For most of today’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Montreal Canadiens, there was little to be happy about. The only good things for the first fifty minutes of the game from a Devils perspective were the following:
- Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood was in net and he was sensational. Montreal hit him with a deluge of shots and Blackwood was on form. He was beaten only twice: an open wrist shot from inside of the left circle by Jesperi Kotkanniemi and a long shot by Jeff Petry re-directed in by Phillip Danault. It could have been a lot worse but the big, young goaltender was able to keep everything else out.
- The Devils had a goal on the board. Late in the first period, Jordie Benn tripped up Brett Seney. Early into that power play, Shea Weber high-sticked Kyle Palmieri with authority. With a long 5-on-3 situation, the Devils had a great chance to get on the board. They did with seconds left; a long blast by Will Butcher to beat Antti Niemi.
- Puck luck. While Blackwood played great, the Montreal just could not finish a lot of the plays after breaking down yet another weak defensive effort by the Devils. The Canadiens ran up the shot count 18-4 in the second period alone and one deflection was the sole shot to beat Blackwood. That is both credit to the goaltender and indictment of not being able to get the right shot to make the Devils pay for their usual defensive sins.
- The Sun did not explode.
The Devils were playing rather poorly otherwise. The 5-on-5 stats that reflect the run of play and an observer of the game would tell you that immediately this afternoon. The only thing that was close was the score. It was still a one shot game for the Devils, even as the third period approached its twelfth minute. I then thought the only way for the Devils to get a goal was a massive failure by Montreal. An equalizer by New Jersey would have felt unfair since Montreal played like they wanted to be up by three and, for all we know, they were going to be up by three at any moment.
As I tend to write, hockey is not a fair game. While it was not a failure, it was a rare broken play in their own end and the Devils took full advantage. A loose puck ended up in the slot, Nico Hischier fished it out from the skates of Blake Coleman, and the budding star ripped a high shot past Niemi. At 11:26 into the third period, the Devils tied up the game.
The Devils played a somewhat more competitive game at that point. After a long time where I got the sense that the Devils just wanted the game to end - especially in the second period - they played like they wanted a game. The third period effort saw more shots in New Jersey’s favor; they closed out the period being outshot by one (11-12) instead of fourteen. Niemi had to put in some work. Blackwood still had to be great as nearly all of the defensemen were torched. The penalty kill had to come up big as Blake Coleman served an appropriate roughing minor for a bad hit on Max Domi. But one could tell the difference: the Devils played like they had something to play for. They at least achieved stealing a point in Montreal.
Overtime has been an issue for the Devils all season long, but today would be different. Montreal had possession and the first attempt was a bit scary: a long shot by Domi that rang off the crossbar. Joel Armia had a great shot that forced a better save from Blackwood. But this was not a 3-on-3 where the Devils were pinned back. They battled to win the puck and possession themselves. Injuries forced John Hynes’ hand to use some different people in overtime such as Mirco Mueller and Miles Wood, who both did well. Wood nearly cashed in on a net-crash move that forced a defender to get the puck out of the paint. This led to the puck going back to Mueller, who took it back to the neutral zone to reset. He made a pass to Hischier at the sideboards and the young star made a play that young stars make:
As Wood left the zone to tag-up onside, he drew Armia. This left Victor Mete to take on Hischier, who carried the puck into the zone. Hischier got ahead of Mete and then rifled in a wrist shot past Niemi’s shortside. That was not at all an easy shot but Hischier made it look simple. Hischier’s second goal of the day secured a rare road and a rare overtime win for the Devils in this season.
Those who want the team to fall back and take the L-train to Tanksville will be disappointed, but they should not be. As Blackwood was great, the Devils’ defense conceded tons of attempts (79) and shots (39). Even if most were not scoring chances or high-danger chances, those will catch up with a team and even a goalie having a good performance can still be beaten by it. They also served to keep the Devils from attacking. So much so that no Devil skater had a CF% above 43% in 5-on-5 play, which is an impressive display of futility. The Devils also took three avoidable penalties. The PK was successful but, again, on another day, one of those seven shots may have snuck through and changed the complexion of this game. My point is that the Devils got the win but they did not play anywhere close to a good game to get the win. As I wrote earlier, hockey is not fair. But don’t worry, the L’s will continue later on.
I am admittedly annoyed to see the Devils seemingly learn few lessons from the loss to Our Hated Rivals and so many other games this season where the defense was sliced up like a hot knife through butter. That said, I am also pleased to see the Devils do good things. I am pleased that Mueller was not a waste of a roster spot today. I am pleased that Kyle Palmieri was not a ghost like he was on Thursday night. I am pleased that the Devils scored a 5-on-3 goal. I am most pleased with Blackwood putting another great performance amid a busy day of work. And I am most pleased with Hischier taking two opportunities and finishing both of them to have the Devils flee the Bell Center with two points.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Habs Eyes on the Prize, Namiko Hirotsubashi has this short recap of the game entitled “Not Quite Enough.” Montreal learned the hard way that you have to put a body on #13.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here is a video of the highlights of today’s game:
To Quote Ed Lover, C’MON SON: I’m still baffled at the second period by the Devils today as well as the overall 5-on-5 stats. The Devils were out-shot 18-4 and out-attempted 33-11. I know Montreal had two power plays thanks to Miles Wood getting an unsportsmanlike conduct either for giving Niemi a snow-shower or spitting verbals in a scrum after said shower, and Kurtis Gabriel for being Kurtis Gabriel. That is simply pathetic. Even without knowing the numbers, the majority of the period was played in front of Blackwood. Whether it was Hischier, Marcus Johansson, and Palmieri or the truly terrible line of Seney, Pavel Zacha, and Drew Stafford, the Devils were getting owned and constantly lost on who to help on defense. The defensemen were nearly all overwhelmed, only Mueller posted a CF% above 40% and a SF% above 50% among all Devils defensemen today. It is a minor miracle that the Devils only gave up one goal all period.
And to think that the Devils went into the period after they tied it up near the end of the first period. I do not put a lot of stock into “momentum” and that period was one of the greater examples as to why. Either that or John Hynes and his staff are brilliant de-motivators.
If the Devils want to salvage something this season and/or prepare for a better 2019-20, then they need to sort out how they handle their business in front of their own net. Whenever an opponent catches them by surprise or denies an exit attempt or manages to control the puck for five to ten seconds, the Devils fall into scramble-watch mode. As in they either scramble to make something happen to little effect, or they freeze up and watch the puck instead of, say, someone open on the weakside. That their offensive players are not attacking is partially a function of the team not getting enough stops and controlled exits on defense.
Blackwood had to be utterly great today with nonsense defending like the Devils displayed today. Fortunately, he was.
No More, Please: Kurtis Gabriel did not need to play today. He took one penalty. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted 1-8, out-shot 0-4, and out-scored 0-1. He makes Brian Boyle look speedy. I do not want to see him play for the Devils again this season. I fear that I will not get what I want.
I could almost say the same for Kevin Rooney. Seriously, this season is effectively lost. What is the value of giving call-ups to Rooney or Gabriel? At least with Bastian, there’s an thought that the organization just wants to see what they can do. When Rooney was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 3-11. Shots were closer at 3-4. Fortunately for Rooney’s case, he received a primary assist on Hischier’s first goal. At least he contributed even though he is what you see and that is not much for the future.
Ow: Late in the third period, Egor Yakovlev was tied up with Max Domi. During that entanglement, a shot ended up hitting Yakovlev in the back of the head. Play stopped and he was helped off the ice and was tended to on the bench. He did not play another shift, which was likely for the best. I hope he’s OK as the defense really does not need another player out hurt.
No Longer the Worst (For Now): The Devils’ win in Montreal puts their road record at 7-17-3 (18 points, 33% point percentage) for the season. This is technically no longer the worst road record in the NHL in terms of points. Ottawa has a road record of 7-17-1 (15 points, 30% point percentage). You’re next, LA (8-13-3 now).
One Last Thought: If the Devils want to sell a few extra tickets and maybe a couple of renewals, they really should be pushing Hischier hard as the future of the organization. It would not even be a lie or anything. He is the future. Today, he showed that he is a very good one.
Your Take: The Devils stole a 3-2 OT win in Montreal thanks to Blackwood being excellent in net and Hischier scoring two goals. As bothered as I am with the defense and other performances today, I’m pleased with how it ended and with what Blackwood and Hischier did today. What do you think about this game? Who impressed you? Who annoyed you the most? What would you do to make the Devils play anything resembling NHL-level defense? Can the Devils perform better at home, where they will be all next week? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Brian for the game preview, Mike for running @AAtJerseyBlog during the game, and all those who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.