New Jersey Devils Offer Firewood and a Little Stink

Anton Volchenkov
Anton Volchenkov hasn’t been having a lot of success helping the Devils penalty kill lately.  (BridgetDS/Flickr).

One of the final memories I have of the 2012 run to the cup is that of Steve Bernie checking Rob Scudari from behind and earning himself a 5 minute major and game misconduct penalty. It’s not really the hit that I remember so much but rather that Bernier’s hit led to 3 quick power play goals early in the game. The Devils penalty kill that was so great in the 2011-2012 regular season failed over and over during the postseason. This time, it was going to cost them a shot returning to NJ for a Game 7. It was my hope that their penalty killing problems would cease to exist this season and the Devils would go back to being the league’s best penalty killing team.

Early on, it looked like that might be the case but ever since the Devils traveled to Pittsburgh on the 10th of February, it has really taken a dive for no other reason than just poor decision making on their part. The Devils have allowed at least one power play in 7 of their last 8 games. The Devils, who finished last season with the best Penalty Kill (89.6%) are now the league’s 5th worse penalty killing team (76.5%). I guess you can find some comfort that the Devils aren’t the league’s worst.

So What Seems To Be The Problem? When it comes to goals being scored against a team, most will want to point to the goaltender as the problem but in the case of their recent penalty killing struggles, that really isn’t the problem. As far as I can tell, Brodeur and Hedberg haven’t been the ones making critical errors. Sure, they are letting the puck get by them but the fundamental breakdowns on defensive positioning from their defensemen is certainly a huge factor as to why the puck is getting by them.  Let’s look at a few of the recent goals scored against the Devils while down a man which will show that New Jersey is guilty of making the same mistakes over and over.

February 10, 2013: Neal Easily Finds the Back of the Net

On example number one, you will see the Pittsburgh Penguins are very good at getting the puck into the zone but it appears that the Devils are going to cover the play well. Bryce Salvador makes the mistake of going after Malkin instead of dropping back into the zone which allows a 2 on 1 to develop. Malkin gets the puck to Kunitz who then gets the puck to Neal who then one-times the puck past Hedberg. The Kunitz to Neal pass  happened very quickly which is why Hedberg wasn’t in exactly the right position to block Neal’s shot. Salvador’s decision to try and make a play on Malkin created a very bad situation for the Devils defense. Volchenkov is one of the slower defenseman that NJ has, so to ask him to defend a two on one with guys like Kunitz and Neal is a monumental task.

February 15, 2013: Simmonds All Alone To Punch It Home

On example number two, pay attention to Wayne Simmonds throughout the video. He’s easy to find because he’s the guy that’s mostly all by himself and camped out in front of Martin Brodeur. Yes, his primary function on this power play is to set a screen in front of Brodeur, which he is doing but that is not what ends up beating Brodeur. Bryce Salvador is down low trying to defend the weak side and not paying much attention to Simmonds for some reason. By my count, he makes contact with Simmonds once only because Simmonds moved to his left at one point. The Flyers are able to move the puck very easily and eventually and go tic-tac-toe from Timonen to Giroux to Schenn who puts the puck on net through the Simmonds screen. While the Schenn shot was blocked, Simmonds, who was once again all alone easily gets the rebound and pounds it home. Devils need to do a better job at covering the man in front of the net to minimize these rebound opportunities.

February 16, 2013: Moulson and Boyes Are Left All Alone

In this video, two Islander players will stand out because like Simmonds, they are left all alone. The first being Brad Boyes who is left wide open on Hedberg’s right side which allows him to easily play any puck that ends up behind the net. The puck will eventually trickle around the boards and Boyes will go to retrieve it. As Boyes brings the puck around the back of the net, he draws the attention of Adam Henrique who races to try and take Boyes out of the play but no one bothers to pick up Matt Moulson, who would have been Henrique’s man, as he positions himself into the slot area. Boyes gets the puck to Moulson who easily finds the back of the net. The Devils also end up with  3 guys behind the goal line as Moulson if putting the puck in the net. Once again, the Devils breakdown on fundamental coverage and poor decision making during the penalty kill is the cause of another easy goal for the opposition.

February 23, 2013: A Typical Ovechkin Power Play Goal We’ve Seen Many Times Before

We’ve seen this goal scored countless times during Ovechkin’s career. The part of this video that bothers me the most is that Volchenkov doesn’t appear to learn from a mistake and makes the same mistake 18 seconds later which costs NJ on the scoreboard. Ovechkin is one of the NHL’s most dangerous snipers and leaving him wide open is only going to yield bad results. Allowing him the same opportunity twice in a 20 second span is never going to play in your favor.  You’ll notice on Ovechkin’s first chance, Volchenkov is aware of Ovehckin  but makes the mistake of trying to play the pass  and not Ovehckin. He fails to break up the pass and the puck lands on Ovechkin’s stick. Luckily for New Jersey, Ovechkin hits the outside of the net but the Capitals regain control of the puck and begin to regroup. Once the Capitals are back in control of the puck, three Devils defenders get caught paying too much attention to Backstrom and not enough attention to Ribiero, who is wide open below the net. Once Ribeiro has the puck, Fayne moves in to try and block the upcoming pass and Volchekov, completely forgetting what just happened a few seconds ago, sees Ribiero is going to opt for a pass to Ovechkin and decides to help Fayne try and defend the pass (if you can even call what he did defending the pass) which leaves Ovechkin wide open again. Only this time Volchenkov drops down into the crease area while trying to get a stick on the pass which complicates things for Hedberg.  Ovechkin doing what Ovechkin does best fires a one-timer into the net.

There are plenty more examples throughout the power play goals scored against the Devils over the last handful of games that show critical error upon critical error. Whether it’s trying to defend a pass when they shouldn’t be or allowing an opposing player to be left alone, all these decisions are the cause to what has been a very poor penalty kill over the last month not the play of Hedberg and Brodeur. If you noticed, Salvador and Volchenkov’s name came up a lot in these four videos. If you were to look at all the goals scored against NJ on the PK this season, you would continue to notice their mistakes. However, it’s not all on them because multiple players are making multiple mistakes.  Should Henrique have stayed on Moulson and let Hedberg worry about Boyes? Give credit to the opposition for being able to quickly cash in on the Devils mistakes.

There are many factors that can come in to play when trying to fix a penalty kill, for instance winning more face-offs but it all revolves around doing the basics. I don’t feel that the Devils PK is broken beyond repair, they just have to play smarter defense. The Devils have been off since Sunday so there is hope that the Devils have paid a little more attention to their penalty killing drills in practice this week.