If you had to pick a word for tonight's game, it would probably be disappointing. On a night they could've put six points between themselves and the Islanders, the Devils came out of the gate so sluggish someone joked they thought the game started at 7:30. Is it the end-all, be-all? No, but it's not a good sign after being unable to finish off an opponent the past two games. Some thoughts...
10-minute warning: How many times have we talked about the Devils taking 10 or sometimes 20 minutes to show up in a game? Once again, the Devils seem to have tremendous difficulty generating energy to start a game, something coach Pete DeBoer seemed totally flummoxed by. He admitted after the game that the slow start (a trend all season long) was disappointing and said the Devils didn't take the Islanders lightly. OK, fair enough. DeBoer also didn't seem to have an answer for why things started off so sideways and said that he actually tried to be calm in (yet another) first-period timeout. Think about how differently this game goes if the Devils are at least somewhat present for the first half of the first period. I mean, how many timeouts does DeBoer have to call in the first period? Matter of fact -- does anyone have that stat? The bottom line is I shouldn't have to ask that question. This is a veteran team with leaders galore that has been through the ringer. Their coach knows what it takes at this time of the season; everyone from the goalie out knows what it takes. So why are the Devils still having the same problem in April they had in January? One theory is that there's no one in the room willing to overturn a table or kick something across the room. I'm starting to think that might have some merit. Even listening to the few Devils talk after tonight's game, you get the sense that things are too even-keel for a team that's on the edge of the playoff picture. The problem is that's not something you add at the deadline. That's something you need from the get-go, a player that's been through training camp and the dregs of the season in that room. I just don't think they're suddenly going to "figure out" these slow starts and that's going to cost them, either at the end of the season or in the playoffs.
On the defensive: The problem with the Devils' defense can be summed up by two plays, both goals. The first is the Isles' first goal of the game in which Bryce Salvador was caught up ice near the center ice line on an excellent breakout pass from the Isles. Salvador tried to turn and swat at the puck with his stick but by that time was already behind the play, meaning Marek Zidlicky was stuck playing 2-on-1, which is never a good spot for Marek Zidlicky. The play was symbolic of the lack of speed on the back end and how that lack of speed consistently puts them out of position and forces them to chase the play. I understand that in this situation the Isles executed a scripted breakout play to near-perfection, but Salvador in particular has been guilty of this far too many times this season to simply write it off as the Isles "out-executing" the Devils. Salvador was on the ice for the second play, John Taraves' power-play goal in the third that pretty much iced it. Salvador and Dainius Zubrus got caught watching the puck and lost track of Tavares (!), which is poor form during 5-on-5 play, let alone on the penalty kill. I hate to keep killing Salvador here, because Zubrus was just as much at fault on this particular play, but the lack of awareness is a shining example of the Devils' poor defensive-zone coverage all season. How many times have we seen an opposing player seemingly drift uncovered to the weakside only to have a half-open net to shoot at? A lot, that's how many. The big problem is I see no answers for either of these problems. This group of eight defensemen is slow and getting older by the day and their youngest defenseman, Adam Larsson, has been too inconsistent to be trusted as an all-facets defender.
Didn't we talk about this: I wrote in the pregame thread that the Devils HAD to be wary of the Islanders' power play. My concern was grounded in two facts: One, the Isles' power play has been a top-10 unit all season while the Devils' penalty kill has lumbered near the bottom third of the league. Two, Tavares, in particular, has been a nightmare for the Devils on the man advantage. Prior to tonight's game, Tavares had five goals and two assists in four games against New Jersey with three of the goals and both assists coming on the power play. It's why I turned to Kevin Schultz of Islanders Point Blank before the third and warned that a power play for the Isles would likely mean a third goal and the end of the game for New Jersey. That's precisely what happened -- and I don't bring this up to pat myself on the back. I mention it to point out that the Devils, already down a goal, took a penalty and then didn't make it a point to keep track of a man who has destroyed them on the man advantage. To rub salt in the wound, Alexei Ponikarovsky took an offensive-zone hooking penalty only a minute after Tavares' goal. The Devils killed that one off, but it cost them two more minutes of 5-on-5 play while down two goals in the final 10 minutes of the game. Not a good formula for a comeback.
Add or subtract: With the trade deadline only two days away, tonight's game certainly won't quell feelings that the Devils need to make a move at the deadline. I've already made my feelings on what I think the Devils will do Wednesday -- nothing. That's not to say the Devils don't need to do something. They could use another scorer and a mobile defenseman, but they don't have the assets to make that happen. They've already traded away most of their draft picks from this season and some from next to acquire role players (Ponikarovsky, D'Agostini, Loktionov). Prospects? Sure, the Devils have a few, but I don't see Lou willingly parting with them with the roster likely needing to be reshaped in the next two offseasons. Also, and this is what I think is more crucial -- adding one or two players won't suddenly make the Devils into a Cup contender. This is a flawed team struggling to make the playoffs. Some will point out that the Devils were in a similar position last year, but I don't think it takes much time watching them to notice the Devils aren't the same team as last year. The absence of Zach Parise has clearly had an effect on Travis Zajac, who remains a strong centerman overall but has lost a lot of his offensive game this season. Also, Adam Henrique is not the dynamic force he was last season. Adding pieces would make the Devils better right now, but it would come at the expense of valuable future assets (be it players or picks). That's a high price to pay for a team light years behind the league's elite class.
Notes: I'll write about this more tomorrow, but damn David Clarkson looks frustrated. No matter how many shots he puts on net, nothing gets the goalie. If you watch him, it seems like he throws his head to the sky every time a puck gets deflected wide or goes high or a goalie makes a stop. ... Andrei Loktionov isn't the two-way player that Henrique or Zajac is and it's becoming apparent that he needs a finisher to be effective in the offensive end. DeBoer tried Steve Bernier with him tonight (and there were a couple chances) but I wonder if D'Agostini might be a better option. ... Tough go for Tom Kostopolous, who used his face to stop Matt Martin's fist in an attempt to get the Devils going. Thankfully he's expected to be OK, but it's a little ridiculous that the Devils need something like that to spark them against a rival competing for the same playoff spots. ... Is it just me or does it feel like Martin Brodeur needs to be perfect in the first period? ... Not exactly a banner return for Zubrus, who looked tired and clearly rusty. Not sure if I would've used him on the PK in his first game back. Also not sure I would've played him tonight, period -- especially with a pair of off days and full practices coming up tomorrow and Wednesday. ... The Devils have no dynamic weapon capable of producing offense without Kovy. I know that's an obvious statement, but it's a problem considering they have Henrique, Zajac and Elias healthy. ... Speaking of Zajac, for those of you that thought he looked off tonight, DeBoer said he had the flu and was throwing up between periods, which is why I'm cutting him some slack tonight. ... I didn't write about the dominant second period because it doesn't matter. The Devils need to play 60 minutes or at least 40 minutes that way if they're going to stay in the playoff chase. Any team can be dominant for one period against a fringe playoff team.