When you’re playing a team like the Bruins, the first and foremost thing you don’t want to do is give them any kind of momentum. Something like getting stripped of the puck in your own zone and giving up a breakaway and a rebound chance? That’s one of those things you don’t want to do.
If you DO do that, you have to do one other thing to even out that momentum: hem the other team in their zone the next shift.
The Devils did both of those things in the first five minutes.
They also did pretty much nothing else.
The Bruins are a strong defensive team, so low event hockey is pretty much a must to hang with them in this game unless you’re the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning. Our scoring numbers don’t really give us much confidence to know we can outscore them, so the name of tonight’s game absolutely has to be slow and steady wins the race. And so slow and steady it has been.
Halfway through the first period, the Devils had not taken a shot on goal. The Bruins had taken two.
Why so low and slow? Both teams are doing an excellent job of stifling zone entries and the Devils are snuffing out shot attempts left and right. Both teams have struggled to find any traction in their respective offensive zones. The few shots that have come from long shots or shots carried in by one player as the rest of the team chances after a shift of accomplishing nothing.
Its not until past the halfway point of the first period that hockey starts to happen. The second line of Coleman - Zajac - Gusev, comes on and forces their way into the offensive zone. Nikita Gusev gets a tip that flips high in front of the slot. Its gloved down by Coleman directly to his stick and he immediately turns and fires point blank at the net but Tuuka Rask gets a skate across in time to make the save.
Back down at the other end of the ice, Pavel Zacha picks up a loose puck and attempts to carry it out of the zone but is tripped up and we go to the first power play of the night.
If I didn’t know better, and to be honest I don’t, I’d swear the Devils have been practicing their power play with a beach ball, because they genuinely did not look like they were prepared to handle a puck. They failed to make clean passes, fanned on shots, mishandled plays and killed their own power play.
Keyword tonight: momentum.
Another thing that gives a team momentum? An effective penalty kill.
The Bruins come flying out of their zone the moment the Devils power play is over. They enter the zone, ignore the Devils defensemen, and Matt Grzelcyk paints the corner over Mackenzie Blackwood’s shoulder from the point to put the Bruins on the board.
Off the ensuing facec-off, the Bruins enter the Devils zone at speed and somehow develop an instant 2 on 1. Taylor Hall drops back to help but he misses the pass across the ice to David Pastrnak who rips it past Blackwood to put the Bruins up 2-0 with a second goal just 14 seconds apart.
Danton Heinen decides to give the Devils a chance to pick some momentum back up for themselves by tripping Blake Coleman and giving the Devils another power play.
Really, can we just decline them? Send a thank you card and skip two minutes of the period? Nothing good happened. We still couldn’t make a clean pass. The Bruins immediately sprung out and sat in the Devils zone but this time fortunately did not score two more goals.
They did however draw a power play of their own— Taylor Hall goes to the box for tripping Charlie McAvoy behind the Bruins night. The Devils penalty kill was just a bit less effective than the Bruins but to be fair they did an excellent job of shutting down one of the most effective power play units in the NHL. Coleman even picks up a last second shorthanded rush to the net and makes a good move in the slot while pursued by two players in an attempt to beat the buzzer and the Bruins netminder, but Rask makes the stop of both the puck and the diving Coleman as the period expires.
Taylor Hall has 6 seconds of penalty layover to start the second period. The Devils win the face-off and that’s enough to kill the rest of Hall’s timeout.
After a few minutes of absolutely nothing, the Devils start to pick up some spice in the Bruins zone. A drop pass to Mirco Mueller from Jack Hughes gives the Devils their best scoring opportunity of the period. Bolstered a bit by the opportunity they come back heavy and set up in the Bruins zone. We’re almost halfway through this game but this is the first time the Devils have made clean passes, clear smart plays and cycled the puck and their positions perfectly. Wayne Simmonds swings up high and and picks up a pass from Mueller. He walks in towards the high slot, drags and holds before loosing a shot through traffic in the front that doesn’t manage to pass Tuuka Rask.
Boston comes back the other way off the rebound but Blackwood makes the save. The Devils return the other way off the ensuing face-off and set up just briefly before a shot is blocked away and we resume the previous style of ping-pong hockey, this time trading a shot or two occasionally. The Bruins set up in the Devils zone for a minute— they don’t really get a shot off, but they maintain far to much zone time for comfort. The defense on that shift shows a clear problem in the Devils game tonight: no pressure. They’re 5 on 5 but they’re playing defense like they’re on the penalty kill. No one is battling with the puck carrier. The forwards are miles away from their points—they’re collapsed in the slot like they’re boxing out a power play. In the wise words of Wes McCauley, “You can’t do that”.
The Devils pick up a good chance as Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri enter the zone— Hall feeds a streaking Palmieri in the center who tries to power move through the slot past Rask but Rask, as usual, says no. They regroup and return for more, this time launching shots from PK Subban and Goose but Tuuka Rask refuses to be beaten.
Blake Coleman, however, refuses to be stopped. He also refuses to score a goal in a normal manner.
As the period starts to wind down in the final two minutes, the Devils break out and find their way into the Bruin’s zone. Gusev carries in, avoids the pressure and finds a cutting Coleman. Coleman dekes once then absolutely launches a slick backhand directly over the shoulder of Rask for the Devils first goal of the season against the Boston netminder.
Despite a solid effort from Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier to pick up the tying goal in the waning seconds, the Devils go to the third period still down a goal, but they’ve at least cut the deficit in half.
With the Devils within one and the intensity kicked up a notch at the start of the final frame, tempers start to flare here early in the third. A chance in front of Blackwood is met with a slightly delayed hit from Hall and a bit of a scrum. Back the other way and a chance in front of Rask is snuffed out and followed up by yet another scrum.
Hischier strips Pastrnak of a bouncing puck at the top of the Devils zone and brings it to the offensive zone. Hall chases it down the boards and one-hands it across the goal line to the front of the net where Hischier and Palmieri battle but can’t find it under Rask. The puck comes back the other way and Pastrnak finds it again, this time batting it out of the air. Subban chases him down and puts himself in good position to play the puck, but Pastrnak pulls a spin-o-rama backwards and spins himself over Subban’s stick and draws a ‘tripping’ penalty.
Pastrnak, a one-man wrecking crew this season, picks up the puck on the power play within seconds and effortlessly snipes the back of the net. The deficit moves back up to 2 goals as the Bruins take the 3-1 lead early in the third period.
The Coleman - Zajac - Goose line tries to even things up but Gusev’s pass to Coleman gets picked off. Grzelyck carries it around Subban at the blue line, who looks like he may have wanted a penalty on the play somehow but was caught completely flat footed, and snipes nearly the same corner as his first goal to make it a 4-1 Boston lead.
Things start to unravel for the Devils as moments later a slapshot from Connor Clifton at the point finds the crossbar and digs the Devils hole even further down to a 5-1 lead.
For the Bruins, the name of the game now as the clock ticks down with a massive lead is dump and change, easy defense. The Devils finally start to manage some cohesive passes and sustained zone time in the final minutes in spite of that recommendation, but aren’t able to put anything else past Tuuka Rask to help themselves sleep a little better tonight.
I’ve got one positive for y’all: Nikita Gusev continues to have positive improvements and is starting to be one of the strongest offensive forwards on the ice every game, which is excellent considering that’s what we brought him in for. He lead the team in 5v5 CF% and xGF% yet again in tonight’s game. Coleman continues to be Coleman as well but just about everyone else lacked an awful lot of pep in their step tonight.
So why is that?
The Confidence Conundrum Why can’t the Devils manage a power play? How do we keep getting more chances on penalty kills than we do on power plays? Why are we playing defense like we’re shorthanded when we’re not? We’re playing on our heels. We’re playing scared. They Devils are afraid to give up goals so they tuck back in the defensive zone in fear of being too aggressive and making a mistake. They hang back a second even on an offensive zone face-off win when they should be going to the middle of the ice in case they lose possession and need to retreat. They’re trying too hard to score on the power play so they hesitate to shoot unless the shooting lane is perfect. They force a pass that shouldn’t be made so instead it bounces, it misses its target, it gets picked off. Everybody focuses so much on the passes, on each other, nobody moves their feet— it’s laughably easy to defend a power play where the passing lanes never move. They get the chances on the penalty kill because those chances don’t rely on each other— there’s no creativity in defending on the penalty kill. You do what the other team’s puck movement dictates you do. If you get the puck on your stick and you have the room, you run, and all of a sudden its just the puck carrier and the goalie.
So why the lack of confidence? The coach and the system are popular targets of blame. Is there some merit to those accusations, maybe. But there’s a few other areas I’m looking at first. If Taylor Hall suddenly started scoring on the million and one shots and scoring chances and breakaways he’s had lately, would they be less afraid to make mistakes? If our blueline hadn’t been composed of two of the worst dmen in the NHL and a should be top pairing star who’s been struggling mightily in his defensive play for weeks, would they be less afraid of conceding possession? If they could trust their linemates to be in the right position to cover them if they did step up and pressure the puck carrier, would they still be hanging back and hiding in the slot in their own zone? Personally, I’m betting no to all of those. You can’t play good hockey if you’re too scared to play good hockey. If confidence wasn’t a factor, they wouldn’t collapse so hard when the psychological flow of the game changes. One goal leads to four, third period leads create worse play than being down 2 goals. That’s not playing style. A bad system doesn’t get you a third period lead for you to blow, and it doesn’t all of a sudden get worse after the first or second goal. It also doesn’t suddenly improve when you’re down 5 to 1 and all of a sudden we’re sustaining zone time now that we have nothing to lose.
Boston is an insanely tough team to play against— this was always going to be a difficult game to win, and there’s no way this team didn’t know that walking into the rink tonight. I’m not saying don’t blame the coach or the system or the water in Newark. All I’m saying here is that from what I see lately and in this game in particular, these guys do not trust themselves as individual players and they do not trust each other, and that’s a huge problem that’s going to be tough to solve.
Your Take: How do the Devils get their swagger back? Which individuals need to take steps to help that? Who if anybody do you think played to their usual potential tonight? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks for putting up with this recap!