I have to hand it to the New Jersey Devils. After 38 recaps, 28 games that did not end with the Devils winning this season, and a December where they lost 6 games by at least 3 goals, you'd think I'd seen all the ways a team could lose a hockey game and I'd be fine with it. I thought so. Then came tonight's game against the Minnesota Wild. Funny that after all of the blowouts and games lost due to stupid, controllable careless errors by the Devils themselves, the 2-1 loss to the Wild makes me want to punch a brick wall until my hand breaks.
It was one of those games where you feel like walking up to a Devils staff member and asking for your money back. Fans aren't totally stupid, they want to see an honest effort at a minimum. Yet, several Devils went through the motions in spite of Jacques Lemaire running them through hard practices they needed in September. The first period was so bad it almost doesn't deserve the dignity of being discussed. The second period was actually quite good, but it was thrown away in a third period where the Devils just slipped back.
The Wild were not great tonight, but against the kind of performance New Jersey put out, they didn't need to be great. Just good enough, and that's what the Wild were tonight. Simple stuff up the ice, once they earned that third period one goal lead, they sat on it as if to say, "We're pretty confident you can't get one more goal," and the Devils responded with, "Yep. Now here's another dumped puck we're not going to get to first." Don't misunderstand me, Minnesota fans. They deserved to win tonight if only because the Wild players largely played like they cared about hockey tonight. Something I cannot say about the Devils tonight.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please visit Hockey Wilderness for a Minnesota take on tonight's game.
The Devils did not play in the first period. The entire team save for Johan Hedberg and perhaps some of the defensemen (e.g. Colin White, Mark Fraser) simply went through the motions. The Minnesota Wild, were they to live up to their name, had every chance to rampage over a clearly disinterested New Jersey squad. Instead, they settled for only 8 shots and torched the lackadaisical home team when Ilya Kovalchuk lost the puck going north-south on a breakout outside of the blueline (which was bad) to Cal Clutterbuck. Anssi Salmela promptly fell for no reason at all (which was worse), and so gave Clutterbuck a lane to go one-on-one with Hedberg and won.
What exacerbated this was the absolute lack of offense by the Devils. One shot on net. One. The Wild weren't doing something exotic or brilliant on defense, the Devils simply failed over and over to pass the puck going forward and dumped the puck repeatedly only to lose every time. For the first 12 minutes or so, the game could simply be broken down into: Wild get puck into New Jersey end, Wild possess the puck, Wild gets a shot on net, Devils get a stop at some point, dump it out, go for a line change as the Wild collect the puck, repeat. In the rare shift where the Devils got it past the Minnesota blueline, they passed up (or gave up) nearly whatever small opportunity to shoot they had. Even on a New Jersey Devils power play in the first period. No wonder Theodore could have been reading a magazine throughout the first period and would have been fine.
I know it's best to set up a good shot, but if it takes well over 10 minutes to get just one shot on net, then just fire away. So what if it goes right to Jose Theodore; at least he can be forced to freeze the puck instead of giving the puck back to Minnesota, who turned that possession into attack. Alas, that didn't cross their minds as the Devils played with no thoughts at all in the first period. At least the performance proved that, no, the Devils do not play harder with a goaltender other than Martin Brodeur behind them. That idea is now d-e-a-d, dead dead dead.
At least I can credit the Devils for waking up for the second period and playing like, well, a professional hockey team. The difference between the first and second was night and day. The Devils actually got pucks on net in the second period. Even on an early power play. They even scored a goal, when Ilya Kovalchuk finished a fine movement that he started in his own end. He hit Nick Palmieri perfectly on a diagonal pass for him to go forward, Palmieri wisely gives it to Travis Zajac and goes to the net, and Zajac gives it to Kovalchuk on Theodore's right side. While Palmieri screens Theodore, Kovalchuk slides a low shot that beats the goalie to tie the game and redeem his earlier error.
Even after that goal, the Devils continued to attack forcing Theodore to, well, do something. Sure, the second period had it's lulls but the Devils simply outplayed the Wild, out-shot them 14-4, and tied up the game. The fans that rightfully booed the home team off the rink after the first, rightfully cheered the home team off the rink after the second.
The third period had one of the biggest "derps" of the season occur. It's part of the "highlights" video from NHL.com. Go take a look in case you haven't seen this blooper yet:
Johan Hedberg, for some inexplicable reason, went behind the net after Clayton Stoner appeared to dump the puck from the neutral zone. Yet, the puck hits a support on the glass and bounces right into the net. On the one hand, it's a fluke. It sucks, it happens, the sun rises tomorrow, and so you move on. On the other hand, Hedberg had no reason to be out of his net that early. Because it was a dump-in, even if he waited to make sure it would go around, he'd have the time to get it. And if not, then one of his teammates would get it. Basically, Hedberg took a risk coming out assuming the puck would go where it would be and he paid the price for his assumption. In conclude in favor of derp. Stay in your net next time, Moose.
And the worst part about that was that it just killed the Devils. The Devils didn't recover. They slipped back into that first period "form." The team attempted to do the same thing over and over on offense: dump it in, not get the puck, try and fail to keep it in the clearing attempt, and repeat. The Wild didn't need to attack because the Devils reverted to the idiocy they showed in the first period. Sure, some Devils tried to break the mold and do something - Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Vladimir Zharkov, whenever he got a shift - but the team mostly banged their head against the wall hoping for a break that never came. Theodore had to worry more about pucks bouncing off his own teammates instead of New Jersey's shots.
The defense? Hey, outside of Salmela falling, the defense was pretty good. The Wild weren't great themselves at going forward and the Devils were wise to protect their slot with strength. White, Andy Greene, and Anton Volchenkov had a good game in their own end. Fraser had a decent enough game in his return from injury; though his breakout passes sucked. But that was never a skill of his and pretty much all of the blueliners were bad on the breakout tonight. Their passing was just as horrid as most of the forwards. The Wild were held to 18 shots on net and most of them were simple enough for Hedberg to stop. Outside of the one he was hung out to dry on (Clutterbuck) and the one that he's responsible for (Stoner), of course.
Yet, I repeat, hockey is a game of flow and without a decent attack, it's a lost cause. The power play had none. The passing was atrocious. The shooting was pedestrian. What bothers me the most now was that the positioning was miserable. Yes, there's such a thing on offense - knowing where to go and how to face yourself off the puck. As an example, there was shift in the second period where Kovalchuk is possessing the puck for a good 15 seconds around the right circle on Minnesota's end. He was deking out defenders, curling away to protect the puck, and such. It was impressive to see, but it was ultimately lost. Why? Well, he kept going not because he was selfish but because he had no outs. There were nobody in Devils red near him for him to pass the puck away to keep the possession alive. Kovalchuk is no puck fiend, he'll gladly pass it to a teammate if he's in a spot where he can pass it to. On that shift, nobody came over, they went away thinking Kovalchuk will do it all himself. I know it's one shift, but it's symbolic of the poor positioning.
Of course, after a loss like this, the scapegoats come out. Truthfully, there's a lot of blame for mostly everyone; Jacques Lemaire included, for quite a few head-scratching game decisions. Like to scratch a healthy Mattias Tedenby; to give Tim Sestito over 14 minutes of even strength ice time (seriously, it's in the event summary), to hold Vladimir Zharkov to a little over 7 minutes of total ice time (again, in the event summary); to split up a successful line like Patrik Elias-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner which didn't benefit either (the Corsi chart proves this); to play Brian Rolston at all; and to not instruct his team to stop constantly dumping pucks in after it was clear in the first period that the Devils weren't going to get to those pucks. If it didn't work the first 10 times, it unsurprisingly didn't work on the 11th attempt. This approach especially undercut the power play. Was it fixed? No, of course not. Overall, the forward combinations Lemaire stuck with weren't successful, the defensemen were fine in their own end but out-of-step on the breakout, and the lack of adjustments held the team back tonight in a close game.
I'm confident Lemaire will get it right going forward, but I must say, this game doesn't reflect well on him. At least he benched Salmela after his literal flop. John MacLean wouldn't have done that. That all being vented, any coaching staff is going to look bad when the players play with this kind of cynicism. I'll call out a few players that I feel deserve to be called out.
Brian Rolston's contribution to tonight's game was to do barely enough on his shifts to look like he did something. He played 17:36, got 2 shots, and lollygagged on the ice in between the few times he was involved in an event. One would think that after being waived, brought back up through waivers unclaimed, and telling the press he wants to be a NHL player that he'd want whatever he can to prove the point that he belongs as a Devil - bad contract aside. That he can be of some value to this team. Nope. Actions speak louder than words and Brian Rolston's actions tonight muttered, "Eh, whatever. I'm getting paid anyway."
With all due respect, Mr. Rolston, in an ideal world, you would be walking to upstate New York after tonight's game while having your spot filled in by someone who wants to be a New Jersey Devil. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world.
David Clarkson, who got to play 12:53 tonight (also ahead of Zharkov), demonstrated that he fully deserves to be on the Devils' fourth line. He wasn't physical, which looks pretty bad since Nick Palmieri threw his weight around more (and more effectively). He took a bad offensive zone penalty by hooking Greg Zanon, who bailed NJ out of a PK situation by ridiculously embellishing the hook. He floated in the defensive zone. He was in position to fire pucks on net - and it's the fourth line, even just shooting is a feat for this line - and chose not to shoot for the most part. Like Adam Mair and Rod Pelley, I'm increasingly confused as to what Clarkson does to help this team win hockey games. Perhaps he and Rolston can take a trip to, oh I don't know, Albany and find out.
Speaking of Albany, Tim Sestito needs to go back there. I'm sure he would be a useful depth forward somewhere. But I'm sick of the rationalizations that "he can skate" and "he has some skills." I have yet to see either being done correctly. Which makes it all the more confusing that he got so much ice time (including 1:31 on the power play) over someone like Zharkov, who actually has shown he can skate and has some skills. Please take Nick Palmieri back with you, too. He should have to prove that he can be a productive player in Albany before getting more shifts with offensive players like Elias, Kovalchuk, and Zajac.
I get the feeling that tonight showed that when some players are having an awful night - and it does happen - it can have a profound effect on the rest of the team. Jamie Langenbrunner has done fairly well in the last three games, but tonight he got the anchor that is Rolston on his off-wing and so it kept Langenbrunner from doing too much. So he wasn't a factor. Since Lemaire was switching up centers Zajac, Jason Arnott, and Patrik Elias, to mix things up, they got shifts with those two and their poor play affected them too. Ultimately, you're left wondering why everyone looks bad and why all sorts of combinations aren't working. That's the best way I can explain it.
Needless to say, based on Tom Gulitti's post-game post, the Devils are unhappy about the loss. Fine, but they have no one but themselves to blame - puck bouncing off the glass or no puck bouncing off the glass. As noted at the beginning, the Wild weren't great tonight, just better than New Jersey. A Devils team that wasn't so stupid perhaps could have won this game. A Devils team that had all of it's players care could have won this game. Alas, they didn't and they found a new way to frustrate themselves and a Devils fanbase that have gone through a lot of losses already.
That's my take on this horrendous game. I apologize for some of the anger with respect to some of the players I called out, but I hope you at least see where I was coming from. Please leave your thoughts and feelings about tonight's game in the comments. I want to thank the commenters and readers of the Gamethread, and to thank you for reading this recap. By that alone, you given more effort than the home team's first period against Minnesota.
Oh, and this team gets to play the Second-Rate Rivals, Philadelphia, on Thursday. Great. Just great.