Weird as it may seem, tonight's game between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders was rather entertaining. Typically, a 0-3 shut out loss results in the loser looking rather second-rate. There were times where the Devils did look bad, but for every time they got pinned back or needed Cory Schneider to come up big, the Devils had a strong shift of their own and forced Jaroslav Halak to be great. The game had a high-tempo. There was plenty of physicality from hard (and clean) checks to plenty of post-whistle beefs that the refs got on top of quickly. I'm loathe to use the "playoff atmosphere" comparison when it was more like a rivalry game. As the Islanders' fanbase suddenly swelled in this season - there were a lot of Islanders fans at the Rock tonight - a rivalry may be growing right before our eyes. The goals didn't dictate how the game went, just how it was decided.
Those goals were all from the sticks of Islanders players, of course. The first one came from Ryan Strome. It started with broken up pass to the slot by Patrik Elias. It sailed all the way down the ice. Cory Schneider retrieved the puck and passed it to the corner for Eric Gelinas to retrieve it. As another piece of evidence to the theory that Eric Gelinas Struggles Outside of Shooting, Gelinas got easily knocked off the puck by Nikolay Kulemin, who took the puck and passed it to Strome in the left circle. Strome fired a high one to make it 0-1 in the first period. Schneider should've passed it to Gelinas or flung out of the zone himself; but Gelinas should've actually tried protecting the puck too. The second goal came seconds after the Islanders' lone power play ended. After a shot on net, Strome recovered the loose puck, settled it, and saw Travis Hamonic hanging out in the left circle all alone. Backhand pass, one-timer, goal. Schneider had no chance on that one. The third one was an empty netter from Kyle Okposo that sealed the game. By that point, the ENG was just icing on the cake. The Devils weren't coming back from a two goal deficit given how the night was going.
As the headline indicates, it's not due to a lack of effort. Given that the team played Buffalo last night, the fact that they didn't really look fatigued speaks to how much they tried. They had other issues. First, Jaroslav Halak had a great night. He had to make a number of tough stops ranging from needing the toe of his left pad to deny Adam Henrique on a one-timer to stopping Steve Bernier on a rush and somehow denying Scott Gomez on the rebound to an array of pucks coming through traffic. Halak was only beaten once; a one-timer by Travis Zajac on a power play. Alas, the frame of the net bailed out Halak. Still, he was very good. Second, the Devils weren't patient enough with their attempts. Usually, the complaint is that the team passes up opportunities or tries to look for the perfect one. With so many attempts just forced through bodies that often led to pucks being blocked or knocked astray, the Devils as a team could've benefited with one extra pass or one extra second. The Devils got 26 on Halak, it could've been more. Third, the Islanders eventually tightened up their coverage on defense and in the neutral zone. This was most apparent in the third period. Whereas they conceded nineteen attempts in the first and second periods, the Devils only had eleven. Given that they were down a goal and later two goals, that's a head-scratcher on paper. While this goes back to the second point; it's worth noting that the Islanders denied more zone entries in the third period. They made it more difficult for the Devils to get through the neutral zone. That led to less chances for New Jersey and ultimately, fewer shots despite the rising urgency of needing to get something on the board. Between these three points, it's not a total surprise that the Devils didn't get much going for goals. I would've like to have seen at least one go in, but it was not to be.
Normally, this would be a point of real contention. Another example of Why the Devils Need More Offense. Yet, this is the 72nd game of a lost season. It didn't teach us anything we didn't know about the team. The game itself was entertaining and competitive, score aside. The Islanders played a solid game throughout regulation and the Devils, at the very least, hung with them. At this point, I just want competent hockey played by my favorite team; so I can't get unhappy about this loss. Still, the main lesson is that good efforts still require goals for it turn into results. But, long time Devils fans and new ones alike have known this for years.
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, where he is glad that the Isles' losing streak is over.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here is a video of tonight's highlights:
More Evidence that This Was Even: In all situations, the Devils led in attempts 49-47. At even strength, the Devils led 48-42. This speaks to how close the game was in terms of how the action went. It also speaks to how the Devils could've benefitted with more accuracy or at least making fewer attempts with an Islander in the way.
Returning Elias: Patrik Elias played his first game in quite some time. He's been suffering from back spasms. You wouldn't know it from tonight's performance. He looked really good early on, driving the play forward with Stephen Gionta and Dainius Zubrus. Given those wingers' seasons and careers, that's no small feat. The co-coaches in their infinite wisdom decided that they should be matched up against the line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Josh Bailey. Anytime you can put a guy coming back from back spasms, stick him with a way-past-it Zubrus and a depth winger, and match them on purpose against the other team's top line, then you got to do it. Believe it or not, it didn't go all that badly. Sure, Okposo got four shots on target (the fifth was the ENG), Bailey had one, and Tavares had two. But from an attempts standpoint, they were even at even strength. That's a small victory given the amount of talent on that Tavares line. Elias himself had three shots on net and made several attempts at killer passes that didn't quite work out. Still, #26 resembled the old #26 on some shifts and it was a welcome sight. I was happy to see him return tonight.
A Tale of Two Power Plays: The Devils got a power play in the second period after Travis Hamonic hooked Dainius Zubrus. The Devils' power play featured many clearances by the Islanders, an ugly giveaway by Zajac that resulted in a shorthanded 2-on-1 rush that yielded a missed shot, and Zajac ringing one off the post on a one-timer. They had no actual shots on net as posts don't count.
The Islanders got a power play in the third period after Stephen Gionta held up Matt Martin on a rush, which led to Martin losing control and falling hard into the endboards. The play was ruled as interference; regardless of whether that was the right kind of penalty, it was still two minutes. While the Islanders confusingly attempted dump-ins on their zone entries, they would be able to get set-up at times and they made it count. They got four shots on net, with the fourth leading to the goal being scored seconds after the penalty expired.
As much as I don't like the dump-in on a power play, the Islanders clearly had their units on the same page and made more out of their two minutes than the Devils did. I hope the new coach - head coach, assistant that runs the power play, whoever - can spot the differences and make the appropriate adjustments for next season. Even the best power plays only convert around 20-25% of the time, but the lack of actual offense just continues to undercut an already offense-lacking Devils squad.
Another Solid Night: While Steve Bernier didn't score two goals, I did think Gomez, Henrique, and Bernier had a solid game. Ultimately, they ended up much better than the Elias line in terms of possession, which should be of little surprise since the Gomez line didn't have to deal with Tavares for most of the night. The unit created some of the best chances for the Devils to score. Again, it was not to be thanks to Halak.
I also liked Jacob Josefson's performance for what it was. When he was out there with the fourths, they did well. The fourths without him, they were doing poorly. I've noticed that he's been more aggressive on offense, which is a far cry from past seasons where he would just be around in the offensive zone not doing much. He's taking more initiative and I think that's why he's been more visible. More so than, say, Martin Havlat.
Poor Zajac: Travis Zajac alone can't drive much offense. Less so when he's got Jordin Tootoo and Martin Havlat at wings. Havlat didn't do much and Tootoo's hustle seemed to get him more in the way as opposed to pushing forward. When they had to defend, it wasn't pretty. If anyone misses Mike Cammalleri, then it's definitely Zajac for both ends of the rink. As for the others, well, I don't think there will be much demand for Havlat returning. I can understand those who want Tootoo back, but it'd have to be in a more limited role. Nights like tonight show that he really doesn't fit well on a line where he has to play significant minutes.
Active Cory: Schneider was forced to play the puck a lot in the first period. The Islanders appeared to try and use his less-than-great stickhandling against him. To an extent, it did help create the first goal (with no additional thanks to Gelinas). Then again, the Isles got away from it as the game went on. Overall, I think it may have thrown off his game a bit. He was leaving some massive rebounds. Despite the Tortorella-esque collapsing of the defense, the Islanders got onto a few of those to force some tough stops. Schneider did make those, at least. I don't think Schneider had a bad night - two goals on thirty shots isn't bad, especially since he can really be faulted for only one of them. Again, Schneider can't score goals. Still, it's important to realize that he's not going to be perfect on every night. I wonder if we'll see more opposing teams dump the puck in just to force Schneider to play it and maybe get him somewhat outside of his comfort zone.
Apologies: I dismissed Thomas Hickey as a viable partner for Travis Hamonic. The Hamonic-Hickey pairing did very well tonight. Apologies to him.
Series Over: Devils finish their season series 0-2-2. No wins, but at least the games were competitive and mostly close. Insert your own snark about how these are your 2014-15 Devils here.
Your Take: The Devils did lose 0-3, but it wasn't as bad as it looked. What did you make of the team's performance? Who was the best Devil in your opinion? Who was the worst? Who on the Islanders impressed you? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented about the game in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.