Yes, it was ugly. The Devils played yet another penalty filled game and for the first time all season, Johan Hedberg looked less than brilliant. The best way I can think to describe the Devils' play in tonights's game is to call it a roller coaster ride. We had some ups but most will agree that it was predominantly downs, and despite how many shots we got or how we played in the second period, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone willing to describe our performance during any part of the game as dominant.
Despite the sloppy play I still believe that the scoresheet doesn't tell the true tale of what type of game it was, but nonetheless it is what it is and the Penguins official website now boasts about "rolling" the Devils 4-1.
Taking these factors into consideration, it's my belief that there were some circumstances that handicapped the Devils going into this game. Below I will elaborate further on this and also explain why I hope the Devils don't lose too much sleep over this one.
After tonight's game the first thing that came to my head was a great quote John made just after our first loss of the season. Everyone knows how abysmal last season went and here we were, starting our year of redemption by getting shutout in our home opener against our second most hated rivals.
As long time readers of this site will tell you, I'm not big on adages that aren't necessarily supported by the facts. I prefer to look at the underlying numbers rather simply rely on what I've seen and remember. That said, I believe the chief cause in the New Jersey Devils' 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers can be boiled down to the fact that the Flyers have played a hockey game earlier this week and the Devils haven't.
I was at the game and can attest that it would have been easy to put the panic train right back on the tracks, but in John's postgame analysis he had the maturity and poise to not only outline a few reasons why that night was not as bad as it seemed, but also make note of these reasons very early in the article. With that in mind, I believe the Devils deserve some slack for the way tonight played out.
I'll understand if other fans view it is a dumb reason or just making excuses for our team, but I consider the long gap in the Devils schedule over the past week, combined with back to back games against excellent teams, as major mitigating circumstances that should be considered before getting overly upset. And it goes deeper than that.
The last Devils game before our shootout loss to the Sharks on Friday was six days earlier in Nashville. After getting into the groove of the season and having our first four games come within two or three days of each other, it was surely hard for the players to get back into the swing of things after an odd six day break. To make matters worse, the San Jose Sharks are far from a mediocre team, the game went all the way to a shootout, and we had to drop the puck with the Penguins in Pittsburgh less than 24 hours later.
If you look at the Devils schedule for this entire year, there isn't another period that comes even close to being a six day gap between our games excluding the All Star Break. From here on out, the Devils will have a game at least every three days.
As if our scheduling wasn't working against us enough already, the bold portion of John's quote above shows yet another reason why the Devils were disadvantaged going into this game. Tonight was the Devils 6th game of the season, and second in a row after having a six day break. On the other hand, it was the Penguins 10th game of the season, they've had a game at least every other night so far, and their last game was at home with a day-off before playing us.
As I mentioned before, the Sharks and Penguins are great teams. They've successfully dominated the regular season and had far playoff stretches for years in a row now, and I think any team in the league would struggle putting in a solid performance against them in back to back nights. Also worth mentioning is the hype that's been surrounding how much ice time Ilya Kovalchuk has gotten so far, and the fact that the Sharks are a big, physical team and were very hungry coming into The Rock because of their slow start. All of these circumstances coupled with the manner in which the Devils had lost to the Sharks -- their winning streak ended by a tying goal in the last 35 seconds followed by our first shootout defeat -- just add to the reasoning of why our loss was potentially lopsided for the first time since our home opener.
Finally, the Penguins have deservedly received a lot of credit around the league for the way they've handled injuries. Throughout both this season and last they've suffered ailments to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but have been able to triumph in spite of it. All of the media praise over how Dan Bylsma has been able to structure his lines so that the team can still succeed in absence of its' best players just goes to show how deep of a lineup Pittsburgh has.
The Devils are still a team rebounding from last years anomaly. We've also lost our top two centers, albeit maybe they aren't the same caliber, and don't have a locker room full of players that have had time to mesh for nearly as long as the Penguins have. The Penguins have fourteen players on their roster that have been in their organization at the pro level for the past four years. The Devils have only nine, and that number includes both the injured Martin Brodeur and Travis Zajac, as well as recent healthy scratches Rod Pelley and Mark Fraser. I really do think that even though this organization got off to a great start, it is still far behind being a top team because of the lack of chemistry. This definitely shows in the form of struggles during breakouts and awful/blind passing. But as the season goes on and players get more comfortable with each other, I think we will witness great things and the eventual return of Devils playoff hockey that lasts longer than one round.
So call it whining or nonsense, but it is my opinion that the new, young Devils roster understandably lacks chemistry, and polar differences in the way these two teams were scheduled by the league up to this point did little to help the Devils cause. Ultimately this combination put us in a detrimental situation going into the game. We play the Penguins again next on December 31, and at this point I think the additional two plus months of playing time together will make for a much more competitive game regardless of whether Crosby and Malkin are both back in the lineup.