The New Jersey Devils could have secured sixth in the Eastern Conference tonight with a win over the New York Islanders and if the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Ottawa Senators. Both happened: the Devils beat the Islanders 3-1 and the Hurricanes won 2-1. The Devils can finish no lower than sixth in the Eastern Conference and in all likelihood will face the Southeast Division winner - which is what most Devils fans want to see. Thanks go to the Canes for doing the Devils a solid.
There is still an outside possibility that the Devils can finish fifth in the East. That would require Philadelphia to lose their two remaining games and the Devils to win out. If Philly gets a point or the Devils drop at least one point, then they'll get fifth no matter what. Personally, I'm not concerned about that.
I am concerned, however, with how the Devils won tonight. The on-ice performance was lackluster. The offense had opportunities where they wasted with an ill-advised cross-ice pass or some other poor pass that missed it's mark. You could legitimately say they were too cute with the puck and ended up seeing it go in the other direction. They had their share of bad bounces, too, with long shots getting blocked down instead of being deflected on on net. Al Montoya looked to give up his share of rebounds which never became much of an issue since Devils just weren't in the right spaces to get to them. For a team that ripped non-playoff-bound Carolina and Tampa Bay to shreds with their attack, a 20-shot performance against the non-playoff-bound Isles was a poor surprise. A part of me wants to chalk it up to a bad night. As the game went on, I can't help but think the team just didn't have a lot of urgency in their game.
Contributing to that thought process was the Islanders' performance. They stopped really pushing in this game at some point during the third period. I can't pinpoint when but it has to be somewhere within the first 15:40 of the period where they didn't register a single shot on net. Mind you, they were only down 2-1 and they have nothing to lose. You'd think someone would forget about maintaining possession and just fling something towards Johan Hedberg at some point. Yet, it didn't happen. Not even after two somewhat-decent eight-shot periods. One could call this game a defensive struggle as both teams clamped down around their respective slots. But I think both teams really just straight up struggled with moving the puck and deciding what to do with it.
The Devils did get the result. Patrik Elias scored off a nice feed from Petr Sykora early on, Travis Zajac scored a sweet one-timer on a power play to open the second period, and Ilya Kovalchuk iced the game. The Isles got on the board when a puck blocked by Andy Greene bounced to an open Matt Moulson, who fired it low and through Hedberg. Those were your goals. In between, there was a lot of ugliness. The Devils didn't even finish the game unscathed. According to this post-game report by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Jacob Josefson fractured his wrist in the second period and he will miss the next four-to-six weeks. While I don't think it impacted tonight's game much, the loss of Josefson does hurt the team's depth at center and in their bottom six.
But that's an issue to be dealt with in the future. Regardless of what they choose to do to replace Josefson, the Devils will collectively have to be much sharper going forward as they play out their final two games of the season. The results don't matter now as they're highly likely to finish as the sixth seed. It's all about performances and the one witnessed at the Rock simply won't do against good teams. It wouldn't have even succeeded tonight if it wasn't for the Islanders putting up a similar effort. That in of itself is telling.
For an opposition's point of view, Dominik highlighted the Islanders' lethargy in the game in his recap at Lighthouse Hockey. I completely agree; lethargic is a good word to describe both teams tonight. For some more thoughts on this game as well as links to the stats and a highlight video, please continue on after the jump.
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 Highlight Video: There were some highlights in this game. NHL.com has video evidence of them:
I Missed Clarkson: Looking back, I feel David Clarkson would have had done a lot in this game. If he's got an open look on net, he'd fire it on net. He wouldn't get 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s and force a cross-ice pass that misses it's mark to kill the rush. He would attempt things like wraparounds or toe drags to get past a defender. He would play with some useful aggression, creating his own space. He would have loved Montoya's proclivity for rebounds. I'm not saying he's the keystone of the team's offense. But I would have liked to have seen Clarkson out there tonight. The good news is that Peter DeBoer expects him to skate on Wednesday according to this post by Tom Gulitti. It is a sign his injury may not be too serious.
Additionally, Clarkson's absence put Cam Janssen back in the lineup. Janssen did approximately nothing in terms of hockey plays. Not that the other Devils were doing a whole lot tonight; but it didn't help that Devils were effectively down to ten forwards when Josefson fractured his wrist.
Mighty Marek: Marek Zidlicky was a boss tonight on defense. He led all Devils in icetime with 26:08 played and 21:42 at even strength. He saw a mix of Isles lines but he came out ahead in Corsi at +1. Looking further at the Corsi charts, the Isles only got seven shots on net when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play. That's quite good for someone who played at least a third of the game. He did everything fairly well in his own end. The point wasn't as fruitful and the power play was mostly appalling. Nevertheless, the Zidlicky acquisition is proving itself to be a win for the Devils if only for playing and doing well with big minutes.
Clean: The Devils only had one penalty on the books tonight: a fighting major for Mr. Janssen. The Devils took no minor penalties tonight. That's always a positive no matter how the performance looked.
One Shining Moment: The Devils had four power plays tonight and they contained just one highlight: Travis Zajac's goal. That whole play was well-controlled, the puck was moved effectively down low, and Zach Parise saw Zajac in a perfect position in the slot. Zajac was in that one area where the Isles surrounded him but didn't actually cover him. One pass and it's in the back of the net. It was a great play, it turned out to be the game winning goal, and it was their sole power play conversion of the night.
It was also their only shot on net on the power play. The first and third full power plays were terrible as the Devils couldn't get set up. Symptomatic of how they were on offense in even strength situations tonight, the Devils attempted cross-ice or cross-point passes only to have them fail. Ilya Kovalchuk failed; Patrik Elias failed; Zidlicky failed; Parise failed; and so forth. Worse: the Devils nearly gave up a shorthanded goal in the dying seconds of the third power play. Thankfully, Hedberg held onto the puck strong so Michael Grabner couldn't jam it in. As great and important Zajac's goal was, I can't say the Devils did well on the power play. Just the opposite, in fact, save for one shining moment.
I Guess He Starred: Zajac went on to have a good game. He led the Devils in shots on net with four and attempts on net with five. He won 50% of his faceoffs, the best among the regular centers on the team tonight (technically tied with Adam Henrique). He centered the best line for the Devils tonight in terms of Corsi (Zajac and Kovalchuk at +2, Parise at +3). He played over twenty minutes tonight for the first time since his return from injury. He even scored a goal. I'd say he's getting back into his regular self on the team. Given how punchless the offense was tonight with a mere 20 shots on net, Zajac's night really stood out as a bright spot among forwards.
A Question: I normally leave these for the end of the recap, but I want to ask it here instead. I can buy that Kovalchuk didn't have one of his better games at moving and controlling the puck. So what's the excuse for the other lines struggling as they did?
A quick summary of said struggles: Elias scored early in the game and then just faded on offense. Dainius Zubrus was a non-factor as his big moment was missing Sykora on a 2-on-1 pass. Sykora did nothing but get blocked twice and fed Elias the puck for his goal. Henrique and Alexei Ponikarovsky brought nothing to the table outside of a few shots in the second period. Steve Bernier, filling in for Clarkson, at least spread out his two shots on net across the first and second periods. Your lone fourth-line shot came from Ryan Carter.
I understand that the unit of Zajac, Parise, and Kovalchuk is important for the team's offense. Kovalchuk is one of the top scorers in the league, Parise is an excellent talent, and Zajac's no slouch either. However, they are not the entire team. Regardless of whether they led the team in even strength shots - and they did with a collective seven - the other lines have to press the issue if they're not succeeding with shots. They didn't tonight and it went a long way towards why this game was a chore.
Guess What These Five Islanders Have in Common: The Isles: Michael Haley, Marty Reasoner, Nino Neiderreiter, P.A. Parenteau, and John Tavares. If you guessed they had no shots on net, then give yourself a no prize.
The first three aren't much of a surprise. Haley is their Janssen, Reasoner is a veteran defensive forward, and Neiderreiter is still a developing rookie. The other two are a big surprise. Parenteau has been a playmaker of sorts, but one would think he would have tried to take a few more attempts than just getting blocked once. The last name is a bigger deal. One of the top scorers in the league, John Tavares was held shotless tonight. He made one attempt and it missed Hedberg. The Devils sure looked silly leaving Moulson uncovered for his goal. And the fact they struggled to pick up flanking and trailing Islanders open in the first period saw them play with some fire. Yet, the defense has to feel good about stopping the John Tavares from registering a shot on net.
Overall, there can be no complaints about a defense that held the Islanders to twenty shots on net. Matt Moulson sure gave the Devils problems with four, including a goal, but they did keep the other two dangerous Islanders from doing much of anything. And the rest of the Islanders weren't consistently threatening outside of maybe Grabner (three shots, got stickchecked away on a breakaway by Mark Fayne).
Thanks Moose: Johan Hedberg got the start tonight and it may be his last for this season. The Moose didn't have a lot to do, especially for most of the third period. That he didn't lose his focus or get himself down after Moulson's goal speaks of his skills. Hedberg has proven to be an ideal back-up goaltender in New Jersey. He's someone who can come in after not playing for weeks and put in a good performance in net. Tonight was weird in that he didn't face a lot of shots and there were gaps in time between shooting attempts. Moose was unflappable as usual. If this game turns out to be his final home start as a Devil, then I want to say thanks for what he has done for the Devils. Thanks, Moose.
Josefson's Injured, Now What: Josefson's fractured wrist is definitely bad news. Josefson was playing rather well over the past few games and he gave the Devils strength down the middle. However, the Devils can't undo the injury. They can only go forward with a replacement plan.
I think the Devils have two real options in the wake of Josefson's injury. The first is that they do nothing to the forwards and go with seven defensemen. Peter Harrold has been quite fine as a third pairing defenseman. Adam Larsson has sat out the last few games and I'm sure he's itching to get back on the ice. The Devils have the lineup space to do that now. The second is that they slide Carter to center (easily done) and call up a winger from Albany, preferably named Vladimir Zharkov, to ensure an actual fourth line of NHL players.
While the Devils can get by with goons in their next two games, when the playoffs begin, I don't want to see Janssen or Eric Boulton on the ice. I also don't want to see "energy" guys like Brad Mills or Tim Sestito either. Zharkov may not provide a lot, but at least he's decent with the puck and can keep up with the play. Maybe it's time to see if Mattias Tedenby has learned from his time in Albany. The position only calls for five to ten minutes, so the role itself isn't big. It just needs to be filled with someone who can be competent and not hurt the team.
One Final Thought: Yawn. At least they won.
That's my take on tonight's game. Now I want to know what you think. How big is the loss Why do you think the Devils struggled as they did? Why do you think the Islanders also struggled or at least didn't take advantage of the Devils? Who on the Devils stood out to you the most, either in a positive or negative way? What do the Devils need to do to avoid being lackadaisical in their final two games now that their spot in the playoffs is ensured? Was this Moose's last home start as a Devil? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's 3-1 win in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented and read through the Gamethread as well as those who followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.