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Devils Lose So-Called “Must Win” Game Against Senators in Shootout, 3-2

The Devils had their chances to beat the Senators, but their inability to finish in the offensive zone and clear the puck in the defensive end leads to a frustrating 3-2 loss to Ottawa

NHL: Ottawa Senators at New Jersey Devils
The Devils failed to clear the puck. Drake Batherson scored. Rinse, repeat.
Tom Horak-USA TODAY Sports

Monday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators was supposed to be a “get-right” game for the New Jersey Devils, who entered the night with three straight losses. Some would even say the game was a “must win” for a team that has openly talked about wanting to play in meaningful games in the second half of the season, for a change. Unfortunately for the Devils on what was Video Game Night at Prudential Center, the Devils failed to hit the reset button on a season that is slowly getting away from them and inching closer to the dreaded “Game Over” screen.

The Devils, who are now 4-1-3 despite scoring first for a change, got on the board early. New Jersey gained the zone roughly 20 seconds into the game and cycled the puck around with Jesper Bratt feeding Jonas Siegenthaler, who fired the shot wide of net. Damon Severson corralled the puck along the boards and fired a wrister from the blueline past Sens netminder Anton Forsberg for the 1-0 lead.

Ryan Graves went to the box moments later for a slash on Dylan Gambrell, who was cutting towards the net. The Devils penalty kill held strong and didn’t allow any shots on goal in the only power play of the night for either team. Both teams went back and forth until the first TV timeout in a sluggish, feeling-out process where neither team generated a shot on goal.

Ottawa got some pressure off of the stoppage and got their first shots on Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood after Ty Smith was a little slow moving the puck along the boards out of the defensive zone. The Devils nearly made it 2-0 second later as Pavel Zacha hit yet another post. The Devils kept the pressure on over the next few minutes as Jesper Bratt, Andreas Johnsson and Yegor Sharangovich were turned away. The latter two shots coming off of A+ feeds from Jack Hughes, who looked as dangerous as he has in the past in what was his fourth game back from injury.

The Devils made some adjustments by actually having bodies in the middle of the ice to clog up shooting lanes as the first period continued. Damon Severson and Zach Sanford got into a scrum after a whistle with around 3 minutes left in the first and each earned a roughing minor for their efforts. Nico Hischier fed Ryan Graves for a scoring chance at 4v4 but was turned aside. The Devils wasted another opportunity at 4v4 was PK Subban was errant with a couple drop passes for Jack Hughes. Severson and Sanford exited the box with 54 seconds to go, and the time expired on the first period with the Devils taking a 1-0 lead to the dressing room.

Ottawa thought they got the equalizer 5:15 into the second period but the Connor Brown goal was waved off due to contact with Blackwood in the crease. The Sens kept the pressure on the Devils after the TV timeout as the Devils repeatedly failed to clear the defensive zone. Brady Tkachuk dug the puck out of the corner and fed it to Thomas Chabot, who found Drake Batherson open at the point to tie the game at 1.

The Devils regained the lead 65 seconds later as Michael McLeod got tied up on an offensive zone draw but managed to push the puck along the boards to Ty Smith, who sent it cross ice to PK Subban. Subban fired it towards the net and Bastian, the birthday boy, cut in front of Forsberg and tipped it in as New Jersey regained the lead.

The Senators once again took advantage of the Devils inability to clear the zone though, as Jesper Bratt and Dougie Hamilton turned the puck over in the defensive zone. Ottawa made some precision tape-to-tape passes with Drake Batherson, from behind Blackwood’s net, finding Sens captain Brady Tkachuk alone in front for the tying goal.

The Hughes line had a really strong shift afterwards, thanks in part to Ty Smith doing a nice job keeping the puck in the zone, but couldn’t put one past Forsberg. Sens winger Tyler Ennis took an inadvertent stick to the mouth in the closing minute of the second but the officials correctly determined there was no penalty. The teams went to the intermission tied 2-2, and while the Devils won the Corsi battle, Ottawa had more high danger chances and played more desperate hockey.

The McLeod line pinned the Sens deep early in the third period long enough to change all the forwards with the Hischier line, but the Devils couldn’t quite put one on net, let alone past Forsberg, and Ottawa finally got a clear and a much needed change. The Devils threatened again a few minutes later as Tomas Tatar stole the puck behind Forsberg’s net and found Jimmy Vesey in front, who fired the puck into the netminder’s pads. Vesey got a rebound attempt on an open net that was blocked and cleared into the corner.

After the stoppage in play, the McLeod line once again took it to the Sens and tilted the ice in the Devils favor. Dougie Hamilton found Jack Hughes who rang the shot off of the pipe. The two teams would skate four aside again as Tyler Ennis went to the box for charging and Ryan Graves got dinged for roughing. The Devils forecheck took the puck away from the Senators and Ottawa was fortunate as New Jersey found Damon Severson all alone in front on Forsberg, but the puck rolled up on his stick a bit and the Devils were denied yet again.

Back at even strength (and after a brief timeout due to an equipment issue for Forsberg), the Sens iced the puck. The Devils lost the ensuing draw and Ottawa got the clear and Graves had to deflect a high-danger scoring chance by Nick Paul out of play.

With four minutes to go and off of a defensive zone draw (thanks to a hand pass), the Devils got a quick clear and Severson put another shot on goal. Ottawa got a clear after the stoppage and nearly took the lead off of another Devils turnover in the defensive zone, but Blackwood made a key stop and clear. The Devils and Senators went back and forth over the final minute that was relatively uneventful after Dawson Mercer got a chance with 6.1 seconds to go from a sharp angle, but no such luck. Ottawa won the defensive zone draw, got a clear, and we’re heading for overtime.

The Devils started the extra session with McLeod, Zacha, and Hamilton against Norris, Tkachuk, and Chabot. McLeod won the draw and found Hamilton, who got the puck to Zacha for the riser off of the glass. Ottawa, who played a deliberate style and clearly wanted to take their chances in the shootout rather than try at 3v3, took their sweet time getting set up with Batherson gaining the zone with a head of steam but couldn’t put it past Blackwood. Hischier sent the puck too far ahead of Severson on what could’ve been a nice chance, and the veteran defenseman had to settle the puck down behind Forsberg’s net. The trio of Zacha-Bratt-Severson kept the puck away from the Sens for awhile but couldn’t take advantage. Forsberg came up big for the Sens late in the overtime as the Devils trio of Hischier, Hughes, and Hamilton nearly won it for the Devils. Hischier couldn’t tip it past Forsberg, Hamilton shot it in his chest, and the puck sailed past Hughes as the final seconds ticked off and we’re headed for a shootout.

Ottawa’s overtime strategy of stalling and doing nothing paid off in the skills competition. Tim Stutzle started the shootout for the Sens and snapped a wrister under Blackwood’s right pad for the 1-0 lead. Tomas Tatar responded by roofing one just under the bar to tie it. Josh Norris came in with a head of steam down the right side and fired off the slapshot to beat Blackwood on the far side. Jesper Bratt came in on Forsberg and fired the shot wide. Drake Batherson had a chance to clinch it for the Sens but ripped it over the net. The Devils last hope came down to Andreas Johnsson, who fired the puck into Forsberg’s pads, and the Devils losing streak is extended to four games.

Highlights

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Visit Silver Seven Sens for the Senators perspective on tonight’s game.

Frustrating Night that Undoes the Few Positives they Had

I could talk about Jack Hughes looking the best he’s looked since his return or how the Mercer line was really strong at 5v5 or even how Mackenzie Blackwood bounced back after a rough week, but I’m frustrated, tired, and angry over the same things that continue to haunt the Devils in these types of games.

Go back and re-read my recap of the game. How many times can I write that so-so on the Devils had a nice scoring chance but was turned away or shot the puck into someone’s skates or turned the puck over? I don’t mean to disparage Anton Forsberg, but tonight feels like a wasted opportunity to take advantage of a replacement-level player who was in net for the other team.

The Devils hit two more posts tonight, which according to the MSG broadcast, brings their total up to 22 on the season off of the post or crossbar. Not only does that sound entirely plausible without looking it up, it hammers home the point that the Devils are inches or even fractions of an inch from a better result, and that’s the most frustrating thing. Where would the Devils be if even a third of those 22 are goals?

Defense was better, but still not good enough

The Devils looked better defensively than they had against San Jose, Minnesota, and Winnipeg, but they still failed to clear the puck in critical spots against an Ottawa team that has a solid top line that is capable of taking advantage of their mistakes.

I don’t understand how its so difficult for this team to make a simple pass along the boards or chip and lift the puck out to the neutral zone. The Batherson goal comes off of a lost board battle, fine, that happens. On the Tkachuk goal though, Jesper Bratt makes an ill-advised pass to try to spring Pavel Zacha the other way that gets deflected and stays in the zone. Dougie Hamilton comes up with puck off of a partially fanned shot and passes it right to Nick Holden on the blueline who gets it deep to Batherson, and the rest is history.

I do appreciate the effort by the Devils to actually get some bodies in the middle of the ice, after their strategy of having nobody cover the middle of the ice blew up in their faces last week. But these simple defensive breakdowns only become more magnified when you hit two posts and fail to put more than two goals past a .901 goaltender.

When is enough enough?

I mentioned in one of the other game recaps that I’m not quite on the “Fire Lindy Ruff” bandwagon yet, but I have to admit, my patience is starting to wear thin with this coaching staff that I didn’t love to begin with when they came aboard.

To recap the season thus far, we’ve seen the power play cost the team points, the penalty kill cost the team points, shoddy defense cost the team points, questionable lineup decisions cost the team points, and an inability to finish cost the team points. So you’ll have to forgive me when I roll my eyes when I hear Lindy Ruff talk postgame about whatever it was he thought the Devils did well, just like I rolled my eyes when I heard NY Giants coach Joe Judge talk up the things the offense supposedly did well in a game yesterday where they scored nine points.

I don’t know what the answer is to fix this mess but I do know something needs to change outside of Ruff’s line blender. The Devils have, in the last few years, forced their Hall of Fame GM in franchise history out the door, fired the coach, turned over the roster, traded for a guy who would win the Hart Trophy, traded him away when it was obvious he wasn’t gonna stay, fired another coach, fired another GM, turned over the roster again, and are still no closer to being rebuilt and contending for a playoff spot than they were five years ago. When are we going to start seeing progress with this rebuild that we can point to and know this thing is on the right track? I’m getting tired of this “Is it the coaches, or is it the roster not being good enough” debate that seems to pop up every year the Devils fall short of whatever expectations we place on this group.

We’ve already seen Montreal fire their GM, Vancouver clean house, and Philadelphia fire their coach this season. Lindy Ruff and his staff haven’t even gotten 80 games with this group, so you would think a firing at this time would be rash, but I look at a franchise that is operating like everything is just fine and it’s all part of the plan, and that is what irritates me the most. I look at a franchise where Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes play well in stretches, but haven’t quite taken that next step towards NHL stardom. I look at the regression of young players like Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, and Janne Kuokkanen and I’m alarmed by what I see. I look at a team that continually can’t get out of their own way, continues to make critical mistakes, and leaves me with the feeling that by the time April rolls around, they won’t have made any tangible progress. And that really concerns me going forward.

Final Thoughts

The Devils had their chances to win tonight, but failed to make that one extra play, that one extra shot, that one extra save, and they lost a game they really needed to win against one of the worst teams in the NHL in their building. As a result, any hopes of playing meaningful games later on the season is on life-support.

What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you as frustrated as I am? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.