Well, that makes three straight losses and five defeats in their last six games for the Devils -- not exactly the way Pete DeBoer wants to be trending when approaching the meat of the season. All in all, it was a far better overall effort than it had been in the past couple games, particularly Sunday, but not enough to get off the schneid. Some thoughts...
Help needed: You want a main reason behind the Devils' current skid? Try these numbers: 1, 1, 1, 2, 1. That, in chronological order, is how many goals the Devils have scored in each of their last five losses. In past games, it's been due to an almost passive nature on offense and a reluctance to establish a hard forecheck early and often. Tonight, after a brief wave of Jets attacks, the Devils started forcing the play and getting chances but just could not finish, which is something we wondered if they could do on a regular basis before the season. It seems like if Clarkson or Kovy isn't scoring the Devils are hard-pressed to find goals. Elias is having a strong season, but even he missed out on a couple chances to bury the puck tonight (one of which came on a nice cross-ice feed from Zajac). The bottom line is the Devils can't simply rely on their top two players to score. If they're going to compete for home-ice advantage in the first round, they're going to have to find the secondary scoring that made them so dangerous in last season's playoff run. I'm sorry but losing Parise is not an excuse anymore, not when you get 10 goals out of Clarkson and a 22-point start from Elias in the season's first 20 games. Zajac has been non-existent offensively for the most part this season and Henrique has disappeared after putting together a good first few games when he returned from injury. Kovy cannot be the end all, be all of this offense or else the Devils won't just struggle to host a playoff series -- they'll struggle to make the playoffs in an absurdly packed Eastern Conference. DeBoer messed around with his forward lines entering play tonight in an attempt to spark the dormant offense. It work in the sense that the Devils' top two lines started generating chances and putting consistent pressure on an opponent, but that's not enough.
Opening salvo: When you're a team that's already struggling to score goals, going down 1-0 eight seconds into the game doesn't exactly help matters, especially when that goal happens on a defensive breakdown in the neutral zone. Yes, Andrew Ladd was in the right place at the right time, but it was the "right place" because ALL of the Devils got caught drifting toward the puck and the other side of the ice right off the draw. Ladd wasn't out on an island. The puck didn't take that strange of a bounce. He simply came off his spot following the opening draw and played the left wing and was closer than any Devils was when the puck bounced to the middle of the ice. Ladd then had a clear path to the net because Zidlicky tried to step up and play the man and there was no one at home when the puck bounced another way. However, it's difficult to put this all on Zidlicky when Clarkson, who was matched up against Ladd off the draw drifted to the other side of the faceoff dot instead of staying with his man. It's a tough break, yes, but it's also a situation that could've been avoided if only the Devils had maintained responsibility off the draw and not been caught staring at the puck. Hedberg, who I thought played well overall tonight, never had a chance on Ladd's shot, which was the result of some nice stickwork by the Jets captain.
PK back: If there was one encouraging sign out of tonight's loss (and there was more than one), it was the return, for at least one night, of the Devils' penalty kill. New Jersey was faced at one point with about 3:30 of consecutive power-play time for Winnipeg, including about 90 seconds of 5-on-3 action. But unlike in games past when power-play goals have put the Devils in big holes, this time the penalty killers were up to the task -- even without sticks. Henrique in particular had maybe his best shift of the game, just missing a pass that would have sprung him for a short-handed breakaway and then playing balls to the wall in his own zone seconds later, even after his stick broke. It was an impressive sign overall for the Devils and it's an aspect of their game that has to be strong at all times -- and I really mean that. There is no room for slacking when it comes to the Devils' PK. While some teams have the offensive firepower to survive a mediocre penalty kill, it's become obvious that this Devils team simply can't allow extra goals. Whether that means a top-five PK or simply limiting teams to two, one or no power plays on most nights, it's something DeBoer and the Devils have to make sure is a nightly staple of their game. No nights off on the PK. Not this year.
Lokti-motive: Andrei Loktionov has been the Devils' best forward for the past four games (non-Kovy division, of course). Yes, better than Elias. Loktionov has a point in each of those contest (two goals, two assists) and has played so well in the offensive zone that DeBoer moved him from the fourth line to the top unit in less than three games, displacing Zajac and forcing DeBoer to play Henrique out of position at left wing. In the process, he went from playing with Barch, Matteau, Butler and the like to being Kovy's wingman. How's that for a first five games? Every time he and Kovy are out on the ice, they're constantly looking for each other and more often than not the puck ends up on one of their sticks in position for a shot on net or scoring chance. Loktionov hasn't quite rediscovered the chemistry he had with Henrique in junior, but that will come over time. The question is how long DeBoer will keep this unit together considering he has an open preference for playing Henrique at center. With Zajac seemingly entrenched as the center on one of the Devils' top two lines, will Henrique have to play out of position for the foreseeable future? It's possible, but if he and Loktionov begin clicking, that top unit could be very dangerous.
Notes: As I wrote above, I thought Hedberg had a good game overall. He overplayed his hand on Byfuglien's rush up the ice and it put him out of position for when Byfuglien came around the net with the puck, but I think he played well enough for the Devils to win, which is all you can ask of a backup goalie. Definitely a bounce-back game for him. ... Speaking of that second goal, terrific job by the MSG crew showing Greene's stick stuck inside the net just before Ladd tapped it in. Bad luck, but like DeBoer loves to say, "in this game, you create your own luck." ... Ondrej Pavelec wasn't really tested the other night but made some big saves tonight. I'm still not sold on him as anything other than an average NHL goalie, but he definitely kept the Jets in it tonight. ... If Pavelec were better on a nightly basis, the Jets would be a much better team. Kane, Ladd and Byfuglien are so incredibly skilled and they have some decent complimentary pieces around those guys. I like the future for this team. ... The power play -- yeahhhh. Larsson on the point. Larsson on the point. Larsson on the point. I don't know how many times I can beat this drum. It's time to turn the record over and move on. ... Devils did a much better job backchecking tonight than they did Sunday, particularly Clarkson, who prevented an odd-man rush halfway through the second period by getting back and disrupting the play with his stick. ... The Devils did a good job of controlling the tempo after a rapid-fire first 10 minutes, but they let the play get a little too up-and-down in the third period and it prevented them from getting anything more than one-off chances. There was no sustained pressure and the Devils spent as much time racing back into their own zone as they did trying to even up the score. ... How many sticks broke for the Devils tonight? Total coincidence but felt like a record at one point.