I feel this picture is appropriate right about now, so here it is. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
After seeing Marian Gaborik put in a cheap empty net goal to put the New York Rangers up 4-1 over the New Jersey Devils, a metaphorical lightbulb went off in my head. I realized exactly what I just witnessed tonight. It was a summation of nearly everything bad about this season all rolled up into one. Let's break it down in summarizing this game.
Defensive breakdowns have been a real thorn in this Devils side and there was another example of it where it ended up with the puck in the back of the net. Anton Volchenkov mis-times a hit on Derek Stepan and so Stepan had a load of space to get into the Devils' zone. Adam Henrique does a great job forcing him to the outside and keeping him in the corner. Stepan fires a pass to the slot. Now, while Henrique was doing a good thing, Kurtis Foster skated backwards to the top of the crease. Foster does nothing to Stepan's pass - no movement up, no attempt to intercept it, nothing. Foster was in a position to make a play and he didn't. This lack of initiative was compounded by the fact Artem Anisimov got away from a back-checking Zach Parise. Anisimov is able to get the pass and re-direct it past Martin Brodeur on his flank. The shot was the Rangers' tenth in the game and it tied up the game at 1 in the second period.
There were other defensive breakdowns, but the occassional annoyance of sub-optimal goaltending came through. Martin Brodeur got beaten six times tonight; thrice it hit the post, and thrice it went into the net. While Anisimov's goal certainly wasn't his fault; he looked real bad on Marian Gaborik's second goal. The Devils were out of sorts in their own end - what a shock - but Anisimov forced a backhand shot at a sharp angle. Brodeur was in position to stop it. He should have stopped it. He didn't. He only got a piece of it and it just made the puck trickle behind him - right to Gaborik in the crease. One incredibly easy tap-in for Gaborik later and it's 2-1 in the third period. That was bad. It's arguable that he should have done better on Carl Hagelin's goal which really put the nail in the coffin on the game. It was a 2-on-1 situation, Brodeur had Hagelin all the way, and he got beat. Sure, Brodeur stopped a 2-on-1 way early in the game (thanks Volchenkov), but that doesn't excuse what happened. Brodeur will bounce back, in my opinion; I think it's foolish to follow up every non-ideal or poor performance with "Is he done?" or "Shouldn't they have started Johan Hedberg?" Nevertheless, he didn't give the Devils a lot of help.
Oh, I forgot to mention something about Hagelin's goal: IT WAS A SHORTHANDED GOAL. Yes, the Devils are still on their ignoble quest to set records in SHGAs, allowing their tenth of the season tonight. Yes, this means the 2-on-1 that Hagelin scored on was a 2-on-1 during a power play, which could have tied the game up for New Jersey. Someone, possibly Kurtis Foster, decides it's a smart idea to dump the puck in hard with the man advantage. Yes, the Devils have a man advantage and they have no confidence in getting the puck in the Rangers' end, with one of their few healthy regular defensemen in the penalty box, that a Devil thought he had to fire it as hard as he could around the boards. Ilya Kovalchuk - the only man who had a shot at it - tried to stop it with his body, but the puck had too much pace so it squirts past him. Why take that risk? Why not dump it in soft or right at Henrik Lundqvist and force a faceoff (Devils were good at draws tonight, winning 57% of them)? Why does these sorts of brainfarts burn the Devils? While I may not be so sympathetic to Brodeur on the GA when I review it in the summer; I feel that way now. Forget whether he should have stopped the shot; why is this team putting their goaltenders in these kinds of situations at all? Turnovers, bad passes, and bad decisions - all during a situation where the Devils should at least get offensive possession. Once again, the power play was a hindrance as opposed to a benefit. I hate this power play.
By the way, the Gaborik goal to make it 2-1, the Hagelin goal to make it 3-1, and the empty netter to ice it at 4-1 all happened in the third period. That's right, the Devils lost another game entirely in the third period. It wasn't like the Gaborik and Hagelin goals came in close succession either. They were nearly 10 minutes apart; the Devils didn't fold up completely. Yet, they didn't play well either. Still, 10 minutes was plenty of time for the Devils to find an equalizer; but they just couldn't find it tonight.
This falls in line with the lack of finishing, which really stands out in retrospect. In general, the effort wasn't bad at all. 30 shots on net; 12 to start the game; a team Corsi of +4 at evens; and even scoring the first goal. To his credit, Lundqvist played very well tonight and he's reason #1 why the Devils only got 1 goal. When the other team's goaltender is their top player and the main reason why they got a result, then that speaks to how the Devils played.
Yet, he wasn't absolutely perfect; there were plenty of rebounds for the taking. Against a team as decimated on the blueline like the Rangers' were, this could have been a prime situation for the Devils. Yet, they overskate pucks or they get to the spot too late so it's blocked or they miss it or they just get beaten to them. Travis Zajac scored his first of the season a rebound goal; but it was one of the few times a Devil got there. The Devils came close a few times in the second and third period to get that second goal. Kovalchuk found Adam Henrique in a prime spot, but Henrique couldn't elevate the puck and Lundqvist robbed him with his right pad. David Clarkson had a 2-on-1, elected to shoot, beat Lundqvist through the legs - and the puck missed the net. On the very power play that led to the game-killing shortie, Henrique was about to hammer home a long rebound off a Kovalchuk shot, only for the puck to sail across the crease instead of into the net. Bad luck, poor adjustments, sad finishing, whatever you call it, it was there. And if you can't get 2 or more past a goaltender, on most nights, it's going to end in a L regardless of the goaltending or the defensive breakdowns or the overall effort (it wasn't too bad, to be fair) or whatever.
Lastly: the fourth line was horrid. They didn't allow a goal against, so that's a silver lining of sorts.
The most crushing thing of all is that all of this had to happen against the New York Rangers. Our Hated Rivals of all teams. A bad game against, say, St. Louis would be disappointing; but it doesn't carry the same gravitas as a game against a hated rival. A result tonight would have done wonders for the Devils' attempts to claw up the standings both in the division and in the conference. A result tonight would have been huge for their confidence; beating a rival without their top scorer and a big-minute defenseman. A result tonight would have shut up the Rangers fans, who know their team isn't going to win anything of substance so a win like this is basically their championship. That this all happened against the Rangers, in a game that otherwise wasn't terrible, makes this loss induce more anger, sadness, and/or other bad feelings. As it should, that's how losses to rivals feel.
I have literally a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.
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: In case you really want to see the game's highlights, then check out this video from NHL.com:
Silver Lining - Defense Version: Despite the miscues, the Devils still only allowed 21 shots on net. I really liked how Adam Larsson played tonight. He didn't have a back-breaking giveaway. He didn't completely blow coverage over and over. He hit a couple of sharp long passes through the neutral zone. He finished a +4 in Corsi and he played quite a bit against Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan. If he plays like this, then I have no problem with him playing 21:30, which is how much he played tonight. It also helped that his partner, Bryce Salvador, has upped his defensive game. He's more cautious in his positioning since he knows he's not all that fast, and he also came out positive in possession while playing 20:55 at even strength (+2 Corsi). For that pairing: good job. Too bad Larsson has to go back to Sweden and grieve until early next week. (Too bad he has to grieve at all, of course. I fully understand and respect the decision. I'm just saying he'll be missed in New Jersey.)
Silver Lining - Forward Version: With Patrik Elias ill, Travis Zajac was moved up to center Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus. While I understood the decision, I was concerned since this would only be Zajac's third game this season. He's still very much getting back into form, acclimating himself with his linemates. I shouldn't have been so worried as Zajac had a good game. He scored a goal, of course. He also had 4 shots on net out of 5 attempts, he went 7-for-13 on faceoffs, and he was positive in possession for the night at +1 (Sykora: +5, Zubrus: +3). That's not a bad night out of 19:35 of ice time with 16:45 spent at even strength. Zajac was fine on the penalty kill, though he was out of sorts on the power play - but he's far from the problem about the power play.
The Rise of Carter: I'm scratching my head regarding the Devils' third line did with Ryan Carter back in the middle. They ended up edging their matchups, as evidenced by the Corsi values - Carter: +8, Clarkson: +7, Mattias Tedenby: +7. Yet, they only got a combined 4 shots on net out of a combined 8 attempts on net. Strange. It was good to see that Ryan Carter didn't look too out of place. He shouldn't have looked out of place since he was with Clarkson and Tedenby quite a lot this season; but there weren't too many hiccups. Still, I hope Elias feels better soon since he's got a fourth line to possibly salvage.
Somehow, Someone's Going to Blame Kovalchuk, So Let's Talk About Him: Well, he was a -3 tonight and didn't score any goals. Nevermind that he led the team in shots on net with 6, attempted a total of 8 - including one agonizing block in the third period where he nearly had Lundqvist beaten dead to rights. Nevermind that none of those three goals are in any way his fault. He wasn't in the play Anisimov's and Stepan's rush in the second period. He tried to stop the incredibly stupid hard dump-in, but it didn't work because it was a hard dump-in. Nevermind that third strike against him was the empty net goal, which would be rather petty. Kovalchuk tried to do his best, setting up one of the best Devils' play all night long when he fed Henrique a pass all alone on Lundqvist's flank.
Wait, Who Had an Off Night?: Zach Parise had an off night, if you can believe it. He only generated 2 shots on net out of only 3 attempts. He got beaten by Anisimov, who then scored the Rangers' first goal. That's forgivable in that it was the end of a long (how long? 1:31 long) shift for Parise; he probably just ran out of gas. What is shocking is that after a week of ruining other team's top defensive players, he didn't have much of an answer for Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. He was held to a -6 in Corsi, the worst on the team tonight; he was a non-factor on the power play (this may be by Adam Oates' wonderfully terrible design); and he wasn't exactly carrying the water on his line like Kovalchuk or Henrique was attempting to do. It was an off night, and he'll bounce back. Plus, he won't get the same criticism Kovalchuk gets from time to time.
Some Questions for Peter DeBoer: I understand he's experienced, but why in the world did you keep a pairing of Kurtis Foster and Anton Volchenkov? Moreover, why did you allow them to get matched against the Anisimov, Stepan, and Gaborik line more often than not? They lost in possession (Volchenkov: -5, Foster: -4) and on the scoreboard. I understand this pairing didn't lose the game for the Devils. I understand the other two pairings were doing their job well overall. Still, why not adjust this pairing in between periods? Why allow John Tortorella to get that match-up? Why not tell Volchenkov to stop playing up so much when he doesn't have the speed and agility to get back?
Alternatively, why start the Devils' miserable and ineffective-at-best fourth line against their fourth line? Yes, there was clearly a pre-planned fight (3 seconds into the game, I might add); but why not exploit that match-up to start instead of wasting everyone's time? Why not make Tortorella pay for his bravado?
A Question for David Clarkson: This team has two hired fists playing incredibly limited minutes on the fourth line. Why are you getting into fights?
A Question for Adam Oates: How do you still have a job?
That pretty much sums up what I have to say about this disappointment of a game. The winning streak is over, and this loss will linger for a few days for the Devils (and Rangers fans will live it until January 31, 2012). Not just by the score but how the game played out. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the Devils can't dwell too much on it as they have a game in two days. It's important that they finish off 2011 strong with 3 home games out of 4. Will the Devils bounce back from this loss? Who do you think did well for the Devils? Who do you think did poorly for the Devils? What aspect from this game did the most damage? What can the Devils fix in advance of their next game against Washington? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.