Tonight, like in many nights for the past month, the New Jersey Devils played a game of hockey where they were the superior team in possession, they out-shot their competition, they did so even when the score was tied, they did a lot right, and yet they couldn't score more than one or two goals. A defensive breakdown or a simple mistake turns into a GA and that's the game. The difference for this one was that the opponents were the Montreal Canadiens, a team riding a winning streak into this game, and the final score was close at 2-1.
Let's go over what happened. The first period by the Devils was quite poor. The team looked listless, like they played a 65-minute game against a rival known for their physical shenanigans last night. Pucks were left vulnerable into space instead of out of their zone or put into a places for battles. There were several cycles of concession, where the Devils would get a clearance and Montreal would just recover and hit back. While Montreal only out-shot the Devils 9-7, the run of play favored the visitors as they hit passes going forward more often and they got additional attack time because the Devils struggled with exiting the zone. Montreal did score a goal, but I'll get to that a bit later.
The second and third periods were much better from New Jersey. The Devils began getting some better bounces and making more passes going forward. They had a few good chances on Carey Price and out-shot the Canadiens 8-4. A Devils power play - and I hope you're sitting down this - converted when - and I hope you're still sitting down - defenseman Peter Harrold fired a shot through several bodies that got in. The Devils were in better control in the second and carried that into the beginning of the third period when much of the play was in Montreal's end. The Devils were knocking on the proverbial door and that's a good thing when it's 1-1.
Alas, Montreal's first shot of the third went into the back of the net. Montreal started to attack more and their forecheck found more success. While the Devils looked dire for the next few minutes after the goal, they were able to get their offense going. It looked ugly breaking out at times, but they got it forward and put a whopping 13 shots on Price. The effort was most certainly there. In total, the Devils out-shot Montreal 18-9 in the third and 33-22 overall. And they got only one goal out of it. Why didn't the Devils win a game where they hung if not outplayed the Montreal Canadiens at times tonight? There's your answer. Everything but the goal did them in.
I've made this point in person, on Talking Red, in Tweets, in past recaps, and other posts that the Devils' root problem is that their shooting percentage is in the toilet relative to other teams in the league for about a month now. The shots just aren't going in like other teams. Yes, they racked up five goals against Philly. It was a scoring oasis in the desert they're apparently still stuck in. Tonight, they tried and got shots off faceoffs, shots from distance through traffic, a few deflections, a rebound or two, and shots off the rush. Price is an excellent goalie and he did very well to track what he could and make all of those stops. He got beaten exactly three times, and the other two went off the iron. Yes, more posts than goals. What can they do about it? Who knows. I'm sure the answer isn't to shoot less.
And that just makes this kind of loss frustrating. They've been generating shots, like with 33 tonight. They've been winning the possession game, like they did tonight with a the Devils at a combined +8 in Fenwick and +16 in Corsi. Johan Hedberg seemingly got his groove back. They've even improved in their defensive coverage such that no Canadien had a free shot in the slot as far as I can recall. Montreal was limited to 22. Yes, an atrocious defensive error cost them this game. However, the reason why this game was so close such that an atrocious error helped decide it was because the Devils couldn't find the back of the net except for one time. You're not going to win many games with only one or two goals; mistakes and great plays by the opposition are bound to happen. This was one of them.
While the performance against a strong team was good, the lack of a result really stings. Playing well and not getting points is a good sign of a good team. It's down right impressive in some way. But it isn't going to get the team in the playoffs, which should be the goal for this team. While a 2-1 loss to Montreal isn't going to doom the Devils' hopes of playing in May, it does make the goal more challenging. The team can't just wait much longer for the shooting luck to turn around; but you know this. We've been witnessing it for a better part of a month now. So what should I say about it?
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Faceoff Comparison | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi & Fenwick Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts
The Opposition Opinion: Bruce Peter has this quick recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize. He thinks the team is in a swamp among other thoughts. Yep.
The Game Highlights: It was the Carey Price Show, with special guests Johan Hedberg, Anton Volcheknov, Marek Zidlicky, and Peter Harrold. Well, OK, it wasn't his show, but he is featured quite a bit in this highlight video from NHL.com:
Assists to Volchenkov & Zidlicky: Let's go over the two goals against tonight before discussing any other details. The first goal against came in the first period. After Moose held onto the puck for a freeze, the teams lined up for a faceoff to Hedberg's right. In this set up, it's common to see the defenseman by the hashmarks so he starts in the slot. Stephen Gionta technically won the draw, but not the puck. Volchenkov stepped in to retrieve it, but then he lost it off his stick blade. He lunged to knock it away, but all it did was move it softly into the high slot. Losing it was bad enough, but that just added the icing on a really awful cake. Had he hit it with more force, then it would have went to the boards and had Montreal recover it, they're not in a great spot to shoot. But instead, he gave it away to Colby Armstrong. He picked it up in the high slot, easily got past Stefan Matteau, went towards the left dot, and fired a high one through a screen. Mike Blunden made sure Moose didn't see that one and it helped lead to the goal. But in retrospect, Volchenkov should have earned an assist on that one.
Volchenkov's error at least had a good intention. He tried to get it away instead of losing it just inside the circle after a faceoff draw. Marek Zidlicky made an incredibly awful decision that ended up in the back of the net. After Hedberg correctly played a dumped-in puck to Zidlicky, the defenseman had the puck on his backhand in the corner. Without looking or hesitating, he flung the puck out into space. That's a fundamental error on defense. When in doubt, the play is supposed to remain to the outside. Blindly moving the puck into open space is just asking for trouble. Maybe he did see Adam Henrique in the area; but the pass certainly wasn't going to him. It went to no one but Jarred Tinordi. Tinordi hit the puck immediately with a slapshot, a cutting Tomas Plekanec tipped it, and it's 2-1 in the third period on Montreal's first shot of that period. Zidlicky most definitely earned a secondary assist because there's no way that goal happens had he played it around the boards in front of him, blindly put it around the corner so at least the puck would remain on the edge, or just eat the pressure. His bad choice cost the Devils dearly.
To make matters worse, I didn't think either was awful all night long. They just made a mistake that hurt. Zidlicky's was downright terrible. And he nearly got caught with a similar coughing-up of the puck later in the third; though Moose bailed him out. But other than the third, I liked what I saw out of Zidlicky. He had five shots on net, including the only other power play shot on net the team got credited for tonight. Volchenkov was OK with limited minutes. The Corsi & Fenwick charts for the game show the two weren't negative in either stat, so they weren't on the wrong side of the ice most of the time. Yet, a mistake from each yielded the goals against.
Look, Kid: I felt Adam Larsson was a bigger problem in his own end. He had several clearances and passes that either missed their mark or hit the opposition. He provided very little on offense with only two attempts and both blocked. (For comparison's sake, Bryce Salvador had seven attempts and four got through to Price.) He even missed receiving a few passes. It was like he didn't have his head up to be aware of what's going on. Had he looked around to read the situation a few more times, he would have been more effective and some of these issues don't happen.
Possession-wise, he was great at +8 Fenwick and +10 Corsi. Somehow, Montreal did not take advantage of Larsson not having a good night. But his minutes were cut short to only 15 and change because of how he was performing. Andy Greene, his usual, remained kicking all kinds of posterior in terms of possession with other partners with a +12 Fenwick and +15 Corsi. It looked to me he was doing a lot of the work tonight. I understand that Larsson is still developing but a bad game needs to be highlighted regardless. Maybe this opens the door for a proven quantity like Mark Fayne to get back into the lineup.
Another Bad Game to Highlight: Stefan Matteau played 5:11 tonight, didn't stop Colby Armstrong, looked lost in his own end, played more often in his own end as suggested by his -3 Fenwick, and had one attempt on net. Matteau should have saw this game as an opportunity to try and stay in the lineup. He couldn't have convinced the coaches with this performance.
While I wouldn't say he was bad, I did think Patrik Elias was disappointing. He moved to center for this game and he was moved to wing later tonight. I don't know whether he missed Henrique on his line or things just didn't go right for him, the common "off night." He only had two shots on net, they came in the third period, and he really wasn't driving play. Not even when Kovalchuk joined him for a few shifts.
The Impressive Harrold: Peter Harrold, in contrast, had a strong game in my opinion. He got regular minutes with Volchenkov and more than just a few with Bryce Salvador. He looked good in both spots, reading and reacting appropriate to the play around him; although, he ended up a -4 in Fenwick. I suspect it happened away from A-Train, who finished at +4. Harrold contributed on offense too. In addition to his power play goal, he had three other shots out of five other attempts. He's made another good case for his further inclusion in New Jersey's lineup. I don't see Peter DeBoer scratching him unless he has to .
Clangvalchuk: I didn't like Ilya Kovalchuk's performance in the first period. Much like the rest of the team, he just looked out of it. But I did like how he played in the second period and onward. His pass to Tom Kostopolous nearly gave the fourth liner his first goal as a Devil, but Price robbed him. Kovalchuk's shorthanded magic nearly made it 2-1 New Jersey in the second period. He rushed up ice on a two-on-one and beat Price high. The problem is that it didn't beat the inside of the right post. Kovalchuk's accuracy wasn't all that great with two shots out of seven attempts (plus a post); but at least he didn't miss the net six times.
As far as additional evidence that points to Kovalchuk having a good game, he actually finished as a positive possession player with a +5 Fenwick and a +7 Corsi, something that hasn't happened in recent games. He did great work with Travis Zajac and Alexei Ponikarovsky, the top two Devils forwards in Fenwick and Corsi for this game. That line really gave Alexei Yemelin problems, as he saw them the most and came out a -14 in Fenwick and a -20 in Corsi. His partner, Andrei Markov, didn't far much better. Kovalchuk himself saw plenty of Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban too, and he still came out ahead at even strength. That's quite good. But, his big moment was on the PK and a post denied him and the team of two goals scored in a game. Better (sigh) luck next time?
The Debut of Pesonen: Harri Pesonen was called up earlier this week and he made his NHL debut tonight in place of Krystofer Barch. Pesonen didn't do a whole lot this evening. In 8:11 of ice time, he did finish a +4 in Fenwick and a +6 in Corsi, though he did not register a shot on net. I believe those numbers came from playing with Patrik Elias and David Clarkson. However, he also got pinned back a few times and just chased the play around among other actions. It wasn't a bad debut, though I'd like to see him on the bottom six to see what he could do.
A Message for the Center: Travis Zajac racked up an impressive Corsi and Fenwick differential. He did not get a shot on net tonight in his 18:55 of ice time. He also lost more faceoffs than he won, mostly to Plekanec and David Desharnais (who did play tonight, actually). Zajac, it's OK to get aggressive and be more involved. Try it out for Tuesday night.
In Addition to a Bad Team Shooting Percentage, The Power Play is Like Pulling Teeth: The Devils got three power plays tonight. They only got shots on their second one, which was converted by Harrold. That was good to see but it wasn't good to see the other two do nothing. It's one thing for shots not to fall in, but in this case, even the shots are scarce. I know a team should want to set up a good shot on a power play, but they should throw a little more caution to the wind at this point.
Good Goalies: Moose had a fine game in net. He made all kinds of stops, but had no chance on Armstrong's shot through a screen or Plekanec's tip that also may have went through a screen too. Hedberg was actually pretty successful with aggressive plays with the puck. Only one went right to a Canadien in the zone, but the defense clamped down on him.
Price was the real star. Not Plekanec, who got one tip - a shot that yielded his team getting outshot 2-9 when on the ice, but Carey Price. He robbed Kostopoulos early in the second, he somehow got his left pad out to deny Clarkson a free shot in close range, and he managed to snag every deflected or surprising shot from distance. I liked the Devils shooting at him after a night where they missed the net so much trying to pick a side or a corner. Though, I suspect the Devils weren't trying to shoot at him so much as it was Price getting there to make a stop as if it was shot right at him. Anyway, he was Montreal's best player tonight and he needed to be their best. He wasn't particularly well supported on offense outside of the first period and a middle section of the third period. Only eight of their skaters got at least one shot on net and only five players (the Subban & Gorges pairing and the line of Brendan Gallagher, Desharnais, and Max Pacioretty) ended up positive in Corsi and Fenwick differential.
Head Scratching Referees: The refs called six penalties tonight and a few of them were cheap. Harrold's "hook" on Lars Eller was comical in that Harrold fell down and faced away from Eller as it happened. David Clarkson getting a roughing minor for a post-whistle shove was laughable since Francis Bouillon threw punches at Henrique right in front of a ref earlier in that first period and got nothing. I'm not saying holding the stick or a delay of game aren't calls; but I was confused that they would get those right but not plays like Clarkson getting tackled in the middle of the ice away from the puck. Fortunately, the Devils' penalty killers were pretty good with only four shots allowed and one post hit on a shorthanded rush.
One Last Point: I would have been less bitter about this loss had it not been won off a big mistake. Montreal's a very good team and the Devils showed they can play with them, if not better than at times. But they need to get results. Our Hated Rivals are struggling and the Devils need points. As if Tuesday's game couldn't be any bigger.
So what's your take on this game? What would you say about the team not scoring goals? What can be done? What did you like about the Devils' performance despite the loss? Based on this game alone, what do you think they need to work on before the next game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's loss in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.