Someone Left the Gate Open Again: The New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill Slump in February

Anton Volchenkov does what most Devils fans have done during penalty kills in February: throw up your hands in frustration. - USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils have allowed thirteen power play goals in their last nine games. As the month closes, I highlight and breakdown eight goals to show that the Devils have made mistakes in their coverage on the PK that have led to costly goals against.

Penalty killing has been a particular fault for the New Jersey Devils within the month of February. After opening the month with a perfect performance in their first four games, they've allowed at least one power play goal in eight of their next nine games. The team has seen their success rate fall all the way to 26th in the league to 76.5% after their Sunday loss to Winnipeg. The PK has been a Problem Killing the Devils in recent games with thirteen allowed over nine games with only one PPGA-less game in that stretch.

According to the 4-on-5 situational stats at Behind the Net, the Devils are allowing 45.1 shots against per 60 minutes, which is decent relative to the rest of the league. Their save percentage is the sixth lowest in the NHL at 83.9%. And those numbers don't include Sunday's last. Compared to last season, where the Devils set a season record for success rate with 89.6%, had the league's fifth best SA/60 rate of 42.7 with a man disadvantage, and led the league by far with an amazing 92% save percentage in 4-on-5 situations. Based on the numbers, it seems the goaltending was non-sustainable to one extreme and now we're seeing other extreme.

However, in looking the goals allowed in their current run of futility while down at least one man, the root issue isn't Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg not making enough saves. Besides, we saw the ugly side of regression in the 2012 postseason. Moreover, only three of those thirteen can be pinned on the goaltender: Brodeur not sliding to his left for a pass to Jussi Jokinen, a Mike Ribiero shot sneaking through Brodeur's right pad, and Hedberg not getting all of Grant Clitsome's shot. None of those goals decided the game, though the second and third tied it up.

The latter of the three showcases the actual issue that has larger plagued the Devils' PK: mistakes in coverage. The eventual goal scorer among others are left wide open in a dangerous area and they convert on a shot. They either got open when their original defender went elsewhere, or no Devil was aware of them to begin with. Video of eight (nine if you include Clitsome's strike, I didn't include it in this post, though) of the thirteen PPGAs demonstrate this in action. They are driving the slump, so I am highlighting each of them in this post.

This means there will be lots of video and poorly captured and drawn-upon pictures from the NHL.com video available. Therefore, let me give you my thoughts on it in general. Because the goals against have come from mistakes, this issue really isn't up to the goalies or the system faltering. I'm not so sure a personnel change would reduce the mistakes because quite a few different people have contributed to these issues. While everyone makes errors at some point, though I will agree it's concerning since they're mostly by people who played on a the PK before. It's possible the lax coverage has happened and the Devils are just paying for it now and over and over. And I know it's not possible to cover everyone in a 4-on-5 situation; but sometimes it's necessary for someone to pick someone up (e.g. a trailing player) instead of trying to stop the pass, going after the puck carrier only, or stay in the passing lane. On these eight goals, you will see what I mean. Hence the title, someone left the gate open. If the Devils can reduce the errors that leaves dangerous players open off a rush or around the net, then I believe their PK woes would be lessened.

Lastly, I do know that there are some power play goals against where the Devils on the PK or the goalie really aren't at fault. In this group that we have seen and groaned at, I counted two: Brandon Sutter's deflection in traffic and John Tavares sniping a shot on a two-man advantage. Incidentally, those came off two needless penalties so if you're looking for a root cause there. It's not possible for the Devils to take no penalties but it is quite possible to avoid the lazy hook or tackle someone during a PK, which is what happened prior to both power plays, respectively.

That all said, let's have a dump of video and pictures to hammer home the point. Consider them mini-goal breakdowns:

PPGA: Neal Finishing a Tic-Tac-Toe

It's as much a great play by the Penguins and as you'll see with most of these eight goals, the opposition does good work. The goals are as much a result of them doing well as it is the Devils getting caught. Here's some pictures of where things went wrong.

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The Penguins break out and get what looks like a 3-on-2 going forward. So far, the Devils look like they are in a position to handle it.

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The problem arises when Evgeni Malkin gains the zone and stops. Bryce Salvador, the near-side defenseman is going to go after Malkin. This turns out to be a mistake because this leaves a two-on-one for Anton Volchenkov. Malkin will pass it up to Chris Kunitz. The backchecking forward (I couldn't ID him in motion) didn't get there in time to deny the pass so he will make this.

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Volchenkov goes after Kunitz trying to stop the pass. He doesn't get there in time so it's a simple pass to James Neal, who will one-time this one in. Salvador's decision to go up instead of back created a bad situation for Volchenkov, who chose wrong and came up empty.

PPGA: Tlusty Breaks the Tie

This is the first one within the slump where a PPGA really hurt the Devils as it turned out to be the game winner.

This begins with a missed chance for the Devils to score a shorthanded goal. The Canes begin with a counter-attack rush up ice.

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On the far-side is Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty has the puck, and in the middle is Alexander Semin. It's a 3-on-2, but the Devils seem ready for it. And Patrik Elias is hustling hard to get back, too.

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It appears the Devils have things under control. Elias is back on Semin, Volchenkov is in the middle, and Salvador challenges Tlusty. Even Adam Henrique is now back with Jamie McBain. The challenge works and Tlusty is forced to throw it behind the net. The problem begins with Staal, who's behind an unaware Volchenkov and will be able to get the puck.

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Salvador leaves Tlusty and gets to the goal line. Volchenkov and Elias are in the middle outside of where Semin is, and Henrique joins them. I counted three guys on Semin and Henrique is a fourth man looking at the puck. No one knows where Tlusty is; that's going to cost them.

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Salvador never gets in the passing lane so Staal is able to feed Tlusty the puck. There are essentially four Devils by Semin and no one on the other Canes on the ice. Martin Brodeur is down in the hopes that if a shot comes, it'll be low as Tlusty may aim for a deflection or a bounce. That doesn't happen as Tlusty is able to settle the puck and lift the puck through traffic and into the net. The Devils had numbers but the coverage converged too much to one man and one area.

PPGA: Simmonds At the Net

This goal was an equalizer and it was quickly followed up by two more. It did more than just get the Flyers back into the game. You'll also notice the goal scorer was uncovered for much of the recorded video for this goal.

I had more pictures for this one but there's only three you need to see.

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Earlier in the video, Wayne Simmonds was just hanging out by the right post with no one on him. Only when the Flyers get the puck to the slot does Salvador try to at least get in Simmonds' way. There are two open Flyers, though. Thankfully, they miss the net. Crisis averted, right?

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No. The Flyers re-collect and Simmonds is back to being open. While I know he's setting a screen, Salvador is on the other side defending a weak side with no effect. The Flyers did an excellent job moving the puck on this play and I'm not to pleased with no one on the man in the slot. The shot does get stopped, though.

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But Simmonds easily gets the rebound. Brodeur slides over in the hopes of denying him. However, Simmonds finds the hole between Brodeur's pads and the puck gets in. Salvador is too late because he wasn't near Simmonds for the entire play except for the first shot attempt. Even there, it was a case of Simmonds moving over, not Salvador taking him.

PPGA: Tavares Bats in a Rebound

On a play like this, John Tavares smacked a puck in mid-air past Hedberg. What went wrong? Well, consider how Tavares got there. The important part happens when Matt Moulson gets the puck down low from Tavares.

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At the time of the pass, Henrik Tallinder appears to be in a good position on Tavares. He's in front of him and should be able to track him. Moulson broke away from Volchenkov so he's at the side of the net, but Hedberg should have the right post covered so it's not a big deal. Incidentally, check out Brad Boyes easily getting away from Josefson. Had Moulson looked up, he could have had a great one-timer opportunity right there.

Anyway, Tallinder isn't going to stay with Tavares. Oh, no, he's going to drop back for some reason.

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Tallinder has no chance on Moulson but he makes an attempt. This frees enough space for Tavares to attack the slot. Hedberg denies Moulson but the puck pops up into the slot. Tavares is going to be first one to this puck and smack it in. Now, Tallinder's decision blew up but I am not liking the fact that Josefson is behind Boyes, who could jump in and attack this rebound too. Stephen Gionta and Andy Greene are in a position to defend the rebound, get to it as it settles as to not whack at a mid-air puck and have it go awry. Alas, Tavares beats them to it and gets enough stick on the puck to propel it past the Moose.

PPGA: Moulson Alone in the Slot

This one from the same Islanders game was even worse than the first one.

The play here begins with a board battle. Salvador and Elias against Tavares and Lubomir Visnovsky. Now, can you tell me what's wrong with this picture?

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Once again, someone is wide open behind the Devils' defense. It's Brad Boyes behind the net. Volchenkov has no idea where he is, and neither does Henrique. At this point, it doesn't seem like a big deal. It will become one very soon. As noted, the puck will go around the corner.

By the way, that third Isle just outside of the group is Moulson.

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Volchenkov, who has seen this battle won by Tavares, moves up on him. His thinking must be that if he stops Tavares or at least forces another battle, the rest of the Devils can recover. Salvador is chasing Tavares while Elias and Visnovsky are still engaged. Moulson is still there, in between Elias and Salvador now. No one notices him. Boyes comes out from behind the goal line and Henrique notices. He's got a lot of ground to make up, though.

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Needless to say, the decision by Volchenkov blows up in his face. Tavares knocks the puck along the end boards and Boyes, who dropped back behind the net, is able to retrieve it. Now Salvador and Volchenkov are completely behind and the Devils are in a lot of trouble. It's about to get worse as Henrique continues advancing towards Boyes. Elias, now disengaged, has a great view of the back of Moulson's jersey as he will skate freely into the slot.

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Henrique doesn't get there in time to deny Boyes' pass, Salvador and Volchenkov are helplessly behind the net, and all Elias can do is watch. Of course, Moulson scores on the one-timer. What did you think would happen on a play like this?

Three Devils behind the goal line and no one in the slot. I was mad watching it happen on TV, I was mad seeing the slow motion replay, and I'm still irked by this one in looking at it again. A bad decision followed by another and it really dug a deep hole for the Devils. What did they think was going to happen on this play? Moose stopping this? No way.

PPGA: Perreault Cleans Up the Mess

Now, the streak of the penalty killers giving up at least one goal was broken by the Ottawa game. So the title isn't 100% accurate. It would have been had Daniel Alfredsson not miss a net in the first period. Anyway, in my defense, the errors resumed in Washington D.C. on this past Thursday. Out of the four PPGAs in those two games, three were at the fault of the penalty killers themselves. Here's the first:

This one has a long build so bear with me (and you've gone this far so I know you can).

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It starts off innocently enough. Greene jumped up on a shorthanded chance that didn't yield a shot. He's tired so he raises his hand to signal a change. Meanwhile, Troy Brouwer picks up the loose puck and goes forward.

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Greene doesn't get off, he's just coasting forward at this point. Stephen Gionta did get on and he's heading down to support Tallinder. Tallinder is currently the only man back as Brouwer charges up ice right towards him. The Capital right behind him is Mathieu Perreault. He's hustling hard to join him, which is impressive since Mike Ribiero (along the glass) isn't moving as hard. Ribiero is letting Brouwer lead the way.

In retrospect, Ilya Kovalchuk, the last Devil here, is going to wish he followed Perreault. You'll see what I mean.

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Brouwer gains the zone and it looks like the Devils have him under control. Gionta is applying pressure from behind and Tallinder is holding position. Surely, Brouwer will have to dump it away or at least stop and make a quick decision. Greene's now back in the zone and sees this develop. Perreault is still catching up but he's going to break into that open space in the middle. But why would that matter?

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Oh, because Tallinder got beat with a deke by Brouwer! Gionta also looks dumb as it initially looked like he could slow him down but he never really had him. Tallinder and Gionta double down on Brouwer and will chase him. Greene is going to head towards the slot also in support on Brouwer. Perreault (and Ribiero) or going to have a lot of space behind them to head towards.

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Brouwer forces a shot on net, a short rebound, and clips Brodeur's head in the process. Greene, Tallinder, and Gionta have their eyes on Brouwer and possibly the puck. None of them are on Perreault or even Ribiero. None of them are even near the puck. In this case, Perreault has the momentum from his earlier hustling so he's going to get to that puck first (the black circle) and fire one past the prone goalie. Which he does as #6, #7, and #11 remain facing away from the slot. Tallinder getting turned was bad, Gionta focusing solely on Brouwer turned out be for naught, and Greene provided awful support.

Could Kovalchuk have picked up Perreault? Only if he kept up but that's in retrospect. With three guys back, one would think they wouldn't be solely on one man. Yet, they did and they paid for it thanks to someone else.

PPGA: Vintage Ovechkin Weak Side One-Timer

The second of three PPGAs by the Caps reviewed to highlight how lax coverage crushed the Devils' PK. This and the last goal reviewed for this post didn't decide the 5-1 loss to the Capitals, it just guaranteed a defeat. Nonetheless, they were good examples of poor coverage by the NJ PK.

We begin with Alex Ovechkin wide open to the right of Hedberg. Volchenkov is seen here defending a potential pass across the slot.

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Spoiler: Volchenkov doesn't succeed.

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Somehow, Hedberg either stops the shot with his right pad or Ovechkin hits the outside of the net. Either way, the puck is loose.

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It appears the Devils are going to get a repreive as Ovechkin fires a hard pass across the ice. He misses his intended target, unless it was just to get the puck over to the left side for his teammate to pick it up. He never saw him, but Ribiero was wide open behind the net to direct the next play. Unfortunately for the Devils, he will remain open and it will cost them to a point.

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As Nicklas Backstrom retrieves it at the side boards, all four Devils penalty killers are looking right at him. This means Ribiero is wide open at the goal line and so is Ovechkin, now back above the right circle. Instead of forcing a pass that could be intercepted by Gionta in the middle, Backstrom will pass it to Ribiero.

As an aside, check out the formation the Caps are in. I believe this is the 1-3-1. Caps fans can chalk this PPG to the success of their formation as the Devils are not in a good position to defend it.

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Once that pass is made, everyone drops lower than they were. Mark Fayne stretches his stick out in the hopes of deterring Ribiero from making a pass out towards the slot. Meanwhile, Volchenkov drops low at the top the crease - and possibly right next to Hedberg - and stretches his stick out. He's defending the pass. That must mean he thinks Ovechkin is open on his right flank. He would be right. That also must mean he didn't remember what just happened earlier on this penalty kill. He probably thinks he can defend the pass again.

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He is proven wrong. Ribiero delays just enough to thread a pass under Fayne's stick and just past Volchenkov's. When Volchenkov went to his knees in the last picture, his momentum carried him backwards. So he ended up not being in the passing lane at all. The pass? It goes right to Ovechkin and he certainly doesn't miss this one-timer. The Devils got away with not marking Ovechkin once on this kill, but it wouldn't happen twice.

PPGA: Brouwer One-Touches a Pass in the Slot

The last goal reviewed for this post is the final one they allowed in their 5-1 loss to Washington just this past Saturday.

This one isn't so much a set-up as it was a very good movement of the puck as the Caps gained the zone that paid off big for them. Again, the Devils are caught with the principals of the goal scored in positions they cannot defend. For the last time in this post, let's break it down.

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Ribiero gains the zone and three killers are focused on him as Volchenkov drops back. So far, not a big problem.

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Ribiero spins along the sideboards and has a short window to pass it to Brouwer in the middle. Greene's to his right and Alexei Ponikarovsky attempts to knock the pass away. Ponikarovsky doesn't get it, but Brouwer is about to meet Mr. Travis Zajac in the middle.

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Except he doesn't. Brouwer deftly one-touches the pass back to Tomas Kundratek. Kundratek has loads of space and an open target on the right side in Ovechkin. He will pass it to #8. Volchenkov is way back in the slot and could target Brouwer, who just got past Zajac. Zajac is essentially in no man's land as he's too far away to do anything about Kundratek and Brouwer just got past him. By the time he turns, it could (and would) be too late for him to defend Brouwer. Greene is coming off the sideboards and heads towards the middle to provide support.

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Ovechkin settles the pass, moves in a bit inside the right circle and sees Brouwer open. Volchenkov was so far back, he can't do anything about Ovechkin. He did have Brouwer coming in front of him but once the pass to Ovechkin was made, Volchenkov shifted his attention to the right. So instead of covering Brouwer and denying an open target, he tries to defend the pass. Greene is still catching up to Brouwer so he's got inside position. All Ovechkin has to do is thread a pass to his man in the middle and he's got a great chance to score. He does it by firing it under Volchenkov's stick. Brouwer just re-directs it forward and past Hedberg. Another poor decision combined with what else happened earlier on the rush and it blew up in the collective face of the PK. Again.

Essentially, that's what all 33 pictures and eight videos boil down to. While opposition power plays can score without the Devils making a critical error and goaltender errors happen, the penalty killers themselves are largely to blame for their current slump of success. They defend passes when they shouldn't. They make decisions that expose them either later on in the play or almost immediately. The players who are left open and/or have a lot of space to work with torch them for goals and it could have all been prevented. When the gate keeps getting left open, what else could we expect?

Brodeur, Hedberg, and fortune can only bail them out so many times and in these, they couldn't. We can point to the penalty itself, but there will always be penalties and the PK has to perform better when it does happen. As I said prior to all of these pictures and videos, once these mistakes in coverage and decision-making are addressed and reduced, then I believe the PK will get back to successful ways. That will take a team effort, proper video review, and practice, something the Devils have some time to do before February ends.

Please leave your suggestions on what the Devils should do differently and other comments about the Devils' penalty kill, their performance in February, and these particular goals in the comments. Thanks for reading through this picture-and-video heavy post.

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