Deja Vu? New Jersey Devils Look Good, But Chicago Blackhawks Score Late and Win in the Shootout, 2-1

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 02: Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes a pad save against Zach Parise #9 of the New Jersey Devils during the shootout at the Prudential Center on April 2, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. Niemi stopped all three shootout attempts against him as the Hawks defeated the Devils 2-1 after a shootout. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In many ways, this was like the last game against the New York Rangers - another game where the visiting team scored within the final 30 seconds of the game with the extra skater to force overtime.   Similarly, in that game, neither team could win in overtime so a shootout was required and the opposition took the win there.   Most of all, the Devils didn't necessarily play poorly in their 2-1 shootout win.  They had a good game from what I saw at the Rock.

Don't mistake me. Am I disappointed that the Chicago Blackhawks scored very late in the game to force overtime? Of course, I am!  I and pretty much all of the Devils fans at the Rock tonight were and justifiably so.   But what frustrates me was that tonight's performance was far and away better than how they played on Tuesday.  Yet, some will only see the late equalizer, the final result, and conclude that the Devils didn't do well.   Sure, you can argue they didn't do enough; but you cannot honestly say the Devils were a poor hockey team tonight.

Likewise, you can't truly say the Devils lost the game because they gave up the late equalizer. The Devils had their chance in overtime and didn't score. The Devils had their chance in the shootout and Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk each couldn't score either (Chicago won the shootout 1-0 by Jonathan Toews). Most of all, as much as the events that led to sole regulation goal for Chicago - scored by Kris Versteeg - will be scrutinized; the Devils weren't able to give themselves some breathing room with a second goal scored. Already, the quotes from Jacques Lemaire and Patrik Elias from this postgame post by Tom Gulitti are interesting should you want to scrutinize it further.

In fairness, Antti Niemi of Chicago had an excellent game and the Devils offense thrived by putting more shots on net than Chicago (33-27) and forcing him to be great some real great chances.  The Devils did not sit on this 1-0 lead, but they could not add to it and so a shot through a double-screen (Mike Mottau and Jonathan Toews) couldn't be stopped.

My main point is that, yes, tonight's loss was heartbreaking; but let's not pretend the rest of the game didn't happen or ignore that the Devils were able to hold off and at times take the game right to the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the best teams in the Western Conference.   The Devils weren't perfect, but they put out a good performance that I hope the team can build upon.  Hopefully, they can build on it to smash Carolina on their ice and make this a 3 point weekend.   That's my hope, at least. 

Check out Second City Hockey where SamFels has a recap up on tonight's game.  The recap from NHL.com is up, along with links to the stats from tonight's game.  Please read on further for my additional thoughts on tonight's game.

I'm not going to make any other comment about the shift that led to Versteeg's goal other than this: in the final minute of the game, the ZZ Pops line went out and were replaced by the second line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, and Vladimir Zharkov.  Moreover, the defense somehow became Mike Mottau and Andy Greene.  Is it just me or is that an odd group to send out with a one goal lead in the final minute?  I will say that when the Devils were trying to win the puck back prior to the shot, there were four Blackhawks in range.  Not being able to get it and firing it out, knowing that and seeing the goal again on video, is understandable.  It's understandable that Versteeg got the shot through traffic and there was nothing Martin Brodeur could do about it.  But why that group? Why not the third line? Why not Colin White, who was having a very fine game?  

Maybe it would have made no difference.  In any case, I just have a few points about what was witnessed tonight. So as a primer, here is an embedded video of tonight's highlights from NHL.com:

First and foremost: both goaltenders played really well tonight.  Both Brodeur and Niemi had to make huge saves. Both Brodeur and Niemi made awful plays with the puck that thankfully didn't result in a goal against.  Both Brodeur and Niemi were the main reasons why the game was so close at all.

Second: The re-uniting of ZZ Pops was an excellent move.  While Ilya Kovalchuk scored a sweet one-timer, an excellent set-up by Vladimir Zharkov and Patrik Elias (the primary passer), I was more impressed by the work done by Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner.  That line alone put up 13 of the Devils' 33 shots on net tonight and just busted through Chicago's defense down low when they got going.  After a few games where Parise and Langenbrunner were quiet, it was good that they both had made and nearly finished some scoring chances.

Third:  I wonder if there's a game stat for puck possession, because I'm pretty sure Chicago had the puck more often.  Especially in the second period when they were seemingly in New Jersey's end of the ice for most of the first 10-15 minutes.  Talk about a defense bending but not breaking - thanks to Brodeur.  Granted, the Devils made it harder on themselves as some of their clearances didn't get out, they got blocked down by a Hawk player, or stopped at the point.  This led to more possession to attack.  This happened near the end of the first and third periods; the defense just making things harder on themselves with some ill-advised moves (e.g. the blind backhand clearance - this did not work). Yet, the Blackhawks didn't shoot nearly as much as they probably could have - they had 7 in the second period despite having the puck more often and being in the Devils' end more often.

I will credit the Devils defense to holding a Chicago to outside shots and giving them very few rebounds.  I felt Colin White had an excellent game in his own end.  Paul Martin looked much better tonight than he did on Tuesday.  Of the six, the only one who didn't impress me much was Martin Skoula, but he did bail out Brodeur after the goalie made a terrible giveaway to Tomas Kopecky.  Skoula dived to block the shot lest it go into the mostly-empty net.  Outside of that, I felt he played too tentatively - especially on offense.

Fourth:  The Devils' fourth line played well. While the hits stat can be taken with a grain of salt - who knows what the scorer calls a hit - Rod Pelley and Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond were out there wrecking dudes with some big hits.  Pelley had 7, Leblond had 3.  David Clarkson threw a few pain-bombs with 3 noticeably big hits, though he missed a few.  Still, the fourth line kept their game simple, crashed the net, and forced Chicago to take notice when they were out there.  I think that's why Dean McAmmond got some overtime minutes, he was playing well enough.

Fifth: The reffing was an absolute joke.  Per Gulitti's post-game post, this was the first game without a penalty called since March 28, 2001.1.  I assure you, this does not mean there was nothing to call - just that the refs refused to call it.  The most egregious one in my mind was when Jamie Langenbrunner caught a stick up high in the first period in the head.  While there was no blood, he had to stop to check if he was OK - yet play went on.  The second most obvious non-call was when Dustin Byfugelin (who played a whopping 25:38 and had 5 shots on net) threw Vladimir Zharkov's stick into the bench after a hit.   Given that the refs didn't call those, they definitely didn't call the other holds, hooks, slashes, and other illicit moves that both teams were guilty of at one time or another.  I'm not saying the Devils alone were hosed; it's not as if a power play would have meant anything tonight.  But that nothing was whistled tonight mindboggling.

Sixth: While Antti Niemi was clearly the most important Blackhawk tonight, I felt Duncan Keith was great tonight. He played 28:51 and was calm throughout the whole night.  Watching him tonight was like watching Drew Doughty and Erik Johnson, other young defensemen who impressed me with how composed they were while doing all of the dirty work at both ends.  I'm glad the Devils only have to deal with him a couple of games per season.

Seventh: The one part of the game that was clearly dominated by Chicago: faceoffs.  They won a lot of them, and seeing that the Hawks went 26 out of 39 didn't surprise me when I checked the stat.  Granted, with no penalties and not many stoppages in play, the game went by quickly and so there weren't a lot of draws. But Chicago did themselves a lot of good by getting possession right away when there was a faceoff to be had.   John Madden was brilliant by going 8 for 10. 

Eighth: Vladimir Zharkov had a mixed game in my opinion.  I liked his hustle and his effort down low tonight.  He knew full well that he was only there because Dainius Zubrus was sick, so he tried to make his mark on the game. Unfortunately, when he did shoot the puck, he missed.  Seriously, he had no shots on net but 5 misses.  He was trying to pick corners - understandable - but he was off every time.  That's nothing to be too proud of, really.  He got an assist and the second line as a whole looked pretty good; but I really think Zubrus has to be in that spot going forward.

Ninth: Well, it's clear what the goal has to be going forward: getting a two goal lead is absolutely crucial.  Regardless of the record of the opponent, a unfavorable bounce or a point-blank deflection or an odd rebound can easily turn a lead into a tie game.  To prevent this, the extra goal is important. The Devils made the effort, they took the shots and the chances to do so, but a stubbornly good goaltender wouldn't make it happen.  If they can continue to play with such an effort, then I'm sure they'll get it on other nights.   

Tenth:  I know you're probably not happy with the late equalizer.  I'm not happy with how 1-0 turned into a 2-1 shootout loss.  But I have to stress this: The Devils played a hard working game against a top team tonight.  They started off the game very well with a one-timer by Kovalchuk and leading in shots 11-1 early.  They bent a lot in their own end in the second period, but when they had the chance to get offense going, they actually took it and forced Niemi to play well.  The Devils continued to create chances in the third and really only started to sit on the lead when there was about 2 minutes left, as Chicago was pressing forward as much as they could.  This was a good performance to have after two straight games of really bad ones.  That's a big positive to take along with the point the Devils did earn tonight - which now puts them in the top of the Atlantic Division.

Those are my takeaways from the game.  What are yours? What did you think about tonight's performance? Please leave your responses, thoughts, concerns, complaints, corrections, and feelings in the comments.

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