For the first 45 minutes of tonight’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings, the Devils provided very little reason to cheer them on. The Devils came out very poorly in the first period. Against the worst team in the NHL, the Devils registered all of four shots on net, one shot hitting the crossbar, and conceded a breakaway and a post as well. In the second period, the Devils squandered four power plays - including three in a row - while conceding a power play goal to Andreas Athanasiou. The fans at the Rock booed the team off the ice after the second period ended. It was well-earned as the Devils’ performance was best categorized as garbage. While they were only down 0-1, the Devils showed little sign of a comeback. It hit a nadir in the third period when Wayne Simmonds led a 2-on-1, never looked at the net to shoot it, forced a pass into a fallen Red Wing defender, and then crashed into Miles Wood in trying to receive the loose puck. Play stopped as a Red Wing crashed into goaltender Jonathan Bernier and sent the back three feet. How could the Devils play such a terrible game of hockey and how could they play it against the one team that they really should be beating on?
As it turned out, the Devils just needed a spark to break through the worst team in the NHL. At 5:10 into the third period, they got one. Andy Greene wound up, fired a shot into four bodies in front of Bernier, and the puck eluded the goaltender. As it turned out, defenseman Filip Hronek hindered Bernier, which explained why the goalie stumbled as the puck hit the back of the net. The game was tied. And what would be a scoring blitz commenced.
About 90 seconds later, the line of Pavel Zacha, Wood, and Simmonds struck to put the Devils up 2-1. Zacha sent a great cross-ice pass to Wood coming down the left side of the zone. Wood saw Simmonds open on Bernier’s left flank. Wood sent a great pass across for Simmonds to tap it in. It was a legitimately a great play involving two players who made a total mess of a 2-on-1 minutes earlier in the same period. The Devils were now leading and the fans at the Rock were far more jubilant, seeing that, yes, the Devils were beating the worst team in the NHL.
About a minute later, defenseman Alex Biega was whistled for a delay of game for “smothering the puck.” There was a long battle for the puck in the right corner (Bernier’s right) of the offensive zone. I imagine the refs ordered the puck to be moved and Biega was not having it. The sixth power play of the night for the Devils turned out to be the most successful one. The Devils were set up in the zone, Damon Severson passed the puck to Kyle Palmieri who was high up in the right (Bernier’s right) circle. Palmieri fired a shot from above the dot, Bernier stopped it, and Simmonds beat defenseman Patrik Nemeth to the rebound. Simmonds scored his second of the night, the Devils’ power play finally got a conversion, and the Devils were up 3-1.
On the next shift, Jesper Bratt wheeled up to the top of the offensive zone from the left (Bernier’s left) corner after P.K. Subban sent the puck to him. Just as public address announcer Kevin Clark announced Wayne Simmonds’ goal, Bratt fired a hard, rising wrist shot from the center point. The shot hit the top corner of the net. Bernier could not see the shot get past a screen by Travis Zajac and Trevor Daley. At exactly 9:10, the Devils were up 4-1.
The Devils scored four goals in four minutes of game time to not only get back in the game but take a commanding lead. The fans went from restless to ecstatic. The atmosphere went from tense or apathetic (depending on the section) to pleasant and relaxing. The Red Wings mounted some kind of attack but MacKenzie Blackwood was not allowing anything through. And the Devils kept Detroit honest enough, nearly scoring a fifth goal on a few tries.
Personally, I went from wondering where this supposed “fun, hard working” team under Alain Nasreddine was in the first two periods to leaving the arena smiling, quite pleased that the Devils took care of business. I should have recalled my own preview much earlier in the evening. I wrote in The Goal:
The Devils did beat Detroit earlier this season 5-1. It was not your traditional blowout where one team scores a lot early and just cruises to the win. The game was 0-0 after the first period and 1-1 after the second period. They won that game because they kept attacking, they limited their mistakes to avoid giving Detroit too many (or much of any) opportunities to beat Domingue. It worked out as the goals kept coming. First off a break, then off more intentional efforts. The Devils should keep this in mind no matter how the game turns out.
While the performance overall on November 23, 2019 was much better, history certainly rhymed. The Devils accomplished this goal in the third period to go on their way to win. Simmonds scored twice for the first time as a Devil; Greene and Bratt scored through screens; and even a moribund power play effort was successful for one situation. As much as I could go on about how poor the first two periods were, I have to respect the team when they actually took charge in the third period and put the game out of doubt in a short amount of time. It is worth noting that both teams demonstrated why they are both bottom-five teams in the NHL and had nothing to really play for in this season for months now. However, at least the Devils are better than Detroit. It may be a silver lining but it shines all the same.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Winging it in Motown, helmerroids recapped the game, describing it as “four minutes of hell.” I like that. It has a good ring to it.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Run of Play? Low Events, Undercut by Penalties: Between the two teams, there were ten power plays in this game. This meant that 5-on-5 was limited to under 46 minutes. This contributed to a low-event game as both teams registered 37 shooting attempts. After Florida torched them on Tuesday, I welcome the evenness. The first period showed Detroit winning in volume (11 shots to the Devils’ 2) and, I suppose, quality (4 high danger chances to 2). The second period showed both teams combining for six shots total, 4-2 in favor of New Jersey. The Devils really did turn it up in their favor in the third period in terms of attempts (19-13), shots (10-9), especially scoring chances (12-3, 4-1 high-danger). The flow of these figures were consistent with how the game played out.
The Run of Play, The Bad Devils: What was not consistent was the play of Zacha’s line. While they did provide the go-ahead goal, it was a peak in a night to forget for them. Detroit did not pin the Devils back a lot, but when they did, it was often against Zacha, Simmonds, and the lazy defensive effort of Miles Wood. There was a shift in the first period where Subban was being double teamed and it took Simmonds and Zacha seconds to realize that they should help him out. Their time against Darren Helm, Anthony Mantha, and Dylan Larkin was the worst on paper and by eyesight in the run of play. (Aside: Why would you risk it by putting Zacha, Wood, and Simmonds out there against one of Detroit’s better lines?) That match-up went wrong really quickly. However, they did play better in the third period. Yes, Wood and Simmonds collided in a blooper of a 2-on-1 attempt going awry but they made up for that with a great scoring play minutes later. They also were not pinned back as much in the third. In total, they were still out-attempted and out-shot, but they mitigated the gap in the third period as well as not beaten for scores. Obviously, Simmonds was the standout with two goals.
P.K. Subban was very much not consistent either. His performance on the power play was abysmal. Some were unfortunate breaks, like his stick breaking on a slap shot attempt that led to Gustav Lindstrom coming out of the box and having a one-on-one shot with Blackwood where he hit the left post with authority. Some were just bad decisions such as falling down with the puck while attempting to spin around a defender, missing on passes regardless of whether they were forward, lateral, or backwards. His shots rarely found the net, assuming they did not get blocked out high. Will Butcher must have watched him wondering, “Why did I lose my spot on the power play again?” In 5-on-5, Subban was out-attempted 14-20 and out-shot 4-10. For that, you could blame Andy Greene. He only played 4:42 with Andy Greene and that pairing was hammered in 5-on-5; they were out-attempted 5-12 and out-shot 1-7. Subban was switched to play with Butcher and that pairing was much more successful. With Butcher, he out-attempted the Red Wings 7-6 and were even in shots, 3-3. The pairing also picked up assists on Bratt’s goal too. Still, Subban was definitely fighting it out there as he was trying to make moves and shots happen when he really would have been better served just keeping his game simple and make safer plays. But he did perform much better in 5-on-5 when paired with Butcher, so that was a plus.
As for Greene, he was re-united with Damon Severson in the wake of being pulled apart from Subban. This did not go so well in 5-on-5 for the captain. He was out-attempted 4-7 and out-shot 2-5 when they were on the ice. The good news is that one of those two shots was Greene’s goal, which kickstarted the Devils run of goals for the win tonight. That salvaged what was another rough night for the veteran defenseman.
The Run of Play, the Good Devils: Jesper Bratt was a hustling machine out on the ice tonight. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils out-attempted the Red Wings 16-8 and out-shot them 7-4. He was quite swift in entering the zone, keeping plays going, and working hard in “dirty areas” on the ice. Bratt hit a crossbar in the first period and scored in the third period, the latter rewarded the good night he was having. The line of Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and Bratt was New Jersey’s best in 5-on-5 this evening. Hughes looked solid. He took a lot of hits but he kept on going. Palmieri made some poor decisions at shooting the puck, notably firing away while not realizing there was a Red Wing right in front of him more than once. But Bratt was the standout of the three. He was not named one of the Three Stars of Tonight’s game by Tonight’s Attending Media. Which is fine. I think he was a star tonight.
Will Butcher had himself a very fine game. I think he should have been on the power play units after the third one utterly failed. Still, he was great in the run of play. He helped settle Subban’s performance down when they were paired. When he was with Mirco Mueller or Connor Carrick, the Devils still out-attempted the Red Wings. Butcher did not get torched on plays or lose pucks easily or become anonymous on offense. He played an effective game even with other defenders for a few shifts. Overall, when Butcher was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted the Red Wings 18-11 and out-shot them 8-7 in 5-on-5 play. Butcher’s performance was rewarded a little bit on the scoresheet as he was credited with the secondary assist on Bratt’s goal. This was the kind of night I would like to see more from Butcher.
Speaking of, Mueller had a surprisingly effective game too. This is a surprise to me because Mueller has been arguably New Jersey’s least effective defenseman this season. But he avoided big errors. He took no penalties. When he was on the ice, the Devils doubled-up the Red Wings in attempts, 12-6, and shots, 6-3. Those numbers are more likely to be reversed for Mueller in this season. It is worth noting when they are good.
Streak Over, But Still Good: Blackwood’s shutout streak was ended when Athanasiou walked in and roofed a shot from the left (Blackwood’s left) circle. Ending at 170 minutes and change, it was a very good run. It was also the only blotch on Blackwood’s record tonight. That was the only goal that beat him. While Detroit did hit the iron twice against him - Tyler Bertuzzi in the first period, Lindstrom in the second - Blackwood stopped everything else. This included a breakaway from Bertuzzi in the first period (this led to a high sticking penalty by Greene) as well as some nice lateral stops in the third period. Detroit did not shell the Devils in what was a low-shooting game. But Blackwood was quite good after being inactive since Saturday against Los Angeles. I would have preferred that Blackwood started against Florida and this game could have been Louis Domingue’s chance to get his groove back (or get into any groove). But what is done is done. Blackwood had the call today and took care of business in all three periods, even when the Devils were not doing that in the first two.
As a quick aside: Poor Bernier. I do not think he saw the first or fourth goal against. The second one was literally on his left flank; by the time he figured it out, it was too late. And the third one was a short rebound that Nemeth
Streaks Ongoing: Severson picked up two secondary assists tonight, which extends his point streak to eight games. Severson’s secondary assists were legitimate passes. They were not touches granted just to flatter his point totals. While I did not think he had the greatest of nights, Palmieri did get the primary assist on Simmonds’ PPG which means he has four points in his last three games. (I usually count three games as a minimum for a streak) This also means Palmieri has nine points in the eight games since the All-Star Game. You like to see your top right winger continue to produce.
Alas: Tonight was an off one for Blake Coleman. He missed Travis Zajac on some seemingly easy passes on offense that could have led to goals or at least Bernier to break a sweat. He took a checking to the head penalty against Alex Biega, which led to the PPGA. He struggled to hit the net as four of his seven attempts were officially recorded as missed. Coleman was not bad at all. He just was not finishing or making the plays he has been recently. Off nights happen so I am not so concerned. Not on a night where others certainly picked it up in terms of scoring.
Siiiiiiiigh: The Devils’ power play was an exercise in frustration and lost hope this evening. The Red Wings took three delay of game penalties and even took three penalties back-to-back-to-back int he second period. The Devils did not punish any of these until Simmonds put home a rebound in the third period. While the team did average over a shot per situation - 9 shots, six situations - the Devils struggled to create open shooting opportunities. There were attempts made with Red Wings literally in the way; it was as if the Devils were too focused on the net instead of any one within ten feet in front of them. The dreaded back pass returned on breakouts. It was appropriate when a Red Wing forechecker went deep into the zone and went after the puck carrier. It was not on the other times where they did not. Subban had a really poor time at the point this evening. Severson was a bit better but tonight was night where Butcher should have been given a chance. And Hughes and Gusev both forced passes through the middle that were not there. It was a mess. They did salvage it with a PPG in the third period but until that point, it was a dumpster fire of a special team.
By the way, that PPG should clue the coaching staff that Simmonds really should be by the net on the power play as a primary position for him in the 1-3-1 formation. It is how he has made his money in his career. Taking him away from there made little sense in past games. Let the man feast in front.
Normally, this would be where I would type that the penalty kill was much better. And it was. The Devils were not able to score shorthanded but they forced Detroit to spend quite a lot of time outside of the Devils’ zone on their first three penalty kills. Unfortunately, Athanasiou scored on Detroit’s second power play shot of the game. It came from a penalty Coleman did not have to take, either. Still, the Devils’ penalty kill was more functional at their job overall than the power play even if they evened out in scoring.
One Last Thought: The Devils will need to play a lot better and a lot earlier than they started to against Carolina tomorrow. Or any of their other opponents this season.
Your Take: The Devils won 4-1 over Detroit with a four-minute surge to make up for forty-five minutes of bad hockey by New Jersey. Now that you know my take on tonight’s game, I want to know yours. What are your feelings about tonight’s win? What about the performance? What specifically should the Devils aim to do differently in Carolina tomorrow based on what you saw tonight? Who do you think was the best Devil tonight? Who on New Jersey has the most to prove tomorrow night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments.
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.