I am a fan of the New York Red Bulls and I have been a ticket holder since 2008, the tail end of their days at Giants Stadium. As I have grown following soccer as well as hockey, I have learned to lay off hockey referees. Major League Soccer referees are in a class of their own when it comes to inconsistent calls and non-calls as well as game-changing decisions that do not make much in the way of sense. Tonight, referees Gord Dwyer and Kendrick Nicholson showed me that they too can be on the low level competence as displayed by the members of PRO. The New Jersey Devils were minutes from beating the Edmonton Oilers in regulation. The men in stripes at least indirectly helped the Oilers secure a late equalizer that led to an overtime period, which led to a shootout that the Devils lost. It is a 3-4 shootout loss that stings even more as the Devils remain winless to start 2019-20.
Let us go back to roughly three minutes left in the game. As the Devils were appropriately attacking with the lead, the line of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Nico Hischier applied pressure. An Oiler, I believe it was Oskar Klefbom, grabbed and took down Hall. It was an egreious move. But the refs stayed silent. OK. They kept to the tradition of swallowing the whistle within the final minutes of regulation.
Until they did not about a minute and half later. With Mikko Koskinen pulled, Connor McDavid had the puck high up in the Devils end of the rink trying to make something happen in 6-on-5 play. Blake Coleman reached out for the puck and ended up whacking McDavid’s shin. After feeling the contact, McDavid fell to the ice. He sold it like he was Seth Rollins. The only ways he could have made it more dramatic was if he screamed after the contact and/or rolled around writhing in pain. The refs did call that and gave Coleman a penalty. Hall taken down as if it was a football game: no call. McDavid was slashed and gave a hard sell: minor penalty for tripping.
Ten seconds after the call, Klefbom takes a shot on net. Mackenzie Blackwood stops the shot with his pads. The puck is not fully covered, but a whistle goes. As the whistle sound is made, McDavid puts the puck from between Blackwood’s legs and puts it in the net. The Oilers are celebrating. The Devils are confused. The fans at the Rock were baffled. Mr. Dwyer did not really make a clear call on the ice but made it clear after a conference at center ice that it was a good goal. This play was held up under review. Even though the whistle absolutely went off, they counted McDavid’s play. Either it was blown right before McDavid scooped up the puck, the whistle went along with the puck, or the whistle was intended to be blown. Over many years, this kind of play would happen and way more often than not, it would not count just for the intent to blow rule. I understand the rule book claims that if a whistle did not interfere with play, then the play should count but I do not see how that can be claimed when only one player is moving whilst the whistle is going. The whistle blows the play dead and we have seen in other games where “intent to blow the whistle” was enough of a justification to take a goal away. Tonight of all nights, it did not apply for the Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid gets the exception seconds after selling a slash as a trip. Maybe Dwyer and Nicholson should sign up with PRO if they want to give soccer a try.
I have wrote this many times before and I will in the future: Hockey is like life; it is not fair. I am usually a proponent that a team should play to the whistle and deal with the right or wrong calls the refs would make as best as possible. The league really does not have it out for anyone. The game was only tied by McDavid’s goal. They had a chance to win in overtime and Hall was agonizingly close to obtaining justice on a breakaway - only to be denied by the post. They had a chance in a shootout only to score no goals and see Leon Draisaitl score one. Still, I do believe the Devils got robbed tonight. They got a raw deal. They did play to a whistle that despite it coming through clearly at the Rock and on television, the guys in stripes and the Situation Room in Toronto felt it was not sufficient. I am certain there will be comments here to explain to me and others about how this is right and how we should not complain about it and how there never should have been a whistle at all (which is not a good argument because there was an actual whistle blown) and so forth. Whatever. It surely did not feel right at the arena and it does not feel right at all. I do not think it is a conspiracy. I think Dwyer and Nicholson were just bad and made three decisions that eventually helped Edmonton get their win tonight.
It is even more painful when you consider that the Devils played at least a decent game of hockey. It was a sloppy game. There are still quite a few things that the Devils need to sharpen up as soon as possible. However, the effort tonight was world’s better than the nonsense in Philadelphia last night. The Devils were absolutely better in 5-on-5 play tonight. The defense without Andy Greene entirely and P.K. Subban for most of the first period still held the Oilers to 20 shots in regulation. The Devils were far more active in the neutral zone and their forecheck was paying off big time - especially in the third period. Most of all, even though they gave up a late goal in the second period, the Devils responded the right way in the third: to go out, attack, set a tempo, and work to get the third goal. Which they did get. Even Blackwood looked sharper than he did in relief last Firday and his first start in Buffalo. It was by no means a great and decisive performance, but it was a lot better than whatever was put out there against Philadelphia. It was definitely better than the Buffalo game. For a team that is badly seeking its first win this season, tonight was going looking like it was going to be the night.
Then a whistle was not blown, minutes later a whistle was blown, and then seconds after that it did not matter if a whistle was blown or not.
The Opposition Opinion: Preston Hodgkinson has this recap for Edmonton at The Copper & Blue. He called McDavid “heroic.” I suppose diving to get a call and getting the benefit of the doubt on a whistle to score a goal is what passes for heroic these days.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Good was at 5 On 5: After a night of being creamed by Philly, the Devils controlled a lot of the play against Edmonton in 5-on-5 situations. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils led the Oilers across the board in the team stats. Shot attempts: 44-29. Shots: 26-14. Scoring chances: 20-11. High-danger chances: 6-1. The Devils had an expected goals of 1.87 and scored three goals in 5-on-5 play. The Oilers only had 0.93 and scored just the one: a Draisatl score off a 4-on-2 rush. By the way, the Devils still led in these categories when you add in special teams and overtime. The point remains: the Devils dictated a lot of what happened tonight.
This was also apparent by observation. While there were a couple of shifts spent entirely in the Devils’ half of the rink, it was far less often than it was in the previous two games. The Devils were able to successfully apply pressure of their own against Edmonton. Their forechecking paid off, especially in the third period and more especially on the play that ended up with Taylor Hall setting up Damon Severson for an angled-shot that made the game 3-2 late in the third.
It was not a pretty game by any means. The Devils had displayed plenty of issues as passing the puck and moving it from zone to zone. Particularly in the first period. It was not uncommon to see the Devils force passes through lanes where an Oiler was present, force risky cross-ice passes that rarely connected, and occasionally set up the receiver to take contact upon receiving the pass. However, Edmonton was just as sloppy with the puck and the Devils became more successful at challenging them and winning pucks from them. The neutral zone play was not sharp but it was effective at denying a lot of potential offensive attacks by the Oilers. It helped take pressure off a defense that had Severson play on his off hand for most of the night as well as Blackwood.
The only unit that really did not win their matchup in 5-on-5 play from an attempts and shot perspective was the new fourth line of Nikita Gusev, Kevin Rooney, and Jesper Bratt. Even then, that line contributed the team’s second goal. Bratt maintained possession in the zone, protected the puck, passed it off to Gusev, and Gusev ripped a shot past Koskinen from above the left circle (goalie’s left). If you look at expected goals, the pairing of Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen was not so hot. Even then, they did not get run over in the run of play it was more of a case that they did not generate a lot.
Those negatives aside, the return of Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri was productive and effective. Palmieri kept a puck himself in a 2-on-1 and scored on a beautiful shot for the game’s first goal. The line contributed to Severson’s goal in the third period. Hischier and Hall were very close to scoring themselves tonight on multiple occasions. Jack Hughes looked his best in his burgeoning career. Wayne Simmonds was more active. Pavel Zacha had an effective return to the lineup that should keep him in the lineup for some time now. Even though Miles Wood remains overvalued on this roster, the line of him, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman were very good in the run of play. Pairing Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller was actually successful. Damon Severson looked his best in a long time.
There were a lot of positives from the performances in 5-on-5 play. They do need to keep working on puck movement and their transition game. They also need to take fewer risks in both ends of the rink as the turnovers there nearly cost the Devils - and did so in the Buffalo and Philly games. There is too much of an emphasis of trying to fight pucks through players (wingers, especially) or try to beat / get around multiple players (looking at you, Hughes and Gusev). Should the Devils remediate some of this, they will be able to be more effective at both ends of the rink. Even so, they were tonight in 5-on-5 play.
The Bad was on Special Teams: Where do we start with this?
The Devils’ power play was not that effective. Darnell Nurse handed the Devils an early power play tonight and the Devils squandered it by struggling to keep the puck over the Edmonton blueline. They somehow registered two shots on net but they was not much of a set-up or a plan in either case. A second power play was more effective at zone entries but it did not generate anything. No shots on Koskinen. No result. It is mind-boggling to me that with all of the talent, the Devils coaching staff and the players do not seem to be on the same page on what they want to do. They have P.K. Subban but he is not shooting. Kyle Palmieri can shoot the puck well but he was passing it off as if he was Hall. Simmonds’ bread and butter is on the PP but he is not always around the net where he could be effective. The second unit has some interesting options in Hughes, Gusev, and Bratt but they could not figure it out either. The Devils could have helped themselves out tremendously with a power play conversion here and there so far in this short season. I do not think the Devils’ loss can be tied to the power play but it was still something else for the Devils to overcome.
The Devils’ penalty kill has now been lit up for the third straight game. I did not think the PK was really a concern given how they did in the home opener. After killing one out of three penalties, now I am concerned. Zacha was caught out of position and that led to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins firing a shot from distance that James Neal tipped past Blackwood. This was another late second period goal allowed. I appreciate that the Devils did not respond in the third period as if that was the game. I do think it shows that the PK needs to be sharpened up. As far as McDavid’s goal, well, I’ve shared my feelings on that one. I am willing to spare the penalty kill on that one. However, in the bigger picture, the Devils have been porous in shorthanded situations and it has contributed to their 0-2-2 start. Short of the goalie bailing them out and the opposition not executing correctly, the Devils coaches may need to re-think who is out there for the kill and how aggressive they should be. With no Greene tonight, I can understand some different faces on the kill. But given that all involved were in preseason, they all practice together, and the wedge-plus-one is not this terribly unique penalty kill formation, the execution needs to be better.
Post-Regulation Play: I liked a lot of what the Devils did in overtime. It is a shame that Hall did not win it outright in overtime. I enjoyed seeing the Devils pounce when they had numbers and correctly backing off for fresh players to come on. The defensive effort was a little haphazard at times but Blackwood kept the puck away and the Devils did not lead too many Oilers opened. They took a few risks in going for steals and they did succeed. Again, some of the puck management on offense could have been better but the Devils did have coverage back in OT to deny the Oilers on a counter-attack. Shots were close, but the Devils had the only high-danger chances and threatened more.
The shootout was, well, it was what it was. The first shooters for both sides - Gusev and Nugent-Hopkins - both lost the puck. The second shooters - Hughes and McDavid - were stopped. The third shooters made the difference: Hall was denied on a five-hole chance and Draisaitl got around Blackwood. It was a frustrating way to end it this way given how the equalizer happened. I am a little surprised that Bratt has not received a chance yet. His move may be difficult to pull off but he has a move at least. In time, I hope he will.
Is the Seat Hotter?: I do not think so. The Devils were competitive and out-performed Edmonton in many regards. The refs at least indirectly helped the opposition and the loss was through a shootout. This is a results-oriented business so there is still plenty of pressure on John Hynes & Co. to provide a winning result with these players. The seat is not cooler. But the Devils needed to be much better tonight than they were in Philadelphia and they were. They needed to stay motivated in all three periods and they were. The 5-on-5 play was much better. I have to credit Hynes & Co. for those things at least.
It will be a big challenge to get something out of Saturday’s game in Boston as it is a road game and Boston has been a very good team for a long time now. We shall see whether the Devils can build on the good things from this game and improve on the bad things from this game as well.
One Final Thought: Miles Wood continued to be a frustration of sorts. He took a hooking penalty that led to a GA. He hustles to go attack but does not hustle to backcheck. He led the Devils in shots tonight with five shots and he did have a couple of scoring chances. However, he also lost plenty of pucks on passes and in battles such that his line could have generated even more than they did. While I know Bratt set up Gusev to score, tonight was not the night for either to receive more minutes than Wood. He really did not have this Awful, Terrible, No Good performance. The Oilers took all of four shots against the Devils when he was on the ice. He was succeeding in the matchup even if he did not look anywhere close to confident or in control. I hope he improves and I hope someone is talking to him to smarten him up. He is a classic “has the tools but needs a toolbox” player. I can understand fans who want him benched but, honestly, I do not think a move like that is necessary. Once Gusev knows how to play off the puck much better than he does, then I think that conversation needs to happen. I would not do so tonight.
Of course, if Wood has a do-nothing game on Saturday, then we can revisit it then too.
Your Take: I am admittedly salty about the continued winless season by the Devils and what happened tonight. I think the Devils got a raw deal from the refs. I want to know what you think. What is your take about the final few minutes of regulation? What is your take about how the Devils played overall? Is this a sign of better things to come? Or do you think the Devils are in for a rude awakening from Boston on Saturday? What would you do to prepare for Saturday’s game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. As ever, please keep it clean and respect your fellow AAtJ reader in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who commented during the game, tweeted at the blog, did both, or just followed along in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.