Tonight was Hockey Fights Cancer night at the Rock. The league-led initiative has been running for over twenty years. As far as I can recall, Brian Boyle is the first New Jersey Devils player to actively play after being diagnosed. Boyle missed preseason and the first month of this season due to chronic myeloid leukemia. That he has been playing is a feat in of itself. Like a storybook or a movie or a set piece or a cut scene in a video game, Boyle made his mark in a big way on this night. During a power play in the second period with the score tied, 1-1, Taylor Hall dropped a pass to Will Butcher in the neutral zone. Butcher cut through the middle of the Vancouver Canucks’ penalty kill. He broke Ben Hutton’s ankles. Coming down with him, unmarked, was Boyle. Butcher dished him a cross-slot pass to elude Christopher Tanev. Boyle hammered in a one-timer to convert the penalty, put the Devils up 2-1, and made a lifetime memory with his second goal as a Devil. This goal was a big deal when it happened. The fans at the Rock, like myself and perhaps yourself, chanted his name after the goal and they chanted it loudly. Boyle, who is battling leukemia, scored an important goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night. This goal - a real goalazo given what Butcher did and Boyle scoring it - will be a big part of any story surrounding this game and this season. As it should be.
What’s more is that the goal was part of a winning effort. The New Jersey Devils prevailed over the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2. Brian Boyle’s goal was a big deal. So was Taylor Hall. Vancouver needed puck luck and bounces to defend him because they were not doing so well on their own. Hall made them pay. Alex Edler tried to deny a Nico Hischier pass to an open Hall only to actually pass the puck to Hall. Hall ripped a shot to the top corner past Jakob Markstrom for the game’s first goal. Butcher sliced through the ‘D’ after his drop pass and set up Boyle’s big goal; that picked up a secondary assist for Hall. Shortly after a successful Devils penalty kill, Hall tried to poke a puck past Tanev only to fail. But he darted ahead and Hischier picked up the loose puck. Nico sprung Hall for a breakaway. Hall beat Markstrom but hit the left post (Hall’s left). Damon Severson, who served the penalty, swooped in and put home the rebound. That gave Hall a primary assist and that put the Devils up 3-1. While Hall’s shooting left something to be desired; he officially had one shot on net (his goal), two attempts blocked, and four misses. But the Devils’ top forward was a star tonight in this victorious effort.
The effort by the Devils was quite good for the first two periods. The passing in the neutral zone was off at times and the Canucks seemingly got in the way of a lot of shooting attempts and cross-ice passes on offense. But, the Devils matched the intensity, they did not allow a lot of white jerseys to get in front of Cory Schneider, and they made Markstrom work hard when they did get forward. Outside of one bad shift which ended up leading to a GA, the second period was New Jersey’s best. The pressed the play forward, their special teams were on point, and while attempts were even, the Devils led in shots 10-5 and in goals 3-1. After a long shootout loss to Boston followed by a holiday, it was good to see the Devils play with a good amount of energy for most of this game.
However, the team went flat in the third period. The Devils did have some good offense to start but things went pear-shaped more often than not as time went on. This is where the game became uglier as both teams were just not generating a whole lot. The referees became rather awful with some missed calls. Then Bo Horvat scores a quick PPG with 9:32 left to play to make this feel more dramatic. The Devils needed to hold on. When Markstrom was first pulled with about 1:46 to go, the Devils did well to force the Canucks back with some clearances. Markstrom had to be put back in but was pulled with over a minute or so left. With about 40 seconds left to go, Stefan Noesen - who re-entered the lineup - picked up a loose puck in his own slot and decided to hurl a shot at the empty net. An ENG would have sealed the game. He missed so it was icing with 35.3 left to go. After a Vancouver timeout, the Devils battled further. Noesen managed to block a Brock Boeser shot to force the puck over the blueline. Some further work led to an iffy icing call - I thought Horvat could have played it - with 14.3 left to go. After one more draw, Noesen and Coleman worked it out and the win was secured. Noesen stepped up big there, although a lot of the drama would have been avoided if he put his shot about six inches more to his right. It would be fair to say that the Devils escaped another late game equalizer given how little the generated in the third period. Then again, Vancouver took all of one attempt in New Jersey’s zone when Markstrom was pulled. It’s not like the Canucks made the most of their situation after Horvat put them within a goal.
Still, the Devils are near the end of another busy run of games along with the end of their November schedule. They picked up a regulation win, which is a plus. They remain near the top of the Metropolitan with said win, which is a plus. Despite the third period, they played better than they did in Vancouver earlier this month. Hall had a big night. Other players stepped up when they needed to, like Noesen at the end. And, in this surprisingly enjoyable 2017-18 season, they received another big highlight in Brian Boyle scoring a big goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night. That’s a good night, all things considered.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Nucks Misconduct for their take on tonight’s game should you want Vancouver-based opinion for this Devils win.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Your Referees Tonight Were Dean Morton and Brian Pochmara and They Were Bad: Referee #36 tonight was Dean Morton. He was terrible in the third period. Whilst Vancouver’s first goal was helped out by a somewhat-dubious icing call after the Devils’ unit was pinned back and picked apart, that’s just an icing call. The Devils still had the opportunity to make some plays or make a different one from what they did; such as John Moore pitchforking a puck to no end but the end of the rink. They could have battled to get the puck before Daniel Sedin sent an attempted pass to his brother only for the puck to go off Blake Coleman’s skate and past Schneider. A bad bounce. Whatever. But what Morton missed was downright terrible.
First, in the first period, Alex Edler smears Nico Hischier from behind into the endboards. The rookie’s face hit the glass and went right down. This is usually called for boarding. Amazingly, nothing was called. Who’s end of the rink was that? Who saw this happened and did nothing about it? Dean Morton. Talk about letting dangerous acts go. Edler would be called later in the period for a slash because even Morton could not ignore Wood getting impeded on an attempt rush at the net. Still, that non-call for boarding was heinous.
Second, Miles Wood gets clipped in the face by Michael Del Zotto’s stick. He falls down in a heap right in front of Morton. While Morton may have been blocked out by Wood’s large body, I’m sure he has this idea of spatial awareness. Wood did not just go down from nothing and the bloody nose he had did not just appear out of nowhere. Amazingly, his partner Brian Pochmara is supposed to watch this to avoid these situations. He missed it too. Worse: the whistle for Wood being down came after Vancouver had a 2-on-1 opportunity. After Del Zotto clearly high-sticked Wood, Moore came all the way down to express his disagreement. Vancouver moved the puck out of their zone and rushed up ice. Morton, who saw Wood down and could have easily blown the play dead for Moore engaging with Del Zotto, just let it all go until then. That was a terrible no-call. Thankfully, Wood was able to continue playing later in the third period for two more shifts.
Making matters worse was that about a minute later, Moore was given two minutes for slashing Horvat. I sit in section 1 and the penalty was assessed amid bodies in New Jersey’s end of the rink. (Horvat scored on this PPG, by the way.) I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume that there was a legitimate slash there. Fine. I’ll also assume the call came from Pochmara and Morton. But that call sent this message: we’ll let you hit someone’s head as long as we don’t see it, but you’re sitting if you touch a glove. Those should not be a message sent by any referee crew. It is not safe and it excuses dangerous behavior. Sure, there was a make-up call of sorts but that doesn’t takeaway that Del Zotto hit Wood high in the face and the refs just acted like they couldn’t have known what happened.
Third, Noesen is following a dumped-in puck around the net. He curls around Markstrom on Markstrom’s left. Markstrom, the goaltender, is responsible for his stick like anyone else. His gets up around Noesen’s head and clips Noesen. He falls. Morton, who is standing in the corner and witnessing all of this, does nothing. Nothing at all. A clear foul by the goalie is not called. I know it was later in the third period but that does not mean fouls should be just be ignored. Especially ones that get up in the head area. Nope, Morton saw no evil there and let it go. Again, thankfully Noesen was not injured on the play.
Fourth, in the dying seconds of the game, Morton watched Horvat completely shield a Devil away from a puck and let it go all the way for icing. Normally, a player holds up from playing a puck, the referee is to waive the icing call. It is on the player to play a puck if he can. Instead, he whistled for icing. It was the wrong call. It could have been a costly one. Thankfully, the Devils forced another zone exit and it killed enough clock to maintain the win.
It is weird I’m complaining about referees in a game where only three calls were made to each team and the Devils even scored on a power play goal. But the non-calls in third period were that terrible. Morton was awful. Pochmara was awful by way of not giving Morton help. Thankfully, the Devils succeeded in spite of them.
Low Event Hockey: Shots were 26-25 favoring New Jersey and attempts were 43-48, favoring Vancouver, in all situations. For 5-on-5 play, the Devils led in shots 23-18 and the Canucks led in attempts 37-38. This was a far cry from the last Devils game where the Devils ran up 42 shots and many, many more attempts on net. This was a game defined by each team defending away a lot of passes and shots. I’ll take this over the last Canucks game, where Vancouver threw everything and the kitchen sink at Schneider. I’d like to think the Devils could have made life easier on themselves if their offense did not dry up after the first few minutes of the third period.
While the attempt differential was close at the team level, there were some disparities among the players. On the bad side, Andy Greene and Steve Santini faced a lot of Boeser, Horvat, and Sven Baertschi. It did not go well for them as they played a lot of their ice time in their own end. The 6-16 pairing only received a couple of defensive zone faceoffs tonight too, so it was not like they were thrown out there solely for difficult starts. I understand they are primarily defensemen, but good defense is more than just trying to stop plays in your end. It’s also about getting the puck moving in the attacking direction and providing support. Forwards that struggled in the run of play included Coleman, Noesen, Brian Gibbons, and, surprisingly, Jesper Bratt. When Bratt was able to go forward, he moved with a good quickness. Problem was: he wasn’t going forward all that much.
On the good side, the line of Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Drew Stafford did quite well. While Henrique was not so positive in attempt differential, Zajac and Stafford absolutely were. Zajac had some good looks at goal and was great on faceoffs (7 for 9!) and Stafford nearly went through the Canucks defense like Butcher did on New Jersey’s third period power play that otherwise did not do much. Stafford had three shots on net tonight and Zajac kept things going in the right direction. Also high on this list: Wood and Boyle. Wood did not play a lot tonight (11:39) but registered four shots on net and drew a slashing penalty from Edler in the first period. Boyle was quite solid on the ice tonight; he played with a good pace, he won most of his faceoffs (8 for 13), and he was responsible in his own end. Their other linemate, Pavel Zacha, had a strong game too with four shots on net and did not shy away from defense or physical contact. After multiple games where it seemed like the second and third lines were not working at even strength, they were doing quite well tonight even if the goals came from others at even strength.
Making a Point: I was really heartened by how strong Noesen and Zacha were skating. Noesen was scratched for a couple of games. He played like he had a point to prove. While he was not always so good on the puck, he was definitely putting in a lot of effort to make something happen. If his line needed support, he would get there. When he got stuck on the ice in those last fifty or so seconds of the game, he sacrificed his body, he went for the ENG, and he would even go down to try to get that puck out - which he did. Noesen was originally going to get a secondary assist on Hall’s goal until the scorer realized Edler passed the puck to Hall and not Hischier. Still, the man wanted to show the coaches that he should be in the lineup more often. I think he did that. I think he deserves to play tomorrow. Well done, all the same.
Similarly, Zacha had a strong night. As mentioned, he had four shots on net. Given that he only played a little over twelve minutes with no power play time, that’s really impressive. These shots weren’t weak ones either. For example, he nearly surprised Markstrom in the first period with a strong backhander while a Canuck was bodying him. Zacha also played a little bit on the penalty kill tonight too. That’s a good sign that the coaches think enough of his performances to want to give him a little more responsibility beyond 5-on-5 play. Zacha did OK on the PK. But again, Zacha tried to the make the most of his limited minutes. That’s far more laudable than just trying to play without making an error or overthink the game or whatever. I hope he continues to get a chance to make a point tomorrow.
Justice?: You know how Edler boarded Hischier and it was uncalled. While it took an assist away from Hischier (and Noesen), Edler did set up Hall for a goal. I guess you can call that a kind of justice. It’s really more of a coincidence.
Good Crowds: With all of these wins and young players playing big and Hall being fantastic and other great moments, it has felt a lot more alive in the Rock. I know it is a holiday weekend, but the place was quite full of people and largely cheering for the Devils. That Brian Boyle chant was very loud. They were correctly irate at Dean Morton with his foolishness in the first and third periods. The atmosphere was just a lot of fun. It is a night-and-day difference from last season where the team’s performance just sucked up all of the air out of the room.
One Last Thought: Outside of the penalties they took and that one awful shift in the second period, I thought the Moore-Severson pairing was quite good. Moore was actually strong in the corners on the puck and Severson positioned himself well. While they conceded quite a few attempts, they helped their forwards move forward and provided good support on offense. When Ben Lovejoy had to sit for a trip in the second period, Severson actually had a penalty killing shift which unsurprisingly went well as Severson is better than some realize on defense. I still want Severson to re-unite with Greene and I would like the duo to not take a minor penalty each in a game. But this was an otherwise acceptable performance from 2-28.
Your Take: The Devils won 3-2. Boyle scored a big goal, Hall had three points, the refs were bad, and the Devils held on to win. They get to go to Detroit for a game on Saturday night. Before then, what did you think of this performance by the Devils? Who impressed you tonight? Who did you think did not do well? What should the Devils learn from this game before they hit the ice against Detroit? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.