On Friday night, the New Jersey Devils trounced Our Hated Rivals. Tonight, the Devils were the ones being trounced in the run of play by the New York Islanders. It was not subtle. The Isles constantly pinned the Devils in their own end of the rink in all three periods. The Isles more than doubled the shots the Devils took in each period with a final total of 45 to 21. Yet, the Devils made the most of their relatively few offensive opportunities. They managed to hold on to a 4-3 lead late in the third period to win their final preseason home game of 2019.
I cannot stress “survive” enough in the headline. The Islanders more or less dominated the game. It is true that the Isles had somewhat of lineup advantage. They iced Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Nick Leddy. Their roster featured Noah Dobson. They started Thomas Greiss. However, it is one thing to see a matchup get dominated by the likes of Barzal and Eberle. It is another when the likes of Tanner Fritz and Ross Johnston are bossing the Devils around. The fringes and the Bridgeport-likely parts of the Islanders tonight also ran through the Devils’ lineup. Every Devil was out-shot when they were on the ice in 5-on-5 play. Every Devil put up an expected goals percentage below 50% tonight. All but three Devils finished above 50% Corsi For percentage. The numbers and the eye test made it easy to identify who performed better tonight.
So how did the Devils win in spite of that? It was largely thanks to Cory Schneider. For the second straight preseason start, he played a largely excellent game which was critical to the team’s success. Schneider had a ton of work tonight: 45 shots on net, 60 shot attempts, and 25 scoring chances. Schneider swallowed pucks in scrums and in traffic. He tried his best to keep rebounds from going astray. He was very quick in the net, which was instrumental in making a number of combination saves. He was the team’s best penalty killer in that he faced quite a few challenges from the Isles and denied them all. Schneider gave up only three goals out of all of that. He had no chance on the first two. Leo Komarov re-directing a Dobson shot was first and a wide-open Barzal putting home a shot on Schneider’s left flank. The third one was arguably a bad goal to allow - a straight up open shot by Otto Koivula that beat him shortside. Even with that, Schneider rose to the many occasions to keep the puck out of the net all the way until the end of regulation. Starting with a point-blank left pad stop on a one-timer attempt. After a 2018 calendar year where this kind of night from Schneider was seemingly impossible, it was great to see him make it happen tonight.
It was also largely thanks to the power play. The Devils and Islanders each had four power plays tonight. The Isles brought the shots with seven, all stopped by Schneider. The Devils had only four shots but they scored twice. Both were by Jesper Boqvist. The opening goal of the game came from Boqvist putting home a loose puck created by a great move by Nico Hischier at the crease. The eventual game winner was a tip-in of a Will Butcher shot, shortly after the final power play of the game started. I find that in general that if 5-on-5 play is not going well, then special teams can provide a pathway to a win. That was the case tonight for the Devils.
It was also largely thanks to the line of Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Nikita Gusev. These were the only Devils to finish above 50% CF% tonight. They had their share of shifts spent in their own end of the rink. However, out of all four lines, they appeared to dump the puck in the least; they were the only line to not concede a goal; and they created the two Devils goals at even strength. One came from Hischier attempting a pass to Gusev in a 2-on-1, re-attempting the same pass, and Gusev putting home a sweet backhanded one-timer. The other came from Will Butcher firing a shot in traffic, which came after a feed from Hischier that got re-directed up to the defenseman. Hischier had three assists and was good at the dot. Gusev had a goal and assist to go with three shots. Bratt had two assists and was grabbed by goaltender Jared Coreau (he replaced Greiss in the third period), which led to the power play that Boqvist scored that eventually won the game. Gusev-Hischier-Bratt was New Jersey’s best line tonight, their best three skaters tonight, and a big reason why they won.
In a way, this game could be seen as a wake up call to the Devils. It may be preseason but that is no reason to getting lit up at home and relying on Schneider to be great and four goals out of 21 shots to get a winning result. It is true that the Devils were mixing and matching Binghamton and New Jersey players for the fourth straight night. But there is a lot to correct with respect to zone exits, handling the puck on defense, covering players off the puck, and maintaining possession on offense. Sure, the Islanders may have had a better roster on-paper but they also had a superior game plan on defense. Their forwards supported their defensive efforts very well and it was a big reason why they had so many shots. They were not only able to turn defensive stops in their own zone into exits, but also battle for pucks and deny exit attempts by the Devils - which kept the game in New Jersey’s end of the rink. The Devils failed to adjust for the Islanders’ approach. There are positives to take away from this game; but there is plenty of room for improvement. Even though the next two games should feature a full NHL roster (or close to it), there appears to be more to work on.
Still, the Devils did prevail and that should be celebrated to a degree. The positives that I noted are encouraging ones for the 2019-20 season. Knowing that Hischier, Bratt, and Gusev could work well together opens up more lineup options for the Devils. Knowing that there could be a legitimate five-man second unit of Butcher, Gusev, Bratt, Hischier, and Boqvist is a plus for a team looking for power play help. Knowing that Schneider can be superb is obviously encouraging. Provided no one left the Devils with injury, this win is still a win.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Lighthouse Hockey for all things Islanders.
Two Battling, One Succeeded: Jesper Boqvist and Ty Smith are in training camp and preseason this year with a sticky situation. Boqvist has a European out-clause; if he is not playing in New Jersey, then he will return to Sweden. Smith is not old enough to play in the AHL yet, so his options are either being in New Jersey or going back to juniors. Both Boqvist and Smith have done enough in the SHL and WHL, respectively, such that going back may not be worth it. Among everyone in camp, they have had the most to gain by playing well in preseason games.
Boqvist certainly helped his cause. He had two goals tonight. One was a tip-in and one was putting home a rebound. It is still two goals. Both were scored in high-traffic areas, which was something of a concern since Boqvist was labeled as a perimeter player when he was drafted. Boqvist led the Devils with four shots tonight. While he was mostly on a line with Mikhail Maltsev and Nathan Bastian, he did feature on the Devils’ top power play unit and found success. If nothing else, he is trending up.
Smith definitely did not help his own cause. When he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 6-13 in 5-on-5 play, the worst among all Devils defensemen tonight. When he was on the ice, the Devils were out-shot 3-9 in 5-on-5 play, which was the second worst - his partner Connor Carrick had worse numbers (2-11). When he was on the ice, the Devils had an expected goals for percentage less than 15%. He Devils did not win a single match-up in 5-on-5 play. The numbers strongly suggest he was really bad tonight. By observation, he was really bad tonight. He was lost in his own end at times. He struggled to connect passes or make successful zone exits. His most notable moment was when chased around Eberle after he gained the zone, which took him high in the zone instead of letting him go and returning to his spot. In his spot came Barzal for the Islanders’ second goal. He contributed nothing on offense; he even struggled on a couple of keep-ins at the line. If nothing else, he is trending down.
There are arguments to be made for keeping one or the other, both, or neither. I am not privy to what is going on in practice or internal scrimmages that are also used to evaluate players. Here is what I do know: Tonight was a relatively good game for Boqvist and a clearly bad one for Smith. It is true that this is just one night. However, the games are opportunities to show the coaches that a player should take a roster spot. Boqvist has tried to make the most of his. Smith has not. If it were up to me, Boqvist is in and Smith is not. Tonight helped clarify it for me. We shall see what Devils management does in the near future.
I Covered Who I Thought Did Well, So Let’s Focus on Who Did Not Do Well: For the good side, I highlighted Schneider, Hischier, Bratt, Gusev, and Boqvist. For the bad side, I gave my thoughts on Smith. Here are more for the bad side:
The line of Miles Wood, Kevin Rooney, and John Hayden was absolutely terrible. They were a nightmare to watch. These three were not always on the same page. The skillsets certainly did not add up to make a better whole. They also did not include any defensive acumen. The Islanders absolutely creamed this trio in 5-on-5 play. All three were out-shot by at least seven shots in 5-on-5 play; only Hayden and Wood registered a shot on net and it was only one each; all three finished below 30% in CF%; and not one of them came ever close to scoring.
The most shocking of the three was Wood. He is a NHL veteran compared to the other two and most of the roster. He looked like he was going to board a bus to New York after the game. Wood would chase pucks and in the few times he would win them or get ahead of a defender, he could not turn it into an actual offensive possession. Wood had one shot on net and it was by the sideboards because Wood has yet to find a shooting spot he does not like. And on defense, forget it. Wood was terrible.
Kevin Rooney and John Hayden were rather ineffective at contributing anything positive to the Devils. Hayden lost so many pucks to the Isles that he was a big reason why that unit was pinned back in their own end. Rooney may have well been invisible tonight. The duo was used a lot on the penalty kill. It was apparent that Hayden does not know how to be a forward in a wedge-plus-one PK system. He just stood his ground like he was in a small box formation. And so that duo got to stay on the PK for a while because the Isles would just easily move pucks around them. It was stunning to see them on the ice defending the 4-3 lead in an extra skater situation. Sure, they can sell their bodies out for blocks but it did not keep the Isles from throwing the kitchen sink at Schneider. I know it is after a preseason game but if they end up on the waiver wire at some point, then I would not be bothered by it.
I do not want to see this line in a NHL game. I do not want to see Rooney-Hayden as a top or even a secondary penalty killing unit of forwards. Most of all, I do not want to see this trio face a top line ever again. You can blame the coaches for not only putting this line together but having them face the line of Lee, Eberle, and Barzal. Yes, Wood-Rooney-Hayden faced those three more often than anyone else tonight. At home. Where the Devils had the last change. It did not take long to figure out these three were going to be horrible tonight. Why they did not break up the line or change the matchup, I do not know. It did not go well at all and it would have been damaging if it was not for Schneider.
While that line was especially bad, the other forwards did not have a good or notable night either. I will give a pass to Fabian Zetterlund. He made his return from injury tonight. He was used on a fourth line and played just under 11:30. Expectations were low for him and he is Binghamton-bound anyway. Speaking of low expectations, Brandon Baddock was involved in this game, he took a penalty, and that was pretty much it for his involvement. Brett Seney fell down twice, fired one shot on net in the second period, and fired one shot way over the net in the third. That was his night. Nathan Bastian disappeared for most of the game. Ditto for Mikhail Maltsev. The only B-Devil to be mostly not noticeable and have that be not such a bad thing was Colton White. White was inoffensive on defense. So there is that.
Speaking of, the defense as a whole was utterly bad. Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen have had better nights. Connor Carrick definitely had struggles in his own end of the rink. Will Butcher at least provided some offense. As a unit, Schneider bailed them out over and over. Of course, this game was a great example of why defense is a team function and not only by the defensemen. The struggles to turn won pucks into zone exits were exacerbated by forwards not being in the right position, not able to handle the puck and/or Islander pressure, or just losing the puck to the opposition. Even Smith was victimized by the fourth line just looking like pylons out there. I do not think stating that the defense was bad tonight should be a controversial statement. They did concede 45 shots after all. The pain was shared throughout the blueline. Yes, even for Colton White.
And when the defense is bad, that hinders the offense greatly. I did not enjoy thinking of a thought I often had in 2018-19 and 2016-17: Can the Devils get to 20 shots on net? The good news is that, yes, they did and the 20th shot on net was a goal. I do not think the Devils should expect to be so fortunate in the future.
Which brings me to my final issue: the coaching. Again, why would anyone keep Wood-Rooney-Hayden together; especially since the other lines not led by Hischier were also bad? Why would anyone choose to have Rooney’s line go up against the Islanders’ best? Why would the coaches be fine with the team just dumping-and-chasing on a good amount of their zone entry attempts? Why would they see Schneider moving in all directions in an ultimately successful attempt at keeping the lead and not make adjustments? I can understand the idea of letting the lines figure it out in preseason and see how they respond to struggles. But this is preseason for the coaches too - they need to recognize when someone or some unit is having a bad shift or a bad night. Or if a struggle is constant enough that you see what the other team is doing. Even some changes in the lines could have dulled some of the damage the Islanders inflicted on the ice tonight.
One Final Thought: Seriously, Ross Johnston and Tanner Fritz were giving the Devils problems in the run of play. Let’s hope a full NHL roster will sort that out and the performances will be better in Boston and Columbus in this coming week.
Your Take: While I’m glad they won and a few Devils excelled, I was not pleased with the Devils’ performance. But I want to know what you thought of the game. Who on the Devils did you think played really well? Who on the Devils did you think did not do so well? What parts of the Devils’ performance do you think they should work on as they wrap up preseason in this coming week? Does Boqvist make the New Jersey roster? Does Smith? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game tonight. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.