Turkey week recap: Where’s the D?

If you’ve watched the Devils the last number of years, you wouldn’t recognize the team that took the ice this week.  Historically tight defensively with problems offensively, and usually very crisp in playing their system – this week the Devils turned all those tenets on their ear.  Offensively, the Devils have scored eleven goals in their last three games which is a downright bushelful, especially considering the team’s still missing their best offensive player in Taylor Hall.  Defensively however, the Devils have given up four goals in each of their last four games and in a couple of them they could have easily given up more.  While their defensive struggles aren’t a complete surprise and they’ve given up an alarming total of 155 shots on net in those last four games, they’ve also been hurt by an ill-timed Cory Schneider slump.  At times early on you could tell Cory and backup Keith Kinkaid were papering up the defensive ills but with Cory giving up bad goals in each of his last few starts, the avalanche is starting to fall down on the team.

Even with Cory having his worst stretch as a Devil and the team losing five of six, the Devils have still managed to pick up four of a possible six points in the last three games.  This week is clearly a test of whether you’re a half full or half empty fan.  There are certainly valid reasons for both viewpoints.  So let’s start with the good news – as of this morning the Devils still sit in a playoff spot and nearly everyone has come back with even Hall ahead of schedule in his injury rehab starting to skate.  It’s at least a different team now than the one that acted like they felt sorry for themselves Tuesday in San Jose with a listless, non-competitive 4-0 loss that completed an embarassing o-fer in California.  Sure they still had Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri and Yohann Auvitu out and were talent-challenged against the defending Western Conference champs, but the effort level in both San Jose and Los Angeles last weekend was alarmingly low.

With Cammalleri and Auvitu back for the Thanksgiving eve tilt against the Leafs back at the Rock, there was hope that the reinforcements and home cooking would get the Devils out of their malaise but they started the first twenty minutes like they were still on the West Coast.  Mistake after mistake punctuated the first period and gave a hint of what was to come for the rest of this week.  Predictably, super rookie Auston Matthews ended his 13-game goal drought against us with not only one but two first-period goals as the Leafs put the hammer down to the tune of 3-0 and the fans serenaded the team with well-deserved boos off the ice.  However if there’s one team that’s actually worse than the Devils at holding a lead, it’s the Leafs.  Within the first five and a half minutes of the second, a previously dormant team thundered to life as the Devils pounded home three goals to tie the game just like that.

Cammalleri, who had just returned from his 5-year old daughter’s scary bout with pneumonia, was already on his way to player of the game honors and it was he that started the comeback with a perfect feed to Travis Zajac for the first goal after just thirty-two seconds.  It took a bit of luck for the Devils to get their second goal, and finally break an 0-29 power play skid with a Cammalleri shot bounced off Devante Smith-Pelly‘s rear end and right to a wide-open Beau Bennett.  Even Bennett couldn’t screw up that empty-net chance, and he put it home for his first goal as a Devil.  After taking a supporting role on the first two goals, Cammalleri himself scored goal number three on a rebound.  Unfortunately once the Devils tied the game they took the thrust off and again the Leafs surged.  Of all people it was ex-Isle grunt man Matt Martin who gave them back the lead just minutes later, putting a weak shot on net off a two-on-one that Schneider unfathomably gave up a rebound on, and then tapping home the second chance attempt.

Still down 4-3 despite the goal surge, this looked like it was going to be a frustrating near-miss and a fourth straight loss.  However, their play and level of urgency when behind in this game far surpassed their play when the game was tied and the pressure eventually led to another game-tying goal, this one from Auvitu – himself making a return from injury.  From there the Devils were fortunate not to fall behind again, and amazingly it seemed at times as if coach John Hynes was playing for the shootout in OT.  And by playing for the shootout I mean throwing out one forward and two defensemen (one of them being plodder Ben Lovejoy) out for an offensive-zone faceoff.  Whatever Hynes’ motivation for that particular gambit, in this case playing for the shootout did work as Cory followed up his shaky regulation play – including some comical near-miss mistakes with puckhandling – with a solid three for three in stops, and specialist Jacob Josefson got the only goal the team needed in this skills competition for an exciting home win.

Really each of the last three games could have deserved its own lengthy recap but it’s my blog and I’d rather talk about the win than the two OT/SO losses.  However, we do have to get to the glass half-empty portion of this week and the fact the Toronto game was our only win in the last six.  Arguably the Devils were outplayed both against the Red Wings on Friday and at Pittsburgh last night.  Certainly last night they were outshot by a wide margin.  Yet they had chances to win both games that were squandered.  Friday’s game was more annoying for a number of reasons, one being that while I’m expecting the Pens to make the playoffs anyway, Detroit may well be a team we have to fight to get a wild card spot.  Not to mention the game itself had a number of hair-pulling moments.  Despite getting an early lead from a John Moore blast off a well-timed feed from Zajac, the Devils were horribly outplayed in the first twenty-five minutes, even more than in the Toronto fiasco.  Another ex-Islander came back to bite us, with Frans Nielsen scoring twice in the first period (sidenote: you think the last-place Isles don’t miss guys like Nielsen and Martin?).  Nielsen’s first came at a pivotal moment where the Devils led 1-0 and had a four-minute power play to work with.  However a comically bad play by Damon Severson in front of his own net led to a Nielsen shorthanded goal that provided insult to the injury of not even getting quality chances with the four-minute man advantage.

Still down 2-1 and not even getting chances against Wings backup Petr Mrazek (pressed into service after Jimmy Howard departed with a groin injury), the Devils somehow tied the game, then took the lead against the run of play in the second period.  Cammalleri first tied the game with a dominant shift that led to some well-deserved luck with a deflection goal off a Wings defender.  Another fortunate deflection helped give the Devils the lead a couple minutes later when a Bennett feed deflected off a stick and bounced right to a wide-open Pavel Zacha in front, who took advantage scoring just his second goal of the season.  For a time the Devils looked crisp and in command again, and late in the second period they nearly had a fourth goal in an annoying sequence that proved decisive.  First Zajac had a wide open net and somehow, someway could not score when a desperation leg thrust kept the puck out, then at the other end a Gustav Nyquist feed deflected right to Dylan Larkin for a bang-bang wrister in front that beat Cory with just 1.2 seconds remaining to tie the game.

Perhaps still thinking about that goal early in the third, Cory gave up another horrendous one to Anthony Mantha just 43 seconds into the period on a wrister from the faceoff circle that beat Schneider longside.  Honestly their resilience in the third coming back from that devastating sequence that lasted a minute of icetime kind of impressed me and eventually it was Adam Henrique of all people who salvaged a terrible game by deflecting a puck past Mrazek with just over five minutes left.  Even salvaging that one point, the team needed to overcome some late drama with a Palmieri penaly that led to a late power play which extended to OT.  Although the Devils killed that penalty, they were not able to gain a stoppage in OT to turn the 4-on-4 back into a 3-on-3 and play went on for over three minutes with an old-fashioned 4-on-4 OT.  Just seconds after a clear goaltender interference on Schneider was missed, Mike Green fired his patented bomb past Cory and the Devils went down to defeat in OT.  Each of the last two games felt like it had enough action for four.

I wasn’t expecting any kind of a result out of last night and normally being outshot 49-30 against the mighty Penguins would spell disaster, especially with them having five power play chances and us just two.  Yet Kinkaid stood on his head and gave the team a chance to win up 3-2 late in the third, before an annoying sequence where Cammalleri of all people (he’d already scored twice, and had four goals and four assists in his three games back) just missed a turnaround attempt at an empty net inside the offensive zone, and at the other end the team collapsed in the crease trying to gain control of a loose puck and forgot about the best player in the world standing to the side of the net.  Predictably the puck did come to Sidney Crosby, who scored the tying goal with a mere fourteen seconds remaining.  For some reason again it seemed as if Hynes was content to play for a shootout, even more baffling given the fact he put out an odd eleven forward, seven defensemen lineup that didn’t include Wednesday’s shootout hero (Josefson).  You could smell the second-guessing all the way from Pittsburgh when last night did get to a shootout and the team fired blanks with Zajac – who’s usually bad in the skills competition – taking the failed final attempt.

After such a wild week, the Devils have more crucial games coming up with road tilts in Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from Tuesday-Saturday.  Eight of the next ten overall are on the road and given how the team’s played away from the Rock this season that’s probably not a good thing.  At home the Devils are 7-0-2, while on the road they’re just 3-6-3.  They’re not going to win consistently anywhere though if they don’t start to keep the shots against down to reasonable numbers, and if their best players don’t start playing like their best players (re: Cory, Palmieri, Henrique).

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