- Columbus being held to 19 shots, which a whole lot better than the 50 they dropped on the Devils in a blowout back on February 10.
- Keith Kinkaid only giving up two goals.
- Columbus playing without one of their best forwards, Nick Foligno.
- Sergey Bobrovsky, arguably the best goaltender in the Metropolitan Division, gifting a short-side squeaker at the post to Taylor Hall.
- Taylor Hall continuing his point streak to 19 games.
- The Devils out-shooting the Blue Jackets 11-2 and 9-4 in the second and third periods, respectively.
You’d probably assume that it would be a good night for the Devils. Those are all good and favorable things. Well, all of those things happened in a 1-2 loss to the Blue Jackets. The winning streak is over with a whimper.
Annoyed is a good word to describe my feelings about this loss. Not for the least of which how the game ended. With Kinkaid pulled with 1:44 left in regulation and an offensive zone faceoff, the Devils generated one shot on net, were pinned back in their own end, forced to block two attempts at an empty net, and iced the puck twice in one of the more stupidest ways imaginable. Forget not being on the same page, the six Devils skaters looked like they were reading different books. It’s one thing to not get the late equalizer, but the Devils did their best to minimize their own chances.
That’s a strange thing to write after a game where the Devils out-shot the Blue Jackets 31-19 and out-attempted them 54-39. Especially also knowing that the Devils generated more scoring chances: 27-18. But despite the soft goal allowed to Hall, Bobrovsky played a very good game and the Blue Jackets made a point of it to get in New Jersey’s way quite a bit to deny rebounds and help their goalie on jam plays.
I give the Devils credit for shutting Columbus down in the second and third periods. Even when the Blue Jackets had a good zone entry or were within a few feet of Kinkaid, the defensive effort stepped up. Checks were smartly made, battles were waged and won, and good decisions were made. After a first period where the Devils were totally loose and Columbus was exploiting the weakside and points for offense, that’s a big plus. Of course, despite only facing six (maybe actually eight or nine in actual reality and not in Devils’ scorer reality) shots, Kinkaid was beaten clean. A one-timer from some distance by Scott Harrington beat him. If it was closer or an incredibly well-placed shot, then it would not have been so bad. From what I saw, it appeared to be a stoppable shot - and it wasn’t stopped.
To that end, I give the Devils credit for keeping an attack going with two exceptions. The final few minutes of the game, particularly with the extra skater, was lacking when the Devils absolutely needed to throw everything at the net. Within the last five minutes, the Devils had only three shots and four attempts on Bobrovsky. As much as I liked Brian Boyle getting a one-timer off in the high slot, the Devils needed much more in a one-shot game.
The other exception is that familiar source of pain: the power play. The Blue Jackets entered this game with the worst road penalty kill success rate in the NHL at 68.9%. The Devils made them look like PK studs tonight. Not that the referees called a lot (and they definitely missed some calls when Nico Hischier was fouled hard late in the game), but the Devils had two power plays. Maybe a combined 30 seconds of those four minutes was actually functional. Even so, the team had a total of five shooting attempts, two shots on net; three attempts and zero shots on net on their second one. That second PP was in the third period of a 1-2 game. I’m not saying that a different formation or coach or set of players would have guaranteed a PPG. But this isn’t working. Jesper Bratt on the first unit isn’t working. The second unit running dump-and-chase entries aren’t working. Geoff Ward isn’t working. At what point will the Devils management address this aspect of the game? It could have absolutely made a difference tonight.
To be frank, what really annoys me about this loss is the impact of this game in the standings. If this happened, say, on Thursday night against Minnesota, then we wouldn’t be happy - but it wouldn’t be so damaging. A loss to a Western Conference team is still a loss - but only just that. Tonight was a game against a divisional opponent. Those are four-point swings. The Devils entered this game with some breathing room over Columbus and right next to Philadelphia in points. Columbus entered this game in some kind of disarray. The Devils are now behind Philly in points and Columbus is now five points back in addition to having some spring back in their proverbial step. Not that a Devils win would have doomed Columbus for good, but it would’ve helped make life a little easier for the Devils for the next few weeks. As it is February 20, we’re almost at the point where the “next few weeks” is most of the rest of this season. With a really tough March schedule coming up, the Devils need to win these games if only to prepare for things going awry in the middle of next month. They didn’t even get a point and so it is irksome.
This loss could be summarized as while some aspects didn’t go New Jersey’s way, the other team’s goalie played quite well and that was the difference. The Devils’ four game winning streak featured 17 goals and some poor opposition goaltending. Tonight, the opposition goaltending was good aside from the one goal allowed. Sure, Kinkaid gave up a stoppable goal that eventually became the game winner. But it’s really hard to win with only scoring one goal - and Kinkaid has no impact on that.
The Opposition Opinion: William Chase at The Cannon recapped the win, calling it “gritty” for the Jackets. I suppose.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Other Silver Linings for New Jersey: While the Devils lost and I wish they didn’t, there were some positive notables in this game outside of the usual (e.g. Hall having five shots, Hischier helping play go forward, etc.).
First: the fourth line was actually an asset tonight. Jimmy Hayes actually did some things on offense that appeared to be positive. He even had three (!) shots on net. Brian Boyle had two shots and didn’t falter off the puck. Blake Pietila was a guy on the ice. But the unit as a whole did quite well in the run of play. While it was for only about nine or so minutes, they dominated Columbus’ fourth line on top of giving the other Devils an opportunity to rest. If a fourth line can keep the puck going in the right direction, then that’s a big help.
Second: Will Butcher put on a good performance outside of the power play. He was a solid hand on the third pairing. So much so that I think he deserves to stay in the lineup ahead of Mirco Mueller.
Third: Blake Coleman did some things I honestly would not have expected from him. His cutback move in the third period for a close shot at Bobrovsky was praise-worthy all by itself. If Hall or Hischier did it, you’d go “woah.” You’d have to go wooooooah to see it from Coleman. I had no idea he had it in him. I also didn’t realize until later that he was very active on offense with five shots on net. Coleman used his speed smartly to stay involved on offense. I also thought the Blue Jacket he fouled in the first period, Pierre-Luc DuBois - sold it pretty well. But that’s moot now. In general, I liked what I saw out of Coleman. (Aside: Speaking of speed, Miles Wood would have been an interesting player to watch in this one. We’ll see him be interesting on Thursday and beyond, though.)
Fourth: I thought Damon Severson had an awesome game on defense. Columbus tried to spring players forwards on counter-attacks in the second period. They came close only once and Severson shut him down to turn what could’ve been danger into a totally harmless play. Severson was very good at maneuvering the puck in his own end such that the Devils could respond with an offensive move. John Moore wasn’t bad at all, but Severson was the standout in my view.
Darker Clouds for New Jersey: Other than the power play, the defense in the first period, and the 6-on-5 play, here is what I didn’t like from the Devils:
First: Sami Vatanen didn’t have a strong start to the game and I absolutely hated his icing near the end of the game. It almost looked like a set play, hoping that a super-long dump-in to Hall would somehow not be caught. It failed hard and all but ended the game. Yes, Kinkaid was trying to get off - but that meant the smarter play would have been to pass it to ANY OTHER DEVIL ON THE ICE. Or even wait until the sixth skater comes on for Kinkaid and pass it to him. Not launch a 180-footer (I’m guessing) to the corner for the easiest icing call possible. But Vatanen’s performance in general was just not all that strong. The defense wasn’t so strong, the shots weren’t so good, and let’s not talk about the power play either.
Second: Stefan Noesen came agonizingly close to tying up the game late in the second period. A shot by Travis Zajac led to a rebound and a scramble that Bobrovsky denied before Noesen could put it in. Noesen was understandably frustrated. That’s whatever. What I hated was his high-sticking penalty that he took right at the end of the second period. He got his stick high on Zach Werenski and the buzzer went without a Devils touch-up. It was a stupid, unnecessary penalty. While the Devils killed the call to start the third period, it meant the Devils really only had 18 minutes to get an equalizer instead of 20. It appeared to me that Noesen was benched for a few shifts. He deserved it.
Third: Ben Lovejoy’s total game wasn’t not so bad. But he is directly at fault for the first goal against. Lovejoy’s first error was trying to clear the puck with a bank off the boards. It was the right idea with Boone Jenner applying pressure. But the angle kept the puck from going far enough to go past the blueline. Werenski took the loose puck, went in, and fired a shot off the left post. With Kinkaid sprawling, Jenner was able to go in and put the puck into the net. As Werenski took the puck, Jenner easily went around Lovejoy and past him to freely get that rebound. Getting beaten by Jenner was Lovejoy’s second error and that was the costly one. Lovejoy was more careful as the game went on; but that was a costly pair of mistakes.
Fourth: Bratt and Palmieri had some issues in this one. Bratt was more or less struggling with maintaining puck control. While he was nimble in spots, he was prone to losing the puck to defenders or losing it on his own. I think that’s “the wall” he’s running into (and to that extent, he really shouldn’t be on the first unit of the power play). As for Palmieri, he played twenty minutes and registered one shot on net. I understand that Hall is firing away a lot and the hope is for Hischier to do more of it. But only one shot for Palmieri is just surprising. His game flourishes when he’s able to get and take shooting lanes. One shot and one missed shot is really not enough for him.
Praise for the Jackets: Sure, they won. Let’s note a few other than Bobrovsky who played well from my perspective:
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski had to play a lot of defense tonight. But it’s telling that the pairing was out-attempted by a 2:1 ratio (8 to 16) but were only out-shot 7-9. Werenski helped create Columbus’ first goal, too. Both defensemen were excellent at vacuuming up the Devils’ dump-and-chase tendencies, which increased in the third period. They also helped mitigate the pressure the Devils were bringing in the third too. This is a young pairing that’s only going to grow and become better.
Artemi Panarin was killing the Devils in the run of play until the third period or so. He also found his way onto the scoresheet again as he set up Harrington’s goal. He will continue to be a thorn in the side of other teams because, well, he’s that good with his offensive skillset. It wasn’t a constant force against the Devils, but he did damage to them once again this season. It also isn’t a surprise that two of Columbus better forwards tonight, DuBois and Cam Atkinson, skated alongside Panarin. If the Blue Jackets had a top-performing line, it was usually them.
Streaks: Nico Hischier’s four-game goal streak ended. He was awarded a primary assist on Hall’s goal, so he still has a six-game point streak going. Hall’s now up to 19 games in a row with at least a point. I’m sure he’d rather have the win. Me too.
Around the Division: Sigh. OK. Yesterday, the Isles lost and the Capitals won in regulation. Tonight, the Capitals lost in regulation to Tampa Bay. Philadelphia came from behind to tie it up and beat Montreal in OT. In other words, a Devils win would have kept the Isles further back, moved a little closer to the Capitals (may not be a realistic target but something to strive for), and kept up in points with Philadelphia. That would have been good. That did not happen. Since the Devils lost in regulation to Columbus, the Blue Jackets are now five points back of New Jersey in the second wild card spot and the Flyers have a two-point lead. Those three teams in the preceding sentence all have 60 games played too. The Devils are still solidly in fourth place for the time being, but it behooves the Devils to get back to winning ways A.S.A.P. (and to beat the Isles on Saturday).
CLANGA-CLANGA-CLANGA: In my section, Section 1, there was a large Swiss contingent behind me. Presumably, they were there for Nico. More importantly, two older gentlemen brought large bells on belts with them. From the second period onward, any Devils scoring chance led to a lot of clanging of those bells. I can assure you, they were functional. I don’t mind atmosphere at the game and I can still hear out of my left ear, so it is what it is. The odd part of it was that at one point, an usher came down to ask them to cease (presumably somebody complained) only for a camera operator to ask to let them keep ringing the bell for the big screen. The camera operator - and the bells - won. And so they continued into the third period. Will this lead to more instruments making their way into the Rock? I don’t know, but I think I know better what a football game in Starkville, Mississippi may be like.
One Last Thought: How is it that the Devils’ collective intelligence falls whenever they have an extra skater on the ice? 5-on-5, the Devils have had some really good performances and there were some excellent shifts by the Devils tonight. But when it’s 5-on-4 or 6-on-5, unless something breaks their way fast (e.g. Hall’s equalizer in Philly last week) or too obvious to miss (e.g. Nico’s PPG in Tampa), the Devils just play really, really stupid hockey. Dump-ins with no support, passes without communication, hesitating when they shouldn’t be, being forced to defend in what should be offensive situations, and so forth. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-2 to have their winning streak end at four. What do you make of this loss? Is it really just a tough loss to a goalie playing really well, or is it the sign of worse things to come? What can the Devils learn from this one before their next game against Minnesota? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.