Tonight the New Jersey Devils visited the Colorado Avalanche and it may be the second most discussed event about the evening. Just before faceoff, the Devils announced that Taylor Hall was scratched for “precautionary” reasons. If there was any doubt that Hall would be traded soon, then it was erased with that news. Devils and hockey fans all around the world wonder whether A) a trade is happening soon, B) what that trade would be, and C) is that trade to Colorado or someone else? The answer to all three is unknown as of this writing. Nothing has happened - yet. Something likely will at some point and when it happens, we will go from there. In the meantime, this post will focus on what did happen this evening: a 1-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Moral victories and a buck will buy you something at the Dollar General. I do not take a lot of value out of the proverbial “moral victory.” That stated, I do appreciate how the Devils performed in general tonight. After an awful performance in Dallas, I was fearful that Colorado was going to wipe the floor with the Devils. While the 5-on-5 play in the second period was ugly, the Devils really were not that bad. They were playing from behind, but they were actually attacking. Their special teams was certainly not perfect but it was not a nightmarish evening. Even in the third period, the Devils pressed to get back into the game and briefly looked like they would late in regulation. Tonight’s main issue was not so much the lack of Taylor Hall but the fact that goaltender Pavel Francouz was hot.
If it is any solace - and it probably is not - Francouz has been quite good this season. He has been successfully sharing the net with Philipp Grubauer. As per NHL.com, Francouz went into this game with 13 appearances (Grubauer has 18), an even strength save percentage of 93.5%, and a penalty kill save percentage of 86%. Those are great save percentages and they definitely received a boost tonight. Whether it was re-directions by a Devil in front, rebound tries, or odd man rush situations created by a Devil blowing by a defender like Nikita Zadorov or multiple one-on-one types. Francouz was not unknown Goalie Backup just having a random awesome night to the dismay of the Devils. He has been very good all season and the Devils are his most recent victims. The only reason why he did not get a shutout tonight was because Mirco Mueller - yes, Mirco Mueller - sent a puck to the crease and it bounced in off Samuel Girard. You know you are hot when only a bad bounce is only going to beat you - and only once at that.
On the flipside, this does mean the Devils did do a lot of good work creating offense without their best forward against a really hot Colorado team that is now 8-0-1 in their last nine. This is not to say this was a good game overall. The Devils definitely faltered on a number of zone exits, wasted some power plays, and spent most of the second period getting owned in the run of play especially after Mackenzie Blackwood entered the game after Louis Domingue was apparently injured. Compared to their last game on Tuesday and many other games I could name in recent weeks, this was one of their better performances. It says a lot about how bad a season has been when a loss due to the other goalie was just too hot is one of their better games, but that is the reality of the 2019-20 Devils.
We shall see soon whether the Devils have enough in the tank for Arizona tomorrow night. And, of course, whether Hall is still a member of the team.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Mile High Hockey for a recap from the Colorado perspective.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Perfect Blackwood and the Goals Against: The star of the game was definitely Francouz. He had 37 saves out of 38 shots, dealing with 29 scoring chances and 9 high-danger chances as per Natural Stat Trick’s all-situation count. I do think Mackenzie Blackwood deserves some love for coming in relief. Partially because the Devils’ play devolved when he came in as the Avalanche capped off a 19-shot and 34-attempt second period (NJ had nine shots and 18 attempts with a fraction of that coming in 5-on-5 play). Partially because he was just a wall in the net. His play in the net kept the Devils in the game. Colorado created plays and opportunities to go up by more than two but Blackwood ensured that would not happen. He stopped all 19 shots that he faced, he did not give up anything easy in terms of a second chance to the Avs, and he handled a myriad of situations as the refs were active in the third period. The original plan was for Blackwood to play in Arizona. He may have to with an injured Domingue. Even if the Devils can get someone from Binghamton to Glendale, Arizona as soon as possible, would either B-Devil goaltender be a better option than Blackwood? I do not think so.
I want to go over the three goals against. The first was a power play blast from the high slot by Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog is the middle one in the 1-3-1 formation. The “bumper” in the formation, if you will. Nathan MacKinnon took a pass from Girard, faked a one-timer, one-touched it to Landerskog in the middle, and the captain was wide open. I thought the Devils’ wedge plus one was supposed to cover the bumper. But MacKinnon saw he was in a bubble of space and exploited it. I do not fault the goalie for that one. I fault the penalty killing coverage and, to a degree, Michael McLeod for taking the penalty that led to the situation at all. He checked Mark Barberio down away from the play on offense. Alas.
The second goal was a great individual effort by Valeri Nichushkin and a bad one for Domingue to allow. After a rough shift by New Jersey, they get a clearance. An attempt was made to loft the puck in deep into Colorado’s zone as the players would change. The Devils made the change but the puck did not get in deep. Barberio snagged it, sent it up to Nichushkin in the neutral zone, and the forward went off. He gained the zone, skated at Will Butcher, cut to the middle to get a bit away from Butcher, and fired a nasty wrist shot past Dominugue’s glove side - all in one continuous motion. I do not fault Butcher since he was not actually beaten; he held his position. I do fault the dump-in and especially Domingue. There was no screen. There was no tip. There was no stick check. It was not a very close shot. It was a great wrister but stoppable. He did not stop it.
The third goal was an empty netter which was also created by a poor dump-in. Despite a great shift after Mueller’s goal, the Devils absolutely struggled to get possession. The Avalanche did a great job to pin the Devils back on a few shifts and keep Blackwood from leaving. The Devils finally were able to breakout and there is a dump in at Francouz, hoping for a freeze. Blackwood left at this time. Instead, the goalie put the puck down for Matt Nieto, he sent it up to Mikko Rantanen, who found MacKinnon streaking through the neutral zone, and MacKinnon iced the game second after Blackwood left. Another poor dump-in cost the Devils.
I would not so much conclude that dump-ins are necessarily an issue with the Devils, but it is consistent with the team getting beaten on the little things or details of the game.
No Hall Means More Bratt, Returning Nico, McLeod Debut: With Hall announced out to avoid a pre-trade injury, Jesper Bratt was moved up to play with Kyle Palmieri and a returning Nico Hischier. Michael McLeod made his season debut. How did it all go?
First is McLeod. He was not bad in the run of play as a fourth liner. That penalty he took was a bad one. He was just filling in on the fourth line so whatever.
Second is Bratt. The line did not win in attempts in 5-on-5 but did win in shots. Bratt was pretty active with three shots and playing off his linemates well when the shift got going. I found that Palmieri was often the catalyst for that line getting any push on offense. Bratt complemented him decently enough. I would anticipate some experimentation for that left wing role when Hall is moved. I would not be opposed to seeing Bratt there again.
Third is Hischier. Lost in all of the news is that Nico is back. The broadcast noted how he did not do anything physical for days until he returned to practice. Hischier ended up leading the forwards with 20:13 of ice time as he played in all situations. So much for easing him back in, but I understand given the circumstances. I thought Hischier had his moments tonight, but I could also agree that he had had far better nights in this season. That is understandable. He is coming off an illness after all. I did like how he played on the penalty kill. I think he will be fine as he gets back into form.
In The Mix?: P.K. Subban seemingly has been trying to get “in the mix” to be a thing. The past couple of weeks have shown Subban to not be in the mix. Taking bad penalties. Getting beat on defense. Not contributing on offense. It has been rough to watch #76 sometimes. However, I must give him some credit tonight. Sure, he took an unneeded roughing penalty with Matt Calvert just after the Nichushkin goal. Calvert should have received two minutes for his response to the roughing too, but he was not giving anyone a headlock like Subban was. Sure, Subban did not cover himself in glory on the Landeskog goal, although I think one of the forwards may be more guilty given the positioning.
But he turned it up in the third period. Subban started taking a lot more initiative, he even led a few breakouts himself. He took on Avalanche players with the puck, even getting past them a few times and drawing a hold from Landeskog in the third period. He played with a lot more energy and looked a lot more like the player I think people were expecting to see. There is still much to improve, but I want more of the Subban who played in the third period tonight compared to the Subban I have been seeing for the last two weeks. I want this Subban “in the mix.”
Honks of Frustration: Nikita Gusev showed off his offensive prowess at times as he led the Devils with five shots. He was often involved in getting the line of himself, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman going forward. They were New Jersey’s best line in 5-on-5 play. Their common matchup was against Rantanen, Landeskog, and Nazem Kadri and they won it. That is not an easy feat. Especially for a player like Gusev, who has come a long way from being a total liability without the puck earlier in this season.
The trio had some big moments in the game. Which, unfortunately, may lead to some frustration. Gusev had a wide open net in the second period on a rush created by Coleman that I do not know how he missed. Zajac had a great look at the net in the third period with the Devils down 1-2; if only he finished the shot. Coleman had a shorthanded breakaway among other chances that he could not get a good shot off in close on Francouz. I wish they were able to finish more of their chances because they kept finding and making them happen. Still, it does give the coaching staff some reason to keep these three together.
Although, they may have to shift to salvage a different line. Jack Hughes had some fine moments of making something out of nothing but his line with Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds was not good at all in 5-on-5. Their matchup was against Calvert, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Nichushkin. Hardly a killer line but they did a lot of damage to the Devils this evening. Hughes showed flashes of greatness and put up four shots amid all of this; at least he was on the first power play unit tonight.
The Uneven Special Teams: The Devils’ first two power plays looked great and did almost everything well except score. Possession, especially by the first unit, was maintained very well. The passes were on point and not wasted. The shots were even good; Francouz was just better.
The remaining three was a return to the notion of “Can we decline this?” The Devils finished the night with seven power play shots on net and five of those came on their first two. Colorado seemingly amped up the agression on their PK on those three and it paid off to kill the calls. On one notably bad moment for the Devils, a clearance found Calvert alone and over 20 feet behind the Devils in the neutral zone. He went off on a breakaway and Blackwood came up big on him. On another notably bad moment, the back-pass yielded two more passes that led to Colorado stopping them at the blueline, the Devils retreating, and then being unsure what to do - only to end up dumping the puck in 15 seconds later (more back passes to ease the neutral zone pressure) and have that get rimmed around and out by Colorado. Thinking it about it now, I am stunned that the Devils had two good power plays at all.
The penalty kills were also quite good - except for the one that Landeskog scored on. The Devils kept Colorado to four shots on their four man advantages, with two coming from the one advantage that led to a goal. The Devils created four shots of their own. Again, Francouz had to save the Avs multiple times from eating a shorthanded goal that would have put the Devils back in the game. The Devils were able to kill off some obvious and/or unnecessary penalties with aplomb. The PK units showed to be better than what a -1 in special teams goal differental would indicate.
The Third Period Was Not Bad: The Devils finally cracked Francouz in the third and actually dictated more of the play. After getting rocked 7-30 in 5-on-5 attempts in the second period, New Jersey out-attempted Colorado 23-15 in the third. After being out shot in 5-on-5 situations 5-17 in the second period, New Jersey went up 11-9 in third period shots. After giving up five high-danger chances and creating zero in 5-on-5 in the second period, the Devils made three high-danger chances and allowed only one. It was not dominance but it was a real bounce back in terms of how they played. For most of this season, the Devils have not really done well in the period after a bad one. Tonight, they did. That may be a sign of some real progress with how the team approaches games going forward. It may be a small sign now but it is something to watch for.
One Last Thought: I am selfishly glad a trade was not announced as I typed up this recap. But keep on the lookout for news and please, please, please do not report, link, or comment on fake reports.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-3 to Colorado and were not all that bad in the performance as it was a hot opposing goaltender that really kept the Devils down tonight. For the season the Devils have endured, this is a positive of sorts. Not getting wrecked is a plus, especially after that game in Dallas. Anyway, that is how I saw tonight’s game. What is your take on tonight’s game? What did you like and not like about tonight’s performance? What would you like to see the Devils take from this game and apply it in their game against Arizona on Saturday night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.