Tonight, the New Jersey Devils opened the Most Challenging Road Trip of the season in Nashville. The Nashville Predators won ten games in a row prior to tonight. That run ended tonight. Thanks to Keith Kinkaid, Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid, Sami Vatanen, and Keith Kinkaid, the Devils left Music City with a win. A five-round shootout deciding, 3-2 win. If you’re looking for a stolen game by the Devils, then this is it.
Allow me to explain. Nashville established their dominance early. They spent their first eighty seconds of the game swarming all over the Devils, making Taylor Hall among all Devils look like a minor leaguer, and Mattias Ekholm finished the whole sequence with a high shortside shot past Keith Kinkaid. That was Nashville’s first official shot of the game and it was a (stoppable) goal. Short of an injury, you couldn’t have asked for a worse start on the road. The Devils weren’t just down 0-1, it did not look even competitive.
Slowly, but surely, the Devils would have the puck in Nashville’s end of the rink. Usually for a one-and-done opportunity. The Devils would equalize. Miles Wood took the puck into the corner on his own, eventually won a battle for the puck to get back to Sami Vatanen at the point. He fired a slapshot, the puck stayed low through traffic, and goaltender Juuse Saros was beat. The goal seemed to have inspired the Devils to do more against Nashville. Like take a few attempts on their attacks, establish themselves through the neutral zone, and turn their blocks and Nashville’s misses into breakout plays. By the end of the first, the Devils put up more of a competitive effort.
The first period was weird in that the Predators definitely out-attacked the Devils. They out-attempted them 20-15. But the attempts just did not get to Kinkaid (one did beat him but it hit iron). It wasn’t until 1:39 was left in the period for Kinkaid to make a save. Of course, Nashville ran up four shots within those final one hundred seconds, including one from a cutting Filip Forsberg where Kinkaid stretched out to get a piece of it. It would be a sign of things to come for the rest of the game.
In the second and third periods, Nashville would absolutely get more of their shots on net while still out-attempting the Devils by a good margin. For every good shift by the Devils - and there were good ones - the Predators hit back with an even more dangerous one. Often times, it was led by The Face of the League, P.K. Subban, and his defensive partner Mattias Ekholm. Those two were given space and took space to fire away, make passes, and keep attacks going to hem in the Devils. It’s not an accident that when they were on the ice, the Predators out-attempted the Devils 37-13 in 5-on-5 play alone. Keith Kinkaid was utterly fantastic in the second and third periods. Shots through traffic, shots coming from angles, and shots from in close - Kinkaid just about got them all. And he had to be as Nashville put up 25 shots on net in those two periods alone.
The Devils would give Kinkaid and themselves a go-ahead goal to work with. Right as their second power play ended, Damon Severson launched a puck that arced towards the net. Brian Boyle got a piece on it and the puck got through. Boyle’s stick may have been too high, but the referees did not see it that way on review and the goal stood. The Devils were up 2-1. And they weren’t just forced back for the entire rest of the game. No, they had some chances created for what could have been a huge insurance goal. But they just did not go. Here are the chances that stood out to me: Stefan Noesen created a great opportunity for Blake Coleman, but he shanked a shot at a mostly open net in close in the second period. In the third period, Noesen set up Patrick Maroon on Saros’ doorstep - and Saros made the stop. Will Butcher played Miles Wood into Nashville’s zone and Wood got behind the defense and tried to go five-hole on Saros - which didn’t go. Late in the game, Taylor Hall had a glorious opportunity in the slot off a rebound and he didn’t finish it. All this plus a third period power play. The Devils could have used a third goal. If only to help out the sensational performance Kinkaid put on after that goal given up to Ekholm.
Namely because Nashville did tie it up. As it was throughout the game, the Devils were pinned back when the Predators got going. With 2:09 left, the Predators pulled Saros for an extra skater. The Preds would gain the zone, maintain possession at the perimeter, and played patiently. Eventually, a long shot would get through to Kinkaid: one from Ryan Ellis. The rebound went right to Ryan Johansen, who buried the rebound and sent the Nashville fans into a state of ecstasy over the equalizer. Kinkaid wasn’t going to stop that one. No goalie was going to. It was after a near-minute shift of defense in a game with several long shifts in their own end where exits were a struggle, blocks did not necessarily lead to exits, and the Devils were often at the mercy of the Predators hoping Kinkaid could get a stop and physics would be on their side. So the game was tied up.
In overtime, the Devils were maddeningly close to winning the game. Kinkaid had to come up big on two situations and the Devils had at least double of the chances - only for it to go awry. Some were good stops by Saros, such as denying Michael Grabner right on his door step after John Moore fed him for a one-timer. Or making a save on Taylor Hall in the slot. Other chances went awry because a pass missed the mark or a shot missed the net. Disaster would strike with about a minute to go. Grabner tripped Viktor Ardvisson after a Devils attack was thwarted. It was a monumentally stupid penalty. The Devils needed to hold on again for another 1:06 in a 3-on-4 situation. Adding to the challenge was Nashville keeping the puck in the Devils’ end, denying most of their clearances. But they did. Kinkaid made three stops as Nashville could not get the winining shot they were so close to getting.
At this point, I was mad about the game. Mad that the Devils could not score three goals in regulation again. Mad that Kinkaid played out of his mind and yet the Devils could still leave with a loss. Mad that the Devils could not hold onto the 2-1 lead late. Mad at Grabner at being such a net negative as a Devil; costing the team huge in overtime. While the Devils survived to get into the shootout, I was agonizing over how a team that badly needs a win could find a way to leave with a loss.
Say what you want about shootouts, but they certainly commanded my attention. Groaning with frustrating as I saw saves on Kyle Palmieri (first) and Drew Stafford (third) and a lost puck on a deke by Jesper Bratt (second). Sighing relief when Ryan Ellis (first) missed the net, Kevin Fiala (second) lost the puck straight up, and Kinkaid stopped Filip Forsberg (fourth). When Taylor Hall, who isn’t terribly successful at this, charged in and scored five-hole, I was hoping that would be it. Kyle Turris made Kinkaid look like a statue to tie it up. Brian Boyle went up fifth. He skated in slowly and beat Saros over the blocker to the top corner. Ken Daneyko immediately said “Come on, Keith” He echoed my thoughts and the thoughts of every Devils fan around the world at that moment. Craig Smith skated up for Nashville, skated in close, and Kinkaid knocked the puck away from Smith’s backhand. The Devils won the shootout. The Devils beat the team that won ten straight. The Devils won an important game.
From the numbers and just by watching the run of play, the Devils were not the better team tonight. They were outplayed. Worse, they failed to help themselves out once again amid the waves of offense led by the Subban-Ekholm pairing. In OT, the Devils survived two chances while failing on their own before Grabner really messed them up with a penalty. The shootout was on edge. This was very much a win stolen by the Devils. And given where we are in the season, that’s perfectly fine.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Rachel K at On the Forecheck notes how the Predators stole a point. Stole? How? They out-attempted New Jersey 62-42 in 5-on-5, 72-56 in all situations, and out-shot them 36-27 in all situations. The Predators were in control of much of this game. They weren’t the ones stealing anything tonight.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Fantastic Kinkaid: The first goal against was a stoppable one. But Kinkaid more than made up for it tonight. Denying Forsberg at the left post among his five shots on net made up for it. Denying all of six of the bombs from P.K. Subban’s stick made up for it. Kinkaid denying Turris twice at the start of the third period made up for it. Kinkaid getting a pad on Roman Josi’s backhander in a 4-on-4 situation in the second period made up for it. Kinkaid being huge in overtime made up for it. It would be great if Kinkaid didn’t give up the goal he did to Ekholm. But he was far and away the biggest reason why the Devils are leaving Nashville with anything tonight.
A Question to Raise: With three days off before a game in Vegas - a place where few teams have won anything - it’s a good question as to whether Kinkaid should get this game. Before you say absolutely, do note that there’s a three-game-in-four-night stretch in California after then where both goalies will be used. Keeping Cory Schneider idle for a week won’t help him get back on track. And it’s not like Kinkaid will stay hot after three days off either. That it’s a question is a testament to how well Kinkaid played tonight in a very difficult building.
Possession is Meaningful and They Had It: I’ll repeat the numbers: the Predators out-attempted the Devils 62-42 in regulation 5-on-5 play. Nashville took at least twenty shooting attempts and led in every period. While one would expect a losing team to do that, there’s a fine line to being out-attempted and getting shelled. It was more of the latter as more of those attempts got to Kinkaid in the second and third periods. For those who prefer looking at chances, Nashville led there too: 28-17. Sure, the high-danger ones were slightly New Jersey’s favor, 9-6. I’m not sure that should be seen as any kind of victory seeing as how often the Predators stayed in New Jersey’s end of the rink once they got going.
Overtime was the only period where the Devils really controlled more of the run of play. Which made it so frustrating to see their shots not beat Saros, hit the target, or even get made. It also amplified how mindless Grabner’s tripping penalty was tonight.
Bench Grabner?: To say Michael Grabner has had a slow start to his career as a Devil would be a charitable way to put it. Grabner was terrible tonight. In 5-on-5 play, while all but three Devils were negative in attempt differential, Grabner was the worst. When he was on the ice, the Predators out-attempted the Devils 16 to 5. While shots were low (4 to 2), chances weren’t (7 to 1). Grabner himself had all of one shot on net. It was a one-timer right in front of Saros in overtime. Scoring there would have redeemed him in the eyes of many fans. He didn’t and so those fans wondered what he is even doing. That tripping penalty in overtime was legitimate and incredibly bad by Grabner. The Devils escaped the 3-on-4 situation.
While the Devils are sort of short on forwards, at what point does John Hynes sit Grabner down for a game? While I liked his game against Montreal, he has been largely invisible or not helping in the other games. He could have cost the team a much-needed second point tonight. When is he going to get it together?
A Positive Unit: Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, and Patrick Maroon where the only Devils to have consistently attacked the Predators. Sure, Brian Boyle, Miles Wood and Drew Stafford had some good shifts. While not so dominant given their matchup, Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri had a moment here and there. But the only line to have not get out-attempted were these three. Coleman was so agonizingly close to scoring that I’m really wondering if he’s that similar to Jay Pandolfo. Noesen and Maroon were very good on the puck and both created and took a good number of opportunities on the puck. In total, these three combined for seven of the team’s 27 shots on net. They did their jobs fairly well amid the possession dominance by Nashville. If only Coleman finished a play.
Notable Observations: I thought Miles Wood and Brian Boyle made more of a positive impact on tonight’s game. Wood even backchecked a few times whereas Boyle did a lot of hard work. Both got on the scoresheet and both weren’t out-shot or out-attempted by a lot.
I really liked how Sami Vatanen was shooting the puck. His goal was lovely and his two other shots on net were good ones too. I would have liked to have seen him shoot the puck more, particularly on the power play. It wasn’t to be. Defensively, well, I can’t really praise a defense that conceded 36 shots in 65 minutes. And Johansen was technically Vatanen’s man in the extra skater situation. But the shots from 45 were good.
I enjoyed Hall scoring in the shootout because he was held somewhat in check tonight. He finished the game with two shots on net out of eight attempts. When he didn’t finish that rebound play in the third period, I was concerned if Hall is going cold. Ditto when he missed Vatanen on a 2-on-1 pass in overtime and missed the net later on. His one shot in the slot in overtime was denied by Saros. That he scored in a way that looked easy in the shootout gives me some confidence that he’s not going super-cold. That’s one of the last things the team needs now.
I absolutely did not enjoy him losing the puck early in the game on a hit that led to Ekholm taking the loose puck and coming back with a score.
While I thought Brian Gibbons and Blake Coleman filled in decently at center, I would really like one of Pavel Zacha or Travis Zajac to return for the Vegas game. Or even the California trip.
It would be great if Palmieri or Bratt could really take command of that right wing spot next to Hall and Nico Hischier soon. Neither really did tonight. While Palmieri finished tonight with more shots (2 to 1) and more individual attempts (5 to 1), both were often pinned back when they played with Hall and did not contribute a lot of offense.
In retrospect, the Devils could have been better served by a being a bit more aggressive on Subban and Ekholm. While both are very good puck handlers and could get around pressure (and did in a few spots), that they were left with loads of space to create and dictate Nashville’s offense resulted in a lot of shifts in New Jersey’s end of the rink. I cannot stress enough how well those two played tonight and how they often gave the Devils tons of problems.
Special Teams was One-Half Good Again: In close-score games on the road against top tier teams, opportunities like power plays are big deals. The Devils made little of it again. The second power play the Devils had was somewhat decent and Boyle’s goal came shortly after that one ended. The other two were just wastes of time. The first could have put the Devils up early; instead, they didn’t make Nashville pay for a too-many-men on the ice call. The third was a somewhat controversial call. Initially, it was thought to be a high-stick against Damon Severson. It was Nico Hischier’s stick who hit Severson high; but the foul was given to Ryan Hartman for tripping Severson. All the same, outside of one open attempt by Bratt, the Devils did nothing with it when they could have really used an insurance goal at the time. In total: four shots on net out of eight attempts in six minutes of play. And they weren’t terribly threatening attempts or shots either. This is the sort of thing that only makes life harder for the Devils when they really don’t need to do it. What they’ve been doing remains inefficient when it is not ineffective. Repeat after me: Fire Geoff Ward.
The Devils’ penalty kill deserves a lot of credit tonight. They killed off two power plays in regulation and survived a 3-on-4 in overtime. The two in regulation resulted in four shots in four minutes. But the Devils didn’t let Nashville own the zone for the whole time. In fact, Brian Gibbons drew a slash on a shorthanded rush up ice from Subban to end the first power play early. In overtime, they tried to support Kinkaid as best as possible. While the clearances weren’t always successful, they did work to keep the whole situation from falling apart.
Around the Division: The Devils need to win their games to best help themselves. As Columbus won last night, the Devils were behind them by a point prior to tonight’s game. They are now back in fourth place with a one-point lead on Columbus. Not getting a ROW out of Nashville isn’t ideal, but the goal is to stay ahead in points anyway.
It was a good thing that the Devils won too because they received little help again. Our Hated Rivals cannot be relied to do anything right. Florida beat them in a shootout so they’re three points back with three games in hand on the Devils. Philadelphia beat Winnipeg 2-1 so the Flyers remain three points ahead of the Devils. If they can fall apart, that may help the Devils’ cause. Washington beat San Jose for their only win in their California road trip, so they’re five points ahead. Pittsburgh did lose to Toronto, so they stay at four points ahead of the Devils. Carolina was idle. The point remains: The Devils have to take care of their business. Columbus and Florida remain the dangerous ones surrounding the two wild cards.
One Last Thought: March 10, 2018. There’s your answer for when the last time the Devils stole a win.
Mind you, this should not be celebrated as a good thing. Yes, it needs to be done from time to time. Yes, getting wins by any means necessary is important. For the Devils to continue to get wins, they can really help themselves out by performing better on the ice. This means not getting rolled in the first shift or the first few minutes of a period. This means not getting out-attempted and out-shot by large margins. This means making your power plays actually threaten to score in addition to killing penalties. This means being able to score three goals, which has become a really big problem in a league where the good teams are able to do this without too much of a problem. It’s such a problem, I’m going to repeat it:
The Devils really need to be able to score at least three goals in a game if they want to keep earning points in the standings.
It’s great that Kinkaid had a sensational performance. Yet, the Devils nearly lost this game even with Kinkaid playing a great game. And the Devils can ill-afford to lose games and drop points. For tonight, it is what it is. Even though they’re going on the road against difficult opponents, the Devils would do well to create more plays of their own, challenge the opposition more on defense, and finish more plays of their own such that they do not need the goalie to play supremely well and hope a deflection or a bounce doesn’t lead to goals against.
A repeat of this performance is not likely going to yield the same result. And, again, the Devils need the results to go their way.
Your Take: The Devils won in Nashville, 3-2 in a shootout. They got a much needed two points in the standings. They did it in one of the harder ways possible, but they did it. What’s your take on this win? Who was the most impressive skater on the Devils tonight? Who was the worst not named Grabner? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this one in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.