New Jersey Devils Started with a Bang, Ended with a Whimper in 3-1 Loss to Florida Panthers

The New Jersey Devils gave all of the Devils faithful a disappointing result this Saturday at the Rock. They lost 3-1 to the Florida Panthers. Given that the third goal was an empty net goal, it looks like a close score on the scoreboard. On the ice, it was a grinder of a game where the Devils tried to breakthrough but failed. As time went on, they just faded as a threat more and more.

That's a downer all by itself; but this defeat is more of a disappointment because the Devils looked like they were going to stomp all over the Panthers. The Devils scored early on in the game. Steve Bernier knocked a loose puck in between Scott Clemmensen's legs after that line won a dump-and-chase. The Devils proceeded to go up 10-1 in shots by the halfway mark of the third period. Each line was successfully getting through Florida's defense. Each defensive pairing was getting a stop. Even the fourth line wasn't abjectly terrible. The Devils were looking great early in the game.

Then, all of a sudden, Dainius Zubrus lazily hooked Brian Campbell in his own end of the rink. It only took 15 seconds on the power play for the Panthers to equalize: a deflection by Sean Bergenheim on an Erik Gudbranson shot beats Martin Brodeur through traffic. That made it 1-1, but more importantly, that seemingly made the Panthers much better in the run of play after the goal. The Panthers started to have more life in their skates for the period's final 4:52. They were able to get a few more shots on net. They were able to slow down the Devils' attack. The Devils ended the first with a healthy 12-7 lead in shots, but the Panthers at least showed they were going to make a game out of it.

And they certainly did from the beginning of the second period onward. While the Devils would go on to out-shoot the Panthers in each period and overall 28-20, the Panthers made sure the Devils would go several minutes without shots on net. Their defense hung back to help out on dump-ins. Their forwards backchecked well enough to help out their defense. The Florida skaters were careful with the puck on offense to avoid any odd-man rushes. The Panthers were difficult to breakdown and the Devils became more and more frustrated. Passes started missing their mark more. Skaters were forced to the perimeter and didn't get much on net. While the Devils would out-attempt the Panthers by quite a bit in this game with a Corsi of +14, they made sure their goaltender would have a decent look at most attempts. Keep in mind, the Panthers weren't exactly great going forward. It would take a defensive breakdown for anyone to break through.

That's precisely what happened to the Devils. Anton Volchenkov botch two attempted clearances to keep the Panthers' top line in the Devils end of the rink. Stephen Weiss attempted a shot, it gets partially blocked, and Kris Versteeg hammers home the loose puck to make it 2-1. Volchenkov should have gotten the puck out to begin with and the Devils skaters got caught at Florida's mercy. Bryce Salvador went to Weiss which left loads of space open; in retrospect, he should have let the shot go. Given that Ilya Kovalchuk was turning, Versteeg was able to get to where he did to score - there wasn't much Kovalchuk could legally do. Anytime the opponent's top scorer is wide open in the slot for a shot it goes poorly and so it went. It could have been avoided, it wasn't, and so it was 2-1.

It is with this in mind the disappointment really set in. So it's 2-1 Florida less than halfway through the second period; no big deal, right? Well, remember, the Devils kept struggling to get forward. By the third period, I kept wondering whether the Devils knew they were down a goal. I kept seeing Zach Parise fade away with the game with misfired pass afrer misfired pass. I kept seeing Ilya Kovalchuk trying to do too much and not getting much help. I kept seeing Patrik Elias get looks at the net but passed it off to the other team. The third line didn't win as many battles along the boards. The defensemen had some trouble keeping the puck in. DeBoer mixed up the lines in the game to get some things going, but it didn't yield all that much. Every little bounce or error in judgment stuck out more and more in one's eyes and it became more and more annoying as time ran down and hope for an equalizer dimmed. Yes, the Devils had more shooting attempts, but their threats were few and far between.

So it goes: the Devils started off the game with a bang, but ended with a whimper. That usually results in a loss and it did today. They weren't bad, they weren't out of the game or outplayed; but they were disappointing. After the jump, I have more thoughts on this game. Please check out Chris S Roberts' recap over at Litter Box Cats for an opposition's point of view.

The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts

The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights of today's game:

A Drop in Three Simple Numbers: 12, 9, 4. Those three numbers are the number of shots at even strength the Devils took in the first, second, and third period, respectively. Remember, the Devils were losing 2-1 from 7:08 of the second period onward. The Panthers really did clamp down on the game in the third period and the Devils just weren't sharp enough to get more rubber on Clemmensen. While it's usually great to see the Devils out-attempt the Panthers by 14 in 5-on-5 play, it's not that useful if most of that difference came before the Devils needed more offensive production.

Incidentally, the four shots came from Adam Henrique, David Clarkson, Patrik Elias, and Matt Taormina and they each had one shot a piece. It's difficult to make a comeback when you're getting only 4 shots on net in 15 or so minutes of 5-on-5 play.

Cerberus Had One Roar: Volchenkov's folly in his own end to keep the Weiss line going is more frustrating when you consider the Devils have otherwise did a good job against that line. Kris Versteeg only had two shots on net (which includes a goal) and an attempt blocked; Stephen Weiss only had one shot on net in the first period and that was it from him; and Tomas Fleischmann only had two shot attempts and both were blocked. Keeping an opposition's most dangerous forwards to a collective total of 3 shots on net is a very good sign. It also makes that error by Volchenkov stand out even more, especially since he and Bryce Salvador got matched against that line and otherwise did a good job. (Incidentally, the original forward line matched against them was the Dainius Zubrus line.)

H.B.O.: This is a game where Martin Brodeur's numbers are going to take a hit in spite of what happened to him. The record will show 2 goals allowed on 19 shots. The second one certainly isn't on him. Anytime the other team's top scorer, known for his excellent shot, is alone with the goaltender 10 feet from the net with the puck is a bad time to be a goaltender. The first one definitely wasn't either. Bergenheim just tipped Gudbranson's shot almost perfectly. There was nothing Brodeur or Mark Fayne could do about it. This was a game where some goal support was necessary and it hasn't happened since the Pittsburgh game. Come on Devils skaters, help a Brodeur out.

David Clarkson, Shot Machine: Today, several Devils forwards should have taken a page out of David Clarkson's playbook, especially as time ran down in the third period. That playbook has exactly one page and it reads: "Grip and rip a wrist shot at the net." Clarkson had 7 shots on net to lead the Devils in shooting. While none went in the net, at least the effort was there and it shows with his +9 Corsi. Of course, Clarkson clammed up later in the game too (1 SOG after 6 in the first 40), so maybe Clarkson should have followed his own playbook.

Third Pairing Praise: Truthfully, the best possession players for the Devils weren't Clarkson or Petr Sykora (+9 Corsi each) or Ilya Kovalchuk (+8 Corsi). No, they were Kurtis Foster (+10) and Matt Taormina (+11). Yes, both players were protected somewhat as their most common opposing forwards were Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias - not top six forwards for the Panthers. But they succeeded in their match-ups. The important thing is that they were kept together all game long, they didn't give Peter DeBoer a reason to split them up. Both were fine in their own end, and both players each had at least 4 attempts on net: Foster had 4 shots on goal out of 6 attempts, and Taormina had 1 out of 4. They both had good games and my only wish was that Foster beat Versteeg for an iced puck late in the game.

As a whole, I really can't fault the defense too much for only allowing 19 shots on net. The penalty kill just got beat on Florida's first power play, but they were solid on the other two opportunities in the game. Despite a major error from Volchenkov that led to Versteeg's goal, the Devils did as well as one could hope for in their own end of the rink. If only they were better in Florida's end of the rink.

Congratulations: Steve Bernier scored his first goal as a New Jersey Devil today. It wasn't the prettiest of goals, as he just knocked a short pass from Alexei Ponikarovsky in front of the net and in between Scott Clemmensen's legs. Still, it's his first. Bernier didn't do too much after the first period, but he can at least claim he currently has many goals as Scott Gomez this season.

Maybe Ilya Was On To Something: When a team is losing in a close game in a frustrating manner, you can't help but get a little more annoyed with a player's tendencies. For Kovalchuk, it's that he tries to do too much. He breaks out of his own end, impressively skates through the neutral zone, and then is forced to pass the puck off - which didn't lead to much today. It's not an uncommon sight when the Devils are down and/or Kovalchuk's not having a strong game. In this postgame post from Tom Gulitti, Kovalchuk had this to say about the team's performance:

"We’ve got to do a better job," Kovalchuk said. "One power play is unacceptable. We’ve got to work harder to create those chances to make them take penalties."

Given that the Devils power play has had it's fair share of struggles of this season, I'm not exactly confident in the answer to their issues on offense today was a lack of a power play. Then again, the Devils did do pretty well on their sole power play of the afternoon. They got 3 shots on net in 2 minutes, nearly matching their offensive output from the rest of the third period. Perhaps a few more power plays would have helped. Perhaps this at least partially explains why Kovalchuk tends to skate hard at opposing players - he's trying to draw a foul. It didn't work, but at least it's an effort. I would have liked to have seen more than just 3 shooting attempts from Kovalchuk, though he did help others get a few looks; but he was struggling just as much as getting attempts in the third like Parise.

Caring Doesn't Get Points in the Standings But...: I did sort of appreciate Kovalchuk angrily smashing his stick after Mikael Samuelsson's empty net goal. If nothing else, it showed me that the players were just as frustrated as the fans from this game.

Forward Mixing Led to No Spark: While the Devils were stomping through the Panthers in the first period, the second period showed that the Devils weren't going to be able to do the same again. DeBoer understandably made a change in lines: he moved Adam Henrique back to Parise and Kovalchuk; Patrik Elias centered Petr Sykora and Dainius Zubrus; and David Clarkson went back with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jacob Josefson. It didn't work, however, given the Devils only got 4 shots on net with this crew. Zubrus wasn't having a good game outside of his secondary assist and he didn't get better; Henrique didn't pick up where he left off against St. Louis and didn't get better with the top wingers; I noted Parise and Kovalchuk not getting anything on net at evens in the third period so they suffered; Clarkson became less effective as he was moved; and Ponikarovsky didn't get any looks on net all game regardless. Again: they were understandable moves by DeBoer, they just didn't work.

In retrospect, DeBoer should have attempted a tactical change rather than a lineup change.. The Devils were still out-shooting and out-attempting the Panthers; they could have done more with a shoot-first-not-pass-laterally policy late. The Panthers played conservatively to avoid getting caught in transition and forced the Devils to be pin-point with their puck movement. New Jersey couldn't, so Florida prevailed. Full credit goes Kevin Dineen for making those adjustments after the first period. They gave nothing easy for the Devils on defense (again, no odd man rushes that I can recall), they kept them honest with the lead, and they deserved their win. I don't know much about the actual animal, but the Florida Panthers have put up a good, tough fight against New Jersey all season long. Today was no different.

A Short Rest: This game marks the end of four games in seven days; seven games played in the past twelve days. They'll get the luxtury of two days off before their next game in Buffalo. Perhaps fatigue played some role in the Devils' performance. Not only did they play a lot, they played against divisional rivals along with some physical (Montreal) and fast ones (St. Louis) too. That could explain why they didn't seem as energetic in the second half of the game as they were in the first period. However, the Devils will need to get use to it. Three to four games a week is pretty much on the books for every week March.

That's my take on today's loss, now I want to know yours. What do you think held the Devils back today? What would you have done with the offense given their struggles later in the game? Who did you think did well for the Devils despite the loss? Who do you think was the worst on New Jersey? Can the Devils bounce back after two days off? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's loss in the comments. Thanks to everyone who read and commented in the Gamethread or followed my occasional tweets from @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.

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