On Sunday, the New Jersey Devils won in a goalfest where both teams combined for twelve goals. The last time the New Jersey Devils visited the Toronto Maple Leafs, they won in a game featuring nine goals and the rare 3-on-5 shorthanded goal. Tonight, it was all about defense and goaltending. The New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs were goalless in regulation as Cory Schneider, Frederik Andersen, and a lot of off-the-puck play kept each team from scoring. Overtime was 2.2 seconds away from giving both goalies a well-earned shutout. Unfortunately, William Nylander took the final shot of the game, the shot deflected off the inside of Kyle Palmieri’s leg, and it beat Schneider. The Devils lost 0-1 in overtime with 2.2 seconds left.
That ending was a heartbreak. One could look at this game and lament that the Devils did not win overall. Their power play functioned very well - but it did not score. Not even with a glorious 4-on-3 opportunity in overtime. The Devils out-shot the Leafs 42-25 in the whole game, 34-23 in regulation, and 26-18 in 5-on-5 situations. But Andersen was too good, the Leafs played a very conservative game to ensure the Devils would not receive many odd-man rushes or one-on-ones with Andersen, and the bounces weren’t on New Jersey’s side on offense. The bounces were definitely there on defense as Schneider made some last-ditch stops and the Leafs blew two glorious chances to score back-to-back in the second. The only exception: the one that led to the only goal of the game.
I’m choosing to look at the positives for this one. This was a well-earned point. Look at those shot counts again. Given that the Devils conceded 50 shots to Toronto in their last meeting and all of the other defensive woes this season, that’s rather remarkable. Even with Auston Matthews held out of this game. Presumably similar to what Toronto head coach Mike Babcock told his skaters, head coach John Hynes and his staff clearly instructed the Devils to not take too many risks going forward. There was little pinching by the defensemen in regulation. When a skater would dart ahead with space, the camera would quickly show two defenders already back and waiting for them. In the defensive zone, forwards often came into help and clean up the loose pucks created by the defensemen. If you were expecting a whole lot of goals and broken plays by two high-scoring teams, then you were disappointed. But the teams were disciplined in how they played off the puck and it worked for them. That’s big for a Devils team whose defensive efforts have been lacking.
Speaking of discipline, the Devils only took two penalties this time. Both were by Blake Coleman, the second one was a bit touchy, but the Devils survived the first kill and calmly handled the second one. That’s much better than giving up two 3-on-5 situations as in the last Toronto game. I think the emphasis on defense helped the Devils generate as many shots as they did. Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri alone combined for 14 of the Devils’ 42 shots on net. Andersen had to be especially good against them in overtime. Related to that, I really thought the Devils executed very well on the power play. The puck movement was great, they were able to get set up, they were communicating to each other, and all that was really missing was the goal. Given how their process has been iffy throughout this season, the power play - especially the first unit - deserves respect when it functions like a power play. There’s a lot to like and the Devils did this against a team that won four straight going into this one and they did it in Toronto. This was not at all a bad performance by the Devils.
I wish the Devils won in overtime too or at least took it to a shootout so Schneider would have been given a deserved shutout. Both goalies certainly earned it. Unfortunately, this was the game where something great or something fortunate was going to make the difference. Nylander ricocheting a shot off Palmieri’s leg - likely an accident, Palmieri was covering him appropriately - to get past Schneider with three seconds left was definitely the something fortunate. It was a tight game. It was a late loss. I can only shrug my shoulders and state that it was what it was.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: KatyaKnappe at Pension Plan Puppets’ noted that the second period was “the most boring period of hockey anyone has ever played.” Throwbacks are still “in,” I suppose. But points to her for not lamenting about the neutral zone trap or “tight-checking hockey” like so many writers from the 1990s describing Devils games.
The Return of Zajac: Travis Zajac returned to the lineup tonight. His return alone is remarkable. The initial prognosis for his injury was a four to six month recovery. He not only came back in about three months, but he played quite a bit in his first game back. He took 24 shifts, played 16:11, took some penalty killing shifts, and one on the power play, registered two shots out of three attempts, and posted a -3 attempt differential (9 CF to 12 CA) but with a +1 shot differential (5 SF to 4 SA). Zajac largely played with Jesper Bratt and Drew Stafford in 5-on-5 hockey. He mostly saw ice time against Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown, and Zach Hyman. (They were a successful line tonight, and Marleau was denied a tap-in the first period by Schneider.) It was definitely not “easing into the lineup.” I thought Zajac looked like his usual self; making plenty of good, smart, and not necessarily noticeable plays on the ice. I liked what he did tonight even if the numbers weren’t across-the-board amazing. In time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he joins Hall and Palmieri with Nico Hischier receiving easier matchups and a potentially joyful combination with Bratt. For now, this was good.
The Inclusion of Lovejoy: With Mirco Mueller out, Ben Lovejoy drew back into the lineup. He had a good game! He impressively had three shots on net within the first ten minutes of the game and they were good shots to take, too. Lovejoy was very good in his own end. He did not do foolish things with the puck; he did not take any penalties; and his pairing with Will Butcher was very good in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey. How good? When Lovejoy was on the ice, the Devils conceded only two shots, six attempts, and one scoring chance. On the penalty kill, Lovejoy was pretty good - which is expected for the veteran. I’ve been hard on Lovejoy as much as any Devils fan, but again, I have to give credit where it is due. He did very well tonight. If he can keep this up, he will be more than fine on the blueline.
Everything but the Goal: Again, Hall and Palmieri just went off on Andersen tonight and the goaltender had to be big to stop them all. Hall was excellent at creating shots and taking them. He had seven of his own; Hall was unfortunately robbed on the doorstep in overtime. Palmieri firing seven of his own was great to see as well - again, he could not crack Andersen. Nico Hischier was interfered with in overtime on a pick by Jake Gardiner; he had two shots and a couple of bounces go away from him. That line was putting in some solid work. Again, everything but the goal for that line.
Notably Good Devils: I really liked how Brian Boyle and Adam Henrique played off each other. Boyle was very good in tight situations; he used his strength well. Henrique was able to roam a bit more and be a bit more of a playmaker. I appreciated some of his passes, like how he sprung Miles Wood for a one-on-one with Andersen in the first period. The line of Henrique-Boyle-Wood did concede some of the “big” chances that Schneider and/or Lady Luck bailed the Devils out on. In general, I thought they played well enough for their role. Related to that, I can appreciate the depth at forward now that Zajac and Boyle are back in the lineup. Hynes has the room to mix and match as he chooses.
Related to those two forwards: the first power play unit of Hall-Palmieri-Boyle-Henrique-Butcher worked really, really well tonight. I cannot say enough good things about they distributed the puck, retained possession, and did not concede pucks easily to the Toronto penalty kill. Butcher handled his duties at the point very well and Hall and Palmieri played well from the wings. While their PK was successful, I do not think they played particularly well against a Devils power play that has had issues getting started in this month.
I also thought Damon Severson played well in his own end. I understand he has received plenty of criticism about his defensive play in this season. I think that criticism should really apply to his partner, John Moore. But, whatever. Tonight, Severson was very good along the boards and he did not freely give away pucks either. Again, he did not take any penalties nor did he get away with an obvious one. These are the sorts of performances one hopes to see out of #28. I still think he should be with Andy Greene, but that’s just me.
Speaking of, congratulations to Steve Santini and Greene for seeing some offensive zone starts tonight in 5-on-5 hockey. They have been few and far between for that pairing. They drew one of the tougher matchups on paper with Tyler Bozak, James van Reimsdyk, and Mitch Marner. Despite posting some low CF%s, the pairing did not get heavily out-shot. They witnessed the most chances against; but it was not as if that Toronto just suddenly realized what offense was when Greene and Santini were out there. I thought they soaked up the tough minutes decently.
The fourth line put in a good amount of work as well. I’m scratching my head as to where Pavel Zacha can come back into the lineup. Blake Coleman did take two penalties tonight, including an offensive zone call in the third. But Coleman did get two more shifts after that, so I don’t think the coaches were all that mad about it. Brian Gibbons and Stefan Noesen did OK as energy players. Does Zacha come in for either of them? I don’t know; probably not Noesen unless someone’s going to his offwing position. But for a fourth line, these three did a good enough job for the role. They put in some solid shifts to give the top guys a rest and they did not cost the Devils dearly, penalties aside.
This section would have been shorter if I listed who I didn’t like tonight. But nobody was outwardly bad tonight from what I saw in this game. Nobody sticks out with truly awful stats either. Despite the 0-1 OT loss, this was a very good team effort and I liked what I saw.
The Minimal Pinching: They stuck to their game plan of minimal pinching. The only one I remember was Andy Greene jumping up in the second period with a great look at goal. He was stopped, of course. Shortly thereafter, Toronto had a rare 2-on-1 where the Devils caught up, Schneider stopped the shot, Bozak (as a trailer) fell instead of potting in a rebound (maybe Henrique fouled him?), and Marner hit the ref with his shot as Schneider was sprawled out on the ice. Talk about dodging bullets. Toronto fans must have been grinding their teeth after those opportunities were wasted. The pinches stopped after that until overtime, where that is required in 3-on-3 (John Moore approves).
It Was All About the Goalies Tonight: Seriously, Cory Schneider should probably get save of the month for denying James van Reimsdyk at the right post with his blocker-hand. That is usually a (power play) goal most of the time; Schneider said no. Schneider had another highlight-of-more-than-a-day when he gloved a trickling puck off a stop in the crease to deny Patrick Marleau from a tap-in. Toronto did not generate a lot of shots, but they did have some open chances where Schneider had to be be big on. It is a shame that a chance deflection was the one that beat him. He played great; this loss should not be hung on him (or Palmieri) at all.
As an aside: The headline photo for this post was from Schneider after stopping van Reimsdyk in the first period. Not from the OT loss. That’s kind of the face I made at Nylander’s goal, so it was too good to not use.
As repeated many times, Andersen was just as solid. Brian Boyle had a re-direction in front of Andersen that was turned away to deny him a PPG. Andersen stopped the lone one-on-one of the game when Wood was streaking at him with the puck. Andersen squared himself up and followed pucks from all over the place. He was massive in overtime. You have to give credit where it is due and he was amazing. Again, I wish the Devils won this game but nothing short of luck or a dazzling array of amazingness was going to beat him.
One Last Thought: Cruel as it was for the team to lose with 2.2 seconds left, would have it been that much better if they went to the shootout and lost there? Well, probably, if only because there are no weird deflections in a shootout.
Your Take: The Devils played really well in a structured, disciplined, and defensive hockey game in Toronto. However, they lost 0-1 in overtime. What did you think of the Devils’ performance? Who do you think performed the best among the skaters (Schneider and Andersen were superb tonight)? What could they have done better to get that all-important first goal? What lessons should they learn from this loss before their next game in Winnipeg? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.