Leaving the Rock tonight, I felt sadness. Sadness for what I witnessed. Sadness for how the game ended. The New Jersey Devils lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in regulation by a 2-3 score. The Devils entered the third period down a goal; twenty minutes and seven shots on net later, the game ended with the Devils down a goal. The Devils have now lost three in a row, all in regulation, as they begin the toughest three-week part of their schedule. It was absolutely disappointing. Yet, I felt bad for two particular parties involved in this loss.
The first is the Devils’ playoff hopes. The Devils finished a division-heavy February with a 8-6-0 record and sitting on a cushion of points in fourth place. All the Devils needed to keep on doing is get results. But they have not received results. They moved up to 74 points with a great game in Pittsburgh, a difficult opponent in a difficult place to play, this past Tuesday. Since then, the Devils have simply not been good enough in their last three games. This game was a bit better than the other two, but more on that later. Still, they remain at 74 points.
As fate would have it, the Devils could have done more to help themselves out. Third-place Pittsburgh is only now just four points away - a win or two could have the Devils looking up more than just looking back. They have to look back now. Florida has charged up the standings with a six-game winning streak, which includes a recent win over New Jersey, and are now just four points behind them. Carolina, who also beat the Devils recently, has re-entered the wild card picture. Columbus is still there and they absolutely have the talent to stay in the picture. The Devils’ cushion has been assisted greatly by the “help” of other teams. However, how much longer can the Devils keep getting help? When will the Devils realize they have to keep helping themselves? This was not an issue in the first three months of the season and it wasn’t really an issue in February either. Yeah, there were some losing streaks, but the performances weren’t always so second-rate.
Mathematically, the odds are still greatly in New Jersey’s favor. But the prediction models and such are predicated on the Devils taking care of some business. The message from management by the trade deadline was clear: make the playoffs. They made two rental trades to help make the playoffs. They were careful for Cory Schneider’s return from injury so he’s prepared for this stretch run they’re now in. They activated an option year on head coach John Hynes’ contract to reduce any concern of whether he’ll last. These are all moves consistent with wanting to make the postseason. The fans absolutely want it based on what I hear at the Rock and what I see here and through the @AAtJerseyBlog account on Twitter. But the team on the ice needs to get results to do that and their streak of streaks isn’t providing a lot of confidence that they’ll get them.
While the math suggests to not fret yet, I left the Rock really wondering if this is a team that wants the postseason. Yes, Vegas and Carolina and Florida are good teams. You know what playoff-bound teams tend to be? They tend to be good teams. And good teams find ways to get results even when they’re playing good or better teams. The Devils should be expected to get something against good teams. The games have effectively been close and that has not been new to this team in this season. Yet, when I see a third period end where the team is down one goal and they follow up a 15-shot second period with just seven shots in 5-on-5 play (two were 6-on-5 and the one at the end was 6-on-4) and few being actual scoring chances, I have to question what they’re doing. Knowing the upcoming schedule, I’m really concerned about the playoff hopes. That’s what this loss and this losing streak has caused me to feel about that. And it’s sad.
That leads me to the second party that I feel bad for: Taylor Hall.
Taylor Hall is the New Jersey Devils’ Superstar. Period. He is getting legitimate MVP buzz because of what he has done in 2018. Hall has a point-streak of 25 games. And these aren’t points in garbage time. Tonight, he set up Sami Vatanen for a power play blast that tied up the game at 1-1 at the time of the goal. After a bad goal was allowed by Cory Schneider and the score was 1-3, Hall swooped in behind the net after a loose puck and put a wraparound through Marc-Andre Fleury’s legs to make it 2-3 right on the shift after the goal allowed. Look at this and play Glorious Domination in the background because it is completely glorious:
That’s a Superstar play. That’s a Superstar cracking 30 goals for the first time ever in his career. That’s a Superstar dragging his team back into contention. That’s a Superstar who absolutely did his job right then and there on that goal alone. The call from Steve Cangelosi is perfect, “Who else? It’s Taylor Hall!”
Of course, Hall did more than just create a goal and score one himself. Once again, the offense ran through Hall and his common linemates. Hall led the team with 7 of the team’s 35 shots on net. Kyle Palmieri and Nico Hischier combined for five more shots. The most common defenseman behind him was Sami Vatanen, who took five shots himself. Not that Hall was involved for every shot, but that’s a combined 17 out of 35 shots for four players. The numbers at NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick do not include the many zone entries that Hall led or the number of passes he connected others with. Hall was not losing pucks left and right like he was in Florida or Carolina. Hall came to play and he was a star, once again.
Once again, that was not enough.
That’s so frustrating to see. Hall has put up eighteen goals and eighteen assists in these 25 games in 2018 so far. Only Evgeni Malkin has scored more in this calendar year in the whole league. And, as Mike pointed out on Twitter after the game, the Devils are 11-12-2 during this epic point streak. Teams would fall over themselves with glee if their best skater had a 25-game point streak. They’d figure they’d be bathing in wins. Not this team. The 2017-18 Devils have not made the most of the historic run that Hall has going on. Why? Because for much of this run, the production really has been mostly from Hall. Here’s what reader PA Devil commented in the gamethread for tonight’s loss in response to another lamenting why the Devils have been dropping games:
If you want to know what the issue here is, I’ll give you a hint. The Devils have scored just 10 goals in their last 5 games. Only 2 of those goals didn’t involve Taylor Hall.
Hall has been legitimately putting the team on his back from an offensive standpoint. Honestly, the goaltender giving up 3 instead of 2 or 2 instead of 1 isn’t a big issue if someone else on the team that doesn’t play with Hall can score some goals. It’s not that the other players aren’t trying. But their execution has been flawed. Their passes have not been good enough. They lose pucks where they shouldn’t. They don’t make the zone exits or the zone entries that they should. Tonight, in particular, when Vegas was losing pucks in their own end, they did not always turn those turnovers into anything on net. Hall has been doing just about everything he can to drag this team to victories or at least results. And he’s not getting the support he deserves. Hall can’t do it all.
Hall wants the playoffs so badly. The management wants the playoffs so badly. I want the playoffs so badly and so does the majority of Devils fans all around the world. Yet, all of the rest of the Devils need to do is contribute and play smart hockey in support of what Hall is getting done. And they do not always do that. They did not do that tonight. And that is sad.
The Opposition Opinion: Mike Hannah has this recap at Knights on Ice, where he notes that the Knights snapped a three-game losing streak in this one. Great. And the next game against the Knights is in the Land of Rare Regulation Losses, Las Vegas. Great.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
About the Above: That was 1,300 words mostly from the heart about this game. Now let’s go to the mind and look at this one a little more objectively.
Not a Repeat of Sunrise or Raleigh: Whereas the Devils were played off the ice against Florida and Carolina, the Devils put up a better 5-on-5 performance against Vegas. Not a great one. But a better one. The Devils were absolutely excellent for about the last 10-12 minutes of the first period, pinning Vegas back and making Fleury work and be fortunate. Despite how the second ended up, the Devils did make Vegas play quite a bit of defense with 15 shots on net. The Devils largely kept Vegas from going off in the third period; they were held to four shots and only one really dangerous chance by the speedy William Karlsson.
Special teams were generally good. The goal scored was off a good play and a good shot from Vatanen, the Devils had a good look on the second one, and their three-second, last-gasp of a PP created probably the best shot they could have had - which was stopped. As for the penalty kill; the first kill was great and it wasn’t the PK that faltered on the PPGA. This went right.
In total, the Devils ended up out-attempting the Golden Knights 46-48 and out-shot them 28-20 in 5-on-5 play. After the last two games, that’s a step in the right direction.
But All Was Not Good in 5-on-5: After the first period, the heat map at Natural Stat Trick showed a big red blob in front of the net. As it should. The Devils crashed the net hard and were it not for some fortune (take your pick: players falling in the way, puck bouncing, puck, Blake Coleman getting mugged from behind to deny him a tap-in), they could have scored a bunch. By the end of the game, notice that the red blob ended up at the left point. As time went on, the Devils were unable to create much in front of the net or get pucks there. They tried, but it often became a case of something going awry; usually a Vegas player making a play on defense or a Devil just lost the puck. The attempts started to occur more from distance. I have to write attempts because plenty were not on target. This meant fewer dangerous opportunities and, as such, fewer plays where you’d think New Jersey would get one.
This contributed to the G-Knights out-chancing the Devils 24-20. Chances do include misses, but Vegas was able to get in closer more often than the Devils. Put it this way: When the Devils were crashing the net more in the first period, the Devils led in chances 10-7. Vegas turned it around to 7-11 and 3-8 in the following two periods. That speaks to how the Devils were both unable to get to where they should have with their attempts and how often Vegas was hitting back. Vegas showed themselves to be a fast team like New Jersey and they utilized their speed well when they were able to take advantage of a counter-attack or a bad pinch (looking at you, Vatanen). It helped keep the Devils honest in what ended up being a one-shot game. That was not in New Jersey’s favor in 5-on-5 play.
Exacerbating the 5-on-5 issue is that there was a lot of it. Referees Tom Chimelewski and TJ Luxmore were lax tonight. They let boarding calls by Brayden McNabb go. There was a lot of holding going on. There were some uncalled trips and cross-checks to the backs. This affected both teams. As a result of the many non-calls, about 53 of the 60 minutes tonight were in 5-on-5 play. Given that the Devils faded in this category as time went on, it became a hindrance. While I’m on the subject of time, the Devils did themselves no favors by starting off each period slowly. The first four or five minutes of each period had not a lot from New Jersey and more attacking from Vegas. The Devils had to rise above in each period with varying levels of success. It really hurt in the third period; when you’re down a goal, it’s better to have twenty minutes to work with rather than fourteen and change.
One could be positive and state that the Devils made some gains after two lackluster-at-best 5-on-5 performances. But I wouldn’t call this a good one.
The Goals Against: Of course, there were also goals. Two to one in 5-on-5 The one for New Jersey was Hall’s Superstar wraparound goal. The two against need some more detail.
The first goal against started with a failed zone exit. Tomas Hyka denied it and left it for Perron. Perron laid it off for Jon Merrill, who took a shot on net. Schneider stopped it as Erik Haula and Perron crashed the slot. Will Butcher was occupied and no other Devil was in a position to do anything. An unpressured Perron pounced on the loose puck and banged it in. The Devils skaters were caught out from the turnover and Schneider had no real chance. It was just bad on the team.
The second goal against started along the sideboards. Andy Greene did the right thing in winning the puck and sent it up the boards. Shea Theodore kept it in with a Devil (can’t recall who) was behind him. Instead of lifting a stick, that Devil tried to check it - it failed as the keep in was made. Eventually Ryan Reeves won a battle by the boards and puck went back to Theodore. He went D-to-D to Derek Engelland. With no pressure and a whole mess of bodies in the way, he unloaded a slapshot to the top corner. Sami Vatanen and Tomas Nosek were right in front of Schneider as Engelland wound up. Schneider had to guess; he went low and the shot went high. Again, a failed zone exit and no pressure on the shooter. In this one, a screen was involved.
What’s that? I hear you saying, “What about the third goal against? Aren’t you going to criticize Schneider?” Well, yes. That goal was all his fault. Perron took a shot and Schneider didn’t grab it. Rather, it appeared to be stopped in his left armpit. That would explain why he squeezed his arm against his body to try to hold onto it. Instead, the puck dropped to the ice and Tomas Tatar put it in. It was similar to how Hall scored in OT against Carolina a few weeks back. With the benefit of looking at video while writing this, I now see that the puck hit off the inside of his arm and dropped down before he could squeeze it. It was still a terrible goal to allow; he didn’t grab it like he should and he lost control. That was a power play goal scored in seconds and gave Vegas a short-lived two-goal lead. That’s on him. The other two, no, but that one, yes.
So Criticize Schneider!: It’s not that simple. For starters, the guy made a lot of difficult saves in his two appearances since his return. Tonight: He denied William Karlsson a bunch of times. He denied Jonathan Marchessault on two good shots. He made quick stops on Colin Miller, who surprisingly led the Knights in shots with five tonight. He stopped all of the counter-attacks and odd-man rushes against. Outside of the one to Tatar, the rebounds allowed weren’t egregious or impossible to clean up either.
For another, he has been beaten three times in those two games. Even with two of those goals being bad ones to allow, the Devils should be expected to score three goals in a game. The Devils finished tonight with an average of 2.86 goals scored per game. Most teams average about 2.7 per game. Three goals isn’t not an unreasonable ask for most NHL teams, including New Jersey. As stated earlier, the issue with the team these days is the lack of scoring outside of Hall.
I don’t like soft goals like anyone else. Schneider shouldn’t have dropped that puck that Tatar scored on. But let’s not pretend that Schneider is the only one who gives up bad goals either. Fleury gave up a pretty bad one to Hall on a wraparound. Right through the five-hole and with his stick off the ice. Yet, the Knights managed and Fleury made some stops. So did Schneider after the Tatar goal.
He made a bad mistake. It didn’t mean he was awful for all sixty minutes. Besides, the loss involves many other players. It’s not all on him, although Schneider played a role in it. There’s your criticism.
Suggested Others to Criticize Too: Where do I begin? Here are a bunch of names, although if I really want, I could do the whole team not named Hall.
- Michael Grabner. He contributed next to nothing tonight. He apparently had a shot on net. I couldn’t tell you if it was any good or not. It’s not so much that he needs to score to provide his value, but I’ll take some actual shots and attacking effort to start.
- Miles Wood. I loved his hustle early on. His speed was on display. He did very little with it. Pucks bounced off his stick or he missed on passes and often his chases ended with not much being created. Despite all of the space he got into, he had two shots on net and was on the ice for only 12 attempts in 5-on-5 play - while facing ten against. This was a game where he had the legs but he also needed the hands and the sense to make the most of it - and it wasn’t quite there.
- Sami Vatanen. His goal was sweet. His pinching in was picked on in the second period and he struggled greatly with some of the speedier Knights players. Granted, Vatanen is no Patrick Maroon when it comes to speed and Karlsson is a very fast player. But Vatanen was really only contributing plenty in one of the end of the rink. Andy Greene had to scramble a lot to help him out. There needed to be more in his own end. The end-result: the 6-45 pairing was out-chanced 1-10 and out-attempted 12-18. Shots were even, but that’s moot as the other two stats mean they were stuck in their own end in a bad way.
- Drew Stafford. On the one hand, he was one of the better possession players. On the other, he had one shot on net in a not-doing-much performance that lasted about ten minutes. Jesper Bratt was scratched for him. I would switch it back for Tuesday.
- Blake Coleman. He was robbed of a first period goal when he took lumber to his lumbar right as he tried to put in Patrick Maroon’s feed in front. Since then, what did Coleman do? He was a non-factor on the first two goals against. His penalty killing work remains appreciable, but he was not really helping in 5-on-5. Most of this game was in 5-on-5 so that was a problem. The coaches noticed and that’s why he had all of two shifts in the third period.
- Pavel Zacha. I feel bad for being critical of Zacha because he fell in the third period, he got up, and skated right to the bench favoring his left shoulder. He’s hurt. But his game prior to that was representative of how this night went for the Devils. When he would get the puck into a good location for a shot or a play, it would just wrong for him. The puck would fail off his stick; the defense would cut in for a deflection; Zacha would lose his footing and fall down; and so forth. Oh, and his best work was in the first period (the line he centered had three great chances that would have gone except for bad luck) and he finished his night with no shots on net. I’m actually let down more the more I look it. There’s a thought that he’s been playing better in recent weeks but I’ve yet to see the evidence in the past few games.
- Stefan Noesen. Noesen was an unsung hero in February with eight points and being on the ice for much more offense than defense. The Devils could have used some of that tonight. He was anonymous as well. I think his only contribution in the third period was being boarded by Brayden McNabb - which was, of course, not called.
- The offense of Damon Severson and John Moore. I thought these two did well on defense and the numbers back them up. Problem was the lack of offense from both. Seeing as attempts by the Devils drifted away from the front of the net as time went on, you’d figure on Severson or Moore to get some on target. After all, they’re defensemen. They should know how it goes. Not tonight. Moore had one shot on net and it was in the first period. Severson had some good looks but only two of his five attempts went on net. As both were present for good work from Hall and his line plus Zajac and Maroon, you’d figure on them factoring in more. Nope.
I’m sure there are others and some of you will let me know in the comments who they are and why. I’ll probably agree with most of it except for any criticism of Taylor Hall.
Around the Division: So the Devils loss keeps them at 74. Florida smacked down Philly so now the Cats are four points behind the Devils with three games in hand. Carolina lost in regulation so they stay back. As of this writing, Columbus ended the second period up 3-1 in San Jose. In conclusion, the Devils’ current spot in the standings is no longer safe. Just in case you want more reason to be unhappy about this losing streak.
A Reason to Love Natural Stat Trick: It’s great at checking things out at a game level. For example:
Taylor Hall played 1:37 of ice time with Brian Boyle and 1:03 with Drew Stafford. If you saw them together, it was for two, maybe, three shifts total. And together they had four attempts on net and two were on target while allowing none at all. Let’s not act as if Hynes stapled Hall with a production-challenged Boyle and Stafford for a long time; or that it was a total failure. Not that you want to do it a lot, but giving Hall an extra shift or two against lesser competition in a one-shot game is a decent idea. There is plenty to dislike about this game, this isn’t one of them.
One Last Thought: I would trade Hall’s epic and historical point streak for a team winning streak that secures the playoffs in a heartbeat. I think Hall would as well.
Your Take: The Devils lost 2-3 to Vegas as their three-week stretch of difficult games begins. Their only non-playoff opponent is coming up, but nobody is a pushover to a team with a three-game losing streak. I’ve written far too much about this loss, so please let me know what you think about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for putting the game preview together. Thanks to everyone who commented - especially PA Devil, who I quoted - in the Gamethread and those who followed along Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading 4,100+ words of ranting about this loss. Only here do you get this.