Hours before the puck dropped at The Rock, the New Jersey Devils announced that John Hynes was fired and Alain Nasreddine would take over as the interim head coach. Between that and how the Devils were humiliated by Buffalo last night, the Devils had every reason to play with a lot more effort and intensity tonight against the Las Vegas Golden Knights. They did that too. It did not keep common failings from this season from happening. The third period was still a troublesome one for New Jersey as Jonathan Marchessault put up a natural hat trick to lead the Devils to lose 3-4 this evening.
The big story for this evening is obviously the coaching change. I wrote a separate post about Hynes being fired with additional thoughts added about what it could mean in the short and long term. This is a game recap so I will be focusing more on the game. Still, I cannot fully separate the two. The coaching change appeared to have a real motivating effect on the Devils. It showed on the ice with how they finished hits, completed more passes and plays, and even put up some fight when things went awry.
Their first period was one of the more dominant ones of this season as they not only led 1-0 afterwards but out-shot the Knights 17-7 in the process. The second period was an even one featuring an uncommon event: a goal by Jesper Bratt that kept the Devils ahead. Even though they were outscored in the third period 1-3, two of those goals were legitimately bad bounces. On another night, you could argue the Devils could have pulled out a badly needed win. Badly needed for the team as they remain just ahead of Detroit in the Eastern Conference standings, badly needed for Nasreddine as it was his first game as a head coach anywhere and he would want to show to management it was a good decision to make him the interim, and badly needed for anyone who suffered through the Buffalo game to see evidence that, yes, the Devils can actually win a NHL hockey game. It was not to be.
It was not a winning performance but it was a vastly improved one over the last two games. That may be a backhanded compliment but I am being earnest, this was not a bad game by the Devils overall. I suppose I can call that a kind of progress. A better test to see how the Devils will fare in the short-term under Nasreddine will be in the back-to-back later this week. The team will not play in the next two days. I figure there will be a practice as well some meetings and sessions with the former assistant, now interim head coach of the Devils. I would not expect the Devils to make wholesale changes in how they play. But I would expect to see some differences. From this game, some improvements really come to light:
- The third period. This has been wrecking the Devils all season long and this was another game where a lead carried into the final frame of regulation ended with a regulation loss. You hate to see it. I certainly did. While largely even in 5-on-5 play, the Golden Knights power play led them to out-shoot the Devils 13-7 in the third even though the Knights had since tied it up and took a lead. Nico Hischier pulled the Devils within one on the shift after Las Vegas made it 2-4, which was great to see. However, the final push never materialized. It was undercut by a Kyle Palmieri power play, the Devils failing to press inside for better shots against Malcolm Subban, and Vegas making plays to force turnovers and/or the Devils to the boards. After a very good first and a solid second, a not-terrible-but-not-good third was a killer again. That has to change.
- The lack of pressure on the points. Two-thirds of Marchessault’s hat trick were literal bad bounces. The first goal came from William Karlsson throwing a backhanded pass towards the crease. The puck ricocheted in low on Mackenzie Blackwood off of Marchessault’s legs. The second goal was from Marchessault tipping down a shot by Derek Engelland. There is not much you can do about the tips themselves or even Karlsson getting lucky on throwing a puck towards the middle. There is much you can do about Engelland, as he and the other Golden Knights had acres of space to fire away, keep pucks in play, and be passing options for their forwards. The Golden Knights put some pressure on the Devils’ point men and won some pucks that way. The Devils do not seem to make it a priority. Once again, they were burned by that. At best, Las Vegas had some additional zone time on shifts. At worst, goals like Marchessault’s second happened.
- Discipline. Not that the Devils took a ton of penalties tonight but the third period ones hurt. William Carrier had an angle inside on Damon Severson, who hooked him to deny him a potential one-on-one shot with Blackwood. Maybe that was a defensible call. It turned out costly when Alex Tuch found Marchessault crashing into the slot on that power play. Blackwood denied the first shot, Marchessault took the rebound and slid it in between Blackwood’s right skate and the post for a PPG, Las Vegas’ fourth of the game, and his natural hat trick. I wished someone was in the area when that rush to the net happened. I wished even more that Severson did something different than just go for a little hook. Later in the period, with about five minutes left and the Devils down one, Palmieri held Tuch back from playing a puck. While Palmieri was the victim of a heinous no-call earlier in the period, his holding back of Tuch was the definition of interference. And it was right in front of a ref. Although they did not score on it, it was a crucial two minutes taken off the clock when the Devils needed an equalizer. It may have been only two calls, but they contributed to the losing result.
I am sure these and others come to mind, but they stood out in this particular defeat. That stated, there were some good things showed by the Devils in this game. I will go over those in a bit. It remains to be seen if Nasreddine will make things that much better for New Jersey. At the very least, no one was chanting for anyone to be fired at the end and that is a positive in of itself.
The Opposition Opinion: Shepard Price has this recap from a Golden Knights’ perspective at Knights on Ice.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Good Things That Should Not Be Discounted from This Game: There were positives. Legitimate positives. Positives that I hope continue in the next few games.
- The Power Play When Set Up. The Devils still believe in this drop-pass on their breakouts, even when two Golden Knights snuffed it out on one of them in the second period. But when the Devils were set up, they had both attack time and good looks on net. Three out of their four minutes total on the man advantage actually looked like they had an idea of what a man advantage is supposed to do. While Subban stopped all four shots, it was a far cry better than anything they did on Saturday.
- Free Flowing Hockey. Similar to the Montreal game, the Devils generated quite a few odd man rushes this evening and even a couple of breakaways. It may have helped that Las Vegas played last night and the Devils only technically did. Still, the Devils used their speed to an advantage multiple times and caught the Golden Knights scrambling. I would have liked them to have been more direct on some of those rushes; less holding up for help and then tossing a puck into traffic. The rushes were also risky at times as it led to Las Vegas counter attacking. However, that is the risk you take to get a reward and the Devils at least had rushes going. Plus, Palmieri scored on a breakway and Hischier’s goal was shortly after the team transitioned into the Golden Knight’s end of the rink. There were rewards.
- Breakouts. There were some errors, such as Will Butcher mishandling a Severson pass at their blueline which led to Alex Tuch finding Chandler Stephenson for a one-timer goal in the second period. But the Devils’ passing out of their own zone was a lot better than in recent games. It contributed greatly to how well the first went and how the Devils responded to the Stephenson goal. There is absolutely room for improvement but this was not as problematic as it has been earlier in this season.
- Responses. Not that the Devils had much of one to Marchessault’s first two goals, but Hischier scored on the next shift after the third one. It did not happen but it did put the Devils in a position to still have an equalizer. I really liked how they handled themselves after Stephenson’s goal, too. The Devils went back to work. On other nights, they would have conceded another one because someone would mess up and then they would get even more down on themselves. I also liked how the Devils handled themselves being shorthanded for a majority of the game. Matt Tennyson was injured on a hit in the first period and he did not return. Write what you want about Tennyson as a defenseman but he is a player and the Devils were forced to rotate five defensemen for most of the game. Again, this was another situation where the team could have folded from it. Instead, they tried to make the best of it.
- Changes That Made Sense. In the third period, Hall was reunited with Hischier and Palmieri. While it was not dominant, it did quickly provide a goal as Hall and Palmieri contributed to Hischier’s third period goal. As much as fans complain about line changes, restoring 9-13-21 instead of stubbornly keeping Boqvist with Hischier and Palmieri. Not that the Hischier line did that much better but the switch paid dividends right away. Similarly, Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood were much better going forward when they got away from Kevin Rooney. Boqvist was not abysmal but he sure looked like a NHL rookie out there tonight and so a demotion for a bit made some sense. At least his match ups were made easier. I am sure Nasreddine will make some line changes that will bother people in the future, but in this game, his changes were understandable.
This is not to state that everything is sunshine and lollipops. Only that there were some notable positives in how the Devils played the game.
I Liked These: Severson contributed two killer passes that led to scores tonight. The first was a long one that found Kyle Palmieri open in space after he stepped on the ice earlier. Palmieri torched Subban for the goal. The second was a long one across the zone to Jesper Bratt. Bratt one-timed the shot past a surprised Subban and a fallen Hall for another score. Not that tonight was a perfect night for Severson. His penalty in the third period led to a costly goal, he was beaten by Marchessault on the rush for his first goal, and his pass to Butcher ended up leading to Stephenson’s goal (I fault Butcher 100% for that one, he mishandled the reception). But those primary assists were sweet.
While they did not score, if the Devils’ first power play unit can keep putting up these kinds of performances where they can maintain possession of the puck on offense, and not just settle for only one kind of shot, then they will be more successful in time. I really liked how they did, even though they did not convert.
Even though P.K. Subban played more in 5-on-5, I thought Sami Vatanen was the team’s best defenseman tonight. When he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted the Knights 28-15 and out-shot them 12-8. Despite not being the most offensively talented defenseman on paper, Vatanen continues to justify his role on the first power play unit. If nothing else, someone is going to be real happy with Vatanen on their blueline by season’s end.
A Correct Call and a Not So Correct Non Call: There were two decisions by the referees that did play a role in this game. The one that went against New Jersey was a non-call. Palmieri was mugged on a potential breakaway in the third period. Even if it would not be enough for a penalty shot, Palmieri was taken down illegally. There should have been a penalty there. It could have stemmed the tide from the Golden Knights. It was not to be. It was something I thought about again when Palmieri took his minor, which was legitimate.
The one that went for New Jersey was Bratt’s goal. As Severson sent his wonderful pass across to Bratt, Paul Stastny hit Hall with a hip check while Hall was heading to the net. This caused Hall to fall into the crease and touch the left leg of Subban. Subban did not fall or react much. He just turned to his left as Bratt’s shot went into the net (and past Hall). The referee on the ice called it a goal. Subban was mad about it. Gerard Gallant of Las Vegas challenged it for interference. A video review confirmed the call on the ice. While Hall touched Subban, the goalie was not in a position to make a save on it nor was he prevented from trying. Further, Stastny initiated the contact that led to this. It was the right call. It would have been great if the Devils had converted on the resulting power play but at least Bratt got to keep his first goal since November 10.
I do not think the referees had that much of a role in how the game played out. After all, they called all of seven penalties and three came from the first period incident when Carrier boarded Tennyson and Butcher took exception to it. Still, I would have liked to have seen the non-call been a call.
One Last Thought: While Malcolm Subban made 32 out of 35 saves tonight, I do not think he was all that great. Hischier burned him far post and Palmieri torched him high on a breakaway. The Bratt goal did not look so good either. With only 10 high danger chances logged by Natural Stat Trick, I wonder if the Devils could have been more successful with more offensive effort exerted to get shots in the slot and from the inside halves of the circles. This is another area that either interim head coach Nasreddine will try to sort out or something the next head coach will figure out.
Your Take: John Hynes is gone. Alain Nasreddine is now in charge. The Devils lost their first game under him, 3-4 to Las Vegas. What is your take on this game? Was this an improved performance over recent games in your view? What did you like about this game? What do you think Nasreddine and/or the players need to address before their back-to-back set against Chicago and at Nashville at the end of this week? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. If you want my thoughts about the coaching change, then check out this post for that.
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