Stupid. If tonight's performance by the New Jersey Devils could be summed up in a single word, then that's what I would go with. Stupid. Both the Devils and the Anaheim Ducks did not put on a particularly crisp game of hockey at the Prudential Center this evening. Yet, when the Ducks made errors, the Devils often fell over themselves instead of taking advantage. When the Devils made errors, the Ducks utilized turnovers and bad decisions to keep an offensive shift on offense or at least force the Devils back to spend more time and energy not making a comeback in tonight's game. Those turnovers yielded the situations for both of Anaheim's goals tonight. And it was enough for the team with the worst road record in the league to pick up a needed 'W.' Yes, it was a very stupid game.
I couldn't tell you what turnovers were the worst. I witnessed Andy Greene - yes, team captain and veteran defenseman Andy Greene - drop pass it to nobody but two Ducks that made the entire not-at-all-a-sellout-no-matter-what-the-team-says crowd groan. I witnessed Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and John Moore all get in each others' way after a simple stickcheck knocked a puck loose when the opportunity for an easy exit was present. Jiri Tlusty was taken out by his own teammates on loose pucks at least twice. I don't think there was a Devil tonight that didn't commit a poor decision that made it easy for the Ducks to defuse what the Devils were trying to do. Again, even when the Ducks gifted pucks, the Devils reacted as if they were being given a hot potato as opposed to an opportunity to make them suffer. Tonight's game featured a grand total of 75 attempts (40-35 in favor of NJ, at least they out-attempted the Ducks after being down in the game for most of it) and 40 shots (22-18 in favor of NJ, with a whopping 5 in the final period. You know, the one the Devils started down two goals). A sharper performance could have made it more, but instead, that's what we got.
I suppose the worst would have to be the ones that led to the goals. The unit of Eric Gelinas, David Schlemko, Stephen Gionta, Jacob Josefon, and Jiri Tlusty got pinned in their own end and failed to clear the puck. Gelinas made an attempt up the middle but he didn't get all of it. Kevin Bieksa took it, flung it down low to Chris Stewart, and Stewart just threw it in front. The puck went off Gelinas' skates and through Keith Kinkaid. It was definitely a bad break, but the Devils' shift prior to the score was just poor - especially the clearing attempt by #44. The Devils would have more shifts like that tonight - stuck in their own end, failing to make a clearance or a clean exit - at least there were no defenders in the area to bounce a puck in off of, so Kinkaid was able to make the stop.
Unfortunately, Adam Larsson - yes, Adam Larsson, top pairing defenseman - would top that. Early in the game, the Devils were stymied on their breakout with two forechecking forwards just hanging out in their end with three Devils too far away in the neutral zone. Larsson, behind the net, decided to just slapshot the puck hard around the boards, hoping to at least get it out. Corey Perry was lurking on the sideboards so he easily stopped it and flung the puck to Ryan Kesler, the man originally in front waiting for Larsson to do something. Kesler took a turnaround backhander, evaded the defense, and potted in his own rebound with 22 seconds left in the first period. It was just a uncharacteristically awful decision by Larsson and the Ducks capitalized. It would be magnified as the game went on as there was no answer to that.
A sharper performance could've yielded one. The Ducks stopped forechecking, but the Devils were losing pucks in every which way so attacking shifts from there were few and far between. The Devils got two power plays and impressively conceded none, but the Devils didn't move the puck effectively anywhere close enough to realize that they had a man advantage. To be fair, the Ducks' penalty kill has been fantastic this season. When the Devils were able to make a few passes in a row, they were able to find some nice pockets of space to take dangerous shots at Fredrick Andersen. In the second period, there were some good chances just wasted due to bouncing pucks, Devils just off-rhythm so the play dies, or a Duck being able to recover on defense to deny the Devil. In the third period, those chances were even fewer and further between. There would be one the Devils hit on: a long pass by Damon Severson got Lee Stempniak by Sami Vatanen and made a 2-on-1 with Mike Cammalleri. Stempniak slid it across to Cammalleri and this time he one-timed it to beat Andersen. It was 1-2 with less than four and a half minutes left, but the Devils' struggles they had for most of the game never really went away and so the team didn't really challenge late to tie it up. There was only one shot since the goal and it was easily stopped by Andersen.
Some would call this game a frustration from how the Devils squandered what the Ducks were conceded and how the Devils gave away pucks like they were going out of business at times in their own end. Again, I see it as stupidity. The Devils were coming off a bad loss to Florida, they were playing against a team that didn't go for broke to really put the game away, they were playing against a team that has had it's own share of struggled, and this is what we got. The Devils not only didn't execute basic plays but they played like their teammates just met each other this morning. It was simply dumb decision after another for much of the game which could've been winnable. Instead, New Jersey acted like their two goal deficit after one seem larger than it was at times. We've seen the Devils play much more structured, patient, and just plain better; as recently as this past Tuesday in Buffalo. Yet, we get this after that F- against Florida.
It's easy to chalk this loss up as another bad game. It's simple to just note that this is the first time in about a month that the Devils lost consecutive games in regulation. It's basic to state that every team has rough nights or rough patches. All of that is true but it misses the larger picture. But given how Anaheim just had the better run of play in the first period and just sat on it in light of so many other games in this month, I can't help but think this is closer to what the Devils actually are. If you're not concerned about the Devils now, then I don't know what else would have to happen to convince you. Maybe a game against a tougher opponent on the road tomorrow.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out the opposition's opinion at Anaheim Calling, which should be a favorable one.
The Game Highlights: Here are tonight's highlights from NHL.com. Again, this mostly favors the opposition.
The Passes: I am giving passes to the following Devils. First, Keith Kinkaid should not feel bad about this one. He got beaten by a fluke bounce off his own defenseman and getting hung out to dry thanks to a terrible giveaway. Kinkaid made several good saves, most notably a three-shot sequence by Corey Perry on his left, Josh Manson on the rebound, and then on Ryan Kesler after another giveaway by the Devils. While Kinkaid only faced 18 shots out of 35 attempts, that he had to be alert for when the Devils coughed up the puck in case the Ducks attempted to do something with it. I think he played a perfectly acceptable game tonight - one of the few Devils that deserve that distinction.
Second is Travis Zajac. No, Zajac was not perfect. He had his errors like pretty much everyone else tonight. For all of his twenty minutes of ice time, he had one shot to show for it and he got out-shot and out-attempted at evens. He won a bunch of faceoffs, which doesn't mean much. That all said, if there was anyone I would have expected to struggle, then it would have been him. This was his first game back since leaving the Carolina game early on December 3. The first game after being out hurt isn't always an easy one, even if he was out for just two and a half weeks. I do expect more and better from him in future games, but he'll return to his usual form so I think that'll happen.
Ugh: It's a good thing Stempniak made that pass to Cammalleri for the Devils' lone goal tonight. It was the one thing that could salvage a rough night for the top line. Cammalleri's previous game highlight would have been passing on a 3-on-2 rush when he had a wide open shot. Or drawing a stick hold by Bieksa in the first period on a play that could've yielded a great scoring chances. Still, 20-14-13 was just a mess in their own end. And at times on offense with passes hitting skates or missing entirely or getting it taken away easily. Compare that to Ryan Getlzaf and Perry tonight, who both made a lot of positive plays for their team. Their top guys were good. The Devils' were just hit-and-mostly-miss until Severson managed that long pass to Stempniak. The good news is that there's been enough evidence this season to reasonably think they'll bounce back. But when they suffer, man, does the Devils' offense get stunted. Kyle Palmieri, Zajac, Tuomo Ruutu certainly didn't cover themselves in glory as a second line (why was this a second line, Hynes?) and guys like Tyler Kennedy and Stephen Gionta are, well, Kennedy and Gionta.
Double Ugh: I'm sure they've been pinned back worse in other games in this month, nevermind this season. But this was just a terrible performance for Larsson and Greene. The turnovers were ghastly and one of them ended up being costly. Neither helped the play go forward much. John Hynes correctly gave as much ice time to John Moore and Damon Severson at evens tonight; though both played significantly enough to make their issues known. The good news is that, like the Henrique line, there's more than a season's worth of evidence to think they'll be better. But when they're struggling, it's a bad time for everyone on their team. Imagine if the Ducks weren't a sub-5% shooting team at evens. This score could have been much worse and/or it would have been an even tougher night for Kinkaid.
Never Seen That Before: In the first period, Palmieri was bodying up Perry behind the net. Palmieri broke away but Perry still lost his balance such that he knocked the net over Kinkaid. Fortunately, Kinkaid got under the net instead of being brained by the crossbar. I don't think I've ever seen something like that before. I'd like to think it was unintentional by Perry.
A Silver Lining: No penalties by the Devils was certainly nice to see. I'm sure there could have been one or two, but that's true of nearly most hockey games. This is good for discipline, something Alex recently wrote up as being a problem for the 2015-16 Devils.
One Last Thought: Eric Gelinas ended up entering the game for Jon Merrill. That missed clearance and the GA certainly won't win him any fans, but I thought he handled the rest of the game relatively decent. His presence wasn't a constant sink for shots against and he tied for the team lead tonight with three shots. Will this earn him another game? I don't know. That's kind of a problem that neither Gelinas or Merrill has really made a definitive case for the #6 defenseman spot on the team and we're over thirty games into the season. Not a massive one, but one nonetheless. It'd be nice if one of them could do it soon. Though I'd rather have larger issues - predictable defensive zone play, breakouts being too spaced out between puck carrier and target, offensive zone play, etc. - addressed first.
Your Take: I was displeased by this 1-2 loss. I really do think a smarter and better executed game by the Devils would have given them a result tonight. Alas, we got what we got. What did you think of it? How would you describe this game in one word? Who on the Devils impressed you, if anyone? Who on the Devils disappointed you the most? What should the Devils takeaway from this game before their next game in Boston?
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