Six games. The New Jersey Devils lost 2-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. They have now not won a game in regulation in their last six games. They have not earned a single point in their last three games. They have had plenty of positives in terms of performance and in terms of the process. However, the results repeated because of the same refrain: not enough goals. And now their playoff hopes are truly damaged as they dropped in the East to tenth tonight with yet another loss.
I know some (most? all?) of you readers don't appreciate the emphasis on stats at times. Well, what do you want me to write about what happened? Some narrative like a supposed lack of heart, which doesn't match-up with a team that went out and out-shot their opponent by 10 and pushed for goals except when they had a man advantage? Some pop-psychology like an issue with the team's mentality that can't possibly be verified? Some defeatist thought about how the team's given up weeks ago and so it goes tonight? Just some pure anger - actually, I don't disagree with that. But the source of that anger . So I stick with the numbers - at least emotion doesn't run into them except in interpretation or the presumption of acceptance that they can help explain what happened in a game.
So I'm stuck parroting the same point about "good in possession, no luck in shooting." I'm sick of it, too. Yet, it's the closest I'm getting to a logical explanation as to what happened tonight. Let me flip it around and talk about the "bad in possession, but had some good luck in shooting" approach Toronto ran with tonight. Look at their goals. Early in the first period, Bryce Salvador takes a puck in his own end and throws it against the boards to no one. Not a great play but not really an awful one. Mikhail Grabovski takes it, passes it to Cody Franson at the left point, he throws it across to Mark Fraser at the right point, and Fraser shoots. An open Leo Komarov - thanks Marek Zidlicky - just re-directs it to beat Martin Brodeur far post for the game's first goal. Toronto doubled their lead in the third period. Salvador gets caught in a little pinch as Phil Kessel takes a puck off the boards. Kessel saw Tyler Bozak charging forward behind Steve Bernier and ahead of Peter Harrold - who initially moved the puck around the boards to begin with. Bozak breaks through, Harrold tries to impede him or foul him, and Brodeur goes low and keeps his stick on the ice for the shot. Yet, Bozak's close shot pops up and over the stick and drops just over the line. A literal bad bounce on a breakaway and a deflection gave the Leafs more than enough to win despite being out-shot by ten shots in all situations and out-attempted by 13 at even strength.
The Devils? Well, they were on their way to extending their goalless streak to a second full game until 11:30 into the third period. Zidlicky smartly jumps up on Jay McClement to intercept a breakout pass, rushed in, and fed David Clarkson forward. Clarkson smartly didn't immediately fire it, he skated towards the net as Cody Franson fell, and he shot it five-hole through James Reimer. It was a good goal from a guy who hasn't been scoring a lot of them as of late on a team that hasn't been scoring a lot of them as of late. Problem is, the team needed two goals tonight and that goal was it. And while the Devils took a lot of stupid shots, they also had plenty of ones in close, like Steve Sullivan being unable to lift a puck over Reimer's left pad in the first period or the several point-blank stops Reimer had to make off rebounds or loose pucks in the slot. The Devils pushed the tempo and drove the play at evens; while being down a goal helped in that regard, it was also because the Devils won battles on their dump-and-chase, they got stops in the neutral zone, and they even moved the puck pretty well heading into the zone. Within the offensive zone, not so much but it's not like they were dead awful at even strength. The power play will get it's own discussion point.
In an 82 game season, we're not so mad about this. It sucks but they'll eventually pull out of it. However, in a 48 game season that's ending in the next three weeks, we are understandably irate. The Devils are literally falling out of the playoff picture right before our very eyes. They need points, not good performances though good performances usually lead to said points. They need goals, not good performances though good performances usually lead to said goals. The Devils aren't usual this year, they're now winless in six, and the season's on the brink because of that and their earlier struggles in March combined with the teams formerly below them now getting results. You don't have to like it, I certainly don't like it, but it's the reality of the situation.
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 Charts
The Opposition Opinion: Well, Pension Plan Puppets readers are happy. Maybe there will be a recap. I don't know. Visit them anyway to get the feeling from the fanbase.
The Game Highlights: There were highlights and they're in this video from NHL.com. You should watch them if you'd like.
I Would Be Remiss If I Didn't Praise One Half of the Special Teams: The Devils' penalty kill was very good tonight. The Leafs got exactly two shots on net out of five power play opportunities that lasted 9:21. They attacked the Leafs players on the puck, they cleaned up loose pucks quite well, and they even got the puck forward. The Devils' PK only got one shot on net - and one big miss by Adam Henrique in the first period - but just getting time spent in their end is always good.
The Devils' discipline wasn't really out of control despite giving Toronto five power plays. Sullivan got tagged for a "slashing" call in that Cody Franson chopped on Sullivan's stick with his own and it broke. Travis Zajac got hit for tripping Phil Kessel even though Kessel was already going to ground before Zajac contacted him. The only really bad penalty the Devils took tonight was when Stephen Gionta grabbed Nikolai Kulemin in trying to win a puck in the offensive zone. It came not long after Clarkson's goal, so an already tall order was made tougher by forcing his team to defend and throw pucks away for two minutes. I wouldn't complain loudly about the officiating tonight since the Devils got five power plays and, well, the Devils wasted all of them.
The Power Play Isn't: Coaches don't influence shooting percentage, the Devils regularly win the possession battle at evens, and they continue to hold the opposition to a relatively few shots per game. I highly doubt Peter DeBoer is telling his guys to settle for bad angles on shots or to over-pass with the puck. However, I am absolutely baffled at whether the guys are listening to Matt Shaw on the power play. I'm assuming Shaw's telling them to shoot more. Tonight, the Devils didn't do that. They got one shot on net out of five power plays that lasted 7:31, including a 1:04 long 5-on-3 in the third period that did nothing and a 6-on-4 late in the game that yielded one cruddy shot and Patrik Elias attempting a shot ten feet above the left circle. I know Toronto has been a fantastic PK team this season. Still, they could have had many more than just the one shot out of five power plays. That didn't directly cause the loss but it most definitely contributed.
There were far too many passes, not enough initiative, and no confidence. One would think that after one or two shotless power plays, the players would just go for it a bit more when they had a shooting lane. Not this team. Nope. Patrik Elias has to make that blind backhand pass somewhere; forget looking. He and Henrique have to go cross-ice in the hopes of setting up a lay-up. David Clarkson has to be left on an island in front. The point men have to look like they're about to shoot, refuse, and pass it along. Steve Bernier doesn't even do anything with the puck.
Adding to the frustration was that the Devils did far better at even strength tonight. With a man advantage, they appeared to be tentative and tried to be too clever with the puck. In 5-on-5, they were more aggressive and subsequently more successful. After that 5-on-3 that was sandwiched by abbreviations of 5-on-4 situations that yielded no shots and plenty of boos, Stephen Gionta got set up for a great shot right in the slot with no issue. Maybe the Devils would have had that second goal if about 16 minutes of the game wasn't at even strength. But with five power plays, there at least have to be some shots on net. There wasn't even that. What in the world's going on?
A Promise I Probably Won't Keep: Regarding the power play and some of the decision making on offense tonight, remind me to not complain when Ilya Kovalchuk decides to take matters into his own hands and attempts a ton of shots per game with varying success.
Note for Clarkson: That goal you scored was pretty good. It was also one of two shots shot you had going towards the net - the other was that open shot in the slot in the first period that Reimer denied you on. Try to get more of those instead of firing long range shots above the circle.
I Thank Jerry in Advance: As you may or may not know, Jerry has been counting scoring chances for the Devils games this season. I don't know when he'll get to this game but I would be really interested in seeing the percentage of scoring chances out of shots on net were for both teams. It seemed to me that while the Devils may have had a few more than Toronto, the Leafs managed to get a higher proportion. Should that follow for the whole season, that could help explain in part why the Devils aren't scoring the goals they need to (need more shots in dangerous locations) and the defense doesn't look so good despite limiting their opposition to few shots on net.
Steamrolled: Mark Fraser has the luck. He played 16:41 at evens (!!), got out-shot 3 to 15 at evens, and managed to get a lower Fenwick (-12) and Corsi (-15) differential than the Leafs did as a team (-10, -13). The Devils loved playing against Fraser and Franson. The goal differential was even as his shot got re-directed in for the first goal and on the ice - but not responsible - for Clarkson's goal.
In other Leafs who got particularly wrecked in possession, Fraser's partner Franson suffered pretty badly. So did Kulemin, who finished at -10 Corsi and -9 Fenwick as the lowest among Toronto forwards. He also managed to get a late call for playing with a broken stick in the final minute of the game. Of course, the Devils did nothing with the two skater advantage in those 42 seconds so Kulemin escaped that error among others. Randy Carlyle should've also kept Dion Phaneuf out with Carl Gunnarson more often. Phaneuf finished at -3 Fenwick and -6 Corsi while Gunnarson was one of the few Leafs at even or better. I guess when you have to cover for Fraser and Franson being turned into paper defenders, the possession numbers are going to take a hit.
As for the Devils, well, only one skater really was in the red: Salvador. In addition to his small errors turning out to be costly, he finished at -5 Fenwick and -7 Corsi on a night where every other Devil was -2 (Gionta) or much better. In Salvador's defense (ha), those differentials were driven by Toronto missing and getting blocked. So at least it wasn't just pure shots that drove those numbers down - though the two goals against hurt. If you're a not-fan of Salvador, then you got justified in part tonight. Watch Peter Harrold get punished for that second GA - not entirely without cause since he didn't even foul Bozak on his breakaway - even though Salvador's pinch gave Kessel and Bozak the space needed for that play.
Good Devils: As far as who had a good night, look at Andy Greene being a boss again. 26 total minutes and the only time he wasn't good was as part of a power play unit that was terribly ineffective tonight. He was one of the best Devils in possession tonight while facing Bozak, Kessel, and James van Reimsdyk more often than the other Leaf lines. Henrik Tallinder only played 16 minutes tonight but he was so good in possession that I'd love to see him get a bump in minutes while someone like, say, Salvador takes a lesser role for a night. I'm not holding my breath. As much as I was annoyed by Elias' decisions with the puck (tip: it's cool to shoot it sometimes), his line managed to keep pushing the play forward over and over. He started with Sullivan and Andrei Loktionov; it got better when Loktionov got swapped for Travis Zajac.
The Debut of Sullivan: Steve Sullivan played his first game as a Devil tonight. He was active early but faded as time went on. You can tell he was still trying to get used to the team as he had some poor passes and decisions with the puck that undercut the offense early on. He did have a glorious chance to score in the first period, but he couldn't lift the puck. I think in a game or two, he'll be far more comfortable and be able to contribute more than just a shot on net. He was good in possession so he didn't hold Elias and Zajac/Loktionov back.
Second Period?: The Devils and Leafs played a 4-5 SOG second period. Yeah, while the Devils needed to attack more then, at least they held the Leafs to very little even with three power plays.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, but Goals, Man, How?: Since the defense and goaltending can't be absolutely perfect like their offense essentially requires, the offense has to score more. Otherwise, the losses will keep on coming short of a miraculous shutout or one of the greatest defensive performances is brought out by the Devils. That's a terrible plan and with it, the Devils have slipped out of a playoff spot.
Keep shooting, get more in dangerous spots, and keep shooting. Reimer was very good tonight but he needed more chaos in front of him and/or more chances. And if you're going to set something up on a power play, at least make the passes quicker to really catch the opposition PK and/or goalie off guard. Other than that, if I knew how the Devils could score more goals, then I'd be calling up everyone at the Devils to let them know. I don't and, sadly, neither do the Devils. Keep trying, I guess. You're not going to score without shooting; the power play proved that tonight.
I'm not going to ask any questions now; please just leave your thoughts on tonight's loss in the comments. Thanks to those who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thanks for reading.