Losing to a hated rival never feels good.
A lot of those who support the New Jersey Devils were looking forward to this game in the hopes that the Devils could knock out the New York Rangers. While the Devils aren't going to the postseason one way or another, keeping the Rangers out would be a nice consolation prize. As it turned out, today's game presented that exact opportunity that many fans hoped for. The stars aligned and the Devils fans were hungry from some schadenfreude. Understandable.
Unfortunately, it didn't happen. The Rangers needed this game to keep their playoff hopes alive and got it on the strength of a 3-goal second period. The Devils were the better team in the first period, led 2-1; but the Rangers made the most of the opportunities the Devils would allow. The third period game began 4-2 for the home team, they tacked one more on, and cruised to a win. Regardless of the standings situation, this was frustrating to witness. The lost lead is one thing, but how the Devils performed in their own end was another. They have no one to blame but themselves for the defeat. The only solace Devils fans can hold is that today's result will mean absolutely nothing to New Jersey after April 10.
I fear some fans will latch onto this loss as a sign of the team's ills. I don't think that's quite right. One game is rarely symbolic of an entire season. Again: this team had 9 wins as of Christmas 2010. The Devils were mathematically eliminated at the beginning of April and more practically eliminated earlier than that. Nevertheless, let's discuss where it all went wrong this afternoon at MSG. For the opposition side, please check out Blueshirt Banter.
One more thing: If you'd like to see the Rangers finish in ninth in the East, then you want to be big Carolina fans at 7 PM EDT. Please check out Canes Country and be fans there.
The Game Highlights: For those who want to see them, here's a video of the game's highlights at NHL.com.
The First Period Was Good, Real Good: What I'm sure will be lost on both fanbases was that the Devils played a very good first period. They scored an early goal. Travis Zajac found Ilya Kovalchuk in the slot, who fired a shot that apparently got deflected by Nick Palmieri right in front. The Rangers responded with an equalizer that was one part poor play (Martin Brodeur's clearance; Henrik Tallinder being behind Chris Drury) and one part unfortunate bounce (the puck bouncing off Jay Leach's leg right to Chris Drury). While the game then became physical, the Devils made far more shooting attempts than the Rangers. They finished the first with a whopping 21 attempts compared to the Rangers' 11. That's a Corsi of +10, which is fantastic. And they got the lead with a beautiful Ilya Kovalchuk goal. It was a first period that favored New Jersey in terms of possession and on the scoreboard.
Let's Watch that Kovalchuk Goal Again: This is a late entrant into the Devils Goal of the Season contest that doesn't really exist but perhaps should.
In a word: WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
In many more words: this was brilliant. Kovalchuk's first shot on the shift got deflected wide, but he kept it alive. Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela did well to keep the play alive while Kovalchuk circled back to the left side. A Ranger (Derek Stepan?) dropped his stick, opening the lane for Greene to make a pass to Kovalchuk. The pass itself wasn't great, as Kovalchuk couldn't unload a one-timer. But he collected it, fought through the check Vinny Prospal threw on him, and fired a laser over Henrik Lundqvist. Absolutely fantastic. What's more, it came in the final minute of the first period, so it shocked the opposition going into intermission.
Unfortunately, the Rangers responded and never looked back.
The Horrible, Terrible, No Good Second Period: In retrospect, the turning point of the game came at about 1:45 into the second period. Brian Rolston has the puck in the neutral zone and just goes off for a change. The problem here is that so did Mattias Tedenby, Patrik Elias, and Mark Fayne. The puck was not dumped into the Rangers' end. The Rangers had the puck. Michael Sauer blocked the attempt and got it cross-ice to Ruslan Fedotenko. One pass from Fedotenko up ice, and so poor Henrik Tallinder and Martin Brodeur got hung out on a two-on-one with Wojtek Wolski leading the way with Stepan. Tallinder dove to take away the pass, but his swining stick may have gotten a piece of Wolski's shot to beat Brodeur shortside.
Why, why, why, why, why, why would you go for a full line change in the period of the long change without dumping it in? Why did Elias, Tedenby, and Fayne follow Rolston's lead? Did they just assume that the puck would be dumped in? Terrible error and it cost then.
From then on, whatever momentum the Devils had dissipated and the Rangers knew it. Oh, sure, they fired some shots on Lundqvist. They settled down the game for a little bit.
Then came more chaos in New Jersey's end, starting off with another miscue. Henrik Tallinder ran out of room on offense and made a back pass to Brodeur, the Devils couldn't re-collect and start back up ice, and the Rangers went on the attack. Tallinder, Fayne, and a changing forward line (ultimately Kovalchuk, Elias, and Tedenby) were caught puck watching as the Rangers' Ainismov swarmed around the net. Marian Gaborik found defenseman Ryan McDonagh. He fired it through traffic to give the Rangers the lead.
As if that wasn't enough, the Rangers began to pull away about 5 minutes later. An Ilya Kovalchuk pass got intercepted by Stepan in the Rangers' end and they began to counter attack. Brandon Dubinsky was leading the charge, but Kovalchuk caught up to him. The Rangers did something interesting here, as Brandon Prust came on the ice for Fedotenko. Here's a picture I took from the highlight video to point out where Prust broke through.
The blue arrow signifies Prust's path from the bench and his direction. The left red circle is on Zajac; the right red circle is on Greene. You'll see Zajac came back but he stopped, so he can't do anything about Prust. Greene is watching the battle, and didn't see Prust coming off the bench in time. Eventually, Greene follows Prust, but in this moment, Prust has the lane to drive to the net. That's how he beat Greene so badly and when the puck from Dubinsky's shot just dropped in front, Prust was able to pound it in easily. I'm sure some will fault Martin Brodeur for leaving his five hole open or not altering the laws of physics to put that rebound elsewhere; but if someone picked up Prust faster, they could have boxed him out from any rebound.
The Devils and Rangers both got 12 shots on net, and the Devils were still leading in Corsi at +8. It's not like the Rangers were pinning the Devils back over and over in an effort to "want this one more." Three miscues by the skaters and it's three goals against. They each varied: horribly lazy line change on the first; just puck watching and chasing on the second; and porous coverage on the third. You ain't winning games that way. Just getting the fans angry over what they just saw.
The Surprisingly Non-aggressive Third Period: At 4-2, one would think it would still be a game. The Devils have shown in the games against Pittsburgh and Toronto that they're not going to take the game off. They played a good first period. One quick one and it's a game again. Surely, they'd be up for it. Yet, the Devils just weren't aggressive enough. They only put up 7 shots on net, got out-shot 10-7, and got beaten on another 2-on-1, where Vinny Prospal's one-timer from Artem Anisimov was as good as it was going to get. Brodeur had no chance on that one; and it only guaranteed that the Devils weren't going to come back from this one.
The Rangers did right in the third period. They didn't just sit back in a 1-2-2 and wait for the Devils to come. They put up multiple forecheckers on some shifts. They made a point of it to attack. They got an insurance goal. It ensured the Devils wouldn't comeback. Not that the Devils made a point of it to really try for the improbable. If they were, then they couldn't solve the Rangers' defense. If they weren't, then, well, it happened anyway Per this tweet from Tom Gulitti after the game, it may be the latter according to the Devils, which is a bit disappointing given the rivalry.
Ineffective Offense: I wouldn't say Brodeur had a good game today. It's weird to say that knowing how many times he's bailed out the Devils this season, but it was not a performance he'll be pleased with. Still, even if Brodeur got a stop on the Prust goal, his softest today (maybe the Drury goal as well if you want to be picky), the Devils still lose this game since New Jersey only scored two goals. Did they make a good enough effort on Henrik Lundqvist? The Devils did enjoy the better of possession throughout the game. They finished at +15. They heavily out-attempted the Rangers 57-42. Surely, that would suggest they were doing something right?
Not quite right. It's a misleading +15 when you look at the breakdown of shots. The Devils got 26 shots on net, scoring on two of them. They got blocked 14 times and missed the net 17 times. That's right, the Devils didn't get half of their shooting attempts on net (45.6% to be more precise). It's hard to challenge Henrik Lundqvist when the accuracy is that much off, scoring bias or no scoring bias. The Rangers, on the other hand, they got 29 shots on net with only 6 blocked and 7 misses. While they had fewer attempts, they made sure most of them got to Brodeur. So while the Devils out-attempted the Rangers by a good margin, this explains why the Rangers' offense looked like they were in more control. Because they were when it came to firing pucks on net.
As an aside, Vladimir Zharkov only missed the net once today and got 3 shots on net.
Looking at the individual Corsi makes for a strange breakdown. While the Zajac line didn't have a good game, Kovalchuk somehow out-negatived them at -11. I find this peculiar since it's not apparent who on the Rangers benefited from that, though. The head to head ice time chart saw him get plenty of face time with the Stepan and Anisimov lines; but neither of them did all that well (especially the Stepan line). Kovalchuk had a shot tipped in, scored a beauty, and that was pretty much it apparently. Though, for it to be that much worse than Zajac (-6, didn't have a good game), Palmieri (one tip and a bunch of misses, -5) is just confounding from what I saw.
Two other, more positive standouts that make me scratch my head was David Clarkson's (2 shots, 4 blocked, 1 miss) +14 Corsi and Brian Rolston's (1 shot, 4 blocked, 1 miss) +12 Corsi somehow outshining their linemates significantly. I didn't think either did all that well. I liked how Mattias Tedenby played, though he didn't accomplish a whole lot with only 2 shots on net and a +6 in Corsi.
Did You Miss White & Volchenkov?: I did. I'm sure so did Greene (25:59) and Tallinder (27:09). Leach (13:26) and Fraser (10:12) were limited once again. The biggest indictment of the defensive effort today was in how many blue jerseys were able to get into the slot and do things. That's also on the forwards too; but White and Volchenkov would have made a huge difference down low. Not to mention in terms of physical play.
No Power Plays Today: Believe it or not with all of the hitting and the rivalry, the refs called only one penalty on each team - a coincidental minor for Vladimir Zharkov and Dan Girardi. Thinking about it now, I can't really think of an egregious example of where there should have been one. Surely, I felt differently during the game, but in retrospect, I can't. I guess this means Don van Massenhoven and Francois St. Laurent didn't swallow their whistles, they just had nothing to call. Weird.
Dominated at the Dots: Since they didn't lead directly to any goals, you may have forgotten how the Devils did on faceoffs this afternoon. In a word: awful. The Devils went 19-for-49. David Steckel had an off-day at the dot by going 3-for-11. Zajac (6-for-15) and Jacob Josefson (3-for-8) also struggled. Elias was the lone Devil to get above 50% at 6-for-11. No offense to Elias, but when he's the best faceoff winner at 55% in a game, it's wasn't a good day.
That's my take on what I saw this afternoon. I really do wish the Devils didn't blow the second period the way they did and somehow made a comeback. At least a better effort of sorts. All the same, one game left for this season. Fan Appreciation Day against Boston. Preview should be up as usual tomorrow. Two reminders for this evening:
Go Wolverines Go: I don't think Michigan fans say that. Still. Devils' 2010 second round draft pick and freshman defenseman Jon Merrill and Michigan will take on the alma mater of Glenn "Chico" Resch, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, for the NCAA Men's Ice Hockey National Championship. This will be on ESPN and if you need a preview, then go read this one by the brilliant Brian Cook of MGoBlog. This is also at 7 PM EDT, so if you want to get away from the NHL or cheer on a Devils prospect, then follow this one.
Please feel free to add your two cents on what happened today in the comments. Thanks to all who commented in the Gamethread and thanks for reading.