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New Jersey Devils Held in Check by Florida Panthers in 2-3 Loss

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In a tight checking contest, the New Jersey Devils were held in check by a Florida Panthers team that out-performed the Devils in 5-on-5 play tonight. The Devils lost 2-3 and this post recaps how the game went for New Jersey.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers
This was a goal against. Alas.
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Elsewhere in the league, Boston beat on Pittsburgh in a game that resembled the hockey played in 1980s. Tonight’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers resembled a game from the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was a tight-checking game where players being able to get into space was lauded because it was so difficult for either side to get into. Unfortunately, the Panthers were the better team on and off the puck. Despite a late lifeline from Jesper Bratt of all players, the Devils lost 2-3 in regulation.

Before getting into the Devils, I want to make two clear points. First, credit the Panthers tonight. They were the better team. They led in attempts even after taking a lead in 5-on-5 play. They led in 5-on-5 shots and scoring chances. They were able to generate more opportunities off the rush, where Aleksander Barkov scored twice: one on a bad break on Nico Hischier and the eventual game winner in a 3-on-2 rush that did not look good for Damon Severson and looked even worse for John Moore. Florida’s best players made an impact: Barkov had two goals, Nick Bjugstad was hard to handle when the Panthers got going in New Jersey’s end, Jonathan Huberdeau had a strong game in going forward, and Aaron Ekblad’s one big error was accidentally deflecting Taylor Hall’s shot past Roberto Luongo. Even some of the “lesser” names on Florida had very good nights. Defenseman Alex Petrovic played as well as anyone could ask of a defenseman. A line of Jamie McGinn, Jared McCann, and Maxim Mamin kept the play going forward - and Mamin got a fortunate bounce of a goal. In general, the Panthers’ pokechecks were on point, with strips of even Devils who are strong on the puck like Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Florida snuffed out Devils attacks and often turned their turnovers and missed shots into offensive opportunities. And Luongo was able to get in front of most of the shots he faced. Honestly, outside of special teams, the Panthers out-performed the Devils in tonight’s game. The Panthers earned this win tonight.

Second, what makes this loss annoying is the timing of it. If this game took place in, say, November, then I wouldn’t be so bothered by it. The general theme would be something like, “It really wasn’t the Devils night.” And it really wasn’t tonight. Not when Moore broke a stick during a D-to-D pass. Not when Moore didn’t get a clean shot on a rare open one-timer when he pinched in. Not when Blake Coleman and Brian Boyle both beat Luongo on shots but hit iron seconds apart from each other in the first period. Not when Michael Grabner missed the net on a breakaway in the first period. Not when Palmieri was performing like David Clarkson did when he had a bad game. All the signs and more were there to indicate that Murphy was enforcing his law on the Devils tonight. However, this game took place in March. This the Stretch Run to the playoffs. Tonight was an opportunity for the Devils to help themselves. Instead, they flopped as Florida entered the playoff picture in the East for real with a victory. Not every game can go the Devils’ way, but the Panthers made sure it wouldn’t and the Unseen Hand threw in some assists here and there. The Devils’ execution was just not good enough for most of the game. It just stings more now because of where we are in the season when it happened.

If nothing else, the Devils have the chance to put this game behind them really quickly. They’ll have to. They have a game in Carolina tomorrow. Carolina also played tomorrow so it’ll be interesting who gets their legs first. But the Devils need to be able to execute better, they need to be more efficient with the puck, they need to be more effective on the puck, and they need to play smarter. A repeat of this performance will not end well in Raleigh.

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 Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats for a recap of tonight’s game.

The Game Highlights: From NHL.com

Return of Schneider: Cory Schneider made his return tonight after a groin injury sent him packing in late January. After a one-game conditioning stint in Binghamton, he was activated to play tonight. Overall, I thought he did well. Seeing that the first period featured him in a snow-angel position to smother a puck, facing some tough shots from the Panthers as the Devils struggled to effectively move the puck, Hischier and Bjugstad crashing into him as Barkov threw a puck to the center, said puck hitting off Hischier for a goal against, and getting a knee to the dome from Bjugstad after a whistle. It wasn’t an easy first period, but he did well under the circumstances. And Schneider did well with a lot of other situations. Wraparounds? He stopped those. Shots at angles? Yep. Traffic in front? He got them. A hopeful chip at the left post by Mamin? No. No? Really?

Yes. That happened. And it was a bad goal to allow. Worse, it made the game 1-2 at the time. In a tight third period where the Panthers were trying to breakthrough, that was the play that beat him. I’m both unhappy with the goal and sympathetic for Schneider. Namely because a little after that goal, Evgeny Dadonov had a full breakaway and Schneider denied him with a toe save. He stopped that one but the Mamin one dropped in all because he was hunched over. It isn’t fair. At the least, that wasn’t the eventual game winner (thank you, Bratt). The third goal against, well, Barkov was clean through to the net with pace and pulled off a great move. That was just a great shot from him.

Still, the bad goal against will stick out. Especially to those who believe that Schneider isn’t all that or is somehow now worse than Keith Kinkaid. I’m not going to pretend that the season started in January, so I disagree with those. For a goalie coming off a long-ish layoff with a groin injury and having a team in front of him who struggled to get success, I thought he made a lot of good saves. Alas, it was not a fully successful return.

The Debut of Maroon: Patrick Maroon ended up having a positive night for a Devils team that didn’t have much going in the way of that. Maroon’s first major action of the night: a fight. A totally unnecessary fight that was a great example of why I know I won’t miss fights if/when they are banned. Maroon would make more of a positive impact. He put a move on a defender that led to a drop pass that led to Coleman hitting iron in the first period. Maroon picked up a primary assist on Hall’s power play goal for his first point as a Devil. Pretty? No. But does it count? Yes.

Late in the third, with Schneider pulled, Maroon was a part of the 6-on-5 attack. While defending the empty net (yes, I know), Maroon was able to turn a block into a zone exit. Maroon lost control of the puck, but pushed it ahead to a streaking Bratt before Keith Yandle took the puck away. Bratt was able to get behind Ekblad and went top shelf on Luongo to make it 2-3. For Maroon, a second primary assist.

The run of play went well for Maroon. He finished the night with three shots out of four attempts. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Panthers 10-6 and out-shot them 5-2. In fact, the line of Brian Boyle, Blake Coleman, and Maroon were good in 5-on-5 play. Maroon made an impact on the power play and it was no accident he was out there in a 6-on-5 situation. It was a good debut despite the loss. May he continue to play well to rid #17 of the stench of the last guy who wore it (Michael Ryder).

How Even Was It?: As mentioned earlier, the 5-on-5 stats at a team level favored Florida. Since they scored first and led throughout the first period on top of leading for most of the third period, that it was even speaks better of how Florida played and how the Devils struggled to get a response going Per Natural Stat Trick, attempts were 47-46 for Florida, shots were 28-24 for Florida, chances were 20-17 for Florida, and high danger chances were 8-4 for Florida. The heat map at Natural Stat Trick shows how Florida had plenty of action in front of the net and to the left of the crease. The Devils only have a faint spot in front and their most common area of attempting shots was the right point. No offense to the defensemen, but that is not a positive thing.

The stats reflect how the play went; not the other way around. And they show what was seen on the ice: Florida had the edge in 5-on-5 tonight. So while the numbers may be close, it would have been expected for the Devils to lead as they were losing. That the Panthers held them in check speaks well of how they performed on the ice.

Special Teams At Least Was a Positive: The Devils’ power play was ultimately successful. Thanks to a tip from Ekblad’s stick, Hall scored a PPG to convert the second power play for New Jersey. That second power play was better, if ineffective due to a myriad of misses and blocks among their possession. It would eventually get four shots on Luongo, including one past him. It was worlds better than the first power play, which Florida killed with little issue.

The penalty kill was more impressive in my eyes. And perhaps anyone else’s. Florida had two power plays tonight. The first was caused by John Moore cross-checked Huberdeau - and right before Stefan Noesen could make a zone exit. Thanks, Moore. The second was for Blake Coleman grabbing and hauling down Radim Vrbata along the boards during the penalty kill for Moore. It probably should have been called interference and with some referees, maybe it would not have been called. But it was still two minutes and a short 3-on-5 situation for the Devils. And the Devils were awesome through that penalty killing session. Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, and Ben Lovejoy shut down that two man disadvantage. Before and after, the regular units just got in the way of the Panthers. Nothing went to Schneider. The Panthers and their hot power play was held to squat tonight. That’s fantastic work.

If nothing else, the special teams were in New Jersey’s favor tonight.

Poor Defenders, Good Defenders: I really liked what I saw out of Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy. Not just on the penalty kill, but they were great in 5-on-5 play too. Will Butcher had some issues on the puck tonight, but Lovejoy ensured it would not be a problem. I thought Greene was active in his own end and played well off of Sami Vatanen. This went well.

As for the Severson and Moore pairing, well, they were not good. They saw a lot of Panthers’ top six. They had at least six minutes against Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Dadonov, and Vrbata. All of these match ups went against them as the Devils were out-attempted and out-shot by a large margin when they occurred. Barkov, Bjugstad, and Dadonov were especially crushing it against Severson-Moore; their apex was the third goal against where Severson was beat on a pass by Dadonov and both Bjugstad and Barkov torched Moore. In 5-on-5 play, when Moore was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 10-23 and out-shot 8-11 with a special 2-10 difference in chances. Severson wasn’t much better: out-attempted 11-24, out-shot 9-15, and out-chanced 2-11. This pairing has had better nights. It certainly was not this one.

Other Struggles: I’m happy that Taylor Hall extended his streak to 23 games with at least a point. His goal came with some good luck but it was a goal all the same. I appreciated his hustle. Except, the Panthers closed down on him quite a bit. They were able to defang Hall’s aggressiveness with pokechecks and solid positional play. Palmieri was heinous tonight; falling down and losing pucks with ease in the first period. His game sort of typified how poor it was going to go for the team. Palmieri was more or less invisible as time went on and was surprisingly shotless tonight. Nico Hischier, unfortunately, put a puck past Schneider off his skate as he slid into him. Hischier didn’t get much going either with just one shot on goal. The Hall-Hischier-Palmieri line got a lot of Ekblad and Yandle and that did not go well. They also got a lot of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Bjugstad, and that didn’t help either. This line uncharacteristically struggled tonight. I hope they get things right for tomorrow.

It Really was a Pretty Goal: Jesper Bratt has not scored a goal since mid-January. It was as good looking as far as slump-busting goals go. He didn’t do much other than score this goal, but it’s a great looking goal so here it is:

Another Failed Challenge: Barkov’s first goal was called a goal on the ice as both Hischier and Bjugstad slid into Schneider. I understood John Hynes challenging that for goaltender interference. Alas, it was ruled that A) the puck went off Hischier and ultimately past Schneider and B) Hischier wasn’t clearly contacted by Bjugstad to go careening into his own goalie. Since there wasn’t a replay that showed Bjugstad doing anything obviously wrong, the goal stood. I can respect challenging this play. Live, two guys crashing into the goalie is a good sight to figure something wrong happened. I respect that decision a lot more than the failed challenge against Pittsburgh on Tuesday. I would have done the same.

Come On, Son: Bratt’s goal gave the Devils some hope. After that, the Devils did go 6-on-5 - which was the right thing to do. Jared McCann managed to strip Hall (!) of the puck at the blueline. Hall legally pressured him and McCann straight up missed the empty net. He tried to drop his stick in the hopes of getting a penalty, which would have given him the goal automatically. No deal.

I thought the Devils would come right back and score, but the Panthers shut that down by doing what they were doing all night long. Getting the Devils’ way, keeping them away from dangerous areas, and guiding pucks away from said areas when possible. Alas. At least McCann looked dumb.

Around the Division: The Devils could have helped themselves big time with a win tonight. The points would have given them more space from Columbus (who is up 2-0 as of this writing in L.A.) and put them right behind Pittsburgh, who got creamed 8-4 by Boston tonight; idle Washington; and Philadelphia, who lost 4-1 to Carolina. Instead, the Blue Jackets are creeping up on the Devils, the Hurricanes are a step closer, and the Panthers are in the picture with Carolina and the Isles. Sigh.

One Final Thought: Win tomorrow and we’re all feeling a little better. It will also make CJ happy as it would mean the Devils would avoid consecutive losses or wins for the first time in quite some time.

Your Take: The Devils lost 2-3 to Florida in regulation. What was your take on this loss? Who impressed you? Who do you think struggled? What can the Devils do in this quick turnaround to prepare for tomorrow’s game in Carolina? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to Chris for stepping up with a last-second game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.