At least there was some competence, tonight.
I uttered that statement to a fellow fan leaving the train before heading home regarding how the New Jersey Devils did. It's worth noting that the Devils were just terrible on Thursday night in Boston. And that carried on through a first period where the Devils lost nearly every puck battle, chipped out the puck with reckless abandon, and turned the puck over as if that would surprise the opposition. The result of that was two shots on net and the sole silver lining of it being 0-0. With four consecutive bad periods of play, any improvement would be laudable. And there was some of that against the New York Islanders.
It wasn't until after a few minutes into the second period did the Devils realize that making passes while going forward was good and dump-and-chasing was not so good. It was on a play where Patrik Elias got a lane to the net, he flung it in front for Travis Zajac, who jammed the puck under Jaroslav Halak, who went into the net. The goal was waved off, but it was as if a switch was turned on for the Devils. Like they had the realization, "Hey, this is a 0-0 game. We can do something about it instead of letting the Isles do whatever." And so the play improved, Halak actually had some work to do, and eventually there would be a goal. A lovely passing play between Elias and Zajac ended with #19 slamming a one-timer past Halak for the game's first goal.
However, the Isles are a good hockey team themselves and found a way back into it. Late in the period, a series of penalties resulted in shorthanded situations with 4-on-4 time in between. The Isles did very well in that stretch, forcing Keith Kinkaid to dive on the smallest rebounds as they were crashing the net well. Their efforts wouldn't be rewarded with a goal until early in the third period, when a defensive faceoff turned into a poke-away by Andy Greene that went to Calvin de Haan. De Haan balsted it, Josh Bailey deflected it while cutting across the slot, and it was 1-1.
But the Devils didn't lay down after that downer. They played with the Islanders. They even got a big break minutes later. Michael Ryder dumped the puck in softly. It was coming around the boards, so Halak figured he would come out of his net to retrieve it and move it along. But it was so slow, Adam Henrique beat Halak to the puck right in front of the trapezoid. He immediately flung it to Scott Gomez, who one-timed the present into the empty net. It was a bad moment for the goalie, who did have struggles playing the puck, and a very good break.
That would not last - and with another unexpected goal. After Dainius Zubrus took his second offensive zone penalty of the night, the Devils were forced to kill off two minutes. This went fairly well until just after it ended. Kyle Okposo was found alone by the left circle and he hammered a slapshot towards goal. He Rolston'ed it, but the puck bounced to the other side of the cage and Kinkaid came out hard to his left for the shot. John Tavares was in a spot to retrieve the rebound and as Kinkaid glided back into his net, Tavares slung the puck off the back of Kinkaid's left leg and into the net. More of a fluke than a folly on Kinkaid, and while he was behind the goal line, one wonders why #91 didn't have a body on him. Regardless, it was 2-2. The Devils and Isles traded rushes and a few chances to score, which made for an up tempo ending. Even though the Isles out-shot the Devils 20-30, the second and third periods wasn't anything like the dominance that Boston imposed on Thursday or the crummy carpet-like play of the Devils in the first period.
Overtime was where it all ended. The Devils did well to start with skaters getting open and passes being made to make the most of that. Alas, the Islanders only needed one offensive play to end it. Adam Larsson retrieved a puck behind the net and skated towards the other corner. Tavares pokes at him once, but Larsson didn't respond to the pressure. Tavares, being faster than Larsson, goes for a little stick lift (it looked like he got some of his arm too), took it away, peeled out of the corner, and put it home. It was very much a superstar play and it won the game for the Islanders. While Larsson got his pocket picked (that first poke was a clue that he should've fired that puck away), that was a goal that I'm sure Kinkaid would like back as the goalie went down first and didn't stay in a good form. Tavares is too good of a shooter to not take advantage, and so he did. Game over, Devils lose 2-3 in overtime.
Unlike a lot of the losses seen this season, though, the Devils weren't straight-up inferior for a majority of the game. They were out-shot and out-attempted by unhealthy margins, but that was driven in part by a nightmare of a first period and in part by score effects as the Isles had to catch-up twice. If you agree with me that this is a bad team largely because they have been playing so bad, then a night where the team wasn't out-classed by a superior team throughout the night is welcomed. Especially after four straight periods of pathetic play, it was pleasant to see that the Devils actually hung with the Isles for better or worse. I was afraid of another sixty-minute mopping of the rink by the opposition. I got a game that went beyond regulation and nearly was won by New Jersey.
Given that 2014-15 season has been a lost one for the Devils, I'll I really want to see is some competitive play. They're simply not bad enough to drop to the level of Buffalo, Edmonton, or a bunch of other teams. They presumably still want to have fans pay money, time, and energy to see them play. Therefore, they should want to have more games like this one - even if they were ultimately lost and could have not been lost, some competence is infinitely more entertaining than very little. I'll take periods like this second and the third tonight over the first one from tonight and any of the three from the Boston game. Yeah, I know that means my level of expectations have been lowered, but with a season like this one, could you really blame me for it?
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 War on Ice Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Dominik has this recap at Lighthouse Hockey that focuses on Tavares. As he should. He scored the second equalizer in the third and the overtime winner, which he created all by himself. He was also an absolute boss on the ice; the Devils had little answer for #91. The superstar was, well, a superstar tonight.
The Game Highlights: Highlights from NHL.com include a sweet goal by Zajac, a deflection by Bailey, two that don't shine a good light on the goalie, and an overtime winning play that was rather excellent by Tavares.
Who Had that Tavares Line: The Tavares line is a very powerful one. It began with Tavares, Okposo, and Mikhail Grabovski. But Grabovski left the game early due to injury so he was replaced by Bailey. That's a tough line to deal with and the matchup the Devils tried the most against them didn't do so well since they combined for ten shots and three goals. That was the unit of Zajac, Elias, and Martin Havlat. At least Zajac and Elias contributed that one goal and nearly had one earlier in the second. At least they combined for seven shots. But Havlat, oh, he was picked on repeatedly tonight. And against the Isles' top unit, that was an issue even with Andy Greene and Adam Larsson back there. Let's just say that pairing got to play a lot of defense.
The real issue lies with the follow-up question, "Who should've had them instead?" Maybe Adam Henrique, Jaromir Jagr, and Scott Gomez? Certainly not Mike Cammalleri, Dainius Zubrus, and Michael "About as Neat as One of the 5 Neat Guys" Ryder. Absolutely not the fourths. The Tavares line was superb tonight so it's possible they were going to smash anyone. But if each line is going to have at least one real weak link defensively, then it's a real problem. Even if you're like me and you'll just accept competent play, then the Devils have to have a roster that has at least one unit that can survive a top unit - if only so the others are limited in their usage against the toughs.
It was also exacerbated tonight by the fact that Ryan Strome, Frans Nielsen (Aside: He was a good player on some really bad teams, he's showing that he can be a good player on a really good one now), and Anders Lee all had good games too. It was sort of a half-and-half effort from the Islanders lines in that two were really good and the other two were just present past the first period.
Oh, The Third Pairing: Seth Helgeson was scratched and deservedly so for getting dominated by Boston despite limited minutes. This did not lead to much improvement. Mark Fraser was a turnover machine again, a real lowlight in an abysmal first period. I wanted Peter Harrold back in the lineup. He was overwhelmed with and without Fraser, so I'm not so sure I want to see much more of Harrold. But what can the Devils do with three defensemen unavailable due to injury? They have to juggle some combination of Harrold, Fraser, and Helgeson and pretty much hope for the best. There wasn't much hope provided tonight, so this is another point of struggling.
Discipline, Get With It: Zubrus was disappointing tonight largely because he took two offensive zone penalties. Larsson, I thought, was fine tonight but I didn't like the penalty he took late in the second period. I liked the hold Jagr took just before the 4-on-4 ended even less. While the Devils did well for the most part on the penalty kill - it got hairy in that second period - mostly six minutes on the PK didn't help the team's cause to go forward. It's worth noting that most of the calls came when the Devils were playing some decent hockey in the game. So those did hurt the efforts. There will be nights where the refs are calling it tight, but the little cheap and easy calls can't continue if the goal is to play somewhat better.
Who Did I Like: Well, while they got beaten by the Tavares line, Zajac and Elias were very good together when they had an some attack time. Marek Zidlicky had some typical Zidlicky like moments, but he was firing away a bit more than usual and they were good decisions to do so. Jagr was trying to do too much early, but I'll take that over not much at all. Gomez was shooting the puck fairly well too, which is always notable since it involves Scott Gomez and shooting the puck. I really thought they would get one in overtime because they were so much in control early. Alas, sudden death comes, well, suddenly, when a star makes a star play.
Solid Goalies With a Few Exceptions: Jaroslav Halak and Keith Kinkaid had fine games with one goal against that they will regret. The goal by Gomez was formed by Henrique, but really created by Halak coming out on the assumption he'd get the puck. Kinkaid did go down early on the OT winner. Other than those, both goalies were very good in form. Kinkaid made plenty of stops through traffic and Halak had to react well on a number of quick ones. It's worth noting that War on Ice's game stats track scoring chances based on shot location and both teams were tied at 13-13 in that regard, so both goalies had healthy workloads. Halak can at least feel less bad about his error since his team ultimately won.
A New Rivalry?: There were a lot of Islanders fans at tonight's game, which led to the legitimate sell-out crowd at the Rock. And why shouldn't there be? The Islanders are a top team in the Eastern Conference for the first time in generations. They're playing a fairly local opponent. Even if a lot of them are jumping on the bandwagon, who can blame them for not getting on the Isles Express for most of the last 15 years or so? As there were a lot of visiting fans, there was a lot of noise from them. Again, why shouldn't there be? Who makes a trip to a visiting arena to be quiet? This annoyed quite a few Devils fans given the reactions I've heard live and at the game. With the Isles being a relevant hockey team and this influx of visiting fans compared to previous Isles-Devils games, maybe a new rivalry will be generated. It would be something to consider.
Lastly: The Islanders are the best team in New York.
Your Take: While I'm not down on this one - awful first period but still get a point and not get wrecked past the first does that - maybe you feel differently. Who did you like from the Devils tonight? Who impressed you the most on the Islanders? What lessons can the Devils take from this one and apply it before their upcoming road trip through California? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's overtime loss.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed along on Twitter via @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.