Typically, a 4-2 win in a hockey game usually means the team with four goals was the better team. They not only scored more goals, but they defended a lead, expanded it in someway, and the opposition could not catch up. Tonight's game between the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers provided an exception. The Devils built up an early two goal lead and never lost that lead in their 4-2 win. However, by no means can anyone who watched this game honestly conclude that the Devils were the better team on the ice tonight.
It is very true. The Devils played a good first period. They punished Florida for their lackadaisical defensive coverage. Lee Stempniak was all alone in front on the first shift of the game. When Mike Cammalleri flung a puck front, he was able to collect it and beat Roberto Luongo. Later, after Florida got a clearance, Damon Severson chipped a puck ahead to his left. It was such that Kyle Palmieri touched up onside, collected it into the zone, drove in, and sniped a high shot past Luongo shortside with no other Panther in sight. The Devils had issues with getting zone exits, but Florida never really punished the Devils enough with that. The Devils were able to get forward and put the Panthers on their heels. It looked like tonight would be promising for New Jersey from the start.
Then everything went out the window. Those issues with getting pucks cleared, especially along the walls, seemed to multiply. The Devils' passes just degraded over time. The neutral zone eventually became a free zone for the Panthers to travel through. Power plays? HA! What power? All seemed right for the Panthers to make a comeback and they did in the second period. Right off an offensive zone faceoff win - something Florida absolutely dominated tonight - Aaron Ekblad fired a shot. It hit off at least one Devils before it hit off Cory Schneider and got into the net. The Devils provided a response minutes later. Adam Henrique picked up a rebound off an Adam Larsson shot, skated around the net, and just beat Luongo to the left post to make it 3-1. Would that deter the Panthers? No, it only inspired them further. Eventually, their constant offensive shifts would put the Panthers back within one. An incredible shift by Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau paid off big. Huberdeau ended up down low to the left and roofed one past the bodies to make it 3-2. There would be no response from the Devils. It very nearly got tied when Huberdeau was sprung on a breakaway and Larsson fouled him from behind. On the ensuing penalty shot, Huberdeau correctly chose to try to put it around Schneider, but the puck didn't go with him. The Panthers just went back to work and the Devils really escaped the middle period, out-scored 1-2 and out-shot 3-12.
Making matters even worse is that the second intermission provided no change from this. The third period consisted of the following: the Panthers attacking, a Florida player denying a defensive zone exit by the Devils, the Panthers attack some more, the Devils scrambling to recover and attempt another exit, and when that exit was made, a Florida defenseman calmly recovered the puck, paid no mind to a weak Devils forecheck, and calmly moved the puck up ice to start it again. Repeat for the better part of twenty minutes. What must have been frustrating to the visitors was that the first (only?) offensive shift by the Devils yielded another goal. Damon Severson got an opening by the slot with a loose puck, made a great read to a wide-open Cammalleri, and it was a simple pass-shot-score to make it 4-2. The Devils followed that with, well, not really attacking since then. They took one more shot on Luongo in the period and that would be it until Jussi Jokinen blocked two empty net attempts. The Panthers put up ten since that goal. In the third period, the Devils were out-shot 3-17. They absolutely held on to this one, thanks to Schneider.
Ultimately, the Devils got out-shot by a ratio of 2:1. 36-18 by the end of the game. Maybe the Devils kept the Panthers to the outside more than they'd like, but that's a lot of volume that could have erased that lead. Think back to that first goal by Ekblad. A simple re-direction, deflection, a close rebound or an odd block, or a "seeing-eye shot" was absolutely possible and the Panthers nearly got it again several times tonight. Their second goal was created by an astonishing long shift in New Jersey's end by the Barkov line and the Barkov line had plenty of strong shifts in New Jersey's end in the last two periods. The Panthers kept doing what would work; they just didn't get it.
Credit to that should go to Cory Schneider. Perhaps he should have stopped that first goal. It did hit him before it fell in. He absolutely made up for it with 34 saves and a penalty shot miss. The game plan for New Jersey degenerated to what we saw in the beginning of this calendar year: get wrecked in possession and hope Schneider bails out the team. He did that tonight with the key difference of the Devils scoring more than two goals for him to work with. The Devils' defense was worked over and over and the forwards settled for clearances and hoping for open chances to go forward that just disappeared late in the game. The Panthers' skaters were superior for most of this game, they just couldn't solve Schneider a third time.
Sure, the Devils got the desired result. They won, they won at home, and they did it with all of their top scorers scoring. That's all well and good. My concern is that how they did it will mean they won't learn the hard lessons from this kind of performance until they lose some games. Getting out-controlled and out-played for about two-thirds of a regulation game will yield losses. Just ask the early 2015 Devils.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Litter Box Cats,
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight's highlights. If nothing else, the Devils scored some beautiful goals.
Top Five Cammalleri: Cammalleri set up Stempniak for his quick goal and extended the lead to two in the third period. With that goal and assist, he's got an impressive seven points in his last three games. As of this writing, Cammalleri is fifth in the entire NHL in scoring. He's been nothing short of impressive on the scoresheet and his contributions on offense, while limited, made the difference tonight. It's Cammalleri's world in Newark, we're just living in it.
Predicted: Once in a while, I get something right. Kevin Kraczkowski asked me who would cause trouble for Roberto Luongo other than Cammalleri, Henrique, and Palmieri. By default, I went with Stempniak. As it turned out, each of those players scored on Luongo tonight. Very nice.
Support? What's Support?: Adam Larsson and Andy Greene got to spend a lot of time on defense tonight. What was very weird was that Larsson kept trying to body up Jagr. You can't do that! But more seriously than that, it was disappointing that most of the forward lines were also pinned back and just couldn't do much to get forward beyond the first period. There was the Henrique line, which had it's moments of nothingness, and everyone else who was mostly doing not much for two periods. Whether it was Stefan Matteau, Jacob Josefson, Patrik Elias, or even Palmieri getting hemmed in on defense and not doing much to break the thread, it was just an eye sore. Throw in Larsson and Greene having a rough time of it themselves and it got worse. The other defensemen weren't that much better, but they were limited. 5-6 got the Barkov line with Ekblad and Dmitry Kulikov supporting and it was just a matter of survival. This was a night where the forwards really needed to go and help out, instead, they forced more work as they couldn't help get pucks cleared properly or provide a consistent enough attack to spell the defense.
Fours: This game wasn't notable for special teams beyond both teams not doing much on power plays. Each team had two advantages, both teams combined for four shots, and a whole lot of poor zone entries. The penalty calls stood out more. Brandon Pirri and Severson got into it late in the first period, which meant it was 4-on-4 hockey to close that period out and open the second. Both teams went down a man again shortly thereafter when Eric Gelinas interfered with David Bolland from playing a puck and Bolland over-sold it. Honors were evened up late in the second period when Palmieri gave Luongo a snow shower and Erik Gudbranson was rather rough in his disagreement of that decision. It's a good thing this game didn't end up going into over time as the Panthers did better in the run of play in 4-on-4 tonight, even though each team scored one goal each.
Jagr is Amazing: There's nothing more to say but that. Seriously, he, Huberdeau and Barkov played well tonight. And Kulikov, Ekblad (seven shots!!!!!!!), Gudbranson, and Steven Kampfer were just excellent along the Devils' blueline and away from it in starting breakouts. Had the Panthers been a bit sharper in their own zone on a few occasions (looking at you, Vincent Trocheck), then the Devils may not have been able to maintain or even have a lead tonight.
One Last Thought: I miss Travis Zajac. I think it's clear that Patrik Elias or Jacob Josefson are not long term answers for that second line center role. While he's just one player, he did enough well on draws, on defense, and in settling games down to make that second line more of a challenging match-up against opposing players. Unfortunately, there's no answer in the bottom six. Stephen Gionta and Sergey Kalinin are not valid answers. Get well soon, Zajac.
Your Take: As great as the goals looked (they were!) and as nice as the win looks on the scoreboard (it does!), the performance was definitely ugh-inspiring. The Devils still managed to get a 4-2 result. What did you think of the game? What do you think caused the Devils' issues tonight? Can they fix them up before their next game in Toronto? How did Schneider not get a star of the game from Tonight's Attending Media? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented on this game in the Gamethread and/or followed the site's Twitter account, @AATJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.