Tonight looked like it was going to be different from last Friday night. On that evening, the New Jersey Devils were out-played by Pittsburgh in a 1-4 loss. After three days off and the venue in Newark, New Jersey, it appeared early on that the Devils would be better. Not necessarily win, but at least compete with one of the top teams in the NHL. In the first period, I got to see exactly that. There were even highlights for New Jersey, such as Taylor Hall undressing Chad Ruhwedel before tossing it to P.A. Parenteau for a tap in of a goal. Or Cory Schneider making some point blank saves. There was even a power play goal as a Kyle Palmieri shot was blocked and it caromed right to an open Adam Henrique, who had Marc-Andre Fleury beat on his left flank and scored from a sharp angle. Was it perfect? No. Evgeni Malkin set up Sidney Crosby across the slot, only for Crosby to send it back to Malkin to score on the right flank to convert a power play. After Henrique’s goal, Pittsburgh did a better job at attacking. But after the first twenty minutes, the Devils were up 2-1, they were not heavily out-shot, and shooting attempts were nearly even in all situational play. It was a good period.
Then it all fell apart to what has become an all too familiar sight in this past month of hockey. The second period was another period of nightmares. Despite getting the benefit of an early power play, the Devils struggled mightily to move the play forward. The Devils had seven shooting attempts and six shots in the entire second period. Meanwhile, the Penguins had ten shots out of twenty shooting attempts. The Pens eventually warmed to the task and began to swarm. They received two power plays where they were dangerously close to scoring. The Devils increasingly had issues at passing the puck, with passes going into coverage, away from players, or just plain icing it. Whenever the Devils had a rare shift beyond the red line, it was not long before the puck was conceded. One such play led to Conor Sheary making Adam Henrique look foolish on a counter-attack. While Schneider stopped his close shot, he made a killer pass to Crosby in the slot for a shot no goalie was going to stop. That made it 2-2 and the Devils’ response was to not change a thing. Well, that’s not true, they took two penalties and so they had to survive on the PK. They did that, but the Devils faltered in the final minute again. In a 4-on-4 situation resulting from John Moore and Colin Wilson having a tussle, Evgeni Malkin gained the zone and criss-crossed with Justin Schultz with less than ten seconds on the clock. Malkin may have picked Travis Zajac, but that doesn’t excuse the frozen look of all of the Devils - including Cory Schneider - as Schultz hammered in a short-side shot with 5.3 seconds left in the period. The Devils were utterly lame in the second period and came away down a goal.
Most teams would try to recover after such an incident. They would calm themselves down. They would identify what they have to adjust their gameplan to counter what Pittsburgh has been doing. They may even have a motivational talk from a captain or a coach or somebody. The Devils came out in the third period and, again, did not do much. There were more shots and shooting attempts, but it was all for naught. Ruhwedel caught the Devils out with a long pass and played Carl Hagelin in behind all five Devils. Hagelin pulled a Rolston and took a slapshot on a breakaway - except he scored. Pittsburgh was up 4-2 not even four minutes into the third period, ensuring that the Devils would be in a hole too deep to climb out of. And they proved that because the Devils just provided more of the same, ineffective hockey that we’ve seen for the last six weeks or so. Even with a four-minute power play late in the third period - Ian Cole, a defenseman, struck Taylor Hall in the mouth with his stick - the Devils worked hard to generate little. How bad was it? Near the end of the power play, Schneider was pulled for an extra skater and said sixth skater was utterly useless. Bryan Rust won a puck battle in New Jersey’s end and sent a slow moving puck past Damon Severson that glided into the net. That sealed a 2-5 final score for the Devils. Again, they were out-shot, although at a smaller margin of 29 to 23. Again, they were out-attempted, again at a smaller margin of 47 to 39. Again, they were out-played, yet it was for two periods instead of three. I know the Devils are aiming for improvement in 2016-17, but this isn’t really the kind they should be looking for.
Most of all, this game just showed how sawft the Devils were.
Oh, no, do not misunderstand me. Absolutely none of the Devils issues would be addressed by having more “tough” players in the lineup like Luke Gazdic. No, players of his ilk do not make a team tough to play against. The harsh reality is that this is the latest example of how easy the Devils are as an opponent. Let’s keep it 100 and break it down for you, using Pittsburgh as a counter-example.
- The Penguins were down a goal and made an effort to attack more to tie up the game and even take the lead. They did so after some calming down in the first intermission. The Devils were down a goal and did not attack more. They have not done so all season; they certainly did not do it enough tonight.
- The Penguins took advantage of man-advantage situations by controlling the puck, keeping the play largely in penalty killer’s end, and generated dangerous shots. In total, the Penguins had one power play goal out of five shots in three power plays that lasted 4:47 tonight. The Devils received many more man-advantage situations tonight and struggled mightily to get set-up in Pittsburgh’s end. And when they did, the decisions were bizarre, such as Palmieri passing up an open shot from the right circle to pass it back to John Moore for a longer, less dangerous shot. The Devils’ one goal was a classic “right place, right time” goal as opposed to something by design. In total, the Devils had one power play goal out of six shots in seven power plays that lasted 12:21. (Aside: I know there were some no calls, but the Devils received seven power plays; the no-calls weren’t the problem tonight.)
- Chad Ruhwedel was made to look silly by Taylor Hall before Hall set-up Parenteau for his goal. He made up for that by sticking to his assignments, playing well in his matchups (Hall was on the ice for only two other shots on net other than that goal against Ruhwedel), and even setting up Hagelin for a breakaway, which he scored on. In contrast, Adam Henrique was made to look silly by Conor Sheary before setting up Crosby for a goal. Henrique did not play well in his matchups before or after that goal, he did not generate much offense, and if a puck never bounced his way on New Jersey’s first power play, then he would have likely stayed off the scoresheet. The Penguin who got potentially posterized had a good night in spite of it. The Devil who got potentially posterized did not.
- Both teams started goaltenders who have been better in the past but certainly have not been right now. The Penguins did well to support their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, by cleaning up rebounds, boxing Devils away from the slot, filling in lanes without jeopardizing the goaltender, and recovering quickly when they turned the puck over. The Devils did not as they conceded odd-man rushes, they had plenty of turnovers that yielded in dangerous shots by the Penguins (Penguins out-chanced the Devils 29-18 tonight), and Schneider had to make more than his fair share of quick, stretched-out stops. Not that matters much as he conceded four goals - even if two of them weren’t realistically stoppable.
- The Penguins realized that possessing the puck is important for success in the game of hockey and therefore did not dump-and-chase often. Not nearly as much as the Devils, who continue to think that sort of hockey can still generate offense against quick teams even with banged up bluelines. For the Penguins, fast, attacking, supportive are all good words to describe their play. For the Devils, that’s just a slogan.
When you look at how the Devils performed and responded to bad breaks, bad shifts, and even losing a lead, it’s readily apparent how many other teams have just been embarrassing them all month long. True, it helps that Schneider and Keith Kinkaid have not been world beaters in net. True, it helps that more of those other teams are very good teams. But the Devils aren’t competing much with any of them regardless of the locale, the time, the day of the week, and the situation. The Devils are prone to making errors at moving the puck, they do not have a solid gameplan, their power play is all over the place, their defensive coverage is spotty, and their goaltenders are too cold to just bail them out. Tie up a game or have them give up another late second period goal or even just go up by a goal on them and it’s like the end of the world to them. Even Cory Schneider said as such after this game (and he’s not wrong):
Cory Schneider said after the Devils fell behind 3-2 on late 2nd-period goal, "it might as well been 5-1" for way team responded.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) December 28, 2016
I’ve got only one word to describe a team like the Devils. Do you need to let me spell it out for you?
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik notes that the Penguins scored four straight in a big win in his recap at PensBurgh. Is beating the Devils in December really big?
The Star Penguins & Sheary: It’s easy and not incorrect to state that Pittsburgh’s stars were stars on the ice. Malkin registered his 800th career point with his PPG and set-up Schultz for his goal. Sidney Crosby scored his 25th goal of the season (in 30 games!) as well as assisting on Malkin’s PPG and Schultz’ goal. Both were dominant players, even if Malkin took an retaliatory slashing penalty and Crosby had some issue with Palmieri in the first period. But the player who stood out to me was Conor Sheary. He regularly plays with Rust and Crosby and he looked like another Crosby at times. Sheary did not play a lot and he did not have to make his mark. When he was on the ice, the play was often in New Jersey’s end. His biggest impact was making Henrique look dumb before setting up Crosby’s goal. Sheary was a force for about eleven minutes.
Call Up Edmonton: No, Adam Larsson doesn’t fix this - he certainly doesn’t create an easy goal for Parenteau tonight. But for kicks, it might be fun to send them tape of this game to show how Justin Schultz may actually be a useful defenseman. With Letang, Daley, and Maatta out tonight (and maybe Brian Dumolin after taking a shot puck to the jaw in the third), Schultz is a big reason why the Pens defense has stood up to the Devils in these past two games. Of course, it helps when the Devils seem to think that a dump-in is a viable path to create offense.
Other Bad Devils: Zajac, Palmieri, and Miles Wood were a unit tonight and drew the Crosby line. It didn’t go well at all. Wood’s sole contribution to the game was drawing a tripping minor from Fleury and one little shot on net. I know his speed is great, but it’s turning out that making him just chase pucks isn’t really an effective use of his talents. Palmieri and Zajac may have had an assist on the power play goal, but they were just invisible otherwise.
Michael Cammalleri was not as deep in the red in terms of attempt differential, but the HBK line really showed him up. They’re swarming, Hagelin and Kessel are finding open spots in the Devils’ coverage, and they carried the puck in. Cammalleri seemingly never met a dump-in he didn’t like tonight. And for all of his talents, he just had one shot on net despite twenty minutes of ice time including 6:34 on the power play. Las Vegas is not going to like this guy if/when they pick him up this June.
Why?: Earlier today, the Devils announced that they called Yohann Auvitu up from Albany. He did not play. Why call him up then? Why subject the masses to Severson, who had issues on the puck all night long, and Moore, who isn’t smart, as the main defensemen on power plays? Can anyone who watched Kyle Quincey or Jon Merrill really and honestly say either are that much better than Auvitu? If the plan is to have him for the Washington home-and-home, then why not call him up before that set of games? Why?
Is it the X’s and O’s or Is it the Jimmy’s and Joe’s?: Short answer: yes.
One Last Thought: It’s not the losses that makes me frustrated with the 2016-17 Devils, it’s how they’re losing. It’s not that they have won only four games in their last twenty. It’s that several of those sixteen non-wins were just ugly performances with equally ugly results. This team is nowhere near mediocre. The NHL is a thirty-team league; mediocrity means you’re in a playoff race. This team is bad. Appropriately, they are currently last in the Eastern Conference.
P.S.: The misspelling was intentional.
Your Take: The Devils lost another in a bad way. They’ll draw Washington in a home-and-home next which will likely go about as well as squeezing blood from a stone. What did you think of this loss? What did you think of the performance? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
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