I will say in plain language what was obvious to viewers of tonight's game: The performance from the New Jersey Devils was not good enough tonight. They played worse than the Phoenix Coyotes for a majority of the game. They deserved to lose this game. I state this upfront in the faint hope that I don't have to read statements that may mean the same but don't actually mean it.
I am referring to the classic "They didn't show up tonight," and the similar "They didn't put in an effort." I get what you mean but that's not actually true. The Devils did show up, it's just that they were beaten by their own silliness. The start of the game was dreadful. It wasn't a case that the Devils were disinterested and just wanted this four game road trip to end. No, it was clear what went awry. They just couldn't string three passes together, much less find Mike Smith in the net. Jon Merrill looked like an AHL rookie in deep, which led to a bang-bang one-timer from Jordan Swarz from the circle through the goalie early on. Martin Brodeur conceded a goal to a player I forgot was still in the league (Jeff Halpern) that he should have stopped for sure. The defensive coverage was absolutely abysmal. Men were missing their assignments and so there were open men in maroon in the slot. The Devils should have lost the first period 3-0 or 4-0 by the way they were playing. I understand this may be picky, but it wasn't a case of not trying, it was a case of being ineffective.
This can be seen in what happened in the final few minutes of the first. The Devils managed to stop leaving opposing players open in space. Brodeur started making some stops. They were able to move the puck properly through the neutral zone. They started putting shots on net. A call was drawn, an Eric Gelinas shot was deflected by Michael Ryder and the puck bounced to Ryane Clowe on the wing. He put it home to make it 1-2. The Devils started to play better, they made the most of an opportunity, and made it a game. Simple as.
The good plays continued into the second period. The Devils started firing harder and higher shots on Smith, which helped leave many rebounds. The Devils pushed to get to them, but the Coyotes defense got in the way enough or the positioning wasn't just great. Yes, a goalie leaving rebounds can leave opportunities but they can't be controlled well. But the Devils were doing good things. However, Phoenix responded to the Devils' surges by about halfway through the period. They attacked more, Brodeur made more stops, and then Marek Zidlicky decided to high-stick Mikkel Boedeker right in front of a referee. Phoenix's power play was good and they converted this one. Martin Hanzal got behind the defense, tipped Keith Yandle's shot, and then jammed in his own partially-created rebound. A bad play bit the Devils, put them down 3-1, and the Coyotes just kept on attacking. As the 14 shots are evidence of the Devils trying to tie it up and cut the lead to one, the Coyotes' 15 shots are evidence that they were more than keeping New Jersey honest.
Ultimately, Mike Smith and a lot of scrambling Coyotes players warded off the Devils throughout the third. And I do mean warded as there was a long stretch of the third where the Devils did little on offense. Phoenix didn't do much either; they did get only two shots on net in the third. But from their standpoint, they could afford to sit back. They could afford to just focus on preventing The Devils did put up a dramatic finish in the final two and a half minutes. DeBoer pulled Brodeur early, Jaromir Jagr put home a shot to make it 3-2, and the Devils scrambled to find a second late goal. Shots, blocks, passed up shots including one major non-attempt by Zidlicky, and there was none.
Now, please read through that game summary again. The Devils did not just loaf around the ice and only pushed at the end. 35 shots on net out of 73 attempts by a team who doesn't do a lot of either in most games is not congruent with a totally poor effort even with score effects. There were certainly lulls in the second and third periods; but they happened to both teams. Let's keep it simple. The Coyotes took advantage of a bad start by the Devils. The Devils tried to get back into it but since their big flaw this season has been scoring - even strength, power play, shootouts - the deficit was too much. They dug their own grave by playing bad, the Coyotes threw them in the hole by playing good, and so the result held because the hole was too deep. Hence, the title. Hence, the team's first regulation loss since January 4. Hence, why so many Devils fans are unhappy. I get it. I get all of it. So at least give me the small solace of not using that phrase. Just say what happened.
The Opposition Opinion: Please check out Five for Howling for their take on tonight's game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's the game highlight video:
Cory Should Have Started But I Don't Think It Changes the Result: Brodeur conceded the far post to Jeff Halpern and paid the price for his foolishness. I didn't like the Swarz goal going through him, though I hestitate to call it soft since it was a one-timer from just to the side of the slot. I'd put more blame on Merrill just getting beaten by Kyle Chipchura to a puck he should have had to begin with. The Hanzal goal, well, that was more of a jam. But no, Brodeur was not good to start this game and he helped in the losing effort. I didn't want Brodeur in initially; I would have preferred Cory Schneider to get this start.
That said, Brodeur managed to stop some shots he probably should not have, if that makes any sense. Shane Doan had a number of great chances denied by Brodeur. In addition to robbing the Coyotes legend, he somehow denied Radim Vrbata off a cross-ice feed that resulted in Patrik Elias spitting some verbals at Zidlicky after it was frozen. Brodeur got beaten on shots you would have wanted him to stop but he stopped shots that would have beaten almost any goalie short of luck favoring them. So as much as I can say that Schneider should have started - and it's really easy to say that now - I can't say I think it would have made the difference between a loss and a win. The bad first fifteen minutes or so were a team effort.
Bearded Jagr: I think Jaromir Jagr should shave soon. That aside, it was a good night from the legend. Perhaps the best among the skaters? He made the game possible on the scoreboard late. I felt the tripping call against him was rather weak given how much Halpern exaggerated. He had three other shots on net. I enjoyed his play as usual.
Admission: I never would have thought Jeff Halpern would have that much of an effect on this game. I don't know if Halpern thought he would either. So it goes.
Not Bearded Clowe: The other skater I thought looked the best was Ryane Clowe. He scored the power play goal in the first period, a perfect "right place, right time" goal. Smith was leaving rebounds but being a bit too early or late, or a bit too much to the left or right makes the difference between a goal and not a goal. Clowe got that one. He could have had a second. In the second period, Smith pulled a Hedberg, Clowe tried to put it out for a quick shot, it bounces off Yandle's shin, and goes right off the post instead of into the net. That was unfortunate. In the third, on the Devils' second power play, he hammered a one timer that Smith just had to get a piece of. It was a real blast from the right circle and I really thought he had a chance to light the lamp. Smith was fortunate to get it, in my opinion. I'm heartened by his performance because he's continuing to contribute to the team.
Who Was The Worst Among These Three?: Jon Merrill started off roughly. In addition to getting beat prior to the first goal, he was just out of sync at moving the puck. He would make passes to where guys weren't. He was doing quite a bit of chasing in his own end. I will say he got better as time went on, but he was an early man to be picked on.
Bryce Salvador was bad tonight. Hanzal getting behind him did the most damage, obviously. However, at evens, Salvador was just licked. The Devils were out-shot 3-11 when he was on the ice. His concession of a 2-on-1 near the end of the second period stood out to me as his worst play at evens. Again, Phoenix laid off in the third but the captain definitely could have been a lot better.
Marek Zidlicky, well, well, well. I still want to scream at him for not shooting the puck with a clear lane with about 20 seconds left. Seriously, it's a 6-on-5 situation and you need a goal. Don't pass it to a Coyote in the middle of the slot so he can clear it. Shoot! But Zidlicky managed to have an overall negative game. Like Salvador, the team was out-shot (6-15) when he was on the ice by an ugly margin. His lack of coverage drew an on-ice chewing by Elias. While Brodeur should have stopped the shot, Zidlicky was rather passive when Halpern drove wide to shoot for his goal. He also took his requisite minor penalty, which notably dumb as he high-sticked Boedker right in front of the referee. Unlike Salvador and Merrill, Zidlicky actually managed to do some good work on the Devils' power plays. I can say that was good from him.
Hmmm: Stephen Gionta only played 9:09 at evens. Ryan Carter played only 8:43 at evens. Anton Volchenkov actually drew the short stick of ice time with 6:16. Gionta and Carter were not good and so I think they fell to the eleven forward reality. Volchenkov did just come back from food poisoning, so it's possible he was being used sparingly. Though that's still really low ice time even for him. I don't think Andrei Loktionov makes a difference in tonight's game, but if Volchenkov was going to be used so little, then why not give him an extra night off?
Did Boucher Work on the Top Line?: No. With all due respect to the guy, I know he's a rookie and all, but when Damien Brunner is back, then he should be going upstate.
The Surprisingly Good Power Play: Five shots on net in two advantages and a goal. The Devils were able to maintain possession in the zone and actually gain it without it being an ordeal. The only complaint I have is why Eric Gelinas only got 18 seconds of power play time. I know the second power play were two long shifts, and the Devils were actually moving it in closer than needing 50-60 foot blasts from the Truth. That said, I would have liked to have seen more of Gelinas in those spots. It helps justify the usage of seven defensemen (Gelinas did play a little over 14 minutes), Gelinas did help create Clowe's goal in the first, and The Truth could have provided yet another option. In the big scheme of the game, it didn't turn out to be a big omission. Just a note. If the Devils really want to please me with their power play, they should try to be able to get set up more often.
Assorted Coyotes Praise: Smith obviously deserves credit. He made all of these stops. I was also impressed with Zybnek Michalek. He was present at both ends and good things often happened for his team when he was out there. Keith Yandle had to do a lot of defending in his own end, but I thought he held up pretty well. Maybe not I-should-be-going-to-Sochi-Burkie good, but good all the same. Doan may have been robbed, but that also means he was in great positions to score, so he did well. Those four stood out. In general, I liked their approach, they did well for the first 40 and they held up late even if it meant going for the Tortorella Special (selling out for any and all blocks).
Road Trip Ender: So the Devils end the road trip at 1-1-2, which isn't at all ideal. I will say that if the Devils weren't on such a bubble, then we could just write this loss off and be done with it. Alas, all points matter and it's another lost opportunity. Unfortunately, the next home game is against a really, really good St. Louis team. At least I'll be at the Rock and I won't have to endure the same commercials over and over.
Your Take: What do you take away from this loss? What do you think the Devils need to differently to score more and not put themselves down deep in a hole early? Who was the worst Devil? Who was the best Devil? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.