If nothing else, the New Jersey Devils have been resilient in the Lindy Ruff era. They might get punched in the mouth, but they do have some fight in them when they do fall behind. It would’ve been really easy for the Devils to pack it in after falling behind early against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, but they pushed the Lightning hard over the final 30 minutes of regulation, scored four unanswered goals, and picked up their best win of the young campaign to this point.
The Devils got things started with the Dawson Mercer line against Tampa’s fourth line of Boris Katchouk-Ross Colton-Taylor Raddysh. Mercer had an early opportunity denied as he wiped out in the offensive zone and Tampa got the early clear. PK Subban interfered with Anthony Cirelli and the Devils finally got a touch up roughly 30 seconds later to start the Tampa power play. Tampa threatened early on the power play but the pass went out front to Nico Hischier who cleared it. The Bolts regained the zone and cycled some more but one of the Lightning forwards whiffed on the shot. Nico Hischier intercepted the puck late in the man advantage and nearly buried one past Vasilevsky in the closing seconds of the Lightning power play and Subban returned to action. Tampa got the puck deep in the zone and PK Subban tried to clear the puck up along the boards, but Alex Holtz didn’t quite finish the clear and the puck was chipped to Jan Rutta. Rutta snapped the wrister from the top of the left circle past a partially-screened Blackwood for the 1-0 Tampa lead.
After Nico Hischier wiped out at the Lightning blueline, Pavel Zacha took an interference penalty the other way to go shorthanded again, but Killorn went to the box 23 seconds later for holding the stick and the Devils and Lightning skated 4 aside. Ryan Graves got a decent look on the abbreviated power play that was deflected out of play. Nico Hischier took the puck off of a feed from Mercer in the high danger zone but couldn’t quite corral it for a shot and Pavel Zacha got probably the Devils best look thus far as he exited the box, but Andrei Vasilevsky turned him away. Tampa came back the other way and Blackwood made a glove save to bring us to the TV timeout.
The Devils squandered another opportunity as the Devils nearly caught the Bolts in a 2-on-1, but Jesper Bratt’s pass for Mercer was intercepted by Mikhail Sergachev. Moments later, the Devils finally did get on the board though. The Devils got the puck deep and Victor Hedman fed it up along the boards, but Holtz was there and found Yegor Sharangovich, who was all alone in front of Vasilevsky. Sharangovich corralled the puck and fired it by the former Vezina winner for his first of the season to tie the game 1-1.
The Devils pushed to gain the lead, with their most dangerous chance coming off of an Alex Holtz shot off of a faceoff that hit the post, but to no avail. Damon Severson went to the box for hooking with 2:29 to go in the first. Tampa finally made the Devils play for their undisciplined play, as Ross Colton took the feed from Sergachev and fired the puck into Blackwood’s pads. Blackwood left the rebound on the doorstep for Pat Maroon, and the veteran made his former team play. 2-1 Tampa.
All-in-all, Tampa convincingly outplayed the Devils in the first period. Neither team really generated a ton in terms of shot attempts or actual shots on goal, but Tampa was more stout defensively and really kept the Devils from getting a whole lot in terms of quality chances. Add in the fact the Devils took three penalties and allowed the power-play goal to Maroon and the 2-1 deficit to Tampa was the deserved result over the first 20 minutes.
The Devils iced the puck to start the second. Ryan McDonagh made a nifty move to get by Dougie Hamilton, and Ryan Graves made a nice diving play to keep him from getting a shot on net and the Devils iced the puck again. Yegor Sharangovich had a really strong shift and nearly tied the game but Vasilevsky gobbled the loose puck up. Tampa nearly added to their lead as Palat found Point, who fed Cirelli for the one timer, but Blackwood made a great save. They finally did add to their lead as Victor Hedman fired the wrister under Blackwood’s right arm for the 3-1 lead. Blackwood’s defense failed him as Subban was in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of spot and Holtz was out of position, losing Hedman in the process and missed a routine play with his stick, but that’s the type of goal Blackwood is gonna want back.
The Devils went on the power play at the 7:36 mark as Corey Perry caught Nico Hischier with a high elbow and illegal check to the head. Hischier went to the locker room as the concussion spotter pulled him out of the game for the time being. New Jersey squandered this opportunity with perhaps their worst power play of the year as Tampa got two quality scoring chances short-handed and the Devils generated nothing even closely resembling a scoring threat. Alex Killorn went back to the box moments later for slashing Sharangovich. This Devils power play was better in the sense that the Lightning didn’t nearly score on the Devils shorthanded, but still bad in terms of “The Devils should try to do offense now”.
Hischier would thankfully return to the ice with 4:43 to go in the second period. Michael McLeod rang a shot off of the post in what was probably his best scoring chance thus far this season. Andreas Johnsson drew the ire of Zach Bogosian as Bogosian’s stick got tied up in his skate and Johnsson tossed the stick away. Bogosian shoved Johnsson while he was parked on his rear end for his efforts, but no call. The Devils picked up the pace in the closing moments of the second, and won the possession battle for the period, but couldn’t put one past Vasilevsky and went to the dressing room down 3-1.
The Devils got on the board early in the third though as Yegor Sharangovich fed Dawson Mercer entering the Tampa zone. Words don’t even begin to describe this type of play. Seriously, watch this.
It was a high IQ hockey play by a high IQ hockey player in Mercer, and even more importantly, it gave the Devils life. It was the spark that they needed to really put their stamp on this game.
The Devils were fortunate Tampa didn’t regain their two goal advantage as they turned the puck over in the defensive zone, but Blackwood, who stopped 31 of 34 in this one, denied Maroon on the doorstep. Blackwood bailed out the Devils again moments later with the glove save on Alex Killorn on a 2-on-0 give and go. Where Ty Smith and Damon Severson were on that 2-on-0, I couldn’t tell you.
Moments later, PK Subban found Jimmy Vesey all alone with a saucer pass the length of the ice, and Vesey roofed the backhander by Vasilevsky to tie the game!
PK: “Yerrr”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 20, 2021
Jimmy: “Yerrrr, indeed.” pic.twitter.com/N1Gon6h0cQ
A few minutes later, Jesper Bratt carried the puck in and fired the puck at Vasilevsky, who punched it into the corner. Bratt found Sharangovich who one-timed it from the sharp angle by Vasilevsky for the Devils first lead of the day. 4-3 New Jersey!
Shortly after, Ryan Graves tripped up Brayden Point on a breakaway opportunity that Blackwood stopped and the referees called for a penalty shot. Point and Blackwood would have a few extra moments to think this one over as the officials decided to review to see if the puck crossed the goalline, but they ruled that the puck did not cross and the penalty shot would happen. Point came in with a head of steam, but Blackwood just got enough of it to deflect it off the crossbar and the Devils still lead 4-3.
The Devils put themselves in a tough spot trying to hold off the Bolts as Dougie Hamilton tripped Pierre-Edouard Bellemare with 4:58 to go. Jimmy Vesey made a nice stick play to deflect a shot attempt into the corner but couldn’t clear. Blackwood made a key stop on front on Cirelli for the whistle with :51 seconds to go in the kill. Hischier finally got a clear with :21 seconds to go on the kill and were fortunate the Lightning whiffed on the tying goal on the doorstep in the closing moments of the penalty. Tampa pulled Vasilevsky with just under 2 minutes to go. Zacha got a clear, Ryan Graves fired wide on the empty net, but Tomas Tatar hustled down to negate the icing and backhanded in the empty netter to put the game away.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit Raw Charge for the Lightning perspective on tonight’s game.
Unlike Texas football, Sharangovich is back!
Aside from getting the win, the biggest positive development out of this game was Yegor Sharangovich’s performance. Sharangovich showed off his dangerous shot and picked up his first two goals of the season, as well as a helper on the Mercer goal. Lindy Ruff, who shortened his bench (more on that in a moment), clearly recognized how well Sharangovich pushed the pace of play and put him with Dawson Mercer and Jesper Bratt in the third period. The young Belarussian rewarded Ruff for his confidence with some really strong play throughout this game.
Sharangovich finished tied with Janne Kuokkanen for the Devils lead with a 65% CF and was second behind Holtz with a 65.01% xGF%. Perhaps more importantly, he got that proverbial monkey off of his back with his first two goals. You hope he continues to show that type of confidence going forward, as the Devils could really use some additional offense from their wingers.
Blackwood taketh away, Blackwood giveth
I didn’t think Blackwood had the greatest game through the first 30 minutes or so. He may or may not have been partially screened on the Ruuta goal, left a juicy rebound on the Maroon goal, and got a piece of the Hedman goal. That said, Blackwood played a really strong final 30 minutes in this game as the Devils had plenty of defensive breakdowns where their goaltender had to bail them out. And that’s exactly what happened as Blackwood made big save after big save after big save in the third.
Blackwood is still a little too inconsistent game-to-game for my liking where I question if he actually is a goaltender you can win a championship with, but performances like today are why his supporters are as vocal as they are as to whether he’s a core piece or not.
Ruff shortens his bench, and might need to make other changes
Lindy Ruff made the correct decision to staple Alex Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund to the bench for the final 30 minutes of this game. I will give Holtz credit for his assist on the first Sharangovich goal and nearly scoring one of his own in the first, but his two defensive gaffes that directly led to goals against aren’t gonna fly, so I have no problem with him sitting despite his strong CF and xGF numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if Holtz was on the first bus back to Utica once the team returns to the tri-state area. Zetterlund wasn’t any better in the 5:23 he played, although I’d like to see a little more from him before I campaign for the Devils to have him join Holtz on said bus ride.
I do think we’re getting close to whether or not its time for Ruff to sit Ty Smith though, who was equally awful in this game. Its not just the fact that Ty’s offensive game has been non-existant, minus the one Florida game. It’s not that he once again had the worst possession numbers among defensemen. It’s just how lost he looks out there defensively.
I have no problem with Ruff holding players accountable. He has done that at various points this season whether it be Jesper Bratt or Yegor Sharangovich or Damon Severson. It’s time to do it with Ty Smith, and Smith is one player where the Devils do have some options and actually can send him to the AHL where he doesn’t require waivers. Do I necessarily think whoever the Devils play instead of Ty Smith in this hypothetical situation is better? No. But with that said, Smith’s defensive play has left a lot to be desired and it’s time to have an uncomfortable conversation with him.
Fire Recchi Into The Sun
Speaking of uncomfortable conversations, I was prepared to make this entire recap about how abysmal the power play is before the Devils came back and won the game. The fact the Devils won the game will soften my tone, but it doesn’t change my opinion of how the Devils made a mistake retaining Mark Recchi.
I suppose if you want to make excuses, you could point out how Nico Hischier was absent for what might’ve been the worst power play yet under Recchi in 2 years here. And I get it. Not having Nico Hischier because Corey Perry did Corey Perry things doesn’t help matters. But after almost 75 games of Recchi’s power play, I can see why the Penguins kicked him to the curb, and I have little faith in this power play ever being functional under this system.
And it really comes back to the offseason decision to retain both Recchi and Nasreddine despite the bad special teams play. The Devils made a bad decision not to change the assistants and change what they’re doing on special teams. They’re compounding the problem by sticking with said assistants despite no evidence of a turnaround. And one day, its probably going to fall on Lindy Ruff because he’s the head coach of the team and oversees this entire operation.
But for one day at least, the Devils won in spite of their bad power play, so there’s that. Just don’t be surprised when the special teams limits whatever the ultimate upside is for this group.
Mercer for Calder
Dawson Mercer is doing his best to remain part of the conversation for the Calder Trophy with his 6th goal and 12th point in 16 games, and while its an uphill battle at the moment, there’s still plenty of runway left this season for him to make his case.
More importantly, Mercer gave the Devils that spark that they needed early in the third with a highlight reel goal. His play this season continues to be remarkable and, barring health, I would have a hard time believing that there’s a rookie out there who has been better over the course of the season, let alone three. Mercer at the bare minimum should be a Calder finalist, and who knows what happens if he’s in the mix with a couple Red Wings teammates?
The Devils came on strong in the final 30 minutes of this game and beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions in their building in a statement win. I can’t stress enough the importance of a win like that, and I hope the Devils can build off of this momentum as they return home Wednesday for a date with the Wild.
What did you think of the win tonight? Are you with me in this being a statement win? Are you as pleased as I am that Sharangovich is indeed back? What did you think of Blackwood’s performance? Is it time for a few Devils players to be on the bus back to the minors? What would you do with the special teams? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.