New Jersey Devils Repeatedly Denied by Curtis McElhinney in 3-1 Loss to Ottawa Senators

Let's quickly go over the last three games against the Ottawa Senators before talking about this one. 

The first game was on December 10, 2010 in Ottawa. At the time, the Devils were entering freefall mode under John MacLean.   They lost the first three games of the month and they lost this one too.  In my recap, I pointed out all of the "small victories" that they achieved because the Devils didn't get many of them at that point of the season.  While there was a bit of controversy, the Devils still lost 3-2. The Devils put 31 shots on Pascal Leclaire

The second game was on February 1, 2011 at the Rock. It was the first game after the All Star break for both teams, the Devils were rising to respectable levels while the Sens were falling. The start was sluggish due to the long layoff. Then, the Devils proceeded to dominate the Senators in terms of possession and shots. Ottawa had a rookie goaltender, Robin Lehner, in net and the Devils forced him to stand on his head.   In my recap, he was the main reason why the Devils didn't blow the Senators out of Newark.  Still, a fortunate deflection off Chris Phillips earned Dainius Zubrus the eventual game winner in a 2-1 game. The Devils put 33 shots on Lehner.

The third game was last week, March 9, also at the Rock.  The Senators looked very different in terms of personnel due to trades and injuries.  The then-hot Devils looked the same except Jason Arnott was traded for David Steckel.  While the Devils made more attempts than the Sens and out-shot them, the Senators got the glorious break late in the game.  Jason Spezza fired a great pass to a streaking Erik Condra for the game winning goal with less than 3 minutes left to play, and the Devils ran out of time to equalize. The Devils lost 2-1. In my recap, I called it role reversal for the Devils as they have won a lot of close games late over the last month and a half.   The Devils put 32 shots on Craig Anderson.

Do you notice a pattern?  The Devils succeed in putting a good quantity of shots on net, Ottawa's goaltenders were forced to play great and they did, and so the games were close - breaking New Jersey's way once and Ottawa's way twice.    So what happened tonight?

The Devils put a ton of shots on goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who played fantastic tonight.  The Devils didn't get the bounces or looks or what-have-you to beat him more than once.  The Senators kept it close, scored off a fluke for their second goal, and iced the game with an empty-netter to make it 3-1.    More of the same given the season series.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For an Senators-based viewpoint, please check out Silver Seven.

The Stats: The NHL.com game summary; the NHL.com event summary; the Time on Ice Corsi Chart; the Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Chart.

The Game Highlights: I hope you like seeing Curtis McElhinney saves because there sure are a lot of them here:

A Statement Some of You Won't Like: The Devils didn't play a horrible game. Actually, they were the better team on the ice in many ways. 

Don't worry, I will qualify this statement in the proceeding subheadings.

Can't Score Without Shots: First and foremost, look at who had more shots.  The Devils out-shot the Senators 34-25.  Despite score effects, the Senators actually tied New Jersey 13-13 in the third; which speaks to how well the Devils fired away earlier in the game.

It's an even bigger gap when it comes to attempts.  The Devils attempted 68 shots tonight, whereas the Senators only got 46.  The big cause for this was blocks.  The Devils were blocked 24 times tonight total, much more than Ottawa's 11 attempts blocked.  Ottawa's skaters literally got New Jersey's way because they were forced to. Even if the shot selection left something to be desired, McElhinney had a very busy night all the same.  You can't play bad and just pound the opposition with rubber

Can't Do Anything Without Possession: As you may have already gathered from the shots, the New Jersey Devils owned the puck at even strength.  The team's Corsi was not even a contest.  The Devils finished at a +21.  I repeat: +21.  Anything higher than +6 is quite good; +21 is ridiculous.  +21 means the puck was mostly in Ottawa's end in this game. +21 means one team was driving the play.   The Devils out-shot the Sens 25-18 at evens, out-missed them 9-7, and got out-blocked 20-9.  The Devils had the puck more and attempted to do more.  That is the exact opposite of what a poorly performing team does.

What makes this more impressive was who was driving the play.  Right from the get-go, the Zajac line was rolling through the Senators.  Ilya Kovalchuk was double-shifted late and still finished at an amazing +16. Nick Palmieri also finished at +16.  Travis Zajac was the best at +18.  They usually had the Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne pairing behind them, and they finished at +23 and +18 respectively.   When those 5 were on the ice, Ottawa was almost constantly on defense - evidence that they were at least having great nights getting forward.  All throughout the game.  Namely, the line of Bobby Butler, Colin Greening, and Jason Spezza; followed by Zach Smith, Chris Neil, and Nick Foligno.   It was domination, plain and simple.

However, it's not all glitter and gold for New Jersey.  It wasn't until later where someone outside of those 5 emerged in terms of possession.  That came by way of Jacob Josefson, who finished at +11, and Mattias Tedenby, who finished at +9.  The Elias line did not have a good night and was broken up for a few shifts in the third period; and the fourth line was, well, the fourth line.  Plus, with all of the blocks, the Corsi values are quite high - though the Fenwick is still quite good for those 5 players and the Devils overall.  

Nevertheless, one team had the puck in favorable positions far more than the other -and that one team was New Jersey.

Can't Discount The Other Goaltender: Too often, we get caught up as fans in terms of what our favorite team is and is not doing.  We complain the Devils need to score more goals.  We are justified in this complaint for various reasons.  Yet, it does not happen so easily often due to the other goaltender.  I tend to hear complaints of "The Devils make the other goaltender/some no-name look great."  Taking a step back, this is a troubling statement.   I don't think the Devils or any team intend to make the other goalie look great. The Devils just played this guy for the first and only time all season; it's not like he's had a history of being a wall against New Jersey.   Even if he had for one or two games, that's just one or two games - anyone can get hot in such a small population size.

Basically, I hink the other goaltender looked great in these sorts of games because the other goaltender just played a great game. Why is this simple possibility so hard to accept? Why must we express shock if it's from someone we're not familiar with - if it was by a player we know, then does it make any real difference outside of our perception?

Yes, Curtis McElhinney was the guy I wanted to see tonight instead of Craig Anderson. I said so in the preview. However, I have to give him all of the credit in the world tonight.  The Senators defense just let the Devils waltz on in and bomb away.   Even with all of those blocks, they still allowed New Jersey to be in a position to shoot, which McElhinney would have to prepare for.   Let's quickly go over some of the things he did tonight:

  • Stopped shots from all distances, ranging from point-blank shots off rebounds to shots from the point.
  • Smothered the puck completely on several instances when the Devils hoped to jam it through.
  • Absolutely robbed Patrik Elias on a power play.
  • Moved calmly and hugged the post completely when the Devils got down low at an angle.
  • Made a save on a breakaway by Ilya Kovalchuk.
  • Only beaten on a shot he didn't see: a Brian Rolston rocket from the point on a power play.

I know it's tough to swallow, but he played great. Considering that the Devils dominated in possession and were superior in terms of shots, at least I got what I wanted see: an aggressive offense.  Job well done there. The goaltender was standing on his head.  I don't think there's any shame in just leaving it at that.

Can't Discount Luck Either:  Ottawa scored two non-empty net goals tonight.  The first was on a power play. This was a continuing one; during the penalty kill on a Patrik Elias minor for high-sticking, Anton Volchenkov slid into the net to try and block out an empty net and knocked the goal up in the process.  It didn't go off - just up - and it wasn't intentional. Still, he was given a minor for interference. The Devils killed the 49 second 5-on-3 advantage, but shortly after the 5-on-3 ended Jason Spezza fired a hard shot from the right sideboards.  Ryan Shannon, who was right next to Martin Brodeur, deflects the puck either off his stick or his knee into the net.  A point-blank deflection on a power play was the first goal against.

The second goal against was even flukier.  Erik Karlsson attempted 7 shots tonight and only got 2 on net.  I'm not sure if this registered as a shot, but it led to the goal.  Early in the third period, just after the Zajac line sliced through the Ottawa defense and forced McElhinney to lie on the puck, the Senators responded with an attack.  Karlsson had the puck on the left sideboards and fired a low shot. Apparently, Chris Neil deflected it to go high in an arc.  Brodeur leans back to try and grab it, Anssi Salmela tries to punch it out, but it drops through and into the net.  Neil certainly hoped to get some of that shot, but not like that.  He'll take it.

So the Devils lost on two deflections, one of which is something that Chris Neil probably couldn't do again outside of his dreams.  Feel free to bleat otherwise, but I'm calling that luck in Ottawa's favor. It's not like Martin Brodeur blew the game or gave up a soft one; he made several important stops, he had a good game.  It's not like the defense just collapsed and left Brodeur out to dry.  Though, they held Ottawa to so few shots, when they were bad, they were bad. It felt like extremes at times, but that probably should be chalked up to confirmation bias.  It was two deflections.  Even when a team plays well, they could use some pucks to bounce their way. It did for Ottawa, but not so much for New Jersey.

Aside #1 - The Worst Call Tonight:  I would be remiss to say that the worst call of the game wasn't Volchenkov's interference call. It was the goaltender interference call on Kovalchuk in the third period.  Kovalchuk was gliding along the goal-line in front of the crease.  Brian Lee hits him, causing Kovalchuk to careen into McElhinney. With a ref standing right in the corner, he assumes Kovalchuk hit McElhinney on purpose. That call was lame.  Thankfully, the Senators did not take full advantage.

Correction: As Barry G pointed out in this comment, the call came from the referee at center ice, who assumed that Kovalchuk hit McElhinney on purpose. There was a ref in the corner, but he did nothing.   This makes the call even worse; but again, it didn't fortunately didn't lead to anything.

Aside #2 - The Power Plays Looked Good on Both Sides: Both teams got 3 chances.  Both teams scored on one of them. Both teams got denied by the goaltender on a few of those shots: 8 for NJ, 6 for Ottawa. I've discussed Spezza's goal and Rolston's goal was a bomb from the point that McElhinney didn't even see. Overall, whoever runs the team's respective power plays has to be pleased.  The Devils only looked poor in the first 50 seconds of their first power play; from then on, it was clear New Jersey was in control. The Senators had very good pressure as well, and will also recall some chances they may have rued at the time.  Both team's power plays had good nights in my opinion.

Repeating the First Point: Therefore, the Devils didn't play a horrible game. They were actually the better team on the ice in many ways.  They lost on a fluke deflection and couldn't muster more than one against a goalie who played out of his mind.  

I'm sure Kovalchuk wished he scored on that third period breakaway; or that Patrik Elias didn't have that rebound attempt on a mostly-empty net deflected; or that Nick Palmieri or Dainius Zubrus or David Clarkson or some other Devil were able to jam a puck in; or that Mark Fayne had a shot of his deflected on-net; or that Adam Mair didn't hit McElhinney when he fell prior to a shot in the third period.  I'm sure all of the Devils wished they done better tonight.  I understand and I'm not saying I'm happy with the loss.  But I'm not seeing how this loss is worth freaking out over or causing some rage. 

Again, I'm just not seeing how the team played badly in any sense of the word.  Not by the "eye-test," and not by the stats.  In all sports, a team outplays the opposition and it's provable by various metrics, and yet they still lose.  It happens and that's what happened to New Jersey tonight.  Simple as that.

One Final Point: This was written in the previous Devils-Senators recap.  It bears repeating:

Irony Is...: ...complaining about losing to the last place team in the East when earlier this year, the Devils were in the same spot and beating superior teams.

Remember that before you say or type in reference to the Senators being in 15th in the East.

What did you think of tonight's game? Do you agree the Devils played rather well and just didn't win? If not, why not (show your work)? What do you think the Devils need to do to get ready for Friday's home game against Washington, other than get a good night's sleep?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you to all of the commenters in the Gamethread, and thank you for reading.

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