Tonight was the night for Travis Zajac to shine. Shine he did. In 28 shifts, he played 19:51, he played in all situations from 5-on-5 to 3-on-3 overtime, and he led the team with six shots on net. Most importantly, he had a hat trick. Zajac jammed in a puck early in the game for the game’s first goal. Zajac rifled in a puck from the slot thanks to a tip by Kyle Palmieri for a power play goal. And in the third period when the Devils were down one, it seemed grim that the Devils would get one. Then Michael Cammalleri sent a beautiful cross-ice pass to Zajac, who finished the play as cool as the other side of the pillow. Zajac made it 3-3. Zajac scored his third goal. Zajac gave the New Jersey Devils a chance to get something out of the game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Zajac was great tonight.
And all they got out of the game was a point. A 3-4 overtime loss to the Blackhawks, to be exact.
While it is better than nothing, I can understand the frustration mounting with the Devils’ fourth winless game in a row. Despite an outstanding and dominant first five minutes where the Devils out-shot the Blackhawks 8-0 and went up 1-0, the Blackhawks battled back to dominate the second period and make it a real struggle in the third times at times. Despite taking care of business on special teams and doing a rather good job at times, the Devils were beaten at even strength. Despite having Cory Schneider or Keith Kinkaid in net, the Devils conceded three or more goals for an eighth straight game. Despite having an opportunity to take a win and despite taking an opponent beyond regulation and despite getting a point and despite that Chicago getting points does not impact the Devils’ own standing much, it’s not a win.
The most frustrating aspect of this game for me involved the goals against. It’s easy to look at four goals tonight, three goals in Winnipeg, and so forth, and conclude that Schneider is having a bad run of games. That Schneider is the issue. I can’t go for that with three of the four goals tonight. No can do. The first one, I’ll give you that. Marcus Kruger had an unblocked view of his shot and Schneider was simply beat. That said, Kruger shot that in a 2-on-1 that was created because Kyle Quincey tried to deny a long pass from Brent Seabrook in the neutral zone - leaving John Moore as the sole Devil back. There were three Hawks in the middle part of the ice; while Quincey denied the pass itself, the puck bounced away, Kruger was free to pick it up, and he went off. But the other three were just hard to watch live and more infuriating when looking at it on video.
The second goal against really should be pinned on the New Jersey Devils. Seabrook dumps in a puck, the puck goes around, and Palmieri blocks out Artemi Panarin from retrieving the puck. So Duncan Keith collects it at the blueline. Keith decides to take a shot and an uncovered Artem Anisimov turns into the shot. An uncovered Anisimov deflects the shot down. Schneider stops the shot and tries to turn it aside to his right towards the corner. An uncovered Anisimov charged the net after his deflection and got to the puck before it went way. An uncovered Anisimov made a quick move to get around Schneider’s left for a goal. Less than two minutes after Zajac’s power play goal, Chicago made it 2-2, and even well after the game ended, I don’t know who was supposed to cover Anisimov. Clearly the Devils went with nobody and it paid off for Chicago.
The third goal against a collection of things going wrong. Taylor Hall, who returned to action tonight, had the puck at the sideboards in his own end. With pressure in front of him, he chose to make a blind, backhanded outlet pass. This wasn’t a bad decision as Adam Henrique was available to receive a short pass. The pass went out a bit further than Hall would have liked. Henrique didn’t exactly put in the effort to chase that puck. So the puck slowly went out to Niklas Hjarmalsson. As he collects it, Kyle Quincey decides to get into the shooting lane to help. His “help” meant Cory Schneider did not see the wrist shot Hjarmalsson would fire. Quincey didn’t deny the shot, Schneider didn’t stop what he would have stopped if he saw the puck but he couldn’t see the puck so he didn’t, and so a guy who scores goals rarely made it 2-3 late in the second period.
The fourth goal. It nearly came in the third period. Well, Richard Panik split John Moore and Quincey like a bowler avoiding the gutters and bowled into Schneider after taking a shot. Brian Campbell popped in the rebound, but the referees ruled it no goal due to goaltender interference. That was a break. Panik nearly got the fourth goal when he was sprung for another breakaway and Schneider made the terrible, horrible, very bad, no good decision to skate out thirty feet to go after the puck instead of dealing with another Panik breakaway and run at the goalie. Schneider didn’t get the puck and fortune upon fortune smiled on New Jersey as Panik narrowly missed the wide open empty net in a 3-3 game. It was stupid by Schneider and it justifies every comment, Tweet, message board post, and fan yelling at him to stay in the crease. But the fourth goal did happen and it happened in overtime.
Chicago went on the attack after Michael Cammalleri hit the post after a feed from Zajac. The Devils got back for it. John Moore kept with Marian Hossa, but Hossa would get the space for a shot. That was not the problem. The problem was that Adam Henrique followed Patrick Kane to the front of the net where Henrique decided to stop when Hossa was getting around Moore. Henrique was right in front of Schneider. Henrique isn’t a goalie and he denied the actual goaltender a real chance at what became the game winning shot. I can’t fault Schneider for that or the third goal. I won’t go for that. No can do.
I know, I just threw up 1,050+ words and most of them were about what cost the Devils. Let’s summarize. Bad decision in the NZ led to a 2-on-1 for a GA that Schneider perhaps should have stopped. Nobody covered Anisimov and so he made a goal happen. Quincey and Henrique thought they were helping but instead they hurt Schneider and the team tonight. Travis Zajac’s fantastic performance and hat trick only yielded a point in Chicago. It’s hard to write it, but a hat trick was evidently not enough for New Jersey tonight. It’s hard not to be frustrated with the Devils right now. As it would be for anyone else who is winless in their last four games.
The Opposition Opinion: Blake Schuster at Second City Hockey has a recap of Chicago’s win.
The Returns & the Debut: Devils fans had reason to be excited for this game. Yohann Auvitu returned to the lineup in place of Jon Merrill. John Quenneville would make his NHL debut tonight. Oh, and Taylor Hall was back after being out since November 15 with a torn meniscus. How did they all do?
Auvitu was mostly kept away from Chicago’s better players, but he helped drive the play forward in general when he was on the ice. Seeing Auvitu control, pass, and shoot the puck (which he did a lot, four SOG and six attempts) was welcomed after witnessing Merrill not really doing well at either on Tuesday. It was also welcome to see him in place of John Moore on the power play. With the continued issues of Moore and Quincey on defense, I’d like to see Auvitu given more of a chance on defense.
Quenneville played 9:03 over 12 shifts and did not do a whole lot. He had no shooting attempts and his one memorable offensive play was in the second period. He made one fantastic pass across the offensive zone to Moore, who proceeded to miss the net on a shot. But Quenneville did not add much else. His biggest mark on the game, unfortunately, was boarding Seabrook in Chicago’s end of the rink. It was not a good call to take, although the Devils killed the penalty. It wasn’t much of a debut but he got it out of the way. May he continue to improve in the future.
Hall was thrown into the pool immediately. There was no easing him into the lineup. Hall skated with Adam Henrique and P.A. Parenteau as a scoring line of sorts. Hall played 19:49 over 24 shifts, the second most ice time among all forwards tonight, including some power play ice time and a little shorthanded ice time. Hall was not exactly driving the play as more of his shooting attempts were not on target. In true fashion for Hall, he had seven of them: two shots, one blocked, and four misses. He also nearly had a breakaway early in OT, only for Keith to cut him off with a great backchecking effort starting from his bench. I’m confident Hall will get more of those attempts on target and the points will come from him. And I’d like to think that some of the success of some of the Devils’ forwards came from Chicago having to focus more on Hall and his unit. Was it a big return? No. Am I glad he’s back? Yeah.
What Happened to Greene: Andy Greene had a rough go of it at times in the run of play. He also did not play most of the third period. He left the game with about 7 minutes into the period. He did return for overtime. What happened? According to Andrew Gross on Twitter, it was an equipment issue. That’s good that it was not an injury. The last thing the Devils need is more ice time for Moore or, ugh, Quincey - who had a particularly awful game tonight.
Speedy Fourth Liners: Sergey Kalinin was out sick tonight, so the fourth line was Miles Wood, Nick Lappin, and Vernon Fiddler. Wood showed that his hustle was not just a one-night show in Winnipeg. He skated hard, especially when he had a puck to chase down. One such play led to a power play when Michal Kempny took him down. Another play forced a turnover that yielded a great shooting opportunity that he missed on. With three SOG and three misses, Wood’s shot will get there one hopes. Lappin was not as swift, but he was helping the play go forward and kept it moving. Even Vernon Fiddler won a race to a puck which is impressive given his advanced age. The downside is that this line also put the Devils into penalty trouble. Wood high-sticked Andrew Desjardins right off a faceoff in the first period, which helped Chicago recover from New Jersey’s brilliant start. Lappin hooked Keith later in the first period; while Chicago did not do much with that power play, it was two fewer minutes for the Devils to attack.
Special Teams Success: The Devils power play was actually good tonight! Their zone entries were successful! Their possession and puck movement was reasonable and measured. While Zajac’s power play goal was created from a fortunate tip by Palmieri, the Devils battled to win pucks when they were lost. That was good and so was the power play performance tonight.
As for the penalty kill, the Devils kept the Blackhawks off the board. Three out of four of those penalty kills were well done. Schneider made a number of good saves, but they were able to keep Chicago from dominating. The lone exception was early in the second period when Ben Lovejoy was serving a slashing minor. Greene’s stick broke and Chicago was just picking apart the Devils’ PK. Schneider did what he could and the goalframe denied Kane a PPG. It was amazing that among their dominant stretches in the second period, they did not score then. Other than that one, the PK effort was solid. And even including that one, they got the result. Well done, all things considered.
Was He Good?: The argument against: He was a -5 Corsi and a -2 in shot differential in 13:43 of 5-on-5 ice time. He got matched against Panik, Kruger, and Denis Rasmussen more than any other Blackhawk and he did not come out ahead in that matchup against a lower Chicago line. He also did not put most of his shooting attempts on net. The argument for: He had two primary assists; with the first coming from a helping on a jam play that Zajac ultimately finished. And while he did not put most of his shooting attempts on net, he had three shots out of nine attempts so he was at least making the effort to contribute - and he did.
I’d say Kyle Palmieri was OK tonight.
Super Seabrook: Brent Seabrook was fantastic on the breakout tonight. I wish the Devils got enough tape of it, they could learn some things from him.
One Last Thought: While writing this recap, I caught the post-game show on MSG that included a number of comments by the players. There was much said from Hall and Zajac about how performances like this would lead to points. I could agree with that. One thing they can do to change their fortune is to let their all-world goaltender have a chance on shots instead of screening him while trying to block a shot for said goaltender.
Your Take: Zajac was great and put up a hat trick. The Devils only get one point out of this game in a 3-4 overtime loss. What’s your take on this loss? What could or should the Devils do in response to how this game went down? What can they take away from this game in preparation for their next one in Nashville? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
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