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Choking in Columbus: New Jersey Devils Lose Late to Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-5

The New Jersey Devils saw a 3-1 lead in Columbus turn into 3-4 early in the third. Despite plenty of offensive pressure, the Devils ultimately lost 4-5 in regulation. This unhappy recap tries to figure out how the Devils choked this game and any points away.

Pictured: the turning point of the game, as led by Brandon Dubinsky.
Pictured: the turning point of the game, as led by Brandon Dubinsky.
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

For the first time in quite some time, the New Jersey Devils built up a lead off a good start and looked good early against the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Travis Zajac scored on the game's first shot, a blazer that made Curtis McElhinney realize the game started.  The Devils continued to press for offense thanks to the Columbus Blue Jackets loose idea of defense.  If it wasn't for a post and a few fortunate lunges by McElhinney, the Devils could have blown the game wide open.  Columbus did get a fortunate bounce off Cam Atkinson's calf to tie it up, but the Devils responded when Michael Ryder pounded in a rebound created by an Adam Henrique shot.   The Devils were up 2-1 and feeling good.   And they made it 3-1 early into the second period thanks to Patrik Elias setting up Damien Brunner of all people.  The Devils up 3-1, the Blue Jackets seemingly coughing up pucks - especially from Fedor Tyutin - and the game was looking comfortable.

Well, it wasn't.  The game ended 5-4 in favor of Columbus.  In regulation, no less.  The Devils managed to choke away a 3-1 lead and didn't really muster much of a fight until they went down 4-3 early in the third.  Giving up three straight goals to erase a lead takes a team effort, as we saw way back in the Edmonton from October when it was four straight.  Some of it definitely falls on Martin Brodeur, some of it falls on skates not being in the right position, and some of it falls on the offense going limp. What was remarkable was that it was engineered by one line.  It was the line I highlighted in the preview, Columbus' best possession unit this season: Matt Calvert, Brandon Dubinsky, and Cam Atkinson.   The unit got the fluky first goal, a Dubinsky shot that Brodeur stopped and Atkinson's right leg was in the right place to have it ricochet back into the net.  The next three they scored were no flukes.

The second goal started with a faceoff win.  Jack Johnson fired a shot on net, Brodeur was all kinds of shaky as the puck got loose.  Atkinson got around his man to poke the puck through Brodeur.  An uncovered Dubinsky charged in to poke the puck in the crease into the net.  Less than a minute later, Anton Volchenkov takes a hit and was slow to get up.  Play continued behind the net.  Brodeur had to stay down in case of a wraparound, but Dubinsky switched directions quickly and saw Atkinson wide open by the right post.  Pass, legitimate shot, score and it's 3-3.  On their first shift in the third period, Eric Gelinas got caught in on a pinch as Atkinson sprung Dubinsky loose. He and Calvert off on a 2-on-2 rush, Brodeur denied Dubinsky while sliding to his left and left a big rebound.  Jon Merrill was caught flat footed as Calvert slammed it in to make it 3-4.  All were good plays by those forwards.  Out of Columbus' 23 shots, that trio had 11 of them, with six by Dubinsky alone. Not surprisingly, I thought those three were Columbus' best all night long. (And among them, I'd say Dubinsky was the best, he was flying out there.)

In between those goals, the Devils didn't really put up the pressure on McElhinney as they did in the first and third periods.  Columbus out-shot the Devils 13-7 and the disparity wasn't that big due to score effects.  It helped that the Blue Jackets managed to make a few passes going into the Devils' end instead of just dumping-and-chaging.  But the Devils got some real gifts from Columbus in their own end like in the first period.  Only, they didn't do much with it.  A few attempts went wide, but others didn't yield attempts at all.  I can understand a team being out-shot by that much if they were down by two for a long period of time.  But at 3-3, the Devils' offense didn't awaken until it was 3-4.

Fortunately, the Devils' offense did awaken. The Zajac and Elias lines bossed the Blue Jackets around to a total of 18 shots on net. We've seen games where the Devils wouldn't get that many total shots until the third period, never mind doing it in one period.  McElhinney was forced to be great and he almost came through under all of the pressure.  However, Brunner managed to reward the Devils' control with a put-back goal to make it 4-4 with a little over six minutes left.    Surely, the Devils could at least try to salvage something from the game.

Alas, Columbus' other top forward line had other ideas.  Peter DeBoer curiously decided to ice a five-man unit of Tim Sestito, Andrei Loktionov, Steve Bernier, Volchenkov, and Mark Fayne.   For all of the calls of wanting to see more minutes spread out, one would think a period where the Devils were out-shooting their opponent by well over ten shots is the time to do so.  Given that the defensemen have experience and play PK minutes along with two of the forwards got some PK time as of late, this isn't an atrocious core.  But they got owned by Ryan Johansen, R.J. Umberger, and Nick Foligno.  Johansen narrowly missed on a cross-crease attempt but he got a second chance at that play.  Foligno got in front of Volchenkov in the crease and Johansen's pass went off Foligno's skate and past Brodeur's left flank.  An unfortunate re-direction but it was the worst time to get pinned back for about a minute.

I'm sure you already are preparing comments, tweets, message board posts, notes, and e-mails about who exactly lost this game.  As you should; I mean, this is exactly what I do with my recaps.  I think the answers will range from Brodeur (five goals allowed on 23 shots), Volchenkov (though he got hurt prior to the third goal, it'd be harsh to fault him for that), a general lack of finish (despite scoring four on 34 shots), a lack of ability to hold onto leads late (though the Devils didn't lead late and that only happened, what, twice last week and rarely prior to that?), Scott Stevens (because of the D breakdowns, I guess it's the coach's fault) Peter DeBoer (putting out that unit late, I guess not pulling Brodeur/not starting Cory Schneider), and, worst of all, anyone who disagrees.  Well, let me say that they all (and perhaps some others) had a hand in this one.  So you likely aren't going to be wrong with whoever you point a finger at.  I'll be wide-ranging.  Ultimately, the team botched a great start, a 3-1 lead, an overall-strong offensive performance, two goals from Damien Brunner, and an opportunity to move up in the Metropolitan.  So I think they collectively gacked.  Some more than others, of course.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Devils Time on Ice Log | The Extra Skater Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Needless to say, Mike MacLean at The Cannon was surprised by what happened in Columbus in his recap at The Cannon. But he's certainly happy with the result.

The Game Highlights: Nine goals, lots of shots, and so there's plenty to see in this video:

Devils That Were Good: As unhappy I am with the team's loss, I have to say that there were plenty of good performances by the Devils.  A team doesn't lead in shots, 34-23, and in attempts, 52-28, without someone playing really well. It would have been great if the team didn't fade in the second, but still. So commence the sub-headings:

A Legend, A Very Good Center, and a Kid: I really liked what I saw out of Travis Zajac, Reid Boucher, and Jaromir Jagr.  Jagr's obvious.  Zajac's first shot was great and he was close to scoring a second.  I like how he shot the puck tonight.  Boucher looked his best in his short time in the NHL so far.  His little touch pass to Zajac in the neutral zone that led to his goal was great, he got involved along the boards, and he potentially had his first NHL goal denied by Fedor Tyutin's body.  I can't complain about the switch of Boucher and Dainius Zubrus in the third since the Zajac unit kept pounding Columbus, especially the Tyutin-Johnson pairing.

FINALLY: Damien Brunner scored his first goal since October 26 in Boston.  It was one-touch shot off a great pass by Patrik Elias down low.  Brunner scored his second later in the game, tying it up at four-all off a rebound.  Both were close to the net, he had another shot on net, and he was even seen along the boards and in his own end at times not being totally useless. Needless to say, this was one of his best games in a while.  I thought the tripping call he got was a weak one (I think Nick Foligno is still diving forward from it), so I'm not even mad about that.   I'm not saying he needs to score two goals in all future games - though, it would be fantastic - but it's this type of effort that will get him into better graces with the organization and the fans.  Go to the net, get some shots, and celebrate goals and not take offensive zone calls.

Also: I really liked what I saw from Patrik Elias in general.  His line nearly had as many strong shifts as the Zajac line, especially in the third period.  He moved the puck well, he got two on net, and created both of Brunner's goals. The big hope that I have from this game is that the Devils now have two forward lines performing well. This can really help going forward with not only scoring goals, but also pushing play ahead.  It'll make the Devils a tougher team to play against.  It is a hope and I can see some adjustments being made, but the top six tonight made me that hopeful.

No Surprise Here: Secondary assist aside, Jack Johnson was miserable tonight.  Fortunately for him, Tyutin was a turnover machine and the David Savard-Ryan Murray looked remarkably pylonesque at times. It is arguable he was not Columbus' worst defenseman tonight; but it is not arguable that he was bad.  Andy Greene, who's not even being considered for Sochi, was fantastic again.  He was on the ice for only seven shots on net in 5-on-5 play, including Atkinson's calf-goal in the first.  All he did was just make quiet stops, push the play forward, and keep pucks in the zone for more offense in the first and third periods.   Greene ruled again, Johnson sucked, and I'm still confused at the lack of love for #6 from USA Hockey.  If only he was a product of the system like Johnson. Oh well.

Brodeur Wasn't Good: I will say that I cannot possibly blame him for goals that go in off body parts.  Atkinson's calf and Foligno's skate on his flank are unfortunate bounces for anyone.  And I wouldn't fault any goalie for a one-timer right at the crease, regardless of whether the goalie was standing at the post.  But he was fighting pucks all night long.  He was all kinds of off.  He left a big rebound and took himself out of position prior to Calvert's goal. That goal really hurt because at 3-3, perhaps the Devils' offensive efforts would have been trying to get a lead instead of figuring out a comeback.  He was beaten in what would have been a coffin-nailer of a shot from Artem Anisimov, but he was bailed out by the post.    I cannot put the whole loss on Brodeur but he simply was not good.  With a back-to-back coming up, I hope he sorts it out as I don't see Cory Schneider taking on Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay on consecutive nights.

So What Happens Next: You review the tape, you make adjustments, and you prepare for the next one.  I know that's not a great response but it'll be what happens. At least the Devils will probably get a practice in to help sort it out.  For all we know, maybe they take points at the end of this week.  But for now, this stings - as it should.

Your Take: I'm sure you all have plenty to say about this one, so have at it.   Who do you blame the most for this loss? Please explain why so it's not just scapegoating, which helps no one, really.  Who do you think had the best game for the Devils? Please explain why because there can be many answers.  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this bad loss in the comments. Thanks to those who commented in the Gamethread as well as those who followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Even some of you who suddenly showed up when Columbus scored?