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Injury-Riddled New Jersey Devils Only Lost Closely to a Hot Calgary Flames Squad

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Despite having a handful of NHL forwards and taking on the best team in the Western Conference coming off a six-game winning streak, the New Jersey Devils only lost 1-2 to the Calgary Flames. This recap praises the Devils for not being dominated as I feared given the state of the Devils’ roster.

Calgary Flames v New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood was a big reason why this was not a blowout loss.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Before this game, I expected the New Jersey Devils to be blown out by the Calgary Flames. I’m going to keep it real. I had next to no expectations of the Devils getting anything in the standings out of this game. Consider the situation:

  • The Calgary Flames are first in the Western Conference and second only to Tampa Bay in the league standings. The New Jersey Devils are racing for the bottom end of those standings.
  • The Calgary Flames entered the Rock with six straight wins. The Devils have won six games in all of February.
  • The Calgary Flames iced a roster of twelve forwards who are all arguably NHL-caliber players. The New Jersey Devils only had three to five NHL-caliber forwards active tonight; and placed defenseman Egor Yakovlev at wing to fill out four lines.
  • The Calgary Flames have historically dumped on the Devils. Thanks to reader NJD1017 in the Gamethread for pointing it out.

The Devils did get nothing in the standings tonight; they still lost in regulation. However, instead of eating a decisive loss where the team gets outplayed for sixty minutes or seeing yet another loss by four or more goals, the Devils lost in a close game by a score of 1-2. There were some areas where they were out-classed, such as the first and second periods in general. But the Devils tried their best and proved to not be doormats to a Calgary squad riding a winning streak. I have seen a healthier New Jersey team suffer bigger and far worse losses than this one this season. I did not like those losses as a viewer, as a fan, and as someone who had to write about it. Tonight, I did not hate this loss. I was pleasantly surprised that a Devils squad filled of almost as many players from Binghamton as New Jersey players did not get blown out by a hot Flames team.

It helped a little that Calgary played last night. It helped much more that Mackenzie Blackwood put in a great performance. Not that the Flames created scoring chance after scoring chance, but they ran up 35 shots on net, 58 attempts, 23 scoring chances, and 9 high-danger chances in all situations per Natural Stat Trick. The Flames out-did the Devils in all four categories. (The Devils generated a total of 40 attempts, 20 shots, 16 chances, and 5 high-danger chances.) But Blackwood was able to prevent a lot of those shots from becomign problematic rebounds and broken plays that tend to lead to goals against. Blackwood was dialed in, for lack of a better term. The two goals that beat him were a fluke bounce from an Elias Lindholm pass off Sami Vatanen’s skate and getting deked out his pads by Mark Giordano, who had a wide, wide open path to the net. I would call the Giordano goal against as Blackwood’s lone blemish of the night. It was a great night for someone who made his first start for New Jersey since February 2. If nothing else, we can be happy that the Devils goaltenders may no longer be nightly liabilities.

The penalty killers also did a very good job all things considered. The Devils went into trouble with penalties, largely thanks to Blake Coleman. Coleman, New Jersey’s most threatening PK forward, took three minor penalties during the game with the first one happening during a penalty kill for Damon Severson’s tripping penalty in the first period. The Devils technically survived the 3-on-5 situation; Lindholm’s fluke goal occurred just as Severson stepped on the ice. But the penalty killers finished the night even in goals when Kevin Rooney forechecked Johnny Gaudreau, stole the puck from him, curled to the right circle, and ripped a shot past David Rittich. It was Rooney’s first shorthanded goal in the NHL and it put the Devils within a goal - which held up all the way to the end. Out of four power plays, the Devils conceded seven shots on net, which includes that fluke bounce of Vatanen’s skate. The 3-on-5 maintained their form and kept the Flames to one shot on net despite a long-ish two-man advantage. The other penalty kills averaged two shots against each and Blackwood got all of them with relative ease. The Devils could have been sunk by the PK tonight but that didn’t happen.

The goal by Rooney represented the kind of effort the Devils displayed tonight. So did the third period. After mustering only ten shots in the first two periods, the Devils put up ten in the third period alone. They drew two power plays and did not entirely waste them. After allowing 22 shots in 5-on-5 play in the first two periods, the Devils kept the Flames to only five. The Devils were skating a bit harder, the Flames showed a little more fatigue (they did play and beat the Isles last night), and they forced Rittich and their defense to react rather than do as they wish. Even at the end of the game, Vatanen blocked two empty-net attempts and the team pushed forward. The Devils did not find an equalizer but they at least tried when most would have understood if they did not.

Most of the time, I do not like writing about “moral victories” if only because actual victories are superior. Achievement feels better than being consoled. But the 2018-19 Devils have nothing to play for, the team is loaded with injured players, and they have been forced to go deep into their Binghamton lineup to a point where most of the Bingo forwards are actually Adirondack forwards. They could have been wrecked by Calgary. On paper, they probably should have been. They didn’t. The Devils are playing for pride and they succeeded tonight with a 1-2 loss to Calgary.

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Check out Matchsticks and Gasoline for a Calgary-based perspective on tonight’s game.

The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight’s highlights.

The Worst Kind of Event: Early in the third period, Mirco Mueller and Travis Zajac pushed forward for a 2-on-1. Mueller passed it across, Zajac recovered the puck and sent the puck back in the hopes of Mueller tapping it in by the right post. The puck got away from the rushing Mueller, Michael Frolik was backchecking him, and then something terrible happened. Mueller’s skate seemingly got caught up, his knee buckled, and so he crashed head first into the endboards. Play was immediately stopped, Mueller barely moved, and the players on the ice immediately called for medical attention. The crowd was silent, the rink was silent, the broadcasters were speaking in a low voice, and everyone was hoping for something positive. For a while, only Mueller’s skates moved as he lied facedown on the ice in a lot of pain. Mueller had to be stretchered off the ice.

It was an ugly accident. Frolik really didn’t push or guide Mueller into the endboards. The defenseman was pushing forward on offense. He needed to skate hard towards the post to allow for Zajac to pass it back for a scoring opportunity. The cause was that the toe of his skate got stuck in and he could not adjust his body to avoid a serious crash. It was a scary sight. It was not intentional either.

I can provide some good news. On the broadcast, Salvador saw Mueller give a thumbs-up from the stretcher as he was wheeled off the ice. After the game, John Hynes commented in his post-game press conference that Mueller was aware and had use of all of his extremities. The Devils’ official Twitter account provided a similar update:

I hope that Mueller’s injury ends up being much more minor than what was feared while he was lying prone on the ice.

The Return of Vatanen: Anyone returning from injury to the Devils these days is definitely a positive. Defenseman Sami Vatanen returned to action after suffering a concussion. Vatanen was thrown right into a lot of minutes. He finished the night with 22:12 of ice time including 2:23 on the power play and 4:02 on the penalty kill, including 3-on-5 time. Vatanen’s performance was sort-of OK, I guess. It is hard for me to point to anything particularly good that he did aside from blocking two empty-net attempts by Calgary. Vatanen took two attempts and both were blocked out such that Vatanen had to scramble back to defend. In 5-on-5 play, when Vatanen was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 10-14 and out-shot 6-10. However, the Devils out-chanced the Flames 5-4 with Vatanen on the ice and high-danger chances were limited to just one against between the two teams. That is positive if not easily identifiable; those numbers were far from the worst tonight. I did like how Vatanen performed on the penalty kill. The Lindholm goal was a bad break. I can appreciate how important he is seen on the blueline by Hynes and his staff. If there were better defenders, then perhaps he could have received fewer minutes and been more effective. But Vatanen was not awful, not at all a liability, and far from the worst Devil on the ice tonight. I suppose that’s a good return as any.

Blake, Blake, Blake: This was an awful night for Blake Coleman. He took three penalties that he did not need to take. His first one was costly if only for putting the Devils down two men for over a minute. While the Devils killed the other two and Rooney scored on one of those, giving a mostly-healthy and streaking Calgary team multiple power plays is never a good thing. Coleman was given two more minutes after regulation ended for beefing with Travis Hamonic.

But the night was worse than just taking calls and having issues with other players. When Coleman was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils were out-attempted 11-22, out-shot 7-13, out-chanced 6-9, and out-high-danger chanced 0-4. No other Devil witnessed more than 20 attempts against in 5-on-5 play tonight. Calgary put up 43 attempts in 5-on-5 play so Coleman saw nearly half of them. Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk in particular ate his proverbial lunch tonight. As for offense, Coleman did not provide much in the way of offense outside of passing the puck to others for shots. He had zero shots in the game. He attempted zero shots in the game. Coleman has had a lot of good nights with the Devils in 2018-19. This was not one of them.

And yet because he was one of the few NHL-caliber players available at forward, Coleman played 22:08 tonight. Only Vatanen and Andy Greene played more than he did. So his lack of contributions were quite noticeable.

About the Giordano Goal Against: Blackwood bit on Giordano’s deke hard and so looked silly when the defenseman easily went around Blackwood’s left pad for a score. However, the real issue came before then. Gaudreau saw Giordano enter the zone on the right side with no one there. For some reason, Nico Hischier moved to the center of the zone. Connor Carrick, who was deeper in the zone, stayed in the center, veering left. Gaudreau made a great read and Giordano had an even better finish. It was created by a breakdown in coverage.

Hischier did not have such a great night either. It was not nearly as bad as Coleman’s game. Hischier had three shots, won most of his draws, and had some good backchecks like denying a potential breakaway for Gaudreau from behind whilst Coleman took a penalty behind the play in the second period. But Hischier could not carry a bad Coleman and Nick Lappin, who looked slower than Drew Stafford tonight, to good things. Which is understandable given the situation.

Did Anyone on the Devils Do Well in 5-on-5?: Funnily enough, the first period was all about Calgary in 5-on-5 as attempts were 10-21 against the Devils. The second period was more even at 8-11 and the third period actually was even at 11-11. It was not so much the Devils turned the tide overtime as it was that the Devils stemmed the bleeding and provided their own responses more often to David Rittich.

The Devils had two players finish above 50% CF% tonight: Michael McLeod (10-9) and Nathan Bastian (10-7). The “Superbrothers” with Blake Pietila did force some attack time in all three periods and did not get burned the other way. Of all of the Binghamton Devils forwards tonight, Bastian looked the best. He used his body well to win dumped-in pucks, he kept fairly close to the net, and he sought to make plays there. While he only had one shot on net tonight; he made his presence known and nearly scored a second NHL goal this season off a re-direction. McLeod was held shotless; but he was facilitating others to take shots.

There is a caveat to that though. While the Devils out-attempted the Flames when they were on the ice, the Devils were out-shot 2-5 with Bastian on the ice and 2-6 with McLeod on the ice. At least the territorial play was not one-sided.

On the Flipside...: The fourth line of Kurtis Gabriel, Rooney, and Yakovlev generated very little and did play plenty in their own end. Yakovlev did fairly well in those spots, but a goal for a forward is to not get pinned back. They were pinned back multiple times tonight. That may not surprise you given the talent level and that Yakovlev was being played out of position. Still, the Flames made their nights tough. At least, Rooney did look good for his shorthanded goal and on the PK.

Greene was by far the most picked on among the defensemen. Even more than his usual partner, Severson. Greene on the ice in 5-on-5 resulted in the Devils being out-attempted 7-15 and out-shot 3-8. Ouch. Greene’s PK work was solid as ever though and after playing seven out of a possible eight minutes of shorthanded ice time; he was kept to 4:53 out of 6:04. That is a marginal improvement upon leaning on him entirely.

Did Any of the NHL Forwards Do Well?: Travis Zajac was not messed up too much in 5-on-5, he led the Devils with 4 shots on net, and he was a half-second away from scoring an equalizer on a third-period power play. Alas, Rittich robbed the veteran. Still, I would say he was OK tonight.

Kenny Agostino and Drew Stafford were also OK; Stafford was hustling more than usual and Agostino was there. The duo finished the night even in attempts and, unlike Bastian and McLeod, not out-shot in a notable way.

Power Play Summary: The Devils’ two power plays tonight were also OK. They threatened a few times, they generated five total shots, and they did not concede a shot to the team leading the NHL in shorthanded goals. As with the game as a whole, I’ve seen much worse from healthier rosters in this season. I didn’t hate it.

One Last Thought: A roster mostly filled with AHL forwards does not only struggle on offense in terms of creating it, taking shots, and finishing plays. They also struggle off the puck and in transition. Many times tonight, especially in the first two periods, the Flames were able to easily stop a Devil after zone entry, take a puck away, and go back forward on offense. The AHL players also struggled at times at making zone exits. They would struggle with the clearance itself or clear it to a spot where Calgary would re-take possession and go back on the attack easily. It is common for young players and called-up players to note how much faster the NHL is compared to the AHL or other levels of hockey. It is not just in terms of speed, but also in how little time a player has to react to a situation, make a decision on the puck, and pick up their man on defense. By my observations, I kept thinking about that as the Flames made the Devils to look like, well, an AHL squad in the run of play during the first two periods.

Your Take: The Devils were short on NHL talent tonight and only lost by a goal to the best team in the Western Conference, who were on (and still on) a winning streak. I am fine with it given that the 2018-19 season is a lost one. Are you fine with this “moral victory?” Did you appreciate the effort? What do you think the Devils could have done differently given the roster they had tonight? What can the Devils take away from this game ahead of their back-to-back set coming up next? Will we see some forwards get healthy for this game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this 1-2 loss to Calgary in the comments.

Thanks to CJ for taking care of the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game and to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.