The buzzword ahead to tonight’s game on the MSG broadcast was compete. After getting pounded by Ottawa, the New Jersey Devils needed to compete better. Compete more. Compete harder. Up that compete level. Compete until you drop. Compete, there is no try. Compete with your hands in the air, just like you don’t care. We’re up all night to compete. She blinded me with compete. You get the idea. Then the game happened and the New Jersey Devils’ compete absolutely and utterly sucked tonight.
The Toronto Maple Leafs out-classed the Devils from start to finish and handed them another huge ‘L.’ Tonight, it was a 1-6 loss in the Supposed Center of the Hockey Universe. It was the Hockey Hall of Fame Game, so Martin Brodeur got to witness his team play like he’s rarely seen them since the vast majority of his teams actually did compete with talented rosters. Between the location and the pre-game ceremony, large swathes of the hockey media got to see the slumping Devils slump to new depths in another loss.
Let’s hit the “high” points of this one:
- Keith Kinkaid tried his best to keep this game a game in the first period. He succeeded. He continued to try as the game went on. He failed of not his own faults and then he failed of his own faults. Seriously, that goal by Reilly was terrible and giving up that much space shortside on Ennis was asking to be punished - and he was. But those goals made it 1-5 and 1-6; they didn’t decide the game. Still, neither he or Cory Schneider are within striking distance of the NHL average when it comes to save percentage. So this is a problem. The sad thing is that the root cause of many of the goals against are the skaters and I have little faith in the coaches in figuring that much out.
- Remember how the team had a catchphrase of “Fast, Attacking, and Supportive?” You need the puck on your stick for the first two and the players need to be on the same page - and coached up on the same page - for the third piece. The Devils didn’t have either tonight. Sure, the Devils ended up out-shooting Toronto overall at 39-32. But the attempt differential was on Toronto’s side for their first three goals and goals #4 and #5 came on an upswing in that regard according to Natural Stat Trick’s gameflow graph. The point is that the Devils’ swings in offense came when the Leafs were already up by a whole lot so it was all in consolation. As the Leafs made it 1-5 by the end of the second, they out-skated, out-controlled, out-executed, and out-played the Devils. They cruised through the third period and still made it 1-6 and a goal-review wiped away a 1-7 score. So, no, the Devils weren’t fast and attacking.
- As for supportive, you saw a lot of lack of help in all three zones. Taylor Hall was notably pushing forward on the puck, trying to make something happen only to falter every time for one reason or another. The goals against featured players making big mistakes like turnovers from Will Butcher (to Patrick Marleau on the way to Nazem Kadri) and Ben Lovejoy (right to Tyler Ennis), Damon Severson leaving Connor Brown in front, Andy Greene picking wrong on a 3-on-2 rush that ended with Andreas Johnsson batting one in, Mirco Mueller making a horrid zone exit that turned into an embarassing goal for Kinkaid by Morgan Reilly, and Sami Vatanen’s general terribleness tonight (one such shift ended with John Tavares’ goal). But who was helping out these defensemen? The forwards weren’t responsive enough to fill in gaps by them. Or jump up in coverage - Stefan Noesen failing to do so on Ennis comes to mind. Or help provide better options for exits such that the team wouldn’t have spent so many first period shifts in their own end. Or keep pucks on offense to avoid having to rush back or hope Kinkaid stops an odd-man rush or one-on-one counter attack. The larger point is what while the Devils didn’t concede 40+ shots like they did in Ottawa, the Leafs proved their point with 32 in total and 27 in the first two periods. By the way, even with Toronto cruising in the third, they still ended up ahead in attempts at 54-48 in 5-on-5 play and 69-58 in all situations.
- The only real positive tonight for the Devils was the PK. The penalty kill was perfect. Kinkaid was great as he withstood a lot of pressure and the PK units only allowed four shots total while taking two themselves. The only issue is that the calls the Devils took were lazy. Vatanen’s knee-on-knee shot on Tavares was bad by Vatanen. Aside: Vatanen was awful tonight. Anyway, Marcus Johansson high-sticked Kadri on offense; Joey Anderson took down an already covered Josh Leivo in the defensive slot; and Kyle Palmieri clipped Brown’s skates behind Butcher on a power play breakout. Not that it ended up mattering but these calls were the kinds taken by an undisciplined team that doesn’t want to execute the right way.
- The power play was about as threatening as a rubber ball against a lion. The Leafs sniffed out the backpass plenty of times but that didn’t stop the Devils from going for it on the breakout. Again, Vatanen and Butcher were bad in the lead up. And when the Devils did get possession and were able to move the puck around, the shooting left something to be desired. Frederik Andersen was tested but with only three shots on him out of three advantages, it was not nearly enough.
- Sure, some of the on-ice numbers from this game look really good. Hall and Nico Hischier came out ahead big time in 5-on-5. Butcher had the best attempt differential by far. Vatanen, Miles Wood, and even Brian Boyle broke 50% tonight. However, all of these were flawed. Hall and Hischier had flashes of great moves but were intermitten by the Devils’ lack of attack outside of garbage time. Butcher was a nightmare on the puck and he had issues with the Leafs’ pressure on him when he had it. Vatanen was a cavalcade of poor hockey from exits to puck control to shooting to general coverage throughout various shifts. Wood was a non-factor. Boyle played like a fourth-line center trying real hard just to keep up. I could go on, but you get the idea.
- Your “1” for New Jersey is thanks to Travis Zajac putting home a close rebound created by Blake Coleman. This one made it 1-3 and it led to the Devils’ best (for a given definition of best) run of play of the night. So much so that I honestly thought that this was an improvement over the Ottawa game. Sure, I wish it didn’t take going down three goals but the Devils weren’t giving up on the game. It was early enough the second period, another Devils goal would have made this game a lot more interesting. Alas, goals #4 and #5 came near the end of the second period, which put the game effectively out of doubt. And my zeal for looking for silver linings waned even more.
I was frustrated and bothered by the loss in Ottawa. This one disgusted me. Yes, the Maple Leafs are a talented team. More than the Devils. They are one of the top teams in the Atlantic and they will push to be one of the best in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs flexed on the Devils without the super macho man that is Auston Matthews. But it isn’t so much who the Devils lost to as much as it is how it happened. For all of the talk of compete, the Leafs worked more efficiently, smarter, and more effectively than the Devils. It wasn’t a game where one talented team just went “TALENT~!” and won. The Leafs put in the work and the Devils could not respond in kind. Not even Toronto coughed up the puck or whiffed on a shot or got caught in space. The Devils’ response to what the Leafs were doing tonight was nowhere near good enough to hang with teams.
Bad games and blowout losses happen. This is now the fourth one on this seven game road trip (I’m stretching “blowout” to include a 0-3 shutout loss, just go with it) and I’m sure Winnipeg is licking their chops for Sunday night already. It could very well be five in seven by the time the Devils get back to the Rock. A game like this would have been booed by an increasingly departing crowd in Newark between intermission. Since this game wasn’t in New Jersey, allow me to fill in if only because the compete sucked tonight:
The Opposition Opinion: Arvind. at Pension Plan Puppets has this short recap. I cannot disagree. The headline put a point on it just like Arvind has a period at the end of the name.
The Game Highlights: Sigh. From NHL.com:
The Debut of Bratt: After suffering a fractured jaw before the team’s season opener in Gothenberg, Bratt made his 2018-19 debut tonight. He was quick. He was faster on the puck than his linemates, Johansson and Brett Seney. He was not making much happen for the Devils. When he was on the ice, the Leafs out-attempted the Devils 8-16 and out-shot the Devils 4-10 in 5-on-5 play. I’m inclined to give Bratt a pass as this was his first game. I also want to note that CJ was right; he’s not a dragon ball either.
Leadership?: While the Devils sort-of responded to the score appropriately, it isn’t good that it took the team to go down by three to really push to attack more. It wasn’t good in the Devils’ end of the rink all night long. Given the lazy penalties, lazy coverage, and lack of support in parts tonight, where’s the leadership on this? Where’s the coaches on this? I understand these are professional athletes and they do not need carrots and sticks every period. But who is on this team and thinks this is acceptable? And if they don’t, why not speak up? Why not try something else or make some adjustments?
Duh: I appreciated how Cangialosi and Daneyko tried to find something positive at some point tonight during the game. They noted int he third how the Devils were out-shooting the Leafs. Well, yeah, losing teams tend to do that to their opposition. I feel bad for them. They have had to put a lot of lipstick on plenty of pigs in the last two to three weeks. They can’t keep running to Ulta to find more silver linings.
One Last Thought: Slumps are notorious for showing that if the team can find a way to fail, they will achieve it. The win over Pittsburgh was just a respite before suffering some huge losses with bad performances. I really hope this is rock bottom. I’m afraid that it’ll be in Winnipeg and it’ll be even worse.
Your Take: This game was bad, the Devils should feel bad about it, and I feel bad having to write this. Believe me, it may have been easy but it definitely is not enjoyable or fun. Again, I really hope this is somehow rock bottom. I’m sure you have thoughts about lots from this game. From Kinkaid giving up a six-pack of goals to Vatanen being a trainwreck to Mirco Mueller being the Swiss poor man’s version of Mike Mottau to Hall not able to make up for a lot of offensive passengers to John Hynes getting out-coached out of his shoes again to other things. Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview, to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account, and all of those who commented in the gamethread. Thank you for reading.