In the last three games, the New Jersey Devils lost all three in regulation with five total goals scored. Tonight, the Devils broke their streak by burying the Montreal Canadiens with six goals. The final score was 6-4, but that score is flattering for the visitors. The Devils were up as much as 6-1 and the Canadiens just scored a bunch of consolation goals to make the score closer than it seemed.
While the Devils’ performance was not perfect, they ran up a big lead for the first time in a a couple of weeks. The last time the Devils scored more than three goals in a game was February 17, when the Devils won 4-3 in Tampa Bay. The last time the Devils won a game by more than one goal was February 15, when they beat Carolina 5-2. While that was only a couple of weeks ago, those games were eight and nine games ago, respectively, in this season. It wasn’t that recent. As for games where the Devils scored at least six in regulation, you’d have to go back to November 12 when the Devils won a wild one in Chicago, 7-5. So it’s been quite some time since we’ve seen both a bunches of goals being scored, much less six, and a win by more than one score.
Neither of those games featured a first period like what the Devils dropped on Montreal. The Canadiens came out and put up a very sleepy effort. They were increasingly beaten in the neutral zone. They struggled on offense even with light pressure. The Devils forecheck gave them issues. The Devils ran it up and were appropriately rewarded. The end of the first period saw the Devils lead 17-5 in shots and lead 4-0 on the Canadiens. That’s right: four goals. Two of them were on the power play. And Taylor Hall was only involved for one of them.
Yes, the elusive secondary scoring powered tonight’s dazzling array of lamplighters. Will Butcher created the team’s first two goals with slapshots from the right point. Stefan Noesen re-directed a shot for the first goal. Charlie Lindgren stopped a second Butrcher shot, only for Blake Coleman to win a battle at the crease and slide the loose puck in. Travis Zajac was the standout with two goals and an assist on Noesen’s goal; both goals were the two first period power play goals. The first was a re-direction of a shot-pass from Kyle Palmieri that sailed between Patrick Maroon’s legs and past Lindgren. The second came from collecting a rebound from a Hall shot and putting the puck inside the left post (Zajac’s left) as he faded away. In the second period, Patrick Maroon put home a deflected/partially-blocked shot from Hall on Lindgren’s right flank for his first goal as a Devil. Brian Boyle streaked to the net after an attempted pass by Blake Coleman to Michael Grabner missed. The puck went to the net, rebounded out, and Boyle was in the right place, right time to put it home. In total, while Hall received two primary assists, the Devils production was not so reliant on the team’s Superstar left winger. Others stepped up to make plays and finish them too. That’s a huge positive after three games of Hall effectively putting the offense on his back.
Of course, Hall’s two assists mean that his point-streak is now 26 games long. Keep it moving, Hall.
Related to the goal scoring: the power play was a huge asset tonight. Out of five power play situations, only one was a stinker - and it happened while the Devils were up 4-0. After weeks (months?) of the Devils squandering man advantages when they needed a goal to get back into a game or preserve a lead, the power play helped put this game out of reach for Montreal. The re-direction from Zajac finished a very good sequence of puck movement. The Devils struck quickly after winning draws and making good reads for the second Zajac goal and Maroon goal. The fifth power play did not score, but had some good looks from Jesper Bratt, of all players. By going 3-for-5 with eight shots on net, the power play performance deserves plenty of praise. Tonight is not the night to call for Geoff Ward to be fired.
Most of all, the Devils did not get too stupid with the lead. As they entered the third period up 6-2, the Devils kept the Canadiens honest. The Devils were only out-shot 12-9 and out-attempted 16-22 in all situations. 5-on-5 play tilted against the Devils as the Devils led by a whole lot, but that’s expected given the score. (This also explains why the Devils players have some crummy looking CF%s and SF%s. It’s OK because, hey, the Devils led by a whole lot.) Even so, the Devils did not totally waste a third period power play, Michael Grabner was very close to scoring or creating a goal for someone else, and the Devils were still making life difficult for Montreal in the neutral zone. Was it good to see 6-2 become 6-4 by the end? No. Was I worried about a choke job? Not at all.
As stated earlier, this wasn’t a perfect performance. I’ll get to that after the stats and highlight video. I want to highlight the big positives: the Devils broke a losing streak, the Devils buried an opponent in goals to cruise to a victory, and the production came from players not named Hall or skate regularly on a line with Hall. The Devils really could have used a win and they got it done. I’m pleased about that.
The Opposition Opinion: Justin Blades has this recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize that’s charitable for Montreal. To be fair, their season has went down in flames, their best players are hurt, and all they have to look forward to are lottery balls. Avoiding getting totally blown out is a positive from their perspective.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Big Problem Tonight - Defense Around the Net: The Devils crashed the net to great success. So did Montreal. All four of their goals were at close range of the goalie and three of them could have been prevented with a better effort around the net. Here’s a quick summary of each.
- A failed attempt at a scrap by Phillipe Danault ends up with Travis Zajac tumbling him down. Both received two for roughing. During the 4-on-4, Brendan Gallagher picks Pavel Zacha’s pocket, beat Kyle Palmieri with a move, collect the puck at the goal line, go towards the net, and flip the puck in short-side. Of all four goals, this was the one Keith Kinkaid should have stopped. It was the one where the defensive error was higher up in the zone.
- Within the final seconds of the second period, Montreal has an offensive shift. Danault takes a shot on net from above the right circle. The shot is stopped but the puck bounces out to the top of the crease. It’s past Will Butcher, who was tied up with Paul Byron. Jacob De La Rose was uncovered at the crease for Danault’s shot. Damon Severson was too late in getting over to him as De La Rose was able to get a second touch before scoring. Severson should have been on De La Rose earlier.
- With less than 5:30 to go, Montreal rushes up in a 3-on-3 attack. De La Rose gains the zone and passes it to his right to Andrew Shaw. De La Rose streaks away from Severson and heads towards the net. Shaw takes a shot and De La Rose is able to tip it past Kinkaid. Again, De La Rose was free close to the net. Again, Severson was beaten - this time, in motion.
- Just as the third period entered the final minute of play, the Devils were pinned back. Mike Reilly makes a pass to Daniel Carr near the high slot as Brian Boyle is calling out a direction. Boyle did not see Bryan Froese behind him. While Boyle attempts a block, Carr’s shot gets through. Kinkaid stops it and with bodies crashing to his left, Froese takes the short rebound and puts it in past Kinkaid’s right skate. It was effectively two-on-one by the crease and the one Devil was literally tied up with a different Canadien and fell into the crease. The support wasn’t there; not from Boyle or anyone else.
Let it be noted that there were many more plays where Montreal was able to get in close and were a bounce or a block or a deflection or two or many more that denied them a goal. Kinkaid had a lot of bodies and jams in his grill. So while two of the three goals scored at the crease reflected poorly on Severson and we can pick and choose a failure on the Froese goal, it was a team issue tonight. Severson definitely struggled, but so did Ben Lovejoy (he finished the night being out attempted 4-22 and 1-9 in 5-on-5 play, where did you think the shots were?), Andy Greene, and Will Butcher.
The thing about defending around the net is that one does not need to be like Ken Daneyko or Bryce Salvador. Especially since players can’t go around walloping anyone just hanging by the goalie anymore. This kind of defending is all about effort and support. Even a smaller, not-so-physical defenseman like Butcher can be effective through tying up sticks, getting the right position on a player, and/or just being in their way. This is also an area where the forwards can absolutely contribute, especially centers like Boyle. This was lacking tonight and Montreal preyed upon it for several goals. It’s definitely something the team will need to work on as they play teams that have something to play for and won’t have one of the worst first periods possible. It didn’t cost the Devils the result, but it was something that stuck out in a bad way in this victory.
So What of Kinkaid?: I thought he was OK. That goal allowed to Gallagher was pretty bad. He was ultimately put to work as he faced 33 shots in total after seeing just five in the first period. Kinkaid handled a lot of stress and players getting in his area; he did not appear shaken from it. I was fine with him getting the start as to keep him fresh ahead of this nightmarish road trip coming up. Kinkaid fortunately received a ton of goal support and only gave up the one soft goal. If there’s an area deserving of some ire, it’s with the defense - not the masked man in the crease.
Six Goals Against Charlie Lindgren: The Devils definitely received some favorable breaks. That said, they put up six on Lindgren. That’s six on Montreal’s #3 or #4 goalie in their system. Therefore, I don’t want to read or hear about how the Devils can’t score against depth goaltenders for a while.
Related: I know he was just demoted to Laval after this game, but why didn’t Claude Julien end Lindgren’s misery and put in Zach Fucale for the second or third period? The first ended 4-0 and the second ended 6-2. What else did they have to lose?
The Other Special Team: The power play was fantastic in its effectiveness. What of the penalty kill? It was solid as ever. The Devils had two man-disadvantages. While Montreal had some of their best offensive looks on their first power play, they were kept to nearly nothing on their second one. Even so, the Canadiens finished the night with just three shots on net. Once again, the penalty killers did a good job.
Grabner’s Night: Michael Grabner was downright invisible against Vegas. Tonight, he was more effective. He took the first shot of the game for the Devils, he finished the night with three shots and five attempts, and he had some really solid passes that led to some dangerous shots. Late in the third, a loose rebound was just laying there above the crease for Grabner. But Lindgren appeared to get his toe on it, denying him what should have been a goal. Not that the Devils needed seven goals, I was hoping he’d get one just to get it over with. I think the goals will come for him soon if he plays more like this more often.
Missing Zacha: Pavel Zacha did not play a single shift in the third period. I did notice if he was hurt or anything like that in the second period. There were one or two injury scares. Will Butcher took a deflected puck to the face in the first period that required play to be stopped. Butcher would return and create Coleman’s goal. Andy Greene took two sticks to the face - one that gave Shaw a double-minor and one by accident after the Froese score. But I don’t recall what, if anything, happened to Zacha that would suggest he was hurt. He had a quiet night regardless. In 8:53, he was one of two Devils to go shotless tonight, he got beaten on at the dot by winning only four out of thirteen faceoffs, and he was out-attempted a bit, although the Devils out-shot Montreal 5-3 when he was on the ice.
Drawing the Calls: Andy Greene took the slash from De La Rose while Montreal was attacking. The response was Zajac’s first PPG. Late in the second period, Shaw high-sticked Greene and it must have drawn blood as four minutes were assessed. Zajac scored his second PPG seconds after Shaw’s penalty began. In the second period, Sami Vatanen was slashed by Rinat Valiev. Second after that, Maroon scored. It’s weird to have a defensive pairing draw three penalties. It’s weird that they all happened in New Jersey’s end of the rink. It’s weird that Montreal didn’t bench those players - although De La Rose and Shaw would produce so it sort of worked out for Montreal? It was a thing that helped contribute to the goal explosion.
Around the Division: The Devils won so they helped themselves. Did they get help elsewhere? Sort of. Yesterday, the Isles lost in OT; they’re still in a distant place at nine points back and behind three teams. Carolina was smashed 6-2 by Minnesota, so they are now seven points back. That’s the good news. The bad news: Tampa Bay did beat Florida but had to do it in OT after blowing a lead; so the Cats are five points back with three games in hand. Columbus beat Vegas, so they remain the closest threat at three points behind the Devils.
In terms of looking up, the Devils are now three points behind Philly, who has a game in hand. So they’re still somewhat away. Pittsburgh beat Calgary so they have four points ahead of the Devils plus the division lead in ROW (36). Washington is currently getting licked by Anaheim as of this writing, so the Caps may finish the night just five points ahead of the Devils.
The larger point remains: the Devils need to win to best help themselves. Unfortunately, the schedule is now vs. Winnipeg, at Nashville, at Vegas, at LA, at Anaheim, at San Jose, at Pittsburgh, and vs. Tampa Bay before facing a potential non-playoff team in Carolina on the 27th. Winning tonight’s game was crucial because on paper, there are no Montreals left until April 1 when the Devils play Montreal again.
Oh, and as far as the margin of victory for the Devils, I wouldn’t sweat it. As the Devils saw a 6-1 lead become a 6-4 finish to Montreal, Boston needed OT to beat a non-playoff team in Detroit, 6-5; and Tampa Bay botched a two-goal lead in their OT victory over a Florida team that they lead by 20 points. Even the top teams see games go awry and need to win by less than ideal scores and situations. From a standings perspective, getting the result is the bigger deal than how its done. The blogs like this one and other pundits, amateur and professional, can focus on the “how.”
One Last Thought: I enjoyed that this game was on a Tuesday night. Montreal fans do travel and they do make their presence known. Between this being a lost season for Montreal and this being a weekday, the crowd was very much pro-Devils. Seeing the Devils score six goals with markers from Coleman (who doesn’t score often), a three-point night for Zajac, two more assists for the MVP candidate, and a goal from fan-favorite Brian Boyle, they had a lot to cheer for. I know I cheered a lot It wasn’t a sell out by any means, but it was an energetic showing. I hope I get to do so again in a majority pro-Devils crowd and soon. And again after April 5.
Your Take: The Devils won 6-4. The Devils sort-of cruised through the third period, so the score looks better for Montreal than the game really did. Now you know what I thought; I want to know what you thought about the win. Who impressed you the most? Which of the six goals was your favorite? Who did not have such a good game? What do you think can the Devils do to improve their defensive performance around the net and at the crease? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.