The big news surrounding the New Jersey Devils going into today's game with the Pittsburgh Penguins was that between Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond's suspension and the injuries to Brian Rolston and Anton Volchenkov suffered on Saturday night, the Devils may play with only 15 skaters. That's exactly what the Devils did, they iced 9 forwards and 6 defensemen in front of Martin Brodeur.
The 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh was not solely caused by the shorthanded roster, but it was a contributing factor. A fourth line of forwards may not get a lot of minutes, but an energy line of sorts spells the rest of the regulars for a few shifts. A good one can shake up the opposition a little bit and force them to change their matchups. Instead, the Devils had only three lines and it wasn't until John MacLean (wisely) mixing up his forwards in response to Pittsburgh's matchups where they got some offensive success.
I know injuries (and whatever Leblond was thinking) wasn't management's fault; but painting the team into a corner where they had to use 15 skaters is. I hate to be an I told you so, but I did say this could be a problem last week. Guess what? It's a problem - right now. With games on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday either we're praying Rolston and Volchenkov are healthy soon or Lou needs to make a move for space. The Devils have no reason not to take initiative and make that needed move now.
Still, there's something to be said for a shorthanded roster being able to hang with a talented and hungry team like the formerly-winless Pittsburgh Penguins. They turned it up in the third period, just when you think the fatigue would settle in, finally got a goal to inspire the rest of the team and excite the crowd and had everyone believing until the final 10 seconds of the game. Some can say that this team has something, that it may take some time and a few lucky breaks to turn everything around. That someone is likely an optimist. Anyway, a quick look at the game summary and event summary from NHL.com shows some positives and I'll go into more detail in a little bit.
Nevertheless, this is a results-oriented business and the Devils didn't get the desired result despite their roster situation. The Penguins did, and as such Frank D and the people at Pensburgh are rightfully pleased. As much as we can gripe about the lack of cap space, I must say that the performance of the players today was directly at fault for the loss today. Read on after the jump for additional thoughts on what went wrong (and right) in today's game.
First, in case you missed today's game or you'd like to see the important points, here's a highlight video from NHL.com:
Now that's established, let's focus on the goals themselves for a bit. The first one was pretty awful. It comes near the end of a first period where the Penguins really established their offense to the tune of 15-8 in shots. After a long shift in New Jersey's end, the Devils finally get the puck out of the blueline. Ilya Kovalchuk has it and instead of dumping it while the Devils change, he tries to manuever out of a jam between two Pens. Instead, Eric Tangradi takes it away, sets up Alexander Goligoski, and fires a shot off Martin Brodeur's glove and in. The goal reflects badly on Kovalchuk and Brodeur, since the former coughed it up and the latter could have made the stop. You can even assign a little blame to the rest of the line for changing before the puck got past center ice; but really, Kovy should have even risked the icing instead of holding onto it.
That said, Brodeur redeemed himself more than just a few times in this game. He's made more than his fair share of big stops, be it on Pittsburgh's 6 power plays (more on this a little later), their 23 other shots at even strength, and one dicey one shorthanded when the Devils gift-wrapped a breakaway. Kovalchuk didn't get on the scoresheet, but not for a lack of trying with 4 shots on net in 21:04.
I do feel terrible for Brodeur, Henrik Tallinder, and the Devils' penalty killers on the second goal against. Kris Letang finds Eric Letestu at the point and just fires a low slapshot through traffic. Brodeur makes the stop but the puck bounces up, onto Tallinder's skates, and in. Tallinder wasn't in the wrong place, Brodeur - again - made the stop on the shot, and yet a bad break gave the Penguins their sole PPG and a 2-0 lead early in the second period.
All game, the Devils penalty killers did a great job. The Penguins got 5 5-on-4 chances for 9:16 and even a 1:22 long 5-on-3 chance just before halfway through the game. The Devils PK unit were strong at getting to loose pucks, clearing them down, and quickly getting on and off for shifts. They held the Pens to only 6 shots on the power play, which is really impressive given that a sixth of the game involved a Penguin man-advantage. I do not fault Brodeur, Tallinder, or the PK units. They did their job on that half of special teams.
Of course, the flipside of that coin is that the Devils gave the Penguins 6 power play chances. Honestly, from where I was sitting, the only weak call was the tripping call on Colin White that led to the longish 5-on-3. Though, I suspect if I saw it on TV with the benefit of multiple replay angles, that perhaps it was legit. Four tripping calls, two holding calls, and I'd say only Elias' tripping call was necessary as it stopped a Penguin from firing a puck in the slot. That's poor discipline and as much as we can praise the Devils for closing down Pittsburgh's PP short of a fluke goal, that's 10:38 where the Devils were in a defense-first mode and weren't able to attack. That has to be addressed.
The other half of special teams wasn't as good, though. The Devils only got two power plays, did managed to get 6 shots on net, and even a few right in the slot. They also managed to hand the Penguins two breakaways on their second power play. Given that it was 2-0 Pittsburgh at the time, Devils fans were understandably unhappy and breathed a sigh of relief when Craig Adams missed an easy chance for a third, would-be-back-breaking goal. I liked the first one since the Devils got some offensive possession in a period otherwise owned by Pittsburgh, but the second one nearly nailed the coffin shut thanks to some horrid puck movement.
Puck movement, in a way, undercut the Devils for most of the game. Yes, the Devils fans didn't get into the game (Aside: being down 2-0 will do that to most fanbases, as well as scheduling a game at 4 PM on a day that's not really off for most people - the reported 12,880 was an accurate number) until Patrik Elias let loose with a bomb off a faceoff win. It certainly lifted the players, and inspired them to fly for the next 10 minutes regardless of stamina. Good thing it happened as Pittsburgh got the better of the Devils in the first period, scored late in the first, and early in the second. How? The Penguins were superior in moving the puck up ice and around on offense. The Devils' dump and chase was inconsistent until later in the game, whereas the Penguins were mixed up their approaches. The Penguins were able to match up well with the Devils and while the home team got a few chances, the Penguins methodically came back and made attempts to shoot when they got in New Jersey's end. The cycle kept repeating as the Penguins' D got more stops. Again, good passing made it possible and generally good passing leads to good shots.
This was more apparent in second period. It was spent with each team dodging the occasional bullet, as passes went astray with seemingly constant bouncing pucks. This affected both teams, but it hurt New Jersey more since they were down 2-0 and so struggled to penetrate the Penguin blueline instead of hitting back with a goal. When a team is unable to string two or three passes together, it's a sign things aren't going so well and a needed goal wasn't likely. It wasn't until the third period where the Devils tightened up their own passing and forced the Penguins more and more with increasing momentum. They still missed a few direct passes here and there, but the mixing up of the forwards was successful in getting Pittsburgh off their game a bit to get those shots. Hence, the home team led 15-8 in shots in the third; mirroring the first period. Going forward, though, they need to be calmer in moving the puck
To be fair, ex-Devil Paul Martin (26:42, many boos from the home crowd, and an empty-net goal), Goligoski (27:19 & a goal), and Kris Letang (25:19) were seemingly constant presences on the ice. Dan Bylsma trusted them enough to give each over 25 minutes and sent them out against the top two lines on New Jersey. I wish I had a Corsi chart to see how they really did, but Bylsma wouldn't have kept using them if they were getting pounded.
Those three are also a reason why the line of David Clarkson-Dainius Zubrus-Rod Pelley looked good early. Since they were put out for the top two units, they didn't get to see those three too much. Good thing they tried to make the most of it. It's also why MacLean's jumble of the forwards worked so well later in the game. Those three gave the coach the confidence to give them more minutes. Zubrus was especially good with 3 shots, 9 for 12 on the dot, and a whole lot of battles won for pucks. It meant no forward had to put up a 25+ minute game with the pressure to get something going. I wish MacLean figured it out a little sooner, but eventually the adjustments worked out.
Alas, a late equalizer like last season's third game was not to happen. Travis Zajac came the closest with a sweet deke that even beat Brent Johnson, but he couldn't curl the puck past the post from behind the goalline. Full credit has to go to Johnson for how he performed tonight. The Devils gave him more than just a few good chances, they stormed him in the final 10 minutes, and the only time he got beat was a blast through traffic. He got the first star of the game and fully deserved it.
He wasn't the only Penguin to have a good game. The Devils can say they kept Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet, but the two combined for 9 shots (5 for Malkin, 4 for Crosby) on differing lines and drew a couple calls. Goligoski, in addition to eating dumpster-loads of minutes, wasn't afraid to shoot with putting 5 (and 1 goal) on Brodeur from distance. Mark Letestu was lucky to score, but that he got 6 shots on net despite playing 15:13 is more of a measure of his work ethic and talent. I don't know how the Pens feel about his future, but his performance would be one to put in the "he's good" column.
That four Penguins combined for nearly two-thirds of their shots on goal, however, is not good at all. Sure, two are all-world players. Goligoski and Letestu, on the other hand, are not. The defense can be glad that they didn't have a period where they turned the puck over repeatedly or make a critical error that led to a goal against. They can be lauded for nobody getting overworked, Matt Taormina not looking too terrible, and even Mark Fraser keeping his wits about him on the PK. You can even say They still have some work to do.
Ultimately, that's where this game lies for New Jersey. Were there good points in the performance? Sure. But improvement in some ways isn't enough. The team's still winless to start the season and have three more games in the next 6 days. They can continue to improve, and I hope they do. It's got to start leading to something. Management can help out by getting the roster closer to 12 forwards, but the players need to sharpen up their discipline, puck movement, and recognizing who's carrying the play on the opposition. Both would go a long way to getting that first win. Something the Devils will need very, very, very, very soon.
Feel free to add your thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. List who you thought did well and didn't do so well. Discuss certain plays or tendencies you've noticed. Talk about what the Devils should take away from this game for Wednesday's match-up. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread; and thank you for reading.