Martin Brodeur Returns, Defense Mostly Absent in New Jersey Devils 5-3 Loss to Toronto Maple Leafs

You wouldn't know it from tonight's game, but the New Jersey Devils have had some good performances in their first month of the season.  They have had games where the offense was able to get the puck forward consistently and mount dangerous attacks.  They have had games where the defense was able to clean up loose pucks around the net and make sure no one is open on the flanks.    They even have had some games where the goaltender bailed out the Devils to keep them in the game.   We've even seen combinations of it all in those first nine games of the season.

Tonight, the Devils were just flat out poor.  The defense was shambolic, the goaltending was rusty, and while the offense kept the Devils in it early on, that too sputtered out as time went on in the game.  This was simply a bad game by the New Jersey Devils.  They earned their 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I have to hand it to the Leafs tonight.  It really didn't matter if they're "for real" or not, because they were really strong tonight. Leafs fans should be ecstatic with this victory.  The Leafs managed to out-shoot a team with a two goal lead on the road.  Toronto collectively realized taking penalties would give them problems and so they played clean after their second minor penalty of the night.  The Leafs clamped down in the third period and collected seemingly endless dump-ins to prevent the Devils from making a third period comeback.  Most of all, they exploited a Devils defense with cross-ice passes and vigorously following up rebounds and loose pucks.  That's how they scored four out of the five goals tonight as well as earning two points in the league.

By the same token, that fact is also a source of frustration.  It's not like the Leafs just outclassed the Devils.  They just torched them via coverage errors all night long.  It's not a problem that would be fixed by getting new players or new schemes.  They were correctable issues. The backcheck by the forwards was shambolic, the play in the slot was leaky, and the lack of communication to pick up guys on the flank was horrendous.  And the Leafs kept doing it.  Yes, Martin Brodeur returned and looked rusty.  He didn't have a good game.  Yet, the Devils could have had Dominik Hasek from 1997-98 in net and he would have been hung out to dry for a majority of these goals against.

That's my main takeaway of tonight's game.  As usual, I have a few more thoughts along with links to the game's stats and a highlight video from NHL.com.   Should you want the opposition's perspective, please check out Pension Plan Puppets.

The Game 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 Highlight Video:  Should you want to see eight goals, some saves, some hits, and a reason to be mad at Henrik Tallinder and Adam Larsson, then please check out this highlight video of tonight's game from NHL.com:

I Won't Talk About Everyone Who Was Awful on Defense in Detail, But I'll Make Time For...: Henrik Tallinder was miserable tonight. To be fair, he did play most of his ice time against Toronto's top forward line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and Tim Connolly.  It's not the easiest of match-ups, but given his experience, it's shouldn't be a surprise that he draws that one.  He tended to play most of it in his own end of the rink, as evidenced by his Corsi value of -5 and his Fenwick value of -7.  Tallinder just struggled with the puck be it at the point or even behind the net trying to get it out.   He also got to see on the ice Lupul score not one, not two, but three goals this evening.    I wouldn't put the fault on Tallinder for the first one, but his stick might have got a piece on the second one (which is unfortunate) and he left Brodeur out to dry on the third one by not holding his position (which is infuriating).

Andy Greene was similarly awful.    He wasn't aware Mikhail Grabovski was right behind him en route to Toronto's second goal. I'm not even sure what he was doing on the play that led to Lupul's hat trick strike, come to think of it.  Greene had the worst Fenwick on the blueline with -10, which tells you where he spent most of his ice time. It was not one of Greene's better nights; though he didn't stand out as being particularly awful like (As an aside, Mark Fayne was the worst in Corsi with -10; but he wasn't made to look awful on a goal against, so he has that going for himself.)

Help Me Find Blame on the First Goal Against:  What stuck out to me before Joey Crabb scored the first goal of the game was that Ryan Carter and Bryce Salvador both went in on Crabb for a bodycheck.  As the hit ended and play moved on, Crabb wheeled around the net to be wide open to Brodeur's right along with Tyler Bozak.   In watching the replay of that goal, I notice that Anton Volchenkov only briefly looks back before he tries to impede Matthew Lombardi's pass across the slot - which he failed to do.  I also notice Mattias Tedenby in the high slot just hanging out and not doing much.  Now I'm a little confused.  Should I be pointing a finger at Carter and Salvador?  Should I assign blame to Volchenkov, even though it looks like he was just caught in a bad spot?  Should I call out Tedenby for doing nothing at all about the two Leafs wide open on the flank?  Or should I be blame all of them?   Let me know in the comments.

Congratulations on the NHL Point At Least: Adam Larsson picked up the first NHL point of his career, a primary assist on Patrik Elias' goal.  It was in his tenth game of the season, so his entry level contract is now active.  Point aside, Larsson sure played like an 18 year rookie defenseman tonight, if you get my drift.  Here's a tip for him: don't just stand there when the puck is coming through the slot after the opponent takes a shot.

I Guess We Should Have Expected Rust:  Martin Brodeur returned in net tonight and didn't look good.  That's understandable, it's hard to look good when 5 out of 14 shots from the opposition get into the net.  While Brodeur was hung out to dry on all but one of them (Brodeur really should have had Lupul's second goal, from my vantage point, deflection or otherwise); he wasn't exactly confidence-inducing in net.  Sure, he bailed out the Devils on a few occassions.  He should have been beaten a sixth time, but he somehow got his stick on Phil Kessel at the far post to rob him in the third period.  (Aside: Yep, the Devils still left guys open on the flank after being beaten twice there tonight. The "D" was that ugly.)   Yet, he seemed slow to some observers and perhaps that's no surprise since he hasn't played since mid-October.  The silver lining is that he feels his shoulder is OK, according to this post-game post from Tom Gulitti.   We've seen enough of Brodeur to know that he'll be better in the future; so I wouldn't panic just yet.  Let's hope the defense also shows up when that happens.

The Third Period Offense in 7 Words: Dump, re-collect, dump, re-collect, dump, and re-collect.

Some More Serious Thoughts on the Offense:  This was a strange game in terms of offense.  It seemed that both teams just had a lot of space to work with in the first two periods thanks to some lax defending.  The Devils had two breakaways, a few odd-man rushes, and had some good cycles going in the first two periods.  Given all that, it was surprising that the Devils couldn't muster up more than 5 shots on net in the third period.  It was also sad and frustrating given that the Devils were down goals and needed to be more intense and effective in their attacks. Instead, they ended up being out-shot in the game 23-22 by the Leafs.  22 shots just aren't going to get it done when behind in a game.  Credit Toronto for clamping down at that point and fault the Devils for relying on a dump-and-chase that they often failed at winning.  Seriously, you're down 2 goals in the third and you don't try anything different?

Even more strange was how Toronto responded so quickly to each of the Devils' three goals tonight.   The longest gap between Toronto responding to a New Jersey goal was 3:34 in gametime.   And if you watch the highlight video, you'll notice that those three response goals came after a Devils attack was thwarted.   It makes you wonder what could have been had the Devils been able to keep possession or get a shot on net (or in net, given Nick Palmieri's glorious opportunity in the first period) in those cases.  It also makes you wonder what could have been had the Devils actually played like they were down two goals in the third period and tried to throw everything at Jonas Gustavsson.  Maybe I should just be pleased they somehow managed to get three goals tonight?

Split Them Up?:  Zach Parise had a very poor game.  While attention has been paid to Ilya Kovalchuk and his lack of goals, at least he was making attempts.  He had 5 shots on goal and his work on the power play was very good. His collection of the puck around the boards and the pass through the defender to Larsson was important (it led to Elias' goal), which helped get him an assist to snap his pointless streak.  It wasn't a great night for him, but there was some value in how he played. Parise only had 2 shots on net and he often coughed up the puck going forward.  What's more is that Kovalchuk actually had better Corsi values than Parise tonight: -3 to -5.  Given that Kovalchuk's not much of a possession player, it says plenty to me about how Parise performed.  It's more of a downer when you consider those two saw the John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek pairing a lot more than anyone else - not the pairing with defensive stud Dion Phaneuf.  It could be Parise had a bad game while Kovalchuk was more in the middle.  Maybe it's time to split the two up and put them on separate lines.

Elias Keeps On Rolling:  The big argument against splitting up #9 and #17 is that the Patrik Elias unit remains as a valuable unit.  Dainius Zubrus and Elias each got a goal, and Petr Sykora had moments of greatness.  In a night where the Devils as a whole had a Corsi of -10, those three forwards managed to avoid being negative.  OK, it wasn't by much: Zubrus was right at 0, Elias was +1, and Sykora was +5 somehow.  They were relative successes.  Strangely, the Kessel line was their most common matchup and they were more positive in Corsi.  I'm not sure how the Devils got positive. Hm.  Anyway, because Zubrus-Elias-Sykora has been effective in recent games, it leads one to want to keep them together so they can stay effective.   Though, should the other lines suffer with inconsistency and bad performances, Peter DeBoer may have no other choice. We shall see as the season goes on.

Clarkaway: I will credit Nick Palmieri this, he did hit David Clarkson with a lead pass in the neutral zone.  OK, it wasn't very good as Clarkson was covered by Luke Schenn.  However, Clarkson turned lemons into lemonade by lifting Schenn's stick, skating around the defender, and just out-raced him into the offensive zone.  He beat Jonas Gustavsson with a lovely move.  It was a great moment that Devils fans felt good about until Lupul scored his first goal of the night on a rebound that wasn't cleaned up. 

Outside of that moment, Clarkson and the third line didn't have much of a good game.  Like most of the team, they were often stuck in their own end and they combined for three shots on net.  I think they got beaten on by their match-up and Peter DeBoer tried swapping centers to alleviate some of the pain.  First it was with Carter and Brad Mills; then very late in the game, Adam Henrique was sent down there for a shift or two.  

How Did Henrique Do?:  He wasn't bad, actually.  He was in his own end more often than not at -3 Corsi; but he got 3 shots on net and took the shot that led to Zubrus' goal.  I still think he should center the third line instead of going up against top six competition like Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, and Grabovski - his most common head to head forward match-up.  It would give him a better shot at succeeding on the ice; not to mention, he can facilitate matters between Clarkson and Tedenby.

Special Teams Were (E)Specially Good:  No apologies for the stupid attempt at a wordplay joke, and there should be no regrets about the Devils' special teams.  Amazingly, the Devils did quite well in non-5-on-5 situations. They killed two penalties against Toronto without allowing a shot on goal.  That's impressive considering the two minor penalties the team took were bad.  Sykora's hook was lazy and Tedenby had no business charging the goaltender in the third. Still, the PK units out-shot the Leafs' PP 1-0. 

Then there are the power play units. Don't roll your eyes, they were successful amazingly enough.  The first power play featured some great one-timers by Ilya Kovalchuk; and it was a success as it was dying down when the rebound from Henrique's shot bounced right to Zubrus, who just powered to the net to finish it (and Gustavsson).  Their second one was even better. The Devils did a great job at maintaining possession.  They collected pucks off of shots and they calmly passed it around.  Eventually, Larsson fooled the Leafs PK with a faked shot and slid it over Elias who beat Gustavsson with a lovely shot for the team's second power play goal.  That PPG from Elias also set a new franchise record for most power play goals with 93.  Congratulations to him for that achievement.

The Devils went 2-for-2 on the power play with 6 shots on net. Seriously. Out of all of the things the Devils did wrong tonight, their power play actually was successful.    If only the even strength play was anywhere near as good as the special teams play!

Goal Failed: Phil Kessel was not quelled.  He had 4 SOG, 2 assists, and success against the Elias line and the pairing of Larsson and Tallinder with a +5 Corsi value.   He remains the league's leading scorer, though Lupul isn't too far away in terms of goals.

Step Away From the Edge (and Consider Stepping Over to The Verge): Shameless promotion aside, this can be chalked up to a bad game.  I would only be concerned in the long term if the Devils flop through their next five games. Then this could be seen as a sign of bad things to come in retrospect.   They won't be easy for the most part as it's away in Philadelphia tomorrow, hosting Winnipeg on Saturday, hosting Carolina next Tuesday, and then a back-to-back with Washington next week.   Of course, the results are important, but pay attention to the performances.  The Devils can ill-afford to be this loose on defense and this lackluster and inconsistent on offense against any of those opponents.

Those are my thoughts on tonight's game. Now I want to know your thoughts.  How disappointed are you in the defense?  Were you also frustrated by the dump-dump-dump offense of the third period?  What did you think would have changed tonight's game?  Outside of "play better defense," what else could the Devils have done to win this game?   Can they turn it around for tomorrow against the Second Rate Rivals?  Please leave your answers and other thought's on tonight's loss in the comments. Thank you to everyone who has read and commented during the game in the Gamethread; thank you to readers Tyler, Jim, and Kevin who I met at tonight's game for brief and long spurts; and thank you for reading.

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