Tonight, the New Jersey Devils' first road trip of the 2011-12 season kicked off in Pittsburgh. Simply put, it didn't go well at all. After a poor performance last night at home against San Jose, the Devils were just inferior to the Pittsburgh Penguins this evening. The Penguins got the drop on the Devils early on, picking off their clearances, getting easy stops on defense, and relentlessly crashing the net. It was a poor start and in combination with a silly penalty by David Clarkson, Jordan Staal capped the Penguins' early dominance with a goal.
It didn't lead to a 60 minute beatdown; the Devils settled the game down after the goal. In retrospect, those first 10 minutes was a sign that it was going to be a rather difficult game. While the Devils did eventually out-shoot the Penguins in the first and second periods, the Penguins managed to rack more shooting attempts. Teams don't attempt to make a shot unless they have the puck in their opponent's end of the rink, so it's evidence that possession was in Pittsburgh's favor. Given that the Devils were down 1-0 through the second period, it was an ominous sign.
The third period came and then the beatdown was on. Black and gold jerseys skated hard and fast for all 20 minutes. They kept tearing through the Devils' defense, constantly finding their teammates in the slot or around the crease. When the Devils attempted to attack, they shut it down quickly. They drew a few calls to help their cause, and they made them pay. Their lone spot on their game's performance was a shorthanded goal by Patrik Elias; but their quick response on the same power play re-took the lead and they never looked back.
By the end of the game, the Penguins tacked on two more goals high-glove side on Johan Hedberg, finished the third 16-5 in shots (29-24 in total), and just made the Devils do more chasing than attacking. This was a frustrating game for Devils fans to watch, and a disappointing performance by the players not unlike Friday's game against San Jose. The Penguins partisans and fans, like those at PensBurgh, have every right to be pleased. Their favorite team played a strong game of hockey and even when up 4-1, they were looking for #5. As for the team we support, well, there's plenty to discuss about their deserved loss after the jump.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: I'm not sure too many Devils fans want to see highlights in a 4-1 decisive loss to Pittsburgh, but for those who do, you can watch this video from NHL.com:
How to Shoot Yourself in the Collective Foot: There are many ways for a hockey team to start off and continue to play poorly. The Devils demonstrated several of them in their loss to Pittsburgh. Let's go over them.
1. Puck Movement: The first is the tried-and-true issue of puck movement. Call it not being in sync. Call it fatigue from playing the night before. Call it whatever you want. It didn't matter if it was a defenseman, a winger, or a center; every Devils skater had some kind of errant pass or bad read that served to help out the Penguins more often than not. Feel free to call out your preferred scapegoat, but this was prevalent among the entire roster. At best, it just undercut whatever the Devils were doing and didn't lead to much. At worst, the Penguins took the puck and struck back twice as hard.
2. Defending The second is soft defensive coverage. Penguins kept finding their teammates in the slot or down low with plenty of space quite often, more so as the game went on. It's one thing to see this while they have a man advantage. That's understandable to a point; they got one more skater on the ice than the defenders do. That happens. It's another - and far worse - to see it at even strength. It's indicative that the Devils defense just weren't on point; and the Penguins made them pay for it twice to seal the Devils' fate this evening. Pittsburgh recognized their coverage problems early and given that they often sent multiple players down low to crash the net or to overload behind the net, the Devils struggled with it all night long. The coverage issues was exacerbated by the many soft clearances or passes that just resulted in stray pucks for the Penguins to get at to keep the play alive or the Devils to panic in trying to retain possession.
3. Discipline Issues: The third are penalties. As we've seen in the game against Philadelphia and San Jose to a point, just handing the opposition power plays hurts because it forces the killers to defend instead of attacking. I'm sure there are some Devils fans upset with the referees tonight. Some of the calls were a little cheap, such as the tripping call on Zach Parise. Others were obvious calls, like David Clarkson high sticking Marc-Andre Fleury in the helmet and Adam Larsson grabbing Jordan Staal from behind. The one that ultimately killed the Devils was a double-minor for high sticking on Petr Sykora, who didn't actually high-stick Steve Sullivan (and somehow drew blood, I guess?) - it was Patrik Elias' stick that did the deed. (Quick update: Per this post-game post by Tom Gulitti, Sykora intentionally went to the box for Elias' penalty. The move worked. No wonder the Pens were upset.)
Ironically, Elias scored the Devils' lone goal during that kill. Ilya Kovalchuk rushed up ice with the puck, slid a pass to the slot, and Elias banged it home. It then tied the game and made Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma quite unhappy. He and the Pens faithful became quite happy when Chris Kunitz slammed a one-timer from the left circle over Hedberg's left shoulder and in not long after. The Penguins would never look back from that strike.
In any case, even if you feel the Devils were jobbed by the refs to a point for calls and non-calls (and there were a few of those), the Devils did themselves no favors by taking what they did. Especially since two of those five calls were during Devils' power plays in the third period. The damage: two power play goals out of 8 shots on net.
4. Relying on the Goalie to Bail You Out: Last night, the Devils stole a point against the Sharks due to Johan Hedberg playing out of their mind. Tonight, the Moose wasn't so magical. Sure, he made his fair share of good saves. Yet, he got beaten in the same spot on all four goals: high and glove side. The first two weren't his fault, they were one-timers on the power play, possibly didn't see the first shot, and definitely didn't see the second. He did himself no favors by going low too early on the third (Staal's second goal) and fourth (by James Neal). At least there weren't any puck-handling gaffes outside of the crease.
But this point goes back to the second point. The Devils got rolled in the third period 16-5 in shots; and since the end of the first period, the Penguins became positive in team Corsi. Hedberg didn't get much help from the guys in front of him, and if it wasn't for a few fortunate misses and bounces of the puck, then the Penguins would have scored more than 4 goals that Hedberg had no chance on. Even on the latter two goals, the Devils defense had played a role on those plays. Bryce Salvador was very ineffectual on Staal; and Mark Fayne's decision to move towards the corner led to Neal having the space to turn and shoot on Hedberg up close.
Essentially, if you're relying on your goaltender to bail you out, then you're just playing with fire. It worked on Friday. It didn't work tonight.
5. Not Capitalize on Offensive Opportunities, Not Get Bounces: The Devils managed to get a lead on San Jose early enough such that when the Sharks imposed their will, the Devils had a cushion on the scoreboard. The Devils didn't have that tonight. They had a few good chances in the first period on Marc-Andre Fleury, which were either snuffed out by Fleury himself or a puck just not bouncing to where it would they would like it to be. Every line had their moment of close-to-glory, even the fourth line had a chance in my opinion.
Yet, the Devils couldn't consistently attack against Pittsburgh due to their puck movement problems and that their defense not being strong enough to repel the Penguins to counter-attack. This means that when they had an opportunity, they had to make the most of it. They really didn't outside of the one shorthanded chance they did score on. Even if Pittsburgh didn't put two more goals past the Devils in the third, the Devils just struggled to attack so much that I doubt they would have gotten a second goal in this one. It also didn't help that Fleury was playing pretty well.
The Result of All of This: The Devils were a miserable -19 in Corsi. It's worse than it looks. They were -3 at the end of the second period, so the Penguins enjoyed the better of possession even though they were winning. That's evidence that the Penguins were in some control of the game. In the third period, they dominated it by stretching it out by 13. By the way, Time on Ice only counts Corsi for even strength situations. Again: the Penguins dominated in the third period.
In all situations, the Penguins put up 29 shots, got blocked 21 times, and missed the net 21 times. That's a massive 71 attempts by a team that was leading for much of the game. It's also 30 more than the Devils had all game (24 shots, 14 blocked, 3 misses). It's hard to win any game that way. It's hard to watch too.
Collected Thoughts: Since I feel the above summed up how I think the Devils lost this game - and full credit to the Penguins, they played a very good game of hockey this evening (especially Mr. Staal with 2 goals on 5 SOG) - I'm tossing some other observations in this game:
- Ilya Kovalchuk didn't play over 30 minutes, just 21:05 in fact. If you didn't want to see that, then, well, you got it. He also didn't have a shot on net, which isn't good at all. I'm still trying to comprehend that fact. He was a playmaker for most of the night, as evidenced by his assist on Elias' goal and the fact that Nick Palmieri (somehow) got 5 shots on net. Still, Kovalchuk didn't have a good night, but I'm hopeful he'll be better in the future.
- Match-ups largely went against the Devils, which is obvious given how well the Penguins played. The only Devils who finished positive in Corsi were Zach Parise (+8), Petr Sykora (+5), and Elias (+2). I wouldn't praise that line too much, though. They combined for only 6 shots: 1 from Parise, 2 from Sykora, and 3 from Elias. Their match-up shifted in this game, as they saw 3 defenders more often (Paul Martin, Zybnek Michalek, Brooks Orpik) than a single line (a mix of the Richard Park line and the Joe Vitale line) They didn't get the Jordan Staal line like Kovalchuk-Zubrus-Palmieri did; who kicked the Zubrus' line all over the place. With the Devils being on the road, they didn't have much control on who faced who. Since the Penguins collectively beat on most of the Devils line up, it probably didn't matter.
- Bryce Salvador really struggled from the beginning tot he end. Getting turned by Staal was hard to watch.
- I'm not quite sure how Rod Pelley ended up -11 in Corsi but Brad Mills and Cam Janssen were each at -2. I guess there were a few shifts where #10 was caught out there and got rolled over? Maybe after some PKs? Blech.
- Cam Janssen had a shot on net. Mark this night as the first one this season where Janssen made a hockey move that kind of worked.
- Adam Henrique had a rough go in his first game after the call up. David Clarkson sprung him for a great offensive opportunity in the first period, but Fleury stopped him. From then on, he became more and more invisible. He played 15:43 and a good chunk of it in his own end of the rink (-14 Corsi).
- I'm tempted to say that the Devils playing 65 minutes the night prior didn't help. Then again, I don't think the Devils were skating slowly or without energy. Their poor puck-movement just made it look like the Pens were really fast. Besides, it's not like the Penguins aren't tired since they played 3 games earlier this week.
- While Adam Larsson's penalty was dumb, I felt he did better tonight than he did last night in his 22:38 of ice time. He actually had 3 shots on net and he wasn't beaten like a drum unlike, say, Salvador. I'm tempted to say he was the Devils' best skater. However, I don't really want to name a best skater on the Devils after a game like this.
Lastly, bad games happen. The Devils played two in a row, got one point out of the two, and didn't really deserve even that. The team will have two days to get it together before they visit Los Angeles on Tuesday. Let's hope they get right to work on Sunday.
That's my take on tonight's game. What's yours? How frustrated are you after a game like this? Do you think the Devils will turn it around in LA, or are these two games indicative of larger problems? What do you think the Devils need to do from within to fix this? Do they need outside help? Or is it way, way, way, way too early in the season to worry about that? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this game in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread who read and commented this evening; and thank you for reading.