In case it hasn't yet, the proverbial bar has been lowered for the New Jersey Devils. After a bit over two months littered with a performances so poor the team deserved to lose, a loss that features some competitive hockey is considered as an upgrade. A tiny step forward. A bit of progress. After two turgid periods of low-event hockey and an opponent willing to play like them, the New Jersey Devils were down 0-2. They conceded the first few shots of the third period and a third goal. But unlike past games where the team would get a consolation goal at best, they actually put up a fight against the Montreal Canadiens. The Devils still lost, but there was some kind of hope in a three-goal comeback that ended up short at 2-4. That's how low the bar is for me.
So let's talk about what we learned. First off, sometimes a cliche can turnout to be true. Andrew Bershire lamented that the Canadiens don't outplay their opponents in his last recap. This can be construed as the more common phrase, "they play to the level of their opponents." This comes out when a team doesn't do so well against a team that isn't all that good. Well, that's what happened with Montreal tonight. The Devils were just behind the Canadiens, 24-26. While the Canadiens had their fair share of missed opportunities (and one shot off the inside of a post), the Devils were only behind in attempts 41-43. And there was no outburst of offense where the Devils caught up, it was fairly even period-to-period. The Canadiens held a possession advantage and understandably so by eye as they were sharper at moving the puck. But they were just prone to having an offensive pass go astray or intervened by the Devils, followed by not much pressure. It was a bit weird that Montreal showed they were more talented but didn't do more tonight. Not that every supposedly strong team has to out-shoot the Devils by a 2:1 ratio like Detroit did on Wednesday as proof their quality, but the play should raise a few eyebrows of the Canadiens faithful. Montreal went into NJ, built up a lead, nearly lost it, and never really made the most of the control of the game they could have had. It'd be one thing if it was just an off night, but I don't think Berkshire writes that from another recap if it was uncommon. Despite winning their fifth game in a row, if Montreal continues to not really out-do their opponents, then their lofty position (and streak) won't last. Essentially, I'm saying Berkshire is right and I'm sure he's at least happy about this sentence.
Second, a goal can spark a team, but we cannot ignore the build-up play. It's easy to say that an event "wakes a team up." But the reality is that good execution is what leads to good, watchable, productive hockey. The Michael Ryder goal was created off a heinous turnover by Alexei Emelin. That in of itself was fantastic. Yet, it did not make the rest of the team go, "Hey, we should probably try stuff like that." They started hitting some passes, they won pucks down low, they kept pucks in play, and that results in pressure, attempts, and shots. After a sluggish 13 shots on net in two periods, the Devils dropped nearly that many in the third. Their reward was another goal and fans not leaving the game too early thinking Ryder's was just a consolation goal. It's not that the Devils needed to go down three goals and hope the opponent lays off. The latter didn't happen given their thirteen shots on net in the third. No, the team started hitting more passes, getting better exits, and getting some carry-ins. That's what will lead to more productive play and watchable hockey by a team that has little to play for at this point.
Third, bad streaks cannot last forever. I've been dogging Ryder so much that I'd almost rather see Yuri Rasmonovich play right wing instead of him for the last two months. When he fired that wrister in the third period, I was jubilant when it went in. I also was very loudly critical of Carey Price such that the many Montreal fans heard because, well, who gives up a goal to Ryder these days? But seriously, I'm happy that Ryder finally ended his 20+ game scoreless streak. Additionally, Mike Cammalleri ended seven straight games without a goal when he put in his own rebound in the third. It didn't just give the team some hope of a comeback, but it probably gave him some relief. The Devils will be better off when guys who are known for their shots actually get those shots off and into the net. Again, the season may be lost but it'll make the team watchable.
Fourth, and perhaps most critically, all I want from the Devils at this point is to put competitive efforts on the ice on a somewhat regular basis. The first forty minutes were more of the same with missed passes without pressure, struggling against forechecks (Montreal used two men quite a lot), and trying to go for long passes out of desperation but with little success. The third period was more of what I think the team can do and I was far more entertained by it. Sure, there's still plenty to work on. Like the first few minutes and the 6-on-5 where Montreal played keep away with the puck for about a minute before Tomas Plekanec sealed the win with an empty net goal. But if this team is going to be bad, I'd rather have them be somewhat respectable. If anything else, that's why I'm not as annoyed, bothered, concerned, disgusted or even mad about this loss like so many from the 2014 portion of 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 Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts
The Opposition Opinion: Marc Dumont has something called Top Six Minutes at Habs Eyes on the Prize that's like a recap. So there's that.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, this highlight video has evidence of Ryder scoring a goal.
Up & Down Together as a Team: No one on either side really did well or poorly from an attempt differential standpoint. It's fitting for a game like this where the Canadiens didn't take full advantage of their control and the Devils rose up late but never really did more than the opposition. In some way, that's surprising for the Devils considering they were short a man.
Harrold Out: Peter Harrold got a stick to the face during the Devils' first penalty kill and he was out. Harrold was bleeding, he was down, and he would not return. There was no call on the play. I'm sure this is where someone says "following through" isn't legal. Like the loudmouth Montreal fan near me who first claimed Harrold was embellishing. I'm sure Alex Galchenyuk forgot to do the same in the third period (he was called for high sticking). I think players should be responsible for their sticks, but it is what it is.
The result of the violent act was that the Devils were down to five defensemen. Seth Helgeson only got eleven or so minutes, so the Devils were leaning hard on Jon Merrill, Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky, and Adam Larsson. If you wanted Merrill and Larsson (a.k.a. the kids, the glorious youth) to get significant minutes, then you got it as each played 27:53 and 26:36, respectively. Given that Montreal didn't light up the Devils, I'd have to say the defense did at least a decent job.
Curiously, Greene played the fewest among the four, which I think is due to his lack of usage on the power play. I find it baffling that Harrold became a power play regular under the new coaching regime and equally so that when he's out, Greene isn't used. He's not that bad offensively, certainly better than Harrold. Maybe we'll see it tomorrow. With Eric Gelinas sick and Harrold potentially out for a while, the Devils are now going ten-deep in defensemen. I'm sure we're all looking forward to that.
Kinkaid Lit: I don't think Keith Kinkaid played all that bad of a game in spite of what three goals against on 25 shots suggest. The first goal against was a Michael Bournival shot that careened off Jon Merrill's skate off the rush. That's just a bad bounce - the sort Montreal has been getting for about a month now. The second goal against was one of Max Pacioretty's six shots on net. He stepped towards the middle and put one low through (past?) Greene, Brendan Gallagher, and Kinkaid. If there was a goal Kinkaid maybe should've stopped, then maybe it was that one but I think calling it a bad goal to allow would be really harsh.
The third goal deserves it's own paragraph because it featured a breakdown by the fourth line and Seth Helgeson. Tim Sestito tries to chip a puck out but it gets lost in his skates and his stick gets stuck to the pants of P.K. Subban. Dale Weise picks it up and Helgeson goes after Wiese like a missle. Helgeson goes for the hit but didn't quite get him, so Weise pushes towards the net. Marek Zidlicky is caught in no man's land as a result of Helgeson going for the hit, and there are two Canadiens to one Jordin Tootoo in front of the net. Weise gets a shot off past Zidlicky, Kinkaid stops it, but Bournival was in a good place to take that rebound and pile it in. This was early in the third and if it wasn't for Emelin coughing it up to Ryder and Price not being able to stop one of the coldest sticks in the league, then that would've been a backbreaker. In any case, I can't and won't fault Kinkaid for that one but I will for the skaters.
Overall, I don't think Kinkaid's status as the #2 goalie on the team is in doubt because of tonight. I do think that it should at least serve some notice to those that think he's the second coming. While he wasn't bad tonight, it doesn't mean near-perfection in the crease either.
The Returns: While Harrold getting hurt adds more pain, the Devils did get three forwards back into the lineup: Martin Havlat, Patrik Elias, and Ryder. Havlat was noticeable but didn't contribute too much, he only attempted one shot and he missed. Elias played more like he has all season: he had some very good shifts and some shifts where he didn't look like he was on the same page or book as everyone else. Ryder did what you hope from Ryder. He got four shots on net and scored a goal. I can't complain (loudly) about that. I fully understand they came back on some short notice, so I'm not too down on Elias and Havlat not making their mark like Ryder did. I will say that their return showed the difference between having NHL forwards in place of call-ups and going forward, I hope it'll mean to more fruitful results.
Discipline, Please: Marek Zidlicky had a Zidlicky like game, what with some aggressive moves on offense taken with varying results and a couple of fouls. He hooked Galchenyuk after he got burned by him. That was somewhat defensible as it happened by the slot, but the better play would not have been getting burned at all. He got hit for high-sticking Weise after Weise hit him, it was a silly retaliatory penalty. Brendan Gallagher caused issues and drew two calls for it: a holding call early in the game on Merrill and a hooking call on Jaromir Jagr wherein he still nearly scored a highlight reel worthy goal late in the second. The call against Jagr turned out to be costly, but all four undercut a Devils effort that wasn't generating a lot for a majority of the game anyway. Those three players didn't have bad nights at all (I especially liked Jagr when he got pivoting; his pass that led to Cammalleri's goal was just lovely and the result of great body position), but the penalties were blotches on their respective records. So this piece of the performance could have been better.
On Power Plays: Montreal is a very good penalty killing team, but the power play left a lot to be desired. The Devils are definitely running that 1-3-1 and when they get set-up, it actually functions like it can threaten to score. The problems I had with it were the fact that the Devils really liked to dump the puck in to get started. This worked once or twice. It also failed a bunch of times, with one giving Tomas Plekanec a glorious shorthanded chance. That just bewilders me; it's a power play, someone is going to be open, all four PKers can't just stand the Devils up at the blueline. I also think the units need a different handed shot on the right side and I don't think we need to see Jordin Tootoo ever on a power play. But the entries were the thing that stuck out to me. At least there was some pressure?
Subbeast: P.K. Subban was fantastic. Not that the Devils or a team necessarily needs a stud defender, having someone like him is vastly useful. Montreal knows that and it was on display tonight for about 27:28. Even late in the game, he was clearing pucks like it was the first shift. Very good on and off the puck and positionally sound. I look at him and wonder, what more could you want in a defenseman?
Your Take: The Devils have a quick turnaround as they'll take on the Second Rate Rivals tomorrow. What do you make of a game like this? Did the third make you feel better than the first and second? Would you agree this was more watchable than what the Devils normally put up? How did you react when Ryder scored his goal? What should the Devils do to prepare for Saturday's game based on what you saw tonight? Is the proverbial bar of expectations lowered for you? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.