- The Devils ended their road schedule for the 2018 portion of the 2018-19 regular season with a win. They are now 4-12-3, which is just a little bit better than Ottawa in terms of point percentage (28.9% to 26.5%). The Devils can claim that they are not the worst road team in the NHL for the moment.
- The Devils’ road win in Boston snaps a four-game road winless streak. Their prior win was on December 6 against Los Angeles.
- The Devils’ win at Boston is their first win over an Eastern Conference team in a playoff position since November 21 when they beat Montreal at the Rock.
- The Devils’ win at Boston tonight was their first since October 26, 2013 according to Hockey-Reference. This site existed back then, so here is my recap of that win. It was a comeback effort from being down 1-3 to win 4-3 driven by the Devils’ power play.
- Most of all, goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood won his first NHL game tonight.
While goaltenders alone do not win games, they do play an important role. Just look at the 2018-19 Devils if you are not sure. Goaltending has been the team’s most visible problem this season. While Blackwood has had his struggles in the American Hockey League since turning pro, Blackwood has been better this season in the ‘A.’ Since being called up, he has made the most of this opportunity to play. He had to tonight. Boston put up 42 shots on net. Blackwood made 40 saves, was seemingly bailed out twice by the posts (the scorer did not agree), and took on pressure throughout the game. Blackwood absolutely earned this win.
From odd man rushes to many defensive breakdowns to seeing an extra skater with three minutes left in regulation, Blackwood saw an array of offensive manuevers from the Bruins as they tore through the Devils’ defense. The two goals that Boston did score cannot be blamed on the goaltender. The first, a goal by Chris Wagner, featured the Devils skaters completely broken down. Defensemen and forwards were just not in position and so John Moore found Wagner by the crease and he put it home. The second was a fluke deflection of Patrice Bergeron’s shin pad. That’s it. That alone is a good reason to believe the goaltender had a good night. Blackwood provided more.
In the crease, Blackwood was very quick in net. I recall when he was drafted, his athleticism was one of his most notable assets. I saw it tonight. He was moving very smoothly and efficiently in the crease. He was able to get back up after dropping down for a save and re-set his formation even if Boston kept the puck in the Devils’ end of the rink. He was smart with his leg pads as he attempted and often succeeded at kicking or turning shots aside to avoid tantalizing rebounds. His reactions to sudden movements by the opposition were on point. Whether it was Brad Marchand on his door step, Brandon Carlo rushing the crease on a shorthanded counter-attack, Bergeron and David Pastrnak hammering shots, Colby Cave walking in alone as if he is someone to know, or long shots from the right point (Blackwood’s left), Blackwood came up with not just a save but a stop that did not immediately put him in trouble. There were some good fortune and some unofficial posts being hit and some big misses by the B’s, but in total, Blackwood provided one of the best goaltending performances the Devils have had in a while. This was a better night than his first NHL start, which was in Columbus and certainly was not a bad one. I would hold off before anointing him the team’s new #2 or #1A or #1 goalie; but I would agree that he deserves more starts. Saturday against Carolina would be a good choice. (I’d save Keith Kinkaid and his wonderful post luck to go up against the frequent iron-hitters of Vancouver.)
Of course, goaltenders do not win games by themselves because they do not score and that was the other luxury Blackwood and the Devils had tonight. The Devils built up an early lead, they added to it, and their offense never fully faded. Sure, there were some shifts where the Bruins looked like bears and the Devils looked like sheep. The second period in particular got away from the Devils and there were some stretches where Boston took over the game in the third period as Blackwood weathered the storm. But the offense never went out completely. While Boston ran up 42 shots on net and an astonishing 72 attempts on net, the Devils posted 32 shots on Jaroslav Halak out of 49 and drew four power plays, and finished two one-on-one situations with the goaltender on top of adding an empty net goal. Thanks to Andy Greene and Damon Severson being a bit aggressive on offense early on, the Devils had a lead within the first minute of the game and they never gave it up. Blackwood had a cushion to work with, Blake Coleman provided a goal after Wagner’s goal to restore the two-goal lead in the third period, and the Devils made it even larger later on for additional insurance. This made Bergeron’s fortunate deflection more of a consolation goal and less of a worry of a full-on breakdown. The offensive output was almost as impressive as Blackwood tonight - and it was accomplished without Taylor Hall.
The long and short of this performance was that the Devils’ offense was very good, Blackwood was superb, the defense was a chaotic mess, and luck favored the Devils. The road has been very unkind to the Devils so far this season. Games against Good Teams ave also been very unkind to the Devils this season. Tonight was different and the Devils fans all over the world are happier for it. If only because the goaltender was not lit up like a Christmas tree.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Stanley Cup of Chowder for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight’s highlights:
Good Devils Games Not by Blackwood: I know he did not score or pick up that seemingly elusive assist, but Pavel Zacha was putting in work tonight. Those of you who wanted the young man to shoot the puck more got exactly what you wanted. Zacha put up 7 shots on net. No, that’s not 7 shots he was on the ice for that were taken by the Devils. That’s 7 shots directly off his stick. These were good shots too! None of them missed the net or were blocked. Six of them were in the scoring chance area. The one that was outside of that area was a shot off rush under pressure during a penalty kill. Halak saved it and Boyle was surprised enough by the rebound that he took a shot with the stick between his legs that Halak also had to save. When Zacha was on the ice tonight in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Bruins. He was one of three Devils that could say that tonight. It is a shame that it did not lead to any points, but Zacha really put in a strong performance.
One of the other players who can say he had a positive CF% despite the Bruins as a team out-attempting the Devils 61-39 was Miles Wood. Wood did not take seven shots but he created a lot of attention when he was able to go forward. Wood charged at pucks with his typical speed. He played on the puck with his head up instead of just flinging shots from wherever. He showed enough physical play without taking any penalties. In fact, he drew a tripping penalty from Kevan Miller when he was trying to breakaway in the third period. Wood’s moment of glory came 12 minutes into the third period. He beat Torey Krug to a loose puck in the neutral zone. He gained the zone, saw Nico Hischier all alone in the middle, and forced a backhand pass to Hischier with Krug riding him. It was soft enough for Hischier to skate onto it and pull off a sweet move to bring Halak down to roof a shot for a score. That made it 4-1 at the time. While Hischier deserves all the credit for finishing the play, Wood made it happen with a good decision. I didn’t like Wood off the puck so much, but he did enough in the neutral and offensive zones that I was ultimately pleased with what he did tonight.
By the way, that third player is a defenseman and I do not have a lot of love for him tonight. More on that in a bit.
Who else looked good? I think Blake Coleman deserves some credit for his third period performance. I thought he was largely invisible for the first two periods. He made himself more noticeable in the third. He blocked a shot from Krug off a faceoff, darted ahead, he beat Carlo with speed, and changed directions on Halak to finish his breakaway. That goal made it 3-1, which was huge as it restored a two-goal cushion against a Boston team that was running up the shot count. Coleman was equally important in keeping Boston’s second power play shotless and he tried to minimize the damage from when the Bruins would get going. Coleman also obtained some justice tonight. Late in the game, after Blackwood denied Marchand after Marchand turnstiled Greene, David Backes blindsided Coleman with a high hit. At 4-2 with two minutes left, Backes was rightly penalized. During the power play, Boston pulled Halak for an extra skater in the hopes of making it a one-goal game. Coleman dashed those hopes with a power play empty net goal. He converted his own power play. Eat that defeat, Backes.
I also liked what I saw out of Travis Zajac in the first period. I thought he was not as effective as time went on in the game, but he did a lot of good things early on. He helped create that first goal by Damon Severson. He obtained possession on the sideboards and with Greene pinching in a bit, Zajac made a good decision to pass it to the captain. Greene wisely passed it across to Severson heading to the net, who had a step on his man and then beat Halak. Zajac created other good opportunities in the first period. After then, it was not as notable, but there was that.
Who Didn’t Look Good: While Severson scored a goal and Ben Lovejoy was not run over in shot attempt differential, I hesitate to say good things about a defense that allowed 42 shots on a goalie. In general, the forwards were out of sync with the defensemen and Boston preyed on it all night long. Clearances were botched, plays were often chased, and tired bodies made matters worse as the Bruins had some shifts where only Blackwood and fortune denied them a goal. There was not a lot of fast or supportive in their own end tonight. While it makes Blackwood’s night even more impressive, I do not think the Devils are going to continue to succeed if the gameplan requires the goalie to be impressive night after night.
The worst in my view: the Captain. Greene made a good read to Severson but he was abysmal in his own end of the rink. Whereas scoring chances when Severson was on the ice were even at 7-7, Boston out-chanced the Devils 11-7 when Greene was out there. Plus, when Greene was out there, the Bruins out-attempted the Devils 31-13 (!!) and out-shot them 15-9. Greene was beaten badly in one-on-one situations (e.g. Marchand before the Backes penalty) and was pinned back on some long shifts. He also took a tripping minor by undercutting David Krejci’s skate near the end of the second period where Boston out-shot the Devils 19-9 and pulled within one. That was not smart by the captain in a game littered with errors by #6.
As for the forwards, I’m torn between the first and fourth lines. The fourth line of Brian Boyle, Drew Stafford, and Brett Seney maybe had all of one or two good shifts tonight. One or two shifts where they were putting in good work. Most of the time, Boston was beating them down in the run of play.
But the first line badly, badly, badly missed Taylor Hall.
Jesper Bratt was asked to fill in next to Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri. While Hischier scored a goal tonight, it was from a broken play where Wood and Stefan Noesen were involved and he was on because Zacha was unavailable. With his regular linemates, Hischier was a non-factor. He went 1-for-15 on faceoffs and when he stepped on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 8-24, out-shot 6-16, and out-chanced 5-9. I’m glad he scored a goal. It was a great goal. That was his sole positive contribution tonight. Palmieri also had a goal, which was more of a fluke than anything. During the Devils’ first power play tonight, he fired a shot at Halak. Halak saved it but he could not hold onto it. The rebound popped up, hit off Carlo, and dropped into the net. Other than that, Palmieri drew a penalty, took just two more shots on net, fell flat on a power play that gave Blackwood a highlight save on Carlo rushing in shorthanded, and also had a CF% below 30%. That’s not good. Bratt showed some life here and there and took three shots, but he was not creating much and he was drowning in the run of play against Boston like Hischier. When he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 9-25, out-shot 6-16, and out-chanced 6-9. And he didn’t score a goal.
This trio was a lot like Boyle’s line in that they were pinned back frequently. Unlike Boyle’s line, the Hischier line suffered a lot at the sticks of Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak. That is one of the best lines in the league. But they didn’t strike so much largely because of Blackwood, not because Bratt-Hischier-Palmieri was there.
Please Be OK Soon, Hall: I know it seems cute to write that No Hall equals Wins given this one and the win over Vegas earlier this month, but let’s cut the cuteness. Hall is the team’s offensive leader with 37 points in 33 games. His absence loomed large on that first line tonight (and the power play, which wasn’t that good despite the scores), even if its members combined for two goals apart from each other. It worked out well tonight against a shaky Halak, Boston’s #2; the Devils finished two one-on-ones; they got a big break for a PPG; and where Blackwood did so well that the Devils did not need all five goals to hold on for a win. The Devils are not good enough to have it continue to work well without Hall for an extended period of time.
A Great Defensive Breakdown Example: The most costly error came at the expense of the Lovejoy and Will Butcher pairing. It was the Wagner goal. It is also a great example of the nonsense on defense the Devils have shown many times this season. Here’s the clip from NHL.com:
It starts off innocently enough. Then it just falls apart. I cannot tell you why:
- Lovejoy chased his man up the sideboards and threw a hit.
- Butcher stuck with Danton Heinen at the goal line instead of being in front of the net.
- Seney started to turn up ice as the puck reversed around the boards.
- Boyle went towards the right from the slot instead of dropping down. Yes, he was picked a bit but there was no way he was going to catch Moore.
- Stafford, who was in the spot Lovejoy ended up in, moved away.
The result: Absolutely nobody in the slot to worry about Wagner or a huge passing lane to him. Absolutely nobody near Moore where he made that pass. Absolutely nobody in a position to even try to win the puck. (Lovejoy was the closest before the reverse) And a goal against that makes you feel bad for the goaltender.
The defensemen went to a man-coverage, the forwards seemingly were thinking it was zonal coverage (with nobody in the low slot), and Blackwood was hung out to dry like he was in a laundry commerical. I could go on about the defensive breakdowns, but this play is a great example of how things have gone really badly in 5-on-5 for the Devils in their own end this season.
A Note for the Penalty Kill: Boston’s first power play was threatening, but they survived thanks to Blackwood. The second power play was toothless thanks to the Devils’ penalty kill. The Devils not only held them to no shots but they took three themselves. And they did that one without Greene (meaning Sami Vatanen had to kill some of it) too. Of all of the issues I can have with this team, the PK remains a consistently structured and well-performing component. Nice job. Had Boyle scored on that crazy between-the-legs shot, it would have been amazing and on all of the highlight reels
Score Effects: A contributing factor to Boston rolling up big differentials in attempts in the second (24-16 in 5-on-5, 24-19 in all situations) and third (21-9 in 5-on-5, 26-15 in all situations) was the score. Boston absolutely played to it. When I write that Blackwood was impressive and had a cushion to work with, those were not mutually different thoughts. Part of the reason why he was impressive was that the Bruins were aggressive enough to extend shifts, break down the Devils skaters, and fire plenty of shots from many spots. That Blackwood gave up few juicy rebounds and rarely mishandled the puck amid the chaos and the pressure being brought by the Bruins is laudable for any goaltender, much less a rookie who is making his second ever start in the NHL.
Brad Marchand is Still a Magical Jerk in that Spells Must Somehow Keep Him from the Suspension List or Even the Penalty Box: Corey Masisak on Twitter noticed this “subtle” move by the Boston Sniffer:
Here's the Marchand drive-by on Blackwood. This angle doesn't show the principle point of contact or whatever, but it does show Marchand doing something stupid + getting away with it. He loves the "oh this guy nudged me so I have free license to launch myself into someone" move. pic.twitter.com/9MtEKpr07w— Corey Masisak (@cmasisak22) December 28, 2018
At the very least, he didn’t hop up and elbow someone to the side of the face. (By the way, no, Marcus Johansson also did not play tonight.)
One Last Thought: This was a very physical game. Lots of big hits, subtle actions, and a willingness to do dumb stuff like what Backes did to Coleman. I think Boston is the team that Philadelphia fans think their team is or should be. Ice up, Devils. Carolina will not be easy on Saturday and you do not want to disappoint The Kids.
Your Take: The Devils won 5-2, Blackwood looked fantastic, the offense was quite good, and special teams were a plus. The less said about the defense, the better. What did you think of tonight’s win? What was more impressive: Blackwood in the crease or Halak being beaten four times? What can the Devils do to build off this win? What should they do? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the victory in the comments.
Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread during the game. Thank you for reading.