The New Jersey Devils lost 2-0 to the Buffalo Sabres tonight, their second straight shutout loss this season. It's safe to say the team's in a slump. They have won only one of their last six games. They have only scored more than one goal in one of their last six games - their 3-0 win over Columbus. The Devils have been shutout three times in their last six games. They even set a team record in terms of time played without a goal tonight. Their scoreless streak is at 173:55; their last goal being a power play goal by Ilya Kovalchuk in the first period of the 4-1 loss at Boston.
Needless to say, their last road trip of the 2010-11 season was a disappointment, finishing 1-2-1. While it started off well in Columbus, the scoring dried up against Boston, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo tonight. Granted, that means they played three really good goaltenders: Tim Thomas, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Ryan Miller. They played three really good teams, too. Those facts doesn't make the losses and lack of scoring any less frustrating, though.
The Devils did play better tonight than they did against Pittsburgh. More accurately, the Devils played better in the second and third period than they did against Pittsburgh. I wanted more shots in the game preview, and I got more shots. Ryan Miller had to be excellent and he was. I want goals as much as any Devils fan, but getting shots is a prerequisite. They did that at least.
Still, that doesn't make the loss any more acceptable. Nor does it change the reality that the Devils are in a slump. Perhaps the Devils were due for one after blazing through half of January, all of February, and the first half of March with wins. Unfortunately, the only way out of a slump is for a team is to not get so discouraged that they make unnecessary changes to put themselves in deeper. Fortunately for New Jersey, they'll have three days before returning to the Rock on Wednesday to put it all in perspective.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Sabres-based take on tonight's game, please check out Die by the Blade.
The Game Highlights: Here's a video of the game's highlights from NHL.com:
An Awful First Period: While the Devils ultimately went on to out-shoot the Sabres and come ahead in Corsi, the first first period of game was all Buffalo Sabres hockey. I'm not sure how the Devils got 9 shots on net, but all four Sabres lines kept rolling in en route to 16 shots on net and 2 goals. You know it's bad when the checking line of Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer, and Cody McCormick was pinning New Jersey back. (Aside: They finished one f the best line for Buffalo in Corsi tonight, though not at high values like they got in the first period.)
The two goals themselves were symbolic of how well Buffalo did going forward. The first goal was amid chaos generated by the Sabres crashing the net and putting mid-range shots on net. A loose puck bounced over Ilya Kovalchuk's stick only for Nathan Gerbe - who wheeled around the whole net - to take it and put it right under the crossbar past a sliding Martin Brodeur. A bad bounce after the Sabres got the Devils sloppy in their own end did them in on that one.
The second goal came off a defensive zone faceoff for NJ, something created by Buffalo's attack. Travis Zajac was tied up after the draw by Tim Connolly, who knocked the puck to Jason Pominville. He put a strong shot on Brodeur, which was stopped. Yet, physics intervened and there was a rebound that just bounced right to Thomas Vanek right at the crease. Vanek easily put it in. The only Devil skater close to Vanek was Fayne, but he was caught in a no man's land. He had to hold position to prevent a pass and possibly block the shot. For him to drop back may mean a screen on Brodeur or give Pominville a better look at the net.
These weren't bad goals, Buffalo certainly got two good situations and made them count. But they don't even get into those situations without getting the puck in deep and putting up tons of attempts. They owned the puck for at least the first 15 minutes before NJ tried to spark things up a bit offensively. To be fair, if Brodeur wasn't sharp, then the Devils would have been down much worse than that.
A Better Second & Third Period: While the Devils ended the first period down by 2 goals and -9 in Corsi, they went on to out-shoot the Sabres 10-7 and 11-5 in the following periods. Yes, the Devils reached 30 shots in a game, an improved performance compared to Friday's game. (Aside: That they didn't get scored on in the second alone means this game was nothing like a MacLean-coached Devils game.) The line of Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, and Dainus Zubrus had the best impact in terms of Corsi, rising up to +3.
However, while it's expected to a point that the Devils would fight back after being down by 2, the Sabres did well to keep New Jersey honest. They did get some good shots, they came close a few times to getting a third goal to seal it, and they weren't all on counter attacks. Buffalo, as far as I could tell, didn't just sit back with a two goal lead and let Ryan Miller do all the hard work. They only got out-attempted 53-46 in all situations. It's the right thing to do and good on Lindy Ruff and his players to accomplish that. It's more impressive given that they did so without one of their top defensemen: Jordan Leopold, who did not play tonight and will not play for the rest of the season due to a broken hand.
Back to the Devils. What was more impressive to me was that most of the Devils got involved in the shooting. Only four Devils did not register a shot on goal: Mark Fraser (no surprise), Jay Leach (ditto), Mark Fayne (eh, OK), and Ilya Kovalchuk (wait, what?).
Kovalchuk's Night: Ilya Kovalchuk didn't have a good game, plain and simple. He was double shifted early but that proved to not work along with seemingly everything else the Devils were trying to do on offense for the first 20 minutes. So he was relegated mostly to one line. While he, Travis Zajac, and Nick Palmieri had some great shifts in the game, ultimately they were a little negative in terms of Corsi (Kovalchuk was a -2, Zajac was at 0, and Palmieri was -1). But Zajac and Palmieri did contribute in terms of shooting, with Zajac putting 3 on net and Palmieri putting 2 at Miller. Yet, Kovalchuk had none. Sure, he set up Zajac and Palmieri for some of those shots, but it's not to his or the team's benefit if he is unable to put anything on net. He had four shooting attempts: three were blocked and one missed. He also fanned on two occasions that I can recall.
Glenn "Chico" Resch, kept sympathizing with Kovalchuk and his frustration. That sounds weird for someone who's gone goalless in exactly two games, but I sort of see what Chico was talking about. Given that last night he had two great opportunities - on the power play of all times - only for his stick to break on one and the puck to bounce over tonight, I can see how that's frustrating. And perhaps getting blocked thrice and whiffing on a few chances added to that. Still, he's got to rise above it just as the rest of the team did after a team-wide frustration on offense at Pittsburgh. I won't fault him for the first goal against because it was a bouncing puck; but I do fault him for not doing more on offense.
One final note: He did hobble to the bench after blocking a Vanek shot in the second period. He continued to play, but he did get X-rays after the game, according to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. They were negative and it doesn't seem like he's injured. But we'll know more later. Maybe that partially explains why he never kicked his game into high gear in the second half of the game.
Curiously the Fourth Line Wasn't Bad: They didn't get a lot of minutes, and there was some mixing on the wings as David Clarkson got some time with Rod Pelley and David Steckel tonight. Still, the fourth line wasn't bad. In terms of possession, Pelley was a 0, Mair was +1, and Steckel was a +1 (Clarkson was +3). Steckel drew Buffalo's second penalty and went 6-for-8 on draws. Mair Pelley had three shots on net and created one of New Jersey's best chances with David Clarkson in a 2-on-2 rush. His shot forced a nice rebound for Clarkson to bang at, causing some chaos in front of Buffalo's net and Steckel to get fouled by Cody McCormick.
The Returns of Mark Fraser and Jay Leach: Mark Fraser and Jay Leach had to suit up tonight in place of the injured Colin White and Anton Volchenkov. Their minutes were limited - 9:19 for Fraser, 12:48 for Leach - and usually played with a regular on a pairing. Leach played the most with Henrik Tallinder, while Fraser played the most with Andy Greene. I'd say Leach had the better night. He finished -1 in Corsi compared to Fraser's -5, and he didn't go out of his way to hit too many people.
I wouldn't say either were all that great, though. Neither really made a case as to why they should stay on the roster based on their performances. The Devils do miss Colin White and Anton Volchenkov. By minutes alone, Jacques Lemaire clearly trusts Greene and Tallinder enough to not only help out the two fill-ins on defense but to give them regular shifts with their usual partners (Mark Fayne for Tallinder, Anssi Salmela for Greene). As a result, Greene and Tallinder both had 27+ minute performances. If anyone deserves a three day break, it's those two.
Any Ideas, Readers?: Once again, despite getting big minutes, Tallinder and Fayne finished far ahead of Greene and Salmela in Corsi. Tallinder and Fayne were +14 and +12, respectively. Greene and Salmela were -8 and -6, respectively. Any ideas as to why the Tallinder-Fayne pairing have been so awesome in possession? I know the Tallinder and Fayne pairing tends to play behind the Elias line, which did well (+4 for Elias and Rolston, +2 for Zubrus), but each of the two dwarfed that whole line in Corsi combined. They appeared to do well against their match-up against the Jochen Hecht line (Hecht, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis). But +14 and +12 is big. Are they that solid of a pairing? Is Greene-Salmela getting tougher competition or just not playing as well, so they suffer?
No Power on These Plays: The New Jersey Devils power play continues to work against them. Their first one was atrocious. No shots on net, and when Buffalo rushed up ice after a turnover by Brian Rolston at the point, Patrik Elias boarded Jason Pominville - which was called by the refs. The second one had two shots on net and an actual adjustment. There were two defensemen at the points. OK, it was only for one unit. But still, Kovalchuk dropped low, Salmela and Fayne moved the puck well, and together they set up a great shot for Jacob Josefson in the left circle. OK, they didn't score, they only got one additional shot, the rest of their second PP was a non-factor, and they even allowed a shot. Still, it was proof that the Devils can make changes to their power play.
Believe it or not, Buffalo was even worse on their power plays. They got exactly one shot (one of the few times Drew Stafford did anything tonight) on their abbreviated power play in the second period, and none on their third. Yes, the Sabres managed to make the Devils look a little better on their power play by being absolutely miserable. Ultimately, it didn't matter since Buffalo was up by 2 and didn't necessarily need a goal like New Jersey did.
Q: Will Jacques Lemaire Let Them Play Out the Season?: A: I don't think so. Here's a quote from the head coach to back up my guess, reported in this post-game post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice:
"I think it’s our guys," Lemaire said. "They can’t think the season is over. They’ve got to play. It’s their job. They’re getting paid. They’ve got to play."
"I think we weren’t ready for the pace," Lemaire said. "We weren’t ready to play. It looks like guys were standing in the neutral zone. They came with a lot of speed and no one could adjust to it. After that, it was fine, but when you start with a 2-0 deficit, it’s tough especially against a team that they’re good defensively and has a good goalie."
Expect the next practice to be a difficult one so they will be prepared for whatever pace opens Wednesday's game. Building on Lemaire's last sentence, the Devils ultimately dug themselves a hole they couldn't crawl out of. They tried to, but the awful first period out-weighed the better second and third periods. That's where they lost the game. Not Kovalchuk having a bad game or the power play doing poorly or whatever aspect people choose to focus on, but the team just coming out flatter than paper against a team who needed the win tonight.
What do you think the Devils need to do to break their scoring slump? What do you expect to see on Wednesday night when the Devils host the Islanders? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all who commented in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.