You never forget your first NHL goal if you're a professional hockey player. You especially don't forget it if it's an important goal. In the regular season, those are usually game winners that break deadlocks. Defenseman Jon Merrill did exactly that tonight. The New Jersey Devils prevailed over the Edmonton Oilers 2-1 when Michael Ryder found Merrill all alone away from the left corner. Merrill had a free look at Ilya Bryzgalov and just beat him with a shot. It was a wonderful moment that sent the many fans that filled the Rock home happy that the team did not lose three post-regulation games in a row.
From a results point of view, there are few complaints. Given that Edmonton is in the West, it doesn't mean anything to the Devils that they got a point. Given that they're also terrible, it really doesn't mean anything that they got a point. The Devils needed to get a win and they did it. Well done. However, long time, medium-long time, and recent readers know that it's more about the results. As the headline suggests, I'm not at all happy with how the Devils got the result tonight.
On paper, it doesn't look too bad. The Devils out-attempted the Oilers 47-36 and 40-28 in 5-on-5 play. They out-shot them 24-20. They came close to scoring multiple goals but iron and other luck factors limited them again. But the run of play was just stupid. Not lazy. No, the Devils hustled quite a bit to make plays; they weren't taking shifts off or anything like that. Not second-rate. While they made errors, they didn't make nearly as many as their opposition. The Devils' frustrated me with how mindless some of their decisions were tonight.
They made way too many no-look passes that only ended up on Oiler sticks. They got "surprised" too many times when the Oilers coughed up the puck in the neutral zone or on their breakout such that they didn't take full advantage. Bryzgalov was conceding rebounds like they were going out of style, yet you rarely saw a Devil camping out for them or trying to shoot for them. The Devils often delayed to shoot; while Jaromir Jagr got four on net, he could have had more if he wasn't dangling so much. Others just delayed, with one huge example I'll get to in a bit. The Devils power play was disjointed as ever. Odd man rushes against rarely had a Devil defender on the open man, which helped lead to Edmonton's sole goal of the night. Their communication on defense in the first half of the game was horrid as Edmonton caught Cory Schneider on the flank numerous times. Thankfully, Schneider stopped the puck and/or the Oiler skater didn't apply enough finish. It was enraging to watch. I don't know about you, but I was steaming after each intermission. Not that the Devils were necessarily tied or that the Oilers were hanging with them, but that the Devils could have had it so much better if they just wisened up at some point.
Marek Zidlicky alone deserves plenty of ire for somehow firing away pucks from distance but deciding not to have a go when he's up close - and especially when he got Bryzgalov sprawled out on the ice in the first period. Or deciding to feign a pinch after doing so aggressively all night long. Or just not looking up when he's clearing the puck. Oh, Zidlicky played dumber than a bag full of hammers. I'm amazed he didn't get called for a penalty, in retrospect. But going back to the team, the team suffered from their own mental mistakes, big and small. I'm fully convinced that even one mentally sharp period would have had the Devils put up much more than 24 shots and quite possibly more than one goal in regulation. Zidlicky being better alone could have at least yielded more pucks going forward, since he's often kicking offenses off.
It's clear the Devils do need some additional offensive talent and/or some better puck luck. It would be one thing if Bryzgalov stood on his head and dragged his team kicking and screaming into OT. But Bryzgalov could have been challenged a lot more. The Oilers were giving gifts but the Devils didn't always realize it and when they did, it was too late. Sure, some of this is on coaching - not making appropriate adjustments or not getting the message made clear to stick to fundamentals. Some of the match-ups were ill-advised. But it's on the players to make good decisions and to execute. Flinging pucks without regard as to who's getting them isn't a way to generate offense; not giving other players a heads up as to who's open away from the play isn't a way to help out the goalie on defense; and all of the stupid things can add up to a lackluster performance against one of the worst teams in the National Hockey League. These kinds of games can and will happen over a long season but this is not the time for the Devils to have them. They're fixable errors and avoidable mistakes in my eyes; which only makes me mad when I see players who know better don't play like they know better.
Fortunately, they did not doom them tonight. The Devils (Namely, Adam Henrique not getting called for grabbing Martin Marincin's stick. Sorry, Edmonton, that's life.) got a break in OT, Jon Merrill got an opportunity, and he got the team that all-important second point in the standings. they're going to have to be sharper in future games. We all know they can be. Let's hope they will be in D.C. on Saturday night.
The Opposition Opinion: OilFanInYYC felt the Oilers did decently enough in his recap at The Copper & Blue.
The NHL.com Highlight Video: Here's tonight's highlights, featuring goals from Andrei Loktionov and Jon Merrill:
Why Loktionov Only Got Eight Minutes: Andrei Loktionov started the game with Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus. Much was made, namely by Jagr, about switching Loktionov with Travis Zajac. in the big picture, one is right to scratch their head about how Loktionov only played eight minutes (only ahead of Steve Bernier) and ultimately was moved away from #68 and #8 even though he scored a goal. The team needs goals and he got one. It was a very good play as Jagr exploited the Oilers paying way too much attention to him. Jagr passed it across for Bryce Salvador, who found Loktionov all alone on Bryzgalov's left flank. It was a very good play. So what gives?
Easy. That was pretty much their attacking moment as a line. That goal was Loktionov's only shot on net and only shot attempt of the night. Jagr had one other shot with Loktionov; his other three came elsewhere. Dainius Zubrus had two shots and only one happened with Loktionov and Michael Ryder after a special team situation. The unit was certainly not bad, but the team needs goals. Getting one is great. But DeBoer moved him up to see if they could get going. That means trying to do more than just have one good play, even if it was a successful play. If 8-21-68 were generating shot after shot, then I would think DeBoer would give him more ice time. That's why he stuck with 8-19-68 for so long - and why he went back to them tonight. Late in the second, after an icing call, that trio got three shots on their next shift. Given that the Devils weren't lighting up the Oilers and his two lines weren't working well, he switched them back.
What About Merrill? He Only Scored on His Only Shot Too: But Merrill has different responsibilities and goals. As a defender, it's to get stops and make the initial play to start the offense going the other way. Merrill played 20:31, nearly all of it at evens, and ended up positive in possession for it. Not as well as his usual partner for the night, Peter Harrold, but still pretty good. He had a few mistakes but he cleaned up for them and made plenty of solid plays himself to quell the Edmonton offense. Merrill was active in his own end and not because he was doing things consistently wrong, which would put him in a fire-fighting, puck-chasing, no-play-making mode. I think Harrold was better than him, and the usual Greene-Fayne pairing was obviously the best. But I also think he justified the additional ice time he got. Scoring the goal, of course, was the tastiest icing that could have been put on his proverbial cake.
Quiet: Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner weren't all that great tonight. They didn't do a whole lot. They didn't get killed but they didn't really get much forward either. That's partially why they didn't play all that much tonight.
The Opposite of Quiet: The Newfoundline really stormed the ice tonight. Henrique, Ryder, and Ryane Clowe combined for half of the Devils' 24 shots as a team. Ryder continues to slump but he's making the effort to get out of it with five more shots tonight. I think it'll break for him sooner rather than later. I wished Clowe did better on his breakaway in the second period but I'm not going to complain about three other shots from him. I thought they did well; but I was blown away to find out that A) they played over twenty minutes each and B) they all were the Devils' best possession players per Extra Skater's Game Stats. Well done. Surely, goals will come with efforts like that. Then again, if the decision making by other Devils were better, then perhaps it could've been even better?
Because They're Not Killing You...: It's fun to read up on live commentary from other fans here and elsewhere. A lot of vitrol over Stephen Gionta playing 12:32 tonight. That's more than his CBGB brethren, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. Why so much, especially since those three were creamed in possession - the only three Devils to be below 50%, nevermind scraping 10%? Easy. They only got out shot 1-2. Edmonton's attempts that they faced didn't even get to Schneider.
I would say it was a bad move to have them play several shifts against Sam Gagner, David Perron, and Jordan Eberle. I understand the reasoning behind it. It's not so much DeBoer thinks they shut opponents down but that he thinks they're not going to be abysmal against competition above their level. By doing that, he can have other lines to get more advantageous match-ups, as stronger lines killed Ryan Smyth, Luke Gadzic, and Jesse Joennsuu in possession and the run of play. But in the long run, giving up so many attempts will lead to those attempts being shots on net and then eventually shots in the net. Tonight no big deal - I'm not going to get worked up over Gionta playing 10:03 at evens - but it's something to be concerned about.
What's Weirder?: Peter Harrold getting 21:38 of ice time or the fact he actually was good for the most part? OK, he doesn't belong on the power play but tonight's power play effort didn't endear several Devils as the coaches stick to their crummy breakouts and 1-3-1 formation. Elsewhere, Harrold was positive in possession and he was on the ice for more shots on net than against - something Andy Greene and Mark Fayne can't claim. I'm not going to blow sunshine in your face and claim that Harrold is some great defender. Just that he had a solid outing. I leave that up to you to decide what's odd about that.
But The Weirdest Thing Tonight...: Oh, and the weirdest thing was neither of those things but the fact that Bryce Salvador beat Jordan Eberle in a race to an iced puck in the second period. Yes, Salvador was ahead of Eberle to start but the youngster never over took Bryce Salvador of all players. Very strange.
Thoughts on Opposing Players: Among the Oilers, I felt Taylor Hall was their best skater. He had a goal and - pay attention - came close to scoring a second. He had four other shots on net and he just skated with a purpose all night long. His finish was academic. His awareness on the goal scoring play was better. Hall was in a great position to pick up the loose puck Andy Greene laid out there - he went in to keep it alive but didn't get the puck in deep or to a teammate - and break ahead in a 2-on-1. His pass to Nail Yakupov was cool and he didn't panic for the shot. It was a great response to a Devils goal and he did what he could to find a second. Hall's legit - I wonder how long the Oilers can keep him, though.
The pairing of Martin Marincin and Jeff Petry was OK tonight. The Oilers may actually have a solid pairing, provided Marincin continues to develop. If they can stop using the Schultz pairing, Andrew Ference, and Mark Fraser, then they may have a defense one day.
Perron and Eberle was just hideous out there. Good for the Devils but a big part of why Edmonton never took full advantage of the Devils' stupid plays were performances like theirs and their defense beyond Marincin and Petry. They just coughed up pucks, they rarely got the puck forward, and they weren't doing a whole lot in their own end. Matt Hendricks is worse than both players in the bigger picture, but he did well for himself tonight. If the Oilers had more performances like his, then they could have came away clean winners. Alas, they did not.
Lastly: Cory Schneider was great. Do I need to keep writing that these days? I don't know, but it's good to write it. If the Devils played with more clues in their collective heads, then maybe he would have received some of that elusive goal support.
Your Take: Will the Devils play a smarter game against a much scarier Capitals offense on Saturday night? Who do you think did well and did not do well on the Devils tonight? What was up with Edmonton giving away possession so easily at times? What was up with the Devils not taking full advantage? Who needs to have a better night for the Caps game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along here at ILWT and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.