How do you lose to the worst team in the NHL? Pretty much the same way you lose to the best team in the NHL. You give the opposition opportunities to succeed and they take advantage more often than you do to them. Last night, the Devils fell apart to Chicago (the best team in the NHL) in a horrible start to the third period. Tonight, the Devils were sunk by the Buffalo Sabres in a 2-1 loss primarily due to a lack of discipline.
The usual definition of discipline in hockey refers to how a team does at avoiding penalties. Taking too many calls usually means there was a lack of it. This was a problem tonight and it directly led to tonight's result. The Devils took five penalties tonight. Two of them were in the offensive zone and the Sabres scored on the resulting power play. Andrei Loktionov took down Brayden McNabb in Buffalo's left corner. Buffalo were utterly brilliant on that man advantage and ultimately cashed in late when Matt Moulson put home a loose puck created by a close shot from Tyler Ennis. Later in the third period, after the Devils tied it up, Dainius Zubrus cross-checked Tyler Myers down away from the play and Myers crashed into the net. It may have been a "payback" move since that Myers stung Zubrus in the head with an elbow minutes earlier. It was an easy interference call and Myers' squad had the last laugh when Matt D`Agostini scored his first of the season off a rebound from a wraparound shot by Steve Ott. While the penalty killing forwards didn't look good on either, they were also bang-bang plays from in close that are always tricky to deal with. Especially when down a man. Neither of those calls had to be taken and the Devils paid the price.
The not-so-usual definition of discipline also applies. Discipline as putting in a full effort in the face of the of the game. The performance in general from the Devils was fairly lackluster. They would have stretches where they would play like you'd expect from a top possession team going against Buffalo. The first few minutes of the second period, for example. The last few minutes of the second, for another example. Ryan Miller definitely was forced to make plenty of tough shots. But the Devils could have easily put up more than 22 shots on net. Their control of the puck was off-and-on. Zone entries were a mixed bag. Their accuracy with the puck was a real problem as they got blocked out twenty times - yes, nearly as many shots as the Devils got through to Miller. While they converted a 5-on-3, the power play performance was lacking. It was the sort of game that's prone to having a few bounces make the difference. That's exactly what happened on the power play: two close shots popping out into space where a Sabre was able to throw it in.
It's never good to lose and even worse when it's against the team with the worst record in the league. I wouldn't go as far as to say this was the worst game of the season (I sat through all of the Detroit game last December, which I still hold as worse) or even the worst loss (I'd put choking in Columbus as worse, choking in Edmonton as worse, that one incredibly horrid game against Philly, etc.). But I agree with most fans that this was a pathetic result. The Sabres have nothing to play for, the Devils absolutely do, and they had to have known these points mattered. Most (myself included) didn't expect a win against Chicago, most did against Buffalo. I said this was a "you-better-win" game and they didn't. So I expect more outcry over this loss than, say, Friday's game. Please let me be clear on this point though. The Devils did not play with discipline, they played a game that would have had them lose to most teams. Whether they have the best or worst record doesn't change that point.
The Opposition Opinion: The Sabres "eventually" woke up as per Andy Boron's recap at Die by the Blade.
The Game Highlights: There were indeed some highlights in this game. This video from NHL.com is proof of that.
Another Way to Say the Devils Were Blocked A Lot: Total attempts in this game (a.k.a. Corsi) was 52-34 in favor of New Jersey. Total attempts without blocks (a.k.a. Fenwick) was 32-26. Maybe Buffalo's scorer is generous in counting them but that's a big reason why the Devils' offensive effort looked lacking.
Sympathy for a Goalie: As Monday's post will show, December was bad for both Devils goalies. They'd have good games followed by some real stinkers, statistically. So I'm not big on feeling sympathetic for either goalie. That said, if there's a night to really feel bad for Cory Schneider, it's this one. He had no chance on either goal by Moulson or D`Agostini. He didn't give up a bad rebound. He was even good at playing the puck with his stick outside of his net. He did his job. All I can say is that I hope he continues to do well.
Suspend Myers: During a Devils' power play in the third period, Dainius Zubrus was hit in the head by Tyler Myers' elbow. Myers actually left his skates to deliver the shot. It was a reckless play and I fully expect him to be suspended for it. At least, I fully expect a league that is serious about head shots to suspend Myers.
Fortunately, Zubrus was only down for a bit and did return to the game. Unfortunately, Zubrus' return led to a silly penalty he didn't have to take that ultimately led to the Devils' loss. There was additional controversy too. After Myers' elbow, a referee blew his whistle as the Devils charged in and Michael Ryder scored. The whistle was blown prior to the goal - I believe it was made presuming Zubrus needed attention from the trainer, which I respect - so that was enough to wipe it out. Ryder would score on the ensuing 5-on-3 so he wasn't totally cheated out of a score.
Did He Help His Cause: Prior to the game, Anton Volchenkov was re-activated from injured reserve and so one of the two rookie defensemen - the only healthy defenders to not have to go through waivers - had to be sent down to make space. The Devils decided to send Eric Gelinas down instead of Jon Merrill. Gelinas has been quiet in recent games on offense and has had some troubles in his own end. Management and coaches liked Merrill's solid play instead, so he's still here.
Did Merrill justify the selection? Sort of? From a possession standpoint, the puck was at least going in the right direction when Merrill was out there. No other Devil was on the ice for more attempts and shots on net in 5-on-5 play. But he was sheltered, he only had one shot on net and three attempts himself, and one of those blocks forced him to stand D`Agostini at Buffalo's blueline to deny him a breakaway late in the third period. One may be able to defend taking a call there instead of giving up a 2-on-0 or a 2-on-1. However, he could have easily avoided shooting right the puck into D`Agostini's shins. That was his "standout" moment. I don't think he was bad at all; but the other pairings had to do most of the tough work.
As for the other man, Volchenkov, I have no real qualms with how he played. He took no penalties. He didn't give up much. He didn't do anything wrong on the penalty kill. It's not his fault that Stephen Gionta or Adam Henrique were watching the goalscorer put home a rebound. And Volchenkov wasn't even out there for the second one. He didn't help the puck go forward, something definitely not helped out by being paired with Bryce Salvador. In retrospect, perhaps Merrill should have stayed with Volchenkov as we've seen in past weeks with Salvador going to his usual pairing with Marek Zidlicky. Would that have changed the result? Well, probably not. All the same, I fully expect more questions about Gelinas being sent down even though there's nothing from Gelinas' recent play that suggests he would have been the difference maker in a positive way.
Other Positives: He didn't play a lot, but I liked what I saw out of Mike Sislo. Sislo split two defenders early and forced a close save by Miller. He burst down the right wing in the second period that drew a hook from Mike Weber. In 7:37, he got three shots on net and threw a few hits too. There was a reason why we saw Reid Boucher-Loktionov-Sislo late in this game. They did well and Sislo was the best of the bunch.
The Zajac line really bounced back tonight. After an ineffective night, they really flexed their muscle at times. Jaromir Jagr got five shots on net and kept things interesting late. Travis Zajac kept a lot of plays going and his little touch back to Ryder set up his power play goal. Zubrus was good and nearly scored in the second except for the two penalties he took. He took a tripping call he shouldn't have and I've already highlighted the costly interference call.
CBGB was pretty OK tonight too. They played more like one would hope from them. Low-event and not much going the other way. But not too much going forward. I wished Gionta was a bit more aware on the penalty kill and Ryan Carter fanned out wide when Adam Henrique went up on a breakaway. Overall, I can't say they were bad. Just not as good as they were on Friday.
Other Negatives: The line of Adam Henrique, Ryane Clowe, and Michael Ryder were better than last night but they didn't really get much going at evens. All three combined for one shot at even strength all night. Their most notable moments were away from 5-on-5. Henrique created a shorthanded breakaway that Miller had to stop. Ryder scored a power play goal, had it taken away, and then scored one that counted. Clowe set Loktionov up on a suicide pass, Loktionov got blown up cleanly by Weber, and Clowe decided he had to fight Weber. No, it didn't provide a spark. No, it wasn't necessary. No, it wasn't a smart idea. So while the unit wasn't terrible, they could have been a lot better tonight.
Buffalo's power play looked brilliant for two chances and that's all it took. The first two and the last kills went as well as expected. Overall, the penalty kill definitely was a negative. They conceded twelve shots - remember that Buffalo had ten - and the killers were pinned back before both goals. I'm sure the penalty kill will get back to form. They picked a bad night to get housed, though.
John Scott, Zenon Konopka, and Matt Ellis were on the ice for a combined one attempt at evens. They were not out-shot. How did the Devils not wreck this crew, I couldn't tell you. Lost opportunity, really.
Ryan Miller was Ryan Miller. That's definitely not a negative for the Sabres. That's what they want. That was bad for the Devils.
Your Take: I'm sure you have plenty to say about this one. So have at it. What do you think went wrong the most? Would you agree that a lack of discipline, in both the usual and not-as-usual ways, cost the team tonight? What do you think they need to do to fix it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to those who commented in the Gamethread and those who followed @InLouWeTrust along on Twitter