I've never been a proponent of the "New Jersey Devils can't play well in the second period" theory. Whilst I've never fully examined it, I felt it was more confirmation bias than anything else. The only tangible differences between the second period and the other two are that the Devils have the long change and both teams get a chance to adjust after the first. That alone surely can't be the reason why they've seemingly been pounded by a variety of opponents in the middle period. Right?
Yet, tonight's game has done a great job so far in trying to convince me otherwise with four unanswered in the second period The Boston Bruins got open men in prime positions on not just one, not just two, but three of their four goals tonight - all in the second period. On all four of them, you can spot which Devils skaters (and they were all skaters) blew it. The Devils lost tonight 4-1, here's the game summary and event summary are here, and as tempting as to leave it as "Devils played bad, Devils need to play better and fast," more needs to be said about tonight's game.
I'm sure some will look at the score, look at the stats, and conclude that Martin Brodeur was poor. They couldn't be more wrong, if anything he was left out to dry too much. You could have had a combination of legendary goaltenders in the past make up some kind of super-goalie in New Jersey's net tonight, and the Bruins still would score those same goals unless said super-goalie has ESP.
I know fans wanted to see Johan Hedberg start tonight; but look at it this way: Thanks to the Devils' team "effort" on defense in the second period, the decision of who to start ultimately didn't matter.
The Devils are now 1-4-1 overall and winless at home, which is historically bad per Rich Chere. Everyone's understandably upset. The offense has been generating plenty of shots and have had some good power play situations offered, yet the goals are sparse. The defense and goaltending has to be near-perfect because of the lack offense, and they have not been in one way or another so far this season (Buffalo excepted). The coaching staff hasn't made any head-scratching moves until tonight, but it's a results oriented business and the chatter against John MacLean is (unfairly) growing. There's been the cap problems, the injury problems, the attendance problems, and whatever other non-on-ice issues that has been going on. The implicit sentiment is "the sky is falling," and with only 1 win out of 6 to start the season it's an understandable one to have. Freaking out and panicking isn't going to get wins, but I sympathize. It's all we can do as fans as it's not our job to execute on the ice - it's the team's role. Something they clearly aren't doing well enough.
Basically, the Devils played a bad hockey game, and because they've only had one win so far this season, the anger and frustration magnifies the badness. Give credit to the Bruins, though. They've played a smart game tonight and fully deserved to win. Those at Stanley Cup of Chowder should recognize that Tim Thomas played well, the Bruins pounced when the Devils got a weak line out there, and they punished the lackadaisical red shirts in their own zone four times in the second period. Good job by the visitors. I've got more to say after the jump.
First, the goals themselves. The highlight video from NHL.com has them all,
but it's not up yet. I'll add it when it is. Here it is. I really like the videos the site provides, but it would be good if I didn't have to wait 2+ hours until the game is over to have it available.
Nevertheless, here is a quick summary of who to fault on each one. I've described the play as best as possible, though video will make it that much more clearer.
First, there's the Jordan Caron goal. Congratulations to him for getting his first NHL goal. Caron was right in the slot for the rebound on Johnny Boychuk's shot, which came off a poor clearing attempt by Henrik Tallinder. Tallinder was faching Boychuk, Andy Greene was on Patrice Bergeron, and Jason Arnott was just watching behind Caron. You can fault Tallinder for not clearing the puck properly, as most of the Devils pushed a little up thinking it would go out. But Arnott, you're 36, you know you need to cover the extra man down low - that's the center's job. As such, any momentum from the Devils goal less than 2 minutes prior was wiped away with Caron's equalizer.
Second, there's the Michael Ryder tally. This was a simple one-timer in the high slot that Ryder got enough elevation on to beat a laterally-moving Brodeur. The main error really wasn't Tyler Seguin getting the puck on the boards, but the pass he made to the high slot. Jason Arnott was a half a step slow or caught unaware or something, but his stick wasn't in that lane. Usually a player along the boards is either going to try to get the puck into the corners or outlet it. But Arnott's mistake wasn't nearly as bad as a Jamie Langenbrunner. The captain was right there with Ryder in front of him. He was in the position to make a play, preferably a stickcheck. He chose to watch Ryder unload a shot. The Devils go down 2-1 and the Rock is left wondering what's up with Jamie.
Third, there's the Shawn Thornton lamplighter. Matt Taormina's attempt at a clearance is blocked, and so Tallinder does the smart thing and hit Brad Marchand in the corner. Fine. Marchand got the puck around to Greg Campbell behind the net. Fine, guys can't score from there. But guys can make plays from there. Taormina is in his position on the right, but Campbell just passes it into the circle past an outreaching Taormina and an unaware Travis Zajac. Zajac came in deep, isn't facing towards any potentially streaking players, and didn't get a stick or his body in the lane. That's not fine at all. So Campbell's pass was an easy one to a streaking Thornton who puts another one-timer in the back of the net. Why was Zajac going deep instead of worrying about the circle? Since he went deep, why did he keep his back turned to the rest of the rink while not putting anything in the lane? Why, Zajac, why?
Fourth and thankfully finally, there's the Milan Lucic blast. Alexander Urbom attempts a clearance that was impeded by traffic but got to Patrik Elias. Elias loses the puck at the blueline (so it didn't go out) to Andrew Ference, so it goes a few feet along the sideboards. Nathan Horton was along the boards, Arnott was nearby to check him, and Urbom is in front of him. Elias is behind the action, and Lucic is a few feet out acting as the outlet for Horton. Oh, and behind Urbom is David Krejci who has nobody within 10 feet around him. Horton, despite being hit (the right play by Arnott, mind you) gets the puck up along the boards to Krejci. Realizing this, three Devils are now converging to the center with Lucic ahead of all of them. He flys cross ice and only Matthew Corrente is in the area. Corrente attempts to thwart the pass, missed, and Lucic got behind Corrente's flank to put a one-timer past Brodeur's right flank. Take your pick on the Devils to fault: Elias for not getting the puck out, Urbom for committing to the sideboard play without being along the boards, and Corrente for playing the pass instead of the man.
There's a common thread in all of these goals: bad decisions on defense.
The Devils weren't outshot too badly in the second period, 16-14, but focus on that first number. 16 shots on net by Boston. That's too many, just like giving up 35 in total. Obviously, it wasn't just the goal scoring plays where the Devils botched things up in their own end. The errors were the most glaring in the second period with spottiness in the other two periods.
Two shifts in the second where the Devils got pinned back in their own end stuck out to me, and I'd like to explain both to further paint the picture of the Devils' defensive ineptitude in tonight's game. The first instance involved Colin White, where his stick was broken and so was left to just standing in the left side of the slot looking, well, usless. I can understand that Colin White can't go back to the bench - especially during the long change - when Boston's in their zone, but how come no one gave him a stick to help him out? Colin White has been the team's best defender all season, the best one tonight, and no one's willing to give him a stick so he could do something about the Bruins cycling ont hat shift. Terrible. Then this situation happened again not long after, where Ilya Kovalchuk's stick broke and he was just hovering about while the Devils were pinned back. I know you don't want to leave the point open, but if anyone's fast enough to retrieve a stick, it's him. Yet, he hung back and no one offered him a stick to at least help out.
So while the Bruins were continuing to pick up sloppy clearances (a "feature" of the second period), the Devils essentially were shorthanded twice in 5-on-5 situations - and did nothing about it. Boston continued to pressure until Brodeur made a save he could freeze the puck on. While so many more shifts throughout the game were extended by bad clearing attempts and poor coverage, those two really stick out in my mind because both were the cherries on top of the pile of trash that would represent the defense tonight. Fortunately, the Bruins didn't score on either, but it wouldn't have shocked any Devils fans tonight if they had.
It's tempting to say that some players are new to the NHL or they're new in NJ or they just need some time to generate chemistry. I don't buy that. A lot of this, if not all of this, is simple. Cover open men. Clear pucks off the boards if you can't make a pass. Don't half-heartedly hit the puck on defense on a clearing attempt. Get a stick or a body in a passing lane. All of the players have been playing hockey at various levels of skill long enough to know what they should and shouldn't do. The idiocy in their own zone is not on John MacLean or whoever else you want to blame. That's completely on the players.
I will say that MacLean does have one thing to answer for: What in the world did Ilya Kovalchuk do wrong to be relegated to a non-scoring line? On Friday night, Kovalchuk was largely with Zach Parise. At even strength, the two were fantastic at outshooting their opposition. The Corsi charts from Vic Ferrari's Time On Ice prove this; the team outshot Colorado 12-5. Tonight, Kovalchuk saw more shifts with Jacob Josefson and a rotating right wing. At first it was David Clarkson, but by the third period, MacLean mixed it up a bit with Jamie Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias at times. Clarkson hasn't been doing great, Josefson's a rookie, and Kovalchuk literally can't do it all himself. Whenever those three got on the ice, the Bruins just steamrolled them. As noted in tonight's Corsi chart, Kovalchuk got outshot 4-13. It's a Brodeur-ian wonder they didn't get scored on; though Kovalchuk ended a -2 in a handful of shifts where he was out with others (not that Kovalchuk had anything to do with the goals against, as explained earlier).
Replacing Kovalchuk's spot next to Zajac and Parise was Dainius Zubrus. Zubrus did OK, and he even scored the lone goal by New Jersey tonight. He put back a rebound on a Zach Parise shot to open the game in scoring. So it's not like the line was a waste; they did combine for 9 shots tonight too. But they weren't as dominant as the ZIP line was on Friday (Boston's defense being stronger than a cardboard box was a big factor in that, true), and the offense in general still created only one even strength goal. The attack was seemingly out of sync and despite getting 30+ shots on net, the lack of pucks going in continues to frustrate and hold the team back. I understand the decision to change things up when things aren't going well. I just don't understand giving Kovalchuk (15:35, 15 shifts) less time and fewer shifts than Rod Pelley (16:13, 18 shifts). I don't understand keeping the same line or pairing of forwards together when the other team keeps bossing them around.
I'd also question how little time Elias-Arnott-Langenbrunner got, except their collective errors in their own end really helps answer that question. Like the rest of the attack, they got a few shots on net (4 combined, 3 by Arnott) and were largely inconsequential because the pucks didn't go in.
If you must demand that a Devil coach be called out, why not Adam Oates? Sure, the penalty killers were perfect tonight. But the power play continues to be the bane of this franchise's last decade and I'm not seeing what effect Oates has had on them. I know the team hasn't had the time to practice in the last 48 hours. I'm a believer of setting up great shots on the power play. However, the Devils totally wasted a 5-on-3 near the end of the first period by passing way too much. One shot? Really? They put up 6 more in 5-on-4 situations; but given the offense's struggles, the PP guys have to bomb the net more. Not from the point, where the crowds scream "SHOOT" ignoring there being 4-6 guys in the shooter's path. But a few more from sharper angles, if only to create more advantageous rebounds. I don't think the problem is as simple as not having a player to sit in front of the goalie; it's a systemic and mental issue. The PP needs to be drilled and Oates has to figure out what needs to change to at least get them more dynamic.
So once again, the Devils' attack is dulled by strong goaltending and inconsistent rushes; the defense played dumb for at least a period and the team paid the price; and the fans deservedly booed the performance on the ice. They go follow up one of their better games of the season with one of their poorer ones, capped off by a third period of "meh."
In a way, a four day break in the schedule couldn't have come at a better time. The team can fully practice, the players can clear their heads, and the coaching staff can begin to sort out what they can and can't fix. I'm sure the process has already begun, given this report by Tom Gulitti. Though, I think I speak for many when I say that as much as I like what the players have said in that report, I'd rather see improved play. Based on the goals allowed and the general defensive performance, it could be as simple as the players just getting the simple stuff right in their own zone. As for the offense, all I can say is look at what they did right on Wednesday and Friday night and try to emulate that.
I'm not going to call for the panic button because making a panic move like firing the coach or benching a player or two or changing the captaincy may feel cathartic now, but it's not going to fix the real issues with the Devils' performance right now. That said, the wins need to come soon. Starting in Montreal next Thursday.
Thanks for reading this recap. Please share your feelings, observations, and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.