Fresh off a big, dramatic win over hated rivals, the New Jersey Devils went back to what they’ve been doing for most of 2016-17: losing games while getting beaten in 5-on-5 play. Tonight, it was against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Devils lost 2-4.
There were some twists in this loss. The Devils would make it close on the scoreboard; that fourth goal against was an empty netter. The Devils would end the game even with the Leafs in shots at even strength and went ahead overall due to special teams. However, the opposition went up early, didn’t lose their lead, and had numerous shifts where they were asserting their dominance. Two aspects of their performance stuck out to me. First was their superiority at making passes, from short ones amid traffic to long ones through the zones. It wasn’t so much that the Devils were bad at it tonight, but Toronto just showed what it could be like and showed it well. Seconed was their effective pouncing on the Devils to create offense in transition. When the Maple Leafs get a defensive stop high in their end and/or a Devil made a mistake on offense; the Maple Leafs frequently caught the Devils with multiple Devils behind the puck. This led to plenty of rushes up ice. It’s something the Devils have had issues with throughout the season and it brings up another issue with the Devils not really adjusting to account for that. You’d think they’d know about Toronto’s speed up front and their bevy of talented forwards to make such plays more dangerous. Alas, it stood out tonight.
Funnily enough, the empty net goal play represented those aspects. Morgan Reilly knocked the puck away on defense and recovered his own loose puck. With Devils trying to get back, he was able to make one pass up to Nazem Kadri. Before two Devils could engage him, Kadri banked the puck off the boards and up to Leo Komarov, who was by New Jersey’s blue line. With only Kyle Palmieri back, Komarov gained the zone and made a measured pass to Brown - who put the puck in the net past Palmieri, who went out for a shot block in desperation. The play featured great puck movement and it caught the Devils out-numbered.
As for the other three goals against that led to the loss, they weren’t off the rush. Let’s go over them. The first was an error by Keith Kinkaid. During a Toronto power play, William Nylander sent a cross-ice pass to Auston Matthews. The shot is stopped, but Kinkaid’s glove hits the puck behind him instead of placing it on top of the puck. Josh Leivo dove to tap it in. That’s an oops by #1. The second goal against was more forgiveable. During a 4-on-4 situation, Matthews led a 3-on-2. Kyle Palmieri came back to even up the numbers, but by that time, Nylander had the puck in the left circle and Matthews fell down, which caused Ben Lovejoy to fall towards Kinkaid. Maybe that fall impacted the play, but Matthews just fell on his own. All the same, Nylander sniped a corner; the contact was just unfortunate impact. The third goal, well, let me describe it and you can decide who’s more at fault. It started early in the second period when Hall gave away the puck to Tyler Bozak. Bozak turned and gained the zone with Mitch Marner being an option to his right. Bozak passed it to Marner, who fired a quick, low shot. Kinkaid kicked out the shot with his pad. The rebound eluded Damon Severson, who was turning, and went right to an open James van Reimsdyk. His shot was academic and made the game 1-3 at the time. For that one, I’d say that was more on the skaters from the giveaway (Hall) to the lack of coverage on van Reimsdyk and/or cleaning the rebound (Severson).
Strangely, seeing those goals did feel like a let down - your favorite team giving up goals usually is - but I wasn’t terribly mad or bothered about them. At this point of the season, why should anyone? The season’s lost already. If you’re with Sherman Abrams and his philosophy for this kind of season, then you wouldn’t be bothered by them. You’d accept them. If you’re not down with tanking, then even then in a few weeks, it’s all for naught. Toronto needed this game and the Devils just need to not be embarrassed.
I would say they did that much. The Devils struggled quite a bit in 5-on-5 play, but they were able to claw their way into the game late and make it interesting. Again, they would finish the game ahead in shots, 32-30; and not terribly far behind in total attempts at 51-57. In fact, the Devils opened the scoring early. John Moore took a low shot on Curtis McElhinney for the first official shot of the game. The puck bounced off the inside of McElhinney’s pads and trickled through the five hole. It was a very soft goal. Later in the third, the Devils had a 1:35 long 5-on-3. While they didn’t convert that, there was 25 seconds of a 5-on-4 to finish up the penalty situation. The Devils scored there; Moore sent a long shot through that went past McElhinney right before Joseph Blandisi bumped him. In between and after, the Devils would put rubber on the goaltender and created plenty of rebounds. Alas, the Devils didn’t adjust for that and so Toronto was able to clean up a lot of those. For the most part, they made it interesting down the stretch. So it goes.
9 games left.
The Game Summary: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Shift Chart | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Arvind. - yes, the name has a period in it - has this short recap at Pension Plan Puppets.
Their Kids Were Better: That’s another pithy way to sum up how this game went. William Nylander had a big night with a power play assist, a sweet first period goal that stood up as the game winner, five shots on net, and a whole lot problems caused for the Devils. Auston Matthews flexed his rookie muscle too with two assists and pretty much being on offense whenever he was out there in 5-on-5 play. Stunningly, these two had a 2-on-1 in the second period and wasted it. Even players oozing talent don’t make the best out of every situation. Regardless, they were great and they stood out. Mitch Marner had a fine night too; with creating James van Reimsdyk’s goal. While Marner, van Reimsdyk, and Kadri had some really favorable attempt differentials, they were just out-shot by the Devils in 5-on-5 play. Basically, they had some awesome shifts on offense and more than a few defensive ones. But they came out ahead as a unit with a goal. Still, their three young stars were great tonight and they contributed to their win tonight.
With all due respect to Pavel Zacha extending his point streak to six games, Toronto’s trio of young stars just made bigger impacts tonight. In contrast, Blake Coleman took calls, John Quennville only had a few shots, Blake Pietila skated on the ice, and Miles Wood got one shot on net: a one-hander off a rush that ended with him going shoulder-first and hard into the end boards. I guess the best of them would be Joseph Blandisi, who had a smarter game than Tuesday night. Even so, he didn’t add a whole lot - even though he may have touched in Moore’s second goal.
The Moore Game: I do hope that goal remains credited to Moore. It would be Moore’s first career two-goal game. Moore ended up leading the team in shots on net with five, which is good for Moore and maybe representative of how the game went at times. Moore had his usual defensive performance where his numbers would suggest that he got bodied for most of the night. He was on the ice for the most attempts against in 5-on-5 play (26) and the most shots too (14). Damon Severson didn’t have a hot night either - and was much more guilty than Moore on van Reimsdyk’s goal; still, Moore out-did him in conceding the most. At least he brought more offense than he usually does and scored two goals. So there’s that. Congrats to Moore for the two-goal night.
Talking Backups: Both Kinkaid and McElhinney gave up some Charmin-soft goals early on. They both played better since then and faced a good amount of shots (32-30, favoring NJ) and scoring chances (Natural Stat Trick had it 32-29 in favor of Toronto in all situations). They were also guilty of conceding plenty of rebounds. A big difference was that van Reimsdyk made Kinkaid suffer for one of them and McElhinney didn’t suffer for any of them. It was surprising to me that Kinkaid received this start over Cory Schneider. I suspect the team wanted to show case Kinkaid more than just giving him starts in back-to-back sets. As for McElhinney, he did well despite the rebounds and not playing for the last few weeks. His defense helped him out with the rebound and the role of a #2 goalie is to step in and put in a good performance without regular action. McElhinney did that and so Frederik Andersen and the coaching staff can rest a little easier.
Another Non-Penalty Shot: Just when you think penalty shot decisions were in the past, another one came up. In the first period, Beau Bennett sprung Adam Henrique for a breakaway. Brian Boyle chopped at the man three times and so Henrique didn’t get a clean shot off. He got something off, but the foul affected it. Instead of a penalty shot, the Devils received a power play that they promptly wasted. I think that could have been a penalty shot call. Based on what the Devils did with the man advantage, I wish it was.
Eventually A Conversion: The Devils had four power plays and they improved with each man advantage. The first one was a waste of time. The second power play featured the second unit - Blandisi, Henrique, Zacha, Quenneville, and Moore - having possession for most of the power play time. They didn’t score, but it was good to see a man advantage act like one. The third one only lasted thirty-five seconds before Matt Hunwick hit Palmieri on an interference hit. That was going to be whistled, but when Palmieri went down, so did the gloves. The skaters - except Palmieri - got into it with Travis Zajac and Boyle fighting. Each received seven minutes and Hunwick’s interference minor held up. This meant the Devils had a 1:35-long 5-on-3. They didn’t make the most of that. While they didn’t sit in an “M” formation, the Devils kept wide and didn't create and take the best shots. What they did do right was keep the attack going after the initial penalty ended. It led to Moore get a shooting lane and firing a puck that would go past McElhinney. That was the conversion; capping off a power play that started ugly but improved in its effectiveness.
Credit Where Credit Is Due: Adam Henrique had a much better game tonight. He drew two penalties, he took plenty of attempts although most hit Maple Leaf players, and the play was often going New Jersey’s way when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play. Bennett and Blandisi were better too, which helped Henrique too. I wanted a more effective performance from him and his line after Tuesday’s game and that happened tonight. Good.
For the opposite, well, the Zajac line drew Kadri, Komoarov, and Brown and really didn’t win that match up. Palmieri and Hall were muted to a degree because of it. They had fewer shifts against them, but Bozak’s line also pinned them back more than once and caused them issues. So I want to see more from them next time; fortunately, for them, the next few games will be at the Rock so John Hynes can get better matchups. Mike Babcock did a good job deploying his units in 5-on-5 play tonight and it showed in the run of play.
An Apology: Throughout the game, I kept making reference to how the Islanders would want the Devils to win this game. While I know Toronto won on Wednesday, I did not know that they jumped Boston in the standings. The B’s are now in the second wild card spot (and ahead by two points with the Isles having two games in hand on them); Toronto is in the top three of the Atlantic. So Toronto still needed this game to keep up pace and maybe even move up in the division. I was wrong that the Isles would care about this one; they should have their sights on whatever Boston is doing on top of their own games. The Devils’ loss, well, is for this man’s purposes:
The Sherman Abrams Section: Mr. Abrams thought the Isles would care about this game too and had an apology note for them stating, “Sorry, Islanders. You can take it out on us in the coming games. Please do.” Well, that’s not worth much now. Anyway, the loss kept the Devils where they were: 28th place. With games against Carolina, Dallas, and Winnipeg coming up, Mr. Abrams wants this tank to keep rolling. The Canes’ bloom in March takes them out of the race, so it may not be imperative to lose that one. Dallas is very much in the Race for 28th; a win against them can really throw a wrench in what Mr. Abrams wants to see. Winnipeg may be far enough away, but they’re only six points ahead - no reason to give them hope to fall. After those three games, it’s almost all inter-division games until the last game at the Joe. Sherman Abrams wants to believe they’ll stay in 28th by then. We’ll see if they do.
As for games around the league, the Devils didn’t get a ton of help. Carolina and Philadelphia winning helps keep them a long way away from the Race for 28th. In fact, the Canes staying hot suddenly puts them in the playoff picture. However, Vancouver lost to St. Louis so they remain too close - one point - to the Devils. Dallas lost in a shootout; at least they picked up a point and are now three points up on the Devils. As of this writing, Winnipeg is winning against Los Angeles - that may change, but a Winnipeg win would be more beneficial in Mr. Abrams’ eyes. Arizona lost to Florida so that hurts hopes for 29th.
One Last Thought: I’m going to really not enjoy future games against Toronto when Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are more mature and experienced on the ice. When they get better, they’re going to be terrifying to play against. Especially with a really smart coach instructing them.
Your Take: The Devils lost 2-4 to Toronto. What did you think of the loss? Who did you think played well for the Devils? Who didn’t in your eyes? Did anyone on Toronto impress you? 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.