Tonight, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Chicago Blackhawks. The theme for this game was Star Wars as it was Star Wars Night. The situation was that the Devils would be hosting a team who played a game the previous night while the Devils did not. The schedule set it up that the Devils will return to Newark on December 18 as they will go on a four-game road trip starting tomorrow. The Devils-Chicago game can be summed up in one word: Blah.
The result of the game was quite tight. The Devils lost 1-2 through a shootout. Both goalies played well. Mackenzie Blackwood was solid as ever in the net for the Devils. Corey Crawford gave up quite a few rebounds and fought a couple of shots, but he was nearly perfect as well. As the shootout went into the fifth round, they were a factor right until the end. Neither goalie should feel bad about the game went. Neither team should be unhappy with their goaltender. I thought Blackwood and Crawford were their respective team’s best players this evening. They were crucial for their squads in spite of the lack of action at times.
This is not to say that neither the Devils or Blackhawks tried. There was a good pace to the game for the first forty minutes. It ultimately evened out on the scoreboard at 1-1 with a slight edge in 5-on-5 attempts going to the visitors. The second period saw the most shots for either side with Chicago taking a 15-13 shot lead. It also saw a couple of breakaways - Brandon Saad and Miles Wood were both denied - and plenty of quick reaction saves. The game had a goaltender’s duel going and at 1-1 going into the third, it was thought that the game was still for the taking.
Then it just sat there for one of the more underwhelming third periods. Chicago failed to muster up a whole lot except when they could catch the Devils unaware on a play. The Devils won a lot of pucks on defense and in the neutral zone, and definitely made a point of it to try to catch the Blackhawks in transition. More often than not, any rush into the offensive zone would end with the puck carrier stopping by the circle, turning around, and realizing he had no legitimate passing option so he would either force something towards the middle or try to rim it around the corner - both often leading to no offense whatsoever. After a 28-shot second period, the two teams combined for just twelve. This carried into an overtime period where both teams took two shots, understandably did not want to lose the puck easily, and proceeded to lose the puck easily here and there.
From what I observed, this was more a failure for the Devils. The cynical may argue that both teams were playing for a point, but the Devils were doing too much outside of Chicago’s end of the rink to suggest that. They were putting in good work to force turnovers, knock pucks away, and move pucks quickly up ice. They were successful at that. It was just that the Devils just faltered at turning their success from two-thirds of the rink into the remaining one-third. Passes would not even happen because players did not make themselves open. Or opportunities to find players in the slot were left unmet because no one was there. Or any possession would be kept to the perimeter with few chances in close. The Devils indeed created 9 scoring chances and 4 high-danger chances in the third period per Natural Stat Trick - both much more than Chicago’s 4 and 1, respectively. But these are chances, not necessarily shots, and it was clearly not enough as the Devils had a total of six and Crawford stopped them.
Knowing that Chicago has been one of the worst at limiting the number of shots and chances by their opponents this season makes this third period (and overtime!) even sting more. For the second time within the last seven days, the Devils hosted one of the statistically worst defensive teams in the NHL and they made them look ironclad. Even if it was only for one period, it is still mystifying to me. It did hurt a little to watch the seemingly slow-motion lack of achievement since it happened in a 1-1 home game for a largely full Prudential Center that would have appreciated Alain Nasreddine get his first win before going on a really tough road trip. It was also a game that featured a somewhat-rare goal by Taylor Hall. And, again, both teams were far better at attacking in the previous two periods. I can agree that Chicago did not press the issue and would have been fine with a point. The Devils did more of it and yet failed to even create a play to finish, nevermind finishing it. I do not agree that they played out the third period even if it that what it seems on the box score.
In the old days, this would have ended in an unsatisfying tie. Thankfully, we live in a better time where someone had to step up and take the game. The shootout provided a winner. It was Chicago. It had to be their first of the season too, but their goals were great ones. Both Jonathan Toews (first) and Kirby Dach (fifth) went around Blackwood’s right, which is easier said than done. While Nikita Gusev and Jesper Boqvist matched goals by Toews and Kane, the Devils could not beat Crawford a third time. Ordinarily, that could be written off. But after that lackluster-at-best third period and overtime that made you wonder what the Devils were looking for with all of the time they had with the puck, I get the sense that this could have been a win for New Jersey with better execution and more initiative taken on offense. We did not get it. We got a shootout loss that could be summed up in a word: blah.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Second City Hockey, Matt Lucas has this short recap about the Blackhawks outlasting the Devils.
The Game Highlights: It is short on goals but not on saves. From NHL.com:
The Return of The Big Deal: Jack Hughes was given the go-ahead to play tonight. And shortly before the game, it was announced by Amanda Stein on Twitter that Nico Hischier would be held out due to illness. This meant Kevin Rooney drew back into the lineup - he was originally going to be taken out for Hughes - and Hughes would center Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. By the way, Stein confirmed after the game that Hischier will travel to Nashville with the team although his status for the game is up in the air.
Hughes demonstrated why he was missed. He was taking Blackhawk skaters on and able to weave around them multiple times with the puck on his stick. When he had the puck on his stick and the Devils were gaining the zone, the fans at the Rock noticed. It was a reminder that he can do some special things. The issue of turning that into points remain. Again, his teammates are not always in good positions to be options for passes, which either means there is no pass or the pass attempted is more likely to go awry. But he kept on working. For a team that was lacking on offense in general this season and even in this game, his flair with the puck is something to appreciate. And it will make you go “Oooh” when he beats a man or two in doing so.
The result? When Hughes was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Chicago 16-9 and out-shot them 10-6 with very favorable scoring chance differentials in 5-on-5 play. The dangles were favorable; it facilitated offense that I wish the Devils were able to generate more from. Hughes was rewarded for these efforts by receiving multiple shifts in overtime. While he did not score in a must-score round of the shootout, he forced a toe save out of Crawford after a set of dekes. It was not like he just skated up and fired a high wrist shot like, say, Palmieri. I thought it was a good return for #86. Keep doing what makes you special, young man.
The Return of Mueller: Matt Tennyson was placed on injured reserve and the team called up Colton White from Binghamton as an additional defenseman. For this game, Mirco Mueller drew back into the lineup. He largely played with Will Butcher. It did not really go so well. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-shot 2-4 and out-attempted 7-12 when Butcher was with Mueller. While there were not many shots, the attempts meant the team was playing in their own end quite a bit. The most common forward line in front of them was Jesper Boqvist, Jesper Bratt, and Pavel Zacha. I think the pairing contributed to this line getting hammered in the run of play as the unit was out-attempted and out-shot by a worse percentage than the other Devils forwards this evening. Mueller’s numbers were notably worse than Butcher’s, which reflected some of the tentative play he had in battling for pucks and reacting to the situation around him. I get that he was out of the lineup for some time but tonight was an opportunity to show to the interim head coach - the former assistant who ran the defense - what he could do. I do not think Mueller succeeded well enough.
The Loss of Vatanen: I did not think much of Sami Vatanen’s game tonight. I thought he was not very good on the point on the first power play, even if he was involved in its one conversion. He was not particularly impactful in 5-on-5 and his hooking of Patrick Kane led to Chicago’s one and only goal of regulation. However, I am sympathetic for him. During the Devils’ second penalty kill of the night, Vatanen took a puck to the face. Play stopped so he could go to the bench. He went down the tunnel and he did not return. As per Stein on Twitter, there was no update on his condition after the game. What this meant was that the Devils were cut down to five defensemen for the last 15 minutes and change in regulation. I give the Devils credit for keeping Chicago at bay for most of that third period. I do not think Vatanen’s absence led to the lack of offense by New Jersey. Still, he was missed in the third period as an option from the back. He absolutely will be if he is out for any length of time. If you thought the Devils defense was underwhelming, imagine one of Mueller and White playing significant minutes out of necessity - on the road.
Good Marks for These Skaters: I do have to say that tonight was a fine game from Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev. Simmonds was the best part of a fourth line with Wood and Rooney. He helped plenty at keeping some plays going and making the line be more than just a breather for the others. The fans erupted when he fought Dennis Gilbert, who was upset that Simmonds put a shot on net from two feet away in the first period. In the run of play, he was great. If only Simmonds was a part of the first power play unit again.
As for Gusev, he was also a positive factor on the ice. He was not so deficient in his own end to be a problem. He was not so maddeningly passive with the puck, at least not in the first two periods. He managed to post the best 5-on-5 expected goals percentage at 63% on the team. While only one of his six attempts made it to Crawford, this is a massive improvement over nights earlier this season when he was a black hole in 5-on-5. And I think he was a good reason why Blake Coleman had five shots on net. I am hopeful this is closer to the real Gusev because, like Hughes, the points will come.
I also appreciated most of the performance out of Hall. I thought he stayed on too long in overtime and he could have been much more decisive in the third period, even shooting it when the crowd demanded it. Still, for a player with rumors swirling around him and most of the Devils fanbase resigned that he will be dealt, he did a lot tonight. He scored the lone goal of the game for the Devils and on the power play, too. He took six shots on net, the most on the team tonight. He even backchecked well, notably when a pass back to Vatanen early in the third period seemingly gave Alex Nylander a breakaway. Hall stormed back to deny Nylander the puck, much less a one-on-one with the goalie. While his 5-on-5 numbers were not all that hot (they were far from the worst), I think the positive contributions out-weigh the not-as-positive ones. A man who has been struggling to score got one. That’s pretty big to me.
Special Teams Difference: Both teams had power plays where they had a good amount of zone time. Both teams scored their goals on advantages where they had that. Both teams had at least one power play where the opposition's penalty kill was so effective that it was a wasted two minutes for them. The Devils had their conversion in the first period: Hall finished off a pass from Gusev after plenty of passing between the two and Vatanen from the perimeter of their 1-3-1. Chicago’s conversion was in the second period: After Blackwood denied Kane a shortsided shot to his left, the puck squirted out to the right on the goalie’s flank. Alex DeBrincat had a clear path to put the puck into the net. Chicago’s goal was more fortunate in that it was based on a bounce, but it did come after an extended stay in the Devils’ zone. Seems like it was even on both sides, right?
I disagree. Between the two, I think the Devils will rue their power play opportunities. They had four power plays to Chicago’s two. The Devils generated three shots across all four, meaning they had at least one (I think it was two) shot-less power plays. The Devils’ first power play unit was the only one that seemed to get any traction in being set-up. But even then, most of the possession was between Hall, Gusev, and Vatanen. Vatanen was not sharp at the point and the passes between Hall and Gusev were often across the zone - which led to some interceptions by the Blackhawks which led to clears. The Devils also conceded a shorthanded breakaway to Saad when a lost puck led to Vatanen focusing on the man with the puck instead of the player streaking down the middle of the ice. Thankfully, Blackwood denied Saad. Chicago did not give up anything like that. The most crushing was what would be the final power play of the game. In the third period, tied 1-1, the Devils went out there and did not even put anything on net. While the Devils did not lose because of that, it was a lost opportunity that could have saw them go up or even make Crawford work a little more than he did.
While I understand Nasreddine was recently installed as interim head coach, the power play is seemingly Rick Kowalsky’s domain. He surely has to think there is an issue with a power play that tends to keep the puck moving between three players in a 5-on-4 situation. Or when passing it around to set up a 60-foot attempt from the center point into traffic, which is not a good shot to set up on a man-advantage. Or a second unit that just does not seem to get going. I thought the team brought in Simmonds to be a net mouth option and legitimate down-low player to take passes. I thought the team brought in P.K. Subban in part to lead from the back of the power play - and he is nowhere to be seen on man advantages for weeks now. While they got a goal and Chicago only matched it, the power play issues crept up again in this game when it could have made much more of a difference.
Alas, No Bloopers: The Devils were nearly gifted goals early in the game. A dump-in in the first period hit off a stanchion that sent the puck to the slot while Crawford was outside of the crease. Unfortunately, the puck bounced over Gusev. While the Devils won the puck back, they could not generate a shot from it. A little later, Hughes took a shot that hit off, I think, Calvin de Haan’s leg and then off Hall’s body on a weird path to the net. Somehow, the puck hit off the right post, got behind Crawford, but it moved laterally across the goal line instead of past it. Nylander sent that loose puck over the glass on a clearing attempt, which led to New Jersey’s first power play. If only these two bounces were more favorable, then perhaps this game would have went in a totally different direction. Alas, no bloopers for the Devils tonight.
One Last Thought: At least, the Devils did not lose the game in the third period. I suppose that is progress. Of some sort.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-2 to Chicago through a shootout. The blah-nature of the final period of regulation overshadowed the first two periods in my view. I thought some players did well, others did not, and Blackwood and Crawford were the best for each team. What say you? What is your take on this game? What would you do ahead of the Nashville game tomorrow night based on what you saw from this game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s shootout loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and/or with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thank you for reading.