This game sure was a stinker.
The New Jersey Devils, coming off a 4-2 win against Philadelphia the night before, hosted the Montreal Canadiens tonight and almost immediately fell flat on their face. I do not mean this literally, of course. The Devils just struggled all night long when it came to the simple, oft-taken-for-granted part of the game known as puck movement. I couldn't begin to count how many times the first pass out of the defensive zone got picked off or missed their target. I could not precisely tell you how many times the Devils blew passes on offense which led to Montreal taking control yet again. The Devils lost to Montreal 3-1 and it's surprising that they A) got a goal and B) they didn't get blown out.
Some of this was just bad luck. A bouncing puck here, a carom off the boards there, a late lunge by a Canadien player at some times, or a handcuffing pass at others. It happens. Some of it was just poor decision making, guys not looking up or even showing signs of even communicating with each other. Just blind passes and slinging pucks up ice that just scream "Eh, whatever." Some of it was just poor execution, just botches by the Devil with the puck. The issue plagued the entire team, up and down the lines.
This is not an issue that a mythical "puck moving defenseman" can solve. This is a basic part of the game. These guys have played with each other all season long, Zach Parise excepted. They should know how to make passes going forward. They did it most recently on Friday night. They did not and so the Devils only put up 21 shots on net out of 28 attempted shots. In my view, that was the root cause as to why the Devils lost in such a bad way tonight.
Since the Devils had problems with it all night long, Montreal took full advantage. The Devils shot themselves in the foot going forward so many times that the Canadiens were able to out-shoot the Devils for most of the game. Carey Price didn't have to worry too much tonight as the Devils helped Montreal keep pouring on pressure at times. Don't misunderstand, Montreal played a good game from my vantage point. The Devils gave them plenty of assistance thanks to that poor puck movement and helped them look great. That simply stinks regardless of opponent.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Montreal-based take on tonight's game, Kevin van Steendelaar has this recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize that you should read.
Martin Brodeur Was the Best Devil on The Ice, It's Not Even a Question: Watch the above video if you're not sure. He had definitely no chance on the power play goal by P.K. Subban as he was screened; and he had no chance on the two deflections by Mathieu Darche off rushes led by Brian Gionta. Even if you want to argue that he did, Brodeur more than made up for it by making some ridiculous saves on Montreal in the first two periods. Given their problems passing the puck forward, Montreal should have blown the Devils out of their own building. Yet, the biggest positive after the first and second periods was that the Devils were only down 1-0 and they only lost 3-1. Brodeur was the reason why it was so close.
The Return of Zach Parise: Personally, I set a low bar for Parise in my mind. I just wanted him to get out there, show that the knee's fine, and not do too badly. Well, he played more than I expected and decently enough. Parise played 21 shifts for 16:05, got two shots on net, drew the Devils' lone power play (a hooking call on Lars Eller), and sprung Mattias Tedenby for a breakaway that led to a penalty shot. Not bad, considering the rest of the skaters tonight. More importantly, as reported here by Tom Gulitti after the game, Parise says the knee wasn't a problem. Good.
Lines, Let's Talk About Them: The start of the game saw the top two lines the same, Parise play with Jacob Josefon and Mattias Tedenby, and a fourth line of David Steckel, Adam Mair, and David Clarkson. By the end of the first period, I noticed that Lemaire decided changed them up. This got Zach Parise up with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk, his most common linemates at evens. This left Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby with Nick Palmieri - though I did see Kovalchuk get doubled with the rookies for a handful of shifts. As far as defense goes, Anton Volchenkov was a late scratch so Mark Fraser and Jay Leach played. They got limited minutes, leading to Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder playing big minutes across different partners. Something that the Devils did in the last two games anyway. Ultimately, it didn't lead to much. The aforementioned passing problem affected everyone regardless of combination or defensive pairing. Spare me any comments about chemistry or how Parise didn't play with Zajac and Palmieri; the puck movement was unacceptable across the board.
The results of said unacceptable puck movement: The most shots any Devil got was 2 and the most attempts by any Devil was 3 - all by defensemen (Henrik Tallinder, Mark Fayne, and Mark Fraser). The team was losing for most of the game and still finished negative in Corsi at -2 with a whopping 28 attempts on net. Yes, they were losing and managed to be pinned back more often than not. That's what happens when you struggle to go forward. Unless they are great shots, the goalie's going to have an easy time in stopping them, and you're not going to win hockey games.
To put that into perspective to further indict the Devils, Mike Cammalleri had 7 shots on net all by himself. It's only because of Brodeur he didn't score a few. P.K. Subban put up 4 from the point (scored on one), while Tomas Plekanec put 4 on net from closer distance, and Darche got three shots on net - though two were goals. Those four Habs not only out-shot any Devil by themselves, but those four combined for only three less shots than the entire Devils.
Yes, the lines didn't work but not because of Lemaire's changes. The Devils skaters just stunk moving the puck right from the start. It's why I believe the Devils still lose this game even if Tedenby scored on his penalty shot instead of hitting the post early on. The Devils put in a stupid effort and paid for it.
A Quote Without Comment: Tom Gulitti reported the following from Jacques Lemaire's press conference at Fire & Ice.
Lemaire said the idea that the Devils were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs never occurred to him, which also played into why he didn’t pull Brodeur.
"You know what? It didn’t even cross my mind," Lemaire said. "Ask me why? Because I was bothered by this game so much. I was bothered so much by how we played it never crossed my mind. How bad we were with the little round thing they call a puck. My Lord we were bad."
Lemaire said the only player that he could think of who played well tonight was Brodeur, who kept the Devils in the game for two periods and finished with 26 saves.
"I’m trying to find a guy besides Marty that played well. I can’t," Lemaire said. "It’s got to be (Adam) Mair. Mair (and) (David) Steckel. He played his game."
It Must Be Commented On - Did Mair and Steckel Really Play Their Games?: I guess so. Adam Mair got 2 shots on net and finished a +1 in Corsi. David Steckel was a +4 in Corsi and went 8-for-9 on draws. Don't take this as effusive praise. They weren't great. Just OK. Given their role and talents, sure. Why not.
Who Stuck Out as Guys Who Didn't?: Ilya Kovalchuk scored a goal but other than that, he was off his game. Canadiens picked on him as he finished a -6 in Corsi. Travis Zajac was only good at the faceoff dot., where he went 8 for 11. He somehow managed to miss the net on a 2-on-1 from about 20 feet out in the second period. After his hat trick heroics last nightPatrik Elias was out of sync with guys he regularly played with. Brian Rolston looked gassed from the start of the game. Tedenby was unlucky to not score on his penalty shot, finished a -6 in Corsi, and threw three hits. Josefson was like Zajac except way worse at faceoffs by going 3 for 8. Henrik Tallinder finished +4 in Corsi but he had his first substandard game in a while if only for the number of blown passes he made. Ditto for Andy Greene, though he was a -7 and was on ice for both Darche goals. I could go on. I really don't want to, so I won't.
That Thing For Two Minutes with a Man Advantage: I don't want to talk about the one the Devils had. There's not much to talk about. All you need to know is that there was one shot taken and it was by Montreal on a shorthanded breakaway.
As for the PK, they killed Montreal's first one excellently with no shots on goal; but they got beat on the second with 5 shots and Subban's goal. Jay Leach deserves some blame for Subban's goal for clearing a puck over the glass, which got them that power play in the first place.
Montreal Fans Certainly Know How to Chant: Flyer and Ranger fans love to brag about how well they represent themselves at Devils home games. They are nothing compared to Montreal fans. Nothing. Thousands of Canadien fans showed up for this one for some reason and they made their presence heard. They didn't make up a majority, but even a fraction of an arena can overpower the rest by cheering loudly and often. One can expect that from visiting fans. Why travel such a distance and pay so much money to make the trip only to sit on your hands? Especially when the team you support looks fantastic on the ice in a decisive 3-1 win?
"Go Habs Go" seemingly were done in unison every 30-60 seconds. They were a little confused in their enthusiasm though. The first example was that they did a "P-K" chant for Subban in the third period. Not when he scored. Not when his goal was announced. Not when he did something brilliant on defense. But after he curled around in his own zone with the puck four times before skating past Adam Mair on a forecheck. Yeah, Mair. Subban had a good game, certainly. It was weird that was when the traveling fans gave him his due. The second example was Montreal fans doing the "na na na na hey hey good bye" chant at the end. They do know they're the visitors, right? I don't think they're clever enough to refer to the Devils' being eliminated from the playoffs since 90% of what they chanted was "Go Habs Go." Whatever, credit the visiting fans for supplying a lot of atmosphere. They had a lot to cheer for as opposed to the Devils faithful at the Rock.
A Note About Montreal's Captain: While he only got one shot on net and missed once, good things kept happening on the ice for Montreal when Brian Gionta was out there. Exhibit A would be his +7 in Corsi, the most among anyone in the game. Exhibit B would be the two assists he had. Darche deflected his shots in but Gionta made the whole attack happen with his streaking up ice. He was one of the many Canadien skaters who looked great tonight.
Curiously: While the Devils were able to blow breakout passes with no pressure tonight, the Canadiens decided to throw up a few forecheckers in the first two periods. Sometimes one, sometimes two Habs rushing at the defense. This, in conjunction with their attack overall, seemed effective. Yet, after Darche's goal, Montreal stopped attacking as much and really clamped down in their own end after Kovalchuk's goal. They only got four shots on net after Darche's second goal. I think that's not a good strategy, but it certainly worked well enough tonight. The Devils only got one shot on net after Kovalchuk's goal, a long shot from Tallinder that Price stopped easily.
The Devils Are Now Mathematically Eliminated from the Playoffs: It's official with the 3-1 loss to Montreal. Per this post-game post by Gulitti, the players aren't happy about it - and that's understandable.
Did they go out with a whimper? They did stink it up tonight, so I guess that would be a reasonable thing to say. Then again, this team had 9 wins at Christmas. The writing was on the wall for a while; it's a feat that they weren't officially knocked out earlier. I'd like to think that most fans were prepared for this and have accepted it. If not after the John MacLean-coached section of the season, then definitely after the last road trip.
So it is. What's left? Well, the Devils have four games left this season and then a long offseason of discussion and speculation. What should we hope for in those games? A better effort than tonight's game, at least. They're in back-to-back sets, so I would hope fatigue isn't going to be an issue on the second half of either; especially since they are both home games.
In any case, what did you think of tonight's game? Please leave your thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to those who have commented in the Gamethread and thanks you for reading.