There are competing schools of thought in sports fandom. What hurts more: to witness your favorite team decisively and utterly beaten or to witness your favorite team come close but fail to achieve a result? Early in the third period, it appeared the home opener for the New Jersey Devils against the San Jose Sharks could be an example of that first category. The Devils were not played off the ice, per se; but they were looking hard at a shutout loss less than 100 seconds into the third period. While they racked up shots, they also made less of their opportunities with so many passes into skates, so many lost pucks in the neutral zone, and multiple penalties. The Sharks, who weren't exactly blowing the Devils away at evens, tallied two power play goals to make the Devils suffer for those calls. Patrick Marleau turned a failed Devils' attack into a shot that Cory Schneider should have stopped but did not and so it was 0-3.
However, to their credit, the Devils proved that this would not be a repeat of so many games from last season. This would not end in a shutout. At exactly the eight-minute mark, Mike Cammalleri blasted a cross-ice feed from Jaromir Jagr in a 3-on-2. Antti Niemi, who earned his paycheck tonight, was beaten clean and the Devils were on the board. The Devils continued to attack and were rewarded for crashing the net. Adam Henrique worked a puck down low, flung it to the middle, and it ricocheted off of Michael Ryder and got past Niemi. With 7:50 left, it was a one-shot game. A far cry from the looming decisive loss felt earlier in the period. Alas, the Devils attacked but so did San Jose. While they dodged a big bullet when Eric Gelinas fouled Tommy Wingels for a penalty shot - Schneider stopped it - there would be no equalizer. In fact, as Schneider rushed to the bench for a late 6-on-5, Gelinas lost the puck in the neutral zone due to firing a pass at Ryder's skates. Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton passed it to each other before Thornton sailed one in past the sliding Devils to ice the game. At the end, tonight's game fell into the latter category of the question posed earlier.
This is not meant to be an argument over one or the other. I'll leave that to you to decide what feels worse. The larger point of it was that this game was disappointing regardless. While there were bright spots, the Devils were done in in several factors. Some we know like poor discipline and Bryce Salvador getting schooled. Some weren't so known like Gelinas having a rough night, seeing so much neutral zone play go awry, and Schneider conceding a soft goal that turned out to be the eventual game winner. As atypical as it was to see the Devils mount a third-period comeback and put up 37 shots in a single game, it was very much a dreary night in Newark. Not at all an ideal way to start a homestand or open up the arena for this season.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Report | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts
The Opposition Opinion: The Neutral has this recap at Fear the Fin, congratulating Joe Thornton on breaking the 1,200 point plateau.
The Game Highlights: Well, there were two goals by the Devils. And if you want to call out players, the San Jose goals are there too. Here's the video from NHL.com:
PK Woe: Believe it or not, the Devils' penalty kill didn't go into this game as a massive sore spot. But it was certainly one tonight. After a strong first kill, the Sharks ended up putting up eight shots on net and two into the net across their four power plays. Clearly, not a good night. There are two components to that.
First: the Devils conceded four power plays. Three for interference, one for Cammalleri slashing Marleau's stick into pieces. I'll have more to say on Monday but this is a root cause of the issues. The best penalty kill is not to kill one. While all the calls weren't so obvious, they weren't necessarily good ones to take. Gelinas may have fouled Wingels for a penalty shot, but that's at least more defensible than hitting someone without the puck and away from the play.
Second: the two power play goals were from the slot and well-read by the Sharks. They not only filled in the dangerous pieces, but they caught the Devils in poor positions. Joe Pavelski put home a rebound; but there were two red jerseys near him - neither Travis Zajac or Bryce Salvador were facing the man in the slot or stood in his way. Logan Couture was in a little bubble between Stephen Gionta, Andy Greene, and Salvador. In both cases, Salvador was seen reacting to events too late; putting him out of position. Hence, further ire at the captain. But after seeing the video, I'm wondering where the communication is. If Salvador's going to be flailing, where's the heads up to pick up someone in the middle? I understand the formation is to stay in a box, but if someone penetrates, then surely someone should pick that someone up, right?
Regardless, the PK was an issue and it needs to be addressed.
PP Woe: The poor play of the PK ended up on the scoresheet. But I want to give some non-love to the power play units tonight. It was ugly. Out of three power play opportunities - all for hooking calls, coincidentally - the Devils put up three shots and those didn't happen until the second period. Even then, they conceded a shorthanded breakway. Damon Severson pulled a Marek Zidlicky: putting himself in a vulnerable position on the blueline to keep a puck in control. He not only lost it but Adam Burish went off one-on-one that Schneider stopped. Still, the Devils struggled to set-up after their first power play and even there, Eric Gelinas decided to bang The Truth against the glass at the end of the rink instead of the net. The sad thing was that the power plays were opportunities for the Devils to establish some offense, if not get back into the game. With three shots for and two against across all six minutes, they squandered those chances.
You're Judged On Your Failures: Cory Schneider and Antti Niemi had plenty to deal with. Despite their teams struggling to move the puck effectively, plenty of poor zone exits and lost pucks in the neutral zone led to a lot of rubber on net for both teams. Both made a lot of tough saves. Both will wish they got one back. One could argue that he had it tougher as his workload included a penalty shot, a shorthanded breakaway, and the Sharks power play. Yet, that Marleau goal allowed was ugly in its softness. Niemi was conceding plenty of rebounds. He paid for it for the second goal allowed; you can see in the video he was trying to snag it after it came out. Alas, that put him in a prone position that may have let the bounce back off the bodies in front to have it ricochet into the net.
Brunner Good, But Good Enough?: Damien Brunner filled in for Martin Havlat and I thought he was good. I would expect him to have some foibles with the puck as he hasn't played in an actual game that counts all season until tonight. He held his own in over 17 minutes of ice time. Impressively, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and Brunner won their match-up against the Thornton line at evens. Brunner was a positive player going forward - even when switched to play with Henrique, Ryder, and/or Ryane Clowe - and had two shots on net. Had he put some more shots or got onto the scoresheet, then I'd be more confident in stating that he proved himself to be a regular. I think he should at least get one more game; even if it is in a lesser role when Havlat returns.
Speaking of Possession Pluses: Jagr, Zajac, and Cammalleri led the way at evens for New Jersey. While Peter DeBoer did switch things up in the third; he did keep these three mostly together. It paid off with one goal in a 3-on-2 rush that gave the team a lifeline and 11 of the team's 37 shots on net (7 by Cammalleri, not including a crossbar). The only downside were the penalties. Jagr took an interference call right after an offensive zone faceoff that Zajac otherwise won. Cammalleri broke Marleau's stick and didn't wait in the box too long as the Sharks quickly converted it. Still, the line's been good.
Defensively, the big standout was Marek Zidlicky. As the Devils needed goals in the third, his ice time shot up (5:30 to 8 ES minutes) while Salvador's did not (less than 4 ES minutes). Generally, when he was on the ice, offense tended to happen. Unfortunately, there were plenty of annoying decisions from him to prevent one from entirely praising him: like making passes when he had a shooting lane and forcing passes that ended up going awry. In fact, the video missed it, but Zidlicky passed up a long shot and threw it to no one at the sideboards before the Sharks got the puck out and Marleau scored his goal. I guess you take the bad with the good from #2. At least he didn't take a call.
As for Minuses...: Eric Gelinas' name was brought up by many of the outgoing faithful and not in a good way. Conceding pucks in the neutral zone when trying to lead a rush will do that. One led to a penalty shot due to his own foul and the other led to a game-icing goal against. So will going 7-12 in Corsi (Merrill was 12-14, FYI), which is a bad thing considering he's meant to be an offensive weapon. The Truth didn't get on net, just away from it so he had no shots on goal. He was given a bump in ice time in the hopes that The Truth will get The Rock up on their feet. He did not. Between that, the errors, and the fact he spent more time in his own end than not, I would not be surprised if Adam Larsson takes his place sooner rather than later.
Salvador not coming out ahead in possession is of no surprise. I will say that I noticed him getting into these spots where he's too far away from a puck carrier to do anything but not so much he could do something else about another Shark. This was most noticeable on both PPGAs. Given that Salvador doesn't have the speed to get himself out of no man's land. it's going to continue to be a drain. At least his ice time at evens was appropriately cut to roughly twelve and a half minutes.
The fourth line lost their match-up against the San Jose fourths. Shoutout to Jordin Tootoo fighting someone after throwing a hit he took two minutes for. He's resembling Cam Janssen more and more with each game. I cannot emphasize enough how much I want a change for this line. I'll even take a tactical one because whatever it is they're doing is not working.
Also losing their match-up was the Henrique unit. While the unit got plenty of shots on net, they were often pinned back at evens by the mighty trio of Wingels, Tye McGinn, and Chris Tierney. Who? Exactly. When DeBoer was shuffling lines, I'd like to think it was to quell some of the drowning they were doing in terms of possession. Especially since that would undercut any hopes of a comeback. Of course, the line put up a goal so it wasn't a total horror show from them.
Crowd Jacked, Not Exactly Full: The game was a sell-out but there were pockets of empty seats here and there throughout the lower bowl. Thanks, ticket-resellers. No matter, the crowd was appropriately jacked after a lovely pregame presentation. Plenty of "Let's Go Devils" and cheers for things that they liked (e.g. t-shirt tosses, Jordin Tootoo's fight, Earl) They were well into the game until Marleau's goal; and they really jumped back into it when Cammalleri scored. They did - sort of successfully - throw the "You suck!" chant in the middle of the new goal song; though it's not quite in sync. The piped-in chanting wasn't as bad when the crowd joined in, but stuck out like a sore thumb. In time, the crowd will get the timing right. Hopefully that time will be Tuesday. It was a hot enough crowd; unfortunately, the performance didn't reward them and one Thornton hit the ENG, people were scrambling for the exits.
Look Good, Wait...Good?: Tom Gulitti tweeted pictures of the updated concourses. I didn't go around myself to check them out in person, but it was very impressive looking. I was impressed with increased menu options for food. I was not at all impressed with the lead time for food. Plenty of long lines, which made the concourses even more crowded at intermissions. It reminded me of Red Bull Arena. Those of you who have been there on a night where it's decently attended knows how bad that is. It's something to improve; but at least the place looked spiffier than it was in preseason.
Lastly: To my amateur eyes, the San Jose Sharks played similarly to the Devils with respect to the neutral zone. They like to have bodies in the neutral zone waiting to pounce on loose pucks, errant passes, and bounces gone astray. I think both sides will discuss needing to be more accurate in their puck movement. When they were able to keep control of the puck, they were able to get clean entries and create defense opportunities for offense. But that was often not the case. That's why the possession advantage was never all that large despite a good amount of events and a large number of shots on net (it ended 50-48 at evens for NJ). Had the Devils done better on the PK or took fewer penalties or Schneider made that one stop he should have made, then maybe the Devils take this one. Such is hockey, unfortunately. Still hurts.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils did not win or split the week as they lost to San Jose. What was your take on the game? Would you agree it was a dreary performance in spite of a comeback effort and a load of shots on net? Who was the best and worst Devils in your eyes? Do you want to see more of Brunner based on tonight? If you were at The Rock, what did you think of the pregame performance, new decor, and the new food? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the gamethread and on Twitter via @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.