Two of the biggest recurring problems with the New Jersey Devils in the 2021-22 season have been the failures of the power play and their inability to finish. Those issues reared their ugly heads yet again Friday night as the Devils three-game homestand ended with a thud and a 3-2 loss on home ice to the Nashville Predators.
The Hischier line lost the Opening Faceoff and Nashville sent the puck deep in the zone. The Devils got a clear and a whistle roughly 30 seconds in on a long-distance Damon Severson shot on goal. Jonas Siegenthaler ripped one off of the crossbar 2:30 into the first on what was approximately the Devils 13574th post or crossbar hit this season. Alexander Carrier went to the box for interference 3:26 to give the Devils their first power play of the night. The Devils predictably gave up a short-handed chance immediately with Tanner Jeannot sailing a shot wide of Mackenzie Blackwood’s cage on a breakaway. New Jersey got two decent looks on the power play on a shot that Andreas Johnsson fanned on and a loose puck in front that Juuse Saros covered up, but overall, it was the same failures from the Mark Recchi power play we have come to expect. Dante Fabbro slashed Jack Hughes and the Devils skated 6-on-5 for a little bit but never really threatened before the Preds finally got the touchup at the 7:51 mark and the Devils would get a second opportunity to squander with the man advantage after the first TV timeout.
Nashville won the ensuing faceoff and got a clear and a second clear shortly after Pavel Zacha gave the puck away in the offensive end. The Preds continued to take advantage of the Devils ineptitude with the man advantage with a third clear before Saros covered up a loose puck with :51 seconds remaining on the power play. The Devils continued to be too slow, too deliberate, and too inaccurate with their passing on the power play before Nashville got one final clear to kill the Fabbro penalty.
The Devils and Preds went back and forth for a little bit before Dawson Mercer got a breakaway opportunity that Mathias Ekholm brilliantly played defensively to prevent a scoring chance. New Jersey held a 3-2 SOG edge at the television timeout with 4:55 remaining in the first, highlighting their inability to put the puck on the net and test Juuse Saros in his first game back after a non-COVID illness. The Devils finally started to buzz a little bit in the closing minutes of the first with Andreas Johnsson and Jack Hughes being turned away by Saros. Ben Harpur went to the box with 1:55 to go for holding Jesper Bratt. The Devils actually won an offensive zone draw but Johnsson sailed a shot wide before the Preds cleared it. The Devils continued to squander their opportunities with the man advantage thanks to more shoddy passing and looking too much for the perfect shot. The period came to an end with the Predators and Devils exchanging words after Nashville took exception to Hughes......(checks notes).....fell down after being hooked and looking at the ref wondering why there was no call. Ok then.
The Devils started the second period with their best scoring chance thus far with Jesper Bratt finding Pavel Zacha in transition, but Saros made the glove save. Dougie Hamilton tripped Philip Tomasino :50 seconds into the period to give Nashville their first chance with the man advantage. The Preds got a couple shots on the power play but couldn’t convert and the Devils killed the Hamilton penalty without incident. Nashville continued to attack and got a few good scoring opportunities, but Blackwood stood tall and make the stops he needed to.
Nashville continued to press until Jack Hughes got sprung in transition. Hughes was forced to the outside and sent a pass over to Yegor Sharangovich but the pass wasn’t quite tape-to-tape and Saros had enough time to recover and make the easy stop.
The Devils finally broke through at the 11:34 mark of the second as Nico Hischier dug the puck out from along the boards. Hischier kicked the puck over to Jesper Bratt along the wall, who found Pavel Zacha all alone. Zacha went top shelf for the 1-0 lead and his ninth of the season.
The Devils lost a couple of defensive zone draws and Nashville finally made the Devils pay as Nico Hischier tried to clear the puck up along the wall but turned the puck over and Philip Tomasino found Roman Josi all alone in point-blank range. The Preds captain and perennial thorn in the Devils side buried it and the game was tied at 1.
Dawson Mercer got his stick caught with Carrier’s skates and went to the box with 3:32 left in the period for tripping. The Devils got an early clear and got a second clear seconds later. Nashville got set up with about a minute left on the power play and Eeli Tolvanen ripped a slapper by Blackwood for the 2-1 lead. Nashville continued to create havoc in front of Blackwood with a loose puck but the Devils finally got a clear. Tensions finally boiled over between the Devils and Preds as Nico Hischier paid back Mikael Granlund with a cross-check after Granlund got him hard in the back earlier in the shift. Hischier dropped the gloves in the closing seconds of the period and tried to give the Devils a spark in a period where they were otherwise thoroughly dominated. Shots were 18-9 in favor of Nashville, with a CF% of 71.43 and an xGF% of 61.92%.
The Devils tried to push for the equalizer to start the third with the Hughes line and while they didn’t score, Ryan Graves drew a tripping call to give the Devils their fourth power play opportunity of the game. The Devils squandered their best opportunity as Yegor Sharangovich couldn’t handle a pass from Johnsson cleanly in front of Saros. The Devils wasted the rest of the power play being too stationary, not moving the puck quickly enough, and not putting the puck on net, and the Devils fans in attendance started to get restless and booed the effort as Tolvanen left the box.
Nashville added to their lead at the 6:11 mark as Tanner Jeannot made a good play in the breakout outlet pass feeding Nick Cousins. Cousins fired the puck towards the net and Yakov Trenin tapped in the rebound off Blackwood’s pads for the 3-1 lead.
Jesper Bratt sailed a puck wide of Saros’s cage off of some nifty passing from Hischier and Zacha to set him up. The Hischier line, which was arguably the Devils best tonight, continued to apply pressure but couldn’t quite finish and get the Devils back within one. Nashville did a good job tightening up defensively and not allowing the Devils to generate much. The Devils pulled Blackwood for the extra skater with 4:21 to go down two. New Jersey took their time but ultimately got a good opportunity as Jimmy Vesey found Pavel Zacha all alone but Saros made a great save. Jack Hughes found Yegor Sharangovich on a nice cross-ice pass and Sharangovich buried it to cut the deficit to one.
The Devils finally gained the offensive zone with about 35 seconds left in regulation and spent the bulk of the time passing and not shooting to the point where John Buccigross yelled “WHAT ARE THEY WAITING FOR?”. Saros covered the loose puck with 5 seconds to go and Lindy Ruff used his timeout to draw something up, but McLeod lost the offensive zone draw and Nashville tied the puck up in the corner as the final seconds expired and Nashville won 3-2.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit On The Forecheck if you want to read the Preds perspective on tonight’s game.
SHOOT THE PUCK!!!
I want to revisit the final minute of regulation and the general lack of urgency in the closing moments. The Devils were way too slow and methodical gaining the zone, which may or may not have been the result of tired legs, so I get that. Nevermind the fact that Nashville was the team on the back-to-back and the Devils are the youngest team in the league. But the Devils did gain the zone with 40 seconds to go. Hischier lost the puck along the boards. Tatar recovered and sent to Ty Smith at the blueline, who fired the puck cross-ice to Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton and Smith played give-and-go before Hamilton sent it down low to Bratt, who fed Hughes below the goal line. Hughes and Bratt sent it back and forth before Bratt mishandled a return feed, recovering, sending to Hughes, and finally sending the puck towards the net with 7.4 to go. While all this is going on, Buccigross and Moore are going nuts in the booth and questioning the sense of urgency and if they were ever gonna shoot, to the point where Buccigross spoke for all Devils fans saying “WHAT ARE THEY WAITING FOR?”
I wanted to highlight this particular sequence as I feel it perfectly encapsulated the hockey IQ, awareness, skill, and sense of urgency with this team, or the lack thereof. It’s a problem on the power play, which I’ll get to in a minute. It was a problem when the Devils pulled Blackwood with nearly four and a half minutes left and the almost lackadaisical approach down two to the point where the Devils fans who bothered to stick around for the closing minutes were booing.
I get that they’re trying to set something up, but there’s something to be said about firing the puck at the net and looking for a rebound, or a deflection, or a goaltender screen. Dom Moore made this point during one of the Devils power plays in the first period. Too often, this team tries to set up the perfect highlight reel tape-to-tape pass, except their passing and puck movement isn’t crisp enough and sharp enough to do that.
It’s not just the closing minute either. The Devils had a handful of SOG throughout the bulk of the first despite having more than one power play. They only had 15 through the first two periods and got caved in defensively in the second. This isn’t me cherry-picking a random sequence in a random December game more so than its a microcosm of what this team is and continues to be, which is nowhere near good enough. Considering this team has issues with finishing and they’re not particularly accurate with the shots, I would prefer to see them throw MORE pucks on the net rather than less. Bold strategy, I know.
The Power Play Continues to Kill the Devils
I hate continuing to bring up special teams and sounding like a broken record but it needs to be said. The power play is bad and continues to squander opportunities, which puts pressure on the Devils to do more at 5v5 to make up for the failures of the power play. The Devils continue to be way too slow with the puck movement, inaccurate with their passing, and not throwing the puck on the net (noticing a theme here?), making things way too easy for any team to kill the penalty. Even when the Devils do score with the man advantage, which they didn’t tonight, it feels like it was an accident. I’ll be happy when Mark Recchi is eventually dismissed from his role as a result. Preferably sooner rather than later.
The last thing I’ll say on this is that tonight is one of those nights where I wish there was someone who wasn’t employed by the team who would ask Lindy Ruff postgame point blank if its time for Mark Recchi to go so I don’t have to continue being the bad guy for asking the tough questions. I’m not gonna hold my breath on that one though.
“We needed to get more pucks to the net. We passed up some opportunities.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 11, 2021
Hear from Lindy Ruff after falling 3-2 to the Predators tonight. pic.twitter.com/Q6eQE4BtiZ
The Officiating Was a Disgrace Tonight
The NHL had said before this season that they were going to be cracking down on cross-checking, but you sure could have fooled me watching this game. Nico Hischier got plastered by Mikael Granlund, which led to Hischier getting him back before dropping the gloves late in the second period. Obvious, neither cross-check was called. Neither was the one in the closing minutes where Matt Benning plastered Andreas Johnsson twice behind Saros’s net, despite being in front of the referees and despite Buccigross and Moore nearly falling out of their chairs questioning how that call was missed.
I want to be clear here.....the Devils did not lose because of the officiating. They lost because of their own inept play and for the reasons I’ve already pointed out in this recap. That does not excuse the officials missing obvious calls, even as Dom Moore and AJ Mleczko teased that the Devils power play was unlikely to do anything even if they were granted a power play.
I just want consistency from the officials. Either we’re looking out for this or we’re not. Considering the league’s spotty record on player safety and consistent officiating, again, I won’t hold my breath.
The Good and Bad with the ESPN+ Production
This evening, we were treated to (or punished with, depending on your point of view) another ESPN+ exclusive broadcast.
Let me start with some rare praise for an ESPN+ production. I thought the broadcast team of John Buccigross, Dom Moore, and AJ Mleczko did an excellent job and really added to the broadcast with a neutral set of eyes and pointing out the strengths and flaws of the Devils approach. Buccigross is a good play-by-play broadcaster, Moore and Mleczko’s analysis and insight was much appreciated, and the broadcast kept the useless anecdotes to a minimum. There are still some aspects of the on-air production that aren’t ideal, such as John Tortorella trending on Twitter for the wrong reason for his bad opinion on the Trevor Zegras play the other night, but from a talent standpoint, this was the best ESPN+ Devils game thus far this season. I hope that trio calls whatever Devils games are remaining on the ESPN+ slate.
With that said, it wouldn’t be an ESPN+ broadcast without something going wrong, and unfortunately throughout this game, we had to deal with audio issues. For the first fifteen minutes of the first period, we had to deal with a persistent buzzing noise before it was finally corrected after the third TV timeout. I noticed more audio issues in the final two periods as the production team seemed to have issues getting proper audio levels for Moore, who was coming in too low and quiet when compared to Buccigross, as well as the on-ice ‘sounds’ such as the skates and sticks on the ice coming in too loud. I also noticed an reverbing echo of sticks and pucks hitting the ice and boards at various points throughout the broadcast.
I get that ESPN is still new to this whole “we’re broadcasting hockey again” thing, but this is a company that produces thousands of live sporting events a year between the NFL, NBA, MLB, college football and basketball, golf, tennis, and everything else in between. It would be one thing if this was an isolated incident, but we’ve seen audio issues several times now with their NHL broadcasts, and specifically Devils games. I would implore ESPN to iron out these technical issues simply for the sake of improving their broadcasts and not making people want to mute the app and turn to the radio broadcast. If I wasn’t writing the recap tonight, I would’ve muted the game sometime in the first period.
The Devils had their chances to beat Nashville, but between a power play that can’t get out of their own way and an abysmal defensive performance in the second period, they dug themselves another hole that they couldn’t dig themselves out of. Nashville took advantage with their relentless forecheck and their size advantage to box the Devils out, the Devils showed a lack of ability to put the puck past a really good goaltender in Juuse Saros, partly because they didn’t put enough pucks on net in general. Nashville deserved to win this game as a result.
What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you as fed up as I am with the power play, the lack of finish, the lack of pucks on net, the officiating, and the audio technical issues? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.