Fear. Anger. Irritation. Frustration.
These are just some of the feelings that you may be feeling if you are a New Jersey Devils fan who watched the Devils lose 2-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. All, and more, are justified.
What did I say on Tuesday? Momentum would be the big key for this series. The atmosphere was fantastic: The Rock featured a vast and loud majority of Devils supporters (about 80-20 favoring NJ at best, pay no attention to haters who say otherwise), with all kinds of chants and banter ongoing. And they were rewarded with a fine first period. The Devils were bossing Philadelphia around on the ice. They were more intense, they created more scoring chances, and they were doing everything right but score.
And that came back to haunt them. In the second period, it was if both teams secretly switched uniforms. The Flyers were the initators, the team constantly attacking, and making all the right moves. They were the aggressors as the Devils struggled to get much of anything resembling offense. The big difference was that they actually scored two goals; killing the crowd. The masses of Devils fans there had the same question I had, "What the hell happened in the first intermission? Where were the Devils I saw in the first period."
The third period saw improvement - but the Flyers went into a defensive shell, challenged the Devils offense to make something happen, and they didn't put anything together until late. Not even with the benefit of a double-minor power play for an Oskars Bartulis high stick or Braydon Coburn intentionally shoving the net out of position. Travis Zajac scored a lifeline goal which got the crowd back in action (the third period otherwise had a mood of disgust, with "Booooos" for every time Boucher would cover up a puck or somesuch), but the Devils couldn't ride any momentum from that to really pressure Brian Boucher much more than just crashing the net. Boucher may get the headlines for winning a 2-1 game by stopping 23 shots but most of them didn't necessarily challenge him. If anything, the Flyers defense should get far more credit for the win.
The Devils weren't just unable to ride any momentum from Zajac's goal to put Philly on their heels. It was too little, too late. More distressingly, they were unable to ride any momentum from how well they played going into tonight's game beyond the first period. The Devils showed they can be the stronger team, but in that second period, it was like I was watching one of the Devils-Flyers games from the regular season. Worse than that, it was like I was watching a demonstration of the Devils faltering in areas where they have had struggles in 2009-10: a poor second period performance after a good first period; wasting power plays; forcing shots and passes into defenders; not adjusting to other team's adjustments; etc. Given all that, of course the Devils lost game 1 to the Flyers. You can't win hockey games that way.
Thanks to that, the Flyers faithful and the players they support are now totally validated by being confident in their regular season success over New Jersey carrying over into the playoffs. The Devils didn't just lose home-ice advantage, they essentially handed momentum right back to the Flyers.
That scares me. That angers me. That irritates me. That frustrates me.
Let's talk about the goals against first. The first was off a scrum in front when Chris Pronger jumped in - a smart move given it was a power play. That didn't bother me. Watching a simple mis-fired pass on offense by, I think, Travis Zajac, turn into an awful giveaway/dump-in attempt by Martin Skoula in the neutral zone, which led to Ian Laperriere pulling off a brilliant pass that Mike Richards unloaded on for the second goal. That was one where Martin Brodeur should have done better on and I'm sure he'll get the blame for it. But truthfully, it was a "team effort" on that goal against. Still sickening all the same. Perhaps moreso that even if Richards didn't score there, the Devils' offense wasn't likely to blow the proverbial door down in response.
Truth be told, the Devils played a fine game defense. Both teams did - they went into tonight ensuring they would keep the opposition to the outside and they both succeeded. The Flyers may have allowed 10 more shots on net; yet that's pretty impressive for a team that sat back for 18 minutes of the third period with a 2 goal lead. One would expect there to be even more shots on net. Yet, Chris Pronger and company defended the slot exceedingly well against New Jersey. They were aggressive enough to force 16 missed shots and get 14 blocks on the Devils. They were aware of how passing and shooting lanes were evolving and adjusted accordingly.
The Devils defenders did all of this, too, but given the result, it's a bit hard to be gushing. I suppose if you need a positive out of tonight's game, there it is: the Devils can keep the Flyers in check.
I will say that both teams have defensemen they should consider talking to about tonight's performance. Martin Skoula had an assist on Mike Richard's goal and looked the most timid of all of the Devils defensemen. It was probably the worst game I've seen him play in a Devils uniform. I hope it's just nerves because when he does play well, he strengthens the depth on the blueline. Likewise, the Flyers may want to consider Ryan Parent over Bartulis. Not just because Bartulis took a terribly unnecessary call that his team should be thankful the Devils didn't capitalize. He was routinely beaten out on the ice. He only played 11:27 and Peter Laviolette shortening his ice time to give more to the pairing of Pronger (30:01) and Matt Carle (27:54) was a logical, tactical move.
Speaking of poor, how about that Devils power play? Martin Brodeur had to make a big save early in the second when they conceded a shorthanded two-on-one, and that was the most dangerous chance seen among the 10 minutes of power play time the Devils had tonight. Mind you, I want the Devils to set-up shots, get open shooting lanes, and then fire. I want a patient power play that is in control. What I saw was dump-ins just for the sake of dump-ins. Mis-timed passes. Ill-advised decisions to shoot. The result? 4 shots on net total. I'm not looking for 10 shots, but 4 easily-stopped shots for Boucher is really unacceptable. Especially while down in the game. It's the playoffs, Devils, try making the most of these!
The most frustrating part tonight was that the Flyers gifted the Devils 6 minutes of power play time in the first half of the third period. They could have used the time to at least pressure the Flyers and challenge Boucher. They didn't even do that! Instead, it did more to make Blair Betts look real good on the PK. It was as if the Flyers baked the Devils a delicious cakes of opportunity and the Devils just said, "Nope! I don't want these delicious cakes! I'm going to stare at gravel instead."
As an aside, people were screaming for shots after the score became 2-0, and then groan when the Devils actually listen, fire a shot, and have it blocked or deflected away because it was a terrible shot to take. Understandable to demand shots; but with only 4 reaching Boucher across 5 power plays totaling 10 minutes and 9 hitting the net in the third, a little patience and shot selection would have helped. Firing pucks into legs and bodies doesn't score goals either - not even if you're Ilya Kovalchuk.
Let's focus a little on him. I think his performance tonight was symbolic of the Devils' offense tonight. Sometimes he'd deke around one-to-four Flyers and attempt a shot that missed the net. Sometimes he'd pass up the puck to a Devil who then doesn't handle it right and loses possession. Sometimes he'd receive a pass he couldn't handle for one reason or another; thus, losing possession. Sometimes he'd get a shot off and have it blocked. Sometimes he'd get a shot off and he'd miss the net. Sometimes he'd actually hit the net (and did so 4 times).
Basically: sometimes would see the Devils do something smart, set up something well, but other times you were just confused as to what you were watching. Again: 24 shots on net, 14 blocked by the Flyers, 16 missed the net. Several just rolled through the crease just outside of the post. The only Devil who can say they at least succeeded in scoring a goal was Travis Zajac, who's blast from the point gave the team a lifeline. Perhaps you could say he had the best night among Devils skaters with a 10-for-17 performance on faceoffs, 4 shots on net, and a goal in his 23:35 of icetime.
But given how the team played in the second and how the offense (especially the power play) couldn't figure out Philly's defense (especially their penalty kill), I'm loathe to name Devils who played well. Seriously, the Flyers are big, physical, and kept drifting by the boards from the second period on: stop attempting dump-ins on consecutive attacks!
I'm sure the more positive Devils fans will be the first to say that it's a long series and this is a setback. OK. I'll (begrudgingly) buy that. Still, they faltered in the second period, faltered to seriously and consistently challenge Brian Boucher, and their power play was ineffective. The end result: Game 2 is now a must-win for New Jersey. I don't blame you if you're feeling any fear, anger, irritation, or frustration regarding that.
Thanks for reading, please leave your thoughts on tonight's loss in the comments.