For a New Jersey Devils team that has all but themselves out of playoff contention, the month of March had it all. Granted, they played 17 games in 31 days, so there were a lot of possibilities for events. There were games where the Devils could barely score goals and nights where they put the opposition to the sword. There were blowout losses, fortunate wins, games where the score was closer than the performance, referee/official decisions going against the Devils, referee/official decisions going in favor of the Devils, and everything in between. Some players hit slumps. Some players grew out of them. The goaltending ranged from victimized by the guys in front of them to carrying the team to wins. At the end of it all, the Devils finished March with a 6-8-3 record. A not-very good record for a not-very good team as the Devils remained in seventh place in the East Division throughout the month.
If the month of games felt better in recent days, then that is because the Devils did end the month better than it started. New Jersey finished the month with a 3-2-1 road trip where they took points from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and two games in Boston. It perhaps should have been a 4-2-0 road trip, but it was still a positive set of results. It was a far cry better than starting the month with a 1-5-1 run within their first two weeks. As with everyone else in the NHL this season, April will be a very busy (and important as the NHL Trade Deadline is on April 12) month for all involved so there is little time to reflect on the past. However, we can take some time now to look back at March and review what happened to the New Jersey Devils.
The Games of March 2021
The New Jersey Devils ended February with a back-to-back set against Washington at the Rock. These were the first two games in what would be a five-game homestand. They lost those games. The Devils hosted the New York Islanders on March 2 with the intention of getting something better. They did not. They struggled to put a lot together in the run of play in a 1-2 loss to the Islanders. The Devils then had Our Hated Rivals come to the Rock for two straight home games. These would be perfect games to stop a losing streak from progressing and to get their third and, ideally, their fourth win at home this season. Not only did the Devils not win, they were embarrassed. They were demoralized. They were dominated. On March 4, the Devils lost 1-6 to Our Hated Rivals with a pitiful effort with especially poor special teams play. On March 6, it was only a little better on the scoreboard but it was still a heavy 3-6 loss to the one team no Devils fan wants to see a loss to. The Devils started March by going 0-5-0 in a 5-game homestand. Worse, this was the first week where Devils fans were allowed to be in the Rock.
The Devils would hit the road for three games in the second week of the month. As the Devils were flattened by Our Hated Rivals, spirits and expectations were low when the Devils visited Boston. Sure, the Devils were (and are) one of the few teams to have beaten Boston in regulation. How would they do it after such a run of failure? The answer: Scott Wedgewood playing out of his mind. He stopped all 40 shots and a puck off Kyle Palmieri’s knee was the only difference maker in a 1-0 win in Boston. The losing streak was over. On Tuesday, the Devils visited the Washington Capitals. The Capitals were in complete control in the first two periods as they put the Devils down 1-4 in the game. However, the Devils did something amazing. They made a comeback effort within the third period. They scored three straight to tie it up 4-4 and came close to winning the whole thing, but forcing overtime at all was an achievement. Petr Vrana made quick work in OT to make it a 4-5 loss, but it was an heartening result given past games against the Capitals. The Devils visited the Islanders on March 11 to close out the trip and begin three games in a row with them. On this night, the Devils went down 0-4 to the Isles within the first two periods. Unlike the Capitals, the Isles denied the comeback effort and so the Devils lost 3-5. The week ended with a home game against the Islanders. The Devils went up 2-1 going into the third and proceeded to let Kieffer Bellows do as he wished for two goals in what would be a 2-3 loss, another one at home. Despite the encouraging results, it was another lost week for the Devils.
That 2-3 loss to the Islanders began another stretch of five home games for New Jersey. They entered it with zero home wins since January. On March 14, one could argue they should have won that one. The Devils played a tighter game with the Isles and it was 2-2 going into the third period. In the third, it appeared that the Devils scored - only for it to be taken away due to a rather ridiculous interference call on Nathan Bastian. In overtime, P.K. Subban finished a great play to end it - only for Toronto to buzz in and wipe out the goal because Jesper Bratt was bare-to-the-naked-eye offside about 40 feet away from where Pavel Zacha gained the zone. The game went to a shootout and the Devils lost that so they lost by a final score of 2-3. On March 16, the Devils hosted the Buffalo Sabres. Someone had to win. The Devils came out slow and while they scored first, they were down 1-2 at one point to the worst team in the division. But the Devils did tie it up thanks to a rare goal from Sami Vatanen and went ahead on a rare power play goal in the third period. The Devils held on to win their first home game since January, their fifth win ever in a “third” jersey, and to end their own losing streak with a 3-2 win. On March 18, the Devils hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time this season. While the Penguins were not 100%, they went on to have a fantastic March. Which meant what happened on that night was even more impressive. The Devils were the better team throughout the game and went up early on the Penguins with Jack Hughes scoring off the goaltender’s helmet, P.K. Subban scoring a power play goal, and Travis Zajac making it 3-0. A late second period PPG gave the Penguins life, but they could not solve Mackenzie Blackwood until there was five seconds left. The Devils won 3-2 in a game where the score was closer than the performance. The Devils did not need to wait a month-plus for a home win. Unfortunately, that would be the last home win of the month. On March 20, the Devils hosted Pittsburgh again and this game was stingier on offense. The March 18 game was loaded with shots and attempts and back-and-forth action. Not so on that Saturday. And it suited the Pens fine as they responded to an early deficit with three unanswered goals and easily handled a Devils power play that could not stop getting in its own way. The Devils lost 1-3 to end an otherwise successful (5 points out of 8) week.
After that game, the Devils visited the Penguins on the next day to begin a six-game road trip to end the month. The Sunday game was a lot more like Thursday’s game in both how the game was played and how the result went. Both Blackwood and Tristan Jarry were great. But the Devils prevailed in overtime with an absolutely slick wraparound goal by Jesper Bratt for a 2-1 win. The Devils beat Pittsburgh two times out of three, a fine start to the trip. On March 23, the Devils visited Philadelphia for their first game against the Flyers since January. The Devils came out hot and dominated the game for the first 50 minutes. They put four goals past Carter Hart featuring a great finish by Michael McLeod, a rare Palmieri power play goal from the right circle, and two great one-time shots by Yegor Sharangovich and Travis Zajac. The issue was that the Flyers surged in the final 10 minutes of the game to make it a one-goal game with about a minute left. The Devils did hold on for the 4-3 win, their first against the Flyers this season. The Devils would end their week with a back-to-back set in Washington D.C. On both nights, the Devils would pay the price dearly for their turnovers and lax defensive coverage. On March 25, despite getting two gifts from the Capitals goaltender, the Devils conceded goals after scoring themselves - and one additional one that New Jersey never answered. They lost 3-4 to the Capitals. That was better than the March 26 game where the Capitals took advantage of the Devils errors and no Devil could beat Ilya Samsonov. The Devils were crummy in a 0-4 loss, their first shutout loss of the season.
The trip and their 17-game odyssey of games this month would end in Boston, Massachusetts. On March 28, the situation was slightly different. Blackwood was in net instead of Wedgewood. The Bruins were missing some players due to injury and COVID-19 protocol. The story remained the same as with the March 7 game. Blackwood was unbelievably great in the net and stopped a ton of rubber. Palmieri scored the game’s lone goal with his leg. Unlike the March 7 game, there was some controversy. It appeared that Boston tied it up late when Patrice Bergeron put a loose puck away. But Lindy Ruff challenged it for goaltender interference and he won the challenge as David Krejci whacked the puck loose from Blackwood’s glove to make that play happen. With about 8.5 seconds left, Blackwood’s right skate denied a rotating puck off the goal line. After a long review, the puck never fully crossed the line to confirm the save. And the Devils held on to win 1-0 with two big official calls in the Devils’ favor. On March 30, the Devils had a chance to sweep the Bruins in their games in Boston this season. The start was very much in the Devils’ favor as they went up 2-1 after the first period. They went up further, 4-2, in the second period that featured Travis Zajac tipping in his 200th career goal as a Devil. However, the Bruins brought the house in the third period for a second straight game and Blackwood was not perfect. Not that the goals allowed were bad ones, but the Bruins clawed their way back into the game to force overtime and nearly won it outright within the last 90 seconds - denied only by Blackwood. The Devils’ power play was bad and its failure reared its ugly head in OT when they failed to finish or create a challenging shot in a 4-on-3 situation. The game went to a shootout: the Devils did not score, the Bruins scored twice, and so the game ended with a 4-5 final score. Not that the Devils had much to play for, but it did feel like they threw that win away; a sour end to a month of games that were all over the place for the Devils where they remained in seventh place throughout the month.
The pain points of the month were apparent. The Devils played the Islanders four times and went 0-3-1 against them. The Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals twice and were pantsed in both games. Three games against the Capitals and they went 0-2-1. Oddly enough, the Devils managed to go 2-0-1 in Boston and go 2-1-0 against a Pittsburgh team that went 12-3-1 in the month. There were plenty of signs where the Devils could definitely compete with superior teams. There weren’t enough of them as performances were inconsistent throughout the month. The only real consistent factors in March for the Devils were the struggles on the power play (see the next section), their very poor record at home (4-11-2 overall, 2-5-1 in March), and their surprisingly better record on the road (9-5-3 overall, 4-3-2 in March).
By the Numbers
If the main goal for the 2021 season was to show improvement, then the month of March showed some reason to be encouraged and some reason to be concerned. All stats come from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com where mentioned. Stats highlighted in green ranked in the top ten in the NHL for the month. Stats highlighted in red ranked in the bottom ten (22 - 31) in the NHL for the month.
5 on 5 Situations: The run of play at 5-on-5 took a bit of a step back from where it was in February. While most stats were not that bad, the Devils gave up a lot while not scoring enough in 5-on-5. (Note: Adj 5v5 stats are Score and Venue Adjusted 5v5 stats from Natural Stat Trick.)
At first glance, one may be inclined to put a lot of the blame on Blackwood. To be fair, Blackwood did post a 89.1% save percentage in 5-on-5 in the month. That and two clean-up appearances from Aaron Dell undercut Scott Wedgewood’s supremely impressive 94% save percentage in 5-on-5 play to yield a fairly low team save percentage of 90.6%. Yet, from going through the recaps, it was not as if Blackwood just gave up a lot of soft goals. There were some games where the Devils, as a team, were absolutely bad in their own end of the rink and paid the price in goals. Of all of the issues the 2021 Devils have, goaltending really does not seem like one. I can understand outsiders or those taking a wider view thinking otherwise.
For other 5-on-5 stats, the Devils did make some gains. They did reduce their CA/60, SA/60, SCA/60, and especially their HDCA/60 rates from last month. Those are good improvements to see over a team level that played a whole lot of games in March. Yet, the Devils’ offense suffered in each of those rates. Only the HDCF/60 rate did not take a notable reduction and even that was fairly low - which contributed to its xGF/60 rate. On top of this, the Devils’ finishing still left something to be desired in 5-on-5. A 7.69% shooting rate is a lot better than the 5.45% the team was shooting at last month. It still is not particularly high, which was definitely felt in several games throughout the month. There were more prolific goal scoring games in the second half of the month, so hopefully that can improve. Still, overall, it was not a bad month at 5-on-5. The Devils mostly ranked between 11th and 21st in the middle third(ish) of the NHL in 5-on-5 stats. It is still a bit of a downturn from what we have seen in January and February.
As for skaters in 5-on-5, Pavel Zacha went from hot scorer in February to player that opponents loved playing against. While Travis Zajac, Janne Kuokkanen, and Sharangovich ended up being below 50% in most stats, they were doing so while taking on tougher match-ups for a good part of this month. Being specifically matched up against Sidney Crosby and his line comes to mind. Zacha was notably beaten on despite not necessarily drawing tougher matchups; worse than all other Devils skaters except for three games of Jesper Boqvist. In other words, it was a bad month for Zacha. Michael McLeod, Ryan Murray, Sami Vatanen, and six games of Nick Merkley were also notably in the wrong end of the 5-on-5 stats.
In the better end, it is no surprise that Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes were among team leaders in CF% and xGF%. If only their finish (and Kyle Palmieri’s finish against non-Boston teams) were better; then we would see even more production than what they put up. In other words, they should keep doing what they have been doing because it has been working out in the bigger picture of 5-on-5. Nathan Bastian was also really good in 5-on-5 play, which is always a plus for a bottom-six player, prior to his injury. While McLeod has scored some sweet goals recently, I think he misses Bastian’s stability on his line. As do the Devils. Nikita Gusev weirdly ended up high in these stats despite not really contributing a whole lot of anything to get that far. The Goose has been a Passenger and, as such, he has not been missed in recent games as a scratch. There were encouraging 5-on-5 results for players but there were others who could stand to do better.
Power Play Situations: There has been increasing calls for Mark Recchi to be fired. I understand that Recchi may be proving his value as a developmental coach, which is really good with a Devils team that has many young forwards. However, if Recchi’s primary responsibilities include the power play, then this is unacceptable.
The Devils went 5-for-49 for the month. While their rates of creating shots, attempts, and chances were better than last month, the Devils had a higher rate of power play opportunities than last month to create. They failed to finish and they often struggled to create anything. The Devils have went back and forth throughout the month on whether to use a “slingshot” breakout, where a puck carrier drops it back to one or two players rushing through the neutral zone to gain the zone. The Devils have been fairly good at gaining the opposition zone. They have been abysmal at keeping the puck in the zone, often losing the puck not long after entry to make the penalty kill easier for the opposition.
This is especially frustrating as the Devils are over 34 games into their season and the coaches do not seem to have a handle of who should be a on a power play unit and where they should be on it. Not that any one player has had so much success on it that they can command a place on a unit. Ruff has complained about players “going rogue,” which reflects even poorer on the coaching staff and their command of the units. Making all of this worse is the realization that if the Devils had a decent power play in March, then their six wins could have been more comfortable or a couple of those eleven non-wins could have become wins. The only positive I can say about the power play in March is that they did not allow a shorthanded goal. Thank you, Wedgewood and Blackwood for that.
Penalty Kill Situations: It has become a talking point on MSG broadcasts of Devils games that their penalty kill has been much better in March. I am glad this point has continued to be brought up because it is both true and something to celebrate. It was absolutely painful in January and February. In March, it was an actual strength of the team.
Sure, there have been some penalty kills that have blown up in the Devils’ faces. Sure, there were a few where the Devils more or less survived the situation than killed it. It was not perfect. But it was world’s better than whatever the PK was doing within the first two months of this season. Killing 39 out of 46 shorthanded situations is still really good! The Devils legitimately put up a top-ten success rate on the PK in March. Blackwood and Wedgewood were fantastic; a team save percentage in the high 80s and low 90s is simply sensational for shorthanded situations. The on-ice rates better reflected how they played, which was to actually make clearances, win pucks, and kill the clock, instead of just conceding a backdoor play for a goal against for short PK situations that yield low on-ice rates and lots of pain for the fans. Veterans like Zajac, Dmitry Kulikov, Vatanen, Subban, and Damon Severson have been much better. Newcomers like Sharangovich, Bastian, McLeod have held their own. I hope the Devils can continue to make gains so they are not so reliant on the goaltenders bailing them out. But I would like to think the Devils are not going to fall back on their faces and post a success rate in the 50%-60% range for April.
Additions and Subtractions
The Devils did not make much in the way of notable additions or subtractions to the roster. The NHL Trade Deadline is on April 12, so that may change very soon. Still, there were the following moves.
The additions were all for the future. With the Ontario Hockey League still inactive, prospects like Graeme Clarke and Michael Vukojevic have been allowed to play in the AHL. The Devils signed each to entry level contracts this month to secure their near-term futures with New Jersey. I do not know if there will be an OHL season and, if there is, whether Clarke and Vukojevic has to report. Both are locked into the Devils’ system regardless for the next three seasons. After Providence’s and Penn State’s season ended in college, the Devils quickly signed two more prospects. Tyce Thompson and Aarne Talvitie are now under contract. Thompson’s two-season entry level contract begins this season, so he is eligible to play in the NHL should New Jersey want to see how he does at this level. Talvitie is on an AHL contract for this season and his two-season entry level contract will begin next season.
In terms of subtractions, the Devils suffered one major injury. Nathan Bastian left the game early in the second period in the March 18 win over Pittsburgh. Per Chris Ryan of NJ.com on March 20, Ruff stated that Bastian was “week-to-week” with a lower body injury. As of this writing, there has been no further update about Bastian’s status, what specifically was the injury, and if he will be able to return this season. There were two notable minor injuries. Mackenzie Blackwood was ruled out of the first two games against Pittsburgh an upper body injury from warmups from the March 18 game. Blackwood returned on March 21 against the Penguins. Pavel Zacha also missed the March 18 game as he left during warmups, but he only missed that one game.
There has been some rotation with the Devils’ lineup. Mostly at forward. The lone defense change was at the beginning of the month. Ryan Murray did miss the first three games of the month and Will Butcher filled in. Murray re-entered the lineup for the March 7 game in Boston and remained in it ever since. At forward, Nikita Gusev, Mikhail Maltsev, Nick Merkley, Michael McLeod, Janne Kuokkanen, and Jesper Boqvist all saw themselves getting pulled into and out of the lineup for various reasons at the time. Kuokkanen only ended up missing the March 2 game; he played in all the other 16 games for the Devils and did well. Maltsev and McLeod also played most of the month with 13 appearances. That Gusev has only played in six games and none since March 20 at Pittsburgh suggests strongly that he is not in favor in New Jersey. What is more is that I do not think he has really been missed as Gusev has not played well this season.
As one final note: What about Nico? Nico Hischier was cleared for physical activity on March 29. Hopefully, we shall see him return to the team in early April.
The Devil of the Month
Two players stuck out for me within the month of March. Both ended up tied for the team lead in points in March. Both had very different months.
Travis Zajac went from a player that some fans wanted to see go to a player that many of those same fans have exalted in recent weeks. The turning point was when Ruff had Zajac center Sharangovich and Kuokkanen. Sticking a not very fast experienced center with two rookie wingers that may have an offensive profile but were still figuring it out seemed odd on paper. It has worked out quite well in practice. The effectiveness of this line led Sharangovich to lead the team in shots in March with 50 to go with four goals and four assists. Kuokkanen got hot on the scoresheet with four goals and six assists. But Zajac was the one who made it all work among them. Even in the face of some really tough matchups and minutes, this line would manage to create good shifts, cycle and forecheck occasionally to great success, and help the other lines get more favorable matchups. The improvement of the penalty kill in March also flowed down from Zajac being a more effective player on the ice. While the Devils took about 49% of the shooting attempts and 46% of the shots in 5-on-5 play when Zajac was on the ice, the Devils were heavily outscoring their competition when he was on the ice too. And Zajac put up three goals (including his 200th career goal as a Devil on March 30) and nine assists, mostly in conjunction with Kuokkanen and/or Sharangovich. Call it a rejuvenation. Call it a comeback. Call it what you will. I call Zajac the Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month.
The other leader in points had a better March in the run of play in addition to being productive. This would be Jesper Bratt. A young man who deserves more minutes. Given that he was placed with Zajac and Sharangovich in the March 30 game in Boston and played 19:27 in the game, he may be getting them now. As he should. In March, when Bratt was on the ice, the Devils were often on offense. This was reflected with his CF% of 54.95% (fourth best on the Devils) and SF% of 51.53% (fifth best on the Devils). Chances were also favorable given his 50.34% SCF% and 51.72% HDCF% in the month. Bratt was frequently flying around with Jack Hughes in the month and it was great in the run of play. However, Bratt was more productive than The Big Deal. Bratt may have only scored two goals, but he created ten others - including taking the shot that Zajac tipped in for his 200th goal in Boston on Tuesday. The power play may have stunk with just five goals, but Bratt had a hand in four of them with one PPG and four PPAs. If you want a defining highlight of Bratt’s play for the month, then look no further than his wraparound goal in OT on March 21 in Pittsburgh. Whereas Andreas Johnsson has faltered, Nikita Gusev has played himself out of the lineup, and Kyle Palmieri may not be a Devil on April 13, Bratt has emerged to be a winger the Devils can build with Hughes and Hischier. In a month of inconsistency, Bratt provided the run of play and the production to be a standout on the Devils. That is why I declare that Jesper Bratt is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of March 2021.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
It surprised me to hear on the broadcast near the beginning of the March 30 game in Boston that Lindy Ruff stated that he thinks there is something to play for. Perhaps he was being publicly coy. The Devils’ playoff chances realistically ended with that slide at the beginning of the month without a similar run of wins to recover from it. I think that should surprise few Devils fans as most were not expecting the postseason in 2021. However, to get a sense how things were going throughout the month, consider what I’ve written this month since their first game (and loss) to the Islanders:
- A long, long, long rant about the Devils’ slump at the time on March 8.
- A long, long, long overview of where the re-build is going on March 15.
- An early NHL Trade Deadline preview wherein I explained that the Devils are sellers and who could be gone from the team on March 22.
- An early look at the Seattle expansion draft wherein I explained who I would protect and expose based on the current roster on March 29.
Once again, this season is more about the future and evaluating the players this season for a hopefully brighter future. I think the losing in the first half of this month has raised more of a larger concern about how long this “re-building” will go before the team is competitive in the standings. I think that could be re-ignited should there be a similar slide in April or next season. At some point, a step forward has to be taken and a team cannot just wait for it to happen on its own. I do not think it will happen soon although the trade activity (or lack of it?) may provide a clue. Still, this month just confirmed what we mostly expected. Not that many are happy about it, but unhappiness was reduced a bit with how the team played in the second half of the month.
I think it has also helped that this month’s performances helped to solidify the near futures of several Devils. With a young team, one never knows if they are truly players the team should stick with. After March, I am pleased with what I have seen from Sharangovich and Kuokkanen that I would want both around for a while. I think Bastian is worth keeping. As flawed as his month was at times, Ty Smith was better more often than not and is receiving more and more minutes. (Note: You may have not noticed but the third pairing became Ryan Murray and Sami Vatanen.) McLeod could be better but he has had enough bright spots that I would be fine with him as a fourth line center. I would like to see more from Mikhail Maltsev, Nick Merkley and Jesper Boqvist, but I am willing to see them get chances to provide more. All of this happened while Hughes continued to create a lot of opportunities and Bratt put up a lot in March. For those who are more concerned about the young players performing well as opposed to the team winning games, then you may also see March as a more positive experience.
To that end, I want to see the Devils sustain their positive gains among their players and rebound from poorer performances from March in April. I want to see Zajac continue to flourish as much as I want to see Zacha have a much better month. I want to see the power play be a whole lot better while I want the penalty kill to maintain the success they showed in March. I want Hughes to keep creating and hopefully there will be more finish for all involved. I want the Devils to be sharper on defense and rely less on Blackwood and Wedgewood to be amazing to get wins. And I want the Devils to make deals where they make sense while also having a plan to fill in the open spot if and when a deal is made by April 12.
Selfishly, I would like them to win more games. They need to be better at home as much as they need to be better on the power play. They will play Our Hated Rivals in a Week of Hate from April 13 to April 18; I want revenge and wins there. I want more wins over Philadelphia at the end of April. I want the Devils to beat Buffalo on April 6. I would love even just one win over Washington to avoid an 8-game winless series against them this season. I understand and expect I may not get all or even most of this. So it goes for another lost season. Because 2021 is another lost season based on what happened in March.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in March? Who and what impressed you the most among the Devils in the month? Who and what do you want the Devils to improve upon the most for April? What was your favorite game in March? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Bratt is the Devil of the Month? If not, who should it be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in March 2021 in the comments. Thank you for reading.