The New Jersey Devils went into Raleigh, North Carolina with something they haven't had in the last two weeks: a win in their last game. Like the last time that happened, the Devils allowed the first goal against, had a horrible period that ultimately lost the game, and lost by a margin of at least three. That time was two Saturdays ago in D.C. and the loss was 5-1. Tonight, the Devils lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, 6-3.
Once again, the Devils got torched in the middle of the ice. Yes, they allowed only 22 shots tonight, which looks really good at first glance given how much Carolina has fired away on net. Yes, the Devils won the possession battle overall. The big cause of that wasn't necessarily good play by the Devils as it was score effects. Carolina didn't need to keep pressing for shots because they scored five on 18 shots against Johan Hedberg. All five goals against were either at the crease or right around the slot. And this on a night where the Devils were without Bryce Salvador, who's been guilty of this issue several times in the last two games. Yet, they continued. You're not going to win games that way regardless of who's in net. That said, Hedberg blundered on the fourth and fifth goals allowed which really hurt the cause in retrospect. At the time, the Devils were at one goal scored and Dan Ellis playing well - a surprise to those who didn't know his numbers going into this game.
The only solace in the team performance is two-fold. The first are the score effects themselves. In many blowouts, the losing team usually just throws in the towel and they don't attack. The Devils did just that by out-shooting the Canes 10-3 and out-attempting overall 51-33, most of which coming after the first intermission. I don't think the Devils get that much offense going if they weren't down four in the third; but at least they played to the score tonight. The second is that the Devils got some bounces on offense that made the third period at least somewhat interesting. Ilya Kovalchuk went for a wraparound and the puck caromed off a Cane and into the net within the first minute of the third. Patrik Elias deflected a Marek Zidlicky shot that beat Ellis shortside. For a team that's been shooting so low for the last two-to-three weeks and not getting breaks on rebounds, scrums, and so forth, that's a big positive. Maybe - just maybe - it's a sign of better luck to come. Both are silver linings, however. They don't excuse the horrid breakdowns in their own end or the big loss tonight.
Needless to say, the slump continues. How this will affect the team for tomorrow's game, I couldn't tell you. Tonight, we saw more of the same in these losses. The Devils couldn't get goals early despite good play, they make defensive mistakes and pay for it, and they lose. The only difference tonight was it all fell apart in the second period and the Devils got two consolation goals.
The Opposition Opinion: Bob Wage had a lot to praise in his recap at Canes Country. Like most of the opposing blogs after games against the Devils in the last three weeks.
The Game Highlights: There were highlights. There were errors. There is this game highlight video from NHL.com:
The Corsi Charts: While the Devils out-shot the Canes 12-8 in the first period, the Canes led in attempts at even strength at 8-14. After Carolina ended that period up 1-2, the Devils racked up the attempts to lead 24-11 in the second and 19-7 in the third. Repeat after me: score effects. Here's how Carolina fared:
The Canes' top line lost the possession battle in a big way. They scored a goal that really blew the game wide open in the second period but in general, they were in their end of the rink. The Devils rolled through Jay Harrison and Tim Gleason, though Harrison will have the last laugh since he scored during the Devils' Minute of Misery in the first period. The Devils also made the most against Joe Corvo and Justin Faulk too. Nobody except for Jamie McBain and Chris Terry ended up above zero in Corsi differential. Again: score effects.
Ilya Kovalchuk steamrolled his opposition at evens, as did his linemates Alexei Ponikarovsky and Andrei Loktionov. The fourth line of Tom Kostopoulos, Stephen Gionta, and Ryan Carter had an excellent night, with a couple strong shifts on the forecheck and drew two penalties. Forget CBGB - why did DeBoer go to them late, I do not know - and welcome CGK. Strangely, the unit of Elias, David Clarkson, and Adam Henrique didn't have such a good night. Travis Zajac, Steve Bernier, and (especially) Stefan Matteau also found themselves on the wrong end more often than not. Should Peter DeBoer mix up the first and fourth to salvage the second and/or third? I don't know. Defensively, the pairing of Peter Harrold and Marek Zidlicky wasn't so hot and got burnt for three goals tonight. Adam Larsson was great in possession and otherwise had a solid game except for, you know, the fourth game.
But, again, don't get too excited because of score effects.
It's an Enigma That He Does So, So, So Well: Ilya Kovalchuk had a fantastic performance tonight. Seven shots on net, ten total attempts, his linemates had three shots on net each, one shorthanded breakaway that yielded his first goal, and a fortunate bounce off a wraparound for a second goal. All that and a massive +17 in Corsi differential. Anyone who wanted to see Kovalchuk have a big night got one. Too bad the team faltered so much to basically waste it.
The First Period Minute of Misery: The Devils did pretty well to start the first period. They got a power play which actually went well with five good shots on net. They got up early in the shot count. Play was OK. They even looked just fine during a penalty kill on an interference call to Tom Kostopoulos. But the twelfth minute came and the Devils just had a nightmarish sixty seconds.
About fifteen seconds into that minute, the Canes had the puck in the right corner. All four Devils' killers were focused on the puck. Nobody saw Alexander Semin. Not Mark Fayne, the defenseman who should be looking at the middle. Not Travis Zajac, the center who knows all about the need to cover the middle. No one in a white jersey. Joe Corvo got the puck, slid a cross-ice pass to Semin, and Semin curls around Hedberg for a goal 12:16 into the first.
After the center ice faceoff, the Devils gain the zone but the puck gets lost after an errant pass. No big deal. Jussi Jokinen, however, turns it into one when he chipped the puck off the boards up-ice beautifully. It went long enough but landed soft enough for Jordan Staal to take it and carry it. It was suddenly a two-on-one with Staal and Jeff Skinner against Marek Zidlicky. Hedberg stops Staal's rising shot, Skinner touched it off in the slot, and no Devil picked up Jay Harrison to slam in the loose puck from the slot. Andrei Loktionov overskated the Canes, Ilya Kovalchuk tried really hard to make up a lot of space but to no avail, and I'm not sure what Zidlicky was trying to do. It's 0-2, Carolina, at 12:44.
The Devils took a timeout to try and get their minds right. After the thirty-second timeout, Patrik Elias got his stick up on Semin and got whistled for the foul right after the center ice faceoff. That's at 12:49. That was the response to the sudden two goal deficit. A horrid minute.
The Second Period Play in One Sentence: The last time the Devils had a period as bad as the second tonight was the third period in Toronto.
Let's Discuss the Other Three Goals Against Even If We'd Rather Not: A few minutes into the second period, the Devils dumped the puck in deep. They went for a line change. The problem is that there was no forecheck and Dan Ellis got to it really quickly. One long pass later to Eric Staal and so he and his linemates had a three-on-one. Harrold and Hedberg were left on an island. Staal fed Jiri Tlusty for a tap-in on Hedberg's right flank. 1-3, Carolina.
As the Devils were killing a penalty to Travis Zajac, the Canes got a few looks. But they were denied. The Devils try to clear it out as the penalty just ended. Bobby Sanguinetti kept the puck in with a quick-shot, the puck gets knocked up into the air off Eric Staal's stick, and it drops past Adam Larsson and right to Chris Terry in front. Larsson tried to play the puck in the air, he missed, and so Terry had space to work with the bouncing puck. Hedberg went into a butterfly stance, and tried to square up with the puck to keep it out instead of trying to knock it away. Terry was able to knock it in between Moose's legs for his first NHL goal. Congratulations to Terry for his first ever NHL goal, please send Hedberg and Larsson a thank you card for making it possible.
With less than four minutes left in the second period, the Canes got another great look right in front and Hedberg had another error. Gleason gained the zone, Zidlicky played off of him hoping to keep him outside, and Gleason just threw it to the side of the net. Harrold went after the puck, he missed, and so it went off Hedberg and out to the middle. It didn't go far, but it was enough distance and took enough time for Skinner to get to it. Hedberg thought he could cover it instead of knocking it away. He was quickly proven wrong as he slowly reached for it. Skinner just flicked it to Hedberg's left and it went behind the goal line.
So About All Five Goals Against: The fourth and fifth goals were definitely on Hedberg to some degree. He didn't help himself in that regard. But on all five goals, the Canes were able to get to the puck in the most dangerous part of the ice and finish the play. Semin, Harrison, Tlusty, Terry and Skinner all scored with no one in white doing anything to them prior or during the play. They were all open shots.
Peter DeBoer did replace Hedberg for the third period with Jeff Frazee. Frazee was OK. He only got beat once by Semin but was saved by the post. He only had to make two saves as the Canes' third shot was an empty net goal by Tlusty. But even if DeBoer started Frazee, I doubt he would've done any better than Moose did tonight. Even if Frazee didn't make the mistakes Hedberg made on the fourth and fifth goals against, he could've been beaten shortly thereafter as the Canes got those open shots. Or on some other ones. My point is that, yes, Hedberg could have been better, but he's not the root cause to what we witnessed tonight.
The frustration with these and other defensive lapses is that it's not an easy fix as benching a player, calling someone up, or making a trade. Again, I don't have a lot of confidence in Bryce Salvador as he was making these kinds of errors in coverage in recent games. I do not believe the issue is with personnel. They're making stupid mistakes that they know better to make. All eight of these defensemen were on the Devils last season, they each have several years of experience in the pro game, the forwards know and understand how backchecking works, and yet they make fundamental errors wherein they pay the price for them. We've seen far better defensive performances from the skaters within this season. They know they can be better. They know they need to be better. Yet, they are not. And, on the ice, it's not up to the goalie, coach, GM, the owner, you, or me, it's up to them. What's the solution? I couldn't tell you.
What Would Help Are Some (More) Breaks: I did not see the two goals in the third period coming. Dan Ellis has been very good this season in backing up Cam Ward and he had another very good night. He's got no reason to feel bad about getting burnt by Ilya Kovalchuk on a shorthanded breakaway. The other two goals against were bounces that went against him; two bounces the Devils really haven't had too many of in recent weeks. He was only cleanly beat one other time, late in the third period. Alas, Marek Zidlicky's slapshot hit the left post. But he somehow got in the way of several close rebound attempts around the net, including an impressive dive to get a piece of a shot by a diving Kostopoulos. He got his pads on several shots and kept the puck moving with his stickhandling. I understand the canard that the Devils apparently make other goalies look good. Well, a slump where the team's shooting around 6% would lead one to believe that. But we must accept the possibility that the other goalie was good. Now, if the Devils got a goal from their initial flurry in the first ten minutes - or in their five shot power play where they came real close - or some other breaks, then a two or more goal deficit wouldn't look like such a mountain to climb. I'm hoping the two third period goals are a sign of better luck to come.
A Last Set of Questions: Were the first two periods rock bottom? Or is the worst yet to come?
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.