I won't say the Devils "didn't deserve" to win that one, because that's not what happened tonight. Yes, the Devils allowed too many odd-man rushes and the offensive pressure and possession pretty much died in the third period. But the Devils also ran into a hot goaltender and were also the victim of some unfortunate bounces. All in all, it was a very good hockey game between two rivals fighting for the same land in the playoff landscape. Some thoughts...
Goalie class: First off, let me say that Johan Hedberg didn't play poorly at all. He played well, in fact. Hedberg was victimized by a bad bounce on one of the second goal and some
sloppy nonexistent coverage of the trailer on the first goal. Moose managed to keep the Devils in the game on several occasions and his glove work (particularly on Nash in the third) was just phenomenal. The problem with Hedberg is that he's not on Henrik Lundqvist's level and when a goalie not on Lundqvist's level runs into an elite goalie that's playing well, it usually doesn't end well. Right before the third and deciding goal for the Rangers, Lundqvist made about four or five strong saves that only a select group of goalies can make. Devils fans witnessed it for almost two decades with Martin Brodeur, so they know what elite goaltending looks like. There's no denying that Lundqvist was maybe the main reason tonight's game ended the way it did. The good news for the Devils is they're finally getting Brodeur back, possibly as early as Thursday. That will help the Devils even the playing field a bit when they match up with the Rangers, Canadiens and Bruins later on this season and potentially in the playoffs.
Where have you gone: That must have been the question for Pete DeBoer as he tried to figure out where the energy and offensive pressure went in between the second and third periods. The Devils seemingly lost their way in the offensive end for much of the final period and it resulted in a team that barely registered a scoring chance through the first ten minutes of the third. It's hard not to look back at those 10 to 15 minutes of game action and wonder how different the final five minutes would've been if the Devils didn't wait for Johan Hedberg to leave the ice to start putting shots on net and forechecking. Too often during the period the Devils forwards tried to pass back or laterally instead of either dumping the puck down below the goal line or skating it below the faceoff dots. Patrik Elias in particular was guilty of this tonight and Travis Zajac also had a couple opportunities to either shoot the puck or get the forecheck going in the third period and instead chose to move every direction but forward. When David Clarkson actually followed through on that halfway through the period, he drew a tripping call. However, the power play the proceeded was fairly uneventful and lacking in any sort of momentum or pressure. The bottom line is the Devils can't simply hope to play hard for 20 or 40 minutes and then turn it on in the final five. This team has got to forecheck hard for almost the entire game in order to generate offense.
So short handed: The forecheck is especially important when you consider some of the players the Devils are currently icing due to injury. With guys like Andrei Loktionov, Dainius Zubrus and now Alexei Ponikarovsky on the shelf, the already-limited Devils simply don't have the talent to think they can score with drop passes and fancy puck movement. Yes, there are skill guys on this roster, guys that can do special things with the puck on their tape, but there's not enough of them to eschew the gameplan, which is further limited when DeBoer has to play Harri Pesonen on the second line while also icing Krys Barch and Tom Kostopolous. Let's face it, the Devils team that played the Rangers tonight was extremely short-handed due to injuries. Simply by adding back Loktionov and a full game of Ponikarovsky, DeBoer is able to roll lines with consistency that also show a decent balance of skill and grit. If you add Zubrus to the equation, now guys like Barch and Pesonen aren't even dressing and maybe aren't even on the roster. It was a tough game to manage for a coach that can usually get pretty creative but was clearly stretched to his limits tonight.
Welcome back, (Za)jac: If there was one encouraging thing tonight (and there were more than one), it was the fact that Zajac finally snapped his goal streak. The goal itself, Zajac's first in 11 games, was a mix of effort and skill. After fanning on the first shot, Zajac gathered the puck again and snapped a laser through the five-hole of Lundqvist. It was the kind of goal that can kick-start a player and kick-start a team that's desperate for goals. The question is whether that will actually happen. Even when not scoring, Zajac does the other things that make him a valuable hockey player. He wins draws at a high rate, usually is good at generating a forecheck and is exceedingly responsible (and skilled) in his own end. Tonight, I watched him pick-pocket Rick Nash from behind without any real effort at all. Those are the kinds of things that, when added to the scoring touch demonstrated in the past, make him worthy of a long-term contract extension. But the goals have got to start adding up. I'm not asking for him to be a point-per-game player, but he's got to be much closer to that than what the Devils are getting now.
Tough loss: This loss was a difficult one for the Devils. For one, they're out of the playoff picture for the first time this season. More importantly, the Devils lost two key points to a team that they'll be facing down for a playoff spot as the next month develops. Yes, the Devils are getting Brodeur back and Loktionov should be in the lineup by the weekend, but as DeBoer said tonight -- the Devils are running out of time to put points on the board. They've got to start translating this effort into one or two points on a nightly basis if only to keep up with the Rangers, Hurricanes, Jets, Senators and Islanders. That's not even mentioning teams like the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both of whom (along with the Canes, Isles and Sens) are among the teams the Devils will play in the next two weeks. Because of the East-only schedule this year, every loss is amplified because chances are you're losing to or beating someone within two to four points of you. The time of the season where the Devils could lose three in a row is over. They have to get more than one point out of games with three potential playoff teams.
Notes: The Devils had their forecheck going for most of the first two periods and clearly had the Rangers on their heels for most of the first period. It was an impressive start to the game and the kind the Devils need to translate into goals, which is something we've been saying all season. ... The Devils went straight Oliver Twist on the Rangers tonight -- some very impressive puck thievery. ... Michael Del Zotto makes some beautiful passes. There's not many defensemen in the NHL with that skill. ... Cover. The. Trailer. ... I like Pesonen's game more than I like Kostopolous', but I fear it'll be a numbers game for both of them when Zubrus and Henrik Tallinder return off injured reserve. ... You know the puck is bouncing like crazy when Anton Volchenkov scores like that. ... Speaking of bounces, how about that Kovalchuk shot in the first period? It was like a McDonald's commercial: off the defenseman, off the goalie's stick, off the post and still almost bounces in. ... Am I the only one really excited to watch guys like Kovalchuk and Nash in the Olympics next year? I can't imagine what those two will do with all that extra room. ... Bit of a tough-luck game for Larsson, who fumbled probably his best offensive chance in weeks early in the second period. I think he's still a little nervous with the puck on his stick in the opponent's zone. ... That was a bad call on Zajac for "running" Lundqvist. I'm sorry, but the officials have got to see that. Can you imagine if the Rangers had scored there? It would be all we talked about after the game. And let's not forgetthe acting job by King Henrik. That was some special stuff right there, Hank. Marty would be proud. ... Henrique played with a lot of energy tonight. He was diving (the good kind) all over the ice and trying to make plays. ... It was a feisty, physical game, but I (like Ken Daneyko) thought there would be at least one fight. ... Way too many odd-man rushes for the Rangers and this isn't the first time the Devils have dealt with that. Thankfully for New Jersey, Hedberg was there to keep the game close. ... The Devils defensemen would do well to note what Del Zotto and Derek Stepan did to Elias and Clarkson around the net on a late shot that Elias and Clarkson each just missed tapping in. Why did they just miss? Because Del Zotto and Stepan had good position on them around the net and kept them from being close enough to bang home the rebound before Lundqvist could react. ... Speaking of which, the Devils left a lot of missed pucks out there tonight. For as well as he played, Lundqvist was serving up all types of rebounds for long stretches.