The trade deadline handicapped both teams coming into the game, with both teams opting to sit some big guns in order to protect their trade assets. Ottawa sat three forwards with a combined 162 points—Ryan Dzingel, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene, who’s considered one of the hottest trade targets on the NHL market right now. Without their three top guns, there was no rivaling Ottawa’s commitment to the tank in this game. Still, the Devils tried to compete by holding out our penalty kill star Ben Lovejoy and the red hot Marcus Johansson in order to protect their trade value as the Monday deadline approaches. Without those two in the lineup, Brett Seney and Steven Santini returned to the lineup. Santini paired up with Will Butcher at the blue line, and Palmieri moved up to take Johansson’s wing position on the top line. The Wood, Zajac, Coleman line returned to make up the second line. Kevin Rooney centered the third line between Drew Stafford and Joey Anderson, and Seney stepped into the fourth line center role between Kenny Agostino and Kurtis Gabriel. Cory Schneider returned to the net to follow up wins in his last two games. Including Schneider’s rehab stint, 7 of the Devils 19 participants in the game have played in the AHL at some point this season. In addition to the healthy trade scratches, the Devils were also missing Pavel Zacha for a third game with an upper body injury in addition to the usual suspects from the long-term IR.
The Devils outright owned the first period against the Senators, partly owing to a power play that was sent to work less than five minutes into the game. Ben Harpur clotheslined Hischier in a battle for the puck, and we got our first look at how the new power play would line up without Mojo on the goal line. Though they didn’t score on either of their PP opportunities in the game, the power play didn’t look as shaky as I thought it would, which is entirely due to the replacement being Nico Hischier. Hischer plays the goal line differently than Mojo does, using Palmieri on the far circle a bit more but he looks comfortable down there and the first power play had a few good looks on three shots thanks to his efforts from the bottom of the zone. The second power play unit was much more anemic than the first and seemed to be a bit of a science experiment from the coaching staff. They were unable to set up into any kind of positioning but it appeared to be made up of Wood, Stafford, Agostino, Seney, and Will Butcher at the point.
They didn’t score, but the momentum from the power play carried the Devils through a few solid shifts and eventually found the recently-reunited Wood-Zajac-Coleman line, who picked up where they left off with excellent chemistry and smart play-making. Breakouts have been a massive sore spot for the Devils lately, but not this game, and certainly not with this line. A slick breakout pass from Zajac to a speeding Butcher led to a drop pass to Miles Wood, who was covering Butcher’s place on the point. Wood loosed a shot towards the net where it was tipped in by a cutting Zajac for his 497th career point and the first goal of the game for the Devils. Less than three minutes later, the same lineup returned to the ice and controlled the offensive zone again. Butcher was again in the offensive zone, this time actually behind the net with Blake Coleman covering his position at the point. Butcher found Bratt fresh on the ice after changing for Wood, who dropped a pass back for Steven Santini to bury a slap shot for his first goal of the season. The Devils finished off the first period with a second power play opportunity after Brady Tkachuk opted to spice up the game a bit more by aiming a slash at the back of Blake Coleman’s legs.
After being out-shot 14-4 in the first period, the Senators came back a bit stronger in the second. After killing their carryover penalty minutes they found themselves on a power play moments later as Anderson and Thomas Chabot tangled up behind the net and Anderson found himself sitting for a tripping call. The Devils penalty kill looked a bit different without Ben Lovejoy— they started Eric Gryba alongside Andy Greene. The Devils killed the penalty and then immediately scored on the ensuing faceoff. Seney won the puck back to Gabriel who walked a few feet towards the middle of the ice and proceeded to rip a wrist shot over the shoulder of the 6’6” Senator’s netminder, Anders Nilsson. 3-0 Devils at the start of the second didn’t sit well with the Senators, who battled and actually forced Schneider to make saves after allowing him to nap in the crease most of the first, but he stayed sharp and made some big stops. Mirco Mueller made a few stops of his own, including blocking a shot with his ankle halfway through the second, which left him fumbling for the bench on a change and caused the Devils to draw a too many men call. They opted to send Wood to the box to serve it as they often do, presumably because they look for the out of the box rush, although possibly because he spends more time there than anyone else anyway and is now friends with the attendants. There was no out of the box chance for Wood as the Devils were pinned back a bit at the end of the penalty kill, but it wouldn’t take long for the chance to come again. On his next shift Miles Wood would find himself the target of a pass from Damon Severson, which he tipped upstairs over Nilsson to up the lead to 4-0 Devils and extend his streak to three goals in the last three games. The Devils were out-shot 10-16 in the second period but definitely not outscored, and they carried a four goal shutout lead into the third period.
The third period opened up looking like the Devils might give away another lead after Will Butcher tried to make a blind pass to Santini and ended up giving away the puck. The Devils saw another turnover a little while later from the third line after they managed the difficult part of the breakout but weren’t able to enter the Senators zone. The Senators had a few more good looks particularly towards the end of the period as the Devils found themselves in the box twice in the last seven minutes of play. Chris Tierney drew a penalty from Eric Gryba by assaulting Gryba’s elbow with his face and proceeding to enter a bid for entertainer of the year at the Oscars, and followed up his performance five minutes later by drawing a holding call against Will Butcher. Butcher started the first penalthy kill, then Severson took over Butcher’s place on the second PK and was joined by Hischier and Bratt to start. The dynamic duo appeared to decide that their position on the penalty kill was ‘well, they can’t score if we do’ and rushed the offensive zone, leading to shot from Bratt ringing off the post early in the kill. Bratt and Hischer were then replaced by Seney and Rooney. Rooney’s play during the majority of the game wasn’t stellar—he was stripped of the puck standing dead still on the boards and caused a breakaway at one point—but he made up for whatever he didn’t do in the rest of the game ten-fold with his play in those last few minutes of the game. Rooney tried for a second shorthanded rush of the PK, then turned into a shutout-preserving hero for the last minute: blocked a slapshot, continued the kill and eventually cleared the puck for the last five seconds while half doubled over in pain. Fortunately for the Devils overcrowded IR he was all smiles after the horn sounded and he joined the rest of the team in congratulating Cory Schneider on his third win in a row, and first shutout since November of 2017.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Silver Seven Sens for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
This looks like a preseason game! seemed to be the cry of many on social media and the AAtJ gamethread, and its not wrong. Devils fans, welcome to the preseason before the offseason before the preseason, AKA Tryouts 2.0. With most of our veteran players either on the trade block or the IR and the chances of a playoff run this season entirely lost, Devils management has nothing left to do with this season but to play their AHLers and rookies, and mess with line combinations and special teams to find out what works.
What does work:
Wood-Zajac-Coleman: the Devils second line was reunited against the Senators after being separated due to the injuries to Coleman and Zacha, and their play together was as fun to watch as I remember. Zajac had some of his best skating and puck movement, and Wood’s point streak continued with a third goal in as many games plus an assist on the tip from Zajac. The line continues to put up the best two-way play of the team, with a CF% of 61.5 through the first two periods. Wood left the game late in the second period following a cross check to the back from Thomas Chabot in front of the Senators net and did not return for the third period. In the post game interview, Hynes wasn’t sure the extent of the issue as he hadn’t yet spoken to the trainers but said he didn’t believe it was anything serious. Good news for the Devils and Miles Wood, although we’ve heard that line before.
Butcher-Santini: Butcher will be in need of a new linemate if Lovejoy is indeed traded at the deadline, and it appears he may have found him in Steve Santini. The third D pairing played the most 5x5 ice time and allowed only 3 HDCA compared to 12 SCA overall. By comparison, Severson and Greene allowed 6 HDCA out of 8 total chances, and Mueller and Gryba allowed 2 HDCA out of 6 total 5x5 chances. With a relative CF% of -1.22, the brand new pairing has some room to improve but plenty of time to do it. Butcher and Santini have only played 3 or 4 games together this season and with the last minute decision to remove Lovejoy from the lineup and play Santini, they didn’t have time to practice together before the game. The blind pass giveaway from Butcher in the beginning of the third period highlighted the extent of the new partner blues for the pairing, but they played well together overall and have in the past so I hope to see good things from them if they remain together for the rest of the season.
Eric Gryba: I know there’s a lot of Gryba haters out there, but I’ve been liking his play more and more lately and I’ll argue he’s played well, especially tonight. His 5x5 stats were generally positive across the board positive Fenwick except a slightly negative Corsi, stemming from a difference of 6 blocked shots between Gryba and Mueller during the game. His play on the penalty kill was solid and put up some of the better shorthanded statistics on the team as well. He brings a strong presence in front of the net that the Devils defense and goaltending in particular could sorely use—I’m tired of seeing goals scored because we let a guy set up a tent and BBQ in the crease and screen the life out of the goalie with no pressure from the defense— and he seems to be bringing Mirco Mueller confidence as well. Mueller’s puck play has improving in the couple games since he has been paired with Gryba, so I’ll be looking to see continued improvement from the two of them as well.
Cory!! Schneider’s return to the win column has been deserving of the fanfare, the chants, the gold medals, and whatever else we can get to him after the season he had to fight through to get back into it. Schneider is riding a .988 save percentage in his last three games, allowing just one goal on 80 shots since entering the game against Minnesota in relief on Kinkaid last week.
Other scattered positives: Kurtis Gabriel scored his first NHL goal in the second period. Will Butcher reached 20 assists. Travis Zajac finished the game at 81.8% on face-offs, which is just ridiculously good.
What’s not working?
Brett Seney as a center: I like Seney’s play, and I think he can contribute as a bottom 6 forward. His numbers seem to be better when he’s centering a line than when he’s playing wing, but his face-off percentage is not great at all. He did win a face-off that led to Kurtis Gabriel’s goal. Unfortunately, he took five face-offs in the game, and that was the only one he won. He’s even with Nico Hischier’s face-off percentage of 20% in the game, but Hischier’s season percentage is just under even at 44.5%, whereas Seney is sitting way down at 37%. If he’s going to stay in the lineup as a center, he needs to improve his face-off percentage for next season.
Palmieri with Hischier and Bratt: It’s usually hard to compare the play of the top line when they’re often playing while matched up against the best line on the opposing team, but since the Senator’s best line was sitting in their pajamas (or in the press box, I’m not actually sure when they were scratched) I don’t have much of an excuse for the one point, CF% of 35, FF% of 20, SF% of 0, and more depressing numbers in what should have been an easy game for a top line. The line’s season stats are better, but nowhere near the numbers they were producing with Johansson on that pairing. Palmieri is an excellent player in his own right and he’s done great this season, but he just does not seem to do well with Hischier and Bratt together.
The Takeaway: As of Thursday, the Devils sit at an 11.5% chance to win the top spot in the draft lottery. At this point in the season, I find it’s no longer about playoff chances or points, but enjoying the few wins that do come and watching the development of players for next season. Who are you watching?
Your take: Are Lovejoy and Johansson’s days as Devils numbered, or are they just being held out in case they decide to strike a deal? If they go, where do you think they’re going, and what do we have to get for them? Which AHL call-up do you think is making the biggest impact in this stretch of the season? Who do you want to see more/less of? How did you feel about the Bratt-Hischier-Palmieri line instead of the line with Mojo? Do you think that will influence the deciion to trade Mojo?
Thanks to Chris for previewing the game this morning and thanks everyone for reading!