What could have been. The New Jersey Devils were tied with the Chicago Blackhawks 1-1 after the first two periods. The game was loose and fast as both teams were able to get several open and close shots on Antti Raanta and Martin Brodeur, respectively. Given how some of the rushes went or one-on-ones developed, it was a testament to how well both goalies played that it was still 1-1. It was a testament to how the teams were finding spaces and creating chances over and over. It was a testament to how poor the defenses were as they sometimes straight up helped the offense do their thing. It was a testament to how well the Devils were playing against the best team in hockey, a team that flat out killed them last week.
Then the third period happened. In about six minutes, it all fell apart. The wheels fell off the bus. The bird's wings stopped flapping. The balloon deflated. The chair was no longer your son. All of the good goaltending and good offensive play and just-in-time defending just disappeared. In those six minutes, the Devils took only two shots with no sustained possession. They conceded a breakaway on the first shift to Patrick Sharp, two other shots, and three goals. The 1-1 scoreline that was representative of an otherwise evenly played game for forty minutes was blown up to a 4-1 horror.
The beginning of the mess on the scoreboard was entirely a bad break. Patrick Kane skated into the zone and threw a puck towards the net. While Marek Zidlicky correctly lifted Brandon Saad's stick, the puck bounced off both of their skates and up past Brodeur. There's little one could have done there.
There was plenty that could have been done for the second goal, a little over a minute later. Chicago's best line of the night pinned back the Adam Henrique unit along with Andy Greene and Mark Fayne. Greene knocked a puck out of mid-air with his hand, really just to get it away. It was easily collected by Duncan Keith. As the Devils skaters were seemingly discombobulated, Keith went D-to-D to Brent Seabrook, who had a gaping diagonal passing lane to Patrick Sharp on the goal line while Johnathan Toews was wide open at the crease. Seabrook hit it to Sharp and by the time Fayne realized he was caught out, Sharp fired it shortside from a sharp angle to beat Brodeur. Brodeur was slow to get to the post. Mitigating (not eliminating) blame was the fact he had Toews to contend with; had he went immediately to the post, Sharp could have easily hit Toews for a layup in front of the net.
The Devils struggled to find a response and one of their many lost pucks in the neutral zone in that stretch made them pay. Henrique tried to feed Michael Ryder along the boards on a breakout. Meanwhile, the defensemen were going for a change. The puck bounces off the boards and Keith gets it and fires a no-look backhand pass up ice to Sharp. It's a rush the other way with Henrique suddenly playing defenseman as Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne hurrying to get on the ice. Marian Hossa held back on the zone entry so he had plenty of space to get a pass from Sharp, figure out what part of the net might be open, and fire a fantastic shot to the top corner before a sliding Salvador could get in the way. Of all three goals, that one was the one Brodeur should have had. That was the really bad one as he saw Hossa all the way. Of course, there shouldn't have been a rush at all had Henrique been able to make a pass to an open teammate.
The nightmare nearly became a dream as the Devils finally realized the situation they were in. Amazingly, it was the bottom six that were awesome and Zidlicky managed to redeem himself (to a point) for all of the odd and bad decisions he made tonight. Andrei Loktionov fed a cutting Zidlicky to the net, who put it far post past Raanta less than two minutes after Hossa's goal. The Devils pushed harder. Stephen Gionta drew his second penalty of the night - an offensive zone hook by Kane - and Zidlicky sniped a shot to the top corner with 6:23 left. It was a one shot game and the Devils were rolling. The Loktionov unit nearly had the equalizer on the next shift. The Zajac line appeared to do something. The Blackhawks were held without a shooting attempt - until the nightmare returned for one last fright.
Zidlicky dumped the puck in, hoping to get it in deep. It was about the time of the game where one really starts thinking about pulling the goalie. Of course, dumping the puck in usually results in dumping it away. Keith collected it and fired it up to his left. Sharp was there, at worst, I think he was hoping just to get a clear so Sharp can touch it off to avoid an icing call. Jon Merrill wanted to be aggressive and attempted to pick off the puck. Like a cornerback in football, playing the puck instead of the man will burn you if you don't get the puck. Merrill didn't get the puck. Sharp was in all alone on a breakaway. Brodeur went aggressive himself with a pokecheck out of the net. Again, playing the puck instead of the man - or shooter, in this case. Sharp, a very skilled and swift forward, deftly avoided the pokecheck and put it in the net. You and I can't say for certain that Sharp would have been stopped if Brodeur didn't come out of his net with his stick stretched; but you and I can't also change what happened. Sharp began the third with a breakaway and he essentially ended it with a breakaway goal.
Honestly, going into this one, I didn't really have high hopes for the Devils. The Blackhawks are a fantastically talented team; their top players (namely Sharp and Keith) ultimately wrecked the Devils within minutes. The Devils didn't do well against them the last time and they had to go up against them without Patrik Elias. Yet, in the second intermission, I was rather hopeful. Brodeur handled all of the surprises and tough shots he had so far; the offense was getting great opportunities; and if the Devils could either tighten up their defense or get that one break, then perhaps they could take this one. I was thinking result even though I didn't think that way up until the puck dropped. Then the nightmarish start to the third immediately dashed those hopes. Good on the team to try and fight back, but it would have been far, far better if everyone from Brodeur to Henrique started the third better. Again, what could have been.
The Opposition Opinion: Patrick Sharp got a hat trick and was sensational. He gets plenty of deserved praise in Greg Boysen's recap at Second City Hockey.
The Game Highlights: Plenty of highs, lows, and some other stuff in this video from NHL.com:
CBGB Returned and Ruled: In my preview, I flat out said that the CBGB line wasn't a third line. To my surprise, they played a lot better than one tonight, even though they were used as one (check the ice times). Whether it was the return of Ryan Carter, the reuniting of all three guys, or (most likely) their matchups, they were just wonderful. They were all very good in possession. They combined for six shots on net. They drew three penalties against Chicago. Their fifth shift together, from 8:45 to 7:56 yielded the first true attack by the Devils in the game. They won pucks, attempted some shots, and got the crowd going. It was a shift of actual energy. Remember that whether you wonder effective play from a depth line More importantly, the line also hit Chicago on a counter-attack in the second period that led to Andy Greene getting ahead of Patrick Kane and scoring what was then an equalizer. It was their crowning moment.
Among the three, Stephen Gionta was the stand out player. He was brilliant. He was very good on the penalty kill. His pass to Greene was picture-perfect. He nearly did it again in the second period by feeding Travis Zajac, who made a similar move only Raanta got a piece of it. He denied a near-guarantee for Nick Leddy in the first period with his backcheck. Leddy was all alone on Brodeur's flank and just had to move the puck about a foot into the gaping net; but Gionta got back in time to have the puck get knocked away off his skate. On top of that, Gionta drew two penalties. The first made me laugh as Marcus Kruger decided that any time you have to grab Gionta's shoulder behind the net in your end, then you got to do it. That power play wasn't going too badly until a weak (and I mean weak) hooking call went against Jaromir Jagr. The second was important. While it was one of the poorer shifts from CBGB as the Kane unit pinned them back; Kane hooking Gionta did lead to a power play goal that made the game real interesting at 4-3. I'd say this was one of his best games since that 2012 playoff run.
The Fourths Killed It: Mattias Tedenby's time in New Jersey may be over as he was put on non-roster waivers. This (in addition to Anton Volchenkov going on retroactive IR) allowed the Devils to call up Mike Sislo. Sislo played instead of Cam Janssen on a line with Reid Boucher and Andrei Loktionov. All they did was everything but score, though they did set up a score. Boucher was utterly great with four shots out of seven attempts with an insanely awesome 16 to 3 attempt differential in 5-on-5 play. His play was so good, he got significant minutes on the power play. Loktionov was tenacious on the puck, which helped him spring Zidlicky for his first of the night. Sislo's NHL debut went well enough with two shots out of three attempts and an also awesome 14 to 5 attempt differential in 5-on-5 play. If Sislo can be positive and get a few shots in limited minutes, then he could even jump past Jacob Josefson. They played the sort of game that everyone claims to want from a fourth line. A unit that can spell the big minute players by getting the puck in deep to try and make something happen. They absolutely did for eight to ten minutes. I really hope I get to see them together tomorrow night. They may not do well in a fight, but skating circles around an opponent is more productive anyway.
The Flat Top Six: Unfortunately, I don't have as much praise for the top six. After a great game against Pittsburgh, Henrique, Ryane Clowe, and Michael Ryder had a poor night. All three were significantly out-shot and out-attempted. All three were on the ice for four goals and looked bad on two of them (especially the fourth one). Ryder alone looked bad for the first goal against, making a non-ideal decision by Eric Gelinas to pass the puck up the middle of the zone worse by trying to toe drag it past Toews. It didn't work as Toews threw it to Sharp, who sniped the puck into the net. It would be one thing if this line punched back almost much as they gave up, but they really didn't.
The Zajac line wasn't so much bad as they were ineffective. They had a really low event night. They combined for three shots. Zajac had the most attempts but he was off target. Jagr and Dainius Zubrus didn't really exert much force along the boards because, well, the play wasn't often there when they did get on offense. The good news is that they didn't give up much in response. The Blackhawks were held to very few attempts when they were out there. Whether that was by design or just fortune is up to you.
More Pucks, More Problems: Marek Zidlicky in a nutshell is a guy who has the puck on his stick a lot so he's prone to making more bad decisions than most. Like touch passes to no one at the point. Like forcing the puck through a defender and hoping your partner can deny the breakaway without taking a call. Like seeing an open man for seconds and still managing to throw a puck off his skates and not his stick. Like not really covering someone on D.
However, what gets lost in all of that are all of the good decisions he does make. And he made quite a few of them tonight. He had plenty of contributions himself with six shots on net, including two very good and what could have been important goals. What shocked me was how high his on-ice attempts were in 5-on-5 play. He was on the ice for 18 attempts. 18! Granted, only seven ended up on net but that's evidence of plays being made. There were plenty of near-misses for the Devils tonight and he had a hand in all that, whether it was keeping pucks in play or trying to throw it in himself. Eric Gelinas, his most common partner tonight, was similarly strong in possession but it was Zidlicky getting on the boxscore more. The designated gambler came out ahead tonight and that is what he's paid to do. Even if his poorer decisions stick out for being as bad as they were and cause frustration as they often do to me.
On Goaltending: I think both goalies will want to forget this third period. I cannot stress enough how good both of them were going into the third. Raanta would probably like that first Zidlicky goal back. Maybe even the Greene goal. Of course, Brodeur deserves more criticism since, hey, he gave up four goals on seven shots. I went over them in detail earlier since the third period was really the story of the game. I don't think the first two goals were bad ones and (I'm stretching a bit, admittedly), the third was a bad situation, I think he could have done far better on the last two allowed. While he had the better save percentage at even strength going into this one (this is a fact some stats people have ignored for reasons I don't know, I guess it doesn't fit a narrative) plus a very good performance, Brodeur wasn't good enough tonight. Spin it with however you'd like such as better talent, stronger opponent, and the skaters looking lost for six minutes; the goal remains the same: don't give them up. Brodeur didn't and so here we are.
With this night, the opportunity for Cory Schneider really opens up. It opened earlier last month, but he faltered. But the door is now re-opened. All he has to do is play well. He should most definitely be able to do so tomorrow.
As A Tack: Patrick Sharp was amazing. He was the best player on the ice on the best line on the ice. In 5-on-5 play, he was on the ice for ten attempts and all of them were shots on net. Five of them were his. Three of them were goals. One of the five that wasn't was a goal from Hossa, who also had five shots on net. Sharp came very close to scoring earlier in the game, but his shot rang off the post. Louder than any post I've heard at the Rock this season. Sharp was simply on fire as the Devils had no answer for him, Toews, or Hossa. Almost like everyone else in the league.
Speaking of other sharp players, if you want to see how dominating a defenseman can be without firing a shot on net, then get tape of Duncan Keith tonight. He was just a distributor all night long. He ended up with three assists and he got them in different ways. He constantly fed the puck up, he helped make that Toews line go forward, and he and Seabrook were, as expected, Chicago's best pairing. On a night where Devils defensemen scored all three goals, I left the Rock more impressed with Keith. That's not a slam on Greene or Zidlicky as Keith is arguably one of the best defensemen in the world right now.
Special Teams Success: I would be remiss in giving credit where credit is due if I didn't mention the Devils' special teams. They got into early penalty trouble when Fayne tripped, who else, Sharp and the bench followed that up with putting seven skaters on the ice. They shaped up after that, but a really weak hooking call against Jagr (I thought he got stick and not hand) during a power play in the second gave them an abbreviated power play for their third advantage of the night. The Devils conceded only two shots and a post across all three advantages. Given that Chicago has one of the most potent power plays in the league, that's really good.
Moreover, the Devils were able to take advantage of one of their power plays. They ultimately finished the night with six shots out of four opportunities. CBGB did a great job setting them up and the Devils only wasted parts instead of entire power plays. Zidlicky converted the fourth one, which was big at the time. Given that Chicago's penalty kill success rate is one of the lowest in the league, I can still say I'm pleased that a usually shot-challenged power play crew made something happen.
What Hercules Didn't: The crowd was remarkably good considering New Jersey and the New York Metropolitan Area was rocked by a quick and intense snowstorm last night. The weather was remarkably cold, windy, and still difficult to traverse after all of the plowing and salting with everything freezing. Yet, the Rock was close to being packed, the crowd was loud, and the atmosphere made the rollercoaster of bad dreams that was the third period more impactful. Too bad they weren't rewarded with a result but that's life.
Your Take: Before attention is paid to Buffalo, let's talk about this game. What is your take on how it all went down? Did you honestly expect a win before this game? How about after the second period? What did you think all went wrong in the third? What could the Devils have done differently? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? What do you think the Devils need to adjust for Saturday's game after what happened tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.