Tonight’s Most Important Game of the Season of the Night for the New Jersey Devils was against the New York Islanders. The Isles have nothing to play for. They lost last night. The Devils got some great help from Boston beating Florida earlier in the day. The situation for the Devils was clear: winning tonight would help their playoff hopes big time. The Devils did just that with a 4-3 win in regulation over the Islanders. The Devils upped their own playoff chances by downing the Islanders.
Many Devils fans are excited about what this game means. With the Devils winning and Florida losing, the Devils are now five points ahead of Florida for control of the second wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Florida’s tragic number dropped from ten to six this evening. As it turns out, a Devils win tomorrow plus a Florida loss to Carolina on Monday means that Tuesday’s home game against Our Hated Rivals could have the Devils clinch their first playoff spot since 2012. How sweet would that be? So much so that the guy from the Diet Dr. Pepper Cherry commercials could talk about it. From a results-perspective, tonight was fantastic. (And if Vancouver did not blow a third period lead, it would have been ideal).
But this is a game recap and so we must go into the game itself. How well did the Devils play in this game? What worked and what did not? What lessons can we take from this one? You know, questions that tend to get answered with a proper recap of the game.
I’ll answer the latter first: The Devils cannot underestimate any opponent. Yes, the Islanders have been depressingly bad for weeks. Yes, the Islanders have leaky in net and on defense. Yes, the Islanders have nothing to actually play for except for lottery balls. The Islanders still put up a fight in this one. They struck first, they attacked well when they were able to get through the neutral zone, they threatened on the power play - and even converted one, they found holes in the Devils’ coverage on defense, and they didn’t give up on the game. They were especially strong on the puck late in the game after making it 4-3. Even though they played the night before, the Isles didn’t look like a fatigued team. They certainly did not mail in the game. Sure, they had some shockingly bad turnovers and some really terrible shifts in their own end of the rink. But they hung with the Devils, who did have rest and a reason to take this game. While you and I may look at the upcoming schedule and think, “Ah, the Devils should be able to get wins. Montreal and the Rangers are done and Toronto and Washington have nothing to really play for.” These games are not automatic.
The good news is that the Devils didn’t take the Islanders totally lightly. Perhaps giving up a rebound goal to a wide-open Tanner Fritz early in the first period was a wake-up call to ensure that. Seriously, nobody had Fritz. The puck came out to him and it was academic for the called up player. The Devils rolled through the Islanders like a hot knife through butter for the next four minutes, tied up the game, and then tried to prevent anything else from going awry.
The second period was more even, but the Devils broke ahead on the scoreboard. Taylor Hall received a fortuitous re-direction off Adam Pelech’s skate to convert a power play and make it 2-1. Later, Hall did something so amazing that it warrants his own section of this recap which made it 3-1. While Anthony Beauvillier’s one-timer hit off Brian Gibbons’ stick to beat Keith Kinkaid shortside to convert a power pay of their own, the Devils made it a 4-2 score with a late-period shorthanded goal created by Mirco Mueller and finished with a bar-down beautiful shot by Blake Coleman. The run of play was back and forth; but the Devils went ahead.
After finishing the second period, 4-2, the Devils still attacked more than the Islanders. They didn’t hang back or just let the game go by. Even with the Isles pulling within one late and going off for ninety seconds of extra-skater craziness, the Devils out-shot the Isles 10-7, the Devils were only out-attempted by three (13-16), and the better scoring chances were by the Devils. Prior to Chris Wagner’s deflection goal with 3:36 left to play, New York’s previous official shot on net happened with 16:12 on the clock. The Devils really did a good job closing out the game until that tip-in happened. That meant the Devils faithful endured another late-game, hope-nothing-bad-happens-in-the-next-few-minutes, hold-your-breath-on-every-possession situation. But Kinkaid swallowed up what would come his way and the bounce or break the Isles needed did not happen.
Ultimately, this was a mostly even game with the Devils having a bit of an edge beyond the scoreboard. The 5-on-5 numbers at Natural Stat Trick matches up with this. The Devils edged the Isles 42-41 in attempts, 30-24 in shots on net, 24-14 in chances, and 7-5 in high-danger chances. The Devils had some great runs. The Isles had some strong shifts of their own. But the Devils succeeded more and so they were able to defend a lead going into the third and only saw it shortened and not erased. To still have an edge in these categories in 5-on-5 play speaks to how the Devils were taking care of business with the lead. It got dicey at the end, but they survived it. I think the performance was good enough; the Devils seemed to be better on the puck than they were against Pittsburgh on Thursday.
It would have been great if the Devils laid a beat down on the Isles. They certainly tried to make it a three-goal lead in the third. But the Devils were able to get the win, which is the most important thing at this point of this season. After being close to the brink, the hopes of the postseason are much higher and realistic. If nothing else, it is an exciting time to be a Devils fan.
The Opposition Opinion: Jenny Berman has this short recap at Lighthouse Hockey, noting that “The tank is rolling on.” That’s where the Islanders are at now.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Superstars Make Superstar Plays and Taylor Hall is a Superstar: Taylor Hall was named the first star of tonight’s game. He came out to chants of “M-V-P!” from the fans still in the rink part of the Rock. As he was answering questions from Deb Placey, he received even more. He deserves the praise as Hall was a force tonight. His first goal, again, was a lucky bounce of Pelech’s skate. He made a pass to the middle and it just went in. Hall could have had several goals with his six shots on net, which included a breakaway and a stunning one-on-one move on Ryan Pulock where Thomas Greiss had to bail him out. Late in the game, Hall forced a steal and was tripped up by Greiss as Hall tried to go around him for what would have been a hat trick and a game-icing score. When Hall was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-attempted the Isles 17-9 and out-shot them 13-7. Hall was making plays, getting stops, facilitating movement through the neutral zone, and taking shots. He was legitimately New Jersey’s best player tonight.
He also made this absolutely stunning play. This is what the soccer fans would call a “golazo.” If you want to show somebody why Hall is getting MVP chants and the Devils absolutely love him, then show them this. Then show it to them again just so you can witness this bit of magic again:
That’s Taylor Hall beating Anders Lee, Pelech, Johnny Boychuk, and Greiss in one motion. Four Islanders versus Hall and Hall won.
Hall did well to get around and past Lee for the zone exit. As his teammates went for a change, Hall took on a defenseman pairing. He went to his left, he cut in between Lee and Boychuk to find some space. Hall fired a perfect wrist-shot over Greiss’ glove to the top corner - down into the net. That goal made the Rock erupt. That goal is something you’re just not going to see everyday even from Hall, but Hall has the talent, the bravery, and quickness to make it possible. That goal put the Devils up 3-1. That goal is my new favorite goal in a season loaded with goals that I just enjoy watching. That goal is glorious domination in hockey-form. Given that it was a part of a big step for the Devils to secure a playoff spot, it was a incredibly valuable goal.
Hall was up for this game and he nearly willed himself into a hat trick. Hall could crack 90 points - he has 88 now - and he could do it as early as tomorrow. He’s amazing. He’s a Superstar.
Coleman Rising: Back on February 19, I took an idea CJ had earlier in this season and updated his goal projections (which were based on Corsica’s expected goals model) based on how much each Devil produced at the time. Blake Coleman was one of the few Devils forwards who was below expectations. By November, Coleman was projected to score about 17 goals. In my update, he was projected to score 12. At the time, he just had 6. Well, this month has been a hot one for Coleman as he scored a lovely shorthanded goal for his seventh in March: a bar-down delight after Mirco Mueller carried the puck out and carried it up for a 2-on-1 like play. Coleman now has 13 goals. Yes, Coleman is now meeting projections based on Corsica’s expected goal model.
Coleman did more than just score a shorty that ended up being the game-winning goal. He set up Stefan Noesen’s first period goal from behind the net, too. Coleman also took four shots in the game in total; that’s third to Hall and Michael Grabner tonight. Coleman saw a lot of Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, and Anthony Beauvillier. That match-up did not go so well for Coleman and his line, but they didn’t allow a lot of shots, they saw no goals against, and he and his line did well away from it. It was another good night for the pest-like winger. I enjoy how he’s playing. CJ enjoys how he’s playing. Fans all over the world are enjoying it. Coleman has been rising.
If Only You Finished...: Michael Grabner had a good night, believe it or not. He had five shots on net and seven total shot attempts. Only Hall had more shots and Grabner tied him with the number of individual shot attempts. Grabner picked up an assist on Coleman’s shorthanded goal, too. The run of play went well as the Devils out-attempting the Isles 12-6 and out-shooting them 8-4 when Grabner was on the ice in a 5-on-5 situation.
However, the finishing was not there. Grabner had a great rebound opportunity created by Miles Wood in the second period. Wood went in hard on a goal-line charge to the net and put a close shot on net. The rebound came right to Grabner, but he hit the puck right at Greiss. Early in the third period, the Devils had 27 seconds of a penalty to kill. Grabner closed it out by using his speed to create a breakaway. Alas, he hit the logo instead of scoring a second shorthanded goal for the Devils. I know it has been written before, but I think it is worth pointing out that he was not at all an anchor or a passenger. Grabner did good things tonight. He just did not score. Of course, that’s the main criticism of his play. Hopefully that turns around soon.
Improvement on D: Early on in the game, the Devils were just soft in their defensive coverage. In addition to Fritz’ goal, Kinkaid had to deal with two one-timers in the slot - one that hit a post. There were also several close shots too. The Devils tightened up in the second and third periods. There were some issues. Such as John Moore having a shot blocked and that creating a breakaway for Eberle (saved and drew a hold from Butcher). Or John Moore and Damon Severson failing to win a puck which ultimately ended the Islanders’ first offensive shift in about fourteen minutes in the third period that ended with Wagner’s tip-in goal. Or the fact that the Devils conceded 13 of the team’s 24 5-on-5 shots against when Moore and Severson were out there. But as a whole, outside of 2-28, the defense did get better from the second period onward. So did the neutral zone play, which helped the Devils go forward and the Isles stay back - especially when the Devils did dominate the run of play for stretches in the first and third periods.
I will point out that Mirco Mueller had a good game. The pairing with Butcher was very positive as the duo only saw two shots against in 5-on-5 play. Mueller was smart on the PK to skate the puck out of the zone and to keep on going, knowing he had an offensive play going. He gave Coleman the right pass for him to finish the rush on. He did not cause any real mishaps. For those wondering when Ben Lovejoy will be back in the lineup, that day will not be anytime soon.
By the way, Butcher received two more assists to now be the rookie leader in points by a defenseman in Devils franchise history. He’s also earned some of his bonuses from his entry level contract; so these recent points from #8 have been profitable for his wallet as well as the team’s scoresheet.
Kinkaid Held it Down Again: Kinkaid gave up three goals on 30 shots - and again, I don’t think any of them were really soft. The first one against was a rebound goal against. No way did Kinkaid have a chance to stop it. I don’t think it was that bad; Fritz was that wide open. That’s on the skaters. Gibbons, who didn’t have a strong night, inadvertently helped Beauvillier convert a power play with three seconds left on it. The deflection was enough to fool Kinkaid. The third goal against was a tip-in through traffic. Kinkaid was beaten on a shot that hit the post; but it was a one-timer in the slot. Hardly a bad one. Kinkaid did make some important stops, such as denying Eberle on a breakaway in the second period, swallowing up the long shot from Pulock in the dying seconds of the game, and keeping John Tavares very quiet. I think Kinkaid had a good night.
It was certainly better than Greiss. Sure, it was his first start since February 16. Sure, he made some tough saves. But he was beaten five-hole on Noesen’s crash to the net and he was just plain beaten by Hall and Coleman on the third and fourth goals against. A couple of bounces in front going awry, Grabner’s poor finishing, and tripping Hall denied the Devils from hanging a fifth on him in the third period. Kinkaid was the better goalie tonight.
I still think Cory Schneider should play in Montreal tomorrow. There really is no reason to play Kinkaid again. Montreal is also bad and, unlike the Isles, do not score a ton of goals. It’s a good game for Schneider to get into. Whether John Hynes will do that, who knows.
Quietly Good?: John Tavares was the Islanders’ best skater from a CF% perspective as well as put up three shots out of five attempts on net. Normally, I would pick up on stuff like that as I watch the game. Being good in CF% means you’re constantly in New Jersey’s end and you or your teammates are actively attacking. That’s noticeable. While Tavares was moving, he did not seem to create nearly as much as I thought. I couldn’t tell you what his shots were outside of hitting the post in the first period. He didn’t draw any calls or a whole lot of attention. His biggest “moment” was chasing down Coleman to no avail on the shorthanded goal Coleman scored. I would rather trust the number than my eyes and confirmation bias. Yet, I don’t think future big-money free agent Tavares really stood out tonight.
Absences In-Game: In the second period, Travis Zajac left the game. It was unclear whether he was hurt and, if so, from what. It was a short absence. He would return to the game in the third period. This meant some shuffling around among the centers with Brian Gibbons being given some additional minutes in the interim.
In the third period, Kyle Palmieri was struck in the face by Andy Greene’s stick. Live, he just went down and it was unclear what happened. A replay showed a stick blade, but not who’s stick it was. While fans booed the lack of a penalty, those watching at home knew it was Greene. The no-call by the refs was correct. Anyway, Palmieri was cut and did not return. Patrick Maroon moved up to his spot in the lineup and did a good job with Hall and Nico Hischier in third period. I’m not surprised at that. Maroon played rather well next to the crazy-fast and talented Connor McDavid in Edmonton. It remains to be seen whether Palmieri will miss any time. But if it does, I wonder if we’ll see Maroon with Hischier and Hall start in Montreal. I’d prefer that instead of Jesper Bratt drawing in to play with those two, only to be moved down in the lineup in the game.
Mascots!: There were plenty of mascots at tonight’s game. N.J. has a lot of friends. The highlight came in the first period when a contest featured N.J. and Florida’s mascot. When Florida’s Panther came on the screen, he was booed. Shortly thereafter, the Bruins’ mascot held up a sign that said “You’re welcome.” He was cheered. then the camera cut to N.J. pointing and laughing at a frustrated Panther mascot. For me, that made all of the mascots worth it.
Around the Division: Quickly and with exclamations: New Jersey won! Florida lost! Columbus was down 4-1 in Vancouver and came back to lose 4-5 in overtime! Carolina lost to the Rangers so they’re officially eliminated from the playoffs! Pittsburgh beat on Montreal, so they’re officially in the playoffs! Washington and Philadelphia were idle!
Basically, the Devils look like they’re in striking distance of moving on up, but they’ll need help to do so. Still, the Devils are closer to Philly and Columbus than Florida and that’s important. More in the weekly Metropolitan Division snapshot!
One Last Thought: Tonight was “The Maven” Stan Fischler’s final game at the Rock. The legendary hockey historian and long-time broadcaster for all three hockey teams in the area is retiring. He has forgotten more about hockey than most will ever learn. The Devils played a video tribute to him (link from MSG Networks) and the fans gave him a standing ovation during a break in the first period. The Maven is a legend and should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Your Take: The Devils won another close one and another crucial one. They are closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2012. This is real and it’s real good. What did you think of tonight’s win? What do the Devils need to learn and adjust from this one before playing Montreal on Easter night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 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.