Postgame Thoughts: Lightning 5, Devils 2 (3/5/13)

Corey Griffin

Links: Pregame thread | Twitter | NHL.com recap

The slide continues for the Devils in what was possibly their worst overall effort of the slide. Far too little pressure and attacking between the first five minutes and the last five minutes, lackluster defensive play and obvious frustration were the main highlights to take away from tonight’s game. Some thoughts…

Rock bottom: Did the Devils hit rock bottom during the second period tonight? Pete DeBoer certainly hopes they did. He said as much after the game and about halfway through the second period, it was hard to disagree with him. There were brutal defensive breakdowns – repeatedly. There was an offense that failed to get more than two meaningful shots on Anders Lindback from the halfway point of the first period to the final seven minutes of the third period. There was mediocre goaltending, albeit by a goalie who was hung out to dry on multiple occasions (including the second and third goals) by the players in front of him. So what now? The Devils have to realize that this is about as bad as it can get. They Devils were beaten 5-2 by a team that’s not better than them, but definitely outplayed them. They’ve lost six straight and eight out of their last nine. Perhaps most disturbing is that six of those eight losses were to teams that are currently outside of the playoff picture, which means the Devils aren’t only losing ground among the middle-class teams in the East, they’re also dropping future tiebreakers against the team they could end up battling for playoff spots. Tonight was the first of six home games in eight contests. It’s where the Devils need to get back into playing their style of hockey or else this won’t be rock bottom — and that’s a really, really bad thing.

Goalie swap: Part of me feels for Johan Hedberg. He hasn’t been getting a ton — OK, any offensive support and he’s been left all alone on an island more times than I can count since Martin Brodeur was hurt. Is the problem him? Partly. For one, Hedberg doesn’t have anywhere near the puckhandling ability of Brodeur, which is huge for a defensive corps that struggles to carry the puck out of its own zone. That leads to bad giveaways at the faceoff dots and below, which leads to quality scoring chances for the other team. The other problem? Hedberg’s not Brodeur, not even this elder-statesmen version of Brodeur. I know that’s incredibly easy to say — not many goalies are even close to Marty’s level. But unfortunately for Hedberg, this Devils team is still built on Marty being some semblance of his old self, making saves that require an awkward combination of anticipation, positioning and muscle memory from the days when Brodeur was simply unbeatable. So when you replace the goalie in that system, on this team, with a guy who at his peak wasn’t close to the level Marty is now — you’re going to allow more goals, more bad goals, too — especially considering how poorly the Devils have been playing in front of him. Is Keith Kinkaid the answer? No. Not this year, at least. I thought he played well, especially considering his first “big moment” was facing an unchecked Steven Stamkos with nearly an entire zone to himself on a breakaway. Yeah. Needless to say, it was a big save for the kid and there were more solid saves later in the third period. But Kinkaid is not ready to play at this level. He admitted he was so nervous he couldn’t find his equipment when he was called on. His legs were shaking when he took the ice. Those are completely understandable feelings, but there was also no real pressure with his team already down 3-0 and likely headed for a loss. Do you want to throw him in the net to start the game Saturday in Carolina against the Staals, Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin? Yeah, I didn’t think so. And neither does DeBoer, which is why he is going to stick with Hedberg for as long as he possibly can.

Late life: One of the bright spots of tonight’s game was the sudden surge of offensive pressure and two subsequent goals that came in the final seven minutes of the third period. The 0-for-18 power-play drought was snapped by Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique found the back of the net for the second time in three games. While it was far too little too late, how the goals happened are hopefully the impetus for the Devils to return to the style of play that put them near the top of the East at the beginning of the year. On the Henrique goal, it was a classic Devils forecheck, made even more impressive because New Jersey was on the penalty kill. Henrique attacked the zone and followed the Lightning defender carrying the puck behind the net and into the corner, where he jarred the puck loose with his pressure. Ryan Carter, seeing this, jumped into the play to support Henrique and help the Devils gain possession. When Henrique saw Carter make a play for the puck, Henrique leaked back towards the net into open ice where Carter hit him with a perfect pass that set Henrique in on Lindback all alone. Henrique deked, went backhand and beat Lindback far side and shortly let off a little steam with an aggressive uppercut. It was the same way the Devils played for first seven to 10 minutes of the game before their play subsided to sloppy work in the neutral zone, poor defensive zone coverage and an inability to attack the net. When you’re struggling, simple is better. Stay disciplined in every zone and when in doubt, put the puck on net. It’s exactly what the Devils did in the minutes after Henrique’s goal, particularly on the power-play score, which saw Ilya Kovalchuk fire one of his trademark lasers from the point at Lindback. Predictably, this shot was too strong for Lindback to control and with both Travis Zajac and Elias in front of the net, the Devils simply outmanned the Lightning. Both players swatted at the puck before Elias was able to break loose to the left and find an open side of the net. It was a simple play — a shot from the point creates a rebound, the screeners bang at the loose puck and said loose puck eventually lands in a spot where the goalie is not. Scoring on a power play isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be nearly as hard as the Devils make it look at times.

New lines: Perhaps taking my advice (kidding), DeBoer decided to switch up the forward lines even more tonight, headlined by the breakup of Elias and David Clarkson. Elias moved up to the top line with Andrei Loktionov and Kovy, while Clarkson played with Alexei Ponikaorvsky and Adam Henrique. I liked what I saw from Clarkson’s line in the first period. There were a couple shifts where they gave the Lightning defensmen fits below the faceoff dots. The newly arranged top line — not so much. I think that unit will take a little bit of time to mesh together, assuming it gets that time. Kovy is very much the cog that drives that line. He is at once sniper and playmaker, controlling the flow of the play and usually being the last or second-to-last person with the puck before a shot on net. Elias also likes to play with the puck, which obviously creates a little bit of a problem. However, the reason why I was so high on this line earlier Tuesday was if Kovy is willing to give up some of his playmaking duties to Elias, he could taking a bigger role in scoring goals, which in turn could get the Devils going again. I think at times Kovy is too willing to sit back and let others make the play, but if he was forced to be selfish, he could get on a roll that could pick the Devils up immediately. For all that talk about the top line, I thought the third unit of Stephen Gionta, Zajac and Steve Bernier was easily the impressive and effective of the night. They forechecked, they pressured and they were responsible in their own zone. Unfortunately, when things came apart in the second period, DeBoer went all mad scientist again and started moving pieces around. If he decides to mess with things again before Thursday’s game, I hope this line stays together. It’s the closest thing the Devils have had to the CBGB line since early February.

Notes: Talk about a rough night for the duo of Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne. They were on the ice for the Lightning’s first three goals and their breakdowns played a big role in each of the goals. Salvador in particular was exposed for his lack of speed and he ended up running around the ice and chasing the puck on multiple plays tonight, which put himself out of position and put Fayne alone on an island twice. Salvador may be well thought of in the locker room, but those types of plays can’t happen over and over again. … The power play definitely looked better overall tonight. They got some good chances on the first power play, but more importantly there was consistent pressure in the offensive zone during both man advantages. If the power play can be serviceable, that would be a huge boost. … Loktionov is shifty. He gets in these crevices and he just pops up out of nowhere with the puck in a scoring position. … The Lightning have some really nice skill players outside of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Cory Conacher is really fun to watch play and I really liked what I saw from Killorn tonight. … Disappointing to see the Devils blow what might have been their best first period in a week. … Did anyone else catch Jacques Caron rubbing his eyes and shaking his head when they showed him on MSG? He couldn’t have enjoyed watching that goaltending display by Hedberg. … Said it above and said it on Twitter — Henrique looks very frustrated. His play became very chippy during the second period Tuesday and I wonder if the goal will settle him down. … How many times is Loktionov going to slide the puck through the crease? Jeez. Also, I have to wonder how the game ends if Sami Salo doesn’t catch that puck from trickling into the net with about 90 seconds left. A one-goal game after three unanswered in five minutes against what’s essentially a rookie goalie? What could’ve been.