Today, the New Jersey Devils hosted an afternoon game on Columbus Day against the Florida Panthers. It was an unseasonably warm day in Newark. It was also surprisingly attended. No, it was not anything close to a sellout but it resembled what a Monday night crowd would look like for a Florida-New Jersey game. There were plenty of families with plenty of energetic kids as it was Kids Day, the first of three such days this season. Just about everyone who left the arena supporting the Devils left in either anger, sadness, frustration, or a combination of all three. For the second time in this short season, the New Jersey Devils blew a big lead. For the first time in this short season, the Devils blew a 4-1 lead to lose 4-6 to the Panthers. With Minnesota winning today, the Devils are the only team left without a win (Correction: No, Chicago is also winless in their first three).
To sum up the season so far, the Devils:
- Blew a four goal lead in their home opener for a shootout loss.
- Routed by Buffalo in a 2-7 loss.
- Shut out and dominated by Philly in a 0-4 defeat.
- Lost in a shootout with some ref help in regulation to Edmonton at home.
- Shut out and somewhat dominated by Boston in a 0-3 defeat.
You can now add “Blew a three goal lead and lost to five unanswered goals at home in a 4-6 regulation loss to Florida” to the list. If you are not outraged or upset or bothered or disappointed in the 0-4-2 New Jersey Devils at this point, then either you have not been paying much attention (I do not blame you), you are not a Devils fan (but you are at this site maybe you should be but maybe not right now?), or you have an incredible amount of patience and grace.
What is absolutely shocking to me was how well the Devils responded to the start and how they built up a lead to begin with. After a disastrous start that led to Jonathan Huberdeau score sixteen seconds into the game, the Devils did work to tie it up. What’s more is that the soon-to-be-very-rich Taylor Hall scored his first of the season to tie it up. A fortunate bounce off Pavel Zacha led to a puck bouncing into the right corner late. Jesper Bratt picked it up, headed to the net, and torched Sergey Bobrovsky with a backhander to make it 2-1. The Devils did indeed struggle in their own end of the rink and in their passes into and through the neutral zone. It would come back to haunt them. But not until after the Devils pumped that lead up.
It was quick too. Head coach John Hynes saw that Nico Hischier’s line was getting crushed by Aleksander Barkov’s line. Ditto for the pairing of P.K. Subban and Damon Severson. He changed the match up to Travis Zajac’s line with the pairing of Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen. It not only worked, it yielded a goal from Butcher on the first shift. Less than a minute later, Hall sent a pass across to the crease that Pavel Zacha one-touched into the net to make it 4-1 less than 22 minutes into the game. The only main concern at the time was the status of Nico Hischier, who did not take a shift in either of the second or third periods. His status remains unknown as of this writing. Still, the Devils put themselves in a great place. The fans were happy. I was happy. You probably were too.
However, the aforementioned struggles never went away. And Florida would make the Devils pay for it. Seconds after a Sami Vatanen penalty was killed, Brett Connolly sent a ferocious one-timer to the top-right corner past Cory Schneider to make it 4-2. The Devils tried to respond and very nearly did on a power play (!) that featured plenty of possession, attempts, and Jack Hughes being denied a tap-in the last second by Anton Stralman. But, hey, it’s 4-2. No need to worry, right? The Panthers kept coming in waves as the Devils were pinned back more and more. The turnovers by New Jersey became more frequent as did the zone exits that went right to a Panther - leading to more of a push from the visitors. Kyle Palmieri made a costly one in the neutral zone that led to Mike Hoffman powering into the zone, dropping a pass to Connolly, and Connolly pulling and roofing another high shot past Schneider with 8 seconds left in the period. 4-3. The lead was about up in smoke.
Most coaches and teams with strong leadership would do their best to prepare or at least motivate the squad to perform much better in the third period. Seeing a big lead on the edge of being blown warrants it. Especially in a winless season in the first home game after taking your second shutout loss from the last week. If not the coaches, then the players alone should know. Yes, there were seven relatively new Devils on the roster but with the exception of Jack Hughes, everyone on the roster has played at least a season professional hockey in their lives. Surely, they would be more effort given in the third period. Surely, the Devils would run through a wall or at least consider doing so to try to keep the lead or re-take it to finally get that first win. Surely, the players and the coaching staff would dare to bold in avoiding another big let down. Especially in front of their home fans which featured lots of children.
The third period started and the Devils proceeded to put out one of the most sorry sad-sack performances in quite some time. The kids were given a big disappointment. The adults were given plenty of reason to boo. The only parties pleased by that third period were the Florida Panthers, Panthers fans, the haters and losers of which there are many, and even the infamous Sherman Abrams. In 5-on-5, the Devils were collapsed so low on their first shift that a puck went out to a wide open Aaron Ekblad, who sent a pass across to a wide open Mackenzie Weegar, who took a wide open shot, and scored thirty seconds into the period. That was the lead. Booing commenced. Seven minutes later, Noel Acciari provided the go-ahead goal. More booing commenced. Depending on where you sat, a “Fire Hynes” chant could be heard. (I heard it lightly from Section 1). Later in the period, during a double-minor penalty to Jesper Boqvist for high-sticking Weegar in the chops, Evgeny Dadonov dove in front of Subban to put home a loose puck for a PPGA, Florida’s sixth goal of the game, and Florida’s fifth unanswered goal. Florida controlled the run of play, tilted the ice, dumped the Devils’ collective books on defense, and gave them a proverbial wedgie. Ten shots in 5-on-5, thirteen total, nine scoring chances, three goals, and ultimately a big come from behind win.
What were the Devils doing amid all of that? Being dominated! First, the offense - or the appalling lack thereof. The team registered four shots on net all period. Miles Wood took one right after the Weegar equalizer. Six minutes later, Connor Carrick sent a slapshot that did not threaten Bobrovsky. During a penalty kill past the halfway mark, Damon Severson fired a slapshot from center ice that was counted as a shot. And the fourth and final shot came with 1:28 left to play with Schneider pulled for an extra skater. Even with six skaters, the Devils were just terrible at getting the puck forward and deciding to shoot. There could have been much more than four shots but not that much more.
This is because the Devils were a total dumpster fire when it came to off the puck play, the neutral zone, and their own zone. If the Devils made a zone exit, it was often a clearance that Florida recovered and proceeded to move ahead to keep the Devils from doing much other than get a brief respite. When Florida established themselves in their zone, the Devils did a lot of lackluster chasing, a lot of puck watching, and a lot of hoping Schneider would bail them out. If the Devils had the puck and looked to make a breakout pass or a move in the neutral zone, they often put it into traffic or in positions where the Devils could not get to it or had to battle for it. It was the kind of effort you expected in the first couple of preseason games, not in the sixth game of the regular season after five winless games.
That is the most enraging part about the game in my view. The Devils looked like they gave up on the game the moment the third period started. They looked like a squad that just wanted the game to be over and done with. The compete level was low as it was last season during the Road Trip from Hell. John Hynes and his “coaching” staff absolutely deserve a lot of blame for the latest embarrassing performance in a young season filled with four of them so far. I will not miss any of them if they are axed in the near future. That does not absolve the players for their poor performances. With the possible exceptions of Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher, and to an extent Nico Hischier (he did leave the game early but he was bodied in his first period matchup with Barkov), the roster owns this loss. If you want to throw those three in the pile too, then fine. I do not blame you. I will not argue it. The larger point remains, the players absolutely failed this afternoon as well. They put themselves in a great position to finally succeed at winning a game. Through turnovers, inaction, bad decisions on and off the puck, fouls, and not putting in a respectable effort when they built up a lead, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. They broke the home fans’ hearts in the process once again this season. Blame Hynes and the staff. Do not forget to blame the players too. Combined, they have made the Devils the softest, easiest-to-play-against team in the league.
In short: This loss sucked. Like almost all of the others this season.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats if you’d like a Florida-based take on this game.
The Game Highlights: Sure, whatever. Here they are from NHL.com:
Debut: Matt Tennyson was called up from Binghamton with Andy Greene out of injured reserve. He made his New Jersey debut today. Florida enjoyed playing against him and Carrick. In 5-on-5 play, when Tennyson was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 5-20, out-shot 2-11, and even outscored 1-2. Tennyson is very much a fill-in player and it showed today.
The Zacha Exception: Nico Hischier left the game during the first period, returned, and would not return for the other two. This is potentially bad news, especially as there is no update at this moment in time. This led to Pavel Zacha receiving a couple of extra shifts with Hall and Palmieri. The make-shift combination did work out on the scoreboard. Zacha provided the primary assist for Hall’s goal. Hall returned the favor in the second period when he sent a cross-ice pass to Zacha crashing at the left post for Zacha’s first of the season. In between, the puck hit off Zacha as it bounced to a place where Bratt could only get it and Bratt turned that into a goal. That was Zacha’s second assist in what would be a three-point afternoon for the young center.
Unfortunately, like a majority of the roster from Hall to Palmieri to Nikita Gusev to Bratt, Zacha was run over in the run of play as time went on. Florida kept attacking at Zacha’s make shift line, Zacha’s more regular line with Gusev and Bratt, and the other combinations. Zacha should be excepted to a degree since he did produce. He has that as opposed to others today.
The Only Good Pairing: Butcher-Vatanen was the only good pairing for the Devils today. Even this was not without error as Vatanen took a hooking call right after the Devils killed an abbreviated power play. This call was killed but just after it ended, Connolly scored to make it 4-2 at the time. Still, they were the only pairing to win their match-ups in 5-on-5 play. And they both contributed to the scoresheet as Butcher had a goal and Vatanen had the secondary assist on Hall’s goal.
One could question why Severson-Subban or Carrick-Tennyson was not broken up. Those pairings were pounded in their own end of the rink. Carrick-Tennyson looked like a replacement-level pairing on paper and looked that way on the ice. Severson was awful in his off-hand position. Subban just had a mostly terrible afternoon between two penalties, plenty of turnovers and lost pucks at the blueline, crashing into Schneider during a 4-on-2 rush against (that is in the headline picture of this post), and looking like a statue on Dadonov’s goal. It was telling that the Devils’ best power play of the day started with Vatanen as the defenseman. Anyway, I think Hynes & Co. figured that having one out of three pairings play well was better than breaking up the one to salvage the other two. I do not think his thinking worked out in his favor.
Special Teams Sigh: The Devils’ third power play featured possession, collected pucks, and a lot of attack time. There was no goal. It was their best effort in a while and much better than their first try, which had a whole lot of play behind the Florida blueline, and their second try, which ended early as Subban hooked Acciari after losing the puck in New Jersey’s zone. The drought continues for a power play that somehow added talent in theory but has not yielded results.
The penalty kill had plenty of work to do with four calls against them. One was abbreviated, but there were three full ones including a double-minor to Boqvist. The Devils were not doing such a bad job on them until the latter half of the Boqvist double-minor. Florida dug themselves in, kept moving it about as if it was 5-on-5 hockey in this third period, and Michael Matheson’s shot is cleaned up by Dadonov for the goal. The PK was about a minute and change away from potential perfection for the first time since opening night. Instead, they conceded an insurance goal and the fifth unanswered score of the game.
In summary: Sigh.
A Note on Minutes: The NHL.com Event Summary lists Miles Wood having played 12:47 today. Bratt played more at 13:49 and Gusev played almost as much as Wood at 12:45. Those who wanted more time for the latter two kind of received it. Given that all three players were not at all good in 5-on-5 play after Florida’s second goal, I do not think it mattered much.
Similarly, Butcher led the team in ice time at 22:22 but he earned his minutes and played generally well. So I hope that continues at least.
An Apology: I kept calling Dryden Hunt Brad Hunt. Bradis a journeyman defenseman. Dryden is an energy winger that took two penalties that the Devils did not punish this afternoon. My bad to Florida’s Hunt.
Once Again, the Team Stats: The Devils were out-shot 21-34, out-attempted 38-59, and out-chanced 17-23 in all situations today. The expected goals for all situation worked out to 1.68 for NJ and 2.5 for Florida. Both sides beat the model but even in that theoretical world Florida out-performed the Devils. This was not just a choke job. This was a choke job to a team that out-played the Devils this afternoon.
Kids Day Notes: The Little Devils area has been opened and rebranded as Prospect Playground. Kevin Clarke had a junior PA announcer, a 14-year old sung the National Anthem, there was a kid reporter, a kid captain, and other kid themes. The most lasting images will be the kid-drawn portraits of the Devils players. They were featured on the big screen for the announcement of tonight’s starting lineup and scorers for the Devils. There were some interesting interpretations. I would guess we’ll see them again for the second and third Kids Days later this season.
One Final Thought: The Devils will be searching for the first win of their season against Our Hated Rivals. I am already dreading Thursday evening.
Your Take: The Devils blew a three-goal lead and lost in regulation at home. Watching it live at the Rock felt like watching someone fail in dramatic fashion after nearly accomplishing their task. Because that is what the Devils actually did. I have a feeling I know, but I will ask anyway: What was your reaction to this loss? What has to change before Thursday? How much longer does Hynes legitimately have behind the bench? Where is the leadership on this team? Or the pride - especially from players looking to earn new contracts before July 1? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about another embarrassing loss in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the preview. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and/or on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.