Defensive breakdowns were constant and they were the main reason why the New Jersey Devils lost to the Dallas Stars 4-5 tonight. And defense is not just the defenseman’s responsiblity. It is the responsibility of all skaters to do their job off the puck. It is the “supportive” part in “fast, attacking, and supportive.” It was a hallmark of this franchise whereas other teams tried to play like New Jersey used to, because everyone bought into the system of play, they had an edge in running it. This game was the antithesis of that as the Devils were caught out of position, out of control, and outside of making a play on every single goal against by Dallas tonight.
As a whole, it does not seem like the game was one-sided. The game ended 40-34 in shots, favoring the victorious Dallas Stars. In 5-on-5 play, the shots were a similar 31-23, also favoring Dallas. However, this was a game where the Devils were out-shot as much as 27-2 at one point. I did not forget a number. That’s 2 as in the number two. As in less than three and more than one. Kyle Palmieri re-directed a shot by Andy Greene in the first period for the game’s first goal 3:41 into the first period. At 5:31, the Devils had their second shot on net thanks to Nico Hischier. It took until 8:58 passed in the second period for the Devils’ third shot on net of the whole game to happen.
In the meantime, Dallas pinned the Devils back, Dallas drew a penalty, the Devils shut them down with one of the better penalty kills of the whole season, after which Dallas pinned the Devils back some more, Jamie Benn (one of Dallas’ aces) was uncovered and scored off a one-timer in front, pinned them back again, intermission happened, the Devils were pinned back repeatedly, Miles Wood threw a stupid high hit at Jamie Benn instead of any of that “defense” thing and received a major penalty for it, a melee ensued due to that hit, Miro Heiskanen (who is a stud defenseman at age 19) scored in a 4-on-4 situation that came from the melee, and Tyler Seguin (the other ace on Dallas) blasted one in during the power play for Wood’s infraction. It could have been a lot worse. Mackenzie Blackwood made some excellent stops and was still beaten multiple times. The heatmap at Natural Stat Trick says it all: the Stars made the front of their net theirs. How? It was result of making the Devils chase the play and both defensemen and forwards get so lost that they forget about where Tyler Seguin is, where other men in green jerseys are, and not realizing that throwing pucks astray is a great way to keep playing defense. After all of that, Travis Zajac took the team’s third shot on net of the whole game almost nine minutes into the second period.
There are few words I am allowed to use on this site to describe how the Devils played in this stretch.
What makes this even more shameful is that there was an intermission in the middle of all of this. John Hynes and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine (he manages the defense, so he deserves heat for this too) had time to help sort some of this out. Figure out why some think they’re in man-coverage, some think they’re in zonal coverage, and no one is looking for the flank in even strength situations. The Devils had all six defensemen at this point and all twelve forwards. They were not this bad against Boston or Carolina or Vancouver. Dallas has been a team struggling in 5-on-5 and yet the Stars looked like, well, stars against the Devils. As far as I could tell, nothing was actually sorted out and the Devils carried out their business like it is OK to get steamrolled shift after shift in the run of play. Like it is acceptable to say “Great job, Mack!” instead of actually helping him out or giving him a breather amid the deluge. Like it is just fine because it was 1-1 on the road and that makes it acceptable to get dominated on the ice.
Normally, this kind of play ends with a big blowout loss. I know because we’ve seen it this season from the Devils. Multiple times. However, hockey does not always have to make sense and sometimes weird things happen. The Devils somehow made a comeback.
It started with a decent shift by the fourth-line. The top line, which somehow managed to get through all of that nonsense largely unscathed, pressed forward to attack. The play broke down but a loose puck was lying in the high slot. Jesper Bratt got onto it and ripped one high past Ben Bishop to make it 2-3. It was the Devils’ seventh shot of the whole game.
There was a setback. Less than a minute later, the Devils continued non-defense on Dallas’ top players bit them again. Seguin scored off a feed from Alexander Radulov (who is playing like an ace on Dallas) to restore a two-goal deficit. Benn was out at this point so even though the number of top players on the Stars went down from 3 to 2, the Devils seemingly made no adjustment.
But then hope sprung again later in the second period. A stop by Will Butcher led to a 2-on-1 rush led by Brett Seney. Seney got the puck across to Drew Stafford, who threaded the puck beneath Bishop’s pads. The puck went in before the crash into the crease and so it was a good goal. The Devils were back to being down just one goal. The Devils pressed on and Bratt was held up by Heiskanen with 1:51 left to play in the second. Less than a minute into the power play, Brian Boyle deflected Butcher’s shot past Bishop to make it 4-4. Despite all of the dominance in territorial play, the shot count, and so forth, the Devils tied it up. They went into the second intermission tied. For a team looking for some hope, this could have been a night to remember.
Then the breakdowns resumed. While the third period was arguably the best one for the Devils from a run-of-play standpoint (and they did it without Andy Greene, who left the game late in the second period), the Stars exerted their will when they could. Their PK stepped up with two big kills. They continued to force Blackwood to make all kinds of stops, especially with his pads. Then another defensive miscue eventually cost them. After Zajac lost a defensive zone faceoff, Sami Vatanen decided to move forward while Blake Coleman bit hard on assuming Heiskanen was going to the corner. This gave the young defenseman a path to skate in and beat Blackwood for his second of the night and put the Stars up 4-5. The Devils threw up more and more attempts and shots in the hopes of getting one more past a seemingly shaky Bishop. But the Devils could not finish, not in broken plays, rush plays, or other kinds of plays. The Stars clamped down at the end, kept the Devils honest enough to play some more that sketchy defense, and so the Devils lost. The Devils had a chance to make up for a lot of sins in the first and second period. But one more on defense cost them.
The sad thing is that someone will look back at this game, see Blackwood with 5 GA and an 87.5% save percentage and assume the night his shutout streak ended was a really bad one. I am sympathetic to goalies, whether they are Schneider, Kinkaid, or Blackwood. I really do not think Blackwood gave up a truly awful goal or cost the Devils this one. OK, maybe he was too aggressive one-on-one with Heiskanen in the 4-on-4 situation but Heiskanen was also wide open with acres of space so I can understand aggression instead of waiting for the move. Even with some of the pylon-like impressions from the likes of Greene, Vatanen, Severson, Santini, Butcher, and Lovejoy, Blackwood made some rather difficult stops. But eventually those difficult plays for goaltenders are difficult for a reason and they become goals. Blackwood deserved a lot better than what he got tonight: an inert offense for nearly half of regulation and a brainless defense for most of regulation.
Were the Devils in a better position in the standings, we could chalk this up to being a weird night that was just not New Jersey’s. But given the recent good feelings over winning three straight and a team that seemingly wanted to be better on the road, this was, simply put, not good enough. Not even with the three-goal second period or Blackwood denying at least three to four other goals. That the Devils missed an opportunity to pull something out of a game that could have been pulled despite themselves speaks volumes as to why they are where they are in the standings this season. Happy New Year; the defensive effort from the skaters is still problematic.
The Opposition Opinion: Taylor Baird is excited for Miro Heiskanen in this recap at Defending Big D. And why not? Heiskanen is an excellent defenseman and he gave the Devils lots of problems they could not answer at both ends of the rink.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Somehow Unscathed Devils in the Run of Play: Despite the Devils being out-shot and out-attempted as much as they did, Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt ended up with superb numbers in 5-on-5 play. When Palmieri and Bratt were on the ice, the Devils were out-shooting Dallas 11-4 and 11-6, respectively. Attempts were 15-5 and 13-9 respectively. Given that there were eight skaters below 40% CF% and 40% SF%, that’s impressive. They also largely did it themselves. Palmieri alone had five shots on net and four attempts blocked. Bratt had five shots of his own too. They each contributed a goal to tonight’s game for the Devils as well. If nothing else, these two can claim having a good night.
The fourth line was also decent in the run of play, which is acceptable for a fourth line. Boyle’s goal was a PPG but it continues to justify his inclusion on a PP unit. Seney and Stafford had a legitimately good play to cap off their evening. Before the shot count and the ice was tilted heavily against the Devils, Stafford even had some effective backchecks in this game. This arguably could have been Stafford’s best game this season and the Devils could not make the most of it.
Who Got Wrecked: The defense as a whole. I mean, come on, they allowed 40 shots on net plus 16 high-danger chances on top of hanging Blackwood out to dry numerous times. As a group, they deserve a raspberry. Phbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbt.
Among them, the Vatanen-Santini was especially putrid. No, they did not get scored on as much as others but they were just picked on repeatedly by Dallas. It was not just the top guys like Seguin, Heiskanen, and Radulov beating on them. Radek Faksa, Tyler Pitlick, Blake Comeau, Esa Lindell, and John Klingberg all enjoyed their time against 45-16. It was not even a case of handedness, even when Vatanen ended up on the right side of the ice, he was still just out of position and ineffective at getting and winning pucks.
As for the forwards, Pavel Zacha, Stefan Noesen, and Miles Wood were abysmal tonight. This line did get split up for a bit, but each of these three had bad games. This is notably sad as Zacha and Wood have been playing well recently. Wood was disciplined and got on the board against Vancouver. Zacha has been more offensively active in the last three games. Zacha’s contribution was not playing well at all and Wood’s biggest contribution was hitting Benn late and high to obtain a major penalty for interference. I do not know if it will get further discipline. I could see some arguing it was not worth a 5-minute major, but late and high hits are definite no-nos. It was going to be a penalty no matter what. This is not 1985 where players can get away with that with very little consequence from the refs. (Looking at you, Dano.) And I was stunned at how a PK that kept Dallas from doing anything in the first period let them do everything in the second period for three minutes.
By the way, Hynes did not bench Wood for that hit even if the play led to Dallas scoring two goals and his contribution to the game was a big fat nothing before then. To use a pro wrestling term, accountability is sometimes just a gimmick.
I am also a little sad to note that Coleman was also bad tonight. Outside of that one penalty kill where the Devils did everything perfectly in the first period, Coleman was a step off from everything. From chasing pucks to making passes to taking shots (he only had one) to playing defense. He saw a lot of Seguin, Radulov, and Heiskanen and he did not do well against them - which played a role in two goals against in 5-on-5 play. Travis Zajac can at least claim to have registered five shots on net, blocked five shots, and won more often at the dot than not tonight. Coleman: not tonight.
This is a Section Just to Write that John Quenneville Did Indeed Play Tonight: John Quenneville did exist in a New Jersey Devils uniform this evening and apparently played 8:24 tonight. That is all.
Who I Missed: For one, Andy Greene. Not that he had a stellar game but going from six to five defenseman on a night where the defense has been ripped apart is a bad thing. Greene left with 7:56 left in the second period and did not return. Hopefully, whatever the reason that caused it is minor.
For another, Taylor Hall. Sure, the Devils scored four goals tonight but that’s thanks to Bishop not having such a strong game and some good breaks. With how the Devils’ power plays were largely held in check by Dallas and poor execution, Hall’s passing was sorely missed. I’d like to think with Hall riding with Palmieri and Hischier as usual, the Devils would not have ended the first period out-shot 2-16. Or go another nearly nine minutes into the following period to get that third shot of the game. This team needs their All-Star A.S.A.P. if they want to make this trip successful.
Condensing Nonsense: No, this was not the game after the infamous Jim Lites profane rant about Benn and Seguin. That rant was on December 28, 2018. Dallas beat Detroit 5-1 on the 29th and lost in OT 2-3 to Montreal on the 31st. So, no, I do not think the Devils were the victims of a motivated Benn and Seguin to prove a point to management. I think the Devils were the victims of their own trash-like positioning, poor defensive coaching, and losing the Stars off the puck. It does not make for a good narrative or a story or a social media headline, but it is actually correct, so there’s that going for it.
One Last Thought: I really hope this trip improves on Friday and I do not see this kind of defensive performance for a long, long time.
Your Take: The Devils lost 4-5 to the Dallas Stars in a game where they could have made something out of nothing but they fell due their own defensive breakdowns that led them to be down in the game such as being out-shot 27-2 during the second period, and out-scored 1-3 and 2-4 in the second period. I am not happy about this loss. What about you? What’s your take on this game? Who did well? Who did not? What do you do to improve the defensive play before the team’s next game on Friday in Arizona? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Mike for running the Twitter account, @AAtJerseyBlog, during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.