The New Jersey Devils entered the month of March with a three game winless streak in the previous month and it continued for three more games. The New Jersey Devils entered the month of April with a three game winless streak in the previous month and we're all hoping it wasn't going to continue. With only 12 games left and a playoff spot so far from safe that every Devils fan should be scoreboard watching, the Devils needed to get back to winning ways. The Devils needed to smack down the New York Islanders, who have risen up the rankings and came into the game only a few points behind New Jersey. This was a four-point swing and it was on the Devils to at least get something out of it.
They did not. The Devils lost to the Islanders 3-1. Worse, the Devils deserved the loss. The Islanders scored on their second shot of the game when an outlet pass from Thomas Hickey led to Kyle Okposo passing it in for Frans Nielsen. Bryce Salvador went to the line to make a play, missed and so Nielsen and Josh Bailey had a two-on-one against Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky stayed in the middle, didn't deny the pass, and Bailey had Martin Brodeur at his mercy for the early goal. The Devils responded with nothing. The Islanders continued to attack and doubled their lead when Travis Hamonic scored from distance. I don't know how or why Martin Brodeur didn't stop it. He should have, plain and simple. But he didn't. Peter DeBoer called a timeout and while the Islanders were held in check, the Devils got a measly four shots on net out of a myriad of broken plays in the neutral zone and dump-in after dump-in.
The second period saw the Devils take the game over. The team didn't take over seven minutes and two goals against to register their first shot on net of the game. No, they attacked early, they attacked more often, and they were able to get more opportunities off the rush. Emphasis on the word opportunities as it didn't always yield shots. Nevertheless, the Devils were the better team in the run of play and they got back into the game when Patrik Elias fed Alexei Ponikarovsky in front to make it 2-1 eight minutes into the period. The Devils didn't let up in the attack, they only had a couple dangerous chances against that Brodeur repelled, but more often than not, the Islanders eschewed counter-attacks in favor of getting fresh legs. It was at least a game and there was reason to think the Devils could claw their way back into this one.
As it turned out, the second period would be the only non-frustrating and/or non-enraging one of the night. The Devils attempted to push ahead but they found themselves either wasting opportunities or having them denied by a late block or stick. Evgeni Nabokov was under siege at times in the second but he had to deal many more attempts than shots, much less scoring chances. The Islanders re-took the lead on their first power play of the game when Lubomir Visnovsky fired a low shot, it got re-directed out wide to a wide-open John Tavares. Yes, the John Tavares. The best player on this Islanders team (and for several years prior) was left wide open to slam in an easy goal on the weak side. Salvador lost him and assumed no one was behind him. The game became 3-1 with the Islanders' first power play goal in a while. After killing a penalty after that goal near-perfectly, the Devils pushed with pressure but again, not with dangerous shots on Nabokov. It was a disheartening end to a game that the Devils needed in context of the standings and of recent games. The fans that remained at the Rock booed the Devils off the ice and they deserved every decibel of it.
I'll admit that if this happened had the Devils held on to win in Tampa Bay and Florida, we wouldn't be as unhappy about it. But those results did happen and so it was that much more important to get something tonight. The team is literally running out of time. Performances where they dominate in shooting attempts and yet only out-shoot the opponent by a few isn't going to cut it anymore. Games where the defense otherwise does some good things but undercuts the team's effort by mistakes isn't going to do the job. Nights where things go wrong and the team's not necessarily trying to address it isn't the path they need to be on. Credit goes where credit's due: the Islanders played a good game, they got up early, they didn't relinquish the lead despite a poor second, they scored on their only power play shot, and they were strong enough at both ends in the third to maintain a lead. They earned their win and keep flying closer to the sun of the playoffs. The Devils, well, they've been falling down and the end result isn't going to be pretty.
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 Report | The Time on Ice Corsi & Fenwick Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Report
The Opposition Opinion: Dominik called it a critical win in his recap at Lighthouse Hockey and it was. The Isles needed this game and their performance got them the result. I'm not happy about it but Dominik and the Islanders were right to be happy about this.
The Game Highlights: You may be interested in this video from NHL.com if you A) support the Islanders or B) enjoy disappointment from the Devils.
Smarts, Not Heart: This team did not lose tonight because of a lack of heart or moxie or killer instinct or soul or chutzpah or whatever buzzword that makes it sound smarter than it actually is. This team did not lose 3-1 because of a romantic-like concept that is lionized in movies, books, plays, poems, games, and stories. This is sport. This is a results-oriented business. The Devils lost tonight because they made bad decisions and they didn't execute well enough on the plays they needed to make.
Just look at the three goals against as your biggest examples. Salvador makes a dumb decision, gets burned, and the team's in a tough spot. Brodeur has a look at a long shot but didn't react appropriately so it's a soft second goal of the game. Salvador faces the puck with the other three penalty killers, he had to have thought no one could be behind him, and once the puck skittered through the traffic in the slot, the Islanders' very best player gets his one and only shot of the game and a whole lot of net to shoot at. Bad decision, poor execution, and a bad decision.
On offense, well, gee, the Devils sure did pin back the Islanders a lot. They out-attempted them by 26 at even strength, which was where most of the offense was tonight for both teams. Look more closely at the Time on Ice Corsi charts. The Devils only out-shot the Islanders 22-19 at even strength. The vast majority of that difference in attempts came from the Devils either missing the net or getting blocked. The scorer counted 21 attempts blocked against the Devils; Islanders had 21 total shots on net. That's more than just some bad breaks and heady defense by the Isles. A difference that large driven by non-shots is just the result of really bad shot selection and shooting.
As much as I believe in winning the possession battle, it really wasn't winning. When you're down a goal or two, the puck has to get on net. Yet, we saw David Clarkson take shots from bad angles and force wraparound backhander attempts. We saw him a lot because he was one of the best players in Corsi differential tonight. But it wasn't positive despite putting up six shots out of ten attempts. We saw instances where Patrik Elias or Matt D`Agostini or Andrei Loktionov gets an open look on net at a goalie who's got numbers not unlike Mathieu Garon and they don't decide to shoot it on net. Those three combined for four shots total. We saw a myriad of zone entries into coverage, guys trying to make that extra lateral pass in the hopes of catching the Isles unaware and not usually succeeding, and just all around lackluster attack. This team didn't need attempts, the team needed to be far smarter about them. Instead, they end up only getting 25 on net out of 57 total attempts. In a word: barf.
Peter DeBoer was quoted after the game by Tom Gulitti that "We need to be a team that plays that type of relentless hockey for 60 minutes." No, they don't. For one, that's incredibly hard to do as it not only requires a lot to go right for the Devils but also a lot wrong for the opposition such as not being able to take advantage of the team being too relentless. Even the Penguins, who just swept a month, had bad periods and stretches in games where they didn't have the pedal to the proverbial metal. Yet, they found ways to get results for better or worse. For two, it's incredibly tiring to leave it all out on the ice if not physically impossible. If you want a team to still have legs late, they can't be run into the ground early. For three and most of all, they don't need more aggression. They need to pick up a clue. This means the defense has to stop forcing shots they know won't get through. This means the defensemen and backcheckers have to be in communication in their own end. This means the forwards have to drive forward and not constantly settle for the extra pass or a perfect shot in the middle. Had the Devils picked up a clue before tonight's game, I'm certain we're talking about a different result. I'm also certain you'll argue against the notion of heart. Fine. But my point remains: they need to play smarter hockey to get now-badly-needed-wins, not more "heartful" hockey. And they need to do it ASAP.
#DemoteSalvador: After the PPG by Tavares, I tweeted through the ILWT account #BenchSalvador. To be honest, I know that's not going to happen by the grace of the "C" on his jersey. I want to promote a more reasonable compromise: demotion. Instead of feeding Salvador to the toughest competition night in and night out while playing him over twenty minutes, I think DeBoer should scale back his role. He's clearly susceptible to speed, when he's caught out of position he's not always available to cover, he doesn't bring much but attempts on offense, and his partner regularly has to make up for him. If he can't go to the press box, can he at least get only 17-19 minutes of ice time per night and second-to-third line caliber of competition? He's clearly not a top shutdown guy and a night like tonight has to have him held somewhat accountable. We know the team can do it; just ask the scratched Anton Volchenkov.
Kill the O, Not the D: As bad as Salvador was and as how not good Brodeur was on Hamonic's goal, there really needs to be more criticism of the offense. They got one goal against a team that hasn't been afraid of lamps being lit behind their goalies this season. I missed seeing Ilya Kovalchuk tonight and his loss remains large on this roster. But the Devils do have other forwards. We saw that they could, in theory, score. They rang up four goals in Tampa Bay just this past Friday. Tonight, Ponikarovsky got the only one. It was a good goal from a good set-up. And that was it. The offense had more non-shots (32) than shots on net (25).
Clarkson played recklessly with the puck and that's not a compliment. So many poor shots from him; I almost want to make a video of it with a blinking caption of "BUYER BEWARE." Elias prefered to distribute and while he created a goal, he only got one shot on net of his own. Loktionov surprised with two shots but annoyingly deferred when he had lanes for shooting. Steve Bernier didn't do much on his side of the red line but he put up three shots, which was OK for him. Adam Henrique only had two shots despite going forward quite a bit. The defense combined for five shots. It wasn't like one or two people really drove up the blocks and misses, everyone had one or two in either category and it all added up to a team failure.
That's not going to get it done. It would be one thing if Nabokov was forced to stand on his head or if the Devils played the third period more like they did in the second. I wouldn't be happy about one goal scored but I'd be a bit more understanding. This was just throwing junk at a wall and hoping it'd stick. It didn't. The harsh reality is that even if Bryce Salvador didn't have a bad game and Brodeur did stop Hamonic's shot, the Devils would have needed to either shutout the Isles or hold them beyond regulation at 1-1 to get a result. Whether Peter Harrold (who wasn't that bad tonight, I liked his hustle) or Adam Larsson or Mythical Offensive Defenseman is active on the blueline isn't going to make the difference. Defense doesn't lead the way for shots or goals in this league at 5-on-5 or in general; it's up to the forwards. Their lack of scoring has held the team back. It happened again tonight, a big part of why they lost. It could happen in the future since we've seen it for the most part over the last two months. It could make the difference between going to playoff games in May or heading to the golf course in May.
Passes: I'm giving three passes tonight. The first goes to Dainius Zubrus, who played in his first NHL game since going through wrist surgery. He had this morning's skate with the team and was inserted into a line with Henrique and D'Agostini. He looked rusty at times with passes not hitting their mark and not winning a lot of battles. Zubrus will need some time to get into form, so I wouldn't pick on him too much. The second goes to Travis Zajac, who was battling the flu tonight. Per Tom Gulitti, Zajac was all about throwing up tonight. As admirable as it is to play/work while sick, I would have preferred he took the night off and get healthy. The team needs full contributions at this point. 13:31 with one shot, one attempt blocked, and a small advantage in Corsi and Fenwick driven by non-shots wasn't it. The third goes to Tom Kostopoulos who engaged in a fight in the first period against Matt Martin, who just knocked him out cold. Kostopoulos did not return after the fight, which was the right call as he looked to be in a lot of pain. Everyone else, criticize at will.
Scoreboard Watching: The Devils have been mired in these sorts of games but they've remained safely above the playoff bubble by luck (yeah, I know) and teams below them faltering the right ways. Tonight, the Isles are now much closer and the Rangers won their game. In two words: uh oh. The heat has been turned up and the schedule gets a lot tougher down the stretch. If improvement is coming, then it has to come very quickly.
I Was Wrong: I mistakenly called the game preview and the stream as Game #35. I wrote in the preview that the Devils had to stop the Tavares line. Well, they did their best by holding them to five shots combined with only one by the ace himself, which was their power play goal. So much for that leading to a win. I wrote that the line of Bailey, Okposo, and Nielsen was a checking line. No, they just go up against power and don't usually win in possession. While they didn't tonight, they created two goals, they caused early havok, and they soaked up the pressure. They did well. Their defense all got pinned back but they did an admirable job frustrating the Devils by getting in their grill to deny clean shots at their goalie. Andrew MacDonald and Hamonic were very good at it; enough to frustrate Elias into matching minors (slashes) late in the third period. Their goalie played a lot better than Garon did. I was wrong in so many ways so much so that I'm sure I'll be told that I was wrong about what happened tonight. Fine.
Well, what was I wrong about? Alternatively, what did you think I was right about in discussing this game? One thing I'm sure can be agreed upon was that this game was a disappointment. How should the Devils prepare before their next game in (gulp) Boston to avoid a repeat? Who was your Devil of the night, if any? 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 JT for putting it together - as well as on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.