There is plenty of reason to be disappointed in Game 1's OT loss, as the Devils were in this photo. However, it came after a terrible performance - possibly their worst of the 2012 playoffs (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils lost 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings. Normally, that kind of result isn't so bad. It suggests that the game was close. It suggests that the teams were even. It suggests that it took one positive play beyond regulation to end it.
Judging a game by it's score can be misleading, and Game 1 is a great example. While the score was close and it became a one-shot game, the performance by the Devils was terrible. I explained the game in much more detail in my recap, but I'll summarize the low points anyway. They struggled mightily to move the puck through the neutral zone. The passing was abysmal if not unfortunate; pucks either bounced off sticks or pucks were fired away from their teammates. Shots? What shots? The Devils put up 15 in regulation - including a whopping 3 in the second period - and got to 17 in overtime. Yes, 15. On a team with Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, and others, that was their offensive output. Chances at wide open nets were squandered and their lone goal of the evening never would have happened if Slava Voynov's shoulder wasn't where it was to re-direct Anton Volchenkov's otherwise high and wide shot into the net. While the Kings had their own troubles, they were the superior team in possession and in controlling the game. We can agree to disagree as to whether they were good; but they were obviously better than New Jersey. Had the Devils scored a second goal, it would have been a stolen game.
As I thought about Game 1, I knew it was a bad game for New Jersey. However, I wondered whether it was the worst game the Devils have played so far? Over a playoff run, it's not really a surprise for a team to have a clunker or two. But was it their nadir? Did they hit rock bottom on Wednesday? After looking back at the other six losses the Devils had in their current postseason, I think they did. And I think that may be a good thing.The results are what they are; but I'm more interested in whether Game 1 against Los Angeles was the team's worst game. Clearly, only a loss can really compare to a loss. While the Rangers had the better run of play in Game 5 and Game 6, I can't honestly say they were worse if only because the Devils found a way to win those games. But beyond that, performances matter more to this question. For example, I can't say Game 3 against New York would count. While the Devils lost 3-0, they did a lot right except, well, score.
Since I brought up the New York series, let's start there. I thought the one truly bad loss came in Game 1 of that series. The talk heading into the Eastern Conference Finals focused quite a bit about the Rangers' conservative defense and proclivity to block shots. The Devils went out there at MSG and proceeded to prove that talk correctly. The Devils got 14 shots on net at even strength and were blocked on 21 other attempts. In all situations, they got 21 shots on net and were blocked 26 times. Henrik Lundqvist had no trouble stopping most of those shots. The Rangers put up more shots in total, but they really only turned it up in the third period to win the game with two goals plus an empty netter. The Rangers won the third period easily, and all game they blocked out the Devils' offense to shut them down with little adjustment by the players or coaches.
In retrospect, that offensive performance would have been an upgrade over what we saw in Game 1 against LA. The blocks juiced Corsi in Game 1 against NY to +7 for the Devils and Fenwick was only -4. That's actually better than the -9 Fenwick and the -16 Corsi put up against LA. The Kings didn't have to win just one period, they were superior in more than one. While one could argue the Devils performed better in the third period, the Kings still attacked more and controlled more of the play. Therefore, while bad and against a hated rival, it wasn't worse than what happened against the Kings.
Anytime the Devils have earned a 3-0 lead or there's talk about a lead, Game 3 against Florida tended to come up as if it's a warning. In that game, the Devils did go up 3-0 early and got Jose Theodore pulled. The Panthers responded three unanswered goals that got Martin Brodeur pulled; and then made it four unanswered goals with one against Johan Hedberg. The Devils saw a fourth goal taken away by a dubious incidental contact call; but the Devils never really pushed for an equalizer late. It was certainly a poor effort and I wasn't happy about it.
That said, I can't say that it was worse than Game 1 against LA. Coughing up a three goal lead may feel worse, and it's infuriating that the Devils took avoidable penalties that made Florida's comeback possible. But the Devils did manage to get three goals and ended the game at 25 shots on net, a Corsi of +5 and a Fenwick of -3. All figures that would have been highly welcomed in comparison to what the Devils brought in Game 1. Yes, I wasn't happy with their effort then but at least I can say now that there was an effort that early success.
Similarly, I can't claim Game 5 against Florida was a worse performance than what the Devils did in Game 1 against LA. OK, the result was bad: a 3-0 shutout loss that put the Devils on the brink of elimination. I almost forgot this happened, actually. Can a loss be considered underrated? Anyway, losing 3-0 is usually pretty bad. And it wasn't like the Devils were dominant and couldn't crack Theodore. No, possession favored Florida given the Devils' -7 Fenwick and -1 Corsi; though shots at even strength were tied at 23. The Panthers even led in shots in all situations at 32-30. It's that last number that makes me feel Game 1 against LA was worse. Yes, most of those 30 shots in Game 5 against Florida weren't very good and the Devils didn't have a lot of sustained pressure. But they got to 30 shots on net - a vastly superior result than 17 shots with very little sustained pressure. That performance has that going for itself at least.
The one loss that I think can be argued as worse than Game 1 against LA was Game 1 against Philadelphia. Like the loss on Wednesday, this game also went into overtime and the Devils were lucky to get beyond regulation. Had the Devils scored, it would have been a stolen win. Unlike Wednesday's game, the Flyers were dominant for most of the game. The Devils were wrecked in possession; their team Fenwick was -18 and their team Corsi was -17. That's right, they were lower than the possession numbers out of the Kings game. Also unlike Wednesday's game, the Flyers did whatever they wanted on offense from the second period onward. The game ended 36-26 in shots in favor of Philadelphia and 30-11 after the first period. At least the Devils limited the Kings to only 25 shots; allowing 30 in 44:36 (OT lasted 4:36) is just terrible. The Devils got beaten down in this game and the score was only close because Ilya Bryzgalov gifted two goals against the run of play.
It's that last point that makes me feel Game 1 against LA was a worse effort. Yes, the Devils got pinned back and were smacked around the ice for a majority of the game. Yes, the Corsi and especially the Fenwick numbers were worse. Yet, the Devils actually had a good period in that game. They had a hot start, ending the first period at 15-6 in shots and up 1-0. The Flyers imposed their will on the Devils, which had little response. That on it's own sucks, but I think it's worse when a team that didn't impose their will like the Kings did, they got limited on shots, and they still ended up vastly superior in possession because the Devils' offense had long stretches of no offense by their own play. The Devils' lack of offense against the Flyers was because of the Flyers' play; there were a ton of dump-and-changes. In Game 1 against LA, the lack of offense was because of the Devils' inability to move the puck ahead combined with the Kings' defense defending the blueline well. Even so, I can point to one clear, dominant period by the Devils against the Flyers. I can't do that with the Kings game. Like I said, it's arguable so I wouldn't fault you for disagreeing.
Even if you do disagree, Game 1 against LA was still very awful and much more awful than the other Devils' losses in the 2012 playoffs. At least those losses had silver linings. The Devils against LA had a flukey goal and a few good minutes in the third period, which were then followed by a long stretch without a shot on goal. And without shots, it's nigh impossible to score. I guess the silver lining from the game itself was that it was close and the Devils could have conceivably taken the game in the third period or overtime. The performance said otherwise.
There is a bigger silver lining to be had from the result in retrospect. Since I think Game 1 against LA was rock bottom for the Devils, then there has to be nowhere else for them to go but up. Sure, technically the Devils could put up, say, 6 shots on net and lose 3-0, but that would require a dominance by Los Angeles not seen in the NHL since the Devils did it to Toronto in 2000. The Devils would have pretty much have to try to be worse on offense to put up a mere 15 shots in regulation and 17 beyond regulation. While the gameplan and the lines can and should be adjusted, the execution was simply horrid. Far too horrid for a team of New Jersey's quality. The defense and goaltending certainly weren't bad, but that's not good enough if the team's going to give away possession cheaply in the neutral zone and fail to generate shots to force LA back somewhat. I think it's reasonable to say that the Devils should be better in Game 2 with that in mind.
Also, the Devils have responded to each of these losses mentioned with a winning result. The Devils won Game 4 and Game 6 (and 7) against Florida, the Devils rattled off four straight to knock of Philly after that infamous Game 1 loss, and the Devils tied up the series against the Rangers twice after those losses. I know past performance doesn't guarantee future success. It's still a good reason as any to remain positive in light of how bad Game 1 was. So is the harsh reality that being down 2-0 in this series would be a tall mountain for the Devils to overcome. Here's to hoping the Devils can collectively perform much better on Saturday and hopefully repeat their recent past after bad losses.
That's my mindset going into Game 2, but I want to know yours. Would you agree that Game 1 against LA was the worst performance by the Devils in the playoffs? If not, what game did you think the Devils were worse in? Either way, do you think it's reasonable to think that the Devils will do better in Game 2 because Game 1 was so bad? Do you think the Devils actually will play better hockey in Game 2? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about past losses and the upcoming game in the comments. Thank you for reading.