After roughly five months of being inactive and a very busy summer, the New Jersey Devils took to the ice in the CONSOL Center. I imagine players, coaches, management, and fans had all sorts of hopes for what could happen against the Pittsburgh Penguins. I'm confident that only the most pessimistic in that menagerie of people would have predicted a 3-0 loss to the Pens wherein they were sloppy with the puck and looked remarkably slow at times. Yet, that's the summation of what happened tonight. The Devils were the second best team on the ice, the Penguins took full advantage of their opportunities, and they failed to score, echoing last year's big issue.
The Pens weren't exactly their sharpest either. There were numerous sequences throughout the game where one team would have the puck, lose it or give it away outright, and then the original team would quickly win the puck back. Yet, the Penguins and their offense generated in transition paid off big. All three goals began with plays in Pittsburgh's end and it didn't take long for the goals to come.
The first started with a long pass by Matt Niskanen to Beau Bennett in the neutral zone. Bennett one-touched it across to Brandon Sutter, who gained the zone. The one-touch pass caught Adam Larsson on the blueline so it was essentially a two-on-one. Sutter put a shot through Andy Greene that Cory Schneider stopped. However, there was a rebound and Chuck Kobasew charged to the net as Sutter was firing it. Kobasew was in the right spot to slam the loose puck back in the net. The Devils were caught off by Bennett's pass. Had Larsson not assume he would just take it, he possibly could have been back to at least slow Kobasew down. Alas, that did not happen.
The second goal happened minutes later and right after an attacking shift by the Devils. Niskanen cleared a blocked shot - more on those later - and Chris Kunitz blocked off Anton Volchenkov, who couldn't keep the puck in. Pascal Dupuis got to the puck first at the red line and dropped a pass back to Sidney Crosby before Peter Harrold could intervene. The pass eluded Ryane Clowe and given Crosby's own momentum in motion, a two-on-one ensued. Harrold didn't really go after Crosby and it didn't matter as he sniped a shot to the top corner from the right circle past Schneider.
The third goal was a backbreaker. As the Devils were trying to pull one back and at least succeeding in getting the puck in Pittsburgh's end, the Penguins got another opportunity off the rush. Adam Larsson fired a shot off a loose puck from the blueline that sailed into traffic. For the umpteenth time tonight, the Penguins blocked the long shot. It popped in front of Tanner Glass and so he, Craig Adams, and Evgeni Malkin were off. Larsson and Greene were back but as Glass pushed up and Malkin got the puck at the boards, Adams trailed a bit to get some space. Malkin fed Adams, and Adams beat Schneider glove-side on a stoppable shot from the slot. That sealed the game as the Devils weren't going to find three goals from how the night was going. As noted by the score, they didn't even get one.
Of course, just to twist the proverbial knife further, the Devils' best chances to score came after Adams' goal. Travis Zajac had a shot that banked off the goalie but before it could drop in, Marc-Andre Fleury snagged the puck from behind his back. Adam Henrique pushed hard ahead for a breakaway and got hauled down from behind by Niskanen. He got a penalty shot but he couldn't get the puck over Fleury's right pad after a deke to make the keeper stretch. Ryane Clowe gloved down a puck that popped up from distance and dropped it down right in front. He got two whacks at it and was denied by the very top of Fleury's right pad and the toe of the pad, respectively. I would have liked to have seen the Devils score at least one goal. Just one consolation goal. But Fleury wasn't having it tonight. Oh, there was a golden opportunity in the second period for said consolation goal but Marek Zidlicky decided against that.
In general, the Devils did deserve to fall in this one. The Penguins did quite well in the first period; they sat back more in the second and third periods, striking hard when the opportunity was there. The Devils did get more shots and more attempts but few chances until it was too late. The Devils looked slow in general. Partially helped by the few times a long pass on Pittsburgh didn't end up as icing and moving in transition. Partially helped by the Devils' struggling to put clean passes together and keeping the puck on their sticks. And partially by the fact that the team's just not that mobile. It was not at all the start the team wanted and they paid for it. It is just one game but with plenty to improve, starting tomorrow.
The Game Stats: NHL.com Game Summary | NHL.com Event Summary | NHL.com Play by Play Log | NHL.com Shot Summary | NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Report | ExtraSkater Game Stats (you're going to love this, it has plenty of the Time On Ice data but in a superior format plus more)
The Opposition Opinion: Those at PensBurgh are understandably happy about this game. And why not? Their team won, they won decisively, and their maligned goalie got a shutout. Here's Hooks Orpik's recap at PensBurgh, wherein he praises Fleury.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here they are in video form:
Catch Up: I'm sure much will be made about how the Devils out-shot their opponent and out-attempted their opponent and managed to lose anyway. Thanks to ExtraSkater's game report, it's clear that score effects led to a 27-21 shot advantage and a 59-36 attempt advantage for the visitors. When the game was close (score within one in first two periods, tied in third) or tied, the Penguins had the edge. The Penguins took over the first third of the game and moved as they wished. The Devils, like most teams down in the game should, attacked more often. That shouldn't be praised as much as it should be expected. After the second period began, the Pens were content to sit back a bit more with their comfortable lead.
From Downtown - No Good: Rather, they were content to collapse in their own end. Officially, the Devils got blocked 23 times, with a majority coming from long shots by the defense. That played a big role as to why the additional offense was not so effective. It was even costly. Two attacks that didn't yield a shot led to counter-attacks that resulted in the second and third Pittsburgh goals. Again, the third was started by a straight-up block off a chance shot from Larsson. Overall, the Devils settled for a lot of attempts from the point in the second and third periods but very few actually got through to the net. The resulting fracas in traffic didn't bounce the Devils' way. In retrospect, they should have tried to move the puck down low more often and try to open up some seams or catch the Pens unaware. Credit goes to the Pittsburgh skaters for getting in the way, but the Devils helped them out.
Blockhead: It took some thinking but I'm comfortable with calling Marek Zidlicky the worst defenseman on the team tonight. Zidlicky's pinches were rarely effective, he didn't hold well on the blueline on the Devils' power play, and he deferred to Bryce Salvador more often than attempting shots himself. He once got lost in the neutral zone for no good reason, handing the Penguins a 2-on-1 in the second period. It was memorable because it led to one of the three shots they got on net in that period. Shortly thereafter, Zidlicky took the lone Devils' minor penalty of the night: an unnecessary hook on Sutter. It was a bad shift.
His worst moment came late in the second period. After an actual stop at the blueline, the Devils hurried up and attacked the Pens off the rush. The Pens tried to bottle up the Devils along the left boards, but the puck came out to a wide open Zidlicky in the slot. Fleury was beaten. The net was almost entirely empty. Zidlicky took one touch and then proceeded to slide a pass across the crease and under the goalie instead of trying to put it on net. Zidlicky was paid $3 million this summer with a potential $1 million bonus for games played because he is the lone offensive defenseman on the team. Zidlicky has his defensive issues but he's supposed to have an offensive game. Zidlicky passed up on an empty net in a 2-0 game. I don't care what the reasoning was for him to pass it back towards the corner. That was an absolutely stupid move. He could have redeemed some of his night with a goal. He could have gotten a single goal for the team. And he decided against it. Terrible. I'm still seething about it.
Other Poor Defensemen Include...: Tonight wasn't a particularly good night for the top pairing of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene. The duo did play against the better players on Pittsburgh. They also got caught out on the first and third goals against and nearly a fourth when Greene doubled on Malkin, leaving the entire left side open for Jussi Jokinen to take a pass and force Schneider to be brilliant. Given their heavier usage, I'm not as unhappy with them. Anton Volchenkov played like, well, what most fans think of Volchenkov. He had a few hits here and there but he was trying to catch up in plays. His decisions with the puck weren't so good and his getting beaten at the blueline helped create Crosby's goal. I'm sure Larsson and Greene will do better. I'd like to think Zidlicky and Volchenkov can be better. I wouldn't mind seeing Mark Fayne, scratched tonight, replace either of the latter two.
You'll notice I didn't mention Peter Harrold and Bryce Salvador. Honestly, I don't have too many complaints from either. Harrold saved an early goal by knocking a loose puck away before Crosby pounced on it in front of an empty net. He did get beaten by Crosby in the two-on-one but I'd like to think Crosby should be able to get space from Peter Harrold on his own. Harrold had some nice plays and clearances to make up for the shaky play of his partner. Salvador didn't get demolished in spite of Zidlicky being himself and he even drew the team's only full power play of the game. I wasn't unhappy with #10 or #24, unpopular as they may be.
Damien Struck: Despite the Devils taking so many attempts from distance, one forward at least can claim to have put in a full effort. Damien Brunner put a whopping eight shots on net. He missed one, officially, so he had nine attempts on his own. Granted, they weren't the eight greatest shots in the world but the volume was there. That's at least encouraging.
The New Old Guy: Jaromir Jagr played like someone who hasn't played a game of hockey in months. That makes sense since he hasn't. He looked slow on the ice (the puck not moving briskly helped that image) and he made some questionable decisions with the puck. He even gave it away straight up to Tanner Glass, leading to Jagr somehow catching him on a breakaway. Jagr tried to make some plays that weren't there and only one of his four attempts on net got through to Fleury. Essentially, he was quite rusty. One would think he'll get a bit better with some games under his belt. The fans gave it to him a bit, still sore about snubbing the Pens after returning from the KHL, but they didn't have to since he was a non-factor for the most part.
No Longer Preseason Cory: This wasn't one of Schneider's better games. While he had to deal with some difficult situations and did make some crazy stops, I felt he could have been better. By my eye, the Adams goal was stoppable. He may have cheated a bit too much on Crosby's goal. The rebound he gave up to Kobasew wasn't good, though physics would suggest the puck won't be corralled when a shot is stopped with the chest. While it didn't yield a goal, he had to scramble after the Penguins' two-on-one in the second period as he really just knocked Bennett's shot up in the air to prevent it from dropping in. I don't think Schneider alone lost the game - it was a team effort tonight - but I think he could have been better.
Special Teams are Familiar: The Devils' power play didn't do much and their penalty kill shut out the Penguins. Same as it ever was. Fun fact: all shots on net in this game were at even strength.
Questionable Decision: Ryane Clowe had three concussions last season. He fought Tanner Glass because he took exception to a hit Glass threw on Salvador. Salvador was originally jawjacking with Glass and then tried to break up the fight. Yet, Clowe did it anyway. Sigh. At least he was OK and got one golden chance in front, albeit at the end of the game. He didn't do too much of note otherwise.
Speaking of quiet games, I didn't think Patrik Elias, Michael Ryder, Travis Zajac, and the CBGB line had much of an impact on tonight's game. At least Henrique got three shots and drew a penalty shot. They all looked good by Corsi but, again, score effects really tilted in their direction and other players took the lion's share of attempts.
Only Game #1: This game will only set the story of the season if the season forms into an easy narrative to espouse well after this game has ended. I fear that could be deja vu, though it's far too early to go there in my opinion. Pittsburgh played a good game, they built up a lead and kept it, and their top players were quite good. Bennett and Sutter did well beyond their aces. The Devils will move on and look to regroup for tomorrow. Surely, they'll at least score a goal sooner rather than later (I hope).
Your Take: So what did you think of tonight's game? Will the Devils rebound from this performance with a better one tomorrow? What about this game annoyed you the most? Who could have been better that would have had a significant effect on this game? Did anyone on the Devils look good tonight? How in the world did Zidlicky not put that puck on the net in the second period? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's loss in the comments. Thank you for reading.