After getting decisively smacked down 0-2 in Providence to Boston and Our Hated Rivals doubling-up the score in a 3-6 loss, the New Jersey Devils played their closest preseason game yet. They went into Brooklyn to play the New York Islanders and lost in regulation only 1-2. The Devils definitely struggled to start the game. However, they finally took the game more to the Isles, they scored their first even strength goal in preseason, and they made a late push for an equalizer. Overall, there were general signs of improvement that one would expect after one preseason game, as most of the line up played in Boston. It was easily their most respectable effort so far. The game even had a silver lining of an end as they ended the mandatory 3-on-3 overtime period early with a goal. That said, more respectable and improved belies that there could have been much better play from the visitors.
Puck possession, especially in the first period, was all over the place. The defensive turnovers served to give the Islanders more and longer shifts in New Jersey's end of the rink. Cory Schneider had a heinous one during New Jersey's first power play, which led to an easy shorty for Brock Nelson. The others just undercut the Devils' efforts more often than not. While the Devils did end up out-shooting and out-attempting the Isles, they were losing for most of the game. Given that the differences weren't that large, it speaks to the Devils not being able to do more due to their own issues.
Special teams were not as sharp. While the penalty kill was perfect, they also spent a lot of time in their own end including some epic 100+ second shifts for Kyle Palmieri and Lee Stempniak during the second kill of the second period. Cory Schneider - SHGA aside - was very sharp and remained a key reason why the Isles couldn't put the game out of reach. The Devils' discipline was marginally better with only five shorthanded situations instead of six or seven. The power play showed some good signs early and managed to generate eight shots on net. Compared to lame performance against the Bruins, there was progress. There were also resorted to decisions on entries like dump-ins and missing key passes. That led to quite a bit of wasted time on the power play, which possibly could have yielded a goal to force a legitimate overtime.
That being said, the Devils had a rough first period but managed to respond with a better second period and dug in their skates in the third. Given that the Islanders put out a strong line-up that featured John Tavares (spoiler: he looked real good), Travis Hamonic, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Calvin de Haan, Nelson and Ryan Strome among their veteran players. Early on, I thought they would carry the game for an easy win. It looked that way after the first period. Nelson got a gift of a shorthanded goal and Travis Hamonic blasted a shot from the high slot off a very nice feed from Tavares. But the Devils improved their performance overall; Lee Stempniak responded that second penalty kill in the second period with a wraparound from his own rebound. And they came close a few times to tying it up since then. The Devils didn't make it easy at all. They even won the mandatory OT with a goal from Tyler Kennedy. I can respect that a lot more than the other two games played so far.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Lighthouse Hockey for their take on this game.
The Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights.
Who Looked Good Among the NHL Players?: Among forwards, I liked how Kyle Palmieri and Jacob Josefson performed. With five power play and five penalty kill situations, he managed to have more ice time on special teams than at even strength. He managed four shots on six attempts and was very notable in either end of the rink. The only downside to his performance was his delay of game minor and his roughing call late in the game, although Tavares evened up the penalty with a slash of his own. Josefson also played over nineteen minutes tonight and he was generally very solid. He was quite close to tying it up, which is a good thing to see since he's not often near offensive opportunities. Given the makeup of the lineup, it would have been a plus if he acted like a veteran player the coaches could lean on. He did and he justified it.
That said, I'd say the best among the NHL players were the best defensemen in the lineup paired together: Jon Merrill and Damon Severson. Both played in excess of 25 minutes tonight. That's partially because they were the de facto first pairing tonight. That's partially because the most of the other four defensemen struggled. That's partially because they kept doing good things when they were out there. Merrill generally read the play well, whether it was in his own end, in the neutral zone to deny an attack, or on offense to keep one alive. He even took initiative in the three shots he took tonight. Severson looked like he commanded the defense, somewhat like Andy Greene normally looks on the ice. Severson's shot was true tonight, he used it quite a bit, and he was smart in his decision making. This was a performance that reminded you that Severson is quite good and Merrill can be as well.
Lastly, Cory Schnedier showed everyone why a lot of Devils fans hold their breath when he leaves the crease to play the puck. Other than that, he was very good in the crease. He played the whole game and didn't freak out when things broke down in front of him. In other words, he played like you'd expect from Schneider.
Who Looked Good Among Non-NHL Players?: I think Pavel Zacha and Sergey Kalinin played better than their debuts, but I'd struggle to say they looked really good. I'll say Marc-Andre Gragnani was the best of the non-Merrill and non-Severson defensemen on New Jersey, although he resembled Peter Harrold at times when he had the puck. There was one solid game by a non-NHL player: Lee Stempniak.
Scoring a goal is always good for anyone, especially for someone looking to earn a NHL contract. Scoring the team's first even strength goal all preseason is definite bonus. What's more is that the goal came from a very smart decision from a very tired player. After a hundred seconds of getting stuck in their own end of the rink, Stempniak had an opportunity to counter-attack with Jim O'Brien, who was fresh from his stint in the penalty box. In a 2-on-1, Stempniak shot it glove-side, Kevin Poulin couldn't snag it, and Stempniak took the rebound and circled around for a wraparound. That's an excellent individual effort. It also was the highlight among 14:49 of ice time where he did a lot of un-glorified hard work befitting a bottom six forward. Among the two tryouts, Stempniak made a better case to make the Devils. Hence, this praise.
Who Didn't Look Good Among NHL Players?: While Schneider's giveaway was bad, he wasn't as porous as Eric Gelinas was tonight. I do feel a bit bad mentioning him since he definitely got stung with a shot in the third period in his left knee. And his utilization was really backwards. I want to know what John Hynes was thinking with giving him 5:04 of shorthanded ice time and 1:55 of power play ice time? Plus, his partner was Vojtech Mozik, who definitely showed his lack of experience so far. So he definitely wasn't put in a good position. Instead of trying to rise to challenge, he performed as expected: not fast, lost on defense at times, didn't finish on clearances, and three otherwise powerful shots. Tonight confirmed he can't be the guiding veteran on a defensive pairing. So we learned nothing and #44 looked poorer for it.
Who Didn't Look Good Among Non-NHL Players?: Blake Pietila and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond played so little that I'm mentioning them here just to highlight that they played at all. Stefan Matteau forced a breakaway early on and did nothing else of note. But given they each played less than ten minutes and they are forwards, their lack of contributions weren't terribly damaging. Errors from defensemen, on the other hand, can be. Seth Helgeson and Mozik definitely had their issues. Mozik and Gelinas as a pairing was an adventure for quite some time. Helgeson threw a lot of hits and did not much else. But it's not a good look for Mozik and Helgeson in that they have the chance to show that they are next in line on defense when injuries and scratches happen. They might even start as the #7 defenseman if David Schlemko isn't ready in time. Both did not help their cases at all. I wouldn't be surprised if Gragnani passed them at this point.
Third Game, A Lot of the Same Issues: Still need work on gaining the zone on the power play. (Please, John Hynes, please tell these guys to stop dumping it in on the power play.) Still need to establish who's on the penalty kill and how aggressive they'll be. Still need to not take a lot of calls unless necessary. Still need to work on maintaining the puck and making crisp, proper passes. While the Isles didn't score any power play goals, their puck movement was head and shoulders above the Devils. So there's still a lot of work to be done.
That work may become more focused soon. The Devils plan to make their first set of cuts tomorrow. We should see a mix of the two squads that played in preseason games so far and that could yield improvements as Hynes and his staff begin to settle on a NHL active roster. I'd like to see plenty of it by next week's game since there will be three days between games after Saturday's home game.
Mandatory OT Notes: Early on, the Devils struggled with trying to get the puck and moving it. When a pass is missed or a clearance becomes an icing, it can be more damaging as there's fewer people to make up for the error. It nearly ended early on when the threesome just got pinned against the likes of Tavares and Anthony Beauvillier. But the theme of being able to counter-attack was apparent once the Devils were able to connect on a pass or two. Severson nearly ended it with acres of space to blast one at Gibson, didn't, but set up Kennedy for a one-timer ender. These periods should be fun, though mistakes are likely to be punished more easily with the extra space.
Your Take: While I'm more pleased with this performance, I want to know what you think. Do you think was a step forward for the squad? What do you think the Devils could have worked on? Who did well in your eyes tonight, and why? Who didn't do so well, and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread, who followed @AATJerseyBlog along on Twitter, and who read this recap.