In tonight's home ender for the 2014-15 New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers - Our Hated Rivals - made it four in a row. The Devils lost all four games against the Rangers this season. This one went better than the 1-6 blow out loss at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. It still was a beat down in other ways in what would be a 2-4 final score. The loss meant the Rangers clinched the President's Trophy for the best record in the NHL. That little tidbit was just little more salt in the proverbial wound.
However, I'm not going to bore you to death immediately with how this was another game of a bad Devils team getting pounded by a legitimately superior team, rivalry aside. Oh, no. I realized something else tonight. This is now the Devils' brand.
Let's go back to the beginning of the season. In response to this post about what was missing and new at the Rock based on the first home preseason game. It was clear that they were rebranding and some of the changes were confirmed to me by a member of Devils management that it was not a part of their desired brand. At the end of the day, if the team is good, then most won't mind it. However, as we've known for months, the Devils are not at all good. And before we knew that, there were cracks in the proverbial visage. They've gone from not selling out the first Devils-Rangers game this season to selling out the last one with way more Rangers fans than usual. After a season of people being irritated by a bad hockey team, dubious sales service, a feeling of things being taken away, the reality of at least season ticket prices being raised, many have or are checking out.
It'd be one thing if the team was like the 2013 Devils or the 2013-14 Devils where they would frustratingly not score a lot or not even win (especially in a shootout), but at least they would be competitive. Frustrating is more manageable than disappointing and on top of perceived and/or real downgrades in atmosphere and experience. I'm an oddball in that I still keep buying tickets to go see the team that I love regardless; but I can definitely understand those who have said "This team sucks, they just got embarrassed by the Rangers, and now I'm supposed to spend money and time to go be in an arena where I will feel like a visitor anyway? Nope. I'm selling these." What am I supposed to say, "No, please care enough about this awful team like I do and spend money to support it?" Hardly.
So let's now return to this game. At the end of it, the Devils players went back on the ice to give out one final salute to the fans. Except the majority of fans remaining were Ranger fans celebrating another win over a hated rival on top of securing another trophy that may have already made Mark Messier mystified. They got booed off the ice. What did anyone expect the Rangers fans to do? Cheer them? Please. And if there were a significant number of Devils fans remaining, they'd have every reason to express their unhappiness at another decisive defeat to a hated rival to close out a terrible season.
Here's the reality for Mr. O'Neill, Mr. Weber, Mr. Blitzer, everyone in the Sales Department, and in larger Devils management. This is now your brand. Until the Devils get better - not necessarily make-the-playoffs better but that should be a goal - this will continue. The Rock will get good crowds for local rivalry games and other games on favorable dates for visiting fans to come in, spend a bunch of money, and be boisterously happy as they watch their team make the Devils look like scrubs for the better part of sixty minutes on their way to a victory. All the while, the season ticket holders priced out or peeved off at service will have gone and you have to hope there are A) enough casuals to fill in the blanks, B) enough plans and the such to incentivize people to come anyway, and C) enough suckers like me to keep buying season tickets. A and B won't be a problem for some games like this one for the Rangers, but it will be when it's a Tuesday night home game in, say, December against Edmonton. C, well, I wouldn't bet on there being a lot of people like me.
This may seem overly dramatic, but I witnessed over half of the Rock (based on the true capacity, not this 16,625 number that magically happened when new owners taken over) repping the ugliest blue and being the dominant portion of crowd. They spent a hell of a lot of money and I know their money is good. But that's only, what, twice a season? More could be made with a quality team with quality service and experiences to support it. While Lou knows he has to work on the former and the players know that. Cory Schneider said this after the game, per this tweet by Tom Gulitti.
Schneider on boos at end: "You obviously hear it. We think it's the Rangers' fans and if we want our fans around, we should win."
— Tom Gulitti (@TGfireandice) April 8, 2015
Their job is to be better and win more games. The rest of management, you need to get to work on the latter if you want to avoid the brand being "Hey, other team's fans, won't you spend a bunch of money to watch your squad stomp all over our doormat team?"
Now that's out of my head, let's go back to the same song and dance of this 2014-15 Devils season: the Devils getting out-possessed and out-shot by heavy margins, the goaltender keeping it close somehow, and ultimately failing to get a result even though it could have and should have been far, far worse. I'm sure there is a pithier way of stating that, but I have yet to figure it out.
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: Bryan Winters has this recap at Blueshirt Banter should you want to read it.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here they are in some of their ugly glory.
I've Read This Before...: And you'll get to read it again. The Devils were supremely out-shot 4-19 in the first period. They were also out-shot in the second period, 6-14. The Devils would turn it around in the third period by out-shooting the Rangers, 11-7; but the deficit was too deep to make up. It did turn the Devils from being tripled on the shot count to being just less than doubled with a final of 21-40. While shots alone don't decide games, they do reflect how the game went. Attempts do that better and the Rangers were similarly superior in that regard as the Devils got out-attempted 37-57, with only a slight advantage in the third. More shots means more time in the offensive zone trying to score. Defending shots means you're not attacking and the Devils got pinned over and over. And since the Rangers got well over half of their attempts on target, it's clear they made the most of their opportunities.
It is very, very, very hard to compete in games like this, much less try and win them. It would be one thing if it was just a bad night, but this has happened way too often this season. I'll have to look at which coaching staff it was worse under, but it was really apparent on the ice who was driving the play. The Devils have Cory Schneider and puck luck to thank for the game being a one-goal game for most of it. The sad thing is that I could have wrote that last sentence for several games this season. If there's one thing that has to get better, it's this.
What I Noticed on D: Whenever the Devils got pinned back, they tended to play the Rangers as if it was a penalty kill. During one of the seven the Devils had this evening, it just struck me. Even in 5-on-5, everyone seemingly has their own zone to cover. Yet, the Rangers were able to find open players just outside of these areas to keep plays going until a shot could be created. This passive method isn't really limiting Schneider's workload and unless the Devils are able to take advantage of a mistake, a misplay, or a loose puck, it allows the offense to keep going. The Rangers did benefit from seven power plays to ring up forty shots, but most of them were actually at even strength. When they were able to keep the Devils back, they made the most of it.
On Two Goals Against: I also noticed two problems on two of the Rangers goals than I'm sure most have picked up on. Let's start with the less obvious one: the first goal against. Kevin Hayes came into the slot uncovered and unaware of other Devils to put home a loose puck from the back. While the Devils won the faceoff, Mark Fraser didn't get it quite right to Eric Gelinas. Carl Hagelin demonstrated how easy it is to knock the puck away from Gelinas. Martin St. Louis apparently touched it out to Hayes, while Scott Gomez was on the left side of the crease facing back and unaware of Hayes coming in. Adam Henrique was too late. That was a mix of bad puck control, bad positioning, and bad communication that yielded the first goal against.
As for the last goal against, well, that was Jon Merrill's season in a nut shell. He recovers the puck, he looks to make a play, and he botches the execution. Instead of a D-to-D pass to Damon Severson, the soft pass turned into a giveaway to Hayes. Hayes flung it to Hagelin coming down the middle of the ice and he put the puck past a sprawling Merrill into an empty net. Any hope of a dramatic finish died with Merrill's coughing up of the puck. Boo.
A Side Note on Merrill: While that was just one (grave) error, it brings to mind that he's not all that young of a defenseman. He's 23, he's played 118 games, and he's still plays without much thought leading to hesitation, a bad decision, and/or bad execution. If there's to be a break through, then when should we expect it. When he hits 150 games? 200? Never? Regardless, the opposition enjoyed going up against #7 tonight and other teams will do so when he has bad games like this one or the last Devils-Rangers contest.
Where's the Discipline?: Like the Montreal game last Friday, the Devils got called for a lot of penalties tonight. The Rangers had seven total, including a 5-on-3 for nearly ninety seconds early in the game. As much as I want to say the refs were looking one way, the Devils were legitimately guilty of these crimes. I can consider Mike Cammalleri's high-stick of Ryan McDonagh to be a follow-through rather than a stick foul, but he still hit him in the face. Adam Larsson is large and St. Louis is not, but there was an elbow and so it was called. Adam Henrique cross-checked Chris Kreider while on offense, which is both stupid and an obvious call. Jacob Josefson took three penalties tonight and they were all too real - especially the clearance over the glass where he reacted like he knew he made a big mistake the moment it happened. Lastly, Eric Gelinas forgot how retaliation tends to get called so he slammed into Dominic Moore in a stupid way to close out the second period and put himself in the box. These were all fouls committed by the Devils; there wasn't anything all that cheap. They put themselves in trouble, especially in the second periods where the Devils spent nearly eight minutes down a man. Considering this is the second out of the last three games where this was an issue, it's something they should at least try to improve in the last two games this season.
Super Penalty Kill: If there's one silver lining outside of Schneider stopping 37 out of 40, then it's the penalty kill. Ryan McDonagh's goal was a slapshot off a faceoff that went through traffic. There was not much the Devils or Schneider could've done about that. Outside of that blast, the Devils held the Rangers to only nine shots on net on the other six opportunities, which included a two-man advantage and near-consecutive power plays. The Rangers morphed from a perimeter based attack to a sort of 1-3-1 that the Devils run. Yet, the Devils got in their way plenty of times to deny them the shot that they wanted. Schneider did have to make some difficult stops, but it was where Andy Greene (8:54 on the PK!!!!), Larsson, Travis Zajac, and Patrik Elias shined. The power plays alone would've ruined the Devils to a degree like the Rangers ruined the Devils on Saturday night. Instead, they kept hope alive of the Devils tying up the score. Like the Montreal game, the PK was simply impressive.
One Successful Play: The Devils had two power plays tonight, took only one shot between both, conceded one shorthanded breakaway, and nearly conceded a shorthanded 2-on-1. Fortunately, that one shot went in on one of the more beautiful plays the Devils had this season. After bumbling about and wasting the first minute or so on the power play, the Devils got set up in their 1-3-1. Then, all five skaters managed to hit a string of perfect, tape-to-tape passes. When Steve Bernier one-touched it to Elias in the middle, Elias just blasted it through Cam Talbot for the Devils' first goal. (Note: It would be their third shot of the first period) It was as if the divine intervened in that moment for the Devils to execute a set-play as perfectly as possible to score. Alas, that would be the extent of their power play success tonight. Their second power play simply stunk and wasted two minutes.
Schneider Super But Not Enough for Points: When a team concedes forty shots, I'm not going to fault the goalie for getting beat three times. Especially since he really had no chance on the first one, a point-blank one-timer by Hayes, or the second one, a blast through traffic off a faceoff. The third one was more dubious. Dominic Moore took a shot just off the goal line, James Sheppard got a piece of it, and it got through Schneider's legs. While I normally wouldn't count a deflection against a goalie since they usually change directions, the replay showed that Schneider was still in position to make a stop. If his stick was steadier on the ice or if he got his legs closed faster, then that puck would've been stopped. Alas, it was what it was. By no means did that cost the Devils a game where they were made to look second-rate by the Rangers. I cannot ignore it, though.
New/Old Lines: Jordin Tootoo returned to Zajac and Cammalleri. This didn't go too badly, though there were shifts where Tootoo was just out of his element. Stefan Matteau was moved to play with Elias and Dainius Zubrus. This line got beaten down and Matteau was a non-factor. All of the penalty kills and the closeness of the game late didn't help him (or Reid Boucher), but Matteau went from looking like an energy player to just being a part of the roster tonight. Boucher was a bit more active on offense and was therefore a bit more notable with Scott Gomez (who wasn't a factor tonight) and Steve Bernier (who was). He only had the one shot to show for it, but he tried to make plays in the neutral zone and get good entries going.
Own Goal: Shortly after Sheppard's goal, the Rangers essentially conceded an own goal. That is, their own player put it in the net. Bernier came on for Tootoo as Cammalleri took the puck up ice. He passed it to Zajac, who passed it to Bernier coming down the middle. Instead of shooting it in the slot, Bernier tries to get Talbot to move. Instead of a wraparound, he got Talbot coming out too far from the left post so he tried to bank it off him and in. Instead, he missed, the puck went off Derick Brassard's skates, and in trying to clear it out, he knocked it in. Bernier got credited for the goal.
It would've made for a fun talking point had the Devils tied it up, but that did not happen. It could've had the Devils put more rubber on Talbot. He was conceding his fair share of rebounds and he was rather active coming out to play the puck and moving within the crease. I wouldn't say he was shaky, but he wasn't steady as a wall either.
Lastly: I wrote about how the season ticket holders got a membership card for this game only to give away prizes and to test two new features. I couldn't tell you if the member's entrance was better; I got to the Rock just after that door was closed. It was fun to see an unused door with all of the people trying to get in from the light rain. As for the concession line, it was slower than all of the other lines at the Bayonne Diner outside of Section 1. Even people online complaining, with little response from the sales rep next to the line. After waiting about fifteen to twenty minutes or so, I just bailed so I didn't miss the game. I didn't care that much to see if the service itself was much better; though a longer lead time than normal certainly doesn't make it better. Could these be tweaked and improved? Sure. But as a first impression goes, I can't say much positive about it. Just like the Devils players and coaches tonight. Again: Brand!
Your Take: That's it for games at the Rock this season. The Devils will play out two meaningless games in the state of Florida on Thursday and Saturday. What did you make of this game, though? I'll say it was better than the 1-6 loss last Saturday, but it was clear that the better team tonight not only won but proved they were better. Who on the Devils impressed you? Who on the Devils disappointed you the most? Did you attend this game, and if so, how did that go? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented about the game in the Gamethread and followed along on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.