In the team’s third preseason game, the New Jersey Devils were shut out by the New York Islanders, 0-2. One word comes to mind about this game: Penalties. Four more words come to mind about this game: Penalties, penalties, penalties, and penalties.
Games with plenty of whistles tend to be common in preseason games. You have a mixture of players getting back into form with players being overly aggressive to impress the coaches or make a statement as well as referees sorting out their directives for the season. It is not really a surprising thing for a preseason game to have a lot of penalties called. However, what the Devils did tonight was surprising - as well as bad and a source of why they lost this game.
The Devils took a total of eleven penalties tonight: ten minor penalties and one misconduct penalty. The Islanders only took six, which only looks small compared to the list for the Devils. In total, the Islanders had seven power plays, where upon they scored their two goals out of 16 shots taken. That is pretty bad. But what really hurt the kind of penalties the Devils took and when they were taken.
The Islanders actually took the first three penalties of the game - only for a Devil to wipe out a man advantage with a penalty of their own before the whistle blew. Devon Toews hooked Brett Seney - only for Seney to get hit in the face by his own stick and fall to the ice as if he was high-sticked. The ref did not buy what Seney was selling. Minutes after that 4-on-4 situation, Matt Martin elbowed Colton White. That power play went away as Kurtis Gabriel slashed Martin’s stick out of his hand during the delayed call. Minutes after that 4-on-4 situation, Mike Sislo hit Steve Santini into the boards right in the numbers. That boarding penalty was matched by a Devil jumping on the ice before Keith Kinkaid would get to the bench during the delayed penalty. That’s a dive, a reactionary slash, and someone on the bench not paying attention. They were all avoidable calls and they negated what would have been a power play situation for a Devils team that came out strong in even strength in the first period. Did I mention all of this took place within the first 12 minutes of the game?
The Devils proceeded to shoot themselves further in the foot by the end of the period. Pavel Zacha tripped up Luca Sbisa behind the Islanders’ net in trying to win a puck. He didn’t win the puck but he won two minutes. This took place with about 3:34 left in the period. Not long before the Devils successfully made their first kill of the night, Santini tripped up Kiefer Bellows. Would it have prevented a rebound opportunity? I don’t think so, Santini just made a poor decision. So after killing one penalty, the Devils defended 3-on-5 for about 16 seconds and went back to 4-on-5 hockey. After not generating much in the first 19 minutes of the game, the Islanders struck gold. Tanner Fritz found a seam to Bellows in the high slot. Bellows ripped a one-timer past Kinkaid to convert the power play. The Devils paid on their second PK of the night and their fifth penalty of the game. Surely, head coach John Hynes (who was behind the bench for this one) would have something to say about this and the players would listen.
Nope. After ending the first period with two consecutive penalties, the Devils did it again early in the second period. Amid a big battle for the puck, Zacha was caught closing his hand on it. That’s a minor. Near the end of that minor penalty, Blake Coleman hooked Jordan Eberle in the corner. So the Devils had to kill about 22 seconds of a two-man disadvantage. They did so - and they would kill Coleman’s first penalty. Shortly after then, Coleman decided to hit Scott Eansor way away from the play (and the TV broadcast) as it went the other way. That was obviously called as intereference. So the Devils went back to their fifth penalty kill of the game on their eighth penalty a little over six minutes into the second period. Not even halfway through the game and the Devils already took an excessive number of penalties. Again, this is all silly stuff. Zacha (and anyone in pro hockey) should know you cannot close your hand on the puck. Hooking has been consistently called on the hands. Hitting a guy away from the play in open ice is almost always going to be whistled. The good news is that these three PKs that were close together did not yield a goal against. Shots? Yes. Possession? Sure. But the Devils held the score to be true.
The good news is that the penalties stopped being as frequent on New Jersey. The bad news is that they still came up and hurt the team in various ways. After a second period ended with no even strength attempt by the Islanders (seriously, eight power play shots, one shorthanded shot, blank at even strength), Kurtis Gabriel gets goaded into dropping his gloves by Martin at 20:00. That was given a ten-minute misconduct to Gabriel as all Martin did was spit verbals at the future B-Devil. After a gloriously penalty-free eleven minutes of the third period, Kevin Rooney elbowed Martin. The Devils would pay the price again. The Isles’ power play was in control and it ended with Anders Lee piling in a rebound from a Toews shot amid several bodies in the middle. If that was not enough, Kinkaid was pulled late in the hopes of the Devils getting something on the board - and Gabriel took a holding penalty for holding up Cal Clutterbuck in the neutral zone. Nevermind why Kurtis Gabriel is on the ice in a six-skater situation, but he made it penalty #11 and penalty kill #7 to help close out the game without a concern by the Islanders.
I can understand frustration about this kind of game even if it is a preseason game. It is not encouraging, engaging, or fun to see the Devils get shutout in any game situation. But the penalties really undercut what was a solid even strength effort. I mean, the Devils out-shot the Isles 27-9 in even strength play. Clearly, that was a plus. The Devils’ own power plays were lackluster at points, but they made the Isles sweat a bit with nine shots over three advantages. Despite not having a projected “top six forward” in tonight’s roster, the Devils kept on attacking and making life difficult for the Isles in the neutral zone. Yeah, I would have liked to have seen some better shots being taken and some better opportunities being created. To be fair, the Isles, coached by Barry Trotz, were well organized such that they did not give up many odd-man rush opportunities or many open shots up close. Still, the Devils made steals, denied Islander attacks early at evens, and kept pushing forward until the end. There are positives even if the result was not a positive and the penalties marred a lot of the good takeaways.
Even with so many calls, I did not think the penalty kill really failed in a big way. They were not torn to shreds on each situation. It is just that eventually all of these 4-on-5s and brief 3-on-5s can catch up to a team. Sometimes the team with the extra man gets the bounce or the one opportunity. Having five killing situations in close succession - even with an intermission in the middle - is a hard thing to overcome without giving up something. Add two more chances and it really is not out of the ordinary to think that two PPGAs out of seven can occur without a major breakdown or mistake. And that’s what I’m more bothered by than the lack of goals scored on Thomas Greiss and Christopher Gibson. These were not fouls taken to prevent a goal or a big play. None of them were. These were all calls that should have been avoided by any professional hockey player, regardless of what league they’ll be in or not. I know mistakes happen but there were a lot of them tonight. It’s one of thing to have an undisciplined period, but this was an undisciplined game and it contributed to the loss.
So if nothing else for Monday’s game, this aspect needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Discipline is usually a habit, not something you just flip a switch. The penalties helped bury the Devils tonight. While it is preseason and the results do not matter, performances do and this needs to be minimized to have better performances. I’d like to think Hynes and the coaching staff have made it clear after this game and will make it clear in the upcoming practices.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Lighthouse Hockey for their take on tonight’s game.
Who Did Well Enough for the Devils and Maybe Warranted More of a Look?: Clumsy title aside, I liked what I saw out of several Devils tonight.
Despite being one of the few Devils to not even receive a short or random PK shift, John Quenneville did well with his fourteen minutes. He took four shots. He hustled on forechecks. He made a steal that nearly ended with a goal in the first period. My favorite play from him tonight was in the third period, Quenneville went up on a forecheck and it was just to get the Isles to move the puck forward. Just a sweep by Quenneville. As Eberle received a pass that kind of hamstrung him on the near-side boards after a zone entry by New York, I saw Quenneville fly by and hit him with a check to jar the puck loose, which led to a quick zone exit by the Devils. For a guy who has been asked to do more off the puck as well as work on his conditioning, seeing Quenneville of all players make up that much ground and made a smart play on defense was a plus. I think we’ll see him for a little while longer.
I also liked what I saw out of Blake Pietila. While he did not register a shot on net, when he was on the ice, the play was usually in New Jersey’s direction in 5-on-5 situations. But Pietila did a lot of work on the penalty kill. He was one of two Devils who played over five minutes on the PK tonight. Seeing that ahead of Coleman and Travis Zajac is pretty impressive. Moreover, he did not take a penalty when the going got rough on the ice or with others having words. I don’t think he’ll make the team, but he had productive outing even without a SOG. I could see him getting another game, though.
I could see Joey Anderson getting another game. With over two minutes on the power play and over four and a half on the penalty kill, the coaches wanted to see what he could do in all situations. He did things mostly well. He was not an issue on defense or off the puck. With the puck, he did generate four shots on net. When he was on the ice in general, the Devils were doing well. He played in Montreal, which I did not see on Monday, so I appreciated seeing him have a good game tonight.
Surprising to me, I liked what I saw out of Drew Stafford and Marian Studenic as a combination. Not that the run of play went super well or featured the Devils out-shooting the Isles when they were on the ice in 5-on-5 play. But the two finished the night with three shots each and some good moments. Stafford will never be confused for fast or quick, but he was able to generate a lot of attempts (eight) and command respect from the Isles. Studenic was much faster and used his speed well to create some pockets of space to create here and there. Both received plenty of PP time too, so it was clear the coaches wanted them in offensive situations.
Once again, Santini had a strong game except for that one avoidable and ultimately costly penalty. Other than that, he was solid as solid could be on defense. He did not hold the offense back. He skated well. Just as importantly, his partner was Will Butcher and that pairing absolutely worked very well in 5-on-5 play. They saw only two attempts against them in ten minutes of 5-on-5 hockey; that is excellent. Butcher and Santini were also involved in the offense in spots. Santini had two shots on net out of five attempts; Butcher got one through out of four attempts plus Pavel Zacha nearly beating Greiss with a re-direction on a second period power play shot. While it was a preseason game, I think the coaches may want to think about a potential pairing of Butcher-Santini.
Guys Who Did Well or At Least Better Than Monday Night But May Not Have Their Stock Changed: Damon Severson was much more in control, did not get bodied at evens, and rarely made a mistake tonight. I still regard Severson as a sure-fire top-four defenseman on the blueline. Before and after this game. So his good game is just that: a good job.
While Egor Iakovlev (Yegor Yakovlev) ended up as the only Devil below 50% CF% tonight, he did not take a penalty and he also did not get caught out in a bad way on defense. So he made some gains on that front. I’m not sure if Iakovelv will continue to get chances, but he had a better showing tonight than in his preseason debut.
Michael McLeod played a smoother, more consistent game from what I saw. While McLeod only had one shot on net, he was quite good off the puck in terms of breaking up Islander attacks, supporting the defense, and contributing with interceptions and zone exits. I would have liked to have seen him use his quickness more on offense. But he was not as all over the place as he was on Monday. I could see him getting one more chance, but I want to see even more from him on the attack.
Keith Kinkaid had a solid performance in net. He’s the #1 goalie until Cory Schneider is healthy, so this preseason is really just to get him ready. Kinkaid did play the whole night and he did rather well. He showed off some athleticism, notably with a big, stretched-out left pad stop on Pius Suter in the third period. He not only denied Suter the first shot, but he was strong with the leg as Suter tried to jam it through. The two goals against him are not his fault and would beat most goalies anyway. I think he did a fine job tonight, which was good since the Isles’ attack outside of the power play happened few and far between.
The pairing of Colton White and Eric Gryba was actually effective for the most part. Despite Gryba’s tendency to be overly physical, he stayed clean tonight. White drew a call and kept being quietly effective in the run of play. The game stats at Natural Stat Trick confirmed that that this pairing had some shifts against Eberle, Lee, and Brock Nelson and the Devils still did well when that happened. I’m not saying this means they should stick around in New Jersey. But I think tonight may have helped their cause in Binghamton.
Good...With a But: Pavel Zacha had some shifts that showed off what we were all hoping to see when he was drafted: a skilled forward with the size and strength to maintain puck control in tight situations as well as the sense to make good reads and decisions with the puck. Zacha frequently picked up loose pucks on offense and facilitated a second, third, and fourth attempt on a Devils’ attack. His peak was when he boxed out an Isle while skating around the zone to create a shot twice on the same shift. The but? The penalties. The tripping penalty came after he lost the puck battle with Sbisa. He just needed to tak the ‘L’ and bounce back. Not take a penalty with the ‘L.’ That he was caught closing his hand on the puck was just a silly and unnecessary call that also did not otherwise help the Devils’ situation at the time. Zacha needs to sustain the good things he showed tonight and cut out the sillier things like that one.
Kevin Rooney had himself a strong night. While the Devils did not register any shorthanded shots on net, Rooney came close twice after zone exits. He is not quick enough at the NHL to breakaway, but perhaps in the AHL he would have. In general, the Devils played well with Rooney on the ice and he kept the good things going. He also did a lot of hard work, like Pietila, on the penalty kill. What was the problem? That one elbowing penalty. Unlike Santini, who had a full night of sorting things out on defense, this penalty came well after run of five straight calls. This penalty came in a 0-1 situation in a third period. This penalty was an easy call for the refs. This penalty did not need to happen. For someone who is trying to at least position themselves for a potential call-up, this one penalty can hurt. Not getting any of his four shot attempts on net also hurt, but the penalty really sticks out.
No: I did not need to see more of Kurtis Gabriel. While effective in the run of play, he was easily goaded by the Isles’ tough guys (e.g. Matt Martin) to take a needless misconduct penalty. He all but iced the game when he took a holding penalty when the Devils were in an extra-man situation. I do not know why he was out there at all.
About the Other Team: Quickly, their best player tonight was Thomas Greiss. While it could be argued he could have been challenged more, the Devils threw a lot at him from all over. He did have some scoring chances to fend off. In two periods, he stopped 25 shots. Gibson also did well, but Greiss faced more quality and quantity.
Their best skater tonight, Jordan Eberle, was weirdly held in check. Yes, he had five shots on net. He was just shy of breaking even in CF% despite playing quite a bit on defense tonight. He didn’t break away. He didn’t catch the Devils totally out of sorts. He didn’t break any ankles. He seemingly didn’t dominate against a B/B+ squad from the Devils. But he still got a lot in there and when he did have space to work with on the power play, he helped make that PP function well.
Shoutout to Kieffer Bellows for improving his own stock by drawing a call and scoring on the resulting power play. The shot on his goal looked real nice and he took four shots as well - second only to Eberle. I don’t know how the Isles will be structured, but I would have to think he’ll be getting a longer look in camp compared to others based on tonight.
One Last Thought: With all of the penalty kills, the coaches made a choice to give others a chance on the PK. As a result, Zajac was held to less than a minute of ice time on it. Coleman was also limited to 1:42 on the PK - although being in the box for a total of four minutes also cut his minutes short. The only regular from last season that played a lot of PK time tonight was Santini, and he did not even play the whole season in New Jersey. I think that was a good move as it will help sort out potential roles for special teams. Preseason is the time to try out new players in these spots. As a result, it may benefit New Jersey and (for some of them) Binghamton.
Your Take: The Devils lost 0-2 in their third preseason game of this year. Penalties undercut the Devils big time tonight. I really hope they sort it out for Monday’s game. In the meantime, what do you think of this loss? Who did you think played well and why? Who do you think not played well and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this preseason loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.