Late last night (by New Jersey time), the New Jersey Devils visited the Los Angeles Kings to play a game of hockey that counted in the National Hockey League regular season for 2018-19. This game did not need or deserve much hype before it began. Consider the matchup:
The Devils went into this game in last place in the Eastern Conference. They were winless in their last six games. The team’s hopes of building anything from last season have become fainter by the day. They have won two road games. The Kings went into this game in last place in the Western Conference. They have the worst record in the NHL, they already fired the coach, and the team seems out-of-place in a league they were crushing it in not that too long ago. The Kings have won just six out of sixteen home games this season before tonight. The heat for this matchup was off the charts for its lack of it. Mike called it the Last Bowl on Twitter. Let’s go with it.
The Last Bowl was triumphantly won by the New Jersey Devils. Granted, any win to snap a six-game winless streak feels like a triumph. I think it should be seen as such. Considering the opponent, I can understand why you may think that is a bit much. Then again, this was the Last Bowl. Beggars sitting in 16th in the East can’t be choosers.
In a way, I am more glad that the Devils didn’t rampage through the Kings for 60 minutes. I thought they eventually played well enough. I think they earned the win. But the story of this season is that the majority of the Devils’ previous wins were through performances where they were decisively cutting through their opponent. Games where the team looked sharp, the gameplan looked good, and multiple individual performances were great. On nights where the performance was above-average or worse, the Devils often ended with a loss no matter what else went right. On this very winless streak and the better part of the last six weeks, it was often New Jersey would make big mistakes on their way to not winning games. So to get ahead of the Kings, never go behind them in the game, and eventually win 6-3 despite some things not going their way (and to take advantage of somethings that it did, like Dion Phaneuf contributing to the Devils), I think that is almost as big of a positive as winning the game. If the Devils want to move on up in the standings, they will need to find ways to win when they are putting out a “B+” or worse performance, to take a phrase from Corey Masisak.
Again, any win to snap a streak should be celebrated and I am pleased to see that the Devils earned their third win on the road this season. I do not think it would be fair to assume or to start hoping this win can turn around the season or start a run. The Devils need to prove worthy of such hopes first. I certainly do hope they can build on it. I’d like to see further good work from a line like Zajac, Wood, and Coleman. I’d like to see Kyle Palmieri continue to be productive; he scored twice against LA breaking a six-game goalless streak. I’d like to see the Taylor Hall who is strong on the puck instead of turning it over. I’d like to see Nico Hischier continue to draw calls and cause problems. I’d like to see Will Butcher help create offense. I’d like more, too, but these were good performances that helped the team get this win in the Last Bowl.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Jewels from the Crown for the LA side of this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The First Period was Ugly: Turnovers. Bad zone exits. Generally poor defending. A goal scored. Which team had that? Both. Granted, in 5-on-5 play, Los Angeles was the better team. The Devils looked like they thought the game would get started at 10:50 PM ET instead of 10:30 PM ET as the Kings kept tilting the ice in their way. The Devils would be a bit more respectable after the first six minutes or so. But, the Devils would just fail at having the puck stay on their sticks or even get it beyond their own blueline at times. Even simple clearing attempts just to relieve some pressure were often denied by the Kings.
The good news is that the Devils did not pay the price for this. They took the pain, survived, and then eventually hit back a bit more. The line of Travis Zajac, Miles Wood, and Blake Coleman got things going. An over-exuberant Wood tried to jam a covered puck by Jonathan Quick about 10 times and the two got whistles from the resulting beef. While the 4-on-4 did not determine much, the Devils were a bit more respectable.
The breakthrough would come later in the first after Dion Phaneuf high sticked Nico Hischier in the run of play. The following Devils power play was actually good. They left Los Angeles’ zone once, they did not go back to their own end of the rink, they maintained possession, and they eventually did score. Unfortunately, it was not by Hischier, who was robbed in the slot by Derek Forbort’s leg on what is usually an easy score. But instead of lamenting that the Devils would seemingly never score a PPG again, Kyle Palmieri turned a cross-ice pass from Taylor Hall into a short-side scorcher past Quick. 1-0.
Alas, that lead would last only a few minutes. A quick breakout up ice found Brendan Leipsic - a recent waiver-wire pickup by LA - in space. Andy Greene could not get over and Keith Kinkaid was beaten straight-up on a shot to the far post. 1-1. Rough.
The period ended as it mostly was. Kind of sluggish, not particularly well played, and with a hint of spice as both teams are annoyed at being so low in the standings. It was an ugly period and 1-1 was a fair score. While the Kings led in attempts (20-13) and shots (11-7) in 5-on-5 play; the Devils generated five high-danger chances and attempts and shots in all situations were closer to even. That one power play was actually good. Could NJ do better though?
The More Open Second Period With More Things In It: Yes. The Zajac line scored right away. Coleman battled well in front with two close shots and Zajac pounded in the rebound 25 seconds into the period. 2-1 and that was nice. What was nicer was that the Devils went on a run where they out-shot the Kings 7-0 for six minutes. Dustin Brown beating Greene by a step led to the Kings’ first shot of the period. Prior to that, every line had a good shift against Los Angeles. There was even a sequence where the Devils missed connecting on four passes but still managed to keep the puck in the Kings’ end and generate a shot.
Alas, not all good things would last. After an ill-advised pinch by Sami Vatanen, the Kings counter-attacked with Austin Wagner, Drew Doughty, and Adrian Kempe. Kempe got behind Will Butcher, who was trying to defend a pass (which he obviously did not succeed) to tap in Doughty’s feed to make it 2-2. The Kings tied it up but the Devils responded well to it. They resumed their attack on Quick and the Kings defense that varied wildly between pylons in black jerseys to actual NHL-quality defending. Palmieri would strike again with a great shot in Jake Muzzin’s grill to beat Quick glove-side. That made it 3-2 a little bit past the half-way mark.
After a little lull, the Devils got a great break. Butcher fired a shot from the point and for reasons unbeknownst to me, Phaneuf decided to reach out in the air for it. You almost never see defending players do this. Why? Because of exactly what happened. Phaneuf managed to deflect this puck perfectly inside the left side of the net. Quick thought the shot would go more to his right, so he moved that way. In other words, Phaneuf tipped in a goal for New Jersey. 4-2. Perhaps this would mean the game would go the Devils’ way. I mean, the period was more favorable what with the Devils out-attempting LA 23-14 in 5-on-5 play and out-shooting them 14-9 in 5-on-5 as well. Chances were even but that’s not bad for a leading team.
Another sign was how a goal review went in New Jersey’s favor. A little bit after Phaneuf scored for Butcher; Muzzin caught Kinkaid at a sharp angle and fired a shot over his right shoulder. 99 times out of 100, that’s a goal. Tonight, the puck went above the shoulder, went down off the crossbar, off the right post, and out. Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko were a bit dumbfounded that the puck did not go in. I was stunned as well. I was expecting to see the puck ricochet in and out. Nope. No goal. The post luck of 2018 continues for Kinkaid. The Devils remained up 4-2 and that’s all good. That’s all great. Maybe NJ can take this lead undamaged into the second intermission?
Nope. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and Kinkaid has himself to blame for this one. After making a stop on Nate Thompson, the rebound went out ahead of Kinkaid. It was up for grabs. Damon Severson was skating down to collect it. Kinkaid decided to help him out by poking the puck forward. Like a pass. Instead, Kinkaid’s poke of the puck made it go right to Kyle Clifford instead of his teammate. Clifford buried a shot to make it 4-3. The goal is officially unassisted, but Kinkaid earned that primary there. Next time, put it into the corner, put it as far away as possible, or, better yet (and what should have happened), smother the puck and take the whistle!
The Devils would get another power play opportunity near the end of the period. Nico Hischier drew his third penalty of the night for the Devils’ second power play. Hischier was held up earlier in the period by Drew Doughty, but the refs thought Hischier sold it too much so they evened up the calls by giving Hischier an embellishment minor. Alas. The 4-on-4 did not yield much other than Kinkaid denying Tyler Toffoli on a breakaway. Anyway, Phaneuf gave a not-so-subtle hit to Hischier in the corner to deny him making a play, so the big defenseman got an interference minor. The Devils’ power play had a chance to make it a two-goal lead again.
They resembled the many power plays under their slump. Bad passes leading to pucks leaving LA’s zone. Few attempts, few looks at the net. An uncertainty on what the game plan is. The Devils did have 36 seconds of carry over time into the third. What happened then?
The Third Period was About Retaining and Expanding a Lead: Those 36 seconds yielded nothing. And the third period was short on offense. In 5-on-5, the Kings led in attempts, 12-11, and the Devils led in shots 6-4. Definitely a low-event third period. There was not much in the way of special teams. The Kings picked up their only power play of the night when Hall high-sticked Muzzin that could have been costly given it was 4-3 at the time. But the Devils killed the call. It was a period of resistance by the Devils and with eight total shots allowed in all situations, I’d say it was a success.
More importantly, the Devils added to this lead. Another deflection goal against Quick. This one was not by Phaneuf or another teammate of his, though. Vatanen one-timed a pass from Hall at the center point. Hischier re-directed the shot on its way to beat Quick to his left. It ended up being an insurance goal, but it was an important one to give the Devils a buffer. After all, given the three goals allowed and the fact that the Devils have been mired in another slump, a one-goal lead would have been a challenge to protect. Any chance to extend a lead is worthwhile in general and doubly-so these days for the Devils. Hall secured his third assist of the night, Hischier’s total jumped to one goal and three penalties drawn, and one of Vatanen’s many attempts (he had eight tonight) turned into an assist. Very nice.
From then on, the Devils maintained the lead. The Kings did not run roughshod all over the Devils, but they did attack a little bit more. Kinkaid made stops and denied a swarm of black jerseys in the final minute trying to jam a puck in to make it a one-goal game late. After a few attempts went awry, Coleman launched a long empty net goal to secure the win and boost the score. The third period was a successful one. Not a dominant one necessarily, but something the Devils needed in a season where the third period has seemingly been a problem.
Your Take: The Devils finally won! What was your take on the game? Who impressed you? Who did not? What do the Devils need to work on before their next game on Sunday in Anaheim? Please leave your answers and other comments about the game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for putting up the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running @AAtJerseyBlog for the game. Thank you for reading.