For the second straight series, the New Jersey Devils failed to win Game 1.
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, New Jersey blew a lead before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in overtime. In their opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight, New Jersey failed to put a puck past Henrik Lundqvist, and ended up on the wrong end of a 3-0 score.
New Jersey will need to bounce back Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden to avoid their first 2-0 deficit of this year's postseason. Even in a loss, there are still good things. Here's what went right, and wrong, in the Devils Game 1 loss.
He's been under a microscope all postseason long, but Martin Brodeur put together a stellar Game 1. The second goal could be blamed on him, but he had a wide open Chris Kreider with all the time in the world to shoot. I'll give him a pass on that one. He kept New Jersey in the game, and stopped several quality chances throughout. None were bigger than his sprawling save in the third period, already down one, to keep the Rangers at bay. When the Devils broke down in front of their Hall-of-Fame netminder, he was there to bail them out.
Brodeur will need to be more careful with the turnovers in Game 2, but he turned in a solid Game 1. He finished with 25 saves on 27 shots.
The Devils rookie defenseman showed why he belongs in the lineup. Larsson continually made smart plays, pinching down from the blue line and keeping the offense alive. He also stepped up to lead the rush, and drew a penalty in the first period because of it. The Devils defenders will be a key to this series - they'll need to try and open up the Rangers defensive shell and get pucks into quality scoring areas. Larsson did his part, stepping up and playing smart offensively. He also took care of his own end, and finished with more minutes than veteran Anton Volchenkov.
The Forecheck (Through Two Periods)
When the Devils executed the forecheck, they dictated the pace of the game. Through the first two periods, the Rangers generated more shots. But they also spent a considerable amount of time in their own end, and New Jersey generated some offensive chances from turnovers. That's the system that will help them win the series. It forced the Rangers offensive defenseman to stick back in their own end, and it neutralized the depth of the forwards. Through two periods, the Devils forecheck got the job done.
The Lack of a Forecheck (Third Period)
The game opened up in the third period, and the Devils watched the Rangers score three goals and skate away with the opening game of the series. Giving the Rangers time and space allows for those defenders to jump into the play, and makes it that much more difficult to get anything going. The Rangers came out more aggressive in the third period, and New Jersey failed to match. Not even a mini-surge late in the period could help, as by then New York had their lead and went into a defensive shell. A lack of focus will lead to bad things, and New Jersey saw that firsthand tonight.
The Devils defensive rock had a rough night. He was victimized on the first goal, missing a bouncing puck in the neutral zone. Then he provided one of two screens on the Dan Girardi goal, blocking Brodeur in the slot while Derek Stepan, all alone in front, provided a second body in front. There were other times in the third period when it seemed the puck bounced funny on his stick. Salvador is the team's defensive leader, and he's had a superb postseason. But it was one of those nights for him.
Offense In Neutral
Before tonight's game, the Devils talked about how to get New York's defense moving. They discussed using the entire offensive zone, getting players moving side to side, and being smart with the puck. It all worked in theory, but didn't work in the loss. Too many times, players settled for shooting into the mass in front and seeing if something happened. Playing against the Rangers defense requires patience, and it's a tough thing to develop this late in the season. But New Jersey settled for bad shots, trying to force one-timers and shooting from odd angles. Sometimes the puck got through, but most times the Rangers were there to thwart the opportunities. All told, the Rangers blocked 26 shots. They'll continue to block their share of shots, but greater patience will lead to better opportunities.
Officials are never the sole reason for a team's win or loss. But tonight, they made a crucial error that led to Kreider's powerplay goal. With Steve Bernier in the box for holding, Travis Zajac chased defenseman Ryan McDonagh back behind his net. McDonagh lost an edge, falling to the ice. While down, he closed his hand on the puck, sliding it up the boards and out of harm's way. The pass isn't illegal - the NHL rulebook states that a hand pass is allowed in the "defending zone." At no time, however, can a player close his hand over the puck. That's exactly what happened, and 20 seconds later the Rangers double the lead.
Would that change the complexion of the period? Maybe. New York would have lost the powerplay. It didn't directly lead to the goal, but plays like that need to be called in the playoffs.