Today was Thanksgiving in America. Many of you likely celebrated this day with a meal. Usually with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, gravy, and so many other sides. Perhaps you had something else to feast on. The New Jersey Devils brought something different to the table: a high-event hockey game, an excellent Goose, a productive Pickle, many rushes up ice, and a lot of finish. The New Jersey Devils won the real Thanksgiving Showdown by beating the Montreal Canadiens 6-4.
Your eyes do not deceive you. This was not played on NHL 2020. The Devils won a game where ten total goals were scored. The Devils had six of them. A certified Goal Explosion was put on Carey Price and the Canadiens. This was the highest scoring game in franchise history on Thanksgiving and the Devils won it. What was more surprising was that this game featured a combined 147 shooting attempts and 83 shots on net. Action was at least double the pace of the recent loss to Minnesota. The Devils put five past Carey Price and four of them were from plays off the rush. Some were partial two-on-ones, some were traditional two-on-ones, the goals were scored, and the Pugilist smashed his stick in anger after Damon Severson roofed one to the far corner from the left side in the third period.
What was horrifying about this game was that Montreal bossed the Devils around for the most part. It is true that Montreal was chasing the game for the most part. A team down one is expected to be more aggressive on offense and push to create more chances or at least more pressure. This was well beyond that. Montreal had their legs under them from minute one and they swarmed the Devils over and over and over in the first two periods. It was ridiculous. Of those 147 shooting attempts, Montreal had 90 of them. Of those 83 shots, Montreal had 48 of them. That was after a more even third period too. The Canadiens constantly pinned back a Devils team that defended very passively all night long. Throw in some bad decisions on the puck in the defensive zone and easy-to-deny zone exit attempts, and Montreal feasted on the Devils defense. The saving grace for the Devils was that Mackenize Blackwood made a lot of tough saves early and his rebounds often ended up in spots where the Devils could recover the puck, even only briefly. Plenty of those bounces contributed to the rushes up ice the Devils generated. Still, the Devils played with fire a whole lot and there was a real case of getting burned.
However, this was the night where the Devils cashed in on plenty of those rushes. Nikita Gusev was a stud with his passes. He cut to the middle that set up Blake Coleman for the first goal of the game drew Shea Weber down and his pass was pristine. For the second goal, Gusev pushed down the left side, tossed a bouncing puck to the middle in the hopes a streaking Travis Zajac could get on it, and Zajac batted it in past a stunned Price. Gusev could have had a third primary assist when he curled around at the red line, saw Taylor Hall wide open in the middle, and sprung him for a breakaway. Alas, Price stopped him. But Price did not stop Damon Severson’s laser to the far corner. Who made the lateral pass at the Devils’ blueline to Severson for his skate-and-score? Gusev. Gusev also had three shots and one that nearly beat Price low in the second period, causing the punch-happy goalie to briefly look behind him. While Gusev and his line was picked on a ton in the run of play tonight, his line was not heavily out-shot. Just heavily out-attempted. His counter attacks were crucial for the Devils tonight and his assists were fantastic. This was more like the Gusev people were excited to see when the Devils acquired him.
This was also the night for Coleman to put up a four-point night. Coleman scored the first and the last goal of the game. He had to finish Gusev’s great pass and he did. Do not hate on empty net goals. Given how Montreal was attacking tonight, getting it allowed all of the Devils faithful to relax a bit. Coleman’s other two points were secondary assists. Do not hate on these secondary assists. They were legit as they both were to Gusev, who set up two goals. The first: Coleman won a puck from Max Domi and sent it up to Gusev for Zajac’s goal. The second: After a faceoff win, Coleman continued a puck up the boards to Gusev for a zone exit. Gusev then sent it across to Severson for his goal. Throw in a lot of hard work on the penalty kill and Coleman had a very eventful birthday. Happy 28th to the Pickle Purveyor.
This was the night where some players redeemed themselves from the past couple of games. Pavel Zacha had a beautiful pass that sprung Miles Wood, who finally scored a goal and did so on a breakaway in the second period. Wood found that Price had a gaping five hole and made him pay for it. Jesper Boqvist ended up being in the right place at the right time after a shot by Nico Hischier, created when Hischier took a lost puck from Montreal from the neutral zone to the right circle. Price stopped the shot, Boqvist buried the rebound. Was it a great night for those players in particular? No, but for Zacha, Boqvist, and to a lesser extent Wood, getting those points will help their case to stay in the lineup. That was good to see. Their impact was more than just running around in their own zone.
Lastly, this was the night where Mackenzie Blackwood carried a heavy load. I will say that the goal he allowed to Joel Armia was a bad one. The one allowed to Brendan Gallagher in the first period was also a bad one. The one allowed to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, less so as he was screened. I do not blame him for Artturi Lehkonen’s goal. Still, the man had to deal with 48 shots off of 90 attempts. Montreal crashed the net with impunity despite the Devils defensive system supposedly designed to limit that. 39 of those attempts were scoring chances by Natural Stat Trick’s metric and 14 of them were high danger ones. It was a lot to deal with. Adding to the pressure was that the Devils did not have a two goal lead before the empty netter for more than thirty seconds. This was a tied or one-goal lead to defend. In a sport where one harmless looking shot can become a goal against with a mere deflection, screen, or mistake, that is a cause for anxiety. But Blackwood got the job done. He made many important saves with his pads and the Devils at least limited the amount of rebound attempts for Montreal. He was under siege on many shifts and he did not panic. Most four-goal games for goalies are not good nights. This was kind of an exception given the volume involved.
There is plenty to criticize about the performance. After all, the Devils did allow 90 shooting attempts and 48 shots against. Still, the Devils were victorious in a high-event and high-octane road game on a night where the team has been off for the last 19 seasons. I was pumped when Coleman put home Zajac’s pass for an empty netter (off the rush!). I am still very pleased with the result and the sweet, sweet goals the team put past Price.
The Opposition Opinion: This loss for Montreal was their sixth winless game in a row. Andrea Rowe is not happy in her top six minutes at Habs Eyes on the Prize.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, marvel at three assists by Nikita Gusev, four points by Coleman, five past Price, and six goals in total:
Defense is a Team Effort: The New Jersey Devils were absolutely hammered in their own end for most of the first and second periods. They did improve in the third period. There was even a minute of the game in the third period where there were no shots on net. Still, 90 attempts and 48 shots allowed is definitely not good. It is the kind of game that makes fans complain about the defense. They are correct to do so. They are not correct that it is all on the defensemen.
In this day and age of the NHL, all five skaters have to help on defense just as all five skaters ave to help on offense. It was stunning to see five skaters on the Devils hover around the slot as if they were killing a penalty. It is one thing to let a power play make a move and then react to clean it up. It does not really work at even strength and if the numbers do not convince them, then perhaps maybe Blackwood can explain it to them how it did not help him out at all. Plenty of credit should go to Montreal. The Canadiens came out hard and never really slowed down. They went in on their forecheck and won a lot of pucks. Their defensemen held the zone very well. If the Devils lost the puck on an offensive zone pass or a failed dump in, they pushed forward. What was shocking was the Devils never really adjusted to this until the third period and even then it took plenty of minutes after Lehkonen scored right on the shift after Severson’s goal.
This indicts the forward lines. I’ll use the Coleman-Zajac-Gusev line as an example. As well as Gusev did to carry the puck out for offensive chances and as well as Coleman turned two exits into assists by Gusev, more often than not, the forwards were just waiting to clean something up or losing the puck on defense because they tried to make a pass or clearance that Montreal denied. The line was above 50% in expected goals percentage and the Devils were only out shot 9-10 in 5-on-5 play when the line was on the ice. But the line was still out-attempted 11-23, which meant they spent a lot of time in their own end of the rink. Thankfully, they hit big on their offensive chances. On another night, I do not think it would happen.
Most of the other lines were worse by the way. The original first line was Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri. While they had chances, they were out-attempted 9-12 and out-shot 5-11. Brendan Gallagher and his line ate up that matchup and forced John Hynes to shift some of the forwards around. It was necessary. Although Hall with Jack Hughes and Wayne Simmonds did not go so well either. It speaks to the larger issue of how the forwards in general just did not provide enough help and did not execute nearly as well as they could have in their own end of the rink. Add in some lax efforts at exits and failing to get open for a couple of breakouts and of course Montreal pummeled Blackwood with shots.
This is not to say that the Devils’ defensemen had a great night. They did not. P.K. Subban arguably had one of his worst games as a Devil tonight. He should feel ashamed for standing like a statue when Lehkonen got a shot at the top of the crease and then poked in his own rebound. Sami Vatanen was definitely not preventing much next to Subban. The pairing of Andy Greene and Severson saw over 30 attempts against in 5-on-5 play alone. At least the shots against were not as lopsided, but it did mean plenty of time spent in their own end. Matt Tennyson and Will Butcher were the statistically best pairing on the ice tonight and the observations agree with that if only because Tennyson did not commit a back-breaking mistake. Even then, they faced over 8 scoring chances, 10 shots, and 17 attempts in 5-on-5 play. The difference was that they saw the Devils match or exceed those numbers.
With a game like this, you have to thank the goalie even if he let in a few bad ones and you have to thank the offense for keeping the team ahead on the scoreboard. As far as the defense goes, the right thing to do is treat this as an opportunity for improvement. While future teams may not be as aggressive on offense or in general as Montreal, the Devils would be wise to be more engaging at even strength. This means the wingers need to be closer to the point men, the defensemen have to do more than just be around the net or the slot, the skaters need to watch for players on the weakside, and the team has to execute better when they do have the puck. They cannot just play this five-sided passive pentagon around the crease and hope to clean up the loose pucks when the shots come. Defense is a team effort.
One Sided Special Teams: The Devils could have saved themselves a lot of anguish with a better defensive effort. They also could have saved themselves from having to defend a one-goal lead if their power play converted. Despite Price’s struggles and the Canadiens having the least successful penalty kill in the league, the Devils’ power play put up just three shots on net. Two of them were on a late third period power play, where the team at least spent a minute of it in Montreal’s zone and taking time off the clock was its own benefit. Still, it was astonishing to see the Devils perform on the power play tonight as if they never practiced it. Players were not where they needed to be. That blasted drop pass in the neutral zone often resulted in a Devil going into traffic or forcing a pass into it, and the Devils rarely threatened to score. It did not hurt them tonight. After all, they scored five on Price in 5-on-5 play. Like the defensive “effort,” on another night, it may be a cause for another defeat. The right thing to do is to treat this as an opportunity for improvement.
The penalty kill was much better. The Devils only took two penalties tonight. They were technically successful on both of them. Kotkaniemi scored his goal right as Jack Hughes left the box, so it was an even strength goal. And Montreal’s power play was more threatening prior to that goal. But the second kill by the Devils was much better and more like what we want to see out of the PK units. It was an important kill too as the Devils were hanging onto a 4-3 lead.
Poor Hall, Palmieri, Hughes, and Bratt: Kyle Palmieri was absolutely robbed in the final seconds of the second period. Palmieri received a great pass from Coleman across the slot. He kicked the pass to his stick, fired the shot, and Price dove with his glove out to grab the shot and keep it from being anywhere near the goal line. It was a highlight reel worthy save from a goalie who was rather leaky this evening.
Palmieri at least picked up a secondary assist tonight. The other three names did not have a point at all. Hall had a breakaway and a rebound try after said breakaway, but Price closed the door on him. Hopefully, the snake that bit him has not returned. Hall had five shots at least. He was very much trying to score. Hughes and Bratt did not have either. Hughes’ line was actually not bad in the run of play but it did not create a whole lot. You’d like to see him take some shots, but he’ll get there. Bratt, well, he was not much of a factor tonight. I am not so certain he will be in the lineup on Saturday. Not that Zacha or Wood were great in the run of play, but their points should at least keep them safe for a little while longer.
But Seriously, The Rushes were Great: I know the preceeding three sections were negative. But they should not overshadow how the Devils gloriously finished these rushes up ice. It helped that Price is struggling a lot as of late. It helped that they generated multiple situations where they out-numbered the Canadiens while going forward. Still, the passes from Gusev were almost perfectly placed for the two first period goals. Both Coleman and Zajac were excellent at taking the pass and firing it in. Zajac’s was definitely the more impressive one as he had a bouncing puck coming at him with a very small window of opportunity to get to it, never mind bank it into the net. Had the puck missed him or if the puck was knocked wide, I do not think many would have begrudged him for it. It was like a shot in the dark. Zajac did hit the bullseye on it, though.
And Severson’s shot was just about perfect. It’s shots like those that make you realize why he was used in a Palmieri-like role on the second power play unit last season. (That and the Devils did not have the forwards to fill in all of those spots.) I was so glad elected to shoot that shot. You knew it was a real great one as Price smashed his stick on the crossbar in frustration afterward.
Among them all, my favorite was Miles Wood’s breakaway. Seriously, Wood scored on a breakaway. He did not get the pass from Zacha and fire a 40-footer that had maybe 1% chance of going in net. He did not try to over-deke or just rush in with a head of steam. Wood handled the breakaway very well, saw an opening in Price’s legs, and coolly put it into the net. It has been a while since Wood has scored any kind of goal. This was something that might help him. As much as we all want to see the big names score, the Devils will be much better if they also get goals from their not-so-big names. Which was exactly what happened tonight with goals by Coleman (2), Zajac, Boqvist (not off a rush but still), Severson, and Wood.
The Answer was No: I asked in the Gamethread before the game whether Max Domi would take a stupid penalty again. In the last Devils-Canadiens game, he not only swept Coleman’s loose stick away but received an extra two minutes for mouthing off to the refs afterward. Tonight, Domi behaved much better. He took no penalties.
Ice Up, Blackwood: On top of 48 shots, Blackwood was undercut by Nick Cousins. Blackwood was outside of his net to play a puck and Cousins just slid into his legs. Granted, Cousins lost an edge and he fell. I do not think it was an intentional slide tackle. This happened early in the game too, so there was a concern of how he would perform. A couple of quick pad saves in the first period later, it turned out he would be OK. Still, ice up, young goalie.
One Last Game Thought: Severson may have got away with taking down Jordan Weal on a breakaway. Severson dove to try to knock the puck away, I think he got some of Weal’s legs, and Weal went down. Curiously, the referees did not call that penalty. This was also part of a very long stretch of stoppage-less hockey that ended with Weal being tripped by Jack Hughes. Obviously, it was good for New Jersey that it was not called. I imagine it may be a source of some of the salt in Montreal. Oh well.
One Last Thought: I try to write it in every post, but I do want to thank you all on the behalf of everyone at All About the Jersey. You are indeed the People Who Matter. Thank you for reading, tweeting, commenting, and sharing this all year long. You don’t stop, hockey doesn’t stop, and so we don’t.
Your Take: The Devils had a goal-explosion in Montreal and won 6-4! It had load of action, speed, and while the Devils have a lot to clean up, I am happy that the Devils took this game and made Punchin’ Price hold a big L with his fists. Again, the Devils won the real Thanksgiving Showdown. Now I want to know your take on this game. Given that it was Thanksgiving, did you watch it at all? Which of the Devils’ six goals was your favorite? What would you do with the defensive effort after the team allowed 90 attempts and 48 shots? How would you want the Devils to prepare for Saturday’s game with Our Hated Rivals based on what happened tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.