Tonight, the New Jersey Devils had an opportunity to make up for annoying loss to a divisional opponent from this past Tuesday. The Devils came out hard, actually succeeded at running a functional power play, and looked dominant. The Devils flopped during the second period where two goals were scored in 36 seconds for the Wild to tie it up and take the lead. Despite throwing a lot at Alex Stalock in the third period, only Eric Staal found the net with an empty netter. What should have been a positive result ended up being another regulation loss for the New Jersey Devils.
So much happens in a hockey game that it is not easy to boil down a game into one or two major turning points. In tonight’s 2-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild by the New Jersey Devils, I cannot help but think about Sami Vatanen’s hooking penalty in the second period as being a bad turning point. The game was 2-1 at the time of the penalty. The Wild got on the board earlier in the period when a shot by Mike Reilly was stopped by Eddie Lack and the rebound hit off the shaft of John Moore’s stick to knock it into the net. This was after Stefan Noesen made it 2-0 a little four minutes into the second.
It was not that the penalty was a bad one to take. Jason Zucker torched seemingly every Devil on the left side of the ice and Vatanen fouled him as Zucker cut across the middle. And the Devils did successfully kill the penalty. However, I saw warning signs on that PK. The Wild started to be more aggressive in New Jersey’s end of the rink. They started crashing the net more. The puck narrowly went by the net at least three times where another bad bounce could’ve made it 2-2 at the time. That was definitely a bad bounce. Another was possible. But the Devils escaped the PK with out a goal against.
Seconds after the penalty kill, the Wild move the puck up ice. Daniel Winnik gets it in the neutral zone and just powered down the left circle. Jesper Bratt is on him but Winnik wards off the small rookie with one arm as he carried the puck with the other. A one-handed pass across the crease went past Damon Severson and right to the stick blade of Joel Eriksson Ek. He was behind Severson and on Lack’s right flank. He one-touched it into the net to make it 2-2. Severson was in a tough spot as the puck could have easily went off his skate and went into the net. But Bratt was bodied, Lack let a puck slide across in front of him, and Severson didn’t defend Eriksson Ek.
Seconds after that Andy Greene fails to keep a puck in play. The puck is moved up the point and Greene misses the puck as he collided with Winnik. He needed to hit that puck forward and just didn’t get it. With Greene on the ice, Chris Stewart swooped in to take the puck and headed up ice. John Moore was back to defend what was developing as a 2-on-1. Stewart made it to the top hashmark of the right circle and fired a puck through the gaping tunnel that was Lack’s five hole. That goal against was softer than a down pillow wrapped in a light quilt. It made the game 2-3 and stunned the Rock.
What was worse was the Devils did not respond in the rest of that period. After dropping 18 shots on Stalock in the first period, the Devils had only six in the second period. It wasn’t like the Devils held back to start the second. No, they attacked first and even scored a second goal: a put back of a loose puck by Stefan Noesen. It wasn’t until the penalties where the Devils’ offense faded and the Wild tilted the ice more in their favor. The Devils had only one shot on net in the remaining 6:56 of the period after Stewart’s goal. Minnesota had only four but they were denying the Devils. They suddenly remembered how to defend the neutral zone. They went hard on their forecheck, which gave the Devils many issues in trying to break the puck out of their zone. It also helped that the Devils’ puck movement went awry as players just struggled to put pucks from stick to stick. The offense was faded after looking so strong for the first 25 minutes or so of regulation. The defensive effort was loose enough to make one concerned and given Lack’s soft goal allowed to Stewart, who knew if he was going to give up another one.
It took an intermission for the Devils to get their minds right and get back to business of trying to tie up the game. The Devils certainly put in a good effort with 16 shots on net. They made Stalock earn this one. I’m still wondering how he denied Taylor Hall on a point-blank one-timer early in the third period. Yet despite the volume, I increasingly noticed that the Devils were getting more and more frustrated. It seemed like their sticks were gripped ever so tight when a pass to open things up was picked off, missed the target, hit a skate, or just didn’t lead to much. Ditto when a potentially good shot went higher than expected, wider than hoped, and denied by Stalock. Even though the Devils were creating more like they did in the first period; the final few minutes was a challenge for New Jersey to get into Minnesota’s end, get Lack out for a sixth skater, and hope for a late equalizer. Of course, that did not happen. A bad miss from the center point by Vatanen led to Charlie Coyle getting the puck out and Eric Staal sailing in an empty netter from the neutral zone. That was the game.
While one could chalk up the third period effort as just being “not one’s night,” the game was really lost in that second period breakdown. The two goals 36 seconds apart were costly on the scoreboard and the lack of response by the Devils after Stewart’s goal undercut any hope for an equalizer from New Jersey. But it’s so frustrating after seeing a quality first period, witnessing the power play actually working (!), and knowing the Devils were trying to do the right thing in the third period when down a goal: attack. And yet they lost. It is frustrating. It is annoying. It is a disappointment.
The Opposition Opinion: Joe Bouley has this recap up at Hockey Wilderness.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Power Play...Worked. It Was...Good. Really, Actually Good: Seriously. The Devils had three power plays and were credited for seven shots on net in total, including an absolute banger of a goal by Taylor Hall. The Devils were generally successful at gaining the zone. They did a good job setting up dangerous shots. They acted like they had an extra man on the ice.
The Devils still ran a 1-3-1 formation, but they changed up the units dramatically. The first unit had Taylor Hall on the right side, Kyle Palmieri on the left, Sami Vatanen up top, and Travis Zajac and Miles Wood in the middle and in front, respectively. The second unit featured Nico Hischier, Stefan Noesen, Brian Boyle, Damon Severson, and Will Butcher. You may not like how that second unit looked on paper, but they got the job done. The first unit absolutely did so as well, with it’s peak being a goal. Both units were seemingly on the same page with respect to how to gain the zone and how to move the puck around. They didn’t make many dump-and-chase plays where the puck was up for grabs. Cross-zone passes weren’t forced either.
I actually liked the power play tonight. I don’t want Geoff Ward to be fired at the moment. After the first power play, I felt like I could be cautiously optimistic about other power plays - and the following two justified that (the goal by Hall helped a lot). If only the Devils won so they didn’t waste something that they’ve absolutely struggled with over the last month or so.
A Wall? Sure: Jesper Bratt was absent on both power play units and that made sense as he struggled on the puck and in making passes in recent power plays. Bratt was kept to 11:50, he was physically denied by Winnik as he set up Eriksson Ek’s goal, and Bratt contributed no shots or shooting attempts. In a game where the Devils out-attempted the Wild 54-39 and out-shot them 32-21 in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted by the Wild 7-16 and out-shot 2-8 when Bratt was on the ice per Natural Stat Trick. All together, it was a bad night for #63.
He’s a rookie and he’s bound to have some rough nights. This was one of them. Has he hit a wall of sorts? I think so. Bratt has not impressed a whole lot in the past few weeks. Will he get over or around it? I think so. When? I don’t know. Now that Michael Grabner is on the team, John Hynes is more free to limit his minutes as needed until he gets around, past, or through the proverbial wall.
The Return of Wood: Miles Wood sat for two games for a terrible hit from behind. Wood came back into the lineup and he was kind of quiet. While I liked how he bodied up Ryan Suter on the play that led to Noesen’s goal, Wood finished the night with no shots on net and one attempt blocked. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils weren’t out-attacking Minnesota when he was on the ice. It was not exactly a grand return for Wood. I’m hoping he’ll do more in the next game.
Eleven and Seven Again: The Devils went with eleven forwards and seven defensemen tonight. Nick Lappin was returned to Binghamton and Blake Pietila was sat for Mirco Mueller. The run of play was largely positive so as a whole, it worked. However, Mueller wasn’t all that great tonight. Ben Lovejoy has performed much better alongside Will Butcher this season and, in retrospect, that likely should have been the pairing in a six-defensemen set-up.
Doing it Right: I was disappointed with Kyle Palmieri only having one shot on net and one missed shot against Columbus. He responded big time tonight with seven shots and three misses. Palmieri was much more active tonight on offense. He was utilized on the power play more, setting up those hard shots from the right circle that he’s pretty good at doing. Given that he was playing mostly with Hall, who also had six shots on net out of eleven attempts, that speaks to how well the line did tonight in terms of offense. Save for that second period swoon, Hall-Hischier-Palmieri showed up tonight. And a big reason why was that Palmieri was firing away much more often, much more like he should.
Lack’s Bad Night: The first goal against was a bad bounce. While it could be argued Lack should have done something about Winnik’s pass to Eriksson Ek, that goal was unstoppable. However, this was not a good night for Eddie Lack. Again, that goal allowed to Chris Stewart was awful. Just awful.
What’s worse is that Lack nearly gave up more goals than the three that did get past him. In the first period, he stopped a shot but trickled through, requiring a clearance from the crease by a Devil. He also had a nasty giveaway of the puck in the first period that was only made harmless by a Wild player mishandling it. Late in the third period, Lack made another killer turnover that only didn’t become a goal because Sami Vatanen blocked the shot at the empty net in the crease. This is to say nothing of the myriad of pucks just missing the net in the second period as Lack was all over the place in the crease.
I can understand the decision to start Lack. He played out of his mind against Tampa Bay and Keith Kinkaid gave up a bad goal against Columbus on Tuesday. It made sense to give him another game. It’s not like Kinkaid was playing so great anyway. Yet, this is another disappointment. Lack was given an opportunity and he didn’t measure up to it. While Stalock played great and faced a lot of shots from all over, I found Lack to be, well, lacking in contrast. And I’m missing Cory Schneider more and more. I hope he comes back soon.
Related to That: You know, I don’t think the Devils are going to win against the Isles if they get out-shot by 15-20 shots, get dominated in the neutral zone, and only have a few scoring chances. Namely because I have no confidence in either Keith Kinkaid or Eddie Lack to repeat what they did last weekend anytime soon. Namely because playing like Our Hated Rivals tends to lead to losses (check the standings).
Around the Division: Tonight was another lost opportunity for the Devils to help themselves out. Philadelphia won in regulation over Columbus. So Philly is now four points away and Columbus remains five points back. Washington surprisingly lost to Florida 3-2 in regulation tonight. The Islanders join Columbus as they got a point in a shootout loss to Toronto. Our Hated Rivals lost in regulation. But they are irrelevant for this section for the time being as they’re eleven points behind the Devils and the Devils now have their leading goal scorer in this season.
A Devils win would have pulled the Devils in closer to Philadelphia and even Washington, and made their spot safer. They received help in Columbus and the Islanders not winning. But the Devils can only really use this help if they also help themselves win. Losing the last two leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Do They Still Hate Him?: Zach Parise only received some occasional boos when he had the puck. He did get booed by most of the crowd when he was announced to a ceremonial faceoff with Andy Greene and Patrik Elias, who dropped the puck. So, yes, many people are still sore about Parise leaving 2012.
Streaks: Hall’s goal was outstanding - and he now has a point streak of 20 games. Hischier didn’t get a point tonight, so his point streak is over.
One Last Thought: The Devils better win on Saturday.
Elias Jersey Retirement Night: Doors will open at the Rock at 4:30. The broadcast will start at 6 PM. The ceremony will start at 6:15. The game will start at about 8:08, after warm-ups and re-surfacing the rink.
Your Take: The Devils lost 2-4 to Minnesota. What’s your take on this loss? What was good in your eyes? What did you dislike the most? What can the Devils learn from this game before they play the Isles on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along online with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.