Did you know this Fan Appreciation Week? While the New Jersey Devils players were involved in handing out free lunches at local eateries and the organization has had all sorts of giveaways, the team decided to punish the fans that attended tonight's game. Against the Buffalo Sabres, the Devils seemingly decided against playing for pride or striving for competent hockey. They put out one of their lamest offensive efforts of this season - which says a lot given the pop-gun offense the Devils had to begin with - and killed whatever energy the crowd wanted to provide. Helping the sapping nature of witnessing this game, the Buffalo Sabres also put out a rather poor effort from puck movement to puck handling to decision making to the general pace of the game. It's arguable that this was the worst-played game of the season considering both teams. That said, the Sabres were the better team tonight. The Devils did lose 1-3, after all. But it was better by way of being less bad than the Devils; by no means did the Sabres play a good game (How did they beat the Rangers a few days back? Oh, yeah, the Rangers suck. Nevermind).
How less bad? The Devils' errors tended to be more significant. Just look at the three goals the Sabres scored as good examples. Right off a defensive zone faceoff loss during a penalty kill, the four Devils skaters take a man. They don't go into a small box or anything like that. And the man that didn't get taken was Ryan O'Reilly, the center on the play and Buffalo's leading scorer. Jack Eichel made a great diagonal pass to him in the circle and O'Reilly roofed the shot past Cory Schneider. I know someone's going to be left open on a PK and Eichel's pass was excellent, but that was just poor to watch.
An even bigger goof created Buffalo's second goal. To start third period, Damon Severson completely mishandles a pass from behind New Jersey's net by John Moore. No, the pass wasn't bad. Severson should have collected it in stride. Instead, he bungles it, he loses it as the puck went forward, and Johan Larsson was right there to take it. Larsson strided to the left dot - no idea why Moore didn't push forward on him instead of giving him space - and fired a shot that beat Schneider blocker-side. Not exactly a great goal to give up, but I can be more forgiving of #35 since he didn't expect Severson to botch the pass that poorly.
Then there was the third goal. After the fifth failed power play of the night, Schneider was pulled for the extra skater. For reasons I have yet to figure out, Mike Sislo was on the ice in a 6-on-5 situation. In the 37-second shift he took, he managed to block his own teammate's shot that forced the team to exit the offensive zone. In trying to re-set and go forward, David Schlemko made an easy lateral pass to Sislo. Sislo missed it. Eichel pounced on it. Eichel beats Sislo to the puck, Sislo is kept to the outside, and he doesn't really impede Eichel though he forces him to go more to his right before wiping out. After delaying to have Kyle Palmieri's dive go away, Eichel fired in the ENG to seal the game at 1-3.
Those were the costly mistakes. There were plenty of others, but as was the theme for the night, no one took much advantage of them. One play that stuck out to me was a horrendous giveaway by John Moore. He just about passed the puck to O'Reilly right above the high slot in the second period. O'Reilly stepped up, shot the puck, and missed the net. While the Sabres swarmed a bit, it pretty much represented how this game went. Someone would do something that they may regret and the opposition just left the opportunity go by. The difference for tonight's game was that the Sabres took enough of them and the Devils left more go by.
Before going into other details, I do have to say the Devils really played like a team that has completely given up. I know tonight's game for all intents and purposes was pointless. By next Sunday, it's all over for both sides. Yet, there are plenty of players who did play tonight wearing the red and black who are playing for their next contracts. Whether it's in the hopes of getting more money this summer to stay in New Jersey or even just a contract from someone else, this is the time to make a good, lasting impression. So there's an incentive for a good part of the roster to play like they belong in the NHL and not the sub-NHL effort that the Rock got to see tonight. Then again, if the roster realized that and tried playing with some pride instead of just for pride recently, then perhaps they don't kick off Fan Appreciation Week with their third straight loss where it was obvious they were the second best team on the ice. They maybe wouldn't be in this situation.
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 Natural Stat Trick Advanced Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Advanced Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Andy Boron has this recap up at Die by the Blade.
The Sad Numbers: Tonight's shot totals: 19-18 in favor of Buffalo; no one even reached twenty. Tonight's shot attempt totals: 42-32 in all situations favoring New Jersey; 29-21 in even strength situations favoring New Jersey. It's not often that the Devils would out-attempt an opponent. These were still very low numbers. The advantage New Jersey grew was driven by the Devils losing and most of that was in the third period; so I wouldn't be too proud of that advantage. Or proud at all. Overall, the numbers match up with what I saw on the ice: a turgid game. It wasn't so much that either team was putting up a great defensive performance. The offenses just failed a whole lot. While Buffalo's top scorers would make an impact tonight, they were mostly invisible save for a few moments - like that first and third goal by Buffalo.
Your shot leaders: For Buffalo, it was a tie between Johan Larsson and Josh Gorges with three. For the Devils, it was a tie between Severson firing three shots from a long distance, Schlemko firing three shots from long distance, and Jacob Josefson firing three shots not necessarily at a long distance. Notice the names. It's not Eichel, it's not O'Reilly, it's not Risto Ristolainen, it's not Palmieri, and it's not Adam Henrique among others. None of either sides' top players found the target all that often. Again, Eichel and O'Reilly made their marks but outside of that, they didn't register much.
Josefson's Silver Lining: Jacob Josefson can feel good about being the one in one-to-three defeat. He scored the lone goal of the night for the Devils and woke up the crowd. After fifty-four minutes or so of crumminess, Josefson received a cross-ice pass during the team's fifth power play of the night. Josefson slammed a one-timer from about the same spot O'Reilly was earlier in the game. Like O'Reilly's shot, it straight up beat Chad Johnson for a goal. It was quite nice and it meant the Devils' power play performance rose from being "an utter failure" to "largely a failure."
The goal also gave the Devils faithful some hope that the game was still a game. While the Devils seemingly know how to make a two-goal deficit seem like an insurmountable mountain at times, the goal put the Devils within one with a little under five-and-a-half minutes in regulation. With Buffalo not really doing much good in the game except repelling the Devils' offense (sometimes easier done than said), the Devils could push the game into their end of the rink and look for an equalizer. They even got the gift of a power play with under four minutes to play. The Devils wasted that and ultimately provided no equalizer. At least Josefson's fourth of the season denied a shutout for Johnson and provided some hope in what was otherwise a hopeless cause by the Devils.
The Power Play was Perhaps an Utter Failure Anyway: Aside from Josefson's PPG, the Devils were as bad as ever on the man advantage. Miscommunication on passes? Check. Poor execution at moving the puck? Check. (Boucher was calling for a one timer for at least two seconds and somehow Severson just missed him despite no pressure!) Delaying to let a shooting or passing window go by? Check. Putting players in bad spots, such as Josefson trying to win puck battles in the corner? Check. Dump-ins? Check, check, check. There was more than one time I thought the Devils were effectively helping Buffalo defend with their bad passes, misfires, and so forth.
Let me put it another way. The Devils faced the team with the worst success rate on penalty kills in the NHL and conceded the second most power play goals in the NHL. They got six opportunities against them, they went 1-for-6 on four shots. Four shots! Not even a shot per power play! Against Buffalo! What did the Devils adjust or do differently as the power play failures mounted? Nothing, really. If any one aspect of the game was infuriating or particularly frustrating, then it was watching the Devils largely waste ten minutes of tonight's game. You know what? Forget the goal. This power play was an utter failure tonight after all.
(As far as the PK, well, the calls the Devils took helped no one. They allowed four advantages, took two shorthanded shots, allowed seven shots, and one goal. Not a great night, but world's better than New Jersey's power play.)
The Return of Elias: Patrik Elias played in his first game since the middle of December 2015. In a word: rusty. That's to be expected. He has not played in months. Combined with his advanced age and the nature of his injury, his knee, the first game being nondescript would be understandable. I thought he moved well. Like a lot of skaters tonight, he was just lackluster at best on the puck. Elias' one highlight was going to his backhand right in front of Johnson in the second period and proceeding to lose the puck rather than actually shooting the puck. The rest of the time, outside of his first shift, I didn't really notice #26. While I'm not happy with the play of nearly all of the skaters, I would give Elias a pass given that this was his first game in a while. I wouldn't expect him to suddenly show flashes of why Elias was a fantastic player back in the day. There's only two more games left; the rust is not likely to go away in that short of a time frame. At least I can say I saw him before he possibly goes.
Attendance: As I wrote about it on Monday, I should note that the team did not report a sellout tonight. They reported a figure of 14,773. I think the actual number of people in the stands was less than that, but whatever. Either way, they weren't going to get near 700,000 anyway.
One Last Thought: Take last Tuesday's game against Boston and replace Boston with a bad hockey team playing badly. That's pretty much how tonight's game went, score aside.
One Non-Game-Related Last Thought: Tonight was Tom Gulitti's last day (and game) covering the Devils for the Bergen Record. He will now work in D.C. at NHL.com. The Devils gave him a jersey (in the press box, no ceremony, obviously), he was interviewed by Sherry Ross on the fan, and this is his last post at Fire & Ice - the most important Devils blog on the Internet since 2009. His value to the Devils fan, especially the ones online, has been immeasurable.
Thank you, Tom Gulitti. And good luck at NHL.com.
Your Take: This was a bad game. Despite it's pointless nature, it was a bad loss. What did you get out of this, if anything? Please let me know and what you think about this loss in the comments. Thank you for reading.