Bad teams have a way of finding ways to lose games. Not that the New Jersey Devils were in a great position to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. But they did have a chance to do so. First, they were up 4-3 going into the third period. That fell apart but the game was forced to go to overtime. After the Devils killed a penalty, Damon Severson intercepted a pass by William Nylander to the right of the slot. For reasons I do not know, Severson appeared to try to chip the puck behind his net. Instead, the puck got away from him and went past Mackenzie Blackwood into the net. In a 4-3 or 4-4 game, you would hope the Devils to score the fifth goal. Not like this. The Devils lost 4-5 to the Maple Leafs on a Damon Severson own goal. The goal was credited to William Nylander. That is not entirely true. It was an own goal by #28 on the New Jersey Devils, Damon Severson.
Severson’s mistake can be interpreted in a number of ways. It could be just a bad bounce that could happen to anyone at any time and it just so happened to be at the worst time. It could be a mistake that can happen to anyone and it just so happened to be made at the worst time. It could be a symbol of how the Devils’ 2019-20 season has been going in that even when the Devils were close to success, they managed to fail in a way that would frustrate, infuriate, and/or sadden the fanbase. It could be a representation of the serious flaws with the 2019-20 Devils and, honestly, something that has been building for the past few seasons.
The Devils’ defensive effort in this decade was great from an on-ice standpoint. The Devils were really poor at creating opportunities but they were really good at allowing even less. This got away from the Devils as the game changed, the league changed, and the Devils started to go into “rebuild mode.” It was something that came to mind as I watched Toronto boss the Devils around in the first period and any other time that Toronto pinned the Devils back. Forwards were just there to be options if/when the Devils would get a puck; they were not helping on defense. The defensemen were all over the place and not in a good way as they were often behind. The team often looked like they were on a penalty kill in a 5-on-5 situation while ironically not protecting the net or the slot all that well despite what the team does in shorthanded situations. Above all, I saw a lot of fundamental failures from the Devils. From hesitating to make plays, losing pucks on passes, not covering or being aware of open men, and keeping pucks away from the net when moving it around. I know it is not ideal to just chip pucks up off the boards and out but the Devils could have saved themselves a lot of headaches if they did that a few more times. Whether or not the failures led to goals or not was immaterial (e.g. Mirco Mueller’s heinous turnover; the Devils lacked in the fundamentals of defense on many shifts tonight. Toronto often took advantage when that happened. Severson’s error was just the last example of it. Seriously. Why in the world would he try to put the puck behind the net instead of, say, the corner near to him?
The ironic thing is that while Mueller-Severson pairing committed some of the worst sins tonight, they were not awful in their match-up against the Auston Matthews line in 5-on-5. Sure, the Matthews line still came out ahead but they didn’t stomp right through 25-28 in the run of play like the John Tavares (Tavares, Mikheyev, William Nylander) or Alex Kerfoot lines (Kerfoot, Kasperi Kapanen, Pierre Engvall) did to Andy Greene and P.K. Subban. At least Greene and Subban did not make as many critical failures like throwing pucks blindly to their own slot, getting beaten easily after a defensive zone face off win (Sami Vatanen, which eventually led to Ilya Mikheyev’s deflection goal), or putting pucks anywhere near their own net (except for one play by Subban during a delayed call, but it was not a goal). But even the good looking CF% and xGF% for Mueller and Severson does not make up for their big failures. Mueller looked like a dunce for leaving Tavares open during a third-period penalty kill and he nearly gift wrapped a goal to Mitch Marner in a 3-3 game. Severson scoring a game-winning own goal against his own team is awful enough. Neither Mueller or Severson had a good game. I am not suggesting otherwise. I am only pointing out that they were not a constant disaster on every shift.
However, that is kind of the problem. For the Devils to show any improvement or have a better tomorrow, they need to make their disasters much more rare. In some way, the Devils were fortunate that Toronto played the way they did. As the Devils’ defensive zone coverage was laughably soft at times, Toronto was coughing up pucks left and right on some shifts in the neutral zone and in their own zone. They were caught out of place and the Devils made them pay. After taking one penalty, Jake Muzzin cleared a puck over the glass to give the Devils a long 5-on-3 - which did not last long as Nikita Gusev scored on a rebound not long after it began. On top of that, they started a bad goalie in Michael Hutchinson. The Devils put four goals past him, with the three scored in 5-on-5 all coming from the line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Kyle Palmieri. In a sloppy third period by both teams, the game was up for grabs - which is a feat for the 30th place team hosting the Leafs, who won five straight prior to the game. Toronto may have won but they cannot be pleased with how poor they were at protecting the puck and defending their own zone. A better team would have walked over them, and the Devils managed to ring up three second period goals in part of this and had a real chance to take this game.
But the Devils found a way to lose. The Devils were sunk by an own goal from a defenseman who has been prone to some heinous errors. It stunk to lose that way. They did so in one of one of the more embarrassing ways possible. Whatever you take it to mean, it still stunk to lose this way. Even though the game and season does not matter that much in the long run for New Jersey, it still stunk to lose this way. Even though the Devils technically won their two-game week (1-0-1) and their offense produced in both games, it still stunk to lose this way. I hope the Devils do not try to be so creative in their last two games of 2019 and in 2020.
The Opposition Opinion: Someone called There is no brigstew, only Z! wrote this short recap at Pension Plan Puppets.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Poor Blackwood: These are the games where I just feel bad for the goaltender. A save percentage of 86.4% for the night suggests that the goaltender could have done better. I do not think Mackenzie Blackwood had a bad game at all. On the two power play goals, Zach Hyman put home a rebound in front and Tavares re-directed a pass from Nylander. On both plays, the Leafs were uncovered. Mikheyev’s goal was a deflection in traffic on a play that would not have happened had Vatanen not lose a battle badly for a puck after a Devils faceoff win in their own zone. I can not and will not fault Blackwood on the own goal. That is all on Severson. Kasperi Kapanen’s goal was really the only one where Blackwood took a poor angle and position. Kapanen took a pass off the boards from Kerfoot as he flew into the zone and flew by Will Butcher before ripping a high shot past Blackwood. That one was not good for the goalie. But the other four, I do not know what you would have wanted from him. Alas, a week or a month or a season from now, we may look at this and go “Well, he must have had a rough night. He only stopped 86.4% of the shots.” Let this recap be proof that Blackwood did better than that implied. If only for robbing Marner after Mueller’s terrible giveaway to him from the left corner to the slot.
The Benched: Butcher was benched for most of this game. According to the ice time report at NHL.com, he played all of 9:18 tonight. He played five minutes in the first period, 3:12 in the second period, and 1:08 in the third. Butcher did not start of the game well. Other than the Kapanen goal, I’m a little confused. Did he do something terrible that I may have missed? He did not take a costly penalty like Miles Wood. He did not commit a terrible turnover or score an own goal. The Devils were swarmed in the first period but it is not like that was all Butcher’s fault. Was he hurt? I do not know.
This raises another question. Given the own goal and some of Mueller’s mistakes, will they be benched in the future?
Poor Hughes: Jack Hughes was rather creative on the puck tonight. It is a shame that Miles Wood and Wayne Simmonds just could not figure out how to finish whatever plays he set up for them. Whether it was an attempt to pass it back, pass it across to an open player, or just to give a pass on the rush, it seemed to awry. On top of that, Wood and Simmonds showed that they really are not very good on defense this evening. So when the Devils were pinned back - like on a near-two minute shift in the second period that Toronto somehow did not score on, their off the puck play was exposed. Jack Hughes, who also needs to work on his defensive game but I am more forgiving since he is a rookie, can only do so much with this.
Speaking of Wood, Should He Expect a Call from the League?: Wood took a double-minor in the first period for cross-checking Cody Ceci in the jaw. The call on the ice was a double-minor for high sticking as it drew blood. Given how forceful it looked, I would not be surprised if the NHL Department of Player Safety took another look at it and either fined or even possibly suspend Wood for a few games for it. It was a reckless, dangerous act. It was also unnecessary as the Devils were on offense at the time and the call was made just as Simmonds took a good shot on net.
Penalties Down But They Hurt: Wood’s penalty issues would crop up again late in regulation. He held and hauled down Zach Hyman in trying to win a puck on offense. The good news for the Devils and Wood was that it did not lead to a power play. Hyman was given two for embellishment on the play so regulation would end at 4-on-4. At least, until Blake Coleman slashed Kerfoot’s stick out of his hands and the refs called that so the Devils had a penalty to kill to start overtime. The Devils killed the Coleman call, but that call made it three offensive zone penalties in a game with four total in the team’s first game after having to kill seven shorthanded situations in Chicago. Yes, the discipline was better in that regard but it could have been even better.
Unlike the Chicago game, Toronto would score on two of these situations. First was the double-minor to Wood. The Devils did a masterful job on the PK. They kept Toronto from gaining the zone and setting up on their power play for most of the four minutes. The Leafs would not get a shot on net until 3:20 of the four minutes passed. Unfortunately, the Leafs would get a long shot on net about ten seconds later and an uncovered Hyman took a rebound to tie up the game. Later, in the third period, the Devils took a too many men on the ice call during a power play. Yes, this elicited groans from the crowd as you would think. In the shortened power play, the Devils did great - until the Leafs were able to get set up near the end of the situation. It did not take long for Nylander to find Tavares wide open at the net - thanks, Mueller - to redirect the pass home. The Devils killed the shorthanded situation in overtime at least. It stinks that the PK did such a great job for most of their shorthanded situations. However, Toronto did not need a lot of time to make a play happen and they proved that twice. The lesson here for the Devils is to sharpen up their discipline.
The Line that Ran of Play and the Line that Finished Plays: The line of Coleman, Travis Zajac, and Nikita Gusev was the Devils’ best in terms of generating shots, chances, and attempts in 5-on-5 play tonight. Coleman went off with six shots on net to lead the team. Gusev drew the tripping call from Marner, which came ten seconds before Muzzin cleared a puck over the glass. While Marner, Matthews, and Hyman may have come out ahead in the match-up, they kept Matthews and Marner from really running roughshod over the Devils. Unfortunately, the line did not score in 5-on-5. At least Gusev kept on producing with that 5-on-3 goal.
The unit of Hischier, Palmieri, and Bratt did not do so well in the run of play. But when they were able to get an odd-man rush going or get going on offense, they made it count. Bratt was up for this game and it showed with his points on the scoresheet. Ditto for Palmieri and Hischier. Bratt spun and found Hischier open in the slot, which reuslted in the game’s first goal. In the second period, Palmieri took a turnover from Toronto shortly after Bratt and Hischier attacked the net, curled to the slot, and ripped a shot past Hutchinson. Minutes later, Palmieri forced a puck away from the Leaf at the blueline on defense and he was able to break through to lead a 2-on-1. He found Bratt going to the net: pass, shot, score, 4-3. Each member of the line scored a goal and they helped each other get their goals. On a Devils team that has lacked for offense many times this season, this is praise-worthy.
As much as I would like to see Hughes with a shooter like Palmieri, the Bratt-Hischier-Palmieri combination at least justified more time together. Just as the run of play helps justify keeping Zajac with Gusev and Coleman. Sorry, Hughes.
An Unfortunate Injury: There was a bloody incident in the third period. Bratt was trying to get through the Toronto defense to take a shot at Hutchinson. As the Leafs were applying back pressure, Bratt lost his balance and one of his skate blade went up and caught Mikheyev in the wrist to cut it open. Blood was spilled on the ice, he went right to the bench and, subsequently, the locker room. Mikheyev was transported to a medical facility for evaluation. Per Luke Fox of Sportsnet, he is staying in a hospital in New Jersey as the team travels back. It was an accident and I hope the diagnosis will be better than a worst-case scenario.
Note: Pavel Zacha was held out as a game-time decision and so Kevin Rooney played in his first game since the December 10 game in Dallas. He centered a fourth line of Jesper Boqvist and John Hayden. It did not go particularly well even though it was not costly to the team on the scoreboard.
One Last Thought: At least the Devils’ offense showed up in this game where both coaches surely cannot pleased with the defensive effort on both sides. However, I expect Toronto to clean it up. The Devils’ interim head coach is the same assistant who was in charge of the defense since 2015-16 and so I have little confidence he will help the Devils fix their fundamental and execution issues on defense.
Your Take: The Devils lost 4-5 to Toronto in overtime due to an own goal by Severson. How are you feeling about the loss? What can the Devils learn from this game, if anything, and apply it before their next game in Ottawa on Sunday? Did the Hischier line and Blackwood deserve better than this performance? Do you think any other Devil be benched, and if so, who would you like to see benched? Please leave your answers and thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented about the game in the Gamethread and/or followed along at @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.