Melted in Sunrise: New Jersey Devils Blow 3 Goal Lead to Florida Panthers in 4-3 Loss

In the course of an 82 game season, a team will encounter all kinds of games. There will be wins: blowout wins, decisive wins, close wins, and wins in games they shouldn't have won.   There will also be losses as well: blowout losses, decisive losses, close losses, and losses in games they should have won.   Tonight, the New Jersey Devils experienced a loss in that last category.  A heartbreaker of a game thanks to the Devils' performance as they blew a three goal lead in a 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers.

The Panthers play in Sunrise, Florida and as time went on, it was if the sun was shining on them more and more.   It almost started immediately, when the Panthers nearly struck early on two opportunities within the game's first minute.  Martin Brodeur had to be big early (and often) tonight.  Not long after that rush, Anton Volchenkov was knocked out of the game by Shawn Matthias, Ilya Kovalchuk went after a Matthias, and during the penalty kill for Kovalchuk's roughing minor, Bryce Salvador took an interference call.  It wasn't even 5 minutes into the game and the Devils were in penalty trouble.  The Devils killed it all and then they started to right the ship.  Then the Devils really shocked the Panthers. 3 goals in 3:32.  Two off rebounds, the third off a lovely one-timer, and the BankAtlantic Center was silent.   The Devils rolled on in the first period and all seemed good for the visitors.  Surely, Peter DeBoer had to have been pleased that the Devils rose above that rocky start.

Florida head coach Kevin Dineen didn't panic, but whatever he said, got the Panthers back in believing themselves.  Down 3-0, you would have expected Florida to turn up the offense.  They got rewarded at 5:28 into the second when Kris Versteeg fired a loose puck amid traffic to make it 3-1.  No big deal, right? The Devils responded with some offense of their own.  Then during a shift, a clearance got blocked, Versteeg was alone behind Mark Fayne and Brodeur.  Versteeg's shot was nearly blocked but it bounced in and it's 3-2.   The Panthers smelled blood and proceeded to really up the tempo, totaling 15 shots to New Jersey's 9 in the second period.  The Devils escaped the second period 3-2.  Devils fans were concerned, they didn't want to see Florida complete the comeback. They wanted more control from New Jersey.

Instead, they got more sloppiness and stupidity.   The Devils were clearly missing Anton Volchenkov and it really didn't help matters that the forwards' backchecking wasn't very good.  The trio of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, and Versteeg gave the Devils fits and ultimately scored the goals to complete the comeback.  During a 4-on-3 power play, Patrik Elias got beat at the point and Weiss scored off a rush that we're used to seeing the Devils get on PKs.  That tied up the game. The ensuing power plays were garbage so any hope of re-taking the game flickered out. The Devils' offense in the third was so bad, their best chances were Petr Sykora missing the net from the slot multiple times and Adam Henrique hitting a post off a takeaway.  Martin Brodeur did his best to single-handedly keep this game tied.   Late in the game, a broken stick by Greene led to another breakdown in front, Fleischmann was able to get wide and beat Brodeur.   A late 6-on-5 effort yielded nothing and so was the game. 

A well-played first period was followed by two periods of dreck.   It's one thing to lose a game while getting beaten on like the Boston game last week, it's another to watch what should be a definitive lead slip away.  While going 3-2 on 5-game road trip against some tough teams isn't bad at all, tonight's bitter loss stings. 

It's understandable to be upset. I'm certainly not happy by it; no Devil fan should be. The sad reality is that it happens in every season, though. If you think it's the worst loss ever or the worst since 2009, then you're not really thinking all that hard.  As bad as this one is, I'd argue that it's not even the worst one this season.  So be angry, be upset, be unhappy, but let's not lose perspective. Plus, the sun will come up tomorrow.  Regardless, I think we can all agree the Devils need to bounce back in the next few game; that they should at least get leads and keep them.

As usual, I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  For the opposition's take, please go check out Ryan Meier's recap over at Litter Box Cats.

The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts

The Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the rebound-filled highlights of this frustrating loss:

3:32 Goal Rush:  What got Devils fans so excited in the first period was how the Devils scored three quick goals on Jose Theodore.  Ilya Kovalchuk started a rush up-ice, dropped it off for the trailing Henrik Tallinder, who fired it low.  Kovalchuk was in the right spot to hammer the rebound in.  A little more than a minute later, Petr Sykora would also score on a rebound.  The Elias line was set-up in Florida's end and Sykora threw it to the points.  Andy Greene makes a simple pass to Adam Larsson who fires a long shot.  Theodore stops it but Sykora bats it out of mid-air and into the net to make it 2-0.    The Elias line struck again. After stopping Florida at the blueline, Elias rushed up ice and saw Brian Campbell and Keaton Ellerby focusing on him.  Dainius Zubrus went to the net and was all alone. Elias slid a perfectly placed pass to Zubrus, and Big Z killed it on the one-timer.    The Devils just shocked the Florida defense on those plays; Theodore had no chance on any of those three goals.

It was a great sequence of events and the Devils really rolled on from there.  They ended the first period 13-10 in shots, +9 in Corsi, and 3-0 on the scoreboard.   Alas, they did not build on it.

I Hate, Hate, Hate the Power Play:  The New Jersey Devils power play reverted to "suck" again tonight.  The first one wasn't so bad.  The skaters realized that Kovalchuk has a good slapshot and so should try and set that up.  They weren't easy ones for Theodore to stop, as Kovalchuk connected twice.  The latter two were just abysmal.  The Panthers were disciplined tonight except for this sequence. During a Florida power play, Fleischmann takes out Greene into the endboards.  That made it 4-on-4.  35 seconds later, Jack Skille dragged his leg into Kovalchuk's leg - another minor penalty. Thankfully, both players were OK after being in some pain.   So the Devils got a brief 4-on-3 which would be followed by a 5-on-3 for about minute and then a 5-on-4 for about a minute.  That's not a bad situation to be in, especially when the game's 3-2 and Florida's been doing what they can to get an equalizer.

Of course, Elias gets a shot blocked at the point which turns into a rush up ice for Florida. Weiss breaks away from Elias and scores on a breakaway to tie up the game.  The ensuing 5-on-3 yields 2 shots on net including a sharp angle try by Kovalchuk.  Glenn "Chico" Resch was critical of that decision; but I wasn't.  It's not like anyone was moving or trying to open up a lane for an opportunity to score.   At least Kovalchuk tried to hit the net.  Florida killed the 5-on-4 section with ease and what could have been a big opportunity to re-take the game or at least re-establish control went down the toilet.  Instead, the Devils gave up the equalizer and gave Florida more confidence to re-take the game in regulation.  I hate the power play.

Let Me Emphasize This: Patrik Elias should remain far, far, far away from any point on a power play. I would be more confident with Salvador at the point at this juncture.

Nick Palmieri Could Have Done That: Before I get into other matters, I just want to say that if tonight was an opportunity for Mattias Tedenby to secure a spot on the team, then he wasted it just like the Devils on a power play.

The third line combined for one shot - one by Tedenby, none by Clarkson or Ryan Carter. They were pounded by the Mike Santorelli unit (Marco Sturm, Skille, Santorelli) among other Panthers in possession amid limited ice time. That's not good. Gee, Palmieri could have had one shot on net.  I liked Clarkson's work along the boards, which was probably why when the bench was shortened, he kept getting a few shifts late. The same couldn't be said for Carter or Tedenby.

Things That Make You Go "YOU MORON":  Picking an attacking player behind the net during a penalty kill, throwing the puck clear over the glass in your own end twice in the third period, and putting your stick up around a guy's chest and hands.  Those were the four penalties the Devils took tonight outside of Kovalchuk getting all up in Matthias' business for his hit on Volchenkov.  All of them were taken by defensemen in a game where the top penalty killer was out injured early on: Bryce Salvador (interference, the second delay of game), Henrik Tallinder (the first delay of game), and Andy Greene (hooking).  Yeah, Adam Larsson got his first real taste of the PK this evening. The Panthers put up 8 shots on net and Martin Brodeur was a key reason why the penalty killers were successful all night long.

Martin Brodeur Deserved Better:  In terms of shooting attempts, Florida didn't steamroll the Devils like Boston, Buffalo, or Tampa Bay did.  The game ended only -3 for New Jersey.    Florida put up 36 shots on net, 10 in the first, 15 in the second, and 11 in the third.  The Devils offense responded with 13, 9, and 3 (would have been 6 or 7 is Sykora hit the net) respectively.  Yeah, the Devils offense did their defense no favors.  Given that Florida had every reason to throw caution to the wind after the first period, the Devils' inability to keep the Panthers honest in their own end, much less get an insurance goal, hurt them.

Down a man and with spotty offensive support, the defense was just all over the place.  On some shifts, they were tidy and smart.  On others, there would be 1 to 3 Panthers in the slot and Brodeur needing to miracle a stop because he got hung out to dry.    The Devils really missed Volchenkov as time went on.  I felt Bryce Salvador was worked over in his 20:29 of ice time.  Andy Greene may have had two assists, but the fact that he didn't get 20+ mintues on a five-man blueline speaks to his performance this evening.

I can understand Versteeg's first goal, that was just a right-place-right-time shot from him.  The second however was miserable.  Yes, Jason Garisson blocked the clearing attempt by Tallinder and Kovalchuk missed it along the boards.  That's not the problem.   I know why Brodeur wasn't looking at Versteeg, he had to deal with Jason Garrison's eventual shot.  That's not the problem either.  Here's the problem: Mark Fayne is completely unaware that Kris Versteeg is right behind him.  Fayne almost gets lucky with a block but the puck rolls in.  Horrible.

Equally horrible was the game-winner by Fleischmann.  Andy Greene's stick breaks behind the net. Adam Larsson goes after the puck carrier but Weiss finds Fleischmann open in the circle.  Zach Parise isn't anywhere near him and Zubrus is just entering the zone.  Fleischmann has the space to cut in and curl around to the left side. Brodeur slides but Fleischmann was patient enough to slide it in just before he finished.   This was Florida's top line tonight and all season - why aren't these guys being covered more tightly?

Seemingly every line and make-shift pairing had some "oops" moments.  The original third line had to be broken up because they were constantly hemmed in their own end as indicated by their -10 Corsi.  It got so bad that DeBoer moved David Clarkson with Rod Pelley and Brad Mills (and what's more, it wasn't awful).  The Henrique line got matched with the Weiss line and while they didn't get dominated, they were soundly beaten. The Elias line had their scares and they were by far the best in Corsi (Elias and Zubrus: +8; and Sykora: +13). Just sloppy and the Devils ultimately paid the price. 

The Versteeg combination scored all four goals and Dineen was right to lean on them for 21+ minutes.  Martin Brodeur made a lot of big stops - 32 on 36 shots - and it's all for naught because the Devils played dumb hockey for 40 minutes.   Watch as someone uses this as evidence that goaltending is killing this team or that it's a sign that Brodeur's losing it.  The Devils' lack of offense in response to Florida and their defensive breakdowns let Brodeur down - simple as.

Please Get Well Soon: Anton Volchenkov left the game with facial lacerations due to Shawn Matthias' shoulder catching him in the face.  I hope he is OK because the Devils really could have used his presence this evening.

Other Tidbits:  Kovalchuk led the team with shots on net with 7; you can't say he didn't make an effort.  Sykora could have easily eclipsed that but he had 4 misses to go with his 5 shots on net.  They weren't long shots either, I'm talking about misses while in the slot.   Henrique attempted 4 shots (2 SOG, 2 misses), hit the post after intercepting the puck during a forecheck, and went 11-for-18 on the dot, which isn't bad.  I liked Zach Parise's work on the forecheck, but that's really it from #9.  

End of the Road Trip (Until the Next One Next Week): If you were to tell me the Devils ended their road trip 3-2, then I would have been fine with that.  A realistic run of results given the games were in DC, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Florida.  Not a weak team in the bunch.  Yet, this really should have been a 4-1 trip.  Tonight's loss proved that a quick three goals in the first period can't be sustained over 60 minutes without a good effort at both ends in the following two periods.   I really hope the Devils can use this constructively going into the Columbus game on Wednesday.

Those are my thoughts on the game. What are yours?  What about the Devils' performance really stuck out as being particularly poor?  What bothered you the most?  Are there any positives to take out of this game?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who read and commented in the gamethread, thanks to everyone who followed @InLouWeTrust during the game, and thank you for reading.

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