Today, the New Jersey Devils hosted the San Jose Sharks in what was a far more competitive game than the true home opener. The Sharks came to play, they had the better control of play for two periods, and the Devils were down 1-2 after the second period. But it was a close game and the Devils responded with a far better third period performance. One that yielded an early strike from New Jersey’s hottest player, Kyle Palmieri, to tie up the game. One that yielded Mirco Mueller firing a slapshot low through Martin Jones and Jean-Sebastien Dea knocking the loose puck behind Jones into the net to make it 3-2. One where the Devils were able to withstand some difficult situations, especially in the final four minutes, to keep the lead alive. The Devils ended up beating San Jose, 3-2, to stay undefeated.
According to Hockey-Reference, this regulation win is the first one for the Devils against the Sharks since March 10, 2016 and the first home win over the Sharks since February 11, 2011. The Sharks have had New Jersey’s number for the eleven games since February 11, 2011 as the Devils won exactly two games against them until today. This does not totally surprise me as the Sharks have been a rather talented team of quality for the last decade or so and the Devils are coming out of doldrums that began in 2013.
The Sharks remain a talented team of quality with big guns up front in Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Timo Meier and a blueline that features both Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Today’s game against the San Jose Sharks was closer to what I expected for the true home opener on Thursday. While the Sharks did not play last night, they have been on the road and this was the last of a five-game road trip. They still came out and immediately showed that they will not play anything like Washington did on Thursday. They showed very little signs of fatigue as far as I could have seen. The Sharks were constantly pushing the play forward. They turned mistakes like bad passes and turnovers into shots on net and possession time. They did not concede possession easily. In effect, the Sharks made sure that the Devils could not do whatever they would want. What happened on Thursday night was a rare event (and I will show how rare in a post for tomorrow); it was not going to happen again. And it did not.
This is not a bad thing in the bigger picture. Not every opponent is going to come to New Jersey and be so sluggish. Not every game is going to include superior puck movement and puck possession by the Devils. This was one of them, for sure, as the Sharks owned advantages in the shot count, the attempt count, scoring chance count, and attack time for the first two periods. The Devils sorted things out and performed much better in the third period. After being out-shot 16-9 and 13-9 in each of the first periods, the Devils out-shot the Sharks 18-10 in the third. This bloom in offense resulted in the Devils taking the game back on the scoreboard. Of course, that would not have been possible without a great goaltending performance.
Keith Kinkaid had a lot to do for the first time in this young season and he did very well. He was only beaten three times out of 39 shots on net (one hit the post) and shut things down in the crease in the dying minutes of the game. He was excellent when the Devils had those bad shifts where zone exits were denied multiple times, the skaters could win or keep a puck on their stick, or they were stuck chasing Sharks players. I do not fault him on either goal against; I would instead blame the skaters on those plays - as well as for conceding as many shots as they did in general. 39 shots is a lot to allow, especially since San Jose spent over 14 minutes of the game with at least one player in the box and the Sharks only received three power plays. The Devils were at least somewhat fortunate to have the game be as close as it was; they have Kinkaid to thank in large part of that.
They also have Kyle Palmieri to thank for another two goals. His third straight brace is a franchise record for most consecutive games to start a season with multiple goals scored. His first goal tied up the game 1-1 in the second period. It came off the only effective power play of the day for the Devils - a long 5-on-3 situation where Palmieri took a pass from Taylor Hall and beat Jones far post. The Sharks would score again, but Palmieri answered back by turning a close rebound off an Andy Greene shot into a jam play for a score early in the third period. Palmieri has six goals in three games, with the goals playing a crucial role in each game. Nico Hischier and Hall had some great opportunities to score that were not realized for one reason or another this afternoon. Hall hit a post and Hischier was robbed by Jones on the team’s first power play, among other chances. With the way they have been playing the goals will come. I’m not worried because they’re contributing in other ways, like Hall picking up two assists. Plus, their lack of goals is no issue since Palmieri has been piling them in so far.
The team can also thank San Jose for being rather undisciplined today. The Sharks took seven penalties today which included two delay of game calls for clearing the puck over the glass (Justin Braun had an impressively long one), a high-sticking minor on Hertl while the Sharks were on offense during a Devils power play, and Erik Karlsson whacking Hischier in the face during the third period and drawing a lot of blood. The Devils failed to realize these power plays, except for the 5-on-3 situation caused by Hertl’s second penalty of the game. But that total of 14:23 was time where the Sharks could not go on offense as much as they wanted - despite how the Devils power play made things easy for their penalty kill. In what turned out to be a close game on the scoreboard, taking over half of a period in penalties is not ideal to say the least.
And the coaching staff deserves a little thanks too. Whatever the team adjusted and tweaked after the second intermission worked out quite well in the third period. Not only did the Devils go up in the period and ultimately win the game, the Devils were able to dull San Jose’s offense compared to how they performed in the first two periods. Again, the Devils were able to carry more of the play, take more attempts, take more shots, and tilt the rink more in their direction. Sure, the Sharks were not devoid of offense; but they were not able to just attack at will like they did in the first two periods.
That all said, this win shows that there is much room for improvement for the Devils. The defense is an obvious one given how much was allowed. I wish the Devils did not make it so hard on themselves as Stefan Noesen got caught holding a stick after Karlsson’s double-minor and New Jersey caught with too many men on the ice after Noesen was out of the box (and failed to score). There were some specific players that just had an awful day. Still, the Devils were able to overcome those obstacles and send San Jose home with a ‘L’ for the first time in New Jersey since February 2011. I am pleased with that. This will most likely not be the last game where a strong team on-paper plays up to their strength on the ice and makes the game difficult. The good news is that the Devils proved today that they can make something out of it and that is valuable in an 82-game season.
The Opposition Opinion: A short recap plus a running summary of the game from a San Jose perspective was put together by eddie91razo at Fear the Fin.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights of today’s game, featuring Palmieri and Kinkaid:
Denneny, Stastny, Marleau, and now Palmieri: Montvale’s own Kyle Palmieri has joined a very select group of NHL players today. According to the NHL PR account on Twitter (@PR_NHL), Cy Denneny, Peter Stastny, and Patrick Marleau were the only ones to score multiple goals in three or more consecutive games to start a team’s season in NHL history. If Palmieri gets another brace (or more) on Tuesday, he’ll tie Marleau and Denneny for the NHL record. If he does it on Tuesday and Thursday, then he’ll have the record all to himself. As it is, he is on fire to start this season and I, for one, am loving it.
An Unsung Star: Travis Zajac had a really good game today. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Sharks 14-3. Over the whole game at 5-on-5, the Devils were out-attempted by the Sharks, 40-49. In other words, Zajac and his line crushed their matchups, which was mostly against Joonas Doonski, Marcus Sorensen, and Antti Suomlea. It also included forcing Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Justin Braun to play a lot of defense. Zajac himself was dominant at the dot as he won 14 out of 18 draws, as he won the majority of them that were taken in each zone. Zajac played a ton of special teams and made some really smart plays that were never finished on, so he ended up being pointless. But he was a reliable option today. Far better than this other line.
Blergh: The line of Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha, and Stefan Noesen played quite well in the first two games of the season. Noesen was a fill-in for Jesper Bratt, who is still recovering from a fractured jaw, and he has done his job well in those two games. Today, those three forwards stunk. They were just not on the same page. For example, Noesen led a 3-on-2 in the first period and managed to put a pass behind both of them so the rush did not lead to anything. For another example, Johansson led a similar rush only for Noesen to go offside. These are specific examples that represented how little they created. As a result, San Jose went to town on them over and over. Each forward was out-shot by at least four in 5-on-5 play and the attempt differentials were so low that their CF%s were each below 30%. These are bad in general, especially when it is supposed to be the “second” offensive line on the depth chart.
What made their poor play stand out was that the line was scored on twice and it was noticeable. On the first goal, Pavelski was wide open in front of Kinkaid to put home a short rebound. Any help from Johansson was too late (I do blame another Devil more for this one). On the second goal, Zacha turned the puck over in the neutral zone to Meier and failed to tie up, foul, or do anything to deny Meier going to Couture, who wasn’t exactly defended well by Noesen, and just freely firing a puck forward. It was an ugly play for #37. Noesen put himself at risk of further critique when he put the Devils in a bad spot as he took a holding-the-stick minor with about four minutes left in a 3-2 game against a Sharks team with a terrifying looking power play.
John Hynes kept the line together for the most part after the first two periods. I find that curious as he could have moved some players around to provide a different look. Bratt would not have necessarily fixed this. This could all just be one bad game. Assuming 90-37-23 stays together, all eyes will be on them against Dallas to show that it was just one bad game and not a sign that the line will not be so effective.
Defense?: From watching the game early on, I knew that San Jose was stretching out the Devils’ PK on the first power play of the game with lateral puck movement to open up spaces to create opportunities. Even with that four-shot advantage, the Sharks put twelve on Kinkaid in the first period and kept piling on the rubber all game long. The pairing of Andy Greene and Damon Severson struggled in the run of play. While I would not fault them for the second goal against, the pairing had to play a lot of defense and it was not so effective. At times, they played like they were playing a sluggish Caps squad - except the Sharks were very alert and attentive on the ice today. The third period was kinder to them, but both them were deep in the red when it came to attempt, shot, and scoring chance differential. The pairing finished at 37.5 CF% and that is not something you want to see continue, especially since the Hischier line was their most common forward line in front of them and the line was actually positive in the run of play today.
While his 5-on-5 numbers were better than those two, Sami Vatanen had a rough game as well. Several of his zone exit attempts were failed adventures that served to have his teammates scramble more often. Vatanen was also quite guilty on the first goal against. He left the slot and focused on the puck instead of realizing that after his first man left, there was another behind the net. That man was Pavelski, who was able to get behind him easily and be in the perfect spot to put home a rebound for his 700th career point. Vatanen also had plenty of issues on the power play - which was so poor it requires its own section. He had six shots on net of his, which is good but he was all over the place and not necessarily in a good way today.
I cannot really state that the blueline as a whole did well today given how many shots and opportunities were allowed. I will give some praise to Ben Lovejoy, though. He is not fast, but I think he only got beaten by speedier players once today. He had one really good shot early on in the game, he took four attempts which is more than usual for him, and he was excellent in the last two penalty kills the Devils needed in order to secure the win. Out of the six, he was the least worst.
Please Dump the Drop/Back Pass on Power Play Breakouts: Rick Kowalsky effectively replaced Geoff Ward as the assistant coach that was in charge of the power play. While that change was made, today’s power play performance looked the same from the nights where Ward’s tactics were followed to a fault. On the majority of their breakouts on the power play, the Devils would utilize a back pass or a drop pass. The theory is that the puck carrier will take the puck into the neutral zone, turn or drop the puck back for his teammate to take up the puck or pass it across in the hopes of finding a seam for a zone entry. The theory is good and Washington popularized it the 2015-16 season. Corey Masisak at The Athletic noted that since instituting it last season, it was more successful than not in 2017-18. Today and so far in this young season, it has been anything but.
The back passes and drop passes are going way back as the Devils clearly show two players in their own zone as one man rushes up ice and the remaning two hang out at the blueline on each side. As three to five seconds pass for the pass receiver to get the puck and move it up, the opposing penalty killers were often in position to defend the entry. Either a Devil unwisely puts the puck to where a defender was, the Shark just takes or intercepts the puck, or the Devils go offside. This happened often and it was frustrating to see Devils like Vatanen skate up ice, have a clear lane to skate the puck through for a carry-in, and then turn around and throw a back pass that leads to a second rush through the neutral zone that ends up with an easy clear for the Sharks. I can accept that San Jose may be one of the better PK teams in the league, but the Devils made it easy for them today. And they kept doing it for all of their 5-on-4 advantages. The result: no 5-on-4 goals and six shots out of seven 5-on-4 opportunities that lasted a total of 13:39. To quote Ed Lover, “C’mon son!”
The only positive in the 5-on-4 for the Devils was that Hertl high-sticked Hischier in New Jersey’s end of the rink. This led to the ultimately successful 5-on-3. Even here, Ward’s fingerprints remain on the PP. We saw the dreaded ‘M’ to start the 5-on-3. This formation has two Devils above the circles, one in the middle, and two on each side at the goal line. In a two-man advantage, this puts two skaters in incredibly tight angles to shoot from. Fortunately, the skaters got away from it as time went on. The two side men moved up into the circles to allow for them to actually take a decent shot. Palmieri, at least, did so and he was able to score his goal with a great shot. That was the lone PP success of the day and it was important. So it worked despite that lousy ‘M’ to start.
However, the lack of results should point to the fact that this approach has not been working enough to do it as often as they have today. San Jose did not respect it and why would they? The Devils stubbornly stuck to this negative puck movement that only served for the breakout play to take more time to complete and often not succeed with what they wanted to do. I can understand a breakout play taking 18 seconds from clearance to entry if the Devils were getting in. But they were not doing it enough today. If the Devils want to keep it, then they need to make it an option play and trust Hall, Vatanen, and Butcher to make the right option. If there is a lane to skate into, then just skate it forward - don’t just make a back pass for the sake of it, which is what happened a lot and to a fault this afternoon. Maybe there are better approaches and ideas, but this is where I would suggest Kowalsky to start with for Tuesday’s game.
As for the PK: After being stretched apart and surviving a lot of attack time in the first period, the PK was able to get more clearances and have Kinkaid see the shots he would face in the final two. Again, that holding-the-stick call by Noesen and the too-many-men on the ice call back-to-back was a bad sequence. But Kinkaid came up big. Lovejoy came up big. Greene had some good decisions. Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac had some good moments. Even Zacha contributed despite his generally crummy performance today. While the Sharks did put up seven shots in this near four-minute flurry, the Devils were not caught with Sharks totally open on their weak side or with open Sharks in front. They kept the play in front of them as much they could, they looked and succeeded on most clearing attempts, and they held on in a tough situation. I appreciated the effort and ultimate success despite the first Sharks power play making me feel like I did not want to see it again for a while.
Ouch: This was a rough game from a pain standpoint. A forechecking success for Hall led to Brendan Dillon shoving him into the net in the first period. Hischier drew three calls, including whacked in the face by Erik Karlsson that led to a double-minor. While it was not a penalty, a suicide pass (seriously, it put the Devils right into Burns, who could have blown him up) led to the puck popping up and hitting Miles Wood (who had a good game with Zajac) in the mouth.
Thank You for Legibility: The penalty information on the scoreboard was too small on Thursday night. They made it much more prominent and easier to read today. Given that the Sharks took seven calls, this was a timely change as well as a good one. Thank you to the Devils organization and/or the Prudential Center staff.
One Last Thought: I really liked seeing Dea put the puck home as he did. Sure, it poached a goal from Mirco Mueller and a primary assist from Hall. (Aside #2: Don’t let anyone tell you secondary assists are worthless; Hall’s mattered on this one as he set up the shot from Mueller.) The puck trickled through Jones’ legs and it might have had enough to slide over the line. But I would rather see him ensure that there is a goal scored instead of watching it go in or try to box out defenders from making a play. Jones could have dove back in desperation to clear it from the goal line. Another Shark could have done something. Dea did not hesitate and as such, he made sure it would be a scoring play. I think this certainly helps his cause to stay in the lineup as a bottom-six winger as a decision like that may be one of little things that helps a coach pick one player over an another.
Your Take: The Devils pulled out a 3-2 win with a third period comeback for their first victory over San Jose since 2016 and their first one at home since 2011. It was a good afternoon to be a Devils fan. What is your take on today’s game? Who could have done a lot better? Who impressed you the most? What would you do differently about the Devils power play to make it more effective? What about the defense? What can the Devils do immediately to make themselves more prepared for Tuesday’s game against Dallas? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.