Passing the puck is a fundamental in hockey. If a team struggles to keep the puck on the sticks of their players, then it doesn't matter how fast, slow, young, or old they are. The other team will have the puck and put that team at a disadvantage. Tonight's game between the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings was a perfect example of this reality.
Sure, the Red Wings have plenty of speedy players and they did cause plenty of problems for the Devils. When a three-on-two rush develops and a skater like Riley Sheahan has space to fly into, then there's little the team can do. But the root cause of those sorts of plays happening are due to lost possession. A bad pass in the neutral zone or in Detroit's end can lead to those plays. And they happened frequently in tonight's game. It wasn't all rushes for the Red Wings. But they were able to get easier zone entries. Their more accurate passes allowed them to put up more offensive pressure. For stretches at a time, particularly in the first period, the Devils helped by just clearing the zone - leading to the other team recovering possession. That pressure and that possession contributed greatly to 31 shots on net, four power plays drawn, and general control of the game by Detroit for the most part.
Like last night's game, there weren't many positives for the Devils tonight. The team at least didn't get shut out. The goals came from the unlikely sources of Steve Bernier wrapping a loose puck around Jimmy Howard and Jordin Tootoo piling in a rebound from a shot by Marek Zidlicky. Cory Schneider did all he could - and he bailed out the defense plenty tonight. But he still gave up a bunch and was pulled for Keith Kinkaid. Their play with the extra skater was actually threatening and I was impressed they didn't concede an empty netter. Other than that, I don't have a lot to praise.
I don't think anyone will argue that there is more to praise. A 2-4 loss isn't bad on the surface; but the performance was simply dreadful. The Devils got owned in the first period as Detroit out-shot them 14-3. The shots were more even in the following periods, but the disparity reflected the play when New Jersey was down 5-20 in shots about halfway through the second. The power play put up nothing. While a 6-on-4 at the end was threatening, the other two advantages yielded little. At the other end of special teams, they conceded two power play goals. Bryce Salvador took a call right near the end of the first penalty kill that ended with the first PPGA; a Jakub Kindl shot re-directed in by Adam Larsson. The second PPGA was a highlight for Johan Franzen and a low light for Bryce Salvador. In between both, Brendan Smith sent a low shot far post past a screen. A fluke bankshot by Niklas Kronwall made it 1-4 late in the second. And in between all of that, there was a lot of failure by the Devils skaters to get anything going in their way. Even the Tootoo goal came seemingly out of nowhere.
From what I saw, the passing was a main culprit. As it has been for about the last two to three weeks. It's true that the Devils are missing several players - and may be missing a few more after tonight. But completing a pass going forward through the neutral zone and getting into the opposition's end of the rink isn't something that I think requires a lot of talent or a brand new coach or brand new players. It requires correctly reading who's open, whether there is a passing lane, and executing. It's the basics for puck possession and difficulty there will undercut the offense and overwork the defense. Which is what happened. Detroit, on the other hand, didn't have those same issues and it showed on the rink tonight. Once the Devils figure that out, then the play should improve. And I hope it does because I'm sick as any other fan of watching the pigs of ugly losses getting lipstick applied by the final score.
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 Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Winging it in Motown, Graham Hathway has this recap up.
The Game Highlights: Well, if you wanted to see the fourth line generate two goals, then here's the proof from NHL.com:
Adding to the Grind: As much as I've went on about the Devils' passing woes hurting them again tonight, the stats show another concern. Blocked shots. Assuming the Detroit scorer isn't awful, the Devils got out-blocked by a 5:1 ratio. 20 blocks to 4. The majority of those attempts blocked came from the blueline. Six from Zidlicky. Three each from Eric Gelinas and Damon Severson. Two from Andy Greene. The Devils, whether it's on the power play or at evens, do utilize their points regularly on offense. If they're trying to force pucks through or hoping a shot will get through traffic, this will happen. And it's a defensive risk, as the Devils forwards are usually deep and a block could lead to an odd-man rush going the other way. That's not new to the team over the past few seasons. But it explains why the Devils were close to Detroit in terms of attempts but the attack overall was dreadful tonight and were ultimately out-shot 17-31. It's something else the team needs to figure out.
Fourths: The Devils' fourth line of Steve Bernier, Jordin Tootoo, and Stephen Gionta actually did well tonight. Two goals and they won their match-ups in terms of possession. Tootoo took a dumb penalty, whacking Danny DeKeyser while falling down after failing to steal the puck on a forecheck. Still, Tootoo actually made a positive contribution, Bernier made one, and Gionta did what he could. It's good that I could say good things about them as I don't have much good to say about the rest.
The Other Nine: Jaromir Jagr wants to speak about how the Devils are struggling to gain the zone. He could start with himself as he's not always on the same page in terms of what needs to be done. But he was positive, as usual. Travis Zajac was off in general, although he drew two calls. Dainius Zubrus was a non-factor. Damien Brunner played like he did last season; mostly invisible. Michael Ryder was nothing tonight when he wasn't shooting and he only had two shots on net. Patrik Elias was just lost at times and contributed very little tonight. Tuomo Ruutu followed up a good game in St. Louis with not much tonight. Jacob Josefson was a non-factor as well.
I understand that the Devils missing Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, Martin Havlat, and Ryane Clowe is a big deal. It should be. It's enough to start feeling sympathetic with the state of Columbus' roster last week. But instead of rest rising up to try and fill the holes, tonight, it was more like they were there. Their poor performance begat more poor performance. And even if those players were available, a good number of those I mentioned in the previous paragraph would be playing alongside them. They need to do well regardless of whether they are playing with "lesser talent," otherwise the offense just gets kneecapped.
Poor Cory: Cory Schneider bailed out the defense multiple times and the power play on one shorthanded breakaway. He made plenty of tough stops. He was done in by an inadverant deflection by his own defenseman that he may or may not have seen due to a screen; a long shot past his toe that he also did not see; a shortside shot that came because the team captain got spun like a top; and fluke bounce off the endboards. Schneider was a big reason why Detroit didn't blow the Devils away. Yet, he still had a four-spot dropped on him and another night where he got pulled. It's not a good look from a distance but I still shudder to think how this would have went if Kinkaid (he looked OK in relief; seven saves) or another lesser goalie was in net.
Regarding D: I'm not even sure what to think. Marek Zidlicky is doing as much as one could expect at both ends. Andy Greene is trying to hold it all together, but what's there? Damon Severson is coming back to Earth. Eric Gelinas makes baffling decisions and gets caught in bad spots; like when Sheahan split him and Zidlicky prior to Zidlicky's penalty. Because the Devils were down and got a few power plays, he got a considerable number of minutes. Those who wanted Bryce Salvador to get less than twenty minutes got their wish with only 15 tonight. But outside of a good start from #24, he was still exposed as usual. The two penalties he took weren't good ones to take; exacerbating an already horrific penalty kill. You want to boo him, go right ahead; I certainly was after Franzen made him look like a spinning cone. Adam Larsson only got 12 minutes, which makes sense as he added nothing going forward. The idea is to get stops and make passes to go forward. Larsson contributed little to that. Even Salvador contributed on offense - with a primary assist, no less. By the end of the night, I'm wondering about the state of Jon Merrill's health - and he wasn't doing well to start this season at all.
Of course, when the forwards aren't keeping possession going forward, the defense is going to be pressed against more. Then again, the defense didn't give a lot of good starts for said possession due to, again, the passing.
Zero: The Devils earned nothing in this week's schedule of games. They get a potential of eight points in the following week. They need to really earn most of them to avoid further freefalling in the standings. As bad as this game looked, the Devils aren't going to be extraordinarily crummy like Buffalo to compete for a hot, young talent to be the team's anointed savior. And if they are, well, the play in October completely fooled me. Anyway, there's a lot of time to figure it out, but sooner is preferable to later.
A Word About the Penalty Kill: Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
Lastly: So much of what bothered me tonight was that it was all related to issues of execution. OK, a deflection or a bad bounce off some boards are simply unfortunate. But the overall run of play was tilted so much against New Jersey until Detroit took a commanding lead. Even then, a late push to make the ending interesting like Thursday night in St. Louis was the only time where the Devils looked particularly dangerous to play against. Because it is execution, I don't think the fault really lies with the coach. A braintrust of Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson, Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, and the spirit of the late Pat Burns is not going to make the Devils string three passes together. Now, if the plays aren't going and the players are executing, then fine, let's look at the coaching. But a loss like this really highlighted the failure of fundamentals by the Devils players. Therefore, that is my focus.
Your Take: My