Prior to the puck drop, Amanda Stein provided the expected lineup for the New Jersey Devils tonight.
The reactions were understandable. It made one cringe. It made one wince. It made one think that the Columbus Blue Jackets were going to win easily. After all, they are a team who has beaten the Devils cleanly multiple times this season, they are a team with legitimate playoff hopes and therefore something to play for, and they are a team with very talented players like Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Nick Foligno, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, and Josh Anderson. More than that, they could ice twelve NHL-caliber forwards.
What’s more is that the Devils would go down to eleven forwards tonight. Jesper Bratt hobbled off the ice after he blocked a shot with his ankle at the end of his first shift in the second period. He would not return. And Columbus scored within the first minute of the game. A turnover on defense led to a long shot by David Savard. The shot missed but the rebound off the endboards went right to Cam Atkinson’s stick blade on Cory Schneider’s left flank for an easy goal. It seemed like it was inevitable that Columbus would just stomp all over the Devils.
Somehow, someway, that did not happen.
The New Jersey Devils not only hung with the Blue Jackets, but they arguably were the better team in the second period, definitely the better team in the third period, and dragged the game all the way to a shootout. The Devils not only tied up the game but they were far more threatening to score a second goal. They were a post and/or a Sergey Bobrovsky mistake away from that second goal. And the Devils were pushing the play in their way. Yes, the shootout went well for Columbus. But the BLue Jackets needed the shootout to win tonight’s game against a Devils team who lost their last three games, have nothing to really play for this season, and are loaded with minor leaguers and marginal players (Drew Stafford, Steve Santini).
It takes two to tango and the Blue Jackets brought a lot of poor play to the dance. Their defense seemed fine until the halfway mark. Their offense was just all over the place and not in a good way. The aforementioned Panarin and Duchene were non-factors. Atkinson got his goal and that was his big contribution. Foligno was known more for throwing his weight around tonight than making plays. Dubois was just a guy out there. And just when it seemed like the Blue Jackets would break through, the Devils backchecked well and/or the Blue Jackets botched it. The Blue Jackets’ performance was so sluggish, they registered sixteen shots on net in regulation. The Devils and their crew of mostly Binghamton forwards put up sixteen shots in the third period.
And that’s the part I really want to highlight. The Devils played a legitimately good game tonight. At least from the second period onward, they were the better team on the ice. Despite causing the turnover that led to the one goal against in regulation, the pairing of Andy Greene and Damon Severson was very good. Will Butcher and Connor Carrick were notably good at getting stops. Cory Schneider did not get a lot of work and really only faltered in a shootout. The Blue Jackets were put on their heels by a line of Kevin Rooney, Kenny Agostino, and Drew Stafford. Seriously, those three combined for nine of the Devils’ thirty shots on net tonight. Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac provided the Devils’ lone goal tonight and were quite effective all night long. Michael McLeod finally got some shots on net - and he nearly won the game with a late power play attempt that rang off the frame. The Devils did a great job limiting the Blue Jackets’ offense, they remained disciplined, they attacked more and more, they forced Bobrovsky to be great (and he was), the skaters all worked hard and fairly smartly, and Schneider provided another good performance in the crease. With all of this in mind, I’m not mad about the shootout loss.
Even though the Devils are now winless in their last four games, I’m finding positives in their performances and I appreciate that they are not being blown away by NHL teams who are good and with something to play for. I do not know how long this kind of run will go. But this is a lot more interesting and watchable than a run of blowouts. I liked this game even if it did not end with a win. I am most pleased that the game did not go nearly as badly as I feared it would when Stein revealed the lines this morning. I would like to think I am not the only Devils fan who also pleased with that.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at The Cannon, MrSwift13 has this “quickcap” up of the game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
No, Really: According to Natural Stat Trick, the Agostino-Rooney-Stafford line played 10:55 of 5-on-5 hockey tonight to lead the Devils’ lines. When they were out there, the Devils out-attempted the Blue Jackets 12-6, out-shot them 7-3, out-chanced them 6-1, and out-high-danger-chanced them 2-0. They absolutely crushed Dubois’ line in 3:31 of ice time against them. They did decently against the other Jackets. Again, they combined for nine shots on net tonight. Rooney was even tripped up by Savard late in the third period and the resulting power play was nearly converted. I cannot emphasize enough that this line played a great game.
Those who want to hype up Rooney as someone who can take a NHL job next season can point to this game as evidence. Rooney received shifts in overtime and that was not just out of necessity - he earned those shifts tonight. Those who want to know why Agostino was claimed on waivers by New Jersey got to see why is that. He also received time in 3-on-3 overtime. Those who want to know why Stafford is someone the coaches keep putting out there have this performance to look at.
Finish, Finish, Finish: The Devils went ahead in total attempts 59-49 and led in shots by a very large margin, 30-18. By the halfway mark of regulation, it was 9-6 in favor of New Jersey. The Devils really turned it up in the third period. But what about the chances? The Devils put up a lot of those as well. In scoring chances, the Devils were up 32-18. High-danger chances was 10-5. Alas, this is where the AHL-laden lineup really hindered the cause. As far as I know, most of them were not significant scorers at the AHL level so it lacks at the NHL level. With Bratt out of the game, that hurt the cause. Despite some spirited efforts - Nick Lappin deflecting a shot with his backhand in overtime nearly beat Bobrovsky in front - this was the one aspect of the game that really kept this from being a win.
Bobrovsky was tested and passed nearly all of them. But the one the Devils did score one was excellent. Blake Coleman had the puck in the corner and a Blue Jacket fell on defense. As his teammate dropped down in the zone to account for Coleman, Zajac went towards the right circle behind the Blue Jackets. Coleman curled out to the left circle, faked a shot, and fired a great pass to Zajac across the slot. Zajac finished the shot beautifully and Bobrovsky had no chance at it. He and the defense bit on Coleman’s fake. It was a great read by Coleman and great movement away from the puck by Zajac to get into space for the shot.
Again, the Devils played a very, very good game tonight. With a little more finish, it could have been a decisive win. Alas.
Few Calls: The refs wanted to keep things moving tonight. They called all of four penalties. Despite the beefs, melees, and several non-calls, that was it. Amazingly, Blake Pietila was not given a boarding call when he cross-checked Savard from behind after Rooney was tripped - all in front of a ref. I will give the refs this, they were not afraid to call something late in the game. The Savard call was within the final five minutes of regulation. Zajac was given a slashing penalty with 18.6 seconds left in overtime. That’s not common.
The Devils’ penalty kill was excellent. They allowed no shots on net and just one attempt on the penalty kill tonight. The power play had some issues in terms of allowing shorthanded opportunities and their first power play of the night was a waste of time. In a way, that is to be expected since the Devils are at the point of just throwing five guys out there and hoping they know enough of the system to run it. That third period power play did have a legitimately good second minute; McLeod rang a shot off the frame and Bobrovsky made a save. Yes, I’m praising a PP that yielded a post and one SOG, but it was more than what Columbus did tonight. And, again, consider the talent difference. That’s notable.
Don’t Get Mad: For those who would rather see the Devils flail all the way down until April 6 may be annoyed that the Devils picked up a point tonight. Please do not be mad. Even teams loaded with minor leagues and have nothing to play for have nights where a lot seems to click and they are able to play a real good game of hockey. Consider this: Ottawa took the Islanders to a shootout tonight. Ottawa. If they can get a result, then we have to accept that New Jersey will get a few. Carolina and Pittsburgh fans may wish it was a regulation win tonight, but whatever.
Besides, as of this writing, Anaheim is winning right now, Detroit is in a tie, and Los Angeles is only down a goal early against Montreal. By the very end of the night, the Devils may have not lost any ground on the race of the bottom.
If anyone should be mad, it should be John Tortorella. Yes, Panarin beating Schneider sealed a shootout win but it should not have gone that far given the talent disparity and the desperation factor. Columbus went for it by the NHL Trade Deadline and they are by no means guaranteed to make the playoffs right now. Playing badly to teams with nothing to play for like New Jersey is a bad sign. Needing a shootout - which does not give them a ROW - is not encouraging. After a not-so-hot second period, I expected the coach to read the riot act to his players and so Columbus would pick it up in the third. Instead, the Blue Jackets played their worst period of the night and were fortunate to go to overtime.
The Shootout: Blake Coleman’s shot was not that good, Drew Stafford lost the puck and Bobrovsky easily poked it away, and Schneider was beaten on both shots. The first by Atkinson was a nifty backhander after he came across and went just past Schneider’s right skate. The second by Panarin was a lame trickler through the five-hole. I wish Schneider would have stopped that one, but even then, there was no guarantee the Devils were going to score. At this point in the season, it’s whatever. I don’t think it should demean how well Schneider or Coleman or Stafford played tonight.
The Return of Noesen: Stefan Noesen returned to action for the first time in a while. He was not noticeable in the first period, but he was more effective when he was lining up with Zajac and Coleman. For someone who has not played in a while, he worked off some of the rust and he was not a liability out there. That’s something. Given he is a NHL player, I’m hopeful he can do a bit more to help out a Devils team that could use all of it at forward.
Now What?: The Devils will now be on the road for their next six games. Road games have been a problem for this team this season. It is possible - probable - that the AHL-forward led roster will really get wrecked by a superior team. It could very well happen on Friday in Washington. I hope the Devils are able to continue looking respectable in games and maybe even win one - like Saturday’s game - but we’ll see.
More than that, I hope the Devils get healthier. Bratt was knocked out and his status remains unknown as of now. He joins Hall, Hischier, Zacha, Palmieri, Wood, Quenneville, and Bastian who are all injured. It would be great if some of these players are able to play on this upcoming road trip. The last thing the Devils need is another NHL forward out for very long and a return of one or two of those guys - even Quenneville or Bastian - would be welcomed if Bratt is out for a while.
One Last Thought: Keep shooting, McLeod.
Your Take: The Devils lost to Columbus, but despite the situation and roster differences, it had to go to a shootout after 65 minutes where the Devils were the better team for a majority of it. I appreciate the effort. What about you? Were you impressed by how the Devils played? Who was the best Devil on the ice in your eyes? Who could have had a better game? What excuse does Columbus have for needing a shootout tonight to get a win in a playoff race? What can the Devils take from this game and apply it for their back-to-back series at the end of this week? Please leave your answers and/or your thoughts about this shootout loss.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview. Thanks to CJ for taking care of the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented about the game in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.