Tonight, the New Jersey Devils went into Sunrise to play the Florida Panthers in their final road game of the season. In my preview, I was chiefly concerned with Tomas Vokoun, one of the top goaltenders in the league. Not only did I think he would start, but that he would shut the door over and over against New Jersey in an aggravating fashion.
Well, I was wrong about Vokoun starting as former Devils backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen got the nod tonight. Unfortunately, I was right about the fear that the goaltender would deny New Jersey goal after goal after goal.
The New Jersey Devils outshot the Panthers 44 to 18. The Devils put up 11 shots each in the first two periods before going on a 22-shot tear in the third period. Think about that last stat. The Devils put more shots on net in the third period alone than Florida had all game long. While the Florida defense "helped" with porous coverage and iffy puck play all night long, the Devils were looking great going forward. They passed the puck well. They had good possession. They set up all kinds of shots on Clemmensen: shorts through screens, individuals driving at the net, long shots both through and without traffic in front, cross-ice plays, one-timers, an so forth.
But Clemmensen was just too good tonight. The last time I saw a goaltender's glove be as seemingly omnipresent as Clemmensen's was, it was Henrik Lundqvist's out-of-this-world performance back on February 6. Right from the beginning to robbing the Devils with less than 12 seconds through a Jamie Langenbrunner screen. It wasn't even a matter that the Panthers had quality and the Devils only had quantity. The Devils put plenty of scoring chances put together.
At the end, I'm sort of at a loss for words. The offense certainly did their job with their shooting and came ever so close with two goals. The defense ensured that even after Florida scored, they wouldn't get too many shots on net. Scott Clemmensen nearly had all the answers in between and he ensured the win for Florida. Here's the official recap from the NHL.com, with all of the links to the official stats. For the Panthers' side of things, please check out Litter Box Cats. I do have some additional commentary after the jump.
In case you didn't see them, here are the highlights to tonight's game from NHL.com:
There are two criticisms I'm sure some Devils fans will have after tonight's game. The first is Martin Brodeur. It's sort of a difficult one given how excellent he has played in the last four games. However, the three goals conceded weren't exactly great goals to allow. While the Panthers had something in the first period, the Devils came out strong in the second period. They scored early, put up the first eight shots, and then Michel Frolik took a shot at 6:03 from the right circle. It was hard, it was fast, it was low, and it beat Brodeur near-post. The first shot of the period for Panthers and it ties up the game, giving the Panthers hope. Brodeur could have covered the post faster and better as Frolik was forced out wide. Granted, Frolik took a great shot; but of all of the big saves he's made as of late, that one did come as a surprise.
I felt that one was the most stoppable. The second one came early in the third by Radek Dvorak as he beat Brodeur far post. Actually, Dvorak's wrister went just above Brodeur's left pad, hit the post, and then bounced off the foot and in. That's more of a bad post, but again, it wasn't an unstoppable shot. The third goal Florida scored, later in the third by Nathan Horton, was the most defensible. Brodeur stopped Jason Garrison's low shot and kicked the rebound out wide. Only Horton was lurking in that corner, picked it up, burned Mark Fraser, and beat Brodeur in a very fast sequence. I don't think there was much Brodeur could have done and honestly, Fraser wasn't in the wrong place - Horton just exploded there.
Still, even if Brodeur didn't give up three goals, it would not have meant that Scott Clemmensen would have played any worse. Interestingly, after Horton's goal, the Panthers' attack was largely nullified from there on out. They ended up only putting 5 shots on net as a result. The Devils just kept taking pucks and pushing ahead looking for a two-goal comeback. Unfortunately, they could only get one past the wall that was Scott Clemmensen tonight. The Panthers faithful should praise Clemmensen for preserving the lead because the other Panthers really didn't do that. Their defense tonight was the definition of shaky and their offense, while timely, really could have done a lot more to keep the Devils honest - especially in the third period.
The big positive to take out of tonight's game is that even when they went down 3-1 in the third period, the team didn't give up. They didn't play down to Florida's level all night long, they just stormed their defense over and over. Again, I must emphasize that of their total of 44 shots, 22 came in the third period alone. The Devils won 58% of all faceoffs where even Patrik Elias had a decent night by going 7 for 14. The Devils were better at moving the puck up ice and winning battles along the boards for pucks on offense. They definitely didn't sulk in this game. Even when Florida got a good break going forward, the Devils skated like mad to stop the attack.
The Devils certainly didn't lack intensity or a desire to win the game. In terms of performance, the only area where they really didn't look so good was the power play. Even that, only the Devils' first power play was poor (and the Florida PK was great there) as they got no shots on net. The Devils' second power play - within the final 1:36 of the game - was as good as you could have wanted. They won all the draws, they didn't panic, they moved the puck, and they attempted good shots; only Clemmensen rose to the task every time.
A few quick bits about a few of the Devils players individually: After a quiet night in Atlanta, Ilya Kovalchuk led all forwards with 7 shots on net as he skated largely with Travis Zajac (3 shots on net) and Jamie Langenbrunner, who had a physical night, playing down low and laying 6 official hits. The first line of Zach Parise (6 SOG), Patrik Elias (5 SOG), and Dainius Zubrus (5 SOG) had a very strong night as they scored the first goal of the game - scored by Elias - and combined for 16 shots total. Mike Mottau returned to the lineup and put up 4 shots and seemingly scored a powerful goal in the third period to pull the Devils within one. But it was in fact, a tip by David Clarkson, created by his work down low that distracted the Panthers enough to let the shot go off to begin with; he had 4 shots as well as his usual upbeat style of play. Paul Martin also had a long night with 25:52 of icetime, 3 shots on goal, and being robbed on at least one of those.
I should point out to you, the reader, that Clemmensen had no real chance on either goal the Devils scored.
In terms of who was quiet, the fourth line didn't do a whole lot as Dean McAmmond and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond were the only Devils forwards who didn't get a shot on net. Jay Pandolfo returned to the lineup and had a decent outing, got himself a scoring chance off a rush in the third period.
This all leads me to the second criticism: there are two games left in the season and Jacques Lemaire still sees it fit to continually change the lines from game to game. Granted, you can't say they failed. Not with 44 shots on net and a goal coming from the Parise-Elias-Zubrus connection. But it is a bit of an annoyance that there doesn't even seem to be a set continuity this close to the playoffs. Sure, Lemaire gives himself plenty of options should something go awry; and I don't think many will complain if he changes lines in-game to take advantage of a match-up. However, the regular season is nearly over. Having all of these options and looking for more is sort of pointless at this point of the season.
I don't think this has contributed to the Devils' loss tonight, per se. Keeping ZZZ together and Elias with Kovalchuk was something I would have liked to have seen; but it wouldn't have made Clemmensen play worse tonight. I'm just bringing it up as an issue in the big-picture that stood out tonight from my view.
Losses disappoint in general and the natural inclination is to think that the Devils did something necessarily wrong. It's normal to feel some concern. Frankly, the Devils played a strong game, their effort was ever-present, and they didn't treat this game like it was meaningless game or play down to Florida's level. I don't see how you can say that having seen the second and third periods. I don't feel like there will be problems in the playoffs coming off this loss. The major cause for the defeat was - and I'm sure you're sick of reading his name so many times but it's true - Scott Clemmensen, somehow and someway, played well above his head tonight.
That's how I see tonight's game. Perhaps you saw it in some other way. Maybe there was something that the Devils could have done better tonight. Or maybe you just want to agree. Let me know how you saw tonight's game in the comments. One last note: the Devils are still leading the Atlantic Division on the basis of the head-to-head tiebreaker - this weekend's home games will have meaning.