Over the course of an 82-game season, there will be games where the team seemingly struggles in everything but they are able to get a win or a post-regulation point thanks to the goaltender. Tonight was one of those games for the New Jersey Devils. Mackenzie Blackwood was sensational against the Pittsburgh Penguins and is the biggest reason why the Devils edged the Pens 2-1 this evening.
Blackwood made 38 saves out of 39 shots this evening and many of them were not easy stops. Blackwood was excellent at tracking the puck through traffic. Blackwood’s rebound control was fantastic. In the cases where a Penguin would pick up that rebound, Blackwood was alert and quick enough to deny the opportunity either by sprawling out or getting his whole body squared up to the shooter. Blackwood’s glove was impeccable. Blackwood’s blocker was in form. If he had to make a save with his helmet, then he would have done so with aplomb tonight. Blackwood was brilliant tonight.
He absolutely had to be because the men in front of him did not help him out all that much. In addition to 38 saves, the Devils allowed 76 total shooting attempts by Pittsburgh. This included a whopping 32 in the third period alone. The Devils definitely did not succeed at keeping the opposition to the outside. Blackwood had to contend with 42 scoring chances and 14 high danger chances. Again, the third period was particularly heavy with Pittsburgh racking up 19 chances and 4 high danger chances in that period. The Devils did give him a two-goal cushion for that third period. They also gave Pittsburgh a meager five shooting attempts in the third period out of a total of just 38. They registered two shots on net in that same third period, out of a total of only 21 tonight. I understand Pittsburgh was chasing the game, but there is a fine line between being out-attempted and out-shot due to score effects and practically playing on defense for (seemingly) 90% of a twenty-minute period. Blackwood not only saved the Devils’ collective bacon when there was a defensive breakdown or a point-blank shot by Pittsburgh, but as a whole given how the Penguins dominated the third period and parts of the second period with not a very large lead.
Seriously, this is hockey. This is a sport where a seemingly harmless shot can become a goal thanks to a deflection off a body part or a stick or a skate; or the shot gets through a mass of bodies such that no one could see it; or something else entirely odd. The goalie can be amazing and still be beaten because not even he can stop everything in a sport filled with chaos. The Devils played with fire and risked being burnt many times, especially in the third period. Given how the Devils have made a habit about blowing leads at home, I felt the dread of witnessing another choke job at Newark.
And the team was already halfway there. An awful shift filled with botched zone exits ended up with Jack Johnson getting the puck from Alex Galchenyuk on the weakside because of course the Devils were overcomitted to one side of the ice. Johnson teed up a near-perfect shot to the top corner past Blackwood to make it 2-1. The Devils followed that event by having another terrible shift, which only made the seemingly inevitable feel more, well, inevitable.
However, it did not happen tonight. Blackwood and some good fortune ensured that it would not happen. The dreaded deflection or screen or fluke for an equalizer did not happen. The Devils benefited with two of them for their two goals this evening. Most importantly, Blackwood was seemingly too good tonight to get beat a second time despite some strong efforts by Pittsburgh. And he was.
Am I pleased about the win? I am pleased with the win. The New Jersey Devils picked up a victory tonight and that is always a good thing. After all, the Devils went into this game with a 2-3-4 home record and being last in the East. They need wins by any means; beggars cannot really be choosers in this situation. I was especially pleased with Blackwood’s performance. He was great. I also enjoyed that third penalty kill by the Devils, which was excellent and seeing Blake Coleman work his tail off for his first goal in ten games, even if he technically did not score it.
Am I pleased with how the Devils won? Absolutely not. Based on what I saw in the Gamethread and on Twitter, I am not alone in feeling this way. (This is a positive, I’m glad that hockey fans are more willing to admit that a win does not mean everything was good or it is the only thing that matters in a game.) I understand that winning is always a plus. Believe me, I am not unhappy about the result. The sticking point is how the Devils got there. The proverbial mountain for the Devils to climb is massive and while tonight’s win is a good step forward, I want the Devils to keep taking steps forward. For that to happen, the team has to play a lot better than they have been, including tonight’s game. The offense cannot disappear for the better part of two periods as well as fail to create threatening shots even when space is available. The defense cannot continue to falter on zone exits like they did in preseason. The power play cannot keep squandering time and possessions. The penalty kill cannot just solely lean on the goalie. The coaches cannot just stand and watch as they see the myriad of dump-and-chase entries, failed zone exits, attempts at “home run” breakout passes that were not there, and more without adjusting or even telling the players to knock it off. The Penguins did not just tally a few more shots, attempts, and chances than New Jersey. They drowned them in it, with a heinous 32-5 attempt differential and a 19-2 shot differential in the third period. Blackwood was fantastic but even fantastic goaltending cannot always turn performances like that into results.
Tonight, it did. That is a good thing. Hopefully the team will try to learn the hard lessons from their shortcomings this evening. It may have to wait as the Devils will play on Saturday night in Montreal. Another potential playoff-bound team that just put up nearly 70 attempts and 36 shots in 5-on-5 play alone against - yes, really - Washington. I would not expect a repeat of what happened at the Rock to happen at the Bell Center tomorrow. Changes still have to be made in New Jersey.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik has this recap at PensBurgh stating that the Pens fell into a deep hole. A hole? Yes. Deep? No?
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, bask in the glory of Mackenzie Blackwood on November 15, 2019.
The Fortune for Scoring: The Devils scored their two goals this evening on two kinds of fortunate occurrences.
The first was a re-direction of a pass. Coleman chased down the puck and knocked it ahead of Brian Dumoulin behind the net. Jesper Bratt took the puck, immediately flung it towards Travis Zajac, and just as Zajac arrived in front of the crease, he one-touched it past Matt Murray. It was a quick play off a turnover. Had the puck wobbled or if Zajac’s stick was not angled the right amount, then it could have turned into a missed shot or even a save. It all worked out and so the puck popped up and past Murray.
The second was an own goal that was created by Coleman. John Marino could not handle a pass to him at the right point (he used his skate, not his stick) and Coleman took the loose puck and charged ahead. Marino kept Coleman to the outside so Coleman just fired a soft, low shot. Murray stopped it with his bad but he bungled the rebound. Worse, he slid away from it. Coleman and Marino both headed to the net, and Coleman’s pressure forces Marino to also stretch out for the puck. This led to Marino putting the puck into the net. This was the kind of own goal that makes me glad the NHL credits the last player on the scoring team to touch it. This does not happen without Coleman’s efforts. (Or Murray’s foible.) It was also a fortunate occurrence since Marino could have went for a poke or even just tried to box out Coleman.
I am not going to complain about two goals but I will complain that the Devils were not able to finish offensive shifts with goals. They were not able to convert on their power plays. They were not able to put something past Murray on their few rushes up ice. A quick re-direction and a defenseman putting a puck in his own net due in part to pressure by Coleman did. Murray was not challenged nearly enough in terms of volume or quality. Had the Devils done even a halfway decent job, then may be they would have had more goals and given Blackwood some more breathing room. After all, one of the team’s two third period shots on net was stopped by Murray but the puck trickled through and the ref had to check (and confirm) the puck stopped on the line. While that was one play, I would like to think that Murray was vulnerable and the Devils let him get away with it. Alas.
Did Any Devil Even Crack 50% CF% Tonight in 5-on-5?: Yes. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes did. Not that Hughes did a lot tonight. Like with many of the forwards, he ended up being mostly anonymous. Johnson tripped him in the second period, which led to a power play that Taylor Hall ended early. There was that. Still, he was the lone Devil to witness more attempts by his team than Pittsburgh tonight. Even then, he only witnessed five shots for and five against. It is more of a footnote than a hallmark of The Big Deal.
By the way, this also means that most of the line changes ahead of this game (and in this game) really did not work so well. Miles Wood played with a lot of energy next to Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, but it certainly did not lead to a lot of good play against Pittsburgh. Similarly, Boqvist with Zacha and Simmonds were non-factors and Gusev next to Zajac and Coleman was eaten alive in their match-up. I was actually glad to see some line mixing in the third. Even though it led to even less offense, it certainly was not getting the job done in the second period or parts of the first period.
(Sad Honk Noise): On the flipside of CF% numbers, the Devils had seven players finish below 30% CF%, which is abysmal. The Penguins just constantly beat on Wayne Simmonds, Jesper Boqvist (John Hynes, you could not keep him away from Alex Galchenyuk? Why not?), Coleman (scoring a goal did not mean Evegni Malkin and Jake Guentzel did not steamroll him in 5-on-5), Zajac (same as Coleman), Pavel Zacha, Andy Greene (4 attempts for, 22 against! How?!), and Nikita Gusev.
Gusev was on the ice for one (1) attempt by the Devils and twelve against in just 6:51 of 5-on-5 ice time today. He was on the ice for zero shots for and eight against. Gusev was the least effective in a game where the entire team’s effectivity died somewhere early in the second period. That is an almost impressive level of futility. I can see why he only played 6:51 of this game in 5-on-5 situations. His only “positive” contribution was being struck in the head by Zach Aston-Reese, which led to the Devils’ second power play of the game. (You remember that one as the one that yielded a one-timer by Pittsburgh in the high slot early in that man advantage.) This is the kind of stuff that puts Kevin Rooney back in the lineup.
Defense Notes: As a whole it was terrible. The Devils’ defensive structure this evening was either to chase plays, scramble to clean up loose pucks, collapse whenever possible such that the Penguin defensemen constantly had time and space with the puck, and fail to consistently execute zone exits. I do not know whether the Penguins’ blueline are somehow superior than others when it comes to keeping the puck in the zone. Yet, they succeeded wildly whether it was from making a leap to snag a lobbed puck from going out or just being aware of the puck coming right at them. The Devils’ own zone exit attempts were often misguided and lazy at worst. And this was often exacerbated when the forwards would get involved, so they go out of the zone early or they try to get a touch to beat another player instead of helping the exit along. A big reason why the Penguins racked up over 70 shooting attempts and nearly 40 shots this evening was because the Devils struggled mightily at getting the puck out of their end and into Pittsburgh’s end with possession. This really needs to be fixed and I am shocked the coaches seemingly have not addressed it.
This was especially noticeable in the third period. Such failings led to Johnson’s goal. Such failings led to Blackwood having to make some incredible stops as time ran down. The Devils seemingly kept looking for passes that would spring a breakaway or an odd man rush. The very few times that happened, either the pass would go awry so the rush led to nothing or the puck carrier slows up to wait for more help only for a Penguin to negate them. The Devils should have realized that they were not going to easily blow by the Penguins earlier in the game. I do not know why they thought so in the third. This also contributed to the heavily tilted rink as the Penguins were able to get the puck and keep pounding on a Devils defense that was not protecting even the high danger areas well. As much as we think of defense as playing in your own third of the rink, losing pucks in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone - especially after all three forwards commit to go to the goal line - really contributes to those issues. This also needs to be fixed because it really hurt the cause against Pittsburgh, even though they won.
There was one silver lining: Matt Tennyson did not play like a dumpster set ablaze on defense this evening. Was he good? Not really, but he was not so awful. I still think we will see Colton White replace him tomorrow, but we’ll see.
The Hall Frustration: While many Devils had worse nights than Taylor Hall this evening by both observation and/or the on-ice stats, Hall remained a frustration to watch tonight. He was seemingly holding onto the puck too long, looking to make an extra move or take an extra second to look for a better play. When he would try to make it, the puck was not on target or a Penguin just took it away. On top of this, Hall hooked Teddy Bluerger while on the power play in the second period in Pittsburgh’s end of the rink and in open ice. The penalty ended the power play and led to an abbreviated kill for Pittsburgh. While Hall ended up with four shots tonight and no breakaway to be denied on, he did get stopped somewhat easily by Murray on the Devils’ second third period shot in a 2-on-1 situation. His cold stick continues to be icy. I would be lying if that did not make me notice his turnovers and failed efforts just a little more.
The Mountain As it Stands: The Devils’ win does pull them within six points of Pittsburgh, who still holds the second wild card spot. It was a regulation win against a team they may (will? are?) directly competing with in the standings. But there are a lot of teams still between the two. The win did move the Devils ahead of Detroit thanks to New Jersey having three fewer games played than them. Ottawa and Columbus won, so the Devils remain a game within those two - who are both directly ahead of New Jersey in the standings. They are the next ones to be overcome. At least we hope. The victory also improved the Devils’ point percentage for this season to 44.4%. Just like losing weight or starting a project, one night is not going to turn it around. It is going to take consistent success to bring that points percentage up to 57 to 60% for the season. As stated earlier in this recap, tonight was a step forward - and they need to keep taking steps forward.
One Last Thought: The Devils seemingly have the Penguins’ number in recent seasons. Since 2017-18, the Devils have won six out of eight against Pittsburgh. These wins included great moments like Coleman’s backhanded goal, Hischier sending Hall on a breakaway to win in overtime, one of the most dominant 3-1 victories in recent memory, Brian Boyle’s natural hat trick, and more. Tonight’s win was all about Mackenzie Blackwood and his wonderful performance in the crease. That is what the seventh win out of their last nine games should be remembered for. Not the bad performance he made up for, but Blackwood’s excellence on this night.
Your Take: The Devils beat the Penguins 2-1. Was it a good team performance? No. Was it led by a magnificent performance by the goaltender? Yes. What is your take about this win? What do you think the Devils need to learn from this game before their next one in Montreal and the next few after this one? Did any other Devil perform well in your eyes tonight? If so, why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who followed along either on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog and/or the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.