Surely rock bottom was Thursday night. An argument could be made that it may really be tonight, though.
The Time: 8:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – MSG; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Denver to play the Colorado Avalanche on March 8. The Devils sleptwalked through the first period with Cory Schneider doing his best to keep the score 0-0. He did. The Devils awoke in the second period and did the majority of the attacking in the middle frame. The Avs were limited to two shots on net. Unfortunately, one was from Nathan MacKinnon, which saw its way through Schneider amid traffic to make it 0-1. The third period featured more scoring. Taylor Hall put home a rebound from a Ben Lovejoy shot to tie up the game. It was Hall’s first goal since February 19 and the team’s first goal since March 4. The Avs answered back when Rene Bourque’s shot in the slot hit off Dalton Prout’s leg while the defender was kneeling for a block. The puck ricocheted up into the top part of the net to make it 1-2. The Devils did have answer for that too. A few minutes later, Joseph Blandisi won an offensive zone faceoff and Beau Bennett took the puck around the corner. Bennett dropped a pass to the right post as he was skating behind the net. Stefan Noesen was in the right spot to one-touch the puck past Calvin Pickard at a sharp angle. The two teams tried to break the deadlock. In the dying minutes and after a lull of offense by the Devils, Colorado would get one late. Francois Beauchemin fired in a shot from above the right circle through bodies and past Cory Schneider with 1:14 left in the game. The Devils had no answer and so they lost to the last place team in the NHL for their ninth straight loss, 2-3. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Coyotes Game: Arizona hosted Ottawa on that same Thursday night. After a scoreless first period, the home team broke through past the halfway mark of the second period. Brandon Perlini slid in a shot through Mike Condon’s five-hole for the game’s first goal. Less than a minute later, Justin-Gabriel Pageau tied up the game for Ottawa. The Coyotes went up again later in the second period thanks to a score by Lawson Crouse. The Coyotes had power play opportunities - two of four in the third period - to extend a 2-1 lead. They failed and they suffered when Erik Karlsson scored an equalizer in the third period. The Coyotes held on to force overtime, which didn’t last long at all. Forty seconds into the fourth period, Karlsson led a 2-on-0 and beat Mike Smith with a glove-side shot. That means the Coyotes lost, 2-3, in overtime. Brendan Porter has this recap at Five for Howling of Arizona’s latest loss.
The Last Devils-Coyotes Game: The Devils hosted Arizona way back on October 25. Back when the Devils didn’t lose a game in regulation at home, the season still had promise, and our favorite team wasn’t in the quagmire of a nine-game losing streak. This game would be all about the scoring. Jordan Martinook kicked things off with a first period goal. That lead didn’t last long as Taylor Hall scored less than two minutes later. Hall would strike again in the second period to convert a power play and put the Devils up 2-1 for the time being. Adam Henrique increased the lead to 3-1 later in the second period, where the score held at the second intermission. The Coyotes were going to make a game of it, largely thanks to Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The stud defenseman scored twice in the third period to tie up the game; first at even strength and second to convert a power play off a Kyle Quincey minor. As time ticked down, the game felt more dramatic as one feared that the Devils could blow it. The same feeling would - and did - apply for Arizona. Travis Zajac converted a power play thanks to Connor Murphy taking a late inteference penalty. Zajac sealed the 5-3 win with an empty netter to complete a great offensive performance by New Jersey. My recap of the win is here. For the other side, Brendan Porter had this take at Five for Howling.
The Goal: Show up and execute. While they didn’t concede any goals in the first period in Colorado, the Devils were moving like they were in a fog out there. Cory Schneider was the primary, secondary, and tertiary reason why they left that period at 0-0. The goals came later and the goals against featured defenders trying to be goalies and getting in Schneider’s way and forwards not making the right reads and plays. From my untrained eyes, it looks like the Devils need to do a better job at executing the basics. A poorer roster isn’t a good excuse, especially since they were playing against #30 in the NHL then. Tonight, they’ll play #29, who is also a bad, bad hockey team. It’s not going to guarantee a ‘W,’ but if the Devils really want to avoid having this losing streak extend to ten games, then they need to show up for all sixty minutes and do a better job at performing their gameplan.
Absences: Andy Greene joined the team on Thursday but did not play after missing four games due to the loss of his father. Greene should be back in action. That may force a defenseman to sit. My choice would be Dalton Prout, for what it is worth, if that is the case.
However, there will definitely be some other changes to the team’s lineup due to absences. Andrew Gross reported on Friday that Travis Zajac has went back to New Jersey for personal reasons: the birth of his third child. Congratulations to the Zajacs. What that means for tonight is that the top line will be different. Zajac has been centering Hall and Kyle Palmieri, which has been one of the few bright spots amid this miserable losing streak. Replacing Zajac will be Adam Henrique, which is a natural fit as he’s been playing center behind Zajac for the last few weeks. Solely for entertainment’s sake, I hope this trio can function well together. This should mean that Pavel Zacha will center Henrique’s old spot while Joseph Blandisi and Blake Coleman will act as the other centers. On paper, that the depth is currently Henrique-Zacha-Blandisi-Coleman down the middle says a lot about where this team is at the moment.
While Zajac’s news is good, there is some not-as-good news from Friday’s practice. Gross wrote at Fire & Ice that Miles Wood went into the endboards in practice and left early. Per Gross, the team doesn’t seem to be too concerned about it and Wood may end up playing anyway. The larger question at the moment appears to be whether or not the Devils put out seven defensemen and eleven forwards, which would likely mean Kevin Rooney is scratched again. If Wood is indeed out, then surely Rooney will draw back in regardless.
Play the Man!: I missed this, but Gross’ Friday post at Fire & Ice noted that Pavel Zacha was benched in the Colorado game. The rationale was that he wasn’t playing well. OK, but neither were a bunch of other forwards. And the same coach who didn’t think Zacha was doing well also thought it was a good idea to put out a line with defensively-questionable wingers Devante Smith-Pelly and Wood late in a 2-2 game. That may not be fair, but neither is punishing Zacha while other players - even under-25 players - struggle without much consequence. He’s here in New Jersey because it was decided that the man needs to play in the NHL to get better. So, with nothing else to play for, play the man!
A CF% of 45.76%!: New Jersey has the second lowest Corsi For% this season according to Corsica. The lowest CF% team is tonight’s opponent: the Arizona Coyotes. And it’s at a hideous 45.76%. Arizona has the highest CA/60 and SA/60 rates in the NHL; opponents are just able to take loads of opportunities to attack the Coyotes. While they aren’t dead last in terms of creating shots and attempts, they get overwhelmed a lot. Even with a decent-ish 5-on-5 save percentage of 92.24% (thanks largely to Mike Smith per NHL.com), the Coyotes have conceded a lot of goals. Their expected goals against per sixty is nearly three; their actual is closer to 2.6, so they have been beating expectations. It hasn’t really done them a lot of good since, well, they’re still giving up more than they’re scoring and that has led to plenty of losses.
It doesn’t help that special teams has not really boosted them. Their power play success rate is a relatively low 14.5% (29-for-200) overall and 14.2% at home (15-for-106) per NHL.com. On the flip side, their penalty kill at home has had a decent success rate of 81.4% (19 GA out of 102) at least. So they have that going for them. It hasn’t translated to the road, so they’re at 78% overall. So it’s not much going for them. The other aspect as a team that the Coyotes have been good at has been the shootout, where they are 5-1. However, they’re 4-7 within overtime - getting to that shootout has been an issue.
Essentially, this is another bad, bad hockey team like Colorado. Who are also somehow worse in possession than them and New Jersey. And judging by their roster, they’re in a similar spot as the Devils are as a franchise. They’re not good, their team stats show they’re really bad, and their roster has plenty of players that likely wouldn’t be on a good team. They’re rebuilding. The main difference is that Arizona has some reason to hope that some of their younger guys will develop to form a new core - but it will take time and more of that hope to turn into reality.
Who Are These Guys?: Oliver Ekman-Larsson is an excellent defender. Mike Smith has had some good seasons, including this one (arguably). Shane Doan has been a franchise legend of sorts. Radim Vrbata has had a long career and the right winger does lead this team in scoring with fifteen goals, thirty-three assists, and 198 shots on net. And the rest of this team is just filled with a lot of young players largely unfamiliar outside of Arizona. That’s where the hope lies.
Up top there’s Max Domi and Christian Dvorak, who have recently played with Vrbata on a top line according to Left Wing Lock. Domi’s second season hasn’t been as productive as his rookie year, where he earned 52 points. He’ll be lucky if he gets close to 40 (he has 28 now). This is Dvorak’s rookie season and while the points has not come for him, he’s being given responsibilities to grow into. Lawson Crouse is another rookie who has been given a regular spot in a bottom six role to grow into as well. Likewise for Brendan Perlini, who appears to be large, quick winger. With eleven goals out of 69 shots, he’s been a bit hot; but I’d see him as an “X-factor” of sorts for tonight. Jordan Martinook isn’t a rookie but the 24-year old has been Arizona’s best possession player - still not above 50% CF% but close - and chipped in points as well. There’s still hope that Anthony Duclair gets his act together to show off the skill he showed as a rookie; this season has been hard for him. He’s been on a fourth line, so the Devils may see him too.
The defense has some more established names with Ekman-Larsson. Like Luke Schenn (eh), Alex Goligoski (OK), and Connor Murphy (that contract). The future is present there too. Jakub Chychrun made the squad after being drafted last summer and has been given a NHL education in this season. He’s been recently joined by Anthony DeAngelo, another prospective defenseman the Coyotes acquired.
From a production standpoint, it’s rough. Only Vrbata, Ekman-Larsson, and Tobias Reider have surpassed 30 points in this season. No one has had a real “breakthrough” like season that jumps out. From a run-of-play standpoint, recall that their CF% is the worst in the league and below 46%, which is terrible. Again, there’s a lot of hope in this roster that the young players will get better, other prospects will join them (e.g. Clayton Keller), and that should create a core that can supplant Doan, OEL, Vrbata, Reider, and company for a good team. But that team isn’t here tonight and it’s not going to happen in 2016-17. It is in process and, as we are seeing in New Jersey, it will take time.
As for tonight, the Devils should be most careful of that top line of Domi-Dvorak-Vrbata and any time Ekman-Larsson and/or Goligoski are able to attack. The rest: just do your jobs, really. And try not to get hurt either.
One Last Thought: I know I noted that rock-bottom was that loss to the Avs. I am reminded of the common phrase from Mythbusters: Failure is always an option. I really hope I don’t have to witness another failure. Draft pick positioning doesn’t make me feel any better about watching these losses.
Your Take: The Devils will wrap up their last road trip (defined as more than two straight road games) tonight in Arizona. I hope they make it a win. I can’t expect much at this point. What do you think of this game? What about Arizona are you most concerned about? How can the Devils be able to score more goals than the Coyotes tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.