Tonight was the return of hockey back at the Prudential Center as the New Jersey Devils hosted the New York Rangers. I had to keep telling myself that this is just a preseason game. Emotions ran high, the action got intense as time went on, the atmosphere from the crowd was noticeable, and I got caught up in it all. As great as it was to be a fan and watching the Devils play hockey, how it played out was a disappointment.
Sure, part of that is the result. Who can say they're happy with a loss to the Rangers of all teams? While I know full well this game really means nothing, I still can't say I liked it. However, the source of my feelings really has to do with how the team played. The team was not nearly as sharp as they were on Wednesday night. There were many turnovers in all three zones; the team was too passive on offense to start the game (so many passed up shooting opportunities); bad decisions in terms of positioning and passing were noticeable and seemingly common early on; and the defense had some frightening moments. I didn't expect the Devils to play as they did on Wednesday with a different roster going up against a different Rangers team. I also didn't expect the Devils to go to the other extreme and be so sloppy.
That said, there were some positives in this game. The main one is that the Devils didn't settle for defeat when they were down 3-1 in the second period and were out-shot by a 3:1 margin at one point. No, they clawed their way back into the game and ultimately tied it on the last second of a 5-on-3 power play (woo!). They kept up the attack, reduced the shots on net rift between the two teams, played much tighter on defense, and came ever so close to completing the comeback and breaking through with a win. Alas, an open long shot found it's way in late to put the Rangers up and disallowed goal aside, the Devils couldn't match that.
One can argue that that game was of two halves: a very poor first half where the Devils were rolled by the Rangers; followed by a more heartening and effort-filled second half where they made a game of it but were spoiled late. Another could argue that the while the game wasn't so one-sided later on, the Devils were still out of sync when it came to puck movement and control and it undercut their attempt at a big come-from-behind win. Both can agree, this was the best possible kind of preseason game: one where it didn't seem like just a preseason game. I certainly didn't feel that way at the Rock.
Please continue on after the jump for further thoughts on tonight's game, plus an embedded highlight video of tonight's game from NHL.com. If you want to see what the other side is saying, please check out Bryan Winter's recap at Blueshirt Banter.
The Highlights: For some reason, preseason stats aren't available at NHL.com. So you'll just have to make do with general "what I saw" thoughts on the game. However, there is this highlight video.
The Best Devil Was...: Ilya Kovalchuk was clearly the best Devil in tonight's game. He was very productive as he set up goals for Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson; and he fired a laser past Martin Biron on the 5-on-3 power play which then tied the game at 3 in the second period. I cannot emphasize enough how powerful that shot was, nor how I love it when he gets that shot off. It wasn't just his points that made him stand out. Kovalchuk was forechecking, he was hustling through the neutral zone, and he was one of the few Devils whose passes didn't go astray or awry in every other attempt. #17 wasn't so hot on Wednesday; but tonight's performance was far, far better.
About that Larsson Kid: Adam Larsson was fantastic on Wednesday. Tonight, he wasn't so fantastic - at least in the first half of this game. He was unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time as Brad Richards knocked a puck off of him to beat Martin Brodeur early in the first period. Larsson wasn't in the right place at the right time on several shifts early on, as he looked out of his place. He wasn't confident, he wasn't poised, and he wasn't making much of a difference. He had to be moved into a pairing with Matt Taormina and take different match-ups away from Bryce Salvador. Larsson even took a dumb penalty on a power play - which didn't burn New Jersey as Josefson scored on the ensuring 4-on-4 situation.
Yet, Larsson did showcase his passing skills on offense very well. He was solid at the point on New Jersey's power plays, the one that carried over into the third period notwithstanding. His dishes to Kovalchuk for the team's third goal as well as the disallowed goal late in the game were just about perfect. Peter DeBoer showed a lot of faith in the youngster as he was manning the point late in an empty-net 5-on-5 situation. Larsson was in control there, ensuring the puck would stay in and make the correct reads to keep the desperate attack alive.
Basically, Larsson got better as the game went on. Which is not unlike the team as a whole. The inconsistency shouldn't be that much of a surprise since he is only 18. He's feeling the stress of playing at such a high level of competition, as Gulitti reported after the game. That said, it's also evidence that I wouldn't start counting on him to make a difference right away. I leave it to you to decide whether his pluses were bigger than his minuses, as I'm in the middle.
The Return of Bryce Salvador: DeBoer's post game comments were complimentary. I will say that I didn't notice the defensive defenseman too much; which is a compliment in of itself. It wasn't all good, though. I felt Bryce Salvador's retaliatory penalty (the interference call) was kind of dumb; and I would have liked to have seen him do more. I liked him better than Andy Greene tonight, at least.
I, A Stiff Wind, Will Knock You Down, Goaltender!: Nick Palmieri didn't do too much tonight. That's not good for him. Even worse, his most notable moment came late in the game. As the Devils were scrambling for an equalizer down 4-3 late in the game, Palmieri kept it simple and went to the net. Fine. Well, Michael Sauer draped over him and Palmieri ended up right next to goaltender Chad Johnson. Johnson apparently felt contacted and went down like he got shot. As that happened, Larsson's pass was re-directed into the far side of the net by Kovalchuk. The refs ruled it "no goal" and tagged Palmieri for interference, a mark on the game's record.
From where I sat, if there was any contact on Johnson, it was minimal. Moreover, it could have easily been the result of Sauer's momentum knocking Palmieri into his own goaltender. I think Johnson embellished (read: dove) on the play. The goal certainly should have been reviewed as well. While I think Palmieri and the Devils got a raw deal, I can't say Palmieri did much else tonight that warrants further notice or praise.
Did Anyone Play Themselves Off the Team?: I don't think so. The most invisible players were Palmieri, Greene, and Mark Fayne - all three of whom are probably on the team anyway. David Steckel had some bad times, but it didn't burn the team too badly - and again, he's likely on the team anyhow. Tim Sestito proved to me he's not a NHL player, but that's not really anything new to me.
Beef, It's What Was for the Third Period: With the game tied, both teams got chippy and the big hits went flying. The refs let much of this go, with the exception of Brad Mills. Mills took it too far and so earned himself two minor penalties in the third period. The first was dumb, a hit away from the play after an offensive zone faceoff. The second was a little less dumb, as he hit a guy without the puck in an exchange where, well, lots of hits were thrown by both sides. Mills kept his composure later, but it was a clear example that the rivalry exists in the preseason. DeBoer couldn't have been too mad at him as he got ice time very late in the game.
About the Goalies: Martin Brodeur played in his first game and it could have gone better. He did bail out the Devils early on, making a massive save four minutes into the game. He also got shelled early on, facing 18 shots in 26 minutes. Yet, he didn't look good on Derek Stepan's goal; he probably should have stopped that one. I'm not sure about the fourth goal. It was a long shot by Brendan Bell that got past his left pad and into the net; but I swore it had to be tipped by someone. In Gulitti's live blog of the game, he thought Brad Richards was the tipper. When I saw the video of it, it appeared so to me. If he didn't and there was no tip, then that was a heinous goal. Nevertheless, Brodeur could have used a better team in front of him in the first half of the game, at least. He got hung out to dry on Marian Gaborik's power play goal.
Martin Biron can't claim much superiority. He made the first move with Adam Henrique coming at him, so the young center made him pay for that. While Jacob Josefson's shot was impressive on it's own, I'm sure Biron would have loved another crack at that. At least on the Kovalchuk goal he can take solace in the fact that very few, if anybody, could have stopped that shot. He can also be glad that his team played much tighter in the slot than the Devils did in theirs. There were several instances where a Rangers defender or backchecking forward made a stickcheck or boxed out a player for a rebound to cut down on Biron's work. It worked well until the Rangers took a couple of bad penalties in a row in the second period. Chad Johnson was fine, probably should have been tested a little more in retrospect.
Both Biron and Brodeur will be fine in the future, it was their first games in preseason after all. I'm just noting that they weren't great, that's all.
Did I See That?: On Gaborik's power play goal, the Devils appeared to be set up in a diamond on the penalty kill. I hope that wasn't by design because I hate the diamond. I hate it even more when three Devils are watching Gaborik put in a rebound in the slot. I'd like to think DeBoer and the coaches made a change since the Devils went to a more traditional and less risky box formation on later kills.
Sykora Played At Wing and the Response Was "Eh:" Like Mattias Tedenby, I felt Petr Sykora had some good moments at right wing but overall, his performance wasn't all that impressive. Having an assist is nice and continuing to get power play time speaks well of how the Devils see him. Do I think he's any closer to making the team? Not really, based on tonight's performance.
Quick Tactical Note: I've noticed that defensemen were pinching in on offense and outright jumping up on the play when it seemed sensible to do so. This is not unlike how they did under Jacques Lemaire, which I think is a good thing for DeBoer to do. There's still other facets of the game that need to be worked out, but that's what preseason is for.
Anything Quick About the Opposition: I think Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik are going to be difficult to play against when they're on the same line. The Wojtek Wolski-Richards-Gaborik unit was the Rangers' best line by far tonight. I don't know if Wolski is really the right left winger for them; but he didn't hinder Richards or Gaborik. Either way, I'm not looking forward to that duo for 6 games.
Lastly, Prior to the Game: The jumbotron (or RockVision) showed a short tribute video of those NHL players who have perished in this past summer. It was well-received and not overdone. Fans throughout the Rock politely and appropriately applauded. The applause was notably louder for former Devils and Rangers; and it's peak for Alexander Vasyunov, the former Devils prospect. There was unity before the game began and fan loyalties took over - as it should in a game between two rivals.
Those are my thoughts about the game. How do you feel about the Devils performance? What do you want them to do better next time? Who do you think was particularly good or bad tonight? Who, if anyone, improved their chances of making the team after tonight? Do you agree or disagree with my assessments? Is Chad Johnson really a diver? Did you have to keep telling yourself "this is only a preseason game" as you watched this? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and thank you for reading. Tomorrow, the Devils go to Long Island to play the Islanders.