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New Jersey Devils Won 2-1 the Hard Way Over the Colorado Avalanche

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A jam play by Brian Boyle on a power play made the difference in a 2-1 win by the New Jersey Devils over the Colorado Avalanche. This game recap goes over the performance, the debut of Sami Vatanen, the return of Marcus Johansson, and more.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche
A jam play. Some call it a garbage goal. I think all goals by Devils are beautiful in their own way.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The jam play. Get a body or bodies in front of the net, throw the puck at the goalie or to the middle, and hope that the body or bodies finds the puck and puts it in the net amid the chaos. Sometimes, it is akin to throwing something at a wall and hoping it sticks. Especially when the goaltender easily stops or covers the puck. Or when the defensemen just fish the puck away to clear it or start a counter-attack. It can make a difference in a game. They are not easy goals to score. Tonight, a jam by Brian Boyle resulted in the power play goal that was the difference maker in the New Jersey Devils’ 2-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

The play itself was quite nice to see. The Devils’ power play was set up in a 1-3-1 formation. Jesper Bratt had the puck, went down in the right circle, and made a sweet pass across the slot to Taylor Hall. Hall fired a high shot towards the far post. Seymon Varlamov stopped it but he could not grab it. The puck dropped and it became a battle and a hope that Boyle could get it. The first try was denied. The second went in. The goal was the Devils’ lone conversion on the power play. The goal broke a 1-1 deadlock in the third period. The goal held up.

These plays are admired in hockey because they are not easy goals. By their nature, they are difficult as there at least some physical and violent play going on. It’s frenetic. It’s quick. It requires bravery as much as it does coordination. Puck luck helps make it happen, but unlike a deflection or a terrible mistake by Nikita Zadorov, there is some noticeable effort involved. Some call them “garbage” goals, for how undesirable the situation looks to go get them. They are a mark of doing things the hard way.

This whole game was not an easy one for New Jersey. Give a lot of credit to Colorado. After an abysmal 2016-17 season, they look a lot better on the ice. These were not the Avalanche players who were just overwhelmed in the Devils’ first game. They were quick, they were physical, they were playing with a point to prove, and they had a home to protect. With an 8-2-1 record going into this game, they were doing quite a good job at it too. They have the first star of the month in Nathan MacKinnon, who came to play tonight. They have Samuel Girard, Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson putting in work. They have shifty forwards in Sven Andrighetto, J.T. Compher, Matt Nieto, Carl Soderberg. These Avs showed they weren’t doormats like they were last season. From that second period onward, they really showed that by pinning the Devils back numerous times and denying New Jersey from turning the tide. The Avs gave the Devils a lot to handle even if they did not pile on the shots.

The penalties were frequent on both sides. While some power plays were very abbreviated, both teams had over seven minutes of power play time each. Both teams converted one of their chances. Similar to Boyle’s goal, J.T. Compher scored off a loose puck after Andy Greene blocked a shot by Alex Kerfoot. Right place, right time for Compher. What made it really difficult for New Jersey was that they did not do a whole lot with most of their power plays - credit Colorado’s stout penalty kill. And Miles Wood made it even harder when he plowed into Varlamov after a close shot on net late in the third period. That wasn’t smart at all by Wood; he needs to know better than to do something like that at all, nevermind late in the third period of a one-goal game. Thankfully, the Devils’ penalty kill had a very good night and kept the Avs from doing anything with that man advantage along with two others.

Even after that kill, the Avs were able to get Varlamov out and the Devils had to defend a 2-1 lead. At this point, the tension grew as every play was highlighted. Dominic Toninato nearly became an unlikely hero when he sent a backhander through his legs that beat Schneider - and trickled wide of the net. Then there was a clearance. Then Sami Vatanen went for a hard end-around clearance that became an icing. Boyle lost the draw, but the Devils defended the situation and Schneider froze it. Then Zajac won a big draw which led to a clear. A long shot by MacKinnon was denied and Schneider kept the puck alive. Another clearance went and Brian Gibbons - who was stung by a shot block earlier in that period - raced to negate the icing. Zajac stepped up to forecheck and kill some more precious seconds. The puck went out to the neutral zone and Ben Lovejoy launched a puck that went into the empty net at the buzzer (it didn’t count). It was ninety seconds of hoping the Devils could hold on in a game where a good start yielded nothing, the second period was mostly Colorado doing as they wished, their first goal was a fluke, their power play goal was off a jam play, the team had to kill a penalty late, and they had to battle and stickcheck and block and disrupt all the way to the end. The Devils won this 2-1 game in regulation the hard way.

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: Tom Hunter has this recap at Mile High Hockey. The description calls it an “uneventful game.” Did he not notice his favorite team rolling through the second period? Or the penalty calls? Or the drama that went right to the end of regulation?

The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:

The Gift for Bratt - Fling It In, Maaaaaaaaaan: The first goal of this game should weigh heavily on Nikita Zadorov’s mind. It was a brainfart in a period that went mostly Colorado’s way. After one of the many dump-ins by the Devils in the second period, Zadorov took a puck that was settled down by Varlamov. Zadorov decided to move the puck with a blind, backhand pass out of the middle. He did not see or know that Jesper Bratt was lurking. Bratt took the puck and fired in the puck at a tight angle before Varlamov could do anything about it. (A half-second later and either Varlamov stops it with his butt or there is a goal off his butt.)

This was in the middle of a period where the Avs out-attempted the Devils 19-9 in 5-on-5 play (24-15 total) and out-shot them 9-5 in 5-on-5 play (10-5 total). The lines centered by Soderberg, MacKinnon, and Kerfoot (yes, he is apparently a center, he took nine draws and won three of them) were seemingly ever present in New Jersey’s end of the rink. Colorado saw plenty of attacking shifts get extended because they denied a clearance or they won a puck battle or they just made a better play on a pass to keep things alive. The Devils were struggling to get much of anything going on offense. They went for many dump-and-chase and dump-and-change entries and they yielded little.

With that in mind, Zadorov made a huge mistake in a period that had few of them by his teammates. Bratt received a gift and I am happy that he accepted it. Which is the right thing to do with a gift.

The Debut of Sami Vatanen: You saw plenty of the Devils’ new #45 on the ice tonight. That is because you had no choice; Vatanen led the Devils in ice time with 23:13. This included plenty of shifts on the penalty kill and the power play. Vatanen was very good on the PK. I’ll get to the power play in a moment. At even strength, he was mostly paired with Andy Greene. (Steve Santini was a healthy scratch.) From an attempts and a shot standpoint, that did not go so well. Devils were out-attempted 3 to 12 in 5-on-5 play when they were out there. Shots were a bit better at 2 to 5. So much for hoping Vatanen would spark some offense on a belabored top pairing. It is his first game though, and he did not do anything big that was bad such as a penalty or a bad giveaway. So there’s that. I will say that he was notably smooth in his skating and very aware as to where to be for passes.

The power play is the most interesting wrinkle for Vatanen. I would say the Devils’ power play was more threatening than Colorado’s, the Avs did a very good job on their penalty kill in general. He was a big part of Anaheim’s PP. Tonight, he was paired with Damon Severson on the second unit along with Zajac, Drew Stafford, and Marcus Johansson. Will Butcher was still the main man on the first unit. While that unit did not score, they had a better time getting set-up and gaining the zone. Vatanen actually led that particular charge a number of times, as if he was the winger in a 1-3-1. I think it is going to take a couple of games for the coaches to figure out what is best now that the Devils have three defensemen who have skills meant for a power play. And now that Johansson is back in action, they could have eight forwards for their two units. They have options.

In general, I’d say he was OK. I was surprised he played as much as he did. The numbers showed that Greene-Vatanen was not really any more effective than, say, Greene-Santini. Yet, I do not think Vatanen was problematic on the ice in any way. Onward and upward.

The Return of Marcus Johansson: Marcus Johansson returned to action after missing a month with a concussion. He played like he had a whole month to catch up on. As appreciative as I was to see him back, I thought he was trying to do too much at times. For example, in the second period, he comes around the net to start a breakout, skates at a forechecker, fortunately gets around the stick check in front of the crease, carries the puck all the way through the neutral zone, curls to the top of the right circle, waits, waits, and then takes a shot that was about as threatening as a rubber duck. That play stuck out to me as somewhat representative of his night. It was a sequence that featured something going right but ultimately not doing much. Johansson did have other ups and downs. On the negative side, he tripped up Zadorov near the end of a power play. On the positive side, he was cross-checked hard and multiple times by an angry Nail Yakupov and did not really respond - that drew a power play. Johansson also drew a hook from Mark Barbeiro in the third period. But during those resulting power plays, Johansson did not contribute a whole lot. Overall, he did not even register one shot on net and was forced to play plenty of defense in 5-on-5. I know this seems harsh, especially for someone coming back from a concussion and not playing for a month. But it was clear to me that while I liked the hustle and the energy in spots, Johansson will need some time to get back to being a more positive contributor.

The Drew Stafford Addition: Drew Stafford was moved down in the depth chart to play with Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons. This line actually did well. They were the only line not to lose in the CF% battle. They created a couple of good shots. Gibbons and Coleman each drew a penalty; the former ended a Colorado power play early and the latter led to Boyle’s goal. Shortly after Boyle’s goal, Stafford stripped a puck and went in alone on Varlamov for a scoring chance. I liked their energy and they were a positive fourth line. I think this move for Stafford was a good one and I hope to see it continue tomorrow.

The Toughness of Brian Gibbons: In the third period, Gibbons went down like a ton of bricks after blocking an Erik Johnson shot. He was on the ice in pain, the refs let the play go on, and there was no whistle until Varlamov froze the puck. Gibbons hobbled to the bench and to the locker room. I feared that he was injured - and he still might be. But Gibbons returned to the ice and not only played, but he resumed his ways of blocking shots from the point, darting after loose pucks on penalty kills, and doing what is needed as a fourth liner. He’s tough. I just hope he did not sustain a longer term injury.

That CF% Battle: The Devils started off well in this game. Colorado was held to nearly thirteen minutes without a shot on net. The Devils moved the puck well early on. Only at the end of the first period did Colorado actually surge. Then they spent most of the second period just rolling through the Devils. New Jersey tightened up and kept the Avs more than honest in the third period. Still, that second period led to a 61% - 39% CF% result. Yes, games are not won by CF% alone. But if you’re wondering what represents the Devils scrambling in their own zone and forced to spend a lot of time there and not so much in Colorado’s end, then the CF% gives you a good idea of that.

Notably, the line of Taylor Hall, Hischier, and Bratt had a really tough time against the line of Comeau, Soderberg, and Nieto plus the pairing of Johnson and Girard. While Hall still had five shots on net in total and Bratt picked up a gift of a goal, the unit was just held back a lot. Here’s hoping they are able to attack more in Arizona.

What helps mitigate that gap is that there were a lot of blocks and misses tonight. While the Avs out-attempted the Devils 44-28 in 5-on-5 play, the shots were just 17-14 in favor of the Avs. In all situations, Colorado out-shot the Devils 23-21. At least the tilted ice did not lead to Cory Schneider having to stop a deluge of shots. Sure, he made some tough stops; such as robbing Compher on a free, point-blank shot from the right circle in the third period. But there is something to the Devils losing big in the possession battle but not having that result in losing so big on the shot count. Granted, blocking so many shots still means there’s a problem on defense and the opponents aren’t always going to miss. Tonight, the Devils benefited from that.

Congratulations: The Devils won their first game against the Colorado Avalanche in their state since March 2008. While there were years where there was no game in Denver, that’s a long stretch to snap.

Question Answered: In the gamethread, user Mister Abigail, asked the following:

Wonder to what extent, if at all, the Denver altitude contributes to the Avs’ fine home record. Have to research if their dreadful 2016-17 season also featured a stronger home than away record.

Here’s the answer: Yes, but it still wasn’t good. The Avs’ home record last season was 12-23-6. On the road, they were 9-30-2. Both records were the worst in the league relative to other home and road standings.

I do not know if the altitude was a factor tonight. The Devils came into this game well rested and even though they struggled mightily in the second period, they put in a more resolute effort in the third period. Plenty of Devils had pushed for one-on-one shots or partial breakaways and two times the Devils negated an icing call - most notably Gibbons towards the end of the game.

Will Santini Play Tomorrow After Being a Healthy Scratch Tonight?: Maybe? Ben Lovejoy was not so great but he also was not so bad either. He’s not going to come in for Severson (who did mostly well) or Vatanen. We’ll see.

One Last Thought: I can appreciate the refs making the calls that they did tonight. There really weren’t any bad calls that were made. That said, they missed a really obvious high-stick by Anton Lindholm on Nico Hischier early in the third period. Fortunately, Hischier was not cut or significantly worse for wear. But it was odd that other calls were appropriately made but that one was missed.

Your Take: The Devils won 2-1 in regulation. They cannot enjoy it too much as they will play in Arizona on Saturday night. What did you take away from this win? What did you think of the play of Vatanen and Johansson tonight? Who impressed you and who failed to impress you? What should the Devils learn from this game that they can apply in their next game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.

Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.