Eventually, a team has to lose. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils became the latest and last team to take their first loss. They were defeated by the Colorado Avalanche by a final score of 3-5. Mikko Ratanen sealed the deal at the end with an empty netter; and Gabriel Landeskog finished his hat trick with about 3:22 left in regulation to put the Devils down 3-4 in a period where the Devils first went up 3-2. It was a lost lead. It was a downer of an ending at the Rock. And, most importantly, it was a deserved loss by the Devils.
In their first four games, the Devils established control or at least a run of competitive play through solid execution on the puck, teammates supporting each other off the puck, and trying to make fewer errors than their opponents. That all helped them win four straight and win them in an admirable way. That did not happen tonight. If anything, Colorado resembled the Devils of the last four games and the Devils more or less resembled their opponents. Pucks from passes bounced off sticks or missed their mark entirely. Players who literally passed up a good shooting lane for something better often resulted int he play yielding nothing. Shots did not easily get to Philipp Grubauer. The Devils took eight penalties that gave Colorado six power plays for a total of 10:36 tonight. Even if most of those were killed; that meant the Devils were forced to play defense for most of that 10:36. After four games where the Devils would force turnovers, win battles in the neutral zone and on the forecheck, and apply shifts of pressure, the Avs did that mostly to the Devils and it made the game as a whole more a struggle for the Devils and the fan.
In other words, the Avalanche played rather well and the Devils did not.
It was not all doom and gloom for the Devils. Special teams were a notable plus. Despite taking eight total penalties and conceding six power plays, the penalty kill only conceded one goal and five shots on net. That one goal was Gabriel Landeskog torching Andy Greene and then Keith Kinkaid on an individual rush. It was not like the wedge+1 was busted. They held the Avs to fewer shots than total opportunities, they generated three shots with one agonizing missed opportunity for Pavel Zacha, and handled the Avalanche well down a man. The real issue was that the PK had as much as action as they did, but they were not at fault for the game.
On the other end, the Devils’ power play was productive. While the PP units were held to four shots out of five opportunities, the Devils did score twice with their other goal occurring during a delayed penalty call on Colorado. The first PPG was an awesome finish for Nico Hischier where Travis Zajac took a cross ice pass from Taylor Hall and passed it to the center for Hischier to easily put the puck in the net on Grubauer’s flank. The second PPG was more of a fortunate break. Kyle Palmieri fired the puck towards the right side of the crease. Brian Boyle turned at the same time. While I think Palmieri wanted to get the pass on his stick, instead the puck hit off Boyle’s right skate to re-direct it into the net. Both of those power play goals put the Devils up at the time they were scored: 1-0 and 3-2, respectively. The other goal started with Hischier protecting the puck along the sideboards during the delayed call. He made a pass to Andy Greene, who came down into the zone to support him. Greene sent it across to the high slot where Hall hammered a one-timer past Grubauer’s left. That goal made it 2-2 in the second period as the extra skater came on the ice. While I would have liked more offense in general, 2 PPGs plus a goal during a delayed call is still something to be pleased with.
It was also pleasing to see Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier finally score their first goals of the season. One of the surprising things about the Devils’ winning streak is that these two were not scoring any of the team’s 17 goals. One would expect that if the Devils were winning games and lighting up opposing goalies, Hall at a minimum would be taking part. Nope. Both were close on various shooting situations in the last four games. They finally got one each today and can now breathe a little easier. They were still finding ways to contribute in those four other games. Even outside of the goals, Hall had two legitimate secondary assists and Hischier picked up a helper on Hall’s goal so they were at least productive tonight. In the long term that should get them going, so to speak.
And, in general, while the Avs were better on the puck and making fewer mistakes than the Devils and in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey by making life difficult for various players - like the Hischier line, actually, the Devils could have grounded a point out of this one. In the second period, Sven Andrighetto scored a goal on what should have been easy and what first appeared like the robbery of the decade by Kinkaid. Minutes later, Landeskog turned on the jets and made it 1-2. That could have put the Devils in a deeper hold, except they found a way to equalize and take advantage of a man advantage in the third period to go up 3-2. Unfortunately, Landeskog made a ridiculous deflection from his knees that tied up the game. Even more unfortunately, the 5-on-5 play was pretty much Colorado’s in the third period even in a gradual sense. While the Devils had their moments to make it 4-3 or keep the opposition honest, the Avs got their big opportunity and Landeskog didn’t miss. Disappointing to see a 3-2 lead turn into 3-4? Absolutely. Was it a walk in the park for the opposition? Not really. So there’s that - despite how the Avs were executing better than New Jersey, the Devils weren’t making it easy.
Except when they did, they suffered for it. Greene and Stefan Noesen ran into each other behind the net as Ratanen forced the play around the net. Mirco Mueller was by the right post, presumably to defend or deny a passing lane to Ratanen - who easily skated by him and made an easy pass past a lazy poke-check by Mueller right to Landeskog in the right circle for a one-timer. It was a breakdown when the Devils absolutely did not need one.
As such, I consider this to be a deserved loss. The Devils played a sloppy game at best, the Avs played better, and so I do not know who can be surprised that the Devils did not win this game. In an 82 game season, these nights will happen. It’s the first one. I’m glad it did not happen earlier. Now John Hynes, his staff, and the players can recognize that now is a time to learn from this game and try to be better for their next one on Saturday against the Second Rate Rivals.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Mile High Hockey, rkleppe has this recap of the Avalanche win.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights of tonight’s game:
Other Streaks That Ended: Palmieri did get a primary assist tonight. He did not get a goal at all. His goal streak is now over at four. His streak of scoring the opening goal to start off a season is also over at four. I wish that long one-timer that Grubauer swallowed up with less than a minute to play beat him, but it was not to be tonight. Provided Palmieri keeps firing away, he’ll be back to scoring in no time. That said, he finished tonight with just two shots on net, he and his line did not play well in 5-on-5 hockey tonight, and he took two calls - one poor one and one defend-able one. More on that in a bit.
Hischier’s streak of drawing at least one penalty also ended. There were a lot of penalties tonight but the referees did not believe #13 was done wrong - and I don’t think he was either. Given how he plays, I do not
Jean-Sebastien Dea’s goal streak of three games also ended. I thought Dea played fairly well. He served his role, he drew a penalty (Matt Nieto was caught hooking him down in the first period) and put in some strong PK shifts.
Keith Kinkaid’s hotness was doused with cold water. After giving up only four goals in his first four starts, he was beaten four times tonight. That is not to say that he was bad. No. I do not think he was bad in net or was a reason why the Devils lost this game. Out of the four, I think only the second one - Landeskog’s first - was a bad one to allow because he went down early against Landeskog’s rush and that opened up a spot for him to shoot at. I don’t know if he was trying to go for a Brodeur-style pokecheck but whatever it was, it did not work. You could argue for Landeskog’s third of the game, but that’s an open one timer from a dangerous spot - that tends to end badly for any goalie. He very nearly had Andrighetto’s goal which Andrighetto should have scored easily on and Langeskog’s second was ultimately a deflection from his knees that went through Mueller and Kinkaid. We still saw the composed, fundamentally sound Kinkaid tonight. I do not believe this game will suddenly send him down a tailspin. He was not really the issue tonight despite how many goals were score on him tonight.
About that Andrighetto Goal: So an abbreviated 4-on-3 turned into a 4-on-4 situation where a lost puck by Hall (!) turned into what should have been an easy score for Andrighetto. The puck came from behind the net to Alexander Kerfoot on the right side, who tossed a pass to his teammate on Kinkaid’s backside. This should have been easy but Andrighetto whiffed and nearly lost the puck. He still had Kinkaid beaten dead-to-rights and all the goalie could do was stretch out to his left and hope he would get it. And, live, it appeared he did with a glove save that just stunned everyone. Kinkaid denied a man with a half-empty net; he is truly on fire.
However, the goal was awarded to Andrighetto upon further review. The glove was over the line. The puck clearly went into the back of the glove, which was over the line. Therefore, it was a goal. This did not make the fans at the Rock happy. However, it was the right call. Mike Morreale provided this view on Twitter:
Confirmation of the Andrighetto goal at 1:17 of the second period. pic.twitter.com/LYXjniKhqe— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) October 19, 2018
Unfortunately, Kinkaid did not actually make the save of the decade on Andrighetto. He was close.
The Run of Play: In all situations, the Devils were not out-attempted and out-shot by a lot. In 5-on-5, it was much more in Colorado’s advantage. The Avs out-attempted the Devils 36-27, out-shot them 26-20, and out-chanced them 16-13. The attempts are instructive because even if they did not all lead to shots, they reflect who had the puck more often and trying to make something happen with it. Yes, the Devils had more high-danger chances but the tilting of the ice added to the Devils’ struggle along with their penalties and lost opportunities to attack by way of a bad pass or a bad receipt of a pass.
Only four Devils finished at 50% CF% or higher tonight: Mueller (!), Damon Severson, Blake Coleman, and Dea. When they were on the ice, the Devils either out-attempted and out-shot the Avs or matched them. Everyone else was worse with the pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Will Butcher getting pinned back a lot and the Hischier line struggling a lot as well. That also put a crimp in the Devils’ gameplan at 5-on-5 and why special teams helped the Devils stay in this game.
Mueller and Sami Vatanen drew a lot of Ratanen, Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. Over the whole game, the pairing did well. The issue with Mueller and Vatanen tonight was that when they were bad or they were stuck in their own end, it was a nightmare. The best non-scoring example would be right before Vatanen’s delay of game penalty. Mueller decided to pass the puck to Vatanen across the slot and in front of two Avalanche sticks. Thankfully, that did not end in disaster. Vatanen then stepped up, tried to launch a diagonal pass across the neutral zone, and the puck sailed over the glass. When they had issues, it was bad and it got to the point where Greene-Mueller and Butcher-Severson had a couple of shifts. Again, in the bigger picture of the entire 60-minute game, 25-45 was fine. But on those shifts where the Devils were chasing the play, they were even worse. And Mueller stood out in a bad way on the two third period goals against too.
Penalties - The Good, the Bad, and the Ticky-Tacky: The refs were trying to call it tight for about two periods and that led to a lot of infractions being whistled. After a first period full of them, the Devils never really adjusted as they took the next five in a row; four in the second period and one in the third. Some of them were really iffy such as the “hold” by Marcus Johansson or Palmieri’s first interference penalty (a cross-check was more appropriate). Palmieri’s second was understandable; while it was not much, it did deny MacKinnon a real scoring opportunity. An important thing to do, especially in a 1-1 game. But the remainder were just unnecessary penalties. Miles Wood’s minor penalties were not good ones to take at all. Vatanen’s delay of game call was entirely avoidable. Drew Stafford, who missed time in this game because he was wrecked from behind on a hard hit, threw an elbow on a forecheck at Nikita Zadorov. If the Devils are going to try to hang with teams, especially when the puck movement or the run of play is not going so well, then handing the opposition man advantage situations one after another is the opposite of helpful. Discipline was lacking for the Devils on the puck and with how they handle their opponents.
The Drew Stafford Debut: I do not believe that if a team is winning then no changes should be made. While the times may be filled with victories, players get hurt, perform poorly, and others make a case for ice time. John Quenneville was doing not much of note in the first four games of this season. So I understood the decision to put in Stafford for him. Stafford proceeded to take a bad hit (not his fault), take a bad penalty not long after his return to the game (which is his fault), and have all of one good shift on offense in the entire game. I think we will see Quenneville back in the lineup in the very near future. I do not think this switch led to the result either.
The Bigger Loss Tonight: In the second period, Zajac and Ratanen got tied up. It appeared Ratanen rolled Zajac’s leg over and so Zajac was in a lot of pain. He had to be helped off the ice as he put no weight on his right leg. I do not know if there has been any news, but I do hope he is OK. His absence was notable. Zajac may be a “third liner” now but he is a key center. If a line is having a bad game, then he can be slotted in to help salvage the unit. Zajac plays significant minutes on the first power play unit and the first penalty killing unit. This is not a player who just gets 14 minutes and just has to prevent disaster from happening. Zajac is an important player to the team, and he could have helped the Devils as time went on if only to have four full lines without much rotation of players. I hope he will recover very quickly from what he suffered. His loss is significant, particularly among the centers in the organization.
Speaking of injuries, Will Butcher did play tonight. Although I wonder if that shoulder issue he had on Tuesday caused his poor game tonight.
One Last Thought: Corey Masisak of The Athletic tweeted out that Eric Gryba was placed on waivers. This move was made in part to clear some space on the NJ roster. Jesper Bratt and Cory Schneider may be close to being activated. If it is for Schneider, the Devils were wise to hold onto Lack in case A) Schneider has a set back and B) teams may be hurting for goalies and a NHL vet like Lack to fill in for a few games as needed may lead a team to pick him up off waivers. If Gryba gets claimed, then it is not a huge loss as the Devils have other defensemen who can be a #8 or #9 defenseman in the organization. If Lack is claimed, then the Devils are stuck with Blackwood or Johnson as their #3 goalie. I think Gryba will clear. We’ll see soon enough.
Your Take: The Devils lost their first game of the season, 3-5. The Devils did not play well, they were sloppy on and off the puck, and they gave Colorado opportunities that they eventually cashed in on. These games will happen in a long season. Still, I want to know what you think about this loss. Who on the Devils did you think played well? Who did you think really struggled out there? What should the Devils learn from this before playing the Second Rate Rivals on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game. Thanks to everyone who was in the gamethread or following along with Mike on Twitter. Thank you for reading.