentially several thousand people at best and for cheap tickets. I'm sure fans in Lowell can't be too pleased by playing two home games in New Jersey, even though I would think it would be a good experience for the players (Motivation: Look, you could be playing here one day if you're good enough!).  I also wonder if the game would have drawn more interest if the best Lowell Devils (e.g. Vladimir Zharkov, Patrick Davis) weren't already in New Jersey or up with New Jersey at one point (e.g. Matt Corrente, Tim Sestito, Nick Palmieri). We shall see in the future.

Incidentally, one of the things I noticed immediately was who wasn't playing for Lowell.  AHL All-Star representative for Lowell and defenseman Tyler Eckford and winger Alexander Vasyunov didn't play.  I would have like to have seen how they would have fit in tonight, especially given how much possession the Lowell team had on offense tonight. I'm trying my best to find something on whether they're injured or not, but I'm not finding anything out either.   If you know anything, please let me know in the comments.

As far as the game itself, it was an entertaining affair.  My hockey viewing has been almost nearly all-NHL, so to watch two AHL teams go at it reminded me how much higher level of skill is in the NHL.  Lots of attempted passes, shots, and clearances that would otherwise be easily done by a NHL player wasn't so easy watching tonight.  I suppose that's why they are in the minor leagues and not with the parent clubs.   However, given that the squad representing the Devils organization put a ton of shots on net, did a lot of things right, but still struggled to score in general much less the power play and lost tonight, I couldn't help but think of New Jersey's recent woes.   So I recap the game not just to provide an account of it, but also to highlight any lessons I took away from the game that may apply to the NHL team.

Head coach John MacLean's approach for the Devils apparently was to shoot often and crash the net even more often.  On nearly every Devils possession, a white jersey was going to the net, getting into the slot, looking for a rebound or a deflection.   This caused the Wolfpack defense to collapse more often, creating even more bodies in front of Hartford's Matt Zaba.  I came away from the game very impressed with Zaba, his rebound control was excellent (and vital given the amount of net-crashing), and he handled the extra bodies very well.

At the same time, despite the number of shots on net, I felt the extra traffic was to the Devils' detriment.  Generally, the idea of getting guys in front is to block the goalie's vision (can't stop what you can't see) and be in good position for a deflection or a rebound.  While the Devils got 39 shots on Hartford and many good chances, they also had many blocked shots and shots placed wide.  The flipside to all putting bodies in front is that the shot needs to be more precise in hitting it's target, even to set up a deflection.    While the Devils were more successful in terms of firing pucks, moving the puck forward, and caused chaos in front of the net; it yielded only one goal, a late third period equalizer by Nathan Perkovich, who tipped Cory Murphy's shot past Zaba right in front of the crease.

That's the first lesson - traffic in front isn't a cure-all for offensive struggles.  I'm not saying it should never be done. When it works, it's wonderful. But for nearly 60 minutes, it didn't work at all for Lowell despite the effort and commitment to the game plan.  It got them close, but close is pretty much meaningless in hockey.  Murphy's shot was just in the right place and Perkovich was a bit lucky to deflect it in such a way that Zaba was beaten by the puck.  Great but out of the many attempts, it worked just once.  But had it go into Zaba's pads, the game would have been a regulation 2-1 loss. 

What I felt Lowell should have done more of was to mix up the approaches to the net by players off the puck - have them crash sometimes, and have them hang out higher in the slot. Since Zaba was putting more than a few pucks up there on rebound and that's where Hartford made a good number of their clearances, a Devil in position there could have at least cause the defense more problems.

The second lesson for New Jersey is the importance of playing well on the power play. Both Hartford and Lowell had numerous power plays.  Hartford had 7 and Lowell had 6.   Not a terrible night for the penalty killers, yet they each conceded a PPG.  Getting good shots on net was the exception and a challenge for both squads.  Both eventually cashed in, Tim Sestito in an individual effort after being sprung into space with a long pass by Palmieri in the first period for the first goal of the game; and Dupont putting one home from the slot, which gave Hartford a then 2-1 lead.   Yet, outside of those chances, neither team was truly a big threat on the power play for the whole two minutes.  While the larger lesson may be for teams to practice good discipline and not give up at least 6 power plays in a game, I felt this occurrence truly shows why a power play shouldn't give up after being stopped several times.  In this game, the power play goals were important and I can only wonder how things would have turned out if both teams were more efficient with their shooting on man advantages.

The third lesson for New Jersey is that even one defensive breakdown could be lethal.  OK, New Jersey fans are all too familiar with this, but I emphasize it again.  The Wolf Pack got their first goal of the game - an equalizer to take back momentum - off a poor defensive decision.  Jordan Owens got the puck on the right half boards and saw Derek Couture streaking down the center of the ice.  Owens took a risk and fired a puck in his direction.  Now, Brad Snetsinger was backchecking and was pretty much with Couture, if a little bit behind.  For some reason, Snetsinger tries to stop the pass instead of catching up to/sticking with Couture.  A risk that left Couture more open, but with a good reward - stopping the pass would have killed the play. The attempt at stopping the pass failed, and Couture had a great chance to score.  Which he took full advantage of past a sliding McKenna. 

Just one decision that didn't work out led to a goal.  Now, if the Devils were more successful on offense prior to that point, then it wouldn't have been a big deal. As it tied the game up at 1-1, it very much was a big deal and Snetsinger's mistake was amplified. I don't say this to mean that the Devils (Lowell or New Jersey) should be so nervous in making plays on defense, but that it's sometimes better to make a safer play - especially when the score is so close.

The fourth lesson was that physical play can be entertaining but not necessarily useful without the proper follow up. These two teams don't like each other.  I don't know if it is a natural rivalry or not (they are in the same division, they might be?), but there was plenty of jaw-jacking and shoves after whistles along with numerous fights.  But what stuck out to me was the big hits each team was throwing.  Louis Robitaille didn't get a shot on net, but must have had at least 5 big hits.   Palmieri was playing like a strong power forward, which he is in the AHL even as a rookie.  Even the diminutive Stephen Gionta, captain of Lowell, was throwing pain bombs on Hartford players much larger than him.  As the last Toronto game showed, physical play can be a motivator.  But for all it did for New Jersey, perhaps a reason as to why they had so much offensive possession, it didn't wear down the defense to the point where it was just a field day for Lowell forwards.

Those are some of the lessons I took away from what I saw tonight that perhaps New Jersey should take heed going forward.   Going back to just the Lowell game, I felt Ben Walter really stood out tonight.  He had 7 shots on net, he was a top center, and he showed some great puck control on offense.  On another night, he would have had some points.  I liked what I saw out of Palmieri and Sestito, they had a good game in terms of going forward.  Cory Murphy looked very strong on the blueline and was just firing away from the point, putting 5 on net.  It sounds weird  to say, but he really looks solid in the AHL.  I mean, he has skills, he was the initial winner of the #6 defenseman role over Andy Greene in New Jersey at the beginning of the 09-10 season; but he really has his place here.  Lastly, among the Lowell regulars, Matt Taormina looked as solid as Murphy and nearly as productive, with 4 shots on net from the point.  I'm not sure how big his upside would be, as this is his first full season of pro hockey; but it wouldn't surprise me if he could be a longshot in camp next season from what I saw from the defenseman.

Anyway, if you were at the Lowell-Hartford game, let me know what you thought of the game.  For the rest of you, would you be interested in more Lowell games at the Rock?  Would you be more interested if the New Jersey roster didn't have most of the best players already called up at one point or another, sort of dashing the mystique of seeing the prospects play?  Of course, what do you think of the lessons I took out of this game - would they really apply to the NHL team and be useful, or am I just stretching here?  Either way, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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