Finally. For the first time in 2018, the New Jersey Devils won a game. For the first time in six games, the New Jersey Devils won a game. For the first time in the Barclay’s Center in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils won a game. What’s more: they fully earned this win. The New Jersey Devils beat the New York Islanders in a 4-1 game where the team played all three periods and just about everybody contributed. This was not a literal 60-minute effort but it definitely was one in the spirit of the phrase.
I have to state up front that seeing this win feels good. Really good. I wasn’t exactly jazzed about the Devils’ chances tonight. When a team has not won a game for over two weeks, it is easy and understandable to feel down about that team. The New Jersey Devils lost on Saturday to a rival, they looked poor in it, and they were winless in six games. Their next game was not only within the division but against a New York Islanders team who won three in a row, scored 16 goals across those three wins, who beat the Devils last week 5-4, and were playing in a building where the Devils have never won a regular season game. On top of that, Cory Schneider was ill and so Keith Kinkaid and his sub-90% save percentage had to fill in immediately to start against a potent Islanders offense. I did not have a lot of high hopes coming into this one. I definitely did not when Anders Lee turned a blocked shot into a breakaway goal for his team’s first shot of the game. But the Devils turned that around and they kept to their game plan and they eventually broke through.
It took a power play goal to tie up the game and for the Devils to first beat Jaroslav Halak. While the Islanders’ defense was loose all night long, Halak was like a wall. The power play was not exactly prolific all night long, but their second opportunity ended with the desired result. Sami Vatanen set up Kyle Palmieri, who was in the Ovechkin Zone. Palmieri launched a rocket to the top shelf to make it 1-1 in the first period. While the two teams traded off, the Devils did end up finishing that period up 13-9 in shots, 16-12 in 5-on-5 attempts, and taking more initiative than the hosts. Outside of the Lee goal, Miles Wood taking a needless cross-checking penalty after a whistle, and an ill-advised fight by Andy Greene (seriously), it was an otherwise good period.
The second period was even better. The Devils made a point of it to up their attack even more. The Isles went a good six-plus minute stretch without a shot on goal as the Devils kept winning pucks on defense, winning pucks in the neutral zone, and even winning some forechecks. Halak looked unbeatable amid the 17-shot deluge. Until he wasn’t. Damon Severson scored two big goals; the first of which deserves its own section in this recap. Towards the end of the second, Taylor Hall - who was a beast tonight - stripped John Tavares of the puck during one of the few Islanders’ shifts of offensive pressure. Hall led a two-on-one, took the shot, and the puck trickled through Halak to make it 4-1. I was both happy for the goal and relieved that the Devils had a larger lead to work with than the last Devils-Islanders game. It was a very good second period.
The third period was great even if the Devils did not score again. In the third period, the Islanders actually threatened to score. As they should, they’re at home and down by three goals. Keith Kinkaid made a few big stops to ensure that they wouldn’t make a comeback. Skaters would backcheck and look alive to turn stops into rushes up ice. The unit of Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, and Palmieri were fearsome all night long and Wood was especially commanding with how he just kept going at the Islanders physically and an offense. Hall never let up his push for offense. The defensemen chipped in shots. Normally, one would expect any team up by three to be forced to play a lot more defense. Tonight, the Devils out-shot the Isles in the third period (12-9) and out-attempted them in 5-on-5 play (25-20). The Devils more than kept the Islanders honest. On top of that, the Devils took no penalties, they did not commit a massive turnover, and they were only pinned back a couple of times. They did what they could to limit the Islanders’ opportunities to ignite a comeback. It was great to watch.
There’s only a few ways tonight’s game could have been better. More goals, of course. Not giving up a breakaway goal for the first shot of the game, too. Players not being banged up. But I’m stretching a bit. The Devils put in a super effort tonight. Their mentality was correct. They didn’t play like they were haunted by the last Devils-Islanders game or any of other five games in this streak. Everybody did their job in one way or another and often times in multiple ways. Tonight’s performance was ideal for breaking a winless streak. I’m happy they did so, they made some history with it, and they did it with authority.
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 (now with a slick logo) Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Steven E. Smith has this recap at Lighthouse Hockey, calling it a “icky from start to finish.” I thought it was quite enjoyable myself.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
A Goal to Rally Around: While I’m not in the room and I have no great idea what does or does not motivate a player or a team, a perfect moment occurred tonight. This was the goal that broke the 1-1 tie in the second period and it was tonight’s eventual game winning goal.
If I were John Hynes, I am highlighting this goal and making a point of it.
Stefan Noesen was shuffled out of the lineup recently to give Drew Stafford a chance. He was re-inserted in place of Blake Coleman. Noesen wanted to impress the coaches. He did so in this play. Noesen chases down Nick Leddy and wins the puck from him. A little shove, a little fortune that the puck didn’t go with Leddy, and a little patience to settle the puck by the boards. Ryan Pulock stopped, Pavel Zacha flew by, and Noesen saw acres of space to play his teammate coming towards the middle. Noesen laid a perfectly weighted pass for that teammate to get onto this puck.
That teammate is Brian Gibbons. He has not scored a goal since December 12, 2017. He has just four assists since then. Gibbons will get onto this puck and he’s looking at the net the whole way. He collects the puck, which is only a bit behind him, and he unloads a shot towards the net. Gibbons didn’t hesitate, he fired that puck. He had no idea that the defender, Pulock would block the shot with his skate. He had no idea that Shane Prince would cream him with a body hit. Gibbons went down in a heap from that hit. As Noesen came over to Prince and Pulock slid away to his left (a result of the block), another Devil would step up.
Damon Severson was scratched for a few games and not always utilized as much he probably should be in this season. He jumped up on this play and the loose puck came right to him. He gloved it down as he entered the right circle. As he dropped it, Severson took one smooth-looking snap shot motion. Severson’s shot went to the top left corner, the far post from Severson’s point of view, past Halak. Halak was finally beaten. Halak was bested. The tie was broken.
This was a play that had a little bit of everything that makes hockey hockey. You have a guy in Noesen who wanted to impress but also had the presence of mind to look for a play rather than keep going or battling. You have a guy who isn’t a scorer but knew full well he had an opportunity and was willing to take it. He took a big, blindside hit from Prince, sacrificing one’s body in the hopes of making something happen for the team. That something was a fortunate bounce off a block. Severson swooped in and turned that lucky bounce into a powerful shot for an important goal. The whole sequence is something a team can rally around. I’m only writing about it and I’m finding inspiration in it!
It remains to be seen whether this win over the Islanders is just a one-off, but if you’re looking for important moments in this season, this whole sequence is one to keep in mind as the Devils progress in 2018.
Super Severson: Damon Severson was excellent tonight. Severson’s two goals in the second period broke the game wide open for the Devils. Per the television broadcast, it was his first two-goal game since his rookie season. What a night to repeat that production. Severson was roaming with five shots on net and 21:07 of ice time. The vast majority of that was at even strength because, for some reason, Severson does not factor into special teams. He only did a little penalty killing when Greene was serving his fighting major. Defensively, Severson was sound. He did not make many mistakes. In the run of play, Severson-Moore combined for a 17/13 CF/CA mark, which is not only positive but pretty good since they saw a lot of Lee, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and John Tavares in 5-on-5 play. Severson was definitely contributing more on offense given that 29 of the Devils’ 62 shooting attempts happened while Severson was on the ice - the highest such mark on the team tonight. For those wondering what can Severson be for this team, you got to witness it tonight. And two goals.
Hall Star: Hall stripping Tavares and then scoring was filled me with glee. Five straight games on the scoresheet and this one in a winning effort. I am elated. I am also elated about his performance in general. Seven shots on net and an immeasurable amount of effort to create plays, keep plays alive, and even make small, great efforts to buy his teammates time to change or get in the zone for a play to be possible. Hall went through Islanders, went by them, and kept on firing. This is what an all star looks like. Even with the winless streak, some of Hall's performances have been MVP-like. Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt weren’t bad tonight, but Hall is just out-shining most of the team and arguably most of the left wingers in the NHL these days.
Kinkaid Redemption: The start of this game was an auspicious one for Keith Kinkaid. Lee went on him on a breakaway and tucked a shot through his legs for the game’s first goal - on his first shot against of the night. A bad one to allow. Kinkaid did improve as the night went on. The Devils did a good job by not letting this game turn into a shootout. The Devils took 42 shots and allowed just 26. 5-on-5 scoring chances were 41-26 and high-danger chances were 16-10. Kinkaid did come up big on those relatively fewer amount of chances he had to face. His best would be his three-save in a row effort from the right (his right) post where he denied Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier on a rebound, and Eberle on another rebound. It was one of the few times the Devils skaters were caught flat-footed. It was a series of saves that kept the game 1-1 about mid-way through the second. It was impressive from a goaltender who has had struggles in his recent starts. Kinkaid came up big in the third period again, most notably denying an open Eberle in the slot. While he was fighting the puck a bit, Kinkaid was composed in the crease and did well to get eyes and his body on each puck that came towards him. This was a very good game for a goaltender who has not had too many good ones for him. To think, he was not even supposed to start this one. Kinkaid came through - even after the bad goal allowed.
Defensive Performances: Steve Santini was expected to be a scratch. Schneider’s illness forced a roster move, so Santini was moved down to Binghamton in a paper-move. He’ll be back. That said, credit the defensive effort tonight. They limited a recently high-scoring offense to just 26 shots on net. Severson-Moore was positive. Ben Lovejoy had a strong game in his own end. Will Butcher did fairly well. Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen took tougher shifts and often went up against Tavares, Eberle, and Beauvillier. They actually came out somewhat well for it; they broke even in attempt differential tonight. Perhaps we’ll see these pairings for another game?
Beyond the defensive pairings, the penalty kill deserves credit too. The Devils went shorthanded only twice. They limited the Isles to just one shot on net across both situations and created a shot themselves. Everyone on the PK was great. They didn’t stray too far out of their formation, they kept the Isles at bay, and they worked well to make their clearances and puck battles count. During the six-game winless streak, the PK was only 100% successful in one game. It was 100% successful tonight and it helped ensure the Isles would not get a second goal.
Power Play Step: I would say the power play tonight was a bit better than the performance against Philadelphia. Will Butcher was better about breaking out. The Devils as a whole were able to gain the zone more frequently. I think they still attempt cross-ice passes from circle to circle too much; those were picked off. I didn’t think Jesper Bratt was good on the puck either. But it was a step forward to get more opportunities. I was mostly fine with the five total shots and another successful feed to Palmieri in the Ovechkin Zone.
This Line was RIDICULOUS: Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, and Kyle Palmieri was a line that I wasn’t quite sure about when I first saw it online. In the game, I loved it. The Islanders’ approach to defense has been questionable this season. This trio just made it look really bad. Seriously, Wood was 24 CF/3 CA! Zacha was 22 CF/5 CA! Palmieri was 23 CF/4 CA! The line gave up only one shot on net, two scoring chances (misses count), and zero high-danger chances. In other words, this line was constantly going forward and giving up very little to the Isles. And to think they didn’t have a single offensive zone start in 5-on-5 play!
What was most impressive was how they performed in the third period. Wood was skating out there like the team was down a goal in the playoffs. He was going hard at players (legally), he was going to the net, and he was taking whatever space he had to skate and shoot. Zacha and Palmieri supported this and helped pin the Isles back for a couple of shifts. This went a long way to preserving the lead, nevermind that it was a generally-comfortable three-goal lead. The line made Sebastian Aho, Adam Pelech, Nick Leddy, and Ryan Pulock among others look really weak in their own end. If it was not for Halak, this line would have scored in 5-on-5 play tonight.
If there was only one criticism of this line other than Wood’s silly first period penalty, then it would be their accuracy. Zacha only had one of his five attempts go on net, although one attempt was blocked by the knob of Halak’s stick and hit the cross bar. Wood took eight attempts and was on target for three of them. Palmieri went 3-for-5 on shots, which was a bit better. Still, they were a force in the run of play.
These Guys are Tough: Brian Gibbons took a big blindside hit and was kept out of the second period since then. Gibbons did return to action in the third period and played in six shifts.
In the second period, Marcus Johansson blocked a Nick Leddy shot that caught Johansson in the elbow. It was such that it caused bleeding. Johansson was stitched up and played nearly seven minutes in six shifts in the third period.
Wood and Hall were both high-sticked without a call and without many people noticing in separate incidents. Both continued to play, they weren’t going to miss a shift. And on those shifts, both were physical in how they engaged the opponent and moved around the zone.
I do hope that the Devils can continue their relatively good injury luck. Still, these players (and the others!) showed some serious toughness.
One Last Thought: The only line that was not positive in possession was the unit of Travis Zajac, Johansson, and Drew Stafford. I didn’t think they played a bad game. They just did not create a whole lot. I think the ideal lineup does not include Stafford. Although, given how well Palmieri played with Zacha and Wood, would it be worth giving Zajac and Johansson someone like Noesen? It’s a good problem to think about. They’ll have only a day or so to do so; there’s another game coming up.
Your Take: The Devils finally won! They won 4-1 in a great performance. You know what I think, now I want to know what you thought about this win. Who was the best Devil on the ice in your opinion? Who or what impressed you the most? Would you agree that Severson’s first goal could be a source of inspiration or at least a team highlight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for previewing tonight’s game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.