Tonight, the New Jersey Devils lost in a shootout to the Chicago Blackhawks 2-3 and I'm not even mad. No, my expectations aren't so lowered that I'm treating shootout losses as good results. I am truly not unhappy with the result. I understand that it involved Duncan Keith scoring an equalizer off a rebound created by Marian Hossa with less than five minutes left to play. (If only Mike Sislo was watching #2 and not the puck.) I understand that there were moments that could have given the Devils that crucial third goal of the game, only for (example #1) Martin Havlat to hit the post and crossbar on a his sole power move of the night or (example #2) Jaromir Jagr making Keith look silly but unable to beat Scott Darling early in overtime. I understand the Devils scored nothing in the shootout while Jonathan Towes and Patrick Kane made it look easy. This is all true but it also leaves out many other facts.
Consider the situation. The Devils got steamrolled by Carolina last night, especially in the third period where they looked like the scrubbiest team of all time (1974-75 Washington). They lost another player to injury - Dainius Zubrus - forcing a call-up of Reid Boucher. In addition, they brought up Keith Kinkaid with the intention of giving him his first NHL start. Their opponents were the Chicago Blackhawks. A team that not only features a very talented roster but also headed into this game as the league's best possession team at even strength. Further, the Blackhawks won six straight games. Between the awful performance by the Devils' skaters, a rookie goaltender getting his first start, playing the night before, and against a really, really good team that has been on fire, this should have been a game Chicago where they should have cruised to victory. I expected a rather decisive defeat.
Now consider the actual game. Kinkaid was called upon to make a lot of tough saves. His first NHL started included several odd-man rushes, a breakaway from Patrick Kane of all players, a four-minute penalty kill where Chicago just owned the Devils' zone, loads of second and third chances by Chicago skaters, a two-minute penalty kill in overtime. Kinkaid faced 39 shots on net and stopped 37. He may have wanted the goal conceded to Bryan Bickell (one of the 3-on-1s) back, but he had no chance on Keith's equalizer. Nevertheless, the 25-year old was awesome in net. Kinkaid was very good in his positioning; nearly the exact opposite of Scott Clemmensen's active feet. He set himself well, and that's why he didn't have a lot of acrobatic or "how did he stop that" saves. His glove was excellent, Bickel goal aside. The downside to Kinkaid's performance was that he had to be this good because the Devils conceded 39 shots on net.
While the Devils' performance wasn't nearly as bad as it was last night, it's hard to say it was good. There was plenty of effort but effort doesn't make up for execution. The second period in particular was just like one of the periods in the Carolina game as the Devils got out-shot 7-17 and out-attempted 10-31. Just like in the Carolina game, the common cause of all of that offensive pressure and attempts at goal were the Devils' struggles at clearing the puck. They were simply too soft. I understand the idea is to not slam the puck so hard for an icing call. But too many times when the Devils were able to get the puck after an initial Chicago shot or pass in their end, they just could not get it out. Some of these were due to good plays by the Blackhawks skaters, but most of them were the result of the Devils just not making the right decision (e.g. why fling the puck at an opposing player) or even hitting the puck hard enough. That led to the Blackhawks generating second, third, fourth, and occasionally fifth chances. The Devils were better in the first and in the early parts of the third periods in actually getting the puck past their own blueline. But when they struggled, Chicago made them suffer. The end result wasn't as hideous as the Carolina game, but getting out-attempted 41-73 and out-shot 24-39 in all 65 minutes does not lead to many positive results. Again, Kinkaid was awesome - and the team needed him to be.
On top of all of that, the goals the Devils got came from the most unlikely sources. Steve Bernier played a puck in over Chicago's blueline perfectly for Jordin Tootoo. He got in touch with his inner Steve Stamkos and fired a laser past Scott Darling for the game's first goal. Early in the third period, Stephen Gionta broke the 1-1 deadlock by batting a puck in mid-air into the net. His stick was judged to be below the crossbar (it was) and it counted. This isn't to say that the Devils made it easy for Darling. But the guys expected to bring the offense really didn't, and that hurt the Devils' performance overall. Part of that was due to the team's seemingly inability to get the puck out of their own end. Part of that was some dubious passing decisions, at best ending an attack and at worst having multiple white jerseys fly up ice on a chance. Part of that was just not getting the puck through. The Devils did see a 2-1 lead go up in smoke. Let's not act as if that's the same of 4-1 or 4-2 getting erased.
So let's recap: the Devils were in a less-than-ideal situation heading into this game. Their rookie goaltender played sensationally in spite of the skaters in front of him. Fourth-liners got the goals. The Blackhawks had great opportunities to blow this game wide open and it didn't happen for one reason or another. And yet the Devils got a point out of the matter and dragged the game into a shootout, even after 3-on-4 situation that effectively closed out overtime. I don't see this as some great failure. I don't consider all of this and conclude that this is so unacceptable. I was not unhappy at the conclusion of this, not anything like I was from this past Saturday. The Devils stole a point tonight. Simply, I ain't even mad. I'm not sure what fan would be all that upset; especially if they were also concerned that Chicago would beat down New Jersey tonight.
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: Randy Holt has this recap at Second City Hockey. He noted that the game lacked excitement. The team he supports attempted 71 shots and put 39 on Kinkaid. OK?
The Game Highlights: There was a lot of Kinkaid in this one. Here's the video from NHL.com:
Seriously, Clean Up the Clearances: Forget the cries of "Practice the shootout!" For starters, the Devils already do that and have done so regularly like every other team in the NHL. For another, getting to shootouts would at least yield points that the Devils haven't earned all that much. But if the Devils want to straighten up their performances after two really poor ones, then they need to make their clearances count. If, say, Steve Bernier stops a pass in the middle of the ice and Stephen Gionta takes the loose puck, then Gionta has to get that puck out. Not turn it over to a Blackhawk waiting in front of the Devils' blueline, move and cycle the puck around (you know who cycles? Chicago, at least the Toews line was), and create an opportunity that could've been a goal had it not been for Tootoo stopping the puck on the line. That's just one (extreme) example but that could have all been prevented had Gionta got the puck out.
I don't mean to pick on Gionta, though. And you shouldn't either. It wasn't he or his line that had those constant problems. In fact, the fourths were relatively good tonight. Not nearly as poor on the puck as defensemen like Marek Zidlicky and Jon Merrill. Or whatever line that included Adam Henrique and/or Michael Ryder. But it's really a team issue at this point. This has to get better, whether it's through constant drilling in practice, constant explanation in video sessions, or players needing to be constantly reminded to execute.
Also, Clean Up Those Passes a Bit: The Devils were better in this regard than they were in Carolina. However, they paid the price for some bad decisions on the puck. Especially near their own blueline, which contributed to multiple odd-man rushes (including the first goal against, Seth Helgeson failed on a pinch and so did Tootoo instead of providing defensive support), one near-breakaway, and one breakaway. It led to a lot of cheers for Kinkaid since he made the majority of those stops in tough situations. The good news is that the Devils demonstrated that they could in fact move the puck through the neutral zone and carry it in effectively. It led to many of their most dangerous offensive opportunities tonight.
But because they were so bad at zone exits for long stretches of time, they didn't even have many chances for good zone entries. Hence, the Devils only got 24 shots on net and the only Devils who put up more than one shot on net were Gionta, Bernier, Mike Sislo, Damon Severson, and Zidlicky. Again, very good to see from the bottom six; but it's an indictment of the players who were in the top six tonight.
Rough, A One Word Descriptor of Ryder's Night: In Carolina, Ryder's chief contribution was icing the puck a lot. Tonight against Chicago, his contribution was not helping on defense. I know, Ryder not helping much on D is like a day that ends with 'y.' Yet, he was especially poor. He had a glorious opportunity early in the third period to redeem him for his many defensive sins. Chicago got a clearance denied at the blueline and the puck was thrown up to Ryder in the slot all alone with Darling. I mean all alone, less than fifteen feet away from the net. Ryder put the puck wide. It was at this moment that I missed Zubrus a lot in addition to Mike Cammalleri. Even if Big Z would've put it into Darling's chest, it would've been a far better result than not even hitting the net. Ryder's basically back to where he was last season in the middle of an ice-cold scoreless streak. What to do with him, I don't know; but he can't really be scratched with all of these forwards out of the lineup.
Float, A One Word Descriptor of Havlat's Night: I know wingers tend to play higher up on defense, awaiting the puck to come their way to get it out and to focus on the defense. Havlat was commonly past the blueline, waiting for a longer pass to get it out. Like Ryder, he does not help much on defense. Unlike Ryder, he and his linemates (Scott Gomez and Jagr) weren't pinned back nearly as often as Henrique & Ryder. Had he scored on that power move in the third period, he'd get a lot more love. Instead, that double-post shot was the closest chance (his one actual shot on net, wasn't). Again, I miss Cammalleri.
An Apparent Call Up: Reid Boucher was called up for this game. He was thrown right onto a line with Henrique and Ryder. Boucher proceeded to do very little other than get stuck in his own end for the majority of his 8:45 ice time at even strength. He did get one shot on net, a re-directed shot that surprised Darling early in the game. That was it from him. He did not play in the third period except for one shift. That's completely understandable as the line of Boucher-Henrique-Ryder was creamed in possession tonight. He did nothing to deserve more ice time. Basically, he was near-invisible.
Good In Their Own End?: With so many poor clearances, it's difficult to find some praise among the defenders. I will say that Andy Greene and Damon Severson were the best of the bunch by far. Greene was boss-like, especially on the penalty kill. Severson is so far ahead of the other young Devils defensemen, it's not even funny. I liked Peter Harrold's hustle, though if he had to hustle, it was often because things were going to go real bad if he didn't.
No Surprise: Toews, Hossa, and Keith were absolutely excellent. Whenever they were out there, the game would often tilt against New Jersey and heavily. All three gave Kinkaid a lot of work to handle. Patrick Sharp returned to the lineup, fed Bickell for the pass that sprung a 3-on-1, got five shots on net, and nearly had a breakaway before Harrold caught him. Kane wasn't as possession-strong, but he had a strong night with four shots on net plus the shootout-sealing score. Chicago's top players played like top players and most of their lineup (take out their fourths) supported them real well. If it wasn't for Kinkaid and for some puck luck, the Devils would have likely lost this one by a significant margin in regulation.
Is He #2?: Kinkaid was awesome but I'd like to see him in another start or two before proclaiming he is or should be the team's backup. A night like this does tip the scales. It should make it easier on the coaches to give him an opportunity. Though, with not so many back-to-backs this month, don't be surprised if he goes to Albany for a bit and comes back later. I think it's better to play somewhere than to sit in New Jersey until called upon. We'll see.
Your Take: So there's a lot to improve. I'm not happy with the game, but I am not unhappy about the result. Taking points from Western Conference opponents is not a bad thing. Especially since it was on the back of a rookie's first NHL start. Do you agree and therefore are not all that unhappy about tonight's final result? If not, why not? Other than Kinkaid (I assuming he impressed you and if he did not, how?), who impressed you on either side? Who was the most bothersome in their own end of the rink on the Devils? Can the team get better at their zone exits? What's the matter with Ryder? Please leave your answers and other results about this shootout loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed along Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.