Alexei Ponikarovsky's play was like the Devils today. Very good in the first period, lackluster in the second, and not enough in the third. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils played what I would call a disappointing game in their 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the first time since January 21, the New Jersey Devils suffered two consecutive losses. This game was not like the 2-1 loss to Vancouver where the Devils did a lot of things right but just didn't score. No, this was a game where the Devils' performance after the first period left a lot to be desired.
The Devils played a solid first period. They came out strong, they moved the puck well, and they got a good amount of possession. The third line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Dainius Zubrus, and Steve Bernier were wrecking through Bolts in their own end, winning pucks and throwing bodies along the boards. Ponikarovsky was particularly impressive. His hustle kept pucks alive. His positioning on board battles was sound. His apex was stripping Ryan Malone of the puck, stretching across the slot to get Mathieu Garon to go down, and finished the play by putting it diagonally past the fallen goaltender. The Devils were up 1-0 on the scoreboard, 8-6 in shots, and the Lightning didn't look like a team that wanted to make a point to the NHL after a bad 8-1 loss to Tampa Bay. It was a good start.
New Jersey didn't pick up from that. No, they progressively got dumber as the game went on. They were able to get into Tampa Bay's end of the rink, but attacks were ruined with bad passes and bad decisions. Frustratingly, a lot of them were just the result of being too cute or looking for a perfect lane when a good one was present. Blind passes, turnaround passes, cross-ice passes, and so forth found themselves on Lightning sticks more often than not. The Devils had the opportunities to put pucks on net, but they spurned so many of them. That's why the Devils ended up with only 17 shots at even strength and 22 overall. That's why the penalty kill attacking in the second period was so praised by the crowd at the Rock; it was some of the few times they actually got to the net for much of that central frame.
That lack of offense undercut the team as Tampa Bay took the game back on the scoreboard. More accurately, one line took the game back. After starting them on separate lines, Guy Boucher put Steven Stamkos with Teddy Purcell and the star of the afternoon, Martin St. Louis. The adjustment was a massive hit as the Devils had no answer for St. Louis today. The 5'9" veteran winger finished off a 2-on-0 resulting from Cam Janssen and a bad line change. Minutes later, he banged home a loose puck from a goalmouth scramble for a power play goal and to take the lead. The Devils eventually responded in the third period when Petr Sykora beat Garon on his flank to make it 2-2. Less than a minute later, St. Louis struck again. He torched Adam Larsson, his pass got under Bryce Salvador's stomach, and it went right onto the tape of Matt Gilroy's stick for one of the easiest goals of his career. It put the Lightning back up 3-2 and sucked the life right out of the Rock. St. Louis dug the hole deeper when he re-directed a pass from Purcell (his third assist) right in front of Larsson and Martin Brodeur for his third goal of the day.
New Jersey would make it interesting late. The Devils power play came alive late in the third period and Zach Parise fired a laser to the top left corner to give the team life at 4-3. With the net empty, Mark Fayne was tripped up by St. Louis, giving the Devils a 6-on-4 man advantage. But the Lightning were able to kill this shortened power play as the Devils never really got set up. Marek Zidlicky iced the puck with 4 seconds left and that was the game. The Devils scrambled to come close, but the hole was just too deep to climb out of. In retrospect, the Devils needed more offense and earlier in the game to respond to Tampa Bay's goals. Instead, they made the game harder on themselves and ended up with only 4 shots at evens in the third, 4 on the power play after a dreary 6-shot second period. In my mind, it was too little, too late, and that kind of performance was disappointing. Especially considering how much better and smarter they were against a superior Vancouver team along with the fact that Tampa Bay was without Vincent Lecavalier and Victor Hedman among other players. The Devils could have done more, they should have done more, but they didn't and so it's a regulation loss at a time where every point is valuable.
I have more thoughts on today's game after the jump. Please check out Cassie McClellan's recap over at Raw Charge for an opposition's perspective.
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: Check out the highlights of today's game here:
More Third Period Limping: Eight shots in the third period, and only four were at even strength That's just unacceptable for a team that's losing. I cannot emphasize this enough. Four shots at even strength in a third period where the Devils were losing for most of it. I understand Sykora tied up the game, but that was quickly wiped out with Gilroy's goal. The Devils were down at least a score for most of the third and they only got four on Garon in 5-on-5 play. Good thing the refs called those three penalties (Stamkos' first minor was at the end of the second period), because it would have been real embarrassing if those power plays weren't there.
While the Devils ended up out-attempting the Lightning (+11 Corsi, only one Devil had a negative Corsi value), the attack simply wasn't enough. It's really hard to make a comeback with so few shots on net. Garon's not as bad as Dwayne Roloson (and Garon's the starter in TB, so spare me the "Devils always make backups look good" comments), but he's not Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils could have kept trying to put shots in low and get rebounds. Or just crash the net. Or even put the shot right at him, force a faceoff, and get a fresh line out there in a good spot on the ice - which they could have done to help them out at times, particularly in the second period.
What's jarring was who had the four shots at evens. Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk led the team in shooting attempts, with 9 and 11 respectively. None of Parise's five shots on net came at evens, though three of them were on the power play in the third period. Still, the captain brought nothing to the table at evens in the third. Ditto for Kovalchuk. He got nothing on net in the third period so he sat at four shots; maybe he had some attempts blocked in the third. The team's top players didn't register in 5-on-5 play in the third of a losing situation and it's hard to comeback when that happens.
Neither did much of anyone else. Petr Sykora did score, but that was his only shot in the whole period. David Clarkson had his only shot of the game in the third period. Yes, Clarkson only got one shot on net - the shot-machine decided to go for passes today, which didn't go so well because Clarkson's not a good passer (puck hogs are like that). Mark Fayne had one from distance that was easily stopped. Dainius Zubrus had the other. Over 15 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time and that's it from the Devils in a losing situation for most of it. That's unacceptable. They were so much better against a far better Vancouver team; I don't get why they couldn't look to that. It's not like Tampa Bay's 1-3-1 was slowing them down, the Devils forwards just made as little as possible from the opportunities they had.
The Shotless: Only nine Devils players got at least one shot on net. That's half of the active roster. There are some surprising names among the nine who didn't. Patrik Elias was shotless. Adam Henrique was shotless. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene got nothing on net. The lack of contributions from those players hurt. It's one thing for a defensive minded player like Bryce Salvador, a banger like Steve Bernier, or an absolute waste of a NHL roster spot like Cam Janssen to get nothing on net. But Elias, Henrique, and a majority of the defense getting nothing further hurt the offense today. In some ways, I'm surprised that the only Devil to get a negative Corsi value was Janssen at -2. I suppose the attempts were spread apart enough for others to be carried.
Adam Larsson's Return from Injury: Larsson did not have the best of games. He got torched by St. Louis for a goal. He got beaten in a race for an icing. He made some strange decisions with the puck. He finished at 0 in Corsi, the lowest among Devils defensemen this afternoon. It was not a good game for Larsson.
I will say that Peter DeBoer should realized that Larsson was struggling earlier. The most common forward he faced was St. Louis and that clearly wasn't a good match-up at all. Why didn't he switch him out with someone else earlier to get away from St. Louis (and Stamkos), I couldn't tell you. Still, if Larsson's going to play significant minutes, then he's going to see the other team's top players at times and he's got to do better. The good news is that we've seen enough of him this season to know that he can do better. Maybe he'll do better tomorrow.
Marek Zidlicky's Devil Debut: Zidlicky arrived at the end of the Devils' practice on Saturday, so I don't believe he really worked with his new teammates all that much. It showed somewhat. His passes were off, his decisions on when to pinch weren't really solid at times, his icing to end the game was a bizarre choice though ultimately meaningless (I doubt the Devils were really going to get an equalizer with less than 10 seconds) and he didn't add much on offense. This is forgivable since he did just join the team yesterday. Those sorts of things will improve a little over time.
I will say that DeBoer and the staff wisely put him against Tampa Bay's weaker competition. As a result, Zidlicky did quite alright in Corsi with a +5 for the afternoon. I will also say I like the holding call he put on Stamkos in the first period as it prevented a one-on-one for Stamkos. That's a call I'll take every time.
Special Teams: I felt the PK had a great day save for the one goal allowed. That goal, St. Louis' second, came from an unfavorable bounce near the end of a bad call on Kovalchuk by the refs. There's not much anyone can really do in that situation. Prior to that scramble, the Lightning only got one other shot on their power play. The Devils forwards continued to storm up the ice when they had the chance and force Garon to react. While they didn't get an official shot on net (really?), they definitely made the Bolts' PP sweat at times - which is what you really want from PK unit.
The Devils' power play took some time to get going, and they finally did late in the game. They needed to get something on their third power play and they did when Parise hammered a great shot from a distance he normally doesn't shoot, much less score, from. The power play made up for 50% of the team's offensive output in the third. The last one was frustrating as the first one as the Devils couldn't put much together; but at least the Devils converted one of their power plays.
Sympathy for Brodeur's Numbers: With 4 goals allowed on 16 shots, Martin Brodeur's numbers have taken a significant hit. While they don't look good, it's hard to point to any of them and wonder why he didn't stop it. He was hung out to dry on the first goal. Anytime a team gets a 2-on-0 with their best two players, it's just not going to end well for the goalie. It didn't. The second goal, as previously discussed, was St. Louis just being in the right place at the right time in a man-advantage situation. There's not much that anyone could have done there. The fourth goal, St. Louis' third of the afternoon, was a re-direction in the slot - also not much that could have been done on that goal.
I felt if any goal should have been stopped, then it would have been the third one. From where I sat, I thought Gilroy put in a puck that trickled through Brodeur. Upon looking at it on video, the play was entirely different. St. Louis rushed up ice past Larsson and attempted a cross-crease pass to Gilroy, who jumped up on the play. Salvador plays the pass instead of the man and nearly blocked it by diving down. Since St. Louis was coming down, Brodeur had to respect the puck carrier. Salvador's dive went right in front of Brodeur so there was no way the goaltender could have tried to block the pass - the defender would be in the way. Unfortunately,the pass got under Salvador and so there was a wide open Gilroy with a whole net to put the puck in. That's not soft, that's just not good defending. I get what Salvador was trying to do, but he needed to stay up and block out Gilroy. He didn't and so it was a GA.
All told, I can't really fault the goaltender for the four goals against. But I guess since his save percentage went down and it's not good and the number is more important than the events that cause them, it's all Brodeur's fault. Snark aside, I will say that I would have preferred Johan Hedberg to have received the start for this game. Not that he would have stopped those four goals, he most likely wouldn't. But it would keep Brodeur a little more fresh going into MSG tomorrow night. Tampa Bay didn't pound the net with shots, but it's still 60 minutes of work.
A Symbolic Player for the Game: Alexei Ponikarovsky was very good in the first period. So much so that if you didn't like him before this game, then the first period would convince you to like him. Yet, Ponikarovsky didn't do too much in terms of production in the second and third periods. Just like the team. (Aside: He ended up 0 in Corsi, though he was a +3 in Fenwick.)
Home Woes: What adds to the disappointment of this loss is that it came at home. As successful as February has been for the Devils, they have won only one of their five home games: the shootout win over Anaheim. For all of the hype of the Devils moving up in the standings (they started today in sixth place, but they're right behind the Pennsylvania teams for fourth and fifth places), their home record is rather uninspiring. What's the point of going for home ice if the record at the Rock is only average? Why it's been like this, I leave it to you.
Martin St. Louis Is Awesome: Game respects game, and so I have to respect St. Louis. While the Devils kept Stamkos relatively quiet with 2 shots on goal, they didn't have much of an answer when Tampa Bay's #26 pushed forward. St. Louis has been a fantastic player for the Lightning and has always been a problem to defend. He's strong, he's swift, he's got great vision, and he's got a great shot. Like many great players, age is just a number for him as he continues to lead Tampa Bay's offense. He had 4 shots, 3 goals, an assist, and possibly Adam Larsson's jockstrap. Game respects game and St. Louis has plenty of it.
That's my take on today's game, now I want to know yours. How do you feel about this loss? What do you think the Devils should have done differently today? What do you think they need to do differently for tomorrow's game? How do you think Larsson and Zidlicky played tonight? What's up with the third period? Will the Devils turn it around against Our Hated Rivals? I hope so. In the meantime, please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading. Talking Red will be up later tonight.