The Rock was lively. The 3D introduction wowed most of the crowd. The start of the game was pretty good. Then reality set in and the home team provided little to get amped about. The New Jersey Devils lost 1-3 to the Winnipeg Jets in a game where the performance was much wider than the score line. The Jets didn't look like a team that played a game the night before (they did). They looked like a team that just stomped Boston 6-2 (they did that too) and proceeded to play a smart, efficient game against the Devils. Once they got their first power play, the Jets just put a stranglehold on the game. The Devils had shifts and moments where they looked like they could make the game interesting, but it was too little to overcome the majority of the contest.
The key word that came to my mind during this game wasn't #Relentless or Fast or Attacking or Supportive. It was Possession, something I've been zealous about on this site from even back in the Blogspot days. The root of how this game went down was possession. The Jets were far better than the Devils at it. The Jets hit passes to open players more often, they didn't try to force potentially lethal but low percentage-of-completion of passes. They acted quickly and the four Jets who didn't have the puck were able to get into positions to help the puck carrier out. Winnipeg was plenty Fast, Attacking, and Supportive and it's because they were able to maintain control of the puck much better than their opponents. The results were obvious: they heavily out-shot the Devils in the first half of the game (shots were something like 7-19 at that point), they took many more attempts overall (32-44 in favor of the visitors), and they were able to generate more scoring chances. Their possession led them to the situations where they scored their three goals: a slick shortside shot by Mark Schiefele, a fantastic shot by Blake Wheeler on a make-shift 2-on-1 in New Jersey's end, and a killer one-timer to a wide-open Andrew Ladd off a wide-open cross-slot pass by Mathieu Perreault. Basically, possession matters and the Jets easily had more of it.
They also had some successes in other areas. They were able to break out effectively after stopping a Devils' attempt at going forward, which was usually a dump-in. They were very effective at controlling their own end of the rink. They held New Jersey to 21 shots overall and even with a ten-shot third period, four of them came on a power play so it wasn't as if the Devils were just bringing it to them all night long. Tyler Myers stood out to me among them; he looked like the stud he was projected to be at one point. They were able to apply a forecheck to challenge a sloppy defense trying to start breakouts with D-to-D passes; they won some additional pucks and attack time at best, they were still able to force some less than ideal passes at worst. In total, the Jets came into New Jersey with a good game plan, a good roster, and they were very good at executing it. Again, this 1-3 scoreline doesn't really reflect how well Winnipeg played.
This isn't to say it was all awful for the Devils. For starters, they didn't get shut out. Jiri Tlusty got credited with the first goal of the season, even though it was technically put past Michael Hutchinson by Jacob Trouba. Hey, it still counted. They played more of an aggressive game in the third period after their passive ways yielded little in the first two periods. It's expected that a team down two presses the issue more on offense, and the Devils did that at times so credit to them for playing to the score. The Devils' power play was good more often than not and they threatened somewhat when they pulled the goalie with two minutes to go. Oh, and Cory Schneider did his job well to keep the game within some reach even though that first goal against was kind of weak.
All told, I'm not terribly surprised by this. The Devils ended last season as a low-event, poor offensive team and even with all of the changes, their first game was consistent with being a low-event, poor offensive team. I know it's only the first game. There will be better nights and performances. This certainly wasn't one of them and it certainly won't be the last one in 2015-16.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Arctic Ice Hockey, allan5oh has this short recap praising a very good performance by the Jets. I don't see anything wrong with that.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight's highlights:
A Site Note: In recent seasons, I've done a goal breakdown of the first goal scored for the Devils in the season. I intend to do one for Trouba's own goal as it highlights something the Devils do on their power play. Look for that on Monday. Assuming they'll score one legitimately on Saturday night, I'll do the first one put in by a Devils stick as well.
Rough Nights or There Will Be Changes: Plenty of Devils had a rough go at it on the ice tonight. The defensive pairing of David Schlemko and Damon Severson was nightmarish at times. Severson turned into a turnover machine, whether it was a breakout pass right to a Jet in the neutral zone or coughing up the puck right in front after the Devils' first penalty kill. While he had three shots on net, Severson wasn't good on the puck and mishandling a D-to-D pass ultimately led to a breakaway by Nikolaj Ehlers that Schneider stopped. Schlemko was dire at times with or without the puck. He had a memorable shift where he received a pass in his own end from Severson, had a Jet in his face, and he simply panicked with the puck leading to an extended shift on defense where he was just chasing the play. On other shifts, he was just out of his element. Oh, and he was the one Ehlers got behind for the breakaway. Not that the defense as a whole was good, but these two stuck out in a very bad way from what I saw. Defensive issues aside, I would expect Eric Gelinas to come in for Schlemko tomorrow just on performance alone.
Likewise, it's hard to highlight who had a good game among the Devils forwards. Tlusty technically had the goal and showed the arena he's the best stickhandler on the Devils, but that's pretty much it. Neither half of the top six really led the way on offense. Kyle Palmieri was active but ultimately didn't come away with much. The same goes for Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac. The fourth line didn't make much energy, much less actual plays (well, Jordin Tootoo somehow got three shots on net) and they got jumbled up with a third line that got moved around during the game. Whereas Tlusty kept getting shifts, Reid Boucher and Sergey Kalinin had theirs cut. Kalinin was more known for taking big hits than anything else; Boucher struggled with the speed of the game and took a poor delay of game penalty that turned into a PPGA. Not that they'll be the answer, but I wouldn't be shocked if Stefan Matteau and/or Brian O'Neill came in for two members of the bottom six.
There's not a whole lot of changes the Devils can do with their roster, but there are some tweaks I would suggest for their tactics.
Consider a Plan B for the Breakout: The Devils demonstrated that what they did against Philly on breakouts was not specific to them. The Devils defensemen consistently passed it within their own zone once or twice before heading up and out. Without pressure, this is not a big deal. With pressure on a night where Devils were missing open teammates just a few feet from them, that's kind of a big deal. It didn't yield a goal, but it did undercut the offense and helped Winnipeg get more. The other issue with this approach is that it's designed to change the point of attack and find new seams to push through. However, that also takes time and often by the time the Devils did this, there was a Jet skater ready to engage once the first pass was made - assuming it was even completed cleanly. That contributed to many of the dump-ins seen tonight, which limited the Devils' efforts on offense. I'm not saying that John Hynes needs to throw this away. But if there's a pairing or a team-wide issue with making passes crisply, quickly, and effectively in a game, then it would behoove him to have the players do something simpler. Or at least something where an aggressive forecheck would be very problematic.
Seriously, Stop the Dumps: The Devils' offense in the third period was more lively whenever they were able to maintain puck control over the blueline. It could've been even better with quicker decisions on whether to attempt a shot or make a pass, but it was a step forward than trying to dump-and-chase. The Devils did this more in the first period; even when they would get to the puck first, they lost plenty of board battles. Part of that was due to size - Jacob Josefson against a larger Jets defender isn't going to be a win most of the time - and part of that was due to positioning. Had Dainius Zubrus been younger and still on this team, this could've been more fruitful. Instead, it helped lead the Devils to a four-shot first period. I fear I'm going to be writing this a lot this season, but the Devils would be wise to not throw pucks away when they actually do get them. It doesn't make them faster, attack more, or support the team's efforts.
That's The Way: I really liked how the Devils did on their second-to-last power play of the night. They didn't just stick to one kind of play or shot, they reacted well when pucks got away from them to keep loose pucks in play, and they were effective at attacking the net. For over half of it was in the right end of the rink and they put up four good shots on net. That's the sort of performance to feel good about; the Devils can have a functioning power play. It was good to watch in addition to a fortunate occurrence on an earlier power play yielding a goal. It was refreshing to see given an even-strength performance that yielded only fifteen shots out of 24 attempts. Now it's just a matter of having it more often.
Back at the Rock Thoughts: This was not a sell out but it was a lively, large, Devils-based crowd. The crowd was fairly hot; a shame there wasn't more to cheer for than what the Devils gave them. There were some new renovations around the arena. The biggest ones happened to the Fire & Ice Lounge; the large walls were replaced with half-walls with Plexiglas so you can see what's going on inside. I guess this will convince people to check it out? Additionally, there were some new food vendors; such as a chicken and waffles stand outside of Section 5 and 6. The Little Devils Zone was moved to corner where all the youth/school jerseys are hung. The Devils Den behind the Ice Lounge was made deeper, more roomier, and houses gear from the '47 brand. What the team said would be ready was ready. For the most part, it was The Rock. That at least was good.
One Final Thought: I wouldn't come away with this game wondering whether the Devils are bad or that the Jets are that good in that it could easily be both. That said, it wasn't a mess of a game despite the disparate performances. It was entertaining right until the end; the Devils, to their credit, didn't play like they would give up on the game late. I suppose that's a step forward from some of last season's losses, even if it's a tiny one.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-3 in a game that they deserved to lose based on the performance. What's your take on how it all went down? What do you think the Devils should improve upon for the future based on this game? Who stood out at having a good game or a bad game in your eyes? Does this loss make you worry what Washington will do to them tomorrow night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread, followed along with @AATJerseyBlog on Twitter, and you for reading this recap.