Tonight’s game only had any real meaning for Carolina Hurricanes. They needed some help, but a win tonight would secure their first ever playoff berth in a decade. After nine season filled with personnel changes, management changes, and even a new owner, the Canes continued to miss the postseason. Mostly because they had the right processes but terrible goaltending, finish, or (usually) a combination of both. This season was different. The goaltenders performed at or above league average. Carolina were not among the worst shooting teams in the league. The Canes took to the rink closer than ever before to make the postseason. PNC Arena was sold out and very loud to support their team’s cause. For the New Jersey Devils, it was just another road game in a season that has been effectively over for months.
The Hurricanes succeeded on their end. The Devils lost 1-3 tonight. They would get the help they needed as Washington defeated Montreal in regulation. Carolina clinched a playoff spot tonight. The Devils were not spoilers.
They were also not doormats. By no means did Carolina really control or dominate this game. The first period was fairly even by most measures. Check it out at Natural Stat Trick. The Devils led in shots 12-10. Carolina led in shooting attempts 19-18. Both teams coughed up the puck plenty of times and both teams received some early big stops from goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Cory Schneider. Carolina really only had an edge in scoring chances in that period, 9-3. The Canes went up a goal early in the second period on a power play strike from Justin Faulk and the Devils were mostly dormant for the first eight to nine minutes of the period. Then the Devils just clawed their way back and before one realized it, they were having more positive shifts in the second half of the period to render that one mostly even in attempts, shots, and even chances. The third period had most of the action provided by the Devils with Carolina having bursts here and there. Carolina would get the insurance goal but the Devils continued to press and even pulled Schneider for an extra skater with over two minutes left in the hopes of getting into the game. While this game was meaningless for New Jersey, they still hung with a superior Canes team. Tellingly, they did not give up the empty netter as they forced Mrazek to sweat with 16 third-period shots. On another night, the Devils probably finish a couple more of those 36 total shots tonight (Carolina was limited to 25) and the result is different.
The Devils have been one of the worst road teams in the NHL this season. They have played forty road games so far. They have been littered with blowout losses, shutout losses, a lot of terrible performances, and plenty of nights where the Devils would give up a goal or two and they would fold like a cheap suit. This wasn’t one of those nights. Even with the final score being 1-3, this was one of their better road performances of the season. Carolina is one of the most structured teams in 5-on-5 play and have one of stingiest defenses in the NHL. The New Jersey Devils, of all teams, more than played to the score, they drew calls, they made the Canes play on their heels, and pelted Mrazek with loads of rubber. That will not mean much in a few days but it is something for the here and now.
The Devils put in a respectable, competitive effort tonight. Yet, they could not spoil the Canes. Carolina and their fans have every reason to be jubilant. Congratulations to them for earning the right to play beyond April 6 this year. As for New Jersey, there is just one more road game and then this lost season will finally end.
The Opposition Opinion: Brian LeBlanc at Canes Country added only one word in the headline to his recap beyond the score: “Finally.” I understand that feeling. They’re happy and they should be. Don’t be a hater over there.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Sherman Abrams Section: Oh, come on, this early in the recap?
I see you’re in a good mood.
YES YES YES YES.
OK, I get it so get on with it.
You know how you wrote how the Hurricanes received help tonight? Well, so did the Devils! For those of you not asking me, I’ll explain. Since the Devils did not go and do a stupid thing like get any points tonight, they can only earn up to 72 points in the standings. In recent weeks, Buffalo has cratered and they entered tonight just two points ahead of New Jersey with 27 ROW. The Devils could have still caught them and would likely own their tiebreakers. Well, Buffalo hosted Ottawa tonight and decided to put last place to the sword! They won 5-2! The Devils are now four points behind them with one game left to play! The Devils cannot move up in the standings! They have secured 29th at best!
There is always a what’s next so what’s next?
Of course, the work is not yet done. The Devils could still fall to 30th and improve those odds for a top three pick by a glorious 5% or so. Los Angeles has two games left to play and they have same number of ROW as the Devils. If Los Angeles wins those two games, then the Devils will finish in 30th no matter what they do on Saturday. If the Devils lose on Saturday, then Los Angeles just has to win one game. And Florida dragged the Islanders to a shootout tonight. Sunrise may have a lot of empty seats but the Cats can defend it. I’m feeling the Devils losing on Saturday. I know Los Angeles is really bad. But you gotta believe! And I believe in LA winning one of their last two. Followers, cheer on Kovalchuk and the Kings!
Good luck with that. Thanks for that, Sherman.
Costly Decisions: The Devils conceded three goals tonight and all three involved bad decisions by the Devils.
For the first goal against, Devils are changing and Dougie Hamilton hit Warren Foegele with a great pass through the neutral zone. Foegele was open because he got ahead of Will Butcher. Steve Santini was not going to catch him and he did not. Schneider probably should have stopped the shot as it went five-hole but it was a breakaway situation too. The decision to change hurt as it meant that no one was in a position to provide any support as Foegele turned away from Butcher. It also meant that Hamilton had a totally clear passing lane from the near-side of Carolina’s zone to the middle of the neutral zone.
For the second goal against, the Devils were killing a high-sticking minor on Kenny Agostino near the end of the first period. With about three seconds left, Andy Greene tripped up Justin Williams along the sideboards. The Devils never touched-up so the penalty was assessed at the end of the period. The Devils had to start the second with a 20-second 3-on-5 situation. The Devils pretty much survived it. They could not get to the puck to force a clear. Carolina kept the attack going and as Sebastian Aho sent the puck to the right point to Justin Faulk, the Devils penalty killers converged almost in a straight line. This added to the traffic for Faulk’s shot. The hope was that the shot would be blocked or deflected away. The reality is that it got through and Schneider could not see it. The bad decision? Greene tripping up Williams at all really hurt followed by the Devils failing to win a loose puck to force a clearance in the ensuing kill. Lining up together only made the shot more difficult for Schneider and so it went.
The third goal started with a Devils’ offensive shift. Agostino ended up at the center point in rotation. He sent a pass to Greene, who could not handle it. The three other Devils were deeper in the zone - Damon Severson went in after the pass assuming Greene would collect it. Three Canes were above the dots. So when the puck got away from Greene, Williams passed it forward to Brett Pesce to make the 3-on-2 a 2-on-1, who then passed it forward to Nino Neiderreiter to make the 2-on-1 into a breakaway for Neiderreiter. The skilled winger got behind Agostino and then pulled off a great high shot to beat Schneider. So Greene botched it when receiving the pass, Severson went forward assuming he did, and the two Canes without the puck put themselves into positions to get past Agostino in going forward.
The Devils did not get rolled over much in most of the game. But it was apparent that the errors on these plays would end up costing them.
Those Goalies: I thought Schneider was OK. Again, I thought he could have stopped the first one; but he was not the issue tonight or on these plays.
But the star of the night was Mrazek. Fitting that Carolina would need a strong goaltending performance to get into the playoffs after some amazingly awful goalie play kneecapped previous campaigns. Blake Coleman and Nico Hischier each had three high-danger chances on him and Mrazek prevailed. Coleman had five shots on net and Hischier had three and Mrazek came up with eight saves. Nathan Bastian put up four shots on net and that was just four more stops. It could be argued that the Devils could have generated more chances but the Canes had to scramble to deny rebound tries and loose pucks and even so the Devils just pounded the net.
The only one that beat Mrazek was a shot he did not see. Pavel Zacha made a good zone entry but the puck was blocked away by Lucas Wallmark. Michael McLeod picked up on it and sent a solid pass to Andy Greene, who was coming into the zone. Greene handled that pass, saw Drew Stafford and Trevor van Reimsdyk in front of the goalie, and took a shot. It worked out for his first goal in weeks. The Devils would try to get screens going but, obviously, they did not work out. Nevertheless, Mrazek had to play like a star tonight for the Canes to get this results.
Special Team Issues: The Devils also did not help themselves on special teams tonight. Again, Greene added to a penalty killing situation with a penalty of his own. While the Devils survived the 3-on-5, the minor on Greene ended with a Faulk goal. That hurt. The silver lining is that the Devils did not take any other penalties after that one assessed to Greene. Still, the damage was done.
After the Canes made it 1-2, the Devils would draw two minors in the second period: Jordan Staal hooked McLeod and Andrei Svechnikov “tripped” Stafford. The latter was more of a knee on knee collision but whatever. The Devils struggled to mount a consistent attack on those two power plays. They would generate just three shots and concede a shorthanded breakaway that Aho totally missed on. In the third period, Svechnikov cleared a puck over the glass and the Devils generated one shot on Mrazek and nothing more. While the power play was not a net negative, it was not a positive.
The Gamut of Greene: You may have noticed but Greene’s night peaked with a goal, hit a valley with his minor penalty and hit another one with his fumbling of a pass that led to an insurance goal for Carolina. When he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted the Canes 21-17 and out-shot them 13-10 in 5-on-5 play. Those are good numbers for a player who has been in the low 40s in CF% this season, especially on the road against one of the premier possession teams in the league. Greene did good things, bad things, subtly good things, and subtly bad things. Maybe the best description for his night was complete for better or worse? I don’t know, but it was something.
Players Who Played Pretty Well Despite This Game Not Meaning Much: Nico Hischier was a stand out in how he kept finding ways to gain the zone with the puck, he kept working to generate scoring chances and keep plays going (he is a reason why Coleman had five shots tonight), and he kept his feet moving. Without a top line worthy winger, Hischier continues to find ways to make the game go in his team’s favor. Tonight was an example of how his blend of work ethic and creativity can make him one of the better players on the ice. If only he scored.
Tonight was probably McLeod’s best game yet as a Devil. He set up Greene’s goal, he drew a penalty, and when he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted the Canes 8-5 and out-shot them 6-4. Those on-ice differentials are not massive but they were effective, especially against his line’s common match up in 5-on-5 play: Svechnikov, Wallmark, and Martinook. I’m sure some will snark but I thought McLeod played a legitimately good game.
I also thought Steve Santini played a good game. Him chasing Foegele looked bad but it was not his fault on that play. He flexed some offensive muscle with three shots on net and the run of play did not sink the Devils’ offense like it has tended to when he is on the ice this season. He saw plenty of Williams, Aho, Neiderreiter, Wallmark, Svechnikov, and Martinook and the Devils did well in those matchups. It was not a stand-up-and-shout-praise-from-the-rooftops performance, but it was better than what I’m used to seeing from #16.
One Last Thought: While not all of tonight’s games are completed yet, the Devils now have the inside track to finish 2018-19 with the worst road record in hockey. Their current 10-27-3 record with 8 ROW has yielded a points percentage of 28.8%. There are a lot of issues the Devils will need to address for next season. Road performances need to take a priority.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-3 to Carolina, who is going onto the playoffs. What’s your take on tonight’s game? Who do you think did well tonight? Who did you think played poorly tonight? What even happens for Saturday? Does it really matter? Probably not. But please tell me your answers and other thoughts on tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview this morning. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading this game recap and all of the other ones throughout this past season. This is my last one for the 2018-19 regular season. Do not worry, you’re all in good hands for Saturday’s game and, as ever, hockey never stops at All About the Jersey.