New Jersey Devils Had the Shots, None of the Finish, Lose 1-0 to St. Louis Blues

While I missed the first period due to being at the first half of the New York Red Bulls' grand opening of Red Bull Arena (they were up on Santos FC 3-0 at half, the game ended 3-1. It is a great arena and a fantastic first half.), it didn't take me long to figure out a summary for tonight's game.  The fans came out in force, the St. Louis Blues went up by one goal late in the first period, the New Jersey Devils did what they could to tie it up, and, of all the times, an old Devils canard came up in this game:

The finishing.  The finishing just wasn't there for New Jersey tonight.

Let me explain for newer fans. Throughout too many games to count throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s (think 1997-98 if you need a year), a lack of finishing has doomed the Devils to defeat or limited games to be ties instead of wins.  It can be frustrating to watch a team do well in other parts of the game, to challenge the opposition's goaltender numerous times, and yet they can't seem to get the one bounce or the one perfectly placed shot to get the goal.  Finishing is usually part luck, part result of hard work, and part individual shooting - and the Devils seemed to be lacking one part or another on each of their 29 shots on net.

I don't mean to disrespect the Blues tonight.  I mean, Ty Conklin played well tonight - his numbers are actually pretty good this season overall - but the Devils had chances to really make this game their own and the Blues didn't exactly take the game over.  The Devils made the effort over and over to make those chances, and for one reason or another, they just couldn't finish them.  Hence, the frustrating 1-0 loss.  It's not like all of the other shutout losses because the Devils didn't fall flat on their faces and play incredibly bad hockey.  Just one part of their game didn't show up and it's the rather important one: finishing.

Check out St. Louis Game Time later for a reaction on the St. Louis side. I'm sure Blues fans are very pleased with the win, helping their playoff hopes (a Detroit loss tonight would help, too).  Here's the official recap from NHL.com, complete with a short boxscore and all the other stats associated with the game.  Please read on further for my additional thoughts.

Now, I can't comment on the first period that I didn't see, but according to this post-game post by Tom Gulitti, the Devils weren't happy with their start.  So there's that.  Still, thanks to this highlight video from NHL.com, I did see Alex Steen's goal - the goal of the game, as it turned out:

It appeared that the Devils were a little late on a line change, giving Steen the room to shoot and he just took a great shot on net. Perhaps Martin Brodeur should have had that shot.  Then again, as the game turned out, it's not like the Devils were able to respond. 

What makes it frustrating was that so many things went New Jersey's way.  The Devils had 3 power plays and actually threatened to score on each them.  Eight shots went on Conklin, a far sight better than what we've seen in recent games. No, they didn't score on them (obviously); but it was a clear improvement over the power plays of the last 3 games.   Of the Devils' 29 shots on net, 19 of them came from Devils you'd want to see firing away: Zach Parise (6), Ilya Kovalchuk (5), Brian Rolston (4), and Travis Zajac (4 and hit the post in the third period).  Patrik Elias was in the playmaker role for Kovalchuk and Rolston tonight, so he didn't get to shoot all that much. How Jamie Langenbrunner ended up with no shots on net, I don't know.   

While I'm not sure why Rolston had to be on the second line; he wasn't a waste.  He was good on some shifts and a bit lost on others.  In my view, one could tell he was adjusting after being on the third line so much.  I know he was quite productive next to Elias back in December. Perhaps Jacques Lemaire wanted to rekindle that tonight.  That didn't really happen tonight, maybe the metaphorical flame flickered with the shots Rolston did have.

I'm sure the power play will be subject to much criticism as it went 0-for-3, now 0-for-their-last-18, and the end of each one was greeted by much booing at the Rock.  According to Rich Chere's post-game post, Zach Parise's not happy about that (as well as the loss, of course):

"It’s not the power play’s fault every game we lose," Parise said. "Everyone wants to point a finger. We didn’t score 5-on-5, either.

"We get booed every time we’re on the power play. I think it’s very unreasonable. We’re trying our best out there. It’s frustrating . They clear the puck and we get booed. I’m getting sick of talking about it. I thought our power play was good. We didn’t score, but that’s not the reason we lost."

Well, he's right. Let me add to it, though.  I'm sure some of you are already pointing fingers at Brian Rolston or Ilya Kovalchuk for not making the difference tonight.    If you want to criticize then, fine, but do be fair and understand that they made the effort. It's not like they didn't get shots on net or hustle to make plays happen.  It's not like Conklin was just a shooter tutor in net or the Blues' didn't make any heads up plays on defense - like Brad Boyes' last-second stoppage of a Kovalchuk wraparound.  You'd also have to have the same criticisms for Parise, Zajac, and the other forwards as well.  Lastly, I'd advise you to watch the embedded highlight video beforehand too.  Again, Conklin played well and I cannot emphasize enough that a lack of finishing appears to be the culprit for the team failing to score.  Note that I said the team and not just one or two players.

Though if a lack of finishing was the culprit, it's accomplice would be missing the net.  The Devils kept even with the Blues in blocked shots (10-9 Devils, Andy Greene with 4); but the Devils were clear leaders in missing the net. They missed the net 17 times tonight, most notably on longer shots.  Perhaps it was a result of traffic in front?  Perhaps it was the guy at the point over/under estimating his shooting lane?  Whatever it is, it certainly didn't help.

What also didn't help was the refereeing.  I don't normally call out referees, but Justin St. Pierre and Stephen Walkom made a horrid call in the third period.  Jamie Langenbrunner was in front of Conklin in the hopes of a screen.  Eric Brewer knocks him down with a clear cross-check, the force of the hit makes Langenbrunner tumble into Conklin.  The refs decided to call the cross-check on Brewer and a goaltender interference call on Langenbrunner.   Correct me if I'm wrong, but if an opposition player is knocked into his own goalie by his own player, how is the opposition player at fault at all?  He was hit!  Physics dictates that the player who was hit would be forced back and in this case it was enough to make him tumble.  How can you penalize both the illicit hit and the guy reacting from that hit?   While it didn't mean much in the course of the game; it was an awfully stupid call that warranted mentioning.

Likewise, it appeared the Devils' Parise and Zajac got away with one as they were involved when defenseman Roman Polak hit the end boards awkwardly.  Maybe there was a slash or an attempt at a trip while going for the puck.  I'm sure Blues fans are unhappy that there was no call there either. From my vantage point, it moved so fast that I couldn't tell.  According to this postgame post by Tom Gulitti, Parise and Zajac don't think anything in terms of discipline will come of it since it wasn't clear whether they actually hit Polak and that there was no call.  All the same, I hope Polak is OK.

In any case, the Blues stopped playing urgently somewhere in the middle of the second period and focused mainly on defense from that point of time onward.  They looked their best near the end of the game, successfully repelling a desparate Devils attack. But when they did have the puck, they controlled it well, got it deep into the Devils' zone - to a fault at times. I felt they sacrificed shots and played far too conservatively.  Were I a Blues fan, I would have been screaming for them to add to their lead rather than risk an equalizer.  Sure, tonight, it didn't burn them, one goal was enough to win (as annoying as that is for a Devils fan); but they're in win-now mode.  That's not a good habit to start creating.  Hope that it was a one-game occurrence, Blues supporters.

Aside: Some people in the GameThread kept lamenting that the Devils lost to a bad team. Can someone explain to me how the Blues are a bad team?  They're not great, but they haven't been awful either. Also, does this mean the Pittsburgh Penguins have the same problem because they didn't beat the Carolina Hurricanes?

So why didn't the Devils take the game that St. Louis wasn't controlling?  Again, in my mind, it goes right back the finishing.  The Devils had shots, they had chances, they had confidence, but they didn't have the finishing.  I know it's frustrating to read over and over - imagine typing it over and over.  But I don't have any other answers.  We can say the Devils didn't too do badly, but this is a results-oriented business and by nature of them not scoring a goal (much less winning), it wasn't enough.

Thanks for reading; thanks to Steve for the GameThread and to those who commented in it.  Please leave all of your complaints, criticisms, corrections, and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.

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