It is not uncommon for a some of the losses in a winless streak to be frustrating. Tonight was certainly a frustrating one for the New Jersey Devils. They lost 3-4 to the Dallas Stars. The Devils now have a winless streak of four games. That alone is certainly not good; it is worse in a division where a bad run could see a team drop fast.
Worst, the Devils have no one to blame but themselves for this loss. There were no offside challenges. There were no goals scored with six skaters and a goalie on the ice. There were no heinously ticky-tack penalties. There were no odd caroms or bounces that did in the squad. In fact, the Devils benefited from two tonight - and it was not enough thanks to their own errors.
Expect to read Sami Vatanen a lot as far as what went wrong tonight. He played a key role in three of the four goals against. Vatanen’s sole main positive was that the Devils were attacking when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play. That is not because Vatanen was particularly good at creating offense or anything like that. He was good at dodging the Dallas forecheck, which was aggressive to start and the Devils did well to limit its impact. Still, what Vatanen was guilty of far outweighs any CF% he may have had tonight.
The first problem with #45 tonight were penalties. He took three. The first one for interference was a bad call. So bad that the refs made up for it during that resulting power play with an equally iffy call on Alexander Radulov. The other two were just bad. Vatanen cross-checked down Antoine Roussel. The Devils did a great job on that penalty kill. Then before Vatanen stepped out of the box, he touched the puck away from Radulov. A player who is off the ice and touches the puck is to be assessed an interference penalty. Thanks to Sean Keyser in the Gamethread for citing Rule 56.2, which covers this. All Vatanen had to do was step onto the ice. He didn’t. And he didn’t even deter Radulov from having possession. It was stupid. It put the Devils back on the PK and it cost them. On the resulting power play, Brett Ritchie re-directed in a long shot by John Klingberg that put Dallas up 1-2 at the time. Thanks a lot, Vatanen.
The other problem with Vatanen tonight was his play at the offensive blueline. During a second period power play, he was completely flatfooted on a loose puck. This allowed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn - Dallas’ two most talented forwards - to blow by him. While Cory Schneider did his best to make it difficult and Miles Wood was back, the result was Seguin slamming in a puck sent across the netmouth by Benn for a shorthanded goal to make it 1-3. Dallas had six shorthanded shots on net tonight, which speaks to how much of an issue it was beyond just that one goal. Nevertheless, that goal happened in part because Vatanen just failed to make a play and he was burnt by it. In the third period, Vatanen attempted a slapshot and was blocked. Vatanen was blocked on four of his six attempts in total tonight. The block came out and it led to a 2-on-1 for Martin Hanzal and Mattias Janmark. Will Butcher was back but Vatanen certainly did not hustle to try and catch Janmark. Hanzal passed the puck to an open Janmark to make the game 2-4.
What was baffling was that Vatanen continued to get shifts. Even in the dying seconds of the game, #45 was on the ice. Earlier this season, John Hynes benched three players for bad decisions (penalties and play) during a game against Our Hated Rivals. It was the sort of thing that suggested that accountability was not just a buzz word. Now it’s January 4, 2018 and Vatanen saw no punishment for those incidents in this game. In terms of impact, he was arguably one of Dallas’ best players on the ice tonight. Or, to put it another way, he was awful. And, yet, I am not holding my breath that anything will happen to him or his spot because of the performance.
Of course, Vatanen was not the only defenseman to provide a big mistake. Andy Greene threw up a really, really, really, really, really, really bad turnover earlier in the second period. It was a blind pass from the left corner to the slot. Yes, it was as bad as you think; perhaps one of the worst turnovers this season by a Devil. Alexander Radulov took the puck like it was a pass and used it to beat Cory Schneider all alone in front. Talk about hanging your goalie out to dry. There was no need for Greene to make that kind of play. He, of all players, should know that it is a cardinal sin for a defenseman to blindly put the puck towards or up the middle of the zone. He committed it and, surprising no one, it cost the team dearly. If that was not enough, the pairing of Greene and Steve Santini was yet again pinned back a lot. The Devils as a team were actually quite positive in 5-on-5 shooting attempts tonight, 45-35. That the Devils were out-attempted 8-18 when Greene-Santini was on the ice should provide insight to how negative the pairing was. From what I saw, Janmark, Radulov, and Jason Spezza basically bodied them in the run of play. Throw in Greene’s total brainfart of a giveaway and that was another failure on the blueline. It’s hard to succeed when the top pairing defensemen are seemingly a consistent sub-40% CF%. Even if they get a ton of defensive zone starts and tough matchups, that the coaches continue to roll with it is baffling.
By the way, Damon Severson sat for a second straight game. Why? From what I understood from the broadcast, it is because he needs to be “held accountable.” I didn’t buy it after witnessing St. Louis rolling through the ‘D’ on shifts on Tuesday. I certainly can’t buy it after that second period meltdown. If Severson isn’t playing on Sunday and/or Vatanen is, then I don’t want to hear about accountability.
Adding to the frustration of the game was that these errors put the Devils behind and yet they received some fortunate breaks to stay in the game. Near the end of the second period, Taylor Hall - who was astounding tonight - charged up the wing and put a shot on Ben Bishop. The rebound hit Greg Pateryn, which caused the puck to go up and over Bishop for a goal to make it 2-3. In the third period, Klingberg was caught hitting Pavel Zacha’s hands with his stick. During that power play, a seemingly harmless shot from the sideboards by Kyle Palmieri fooled Bishop. The puck squired through the big man’s legs for one of the softest goals he’ll likely allow this season and put the Devils down 3-4 with about four minutes left in regulation. While the Devils were not able to get enough offense going after that goal - diving shot at the end by Hall notwistanding, if Vatanen or Greene didn’t shoot the team’s foot with their errors, then they would not have needed to try to score a fourth goal at the end of the game. It could have been tied. Or the Devils could have been winning.
Alas, those two breaks did not lead to a win. Taylor Hall playing like a beast out there and putting up ten shots on net did lead to a W. Kyle Palmieri flying about for seven shots on net did not result in a win. Blake Coleman showing off his stickhandling and penalty killing forechecking awesomeness was not enough. Brian Boyle having a strong night and a power play goal in the first period wasn’t enough. The team putting up 42 shots on the road against a supposedly more disciplined and structed Ken Hitchcock-coached Stars squad wasn’t enough. The Devils had plenty of good things and performances tonight in the Big D. And it was undone largely due to some massive errors. If that isn’t frustrating, then I do not know what is.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Defending Big D for a Dallas-based opinion on this one.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
One More Vatanen Point: No, one game or even two games is not enough to judge a trade or a player for all time. Everybody has a disastrous night in a NHL career. That said, taking three penalties and having a role (or in the case of Janmark goal, a non-role) on three goals against is more than enough reason to say a player sucked in a game. Vatanen certainly sucked tonight. If this becomes a trend for, say, ten or twenty games, then by all means, demand that the trade should not have happened.
Other Good Things That Will Be Missed Due to This Loss: Hall played like a superstar tonight. Ten shots, twelve attempts, a fortunate bounce for a goal, getting a secondary for Palmieri’s goal, and creating Boyle’s PPG. Hall was great. I half expected him to score a fourth goal with a few seconds on the clock when he dove for a shot on net. Alas, Bishop denied Hall. His only mistake was his silly cross-checking penalty in the first period; Hall was still awesome tonight. I also liked his wingers, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. While they did not shoot the puck as much, they generally pushed the play forward and they each picked up a point too. I so wish the Devils got something out of Dallas tonight if only to not waste what Hall did tonight.
While I am against Severson sitting, I did like how Ben Lovejoy played tonight. He even skated hard late in the game to ensure an icing would be called with Schneider pulled. Harder than Vatanen did on the Janmark goal, to make a comparison. Lovejoy had three shots on net, the most of all defenseman tonight. His passing was pretty good. He didn’t really get overwhelmed too much. Lovejoy has been far better in his more limited role with Butcher than he was in his big role with Greene last season.
While Palmieri was more visibly active with seven shots on net and plenty of carry-ins into the zone, I liked the Zajac line tonight. Johansson was much, much better on the puck and did not lose it as much. He was also more active at shooting the puck, as evidenced by his four shots on net. Zajac did well to facilitate play for both. I thought this line was bad against St. Louis. They turned it around tonight.
I mentioned it earlier, but Blake Coleman was up for this game too. The game was in Dallas and Coleman grew up as a Stars fan, learning to play in Texas. His apex was a penalty killing shift in the second period where he kept the puck in Dallas’ half of the rink for his whole shift after Jesper Bratt took it in. Sure, there were some pass backs to the neutral zone for a clearance. But Coleman was strong as a horse to keep it back and he killed a lot of that second Vatanen minor himself. I know it was just a shift but that is the sort of thing that stands out. It’s the sort of thing I wish I had a clip of to show what a hard-working shift can look like.
The power play was ultimately a plus-one instead of the plus-two it should have been. Still, after a seven-goal December, the PP is on its way of surpassing that somewhat meager mark in January. Even if the first was Boyle’s point-blank re-direction of a pass in front by Hall and Palmieri scoring a total softy on Bishop, the goals still count. Two for ten shots out of five opportunities where two of them were abbreviated by other penalties is good in the larger picture. If only Vatanen didn’t get torched at the point.
I feel bad for Schneider being hung out to dry. Bishop made more saves and had some real big ones in the first period. That soft goal, though, was terrible by Bishop.
I really liked how the Devils played in the first ten minutes of the game. Hall’s silly penalty aside, the Devils moved deftly around Dallas’ forecheck, they maintained possession well, they made effective zone entries, and their passing was quite good. As a result, they had eleven shots with several being dangerous ones early in the game. Dallas had one glorious chance by Jamie Benn at the crease and not much else until much later in the first period. It was a run of really good hockey. I wish the Devils were able to do it for more often since then; it is evidence that when the plays go correctly, the team looks even better than you may expect.
How Big is the Next Game?: It is not just against a divisional opponent. It’s against a team that just lost its fourth straight game and could be heading for a fifth ‘L’ tomorrow. It’s big for both teams if they want to get their records right in the standings.
One Last Thought: I really hope Travis Zajac will be OK. In that third period power play, the Devils won the initial faceoff and Palmieri had the puck. He fired a hard wrist shot high that caught Zajac in the top of the head. Zajac went down, play stopped immediately, medical assistance rushed onto the ice to help Zajac off the ice, and Zajac was out.
Your Thoughts: I thought it was a frustrating loss because the Devils shot themselves in the foot too many times to make up for what good things happened. What did you think of this 3-4 defeat? What should the Devils do with Vatanen? What of Greene’s turnover? What should the Devils learn from this game (other than the obvious) before their next game in Brooklyn? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for previewing the game. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.