Corey Masisak at The Athletic ($) wrote a great article today about a key reason why the New Jersey Devils were down in the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. The issue is in the margins. That is, the Devils have been losing third period leads, dropping games in overtime, and unable to pick up one or two points in several close games this season. Last season’s team grinded out a lot of those. Masisak’s point is that while the Devils generally take care of business when they play really well, they have failed to get much of anything when they don’t. And they are not good enough to survive all of these setbacks in the margins. His article could not have been better timed as the Devils provided a great example of what Masisak discussed in tonight’s 3-4 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.
Was it an “A” performance? No. It wasn’t bad. By the end of regulation, total attempts were 59-58 in favor of Florida and shots were 33-32 in favor of Florida. Hardly massive leads. The gameflow at Natural Stat Trick points to the game swinging a bit in New Jersey’s favor in the second period only to swing more favorably for Florida by the game’s end. Even so, the counts in all situation and 5-on-5 situation hockey were really close. Nobody really had a decisive advantage when it came to attempts, shots, scoring chances, or high-danger scoring chances tonight. The two teams traded it off for the most part. So the Devils did not rampage through the Panthers, but they also did not play lifeless hockey for sixty minutes either. To Masisak’s point, this could be called a “B” performance and it was bereft of a positive result.
Did the Devils have a third period lead? They earned one - and lost it. The Devils even built up a two-goal lead in the second period and lost it within the same period.
The first lead was thanks to Miles Wood tipping in a Sami Vatanen shot for the first goal and Blake Coleman taking a lost puck from Aleksander Barkov and scoring on a shorthanded breakaway. Unfortunately, that same same power play became a 3-on-5 thanks to a slashing call on Travis Zajac. Barkov would get revenge by scoring with four seconds left on the two-man disadvantage. Later in the period, a blocked flipped pass in the neutral zone by Mackenzie Weegar caught the Devils out-numbered and a trailing Jared McCann beat Keith Kinkaid straight up off the rush to make it 2-2.
Masisak noted that while the Devils’ success rates on the penalty kill and power play have been good, they’re about breaking even in terms of goals. It was another such night as the Devils got a shorty but conceded a power play goal. Not the worst out-come but another data point to contribute to something that is literally not positive.
Anyway, the Devils would re-take the lead in the third period. Another shot by Vatanen was re-directed into the net. This time it was by Jesper Bratt, who was one of New Jersey’s better attacking forwards tonight. The Devils made it 3-2 with 8:33 left to play. Unfortunately, the opposition found a way to tie it up. Late in the third, Reimer was pulled for an extra skater. With 1:59 left to play, Blake Coleman iced the puck. The Devils would force an exit after the faceoff, but the Panthers recovered the puck quickly and attacked down the left side. Evgeny Dadonov played in Barkov, Barkov drew pressure down to the corner and tossed the puck back to Jonathan Huberdeau. They had a little give and go as Huberdeau crashed towards the net. Kinkaid made the save on Huberdeau’s shot and Huberdeau continued to fly in to bury the rebound. 3-3.
The Devils nearly lost the game outright when Dryden Hunt turned a bad pass by Egor Yakovlev into a breakaway and Hunt beat Kinkaid - but not the left post. Still, the Devils had late leads and failed to hold onto them yet again. What could have been the Devils’ third road win of the season in regulation became the team’s fourth overtime period of the season.
Did the Devils stink in overtime again? Yes! Once again, the Devils had no shots on net. Once again, the Devils had no attempts on net. The first minute or so was solid possession. Things went awry when Pavel Zacha missed Taylor Hall on a pass up ice. The Panthers recovered and a long pass came to Mike Hoffman for a 2-on-1. Hoffman ripped one past Kinkaid and it appeared to be over. The ref called a goal. The horn sounded. I thought the hard shot went in and out. Confetti and streamers fell. Nope. The puck hit the post upon review. Kinkaid and the Devils were bailed out again.
On the restart, the Devils lost the faceoff, Aaron Ekblad took the puck all the way back and then moved it up ice to Huberdeau. Huberdeau went around some pressure by Bratt and streaked down the middle. There was a make-shift two-on-one with Huberdeau (puck carrier) and Hoffman (in the left circle) against Zajac (in the middle). Both Kinkaid and Zajac focused on the puck. Huberdeau passed it and Hoffman did not hit the frame on his one-timer. He scored. That’s game. 0-4 in OT for the season, or four dropped points. Not that the Devils were amazing beyond regulation last season, but they won more overtimes (and shootouts) than they lost. I cannot even blame a coaching decision or a lineup decision. The players were just beat.
So what now? Masisak does not know. Maybe there’s a trade. Maybe there is a radical move on the roster. Maybe the team just learns to live with it and see what the lottery does.
My opinion, for whatever it is worth, this was a far better game than last night’s game. Could the Devils have played better? Yes. Could it have been a lot worse? You bet. The disappointment stems largely from the facts that the Devils lost another lead late in regulation, they have yet to win in overtime, and they’re in the basement of their own division and just lost to the team in the basement of the Atlantic. If the first two events were more uncommon and/or the Devils were in a better position in the standings, then I would not be so down about the loss. I do not get to choose my own reality though. The Devils squandered another game, another “L” among the margins, and it is another reason why the fans are not pleased.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights which go bad for the team we all support by the end of it:
Yay: Miles Wood has scored his second goal of the season tonight. His first came against Tampa Bay on October 30. Wood has been demoted to fourth line duty over the past several weeks and he has done little to make a case that he should not be there. It’s not just the goals, his shots were not very good, he did not always have a good amount of them, his speed was not always used smartly, and he didn’t show much smarts off the puck. With Marcus Johansson ruled out today with a lower-body injury, Wood was given a chance to play higher up in the roster. While his deflection was at least partially good fortune, Wood was a contributor tonight. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted Florida 11-6 and out-shot them 5-2. That’s not nothing. He also stayed out of the box even when the game got more heated. I’m not saying he should push Zacha or Johansson to a different line when Johansson is healthy, but Wood did well for himself here.
Speaking of second goals of the season, Bratt had himself a notable night alongside Hall and Nico Hischier. He was flying forward early and often. Like last season when Palmieri was out, the unit of 9-13-63 threatened opponents. Bratt finished the night with three shots out of four attempts; Hischier had three shots out of six attempts; and Hall had two shots out of eight attempts (five missed). The line stayed on the positive side of CF% and SF%; further evidence of their effectiveness. Most of all, Bratt tipped in a Vatanen shot to put the Devils up 3-2 in the third period. Bratt now has two goals and five assists in ten games since missing the beginning of the season with a broken jaw. That deserves a “Yay.”
As far as some under the radar players, look no further than Will Butcher and Brett Seney. When Butcher was on the ice, the Devils were frequently attacking as they out-attempted the Panthers 18-5 and out-shot them 10-4 in 5-on-5 play. Butcher was also was firing away more than usual with three shots out of six attempts; he at least out-did Ben Lovejoy when it came to firing pucks for a change. As for Seney, the Devils were also usually attacking when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play too. In addition, Seney actually led the Devils with four shots on net tonight and he drew a tripping penalty from Michael Matheson that led to as dominant power play effort without scoring as one would see. These two did not make it to the scoresheet, but they played quite well.
In the Middle: I’m mixed on Sami Vatanen’s performance tonight. On the one hand, Vatanen’s shots actually yielded something productive for a change with two goals. Vatanen has yet to score in 5-on-5 play himself this season but these are positive activities from a defenseman who can really fire it. He also had some miscues. For example, he got stuffed at the point by Hunt, who broke away with the puck. Egor Yakovlev skated real hard to catch up and hold him up. That led to the Devils’ fourth penalty kill and Vatanen was part of the reason why. More crucially, when Vatanen was on the ice, the Devils were forced to defend more. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted 14-19 and out-shot 6-7. Not huge numbers but given how other defensemen saw positive values, that stuck out to me.
Boo: The shorthanded goal was sweet, but that was pretty much it in terms of positives out of Blake Coleman tonight. When Coleman was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 4-13 and out-shot 3-6. While he helped get that one clearance in the 5-on-6 situation; it wasn’t successful enough and Coleman iced the puck prior to that play that required said clearance. It could have been worse, he could have been Zajac.
Oh, this was not a good night at all for #19. Zajac was really bad tonight. Zajac stuck out like a sore thumb on the overtime-losing goal-scoring play by Florida. Like Coleman, Zajac did not help make that 5-on-6 situation a success. Unlike Coleman, Zajac took an unneeded slashing penalty on Huberdeau during the penalty kill Coleman scored on. That made it a 3-on-5 situation that ultimately ended with Barkov scoring. When Zajac was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted 3-20 (!!!) and out-shot 3-11. It is a wonder of Kinkaid and the posts that Florida did not score against Zajac and his line. He still had a bad game.
By the way, the third man of that line was Stefan Noesen, who took one silly tripping penalty by stupidly tripping Barkov in the neutral zone, and also got owned in possession. The line is worth nothing because it also partially explains why Andy Greene was stuck on defense so much. So let’s dive into those Natural Stat Trick Game Stats:
The opposition section at Natural Stat Trick listed the following opponents who had at least four minutes of 5-on-5 time against Zajac: Troy Brouwer, Barkov, Dadonov, Hoffman, and Hunt. Against each one of these, the differentials in attempts and shots are ugly. In other words, Zajac lost the matchup. He should not feel too terrible; Barkov, Dadonov, and Hoffman are fearsome as Barkov is basically Florida’s version of Patrice Bergeron and Hoffman has been an offensive machine. The last of his seven (!) shots on net was the OT winner.
Anyway, since Zajac lost his matchups, it was likely his unit did as well. John Hynes kept Zajac with Coleman (2-12 in attempts together) and Noesen (2-7 together) up front with Greene (1-10 together) and Damon Severson (1-7 together) behind him. It’s not like Hynes did not try one or two switches; Zajac’s 4:51 with Vatanen was also hideous (1-8). I know it was a road game and I suspect Hynes figured on having one line get wrecked so other units could have easier matchups. While they were not scored on, it did not help very much in the cause of getting forward (they also saw no goals scored in 5-on-5). After all, Coleman got his goal as a shorty and Vatanen had his shots re-directed in by different players.
Quick Aside: How come Andy Greene had a worse CF% (10-18, 35.7%) than his partner, Severson (14-17, 45.1%)? Because Greene had 1:18 of ice time with Ben Lovejoy where they suffered five attempts by Florida and zero by New Jersey. This was likely an overrun from after a power play ended. Still, it is extra time in their own end and likely time where the play did not go in-and-out quickly. Sometimes a rough shift or two away from the regular partner will cause these differences. It is so between Butcher and Lovejoy.
What of Yak?: Again, I do not think Egor Yakovlev had a bad game at all overall. He was forced into that holding call out of a bad situation. When he was on the ice, the Devils tended to do well as the Devils out-attempted Florida 18-14 and out-shot them 11-5 when he was on the ice. However, Yakovlev could have done better in the 5-on-6 situation and he nearly gave Hunt an assist on a potential heartbreaking and game winning goal. While they were not huge mistakes that warrant a benching on its own, I’m not sure he did enough good things himself to keep Mirco Mueller out for more games at the moment. Feel free to disagree.
Three Post Night: Keith Kinkaid did make some great saves tonight. I do not think he was the issue. Maybe he’d like to have the McCann goal back but I do not think the other three were his fault or all that soft either.
He also had the post help him three times, with one coming near the end of regulation and one giving the Devils a brief respite in OT. Typically, if the puck hits the post, then the goalie was usually beaten on the shot. I fear it is going to get ugly when those pucks start going in off the iron instead of hitting it and going out. But he did well and he did not put the team in a hole.
Uh...: The next set of games is a back-to-back with Washington (in Washington) and Winnipeg (at home). I’m not really feeling confident here. Or how Hynes should handle each game.
One Last Thought: The Devils will be hosting their annual Toy Drive on December 1 for that Winnipeg game and December 3 against Tampa Bay. The team may not be good, but come out anyway and bring a toy and put a smile on someone’s face, even if the Devils may not do so in either game. After all, they did just squander this game to Florida.
Your Take: The Devils lost 3-4 in overtime to Florida with all kinds of familiar issues. What’s your take on this loss? Who impressed you? Who did you think had a bad game? What should the Devils do to turn anything around before their upcoming and challenging back-to-back set with the Caps and Jets? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.
Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog Twitter account during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.