Hockey is not a fair game. Tonight’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers is your latest example of that axiom. The first two periods were pretty much all in favor of Florida. Cory Schneider was the sole reason why it wasn’t a blow out when the Panthers out-shot the Devils 31-10 in the first two periods. Yes, 31-10. If that seems like a game from last season (random example linked), then that’s because the performance was like that for forty minutes. Yet, Schneider was only beaten once. In the third period, the Devils remembered what a neutral zone is, recalled the concept of passing the puck, and even tried some offensive hockey. Despite tying it up twice, the one man who kept the team in a game they didn’t deserve to be kept in let up a bad goal that stood up as the game winner. Some one-goal losses are close affairs. This wasn’t one of them. The Devils earned this ‘L’ between the nearly-all awful first and second periods and the more respectable but costly third period. Hockey is not fair.
I cannot stress enough how bad the first two periods were to watch. The collective group of skaters just found ways to have plays go awry. Taylor Hall was just plain bad as every time he tried to curl around with the puck or try to beat a defender, he often lost the puck. Nico Hischier’s dangles weren’t fooling the many stickchecks from the Panthers defense. Speedier players like Miles Wood and Jesper Bratt were kept from going off. Veterans like Brian Boyle, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac could not turn things around. The energy guys like Brian Gibbons and Blake Coleman were not only not providing energy but little else as well (Gibbons was great at being a pylon at even strength). The defensive effort was astonishingly bad with Ben Lovejoy looking like he did for most of last season, Will Butcher just not making good decisions on and off the puck, Andy Greene and Steve Santini just getting swarmed over and over, and the “best” pairing of Damon Severson and John Moore were filled with turnovers. Passes rarely connected, offensive rushes mostly fizzled at Florida’s blueline, and just getting clearances were real challenges at times. Schneider was shelled for forty minutes and it was a minor miracle he was only beaten once. Yes, the Devils had power plays - and the best offensive plays came from Florida. Including a shorthanded goal; Butcher’s bad dump-in entry led to a two-on-one that Aleksander Barkov finished.
This stat from Natural Stat Trick says it all, really: The Panthers out-attempted the Devils 22-5 in the first period and 17-5 in the second period in just 5-on-5 play alone. That’s just miserable. On the scoresheet, on Natural Stat Trick, and seeing it live on TV or in person. Just miserable hockey by New Jersey. The 0-1 deficit at the second intermission felt a lot more than just one goal. The Devils were struggling even to get into Florida’s zone to try to shoot, much less get a shot on target, and even much less score.
Amazingly, there would be a score. And the team battled back after a goal from seemingly out of nowhere. Pavel Zacha, one of the few Devils skaters who emerged from those awful first two periods, laid a loose puck that Nico Hischier took and ripped a wrister past Roberto Luongo. The Devils tied up the game and the Devils started to attack more. Alas, a pass to the point by Hall was taken away by Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck was a boss tonight. Like a boss, he carried the puck up-ice, took on Andy Greene, and used the defender as screen to put a wrist shot off the left (Trocheck’s left) post and into the net. 1-2 just minutes after Nico’s goal. Back to square one, it seemed like. Then the Devils got a huge break. Jesper Bratt grabbed down a puck that popped up after a dump-in in front of Keith Yandle. Bratt flung the puck to the center, hoping a teammate would be there. No Devil was. But the pass bounced off Aaron Ekblad’s skate and the ricochet went through Luongo. Yes, that’s how the Devils made it 2-2.
What’s more: the Devils’ offense really started to blossom after that goal. They started to get past an aggressive Florida defense along the boards and their blueline. They started connecting on passes. They started making Luongo work for his paycheck tonight. More and more, the Devils skaters who struggled started getting some good looks on goal from Drew Stafford to Zajac to Hischier and even to the Moore-Severson pairing. The Devils took less time to put up their second set of ten shots after it took them almost forty minutes to get their first set. The crowd was hopeful. Perhaps the Devils, who have been so surprising from a results-perspective, could turn this around. Perhaps Florida, who sits near the bottom of the Atlantic Division, will show why they are near the bottom of the Atlantic.
Then disaster struck. Blake Coleman tried a drop pass amid three Panthers. That didn’t work. The resulting pass from Dryden Hunt went to Jared McCann in the neutral zone. McCann took on Greene, with Santini back in support. McCann went for a shot, Greene blocked it down with his stick, and then McCann collected the puck and ripped a tight-angle shot past Schneider. Schneider was out to cut off the angle on the first shot. He was left with the right post (McCann’s right) exposed. It was not easy but the gap was more than wide enough for McCann to put it home. The goal made it 2-3 The man who kept the Devils in a game they didn’t deserve to be in based on their play let up a soft one in a big moment. It’s almost unfair to be critical, but we must be honest - it was a bad goal to allow. And it turned out to be a backbreaker.
Luongo was able to stop all of the resulting attempts at goal by New Jersey. Even with Schneider pulled, the Devils were not able to threaten with six-on-five with Bratt denying Trocheck an ENG on two occasions. The Devils lost in regulation 2-3. It was a case of too little, too late overall. With very, very little for the first forty minutes and too late to overcome what happened in the third.
This last game of November reminded me of the first game of November. The Devils were played off the ice by Vancouver only for Schneider to put the team on his back and hold onto the slimmest of margins with the skaters providing little support. It was a lot like that for the first two periods tonight. The third period was different and, in a way, crueler for how it turned out. But the point remains: the Devils would have been very fortunate to pick up even a point out of this game. Forget the record of the opponent, the Devils played like a team that should have been beaten for most of this one - and they were. Bad games do happen in a season and this was definitely one of them. It’s on the team to sort it out as soon as they can and prevent more of these from happening soon.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats for a Florida fan’s take on this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Fatigue Factor: Tonight was the seventh game for the Devils in twelve days. While the team has piled up eight points in those seven games, it was apparent that this was a team that was completely out of sorts early on. The passes were bad. Moves that players like Hall and Hischier that have been working for them were just not working at all. While the Devils had Sunday off, I could agree that they were a tired team and these next few days off could not have come any sooner.
However, the Panthers have not exactly been sitting at home and reserving their energy. This was Florida’s seventh game in thirteen nights and they played at home on Saturday night - a 4-1 loss to Chicago. The Panthers played with pace and a lot of aggression. They were quick to get two bodies along the sideboards for many of New Jersey’s entries. They initiated many puck battles that they ended up winning. They were not so successful at swarming the net for shots, but they were successful at picking up pucks just beyond the crease and slot area to keep attacks going. Given that Florida has been quite busy themselves and how they performed, I’m less sympathetic about the fatigue factor. Now, if they come out looking gassed tomorrow, then I’ll be a bit more sympathetic. Not that it means much now.
Power Play Fails: Not only did a bad dump-in entry by Butcher create the rush that Barkov scored a goal on. The Panthers actually out-shot the Devils on New Jersey’s collective power plays. The Panthers had three shots on net; including Derek MacKenzie had a breakaway in the first period. The Devils generated just one. Both power plays were when the Devils struggled to put two passes together, so it was not a surprise that they faltered. But that they faltered the way they did was just additional salt in the wound the performance created. Lesson: Stop dumping the puck into space in a 5-on-4 situation, Butcher.
Further, was it just me or did Hall negate a potential Devils power play late in the third? Ekblad held up Hall behind the net and they got into it. There was then a whistle and one ref motioned to Ekblad that he was going off. Then Hall shoved him, presumably after some additional verbals. Then Hall also went to the box. Hall had a poor game in that his carry-ins often did not work, his movement around the zone did not create space for him, and most of his decisions on the puck turned out to go wrong more often than not. Taking away a potential power play would definitely fit in with the poor performance he had. Then again, given how the other two power plays were beneficial for a shorthanded Florida team, I cannot assume that would have totally provided the equalizer.
Zacha Moved Up: Pavel Zacha started getting shifts with Hall and Hischier in the third period. He tried to make the most of his minutes and he did set-up Hischier’s goal through denying Alex Petrovic a loose puck by the slot. Zacha also had one of the few dangerous chances for New Jersey in the first two periods when he led a shorthanded rush and fired a shot that Luongo could not hold onto. Unfortunately, Jonathan Huberdeau beat Zajac to the juicy rebound. Zacha did not look out of place with #9 and #13 even though it took two periods for Hischier to put in some good work and Hall struggled throughout all three periods.
Panther Bosses: Vincent Trocheck was dominant for Florida tonight. He led the team with seven of the squad’s 38 shots on net. His line with Nick Bjugstad and Jamie McGinn just dominated the Devils. Whether it was Greene-Santini, the Hischier line, Moore-Severson, whoever. Trocheck and his friends pinned them back over and over and over. The “best” CF% against Trocheck tonight was Lovejoy, who was just 3-3 or 50%. If that was not enough, Trocheck scored the first of two third-period goals and did so with a lovely wrist shot. In my view, he was the best Panther on the ice tonight.
I have to give a lot of credit to defensemen Mike Matheson and MacKenzie Weegar. I do not know too much about them but they put in a lot of good work. Matheson was the one who pitched the dump-in out to Barkov, who took it in for a score. Matheson and Weegar denied Coleman after he gained the zone that led to McCann’s goal. While the pairing gave up quite a few chances and shots on net, they were contributing more for their site. Speaking of, McCann had a good game in his own right. In addition to the game winner, he had three other shots and was quite good in the run of play. While his linemates Dryden Hunt and Henrik Haapala were not as strong, McCann did more than just score that one backbreaking goal.
Lastly, I want to credit Bob Boughner. He is Florida’s head coach and he put together a great game plan tonight. He out-coached John Hynes. He clearly had his charges ready to play and they adjusted well. Even when the Devils were pushing the game into their end, they did not really let up on putting two defenders on one Devil to force a puck battle for a win on defense. They did not really give up after a bad bounce that gave Bratt a score. I was impressed at what he did.
The Goal that Wasn’t: Shortly after Hischier’s goal, a dump-in went off the boards and bizarrely curved into the net past a surprised Schneider. The Panthers were ruled to be offside, so the goal did not count. That would have been an embarrassing way to have the tie broken. Good call, refs.
One Last Thought: The Devils remain in first thanks to Columbus losing. If they want to stay up in the standings, they need to keep these really bad “efforts” few and far between. But you probably knew that.
Your Take: The Devils lost a frustrating-to-watch and frustrating-to-recap game, 2-3, to the Panthers. I thought it was much too little by New Jersey and it was too late for them. I thought they earned this loss. What do you think? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? Who on the Devils impressed you the least? What lessons, other than show up for the first forty minutes of the game, should the Devils learn and apply before their next game in Colorado on Friday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview this morning. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.