Simply put: the New Jersey Devils blew it in a 3-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. If you want the briefest summary of this game, then there it is. The Devils blew it. Feel free to use some synonyms to spice that pithy summary of the game. For example: The Devils squandered opportunities in a 3-5 loss to the Blue Jackets. Or: New Jersey botched the game in a 3-5 loss to Columbus. For those who want more detail, then you’re at the right site. If nothing else, I bring the details and I have plenty to say about this loss.
How the Devils blew this game must be spelled out.
The Devils built up a two-goal lead in the first period. By 14:14 into the second period, the Blue Jackets were up 2-3 thanks a deadly combination of poor defensive play, pedestrian goaltending, and the other team making really good plays. While the Devils tied it up shortly before the second intermission, the Devils failed to build on that further and sagged to a 3-5 defeat. Ideally, you would want the Devils to build a lead first and defend it. They blew that lead.
Beyond the goals, the Devils played rather well in the first period. They won pucks in the neutral zone. The Blake Coleman-centered line (the fourth line) and the Nico Hischier centered line (the first line) were just giving the Blue Jackets fits in their own end of the rink. Whether it was in denying exits or stealing the puck, they put Columbus on their heels early and often. The defensive effort was solid as the Blue Jackets were often limited to just one or fewer attempt per entry. When the Devils did make a zone exit, they were often able to move the puck quickly through the neutral zone. Whatever the Devils could do, whether it was a pass off the boards or a stickcheck, the play happened to go right for the Devils over and over. Even better: the two goals came from the other two lines. Jimmy Hayes slid a great pass through Matt Calvert to Brian Boyle for a one-timer in the slot. Later, Stefan Noesen missed Marcus Johansson on a pass that would have left him alone with Sergei Bobrovsky. Johansson made the best of it by retrieving the puck and scoring an old-school wraparound goal past Bobrovsky’s left toe to make it 2-0. With the exception of the last ninety seconds or so, the first period had all of the makings of a strong Devils performance. That was blown too.
Those last ninety seconds of the first period featured a woken-up and aggressive Columbus squad. Their forecheck appeared, they started denying the Devils in the neutral zone, and all of sudden, they started to threaten on offense. The second period featured more and more of that. They were assisted by the Devils just faltering at a lot of what they did right in the first period. Suddenly, those passes to spring Devils forwards were not hitting their mark. Blue Jacket players started keeping pucks in the Devils’ end more often and picking off passes by the defensemen. While the shot and attempt counts were fairly even, the Jackets were striking. Then the mistakes by the defense started becoming bigger. Artemi Panarin made the most out of three of them for three goals. The Devils were able to tie it up within the final minute of the second thanks to Blake Coleman slamming home a cross-slot feed by Brian Gibbons. But the Devils took a proverbial punch to the jaw in the second period. Columbus came to play and they made life difficult. But the Devils had a chance to adjust and turn it around somewhat. They did not; they blew that chance too.
In the third period, Andy Greene took a penalty. After Travis Zajac failed to clear the puck and the rest of the penalty killing unit lost their structure, Panarin found Alexander Wennberg to convert the power play and make it 3-4. The Blue Jackets hustled to draw the call, they did not have to leave their zone, and they hit back. Surely, the Devils would toughen up and at least start going forward more on offense. Surely, in a one-shot game, the Devils could take some. Nope. The Devils put up a mere five shots on Bobrovsky in the third period. Even if you figure the Devils’ scorer was being stingy and it was technically six or seven, it still was not enough. While Damon Severson had a tap-in that went horribly awry for him; the Devils had more than enough time to figure out an equalizer. They, instead, squandered that time as Columbus stood them up and the Devils failed to adjust again. Then Zach Werenski made it 3-5 and by that point, the game was out of doubt. The Devils had this opportunity to show up better in the third period and they had time to at least make Bobrovsky work for his money in the final frame in what was then a one-shot game. They blew that too.
What I left out in the two previous paragraphs were the Devils’ power plays. The Devils were awarded two power plays in the second period. They registered one shot on net and allowed three for Columbus. That’s how well it went. In the third period, Nico Hischier was cut on his lip from a high-stick by Markus Hannikainen. A four minute power play in the third period in a 3-4 hockey game is a fantastic opportunity. The Devils took one (1) shot on net in the entire four minutes. They iced the puck just as many times as they took shots on Bobrovsky. Across all three power plays, the Devils took too long to break out the puck. While they were able to gain the zone, they failed to set up and take an actual shot. When they tried to shoot, they were shooting into bodies. When they were trying their cross-ice pass between the wingers in the 1-3-1, they did not always work and it led to clearances. It was not so much the presence of Brian Boyle and/or Jimmy Hayes that made the power play stink. It was more so the other Devils, like Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, Marcus Johansson, Severson, and so forth, failed to execute. The Devils had three extra-man opportunities and the eight minutes combined yielded two shots and none that would have made any Blue Jacket sweat.
If that was not enough, the Devils had too many men on the ice during a breakout with eleven seconds left on the double-minor! That’s just pathetic from the bench. Worse, the Blue Jackets capitalized quickly. Before they had an abbreviated power play, Wennberg won the faceoff, the puck was handled by Panarin, he fed the puck to a wide open Werenski, and he scored past an Greene screen to make it 3-5. Needless to say, the Devils blew the power play big time. Plus that eleven second 4-on-4 situation too.
It would be one thing if the Devils had a bad second period (they did) and Bobrovsky stood on his head to preserve a 3-4 lead at the end. Frustrating, but you’d have to tip your cap to the goalie here. It would be one thing if the Devils lost the game on a bad call and that resulted in a goal off a bad bounce. It would be one thing if the teams played an even game and it just broke this way. But those things did not happen. The Devils had multiple opportunities to win or tie up the game. They put themselves in a good situation early and blew it. They had a chance at redemption after a bad second period and they blew that too. They had power plays that would have changed the game, they blew those. That all adds up to a disappointing and deserved loss.
In short: the New Jersey Devils blew it in a 3-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Opposition Opinion: Matt Wagner called this win “revenge” for Columbus in his recap at The Cannon. I do not disagree.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Unstoppable: Artemi Panarin was utterly unstoppable when he had time and space to make a play. He was the primary assister on all five of Columbus’ goals. Yes. Panarin set up five goals tonight. Let’s touch on all of them.
Assist #1: Panarin chases down a loose puck with Steve Santini in front of him. Panarin is able to lift Santini’s stick, steal the puck, and toss it backwards to the middle. resumably, Panarin knew (or heard) Pierre-Luc DuBois was coming in. Santini lost that battle and lost it big. P While Jesper Bratt knew to take him, he could not get to DuBois in time. Maybe he could have hustled harder, but maybe Santini could have protected the puck. Anyway, DuBois was open in the slot and he beats Cory Schneider straight up. I’m unsure of calling it soft, but it did not look good.
Assist #2: Andy Greene attempts a pass to the neutral zone and Panarin picked it off like he was a McCourty twin. As he carried the puck in, the Blue Jackets had a mini-3-on-2 forming. Lukas Sedlak was in the zone on Panarin’s right. Greene stayed towards the middle and could only watch as Panarin tossed a puck to Sedlak. Sedlak fired a low wrister past a kneeling Greene. The puck went in between Schneider’s leg. A total soft goal allowed by Schneider after a totally soft pass by Greene. This made it 2-2. Dread set in after this one.
Assist #3: Boone Jenner passed the puck over the blueline to Panarin so Columbus gained the zone. John Moore had DuBois covered. Santini had Jenner. Panarin had back pressure from Stefan Noesen. Travis Zajac and Johansson were watching Panarin. Panarin made a pass between the huge gap between Zajac and Johansson to an incoming Scott Harrington. Harrington stepped up and fired a wrister around Zajac that got past Schneider. I think Zajac screened Schneider and it was one of the moments where it was clear Zajac was having a bad night. There’s another one in the next paragraph.
Assist #4: This is during that third period power play that ultimately won Columbus the game. Travis Zajac, who failed miserably to clear the puck earlier on this kill, tried to win the puck away from Panarin. Brian Gibbons left the formation to go right at him, hoping he’d swipe the puck away with the puck on Panarin’s backhand. Gibbons failed as Panarin sent it away to Oliver Bjorkstrand at the right point (Schneider’s right). With Zajac and Gibbons up high, Panarin curls towards the slot and left the two Devils forwards in the dust. Bjorkstrand hits Panarin with a pass. Panarin protects the puck away from a Moore stick-sweep and then fires a backhand pass to the left side past Moore. Wennberg pounces on it for a one-timer to make it 3-4. Not a soft goal on Schneider; definitely a bad mark on the Devils’ PK.
Assist #5: After the too many men on the ice penalty, Wennberg wins the draw from Coleman. The puck bounces off Panarin and Seth Jones recovers the puck. He skated across the blueline to avoid Gibbons and made a short pass to Panarin at the right point as Santini tried a pokecheck. Panarin kept the puck and flung the puck to the wide open left side with Gibbons just about in his face. Zach Werenski picked up the puck and fired a wrister past a kneeling Greene and a standing Wennberg to beat Schneider. This was before the power play technically begun for Columbus, just to add salt to the wound of a failed power play opportunity that ended with a stupid, stupid mistake by the bench.
Why did I take the time to detail each assist? Because Panarin deserved the attention and the Devils need the explanation. Panarin really did it all. He applied pressure and then made a scoring play happen. He took a gift from Greene and made a scoring play happen. He read the Devils’ defense and made a scoring play happen. He escaped heavy pressure twice on a power play and made a scoring play happen. He escaped pressure again and made a scoring play happen in the process. Panarin led the Blue Jackets in individual shooting attempts (7) and he was one of their better players in CF%. But his passing was on point and he picked on the Devils five times. He was unstoppable when he had the chance to make a play. Panarin did not blow it.
Speaking of CF%...: Yes, the Devils ended up even in CF%. 50%. For a 46-47% CF% team, that’s not bad. Except the gameflow at Natural Stat Trick shows a better picture of how this game went down. The Devils did a lot of their damage in the first period. The most dangerous chances were in New Jersey’s favor and the eye test would agree with that. They even surprisingly got enough going in the second period. But when the Devils needed to rise up in the third period, they were limited to just four attempts in 5-on-5 play, nine attempts in all situations, and were out-attempted and out-shot throughout. The Devils needed to attack and they failed to do so. While the overall number is not so bad, it is crucial to recognize the context to when things happened in this game for the proper perspective on CF%, SC%, high danger chance percentage, and so forth.
So Who Failed the Most?: There were a lot of disappointing performances tonight. In terms of the very worst, Travis Zajac and Andy Greene were bad. They both contributed to goals against. They both made big errors. They both struggled when the going got tougher. I would argue Greene was worse. His giveaway to Panarin could have been a secondary assist on Sedlak’s goal. He was just a shell of his former self on defense tonight. Speaking of shells on defense, the Moore-Severson pairing was not good in the run of play. I’m sure that surprises few Devils fans who know a little something about Moore’s underlying numbers. Moore did not even provide much to even justify his usage. Severson whiffed on a big chance to tie up the game but at least he was present on offense to do that. Moore did nothing on offense.
But I do not mean to point out that the veterans were only at fault. Oh, no, some younger players also had some poor performances. Will Butcher was rather bad on the first power play unit. So much so that I would have to think the Devils are thinking about putting Sami Vatanen on the first unit. If only to provide a different look. While Butcher held up well in 5-on-5 play and was not present for any goal against, he did not make much of an impact when the Devils needed it. Especially on the power play, which is his forte. His partner, Santini, did well when it was Butcher-Santini and they did not have to deal with top players. In the little bit he saw Panarin, he failed to make a play to deny Panarin a pass that would become a goal - twice. Speaking of poor power players, Jesper Bratt had a rough time of it and became increasingly anonymous as the game went on even in 5-on-5 play. I do not think it was an accident that the third period saw some of Hall, Hischier, and Johansson. Not that Johansson did a whole lot after his wraparound goal or that the Hischier line played like a top line after the second intermission. Yes, that criticism also includes Hall.
Then there’s some players who probably played to their expectations, which are not high to begin with. Stefan Noesen earned another look on a top line in the previous game against Columbus. Tonight, he looked like a fourth liner as the Zajac line was crushed in the run of play. Yes, he created a goal. Then what? Exactly. Drew Stafford drew a call but what else? Other than two shots on net, not a whole lot, really. Miles Wood helped create the first goal and again, what else did he do? At least Wood was limited in his minutes so he had a reason to have much done. But he didn’t maximize it.
Oh, and Schneider, I feel bad for typing this, but he was not his usual outstanding self. While three of the five goals could be explained away and an argument could be made about the DuBois goal, Schneider could have made more saves tonight. A gameplan that requires exceptional play from the goaltender is usually a bad one. Whereas he weathered a lot of storms in the last Columbus game to help New Jersey win that one decisively, he did not tonight.
Lastly, there’s the coaching staff. Geoff Ward, this is your power play. Alain Nasreddine, this is your defensive performance. John Hynes, this is your team. The staff seemingly acted like John Tortorella and his staff wouldn’t read his team the riot act after that first period and make some adjustments. They clearly did. They seemingly acted like things would just bounce their way in the third period and everything would be all right. They seemingly acted like they did not need to make adjustments to what Columbus was doing. Combine that with the too many men on the ice call during that awful waste of four minutes the Devils called a power play and confusion over pulling Schneider for an extra skater, and I start wondering whether the coaching staff knows what they are doing. I’m not calling for any moves to be made - yet. Just some doubt.
OK, That Was a Lot of Failure in Admittedly Disappointing Game. Did Anyone Do Well?: I admit, I may be overly bitter about this one. The Devils could have made a big statement in the division, in the standings, and in the league with two wins over a very talented Columbus team. The opportunities were there to at least get something out of it, but, instead, the Devils faded to futility tonight. But I have to give some props to some Devils. Brian Boyle scored a goal and was the only Devil to not witness a shot against in 5-on-5 play tonight. That’s really impressive. Jimmy Hayes made the most of this opportunity to score that goal. And Wood did not do a whole lot, but he did not do anything stupid with those two. For a third/fourth line, that kind of performance is OK. It’s acceptable. The issue was that the rest of the team did not keep up their strong first period play and faded to poorness for the latter forty minutes.
Ahem, The No Call: Right. The referees definitely blew one big call tonight. In the second period, a broken play in the neutral zone resulted in a clear breakaway for Hall. Hall went to the net and as he was making a move, Werenski clipped his skates. Hall fell, he crashed into the net, and play continued. One, why wasn’t there a whistle right as the net went off its moorings and towards the endboards? Two, why wasn’t there any kind of call on Werenski? He clipped a man’s skates from behind on a breakaway. There was nothing else to look at in that end of the rink; so I certainly cannot buy a “I didn’t see it” explanation. Not that the Devils would have done much with a power play given the three others they wasted; but a penalty shot would have been warranted. It would have changed the complexion of the game; although, New Jersey’s performance would not have guaranteed that a penalty shot (much less a goal from it) would have held up in the run of play. It was still a bad no-call and the refs were rightly booed for it. They blew that one.
The Requisite Zacha Mention: If Pavel Zacha played right wing, then I would better understand the complaint about him not playing over, say, Stafford. But Zacha is a center or a left wing. Unless the Devils want Johansson or someone else to play on their offwing, then someone in those positions would likely have to play their way out of the line up or get hurt before Zacha returns. It is what it is. I do not think he would have made too much of a difference tonight, but I’ve been known to have been wrong before.
Read This from Mike: If you do not follow the division snapshots, then you should. But Mike highlighted that the top of the division has only become more crowded and that just grinds his gears. Probably yours too if you really want playoff hockey back at the Rock this Spring.
One Last Thought: I will admit, a lot will be forgiven if this team smashes Our Hated Rivals on Saturday.
Your Take: The Devils lost opportunities as they went on to lose this game 3-5 to Columbus. What was your opinion of this performance? Maybe you’re not as salty about this one as I am; what do you think? Who was the best Devil? Who was the worst Devil (take your pick)? What can the Devils adjust before their big rivalry game on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed along in the Gamethread and/or on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.