Taylor Hall continues to amaze. In a game best described as “turgid” at times, the New Jersey Devils needed something great or fortunate to get on the scoreboard. Within the first minute of the second period, Nico Hischier provided the fortunate when he deflected a Sami Vatanen shot to make it 1-1. Later in the period, the Devils had to kill a too many men on the ice call and a cross-checking call by Ben Lovejoy. New Jersey survived the 3-on-5, Travis Zajac was able to get the puck shortly after it happened, and then this happened:
Wow. How can he do so many impressive things like this? After beating four Islanders for a score last night, it’s clear that Hall is one of the most valuable players in the NHL.
Hall is not a member of any of the penalty killing units. He was designated by head coach John Hynes to serve the bench minor. That decision paid off huge as Zajac hooked up Hall with a perfect pass. Zajac would have flung that anywhere, but he put in a spot where Hall could collect it, settle himself and the puck, and take it from there. Hall’s finish was fantastic. Goaltender and part-time pugilist Carey Price was not challenged a lot by New Jersey’s shots. But he had this one and he was beaten clean to the stickside.
The goal made it 2-1 and the Devils were tasked to close out the game. They did a good job at that. They finished killing Lovejoy’s minor penalty. Shortly thereafter, a rush up ice led to Nicolas Deslauriers slashing Nico Hischer. The refs called it (!) and the Devils used the power play to ensure they would not give up a late chance. Incidentally, their first minute on it was their best power play minute of the night. As the PP ended, the Canadiens pulled Price for the extra skater, the Devils kept them to the outside, no shots actually went to Keith Kinkaid, and the Devils prevailed in their sixth straight game decided by one goal.
It’s something to celebrate as the Devils swept their weekend to put themselves seven points ahead of Florida as the Devils try to secure the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. While the Panthers now have two games in hand, the Devils are three points clear in case they win those two. The Devils not only control their own destiny but they have a small cushion to work with - and that assumes Florida does not drop points.
The performance itself was not so praise-worthy. Montreal was able to frustrate the Devils’ offense frequently. Stickchecks were everywhere to deny hopeful zone entries and time in Montreal’s end that could lead to dangerous shots on net. Price faced 32 shots on net and 53 attempts in all situations, but only a handful really threatened him. The Canadiens did a very good job protecting their slot. The Devils often settled from shots from distance - it’s why Sami Vatanen had seven shots on net tonight - that did not really pay off other than re-direction by Hischier. Throw in some underwhelming power play performances and it was a real feeling going into the third period that the Devils’ offense was just not going to get much done. All the more reason to marvel at Hall’s shorthanded goal.
The defensive performances were better, though. Montreal was limited to 26 shots in total and less than 20 shots in 5-on-5 play. The Canadiens were able to get in front for a few strong shots. Keith Kinkaid did have to make some tough stops, most notably robbing Brendan Gallagher at the crease before Lovejoy cross-checked him down with authority. Still, this was not like the recent games against Pittsburgh and Brooklyn where the Devils had a lot of miscues, turnovers, and issues in coverage. The Devils were tighter in their own end tonight. The penalty kill only had one breakdown, which was really more of an error by Michael Grabner compounded with an error by Lovejoy. The PK did help mitigate a somewhat long 3-on-5 situation and created a goal of their own. Keeping the shots down was important as Kinkaid made back-to-back starts. Not being shelled for a change mitigated whatever fatigue he carried over from surviving last night’s 4-3 win.
Fatigue appeared to be a factor in this game. Both sides played last night. Both sides were not as strong on the puck as they would have liked. I thought the game had a good pace to it. I thought the Devils could and should have done more, but Montreal’s sticks were actively stopping them from doing as they wanted. The Devils’ execution could have been better tonight. Still, New Jersey found a way to win over a team they should be beating and to help their own playoff hopes. Hall’s latest display of offensive magic provided the edge in this win. Onwards and potentially forwards, Devils.
The Opposition Opinion: Jared Book has this short summary of the game at Eyes on the Prize.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
One for One: Hall scored his first shorthanded goal ever in the NHL tonight. Hall now has 89 points for the season. He’s now on an eight-game point streak where has put up six goals and seven assists. To think: this was one of the few games where the Devils didn’t attack a lot when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play. Per Natural Stat Trick, when Hall was on, the Devils out-attempted Montreal 8-5 and Montreal out-shot the Devils 2-4. That usually does not happen when #9 is out there and putting in the work. It speaks to how much the Devils struggled to attack tonight.
Low Event: Not that Devils games are loaded with attempts, but tonight’s was particularly low in 5-on-5 play. Granted, there 17 total minutes of power play time tonight. But the 5-on-5 attempts ended 37-32 and shots were 20-17, both favoring New Jersey. As noted earlier, Hall was kept to limited action. There were some stars in this regard from some suprising figures.
Whenever Jesper Bratt, Brian Boyle, and Miles Wood were on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils had plenty going their way. Especially with Boyle and Bratt, where the Devils out-shot the Canadiens 10-3 and 9-2, respectively, in 5-on-5 play. From what I observed, both Bratt and Boyle were effective in keeping plays going amid the many stickchecks of Montreal. Boyle had one of the few slick moves in the second period that ended up with him in the high slot for an attempt. Bratt worked hard to chase down pucks. It was a relatively good game for two players who have not contributed a lot in recent weeks.
This was also a better game for the pairing of Andy Greene and Vatanen. Vatanen led the team with seven shots on net and when he was on the ice, the Devils attempted 20 shots to Montreal’s 12. Yes, Vatanen was present for 54% of New Jersey’s total shot attempts in 5-on-5 play tonight. He was involved in a good way.
The Rookie Sensation: Of course, Nico Hischier had himself another fine game. He provided the equalizer on a re-direction of a Vatanen shot. He had a breakaway earlier in the game where Price had to make one of his few tough saves of the night. Hischier almost made it 2-1 in the third period when he fired a great, high shortside shot on Price off a great drop pass by Hall. Price was beaten, but the post bailed him out. He drew a slash late in the game that helped the Devils protect the 2-1 lead. He had three shots on net, tying him with Wood and Boyle for the most among Devils forwards tonight. When Hischier was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Montreal 13-7 and out-shot them 7-5. Nico was good tonight, another reason to be excited as he grows as a player.
Salty: RDS provided the stars of the game: third, Hall; second, Daniel Garr; and first, Hischier. Nico had a good game, but Hall provided the difference maker with a shorty after New Jersey killed a two-man disadvantage. How is he not the first star of the game? They are a salty bunch at RDS.
A Bad Change: John Hynes decided to sit Damon Severson for Ben Lovejoy. This was a bad decision before the game. It turned out to be a bad decision during the game. Lovejoy was his usual, slow, and not-helpful-beyond-the-redline self. That’s not the issue. He’s been fine next to Will Butcher for most of this season. Not tonight, though. When he was on the ice with Butcher, the Devils were out-attempted 7-13 and out-shot 3-9. Lovejoy on his own in 5-on-5 play finished the night with the team’s worst CF% with a 9-16 attempt differential in favor of Montreal and the team’s second-worst SF% at 3-10. In other words, when Lovejoy was on the ice, Montreal attacked.
Lovejoy caused the most damage on the PK, though. Normally, he’s somebody you want out there. Tonight, he was detrimental to the cause. After Michael Grabner tried to force a pass on a shorthanded 2-on-1 rush, the Canadiens counter-attacked and scored. I will be the first to say that Grabner should have shot the puck himself. He didn’t have the passing lane, he should have shot it. But there should be plenty of blame leveled at Lovejoy. Lovejoy held back in case Noah Juulsen would get open. But Daniel Garr had the time and space to fire a shot. Lovejoy was too far back to challenge the shot, so he went down on one knee and hoped for a block. Lovejoy did this right in front of Kinkaid, making a shot going high - and so would not be blocked by going down on one knee - even harder to stop. The shot was right to the top corner. With Lovejoy screening his goalie, no way could Kinkaid stop that. That was bad. What was potentially bad was cross-checking Gallagher down after Kinkaid robbed him on a point-blank shot during a third period penalty kill. I know guys get physical, but Lovejoy went high with his stick and just plowed into the man. It was worth a minor penalty. Fortunately, the Devils did not give up a goal and Hall scored after the 3-on-5 ended. Yet, Lovejoy put his team in a bad spot late in regulation in a 1-1 game.
Say what you want about Damon Severson, but he doesn’t do this to his teammates. I hope Severson draws back in for Tuesday. And for Lovejoy. Mirco Mueller was actually good with John Moore, so it’ll be interesting to see who Severson is paired with. To keep Lovejoy in just because the team won would be unwise.
Speaking of Unwise: Hynes challenged the Garr goal for offside. If I recall correctly, this was the first such challenge issued by Hynes all season. It was a risky call, since failing the challenge would mean another power play for the team that just scored on one. The call was too close to call upon replay. There was no visual that showed Garr stepping into the Devils’ zone ahead of the puck. The Devils lost the challenge and took a minor penalty for it. Since Garr’s goal converted one power play, the Devils had another penalty to kill. Between this and a player coming on too early for a too-many-men on the ice call in the third period, Hynes didn’t have the greatest night when it came to bench issues. At least the Devils killed these calls.
Kinkaid Did It Again: Normally, starting the same goalie back-to-back ends poorly for the second game. But Kinkaid had a better night. He was only beaten once on a shot. Again, he wasn’t shelled as he has been in recent weeks, so he did not have to stand on his head for a change. This gamble worked out and the Devils won another close game. I think we’ll only see Cory Schneider get a game if/when the Devils clinch a playoff spot.
Around the Division (and the Top Two Teams in the Atlantic): That playoff spot is likely to be that second wild card spot. Philadelphia won in overtime over Boston, so they stay ahead of New Jersey by a point. They are ahead of the Devils by one in ROW and I believe they won the season series, which would mean that a tie would favor them. So the Devils will need Philly to falter if they want to move on up. Philly and Columbus now have 94 points, so we could see some movement for that spot. Relevant for the last game of the season, Washington beat Pittsburgh 3-1 and clinched the Metropolitan Division crown. With the Atlantic Division leaders so far ahead of them, Washington has nothing to really play for in their next three games. Good to know in case the Devils need a result on April 7.
Speaking of the Atlantic, Boston lost in OT and Tampa Bay lost in regulation so the B’s have a two point lead and one game in hand on Tampa Bay. It’s looking more likely that they’ll be the Devils’ opponents in the first round. They could still be bros and beat Florida. But if Florida loses to Carolina in regulation and, on Tuesday, either New Jersey beats Our Hated Rivals or Florida loses to Nashville in regulation, then those games don’t matter to New Jersey. So, for Monday, Go Canes Go.
One Last Thought: Taylor Hall is amazing.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils won 2-1 and are one step closer to securing a playoff spot for the first time since 2012. Hall did it with something he never did before: a shorthanded goal. The Devils played a low-event game and came out ahead. What did you think of this performance? Who impressed you tonight? What do the Devils have to learn from this game so they can succeed against Our Hated Rivals on Tuesday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone for commenting in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.