Over the past few games and in several games in past seasons, I've highlighted the following occurrence of events that resulted in the New Jersey Devils getting out played for large stretches of a period or periods. It comes like a cycle for minutes at a time. Here's a general summation:
- The opposition attacks with the puck and the Devils forced to defend in their own end.
- Devils eventually get the puck on defense, either after a save, picking up a rebound or loose puck, or taking the puck out of a battle.
- Devils either just get the puck away (e.g. a dump-and-change, just a clearance), misfire a pass involving the neutral zone, or fail to gain the offensive zone. Possession is lost shortly after gaining it.
- The opposition collects the puck.
- Repeat: The opposition attacks with the puck and the Devils forced to defend in their own end.
Because the Devils concede possession right back to the opposition in this sequence, I call it a Cycle of Concession. It's not a good place for the Devils, or anyone else, to be in. You'll notice there's no offense (or very little) in it for New Jersey, but plenty for the taking for the other team. The above can happen to any team and it does happen to everyone from time to time. This cycle essentially explains how a team could, say, out-shoot their opposition 17-8 in one period and then get out-shot 9-4 in the next. If that sounds familiar, then it should; it's the shot totals from the first and second periods of the Devils' 2-1 shootout loss to Ottawa. While the Devils remain one of the top teams in the league when it comes to fewest average shots against per game, it's nonetheless frustrating to watch. Hockey is a flowing game and mistakes, miscues, and misses are quickly responded. It only occurs to me now that it's better show examples than to explain it. So for today, let's look at some of the more notable shots the Devils have allowed.
All of these videos come from NHL.com. Given that only highlights are readily available online, the Devils blowing passes and clearing pucks away to the other team doesn't often make the cut. I will admit this isn't an be-all, end-all collection of what I'm talking about. I just want to point out a few recent examples of how the Devils give up the puck and suddenly find themselves back on their heels, hoping Brodeur or Hedberg comes up with a save.
Example 1: Breakout Pass Intercepted
Game: February 12, 2013 vs. Carolina
The Description: Early in the game against Carolina, Anton Volchenkov settled the puck in his own zone and passed it to his partner, Marek Zidlicky before the forechecking Tim Brent got to him. Zidlicky sees Bobby Butler beyond the red line and fires a pass. The pass is intercepted by Andreas Nodl. Nodl settles the puck and waits for Zidlicky to come at him before playing it forward. Brent got on-side as this happened so he was able to get the puck behind Zidlicky and put a good shot on Martin Brodeur.
It's not clear what happened prior to Volchenkov collecting the puck, there was no event recorded by the scorer. Perhaps Carolina just dumped it in. Perhaps it was a waved-off icing call. But whatever it was, the Devils had it in their own end. The pass by Zidlicky wasn't bad, Nodl just got into the lane at the right time to jump it. As it so happened, Nodl timed his pass off the boards real well to Brent getting on-side. The interception not only kept the play going against New Jersey but that second aspect caught the Devils off guard. Had Brent had some support, it could have been a dangerous odd-man rush. Fortunately, he kept to the outside, Krys Barch of all people was cutting in, and the shot wasn't too bad. It was early enough in the game that it wasn't the result of prolonged play, but it turned out to be a sign of things to come.
Example 2: A Sudden Clearance Collected by the Opposition
Game: February 12, 2013 vs. Carolina
The Description: Let's stick with the same game. Elias chips the puck off the boards away from a forechecker and it goes out of the zone. It gets picked up by Jeff Skinner at the red line. He passes it to Joni Pitkanen on the right side and he's got plenty of space. The four Devils (David Clarkson forced Skinner to make a move) weren't on that side of the ice. Pitkanen charges in, puts a soft shot on net from the sideboards in response to Bryce Salvador closing in on him, and Jordan Staal (somehow) puts the rebound wide.
Elias didn't do anything wrong with his chip taking it out. However, all it did was provide a very brief respite for Devils skaters already defending. Carolina, who had already found plenty of offensive success in that first period, changed the point of attack and nearly had a great opportunity to score. Even though the Devils had numbers back, Carolina made the most of it as the Devils were bunched in the middle of the ice. The Canes didn't score, but they helped pin the Devils back a little more.
Example 3: Failed Zone Entry
The Game: February 16, 2013 at Islanders
The Description: It's 4-on-4 and it's not right after a defensive moment. In this second period against the Islanders, the Devils were often in their own end of the rink anyway. It's a good example of how a failed entry can turn real bad, real fast. An Adam Henrique forecheck forces the Isles to give it up and Zidlicky collects it. Instead of passing it out, he goes forward trying to carry it in. He doesn't get past John Tavares, who immediately spots Josh Bailey wide open in the neutral zone. One pass and Johan Hedberg is forced to make a big stop.
This video shows an example of how even when the Devils force a turnover, it doesn't mean it can't happen to them. Carrying the puck into the zone is usually an ideal situation but Zidlicky tries to go against Tavares and fails. Since it's 4-on-4 and Salvador was on the far side anyway, Bailey had acres of space and Tavares hit him right. Tavares demonstrated what a killer pass through the neutral one looks like and it's thanks to a failed attempt by Zidlicky.
Example 4: Blocked Pass into the Neutral Zone
The Game: February 10, 2013 at Pittsburgh
The Description: After the Penguins get the puck in deep on New Jersey, the Devils break out of their zone when Salvador found Clarkson with a pass up to the Devils' blueline. Clarkson drops it back to Patrik Elias on the near side and goes forward. Elias also goes forward, gets to the red line and attempts a pass to Henrique. While he's open, the lane was not. The pass is blocked away and Brandon Sutter recovers it. Sutter and Tyler Kennedy have a 2-on-1 against Salvador. Hedberg stops and holds the puck for a freeze.
This is a great example of how even a good decision on defense can quickly go awry due to a dubious decision. Elias did have Henrique open but he didn't account for the Penguin upon him. He takes a hit, the pass gets blocked back behind the Devils' forwards, and Sutter and Kennedy suddenly have an odd man rush. So much for what Salvador and Clarkson did seconds earlier. While it didn't always go like that, plays like that certainly helped the Penguins keep New Jersey down in the first period of that game.
Example 5: Missed Pass into the Neutral Zone
The Game: February 9, 2012 vs. Pittsburgh
The Description: It's the second period, the Devils just stopped the Penguins in their own end (again), and here we have a pass into the neutral zone by Adam Larsson that just plain missed Steve Bernier. It seemed close enough that I would say that he just missed. Deryk Engelland collects it, throws it cross-ice to Robert Bortuzzo, and before he gets not-hit by Bernier, throws it up ice. Brodeur knocks the puck away right to Pascal Dupuis, who creates a dangerous down-low shot for Evgeni Malkin. Now, this shot is mostly Brodeur's fault since his giveaway directly led to the shot. However, this still counts as an example of how a poor pass out of the defensive zone can lead to more trouble. There wouldn't be any giveaway by Brodeur if Larsson found Bernier with his pass in the first place.
To repeat my earlier disclaimer, these are just recent examples of how loose pucks through the neutral zone keeps the Devils on their heels. Either they just defended and are trying to respond only to fail or they're caught in their own end and need an important stop from the goaltender. These were all highlight videos made available by the NHL because they felt the save by Brodeur or Hedberg was worth noting. It doesn't include those missed passes where the opposition gets a free a change after picking up the puck. It doesn't include those bad entries into the zone that aren't immediately responded with good offense. It doesn't include those clearances where the other team just dumps it in and grinds the Devils along the boards and no shot comes due to a block or a miss or something else. So while I only have five examples, full video of games would provide a lot more of these sorts of events and it would better capture how much of a problem it can be for any team in a game, much less our favorite team.
Regardless, these video examples represent the sort of play that is a source of why the ice seems tilted against the Devils (or other teams) for some periods. There's not going to be a lot of offense if the Devils can't possess the puck going into, within, or out of the neutral zone. There's not going to be a lot of shots coming from clearances. It's come to mind because we've seen it in recent games. We will see this Cycle of Concession again and on some nights, it'll be the Devils doing it to the other team.
How can the Devils get out of it? Well, the opposition could blow opportunities allowing more chances for the Devils to try again. However, relying on your opposition to falter isn't constructive. In terms of what the Devils can do, from my vantage point, they can always stand to do what other fans complain about and slow the game down. I can understand getting the puck away for a change sometimes, but when it becomes every other shift, then it's a sign the team needs to take a step back and just hit some simple passes in getting forward. That means players can't be going out wide, trying to stretch the ice. It means there needs to be closer players for breakouts, they shouldn't go to covered players (or if the lane is covered), and the passes don't need to be so hard. When they force pucks too quickly trying to catch the opposition unaware, especially on long passes, it just increases the likeliness that something will go wrong. A miss could become an icing call, an easy pick up for the other team, or catches the Devils with one less man back. Once the Devils can make a few passes - and it should be a pass, not a clearance - reliably, then those holes could open up, making those other passes possible.
Should that lead the team going forward, then they can enter the zone more successfully. Ideally, you'd like them to carry it in without having to go through someone to do it. Even that sudden stop Kovalchuk does after entering the zone would be an improvement than dumping it in or trying to go through traffic. Here's a video example:
The shot on net was a surprise but in that case, Kovalchuk has options. He can keep going forward if the space is available, he can dump it in and give his teammates a better chance to attack it, or he can pass it to a teammate allowed to enter the zone. That's far better than a dump-in or taking a defender on directly. Every Devil isn't Kovalchuk but it's a concept the other forwards can at least consider.
Now, it would help the Devils if they didn't throw all three skaters down low and end up on the wrong side of a rebound or block leading to an odd-man rush, but that's a discussion (and probably a bad break) for another day. What do you make of the Cycle of Concession that we have seen hurt the Devils' cause in recent games? What do you think the Devils should do to get out of it when it does happen? Can you think of some other examples of how the Devils concede possession to their own