Last night, the New Jersey Devils played poorly against the worst team in hockey for the better part of two periods but surged to a win on the back of four goals scored in four minutes. Tonight, the Devils visited an opponent who is talented, well-coached, and has realistic (and expected) playoff aspirations in the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils played pretty poorly for most of the entire game and lost decisively by a 2-5 final score.
I really do not like being negative about the Devils. They are my favorite team. I spend more time than I care to admit thinking, talking, watching, and writing about them. I want to be positive. Nights like this give me little to be positive about. Sure, there were moments I liked. The first two minutes of the game. Mirco Mueller finishing off a sweet tic-tac-toe play by Nikita Gusev and Travis Zajac to make it 1-1. A bunch of the shifts by the fourth line. The penalty kill. Louis Domingue making a few big saves in the second period. Joey Anderson scoring off a feed from Nick Merkley But those moments shrink in the face of the reality of the game. Carolina controlled most of the game. When they went up 1-2, they never looked back and added to their lead. And the Devils showed off many of the ills that have plagued them in 2019-20 from puck watching on defense, allowing acres of space to Carolina’s best players, and not finishing good offensive opportunities when they occur from power plays to scrambles in front of the net.
While the expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick bizarrely suggests the Devils were the better team (Aside: The expected goals models just continue to get whacked by reality. Shame for anyone who built a questionable model based on that for analysis.), the story of the game can be seen in the game flow graph at NST. The Canes ramped it up in the final five minutes or so of the first period. The Canes stormed the net and Domingue had to rob Andrei Svechnikov early because the Devils were caught napping when the second period started. Carolina kept that up, boosted their lead, and went from strength to strength. They continued in the third period, got a break from Damon Severson, put on a lethargic effort on a power play after which Joel Edmundson got the puck coming out of the box from Nino Niederreiter and he put in his own rebound to make it 1-5. Sure, Anderson’s goal was nice but the game was out of doubt as the Devils seemingly gave up in some indeterminate time earlier in the game. Even with a great effort on a late power play - including a 5-on-3 - they could not convert to at least make the score look more flattering.
In a way, I am not bothered by that because a 2-5 loss reflects how the game went. The Devils were out-performed in the run of play in 5-on-5 in every period. After getting away with one great run in the third period against Detroit, Carolina showed them that was not going to work against them. It did not. New Jersey’s bloom near the end of regulation was far too late to make it even remotely close on the scoreboard. The damage was already done. Domingue was lit up. The defense was picked apart when it mattered and added another “dang-it” to a long collection that only Devils’ opponents, haters, and Steve Dangle would appreciate. What is the larger meaning of this game? There is still a massive gap between where the Devils are and the level the Carolina Hurricanes are at. Even if they end up missing the postseason, tonight’s game showcased that they are way closer to success than wherever the Devils are at the moment. So it goes.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Canes Country, Brett Finger highlighted Niederreiter and Mrazek in his recap of the Hurricanes’ win.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Nick Merkley Debut: Merkley was one of the players that became a Devil in the Taylor Hall trade back in December. He has been tearing it up on the scoresheet in Binghamton. He was called up yesterday and made his New Jersey debut this evening in place of John Hayden. It was one of the few bright spots in this dismal game. It did not take long to notice that he is quite swift on his skates. He is also someone who can throw his body around. More importantly than that, he was pretty good on the puck in general. He finished the night with five shooting attempts, three shots on net, and a great cross-ice pass after eluding Edmunson for the primary assist on Anderson’s first goal of the season. It remains to be seen if this is the level of play Merkley can bring to the NHL night in and night out. However, I will gladly take it over John Hayden.
The Fourth Line Was...Good?: Yes. Anderson, Merkley, and Kevin Rooney were good tonight. Yes, they were present for Nino Niederreiter’s seeing eye shot that opened up the scoring this evening. But they actually pushed the play forward in 5-on-5. When they were on the ice, the Devils were often on offense with 9 shots on net, 11 shooting attempts, and much more than what Carolina put up (3 shots and 5 attempts against Anderson and Rooney; 5 shots and 8 attempts against Merkley). It helped that the Canes coughed up the puck a few times. Times I wished Rooney was a better shooter, but better that than none at all. The Devils took 25 shots at even strength tonight and eight of them came from these three skaters. It is rare to see that from the line that played about eleven minutes and change, but it represented how effective they were in general. So did the tripping call Rooney drew late in the third period and, obviously, Anderson’s goal from Merkley. I would not mind at all keeping these three together for another game. I think they earned it.
Three Defensive Miscues that Stood Out to Me: When playing in their own end in this season, it is common to see a Devil commit a costly error. I want to highlight three that I noticed this evening. Feel free to add more in the comments.
The first one that comes to mind is a subtle one but it made a huge impact on what happened. In the second period, Carolina’s top line of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Svechnikov were rushing up ice. There were three Devils back, with defenseman Colton White taking Svechnikov. White was called up from Binghamton a little while back and was in tonight in place of Connor Carrick. During the MSG+ broadcast, it was mentioned that the B-Devils play the same system as New Jersey. This may explain why White hesitated for a moment and watched the puck be passed by Aho. It was enough time for Svechnikov to turn and cut to the top of the crease. By the time White turned, Svechnikov was already going to beat him to the spot and be in perfect position for a pass. Which Teravainen gave him for a tap-in on Domingue’s right flank. In soccer, forwards and attacking players often swoop in when a defender is caught not paying attention to them for a moment. This happens in hockey and White was guilty of it. This made it 1-3 and really started to put the game out of reach for the Devils.
The second one was more of a headscratcher. In the first period, the Devils had a defensive zone faceoff. Damon Severson was close to to where Warren Foegele lined up. Jack Hughes loses the faceoff to Jordan Staal and the puck goes back to Brett Pesce. Severson keeps Foegele in front of him while Will Butcher - who originally lined up with Justin Williams - came over. Instead of accounting for Williams or picking someone else open, Butcher was watching the puck and skated to his right. Butcher stumbled into Foegele and Severson. This gave Foegele enough of a gap between him and the two Devils. Pesce took a shot, Butcher took a fall, Severson was off-balance, and Foegele intercepts Pesce’s shot. The forward settled the puck and fired it to the right post through the two defenders and past Domingue. Why did Butcher skate over and into Severson? Why did Domingue go to his left? Who knows. This made it 1-2 in the first period.
The third was a facepalm. Erik Haula fired a shot from the center point. Martin Necas deflected it on net. Domingue stopped the shot and left a rebound to his right. Damon Severson correctly decided to try to clear that loose puck. Damon Severson incorrectly stretched at the puck and ended up poking it into the net to make it 1-4. It was Severson’s second own goal of the season. I have no further words on how disappointed when I saw the replay on the broadcast showing #28 knocking the puck into his own net. You hate to see it. I did.
The Hardly Noticed: I hardly noticed the line of Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Wayne Simmonds on offense. I noticed they played a lot in their own end. I noticed that Zacha drew the tripping call that led to the 1:13 long 5-on-3 late in the third and that Wood drew two penalties. I noticed that Wood had his one-on-one attempt easily poked away by Petr Mrazek’s stick. But in the run of play, especially in 5-on-5, this line was getting beaten on. How much? The Devils were out-shot 2-9 when Simmonds or Wood were on the ice and 2-11 when Zacha was on the ice. Ouch.
I also hardly noticed much of anything from Andy Greene and P.K. Subban. This defensive pairing was re-united after being split apart last night. Like against Detroit, they got wrecked in the run of play. But there was no notable change. Outside of penalty kill, Greene was a non-factor other than chasing the play. Ditto for Subban.
Dominated: I do not know if they put them together regularly but Carolina really should consider stacking Aho, Teravainen (who picked up his 43rd assist tonight), and Svechnikov together more often. The Devils had no answer for this line. They not only created that second period goal, but when they were on the ice in 5-on-5 play, they out-attempted the Devils 17-5. That is not a typo.
About the Goalies: Both Louis Domingue and Petr Mrazek did not come into this game with a lot of success in recent games. Mrazek performed admirably after not being challenged a whole lot. The Devils scrambled to get that power play goal from the 5-on-3 situation and the following power play for Staal’s trip on Zacha. Hughes, Simmonds, and Palmieri did their best but they could not finish the drill. By night’s end, Mrazek stopped 17 out of 18 in the third period alone and 35 out of 37 tonight. He did well.
Most of the goals against Domingue were not soft ones. He did rob Svechnikov a few times in the second period, which few remember as he scored later in the period. That stated, Domingue left plenty of rebounds, had to scramble in net, and had two shots go through him. I still do not know why he shifted to his left when Foegele had the puck. Maybe he assumed Butcher or Severson would block it out? Still, five goals against on 31 shots is not good for anyone. I do not think MacKenzie Blackwood starting this one would have changed a whole lot. But I also do not think Domingue helped his cause for getting more minutes either. I fear we will see him at least twice next week anyway.
What If: What if Travis Zajac finished his shorthanded breakaway? After an inadvertent collision with Aho, the Devils’ PK denied the Canes and sprung Zajac for a clear-cut breakaway from the neutral zone. Zajac beat Mrazek but hit the post with authority. Had that been finished, it would have been 2-3 and perhaps the Devils would have new life in the game. Alas, it was what it was and the Devils continued their poor even strength effort after the penalty was killed.
Legit: Congratulations to Mirco Mueller for scoring his first intentional goal of the season. His first of the season was in Colorado where he sent a puck to the crease and it re-directed into the net off a defender’s leg. Tonight, Mueller joined the rush with Zajac and Gusev and calmly put home Zajac’s feed to make it 1-1 at the time. It was a pretty goal and easily Mueller’s peak in this game. How did he do in the rest of the game? He played like he normally has this season - not effective.
One Last Night: I’m sorry if you decided to make attending this game or watching this game a part of your Valentine’s Day. Regardless of whether you have anyone to share it with, this one was ugly to view from the Devils’ perspective. At the risk of adding more misery, it may get worse before it gets better. The Devils have Columbus on Sunday and St. Louis on Tuesday. I am not loving the Devils’ chances in either based on this performance.
Your Take: The Devils lost 2-5 to Carolina in a game where it was very clear who was the better team on the ice. That would be Carolina. What is your take on this game? Who impressed you the most? Who disappointed you the most? What should the Devils take from this game in preparation for Sunday’s game against (sigh) Columbus? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview, thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter, and thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or engaged the site’s Twitter account during this game. Thank you for reading.