After an offseason of increasing hype and excitement, the New Jersey Devils took to the ice in their home opener against the Winnipeg Jets. The Rock was thrilled for the majority of the first two periods as the Devils scored four straight and entered the third period up 4-1. However, the Devils faithful witnessed a potentially significant injury and saw this lead get blown. In the shootout, Blake Wheeler - who was inches from breaking the Devils’ fans hearts near the end of the third period - scored in the fourth round to hand the Devils a shootout loss with an official score of 4-5. Instead of enjoying what should have been a decisive win, the fans all left the Rock in a mixture of surprise, frustration, and disgust at what they witnessed this evening.
Disappointing may not be the strongest word possible to describe this game from a Devils perspective. It is an apt one. It is more than the final result; the disappointment truly dwells in how the the Devils lost this game. To be perfectly objective, there were plenty of good things in what the Devils did tonight. But how they lost this game almost totally overshadows it.
I would love to praise how the Devils went at the Jets hard. They saw a backup in net and a team that played last night. They registered 26 shots on them in the first two periods and scored four goals. In total, they put up 39 shots - a number rarely seen last season. And all four goals were at even strength. We expected a more offensive team and we got it. But because of how the game went down, I am left wondering how they did not put a fifth goal past Laurent Brossoit. How they were not able to finish a play in the third period or in overtime. Would not a more offensive team been able to do that?
I would love to gush over plenty of strong individual performances. P.K. Subban was very active on the ice, garnered two chants of “P-K” from the fans, was not dragged down by Andy Greene (he had a good game) and was just motoring on every shift. Even if he stayed out longer to keep a play going, he did not make a mess of it - he contributed. Despite a lack of preseason time, Pavel Zacha acquitted himself well in the bottom six. Jesper Bratt was very good going forward and made an excellent feed to Nikita Gusev, who scored his first NHL goal tonight and scored his first shootout goal. The line of Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall, and Kyle Palmieri had some bumps in the proverbial road. Mostly from Hall, who was seemingly rusty. But even in that awful third period, their line was one of the few that was doing something that could have resulted in a goal for. Blake Coleman scored two goals and was outstanding alongside Travis Zajac and Wayne Simmonds. That line was quite good in their matchup and Coleman was a standout. His second goal is a legitimate Goal of the Year candidate for the Devils and the NHL. But who wants to really focus on any of that? The good performances did not translate to any goals beyond the second period. When the Devils needed that fifth goal, they did not get it. And the bad performances of certain players totally undercut whatever the good players did. Both on the scoreboard and on the ice. Who wants to remember Coleman scoring one-hand with Dmitry Kulikov on his back from a loss? It is a shame that tonight’s result can make people not want to remember one of the greatest individual efforts in recent memory at the Prudential Center.
I would like to point out that special teams play was quite OK. The Devils’ penalty kill yielded zero shots on net over two power plays. The Devils’ own two power plays yielded eight shots on net. The first one showed great movement from a second unit featuring Will Butcher, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt. The second one was dominated by the first unit, with Subban being on the ice for two minutes and the puck being out of the zone for less than twenty seconds total. But one has to wonder why they did not convert either of their power plays. Or what if they did not have two penalties to kill? And wouldn’t good special teams play mean better results in overtime (3v3) or the shootout (which the Devils lost)?
I would really like to tell you how Cory Schneider was great. He was moving excellently in the crease. His glove hand was on-point. He made Nikolaj Ehlers talk to himself after robbing him on an open one-timer in the second period. When the Jets found what shooting the puck resembled in the middle frame of the game, Schneider denied just about everything. He was carrying over his strong performances from preseason. Maybe goaltending was not going to be a big problem just yet. But it became one tonight. It is noted that Kulikov picked a corner on a long shot through traffic with less than eleven seconds in the second period. The real turning point of the game - and the goaltending - came a few minutes into the third period. Schneider stopped a long shot from Neal Pionk. The rebound went wide to his right. While Schneider stretched laterally, Jack Roslovic buried the rebound. Not only was the game now 4-2 and the Jets had a real reason to hope; but Schneider was hurt on the play. He labored to the bench, labored in pain as the medical staff tended to him, and labored his way to the locker room. Mackenzie Blackwood was forced to come in - and he was not good. And the team did not respond with any goal support to help Blackwood or avoid defensive miscues that could have helped him out. Blackwood conceded two goals - Mathieu Perreault and Pionk after an epic long shift; was bailed out at the end of the game from Wheeler; and was beaten twice in the shootout. Goaltending is now a concern - especially with Schneider’s injury.
I would absolutely love to tell you about how the Devils won their home opener. And while it may not have been a glorious beatdown like last season’s first game at the Rock, it would have been a very fun and energetic night for the sell-out crowd of Devils fans. And it would be a statement that perhaps this 2019-20 season will meet our heightened expectations. But I cannot. It did not happen. The excitement turned into a salty mix of frustration, disbelief, and agony over every play (e.g. “they were being too cute there,” one play later, “come on, you got to try to make a play. Be a little cuter.”) or blown call. The pessimistic and negative Devils fans are the only ones who can feel like they are right - not that they feel that good about that either.
The larger point is this. The Devils blew this game. A team that enters the period up 4-1 should be able to win the game. Especially if it is in the team’s first home game of the season, they had a full week off and their opponents played last night, and said opponents were giving up shots all night long to a questionable backup goalie. The lack of a team response and legitimate adjustment after Schneider’s injury and after each goal against is very concerning. Yes, most teams will endure something like this in an 82-game season. But having it happen in the very first game in front of a very supportive and loud crowd is a proverbial punch to the stomach. Instead of setting a tone that 2019-20 will be a better season, the tone is now one of “what if this is all going to go bad - again?”
The Devils cannot dwell and lament and feel sorry for themselves. They have a game in Buffalo tomorrow night to prepare for. They can make it up to the home fans on October 10. In the bigger picture, the one point earned may be welcomed seeing that Wheeler nearly made it zero in the final seconds of the game. That still does not make this loss any less disappointing to have seen, thought, or written about.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Arctic Ice Hockey if you want to read a Jets-based take on this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Oh, John Hynes: The coaching staff gets a special section for this recap. First and foremost, what did the Devils struggle in their own end in the third period? That’s right, zone exits. What did the Devils struggle in their own end throughout preseason? That’s right, zone exits. I understand the Jets had every incentive to push forward but there were a lot of moments where better execution on a clearing attempt or a better decision on the puck in the defensive zone could have avoided a lot of pain. Especially in a third period with a cold goalie in net and an opposition that had something to hope for on the scoreboard.
The nadir was in the 2:18 epic-long shift for Mirco Mueller and Damon Severson from 10:17 into the third to 12:35. This shift ended with Pionk tying up the game. It was also Severson’s and Mueller’s last shift of the night. They were benched as the two of them failed to win pucks and find a way to stop Winnipeg’s onslaught. Severson, in particular, had the puck on his stick in the corner and had ample opportunity to clear it away. Even an icing would have allowed 20-30 seconds of respite. Instead, he took extra touches and when did make an attempt, it was blocked by the forechecker in front of him. It prevented the Devils from making a badly needed change. They somehow were able to get two fresh forwards on, but Jack Hughes, Mueller, and Severson were stuck. The positional advantage and pressure was all favoring the Jets and Pionk made them suffer. Failed zone exits then and earlier in the shift led to that heinous goal.
But it also belies a larger issue. Mueller and Severson were having a bad night well before then. They were the only defensive pairing drowning in the run of play. The 5-on-5 CF% for both ended below 40%. Mueller was not putting pucks into good places in his own zone or in transition. Severson was uncharacteristically passive in his play tonight. Instead of swapping Jesper Bratt and John Hayden at forward - which did not help Gusev or Hughes - why was there not a change made there? Hynes and Alain Nasreddine used Mueller with Sami Vatanen for most of last season. Butcher - or even Greene - could have rolled with Severson for some shifts. Instead, Hynes and his staff made a swap at right wing that really was not useful or sensible while keeping 25-28 together as they were getting wrecked. And because the pairing was benched after the fourth goal against, this meant more minutes for Greene, Subban, Vatanen, and Butcher. Knowing that there is a game on Saturday night, the blueline is now going to be more fatigued than otherwise. And it all stems from the coaches not making the appropriate adjustment.
Likewise, where was the timeout in the third period? Not that timeouts are this magical cure-all of a team’s problems. But after Perrault’s goal - which was not a good one for Blackwood to allow - it would have been totally justifiable for the coaching staff to try to calm everyone down. Maybe he was trying to do so on the bench during breaks, but it would have been something to try. It would have also been something to try changing some of the tactics instead of just moving two right wingers and shortening the blueline.
This loss is as much on Hynes and his staff as it is on the players tonight. And the reasons above, I think, justify that.
Yep, They Were Not Good: Mueller and Severson were absolutely heinous out there. Both are much better than what they showed tonight. When they were on the ice, the Devils were out-shot, out-attempted, and generally out-played. Neither looked good in the run up to any of the goals they were on the ice for. I cannot imagine why this pairing was not changed up at all.
John Hayden only played 10:01 but it felt longer and just as impact-less. He did not even attempt to take a shot. He made few plays on defense or in the neutral zone. He was the definition of “just a guy” out there. It is not so much that the twelfth forward selection led to tonight’s result. Yet, you cannot tell me that Jesper Boqvist could not have been better than this. I could even be convinced that Kevin Rooney should have played in his place tonight as well.
Sad to say, but the NHL debut of Jack Hughes was one to forget. It was definitely a case of a player trying to do too much initially. He does not need to skate the puck by his own net on defense. He does not need to join in battles when he needs to be covering the space for the player engaged in said battle. He does not need to go hard into the boards where he can take hits instead of making plays. Hughes did demonstrate some of his vision on the puck in spots. And in overtime, he was definitely hustling and hungry to make something happen out there. But at the end of the day, the Devils were out-shot 5-13 when he was out there in 5-on-5 and out-attempted 7-20. That was worse than anyone else on the team. At least Hynes was justified there to use Zajac’s line as the second line. This is by no means a reason to write The Big Deal off. It was just a bad game. He will have many, many, many more nights to do better and he will.
(Aside: If you want another reason to raise an eyebrow at Hynes, why in the world did Hughes, Gusev, and Bratt/Hayden go up against Kyle Connor, Patrick Laine, and Andrew Copp more than anyone else at 5-on-5? The Hischier line could have handled them instead of crushing their bottom six.)
I want to be sympathetic to Blackwood. But this is the reality of being a backup. Sometimes you have to go in cold in a tough situation. I hope he will be much better in Buffalo on Saturday night.
Shootout? Shootout: Gusev’s move was very nice. I would keep him there. I can understand giving Hughes and Palmieri chances. But Hall has never been all that good in shootouts and Jesper Bratt was right there to have a go. Coleman would have been justifiable seeing that he stunned Brossoit with a one-handed shot earlier in the game. In the bigger picture, I can accept some experimentation as there is a lot of new faces to give a chance to in the shootout. A loss in the shootout still usually leaves one wondering “What could have been?” And I still feel that way now.
Let It Out: Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
As Is Tradition: Congratulations are in order to Nikita Gusev as he scored his first NHL goal tonight. He also scored the Devils’ first goal of the 2019-20 season. This means I will do a breakdown of his goal. I will try my best to have it up tomorrow.
One Last Thought: As I wrote in my prediction, I think this season will be a roller coaster. I wish I did not have to experience a great rise and a greater fall all in the very first night of it.
Your Take: The Devils lost a game they should have won. I am not happy about it. I am sure you are not happy about it either. What are your thoughts about the game? Who performed the best for the Devils in your eyes? Who performed the worst? What should Hynes have done differently? What should the team do differently before tomorrow’s game against Buffalo? And will you remember Coleman’s awesome goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to CJ, Gerard, Alex, Mike, and Brian for putting together this season’s preview. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.