After six days off and two wins, the New Jersey Devils returned to their earlier ways from this season so far. The blew another game at home. The Devils went up as much as 2-0, saw that become 2-1 right before the end of the first period, saw that become 2-2 in the second period, briefly went up 3-2 before allowing the equalizer on the next shift, and then giving up the tie-breaking goal in the third period and failing to respond with the game ending in a chorus of boos from the Devils fans remaining at the Rock by the end of regulation. Tonight’s beneficiaries of the botch were the Arizona Coyotes. No need to send a “thank you” card, Coyotes fans. The Devils are in a gift-giving mood and they were willing to gift you two points this evening.
I thought that the Devils were going to turn the proverbial corner with wins over Our Hated Rivals and Vancouver. Do I feel stupid for thinking that now. I feel just as stupid as expecting a victory tonight. On paper, this was a very favorable situation for the Devils. Yes, the Devils were idle for six days. This also meant they were able to rest up, practice, and presumably prepare for this matchup. Arizona, on the other hand, would be fatigued. This was their third game in four nights. They not only played last night but they also lost in regulation. The Devils could have stormed out onto the ice and put Arizona in a deep enough hole and possibly cruise to a third-straight and still-very-needed win.
To a degree, the Devils did do exactly that. After a non-descript start, the Devils tilted the ice very heavily in the first period. They out-attempted Arizona 25-12 in all situations. They out-shot them 16-6. Goaltender Antti Raanta was under siege and the Devils would eventually crack him. First, Sami Vatanen sent a puck to the top of the crease which re-directed in off of Alex Goligoski’s skate. Second, during a power play, Jack Hughes finished a beautiful feed from Taylor Hall by torching Raanta with a shot. The Devils were up 2-0 and Arizona was just getting pounded by the Devils’ forecheck. All seemed according to plan. Until the very end of the period when it did not.
It was not a massive breakdown but with time running out, the Travis Zajac line and the pairing of Vatanen and Andy Greene were in their own end. Nick Schmaltz had enough space from Greene to unload a shot and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood appeared to be screened. With just under 17 seconds in the period, Arizona made it 2-1 and had life going into the second period. Negative as it may seem, Devils fans have seen this movie before at the Rock and Arizona was committed to re-enacting it.
The Devils were granted an early power play in the second period. An over-aggressive play by P.K. Subban went awry and Michael Grabner - yes, him - was able to go off on a breakaway. Blackwood tracked him but Grabner beat him straight up to make it 2-2. Arizona nearly went up a goal a few shifts later when a puck by Keller trickled through Blackwood’s legs but Subban cleared out the loose puck from the crease. While the Devils would respond with a magical pass from Hughes springing Pavel Zacha, who burned Raanta on a far post shot, the good times would not last. On the very next shift, a breakdown of a zone exit attempt ended with Oliver Ekman-Larsson getting a free shot that beat Blackwood straight up to make it 3-3. Even though the Devils out-attempted and out-shot Arizona by quite a bit, the run of play was much more even in the second and third periods in 5-on-5 hockey in terms of both attempts and shots. It slowed to a crawl in the second, which benefitted the visitors who were very much in the game on the scoreboard despite what the shot count suggested.
Still, most teams would not panic or even fret. 3-3 going into the third period is still a tie game. It is still up for grabs. It is still anybody’s game. Then Arizona made it their game. A poor breakout pass by Subban ended up with Miles Wood trying to win it away in the neutral zone. He did before he lost it to Schmaltz. Schmaltz and Barrett Hayton rushed in on a 2-on-1 against Subban. Subban dove to break up a pass and missed, Schmaltz made his pass, and Blackwood was totally beat as Hayton tapped it in to make it 3-4. It was 2-0 at one point. It was now 3-4. The only solace was that there was still over 18 minutes to respond.
Yet again, the Devils tried but it was not enough. Despite the urge of needing a goal, John Hynes kept rolling out all four lines despite the limited offensive nature of some of them (read: Kevin Rooney, John Hayden, and Wood). The team kept trying to gain the zone and set things up as if it was the first period, but Arizona was more stout in their defense and were more aggressive to win pucks on defense. Hughes, Hall, and others tried to carry the puck more and look for options but more often than not the pass or shot would be denied or miss their mark. They came close. They had a third period power play where the Devils did everything but score. Raanta robbed Wayne Simmonds - who cannot buy a goal - with a left toe save on a rebound put back. Later, in 5-on-5, Matt Tennyson crushed the post on a wicked one-timer. But as time ticked off, the Devils’ attempts became less and less threatening. Arizona was becoming more successful with each exit as the Devils and their fans were becoming more and more frustrated. With the goalie pulled, the Devils had six attackers - and still managed to lose the zone, lose a puck battle, and see Keller throw in an ENG to ice the game to a chorus of disapproval from the home fans. Not so much at Keller but at the Devils.
It is all deserved, too. The Devils took another lead and lost it. They had two leads and lost both of them relatively quickly. They did not have an ideal situation going into the third period but it was still a game where the Devils could take over. They did not. They made a couple of notable errors on one shift to give up a goal and they could not make up for it. In some cases, Raanta was just too good. In other cases, the Devils failed to execute what they wanted to do. Once again, the team did not play with enough effort in some cases; such as that last shift of the first period that led to the first goal against. Once again, the team did not come out with the right mentality for the situation; such as a third period performance where they were not careful enough despite being burned before and not performing with the right levels of intensity and execution. Yes, the Devils led in attempts, scoring chances, expected goals, and shots and that’s all generally good. But that was all driven by a mostly-awesome first period. The second and third periods were more even, which is telling since the Devils had a lot of time to be prepared for this game and were fully rested and Arizona is playing within 24 hours of their last game. That dulls some of the statistical edge the overall numbers suggest the Devils had as per Natural Stat Trick.
It is downright frustrating to be a fan of this team. And just about everyone is implicated. From the man who wants a big contract in Taylor Hall, who was aggressive to a fault; to the big star defenseman who is justifying why Vatanen is on the first power play unit in P.K. Subban; to the winger we were excited about except he could be Russia’s answer to Mike Ribeiro in Nikita Gusev; to the goaltender who was seemingly given a chance to be the #1 guy but threw it away tonight in Blackwood; to the coaching staff that has seen this all transpire before but act as if it never happened and they can do nothing about it; and a whole lot of people in between. Not even shortening the bench knowing that the next game is four days away.
I really wish I was not writing this kind of recap, much less this many times nine games into this season. I wanted to see a win if only so I can gush about Hughes’ three-point night, Zacha’s great goal, and the Devils clawing their way out of an early deficit. Instead, I got to hear a lot of booing and “Fire Hynes” from the fans and all I could is nod with understanding. The Devils had a great situation on paper with their time off and their opponent having none and blew it. The Devils had two leads tonight and blew it. The Devils have put themselves in a situation where they need wins and blew it. Now they get to go take on the terrifying offense of Tampa on Wednesday to close out the month and begin a way busier schedule. I hate this. Something has to change. Surely.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Five for Howling for an Arizona-based recap of this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here is the video with three points from The Big Deal and the footage of how the Devils lost it all at home - again.
The Emergence of Hughes: Because of the loss, few will note this. But I believe in keeping it real because what are you doing if you’re not? And if we want to keep it real, then we need to recognize the emergence of Jack Hughes. Why do I call him The Big Deal? Tonight, he showed why. While Hughes definitely still has a tendancy to hold onto the puck too long and try to make one move too many, that sort of thing was forgiveable tonight. Hughes was also carrying the puck in the zone, and carrying the puck around the offensive zone to keep a possession alive instead of dumping the puck away into the corner. Hughes was looking for passes at angles and diagonals across the zone and he hit a lot of them. He surprised Hall early in the game by setting him up right in front of Raanta. He made reads and completed dishes to players in more advantageous shooting spots for more shots. He fed Vatanen across the zone, who scored his ricochet goal, His pass to Zacha for his goal against Raanta was simply wonderful. And Hughes showed he can rip shots as well as he beat Raanta from about the same spot he scored his first ever goal in. In the run of play in 5-on-5, while the shots and attempts were even but favoring New Jersey, Hughes was led the forwards in on-ice expected goals and he was the only Devil to have been on the ice for two 5-on-5 goals. Both of which he had primary assists on. Production is always a positive for an offensive player and Hughes was providing even more. He is emerging and it is going to be amazing. Alas, it could be understandably overshadowed by this loss.
When You Prove the Critics Right: On the one hand, the line of Wood, John Hayden, and Kevin Rooney were not that bad. The line was not out-attempted or out-shot in 5-on-5 play. None of the three took a penalty. On the other hand, they created very little offense. The Devils needed it, especially after it became tied. Yet, Hynes kept rolling them out there and the line did not threaten to score. The line’s combined expected goals for was 0.16, the lowest on the team. Yet, they played more shifts than the line of Nico Hischier, Nikita Gusev, and Zacha. That unit may have its defensive issues and I think Hischier was banged up at some point (which may explain why he was not very good tonight either), but they have the talent to score. Even in their limited usage, they put up a superior xGF and, oh yeah, Zacha actually scored a sweet goal on a goalie that got hot over time tonight. At no point did the Rooney line did anything that made one think, “OK, the Devils need a goal, so maybe these guys could make something happen.” Maybe in other games you could think that. Not this one.
I know CJ made a case to justify John Hynes’ decisions of keeping Hayden in the line up over Jesper Bratt. It was a valiant effort. Unfortunately, the fourth line did not really help that case or their own through their play. Kevin Rooney was in the game and that is all I can say about that. Hayden’s main contribution was flopping for calls he did not get. Wood was weirdly not so aggressive at skating at pucks and skating to the net tonight. Wood was implicated on the play that led to the 2-on-1 for the fourth goal against, so maybe now Hynes realizes this should not continue. Then again, this line kept getting shifts despite having proven they were bringing nothing to the table regarding goal scoring and the Devils then needed a goal. John Hayden just had to get his shifts, man.
I imagine Boqvist and Bratt were sitting in the player’s suite, watching this game, and thinking to themselves, “Why am I not playing over these guys, again?”
Blegh: Ahead of this game, I have begun thinking that the Devils may have determined Blackwood to be their #1 guy. Yes, he is the “hot hand” but he also received this start after a considerable break despite being sick recently and it is his third straight start in non-consecutive dates. That points to the coaches thinking he’s the guy. Blackwood was not very good. On top of four goals allowed on 17 shots, he had a post bail him out once in the first period, and Subban prevented a dribbler through his legs from being pounced on by a Coyote. He even lost a puck he apparently gloved, although that did not lead to a goal (it did lead to Vatanen taking an interference minor for taking down Keller at the net). Blackwood may have had no real chance on the first or fourth goals, but the larger point is that he failed in his opportunity to be the top guy in the net. The not-as-good news is that Cory Schneider’s next opportunity may come against the mighty Tampa Bay offense with having no action since Columbus Day. Sigh.
I Just Feel Bad for Him: Wayne Simmonds just cannot buy a goal. He was robbed multiple times by Raanta. An open shot next to the slot in the first: denied. Jam plays at the net: denied. Curling the puck around to beat Raanta wide at the crease: denied. He’s doing a lot of good things out there but they are not resulting in goals. I just feel bad for him.
Consider: Yes, it would have been great if Simmonds scored that PPG in the third to tie it up. It would have been great if others (Tennyson’s one-timer aside) have also came close to scoring in the third. It would have been the greatest if the Devils held onto 3-2 for more than a shift or held onto 2-0 or did a number of things that did not mean they had to look for an equalizer in the third period. This is to say I do not blame Simmonds for the comeback that did not happen.
Special Teams: The Devils went 1-for-5 on the power play, which was really more 1-for-3 as Hall wiped out a power play in the second period with a penalty of his own and the first opportunity was a short carry over from Derek Stepan’s minor after Vatanen’s penalty ended. It was also 1-1 in that Grabner’s shorthanded goal evened up Hughes’ power play goal. Even before Grabner’s goal, the second full effort was bad if only for the lost possession by the Devils - even their drop pass was picked off. The Devils did their best to get a second PPG, so that is progress over many other power play efforts from this season. So are the eleven shots in total. As for the penalty kill, they were perfect. No shots allowed. No power play goals allowed. Just a lot of good work. Special teams did not decide the game; yet, the Devils can claim that this went well. It is a tiny silver lining amid the large dark cloud of another blown game, though.
One Final Thought: As much rage will be pointed at the Rooney line getting more ice time than Hischier’s line and not that much less than the Zajac’s and Hughes’ lines, the Devils did not lose this game alone because of that line. The Zajac line was burnt on the first GA. The third GA went against that Hischier line; even though I do not know why Zacha was thrown back on the ice after scoring. The fourth GA went against the fourths. And as well as they looked and as productive as Hughes was tonight, it’s not like Hughes’ line totally dominated every time they stepped on the ice. This was very much a team loss. Please consider that before jumping to scapegoats that are not bald men in suits, and I do not mean Rick Tocchet.
Your Take: The Devils blew another home game despite having the advantages of time to rest and prepare and even taking two leads in it. This sucks. What is your take on tonight’s loss? What did you think worked well? What do you think worked so poorly that it has to be changed? What would you change before their next game against Tampa Bay? Do they have a legitimate chance against Tampa Bay? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog, the site’s Twitter account, during the game. Thanks to everyone who followed along and commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading. I wish it will get better soon and for real.