It is not fair that goaltenders get compared each other. They do not score goals. How one plays at one end does not necessarily mean the other plays that much better. They may try to but that does not necessarily happen. Still, a goaltender’s duel is the best description for tonight’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins. Mackenzie Blackwood was excellent and the one goal against him was not his fault. But Tuukka Rask was perfect and that is near-impossible to beat. Therefore, the Devils lost 0-1 to the Bruins.
I have to say that is an achievement in of itself. As with the loss to Calgary earlier this week, not getting blown out is a good moral victory as any. The Bruins are not just a more talented team and have (at least) twelve NHL-caliber forwards. They also have not lost a game in regulation since January 19 - which was also their last regulation loss at home. The Devils are also a rather bad team that has been worse on the road this season. Many signs pointed to the B’s just handing a huge ‘L’ to the Devils. Instead, they lost in an actual one-goal game.
The Bruins were indeed the better team in the run of play tonight. They out-attempted the Devils by 13 and out-shot them by 10. There was a similar disparity for 5-on-5 play. They looked like a team that was fast, attacking, and supportive. However, chances were much more in the Devils’ favor. For all situations, Natural Stat Trick had the Devils up 19-16 in scoring chances and 10-4 in high-danger chances. The problem is that chances include missed shots. For example, look at the second period. While the Devils out-chanced the Bruins 7-2, they only had four shots all period so at least three of those chances were not on target. Rask is one of the better goalies in the league. It is hard enough to score against him, he did not need further help by missing on attempts. I can understand that the lack of talent was a contributing factor, but execution applies at all levels and the Devils’ execution was lacking at times.
But I will give the Devils credit for not falling apart out there. They did challenge the Bruins and made several backchecks to prevent potential odd man rushes or breakdowns in coverage. The heatmap of shots at Natural Stat Trick had two spots as the hottest for the Bruins: the right point and the lower half of the right circle. That is an improvement over, say, the slot or right in front of the net. There were good possession shifts that happened a little more often in the second and third periods. There were attempts even in the dying minutes of the game. It was by no means perfect but I can appreciate an effort. Thanks to some lenient refereeing, the Devils only took one penalty all game long - which meant the Devils did not have to foul so hard to pay for it.
Unfortunately, the one penalty turned out to be costly. Kenny Agostino took a minor for goaltender interference. 15 seconds later, Patrice Bergeron made an excellent backhand pass across the slot to Brad Marchand on the flank. The thuggish winger may not respect the rules or other people’s health, but he is a great shooter. He collected the puck and fired it in far-post on Blackwood. That was the first goal and the only goal of the game. Again, it was not a bad goal to allow. And I do not think it was a huge failure on the PK. I see it as a better play by Boston that was successful and that made the difference tonight.
That I can write that is a testament to how great Blackwood and Rask were tonight. Blackwood took on shots from all kinds of angles and even denied Marchand on a penalty shot. Rask was calm, collected, and squared up for seemingly every shot. He stopped Jesper Bratt on a partial breakaway in the second period and cooly denied Drew Stafford on a rebound try shortly after. It was one of the Devils’ best chances to score tonight and Rask denied it like it was routine. It was at that point I started thinking if the Devils were going to get shutout. They were. But Blackwood’s stops made me confident that the game was not going to get out of hand. It didn’t. It was a one-shot game for the Devils all the way to the end and Rask made sure it did not happen.
In a season with nothing to really play for and a Devils season where they have been on the receiving end of some hideous blowout losses, this kind of loss is far from the worst they could suffer. Given the opponent, the situation, the locale, and the quality between the two teams, losing 0-1 in a goaltender’s duel is not that bad of a loss. I expected destruction and instead the Devils were edged. That is not so bad in the bigger scheme of this season. So it goes.
The Opposition Opinion: Stanley Cup of Chowder will have a take on this game if you want a Boston-based perspective.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Is This Real?: It warrants a separate post and a closer after this season, but Mackenzie Blackwood may actually be for real. This is his 15th NHL game, he was sent down for a bit in between appearances, and he has faced some diversity in opponents and situations. Despite having a largely AHL-based forward group in front for scoring and a Devils defense that has been bleeding shots, Blackwood has remained excellent. He has a 93.4% even strength percentage this season and he’s a touch under 90% on the penalty kill at 89.7% as per NHL.com. These are excellent stats and to maintain these percentages over a period of time where he was not even with New Jersey for a part of it makes me think that there’s something to it. Blackwood denied Marchand on a penalty shot, all sorts of tries by the various lines, and looked large going post to post and in between. If there is a positive to take out of this game, then it is that this is another data point to support the thesis that Blackwood may be an Actually Good Goaltender.
Oh No: Nico Hischier and his line did not do well in the run of play at all. Hischier, Bratt, and Stafford were out-attempted and out-shot throughout the night. Boston went power-for-”power” as the three Devils were commonly matched up against Bergeron, Marchand, and Danton Heinen with Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy backing them up from the points. That’s Boston’s best unit and, well, they are way better than Hischier, Bratt, Stafford, Connor Carrick, and Sami Vatanen.
But the real damage is another potential injury. Hischier went to the bench in pain in the second period and left the game briefly. He returned to the bench prior to the Devils’ second power play tonight. Hischier did not play much after returning. He played only two shifts in the third period, they were minutes apart, and he did not return with 12:39 left to play. I am not certain what exactly caused the injury or what it is.
Regardless, I am confident that this is a big problem for the Devils. They are already short on forwards who belong in the NHL, much less a forward that has the talent to do something real good here and there in a game. As this was a one-shot game, a healthy Hischier may be had that one shot to beat Rask. We would not know. Should Hischier be out for some time, the center depth on the Devils is Travis Zajac, Michael McLeod, Kevin Rooney, and someone else. Not that the Devils have anything to play for, but that is ugly on paper and likely ugly in reality. In other words, get well real soon, Hischier.
Living Up to His Well-Deserved Reputation: Brad Marchand is not just a very talented shooter and a pain to defend. He is also a man with little disregard for the rules of others and acts like he can inflict pain however he sees fit. He does dirty things and does not answer for any of it. He never learns his lesson. It seems like he does terrible things to opposing players on a regular basis partially because he does. Tonight, near the end of the game, Marchand took down Vatanen from behind with a cross-check. The net was empty, the play was around the Devils blueline, the Devils were able to avoid seeing a loose puck end up in the empty net, and - crack - Vatanen went down in a heap from it.
There was no whistle and no call on Marchand. There was no disapproval from a teammate, a coach, or anyone from the hit. I am cynical enough to believe this will not be looked at by the NHL Department of Player Safety because there was no call. And I am also cynical that even if it is looked at, the punishment will not be enough and Marchand will not change his ways anyway. And why would he as he’s been getting away with playing like a dirty thug for his entire career. He gets paid and utilized to go across that line in the sand no matter who he hurts by doing so.
The Yakovlev Experiment: Nathan Bastian was held out due to injury tonight and Kurtis Gabriel was suspended for a game. So the Devils had to call someone up - and they called up just one player: Joey Anderson. Instead of a second forward, defenseman Egor Yakovelv lined up at wing and Steve Santini was able to play. How did it go?
By the run of play, it went well. The fourth line of Yakovlev, Anderson, and Kevin Rooney was the Devils’ best in terms of attempt and shot differentials. All three finished above 60% CF% and 60% SF%. When Rooney was on the ice, the Devils were particularly dominant. It also helped that Rooney won five out six draws tonight. While he didn’t score, this game is a better one to point to if you believe he should have a NHL job next season. Going back to the line, the trio combined for six of the Devils’ twenty shots on net tonight. For a fourth line, they did their jobs and then some.
Even Santini had a decent game. The Bruins did not beat him and Will Butcher up in the run of play given his 50% CF%. Santini did not make a huge mistake or have some disasterous shifts. He even got involved on offense with two shots of his own.
Given the state of the Devils’ injuries, John Hynes may have to go with this again at the back end of the lineup. If the idea is to reward relatively good performances, then they should get another chance; even if it is weird to see Yakovlev in the corner and realize he is supposed to be there and that he didn’t activate to jump up on the play.
Sure, OK, Wait, Really?: Ken Daneyko praised Andy Greene and his defense tonight in the post-game after appropriately praising Blackwood. I like Daneyko’s passion but his analysis sometimes makes me wonder what he’s seeing. Greene did not commit any major mistakes but when he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 10-19 and out-shot 4-15 in 5-on-5 play. I struggle to find that to be worthy of praise; only Bratt, Blake Pietila, and Hischier had worse CF% and SF% values. It is true that Greene only saw seven scoring chances and one high-danger chance. Perhaps that points to what Daneyko was driving at. And Greene did see a lot of Boston’s killer first line, so not getting wrecked over and over can be worthy of praise. However, when #6 was out there, the game was spent in New Jersey’s end. That’s no good even with so few attempts and shots being classified as scoring chances.
Shotless Again: Michael McLeod had a quieter night. He was also shotless again; McLeod only had one attempt on net. He seems to be good at making entries along the side, but he needs to work on getting himself in shooting positions - and actually shooting the puck when he does. I think there is something here; but he needs to find his shot to really turn those entries and other “little things not on the scoresheet” things into more visible contributions.
One Last Thought: I hope Vatanen gets well soon too. He recently came back from a concussion. Seeing him down after Marchand cracked him one from behind makes me hope he did not receive a second one.
Your Take: The Devils lost 0-1 in a goaltender’s duel tonight. It was not a blowout loss to far superior Boston Bruins team, so I will take it. What is your take on this loss? Who impressed you and why? Who disappointed you and why? What can the Devils learn from this game that they should apply to their next game against Columbus on Tuesday?
Thanks to CJ for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game and those who commented and/or followed along in the Gamethread. The February 2019 Month in Review will be up on Monday. Thank you for reading.