Tell me if you’ve read this kind of New Jersey Devils performance before:
- The New Jersey Devils are hosting an opponent at the Rock.
- The opponent gets up early in the game as the Devils struggle to do basic things like move the puck up ice or register a shot on net.
- The opponent builds up a lead that for most teams would not be the end of the world but for a team whose finishing has been lacking at times, it feels like it is.
- The Devils manage to get close in the game or even tie it up.
- The Devils play well to try to even up the game or take the lead themselves.
- The opponent extends their lead. Sometimes against the run of play, sometimes not.
- The opponent extends their lead again. Maybe (or usually?) on a power play goal.
- The Devils try to make a comeback. They try oh. so. hard. to make a comeback. It is not enough. It does not happen for (enter reason here: great opposition goaltender, bad luck, bad special teams, not having enough bodies in front, having too many bodies in front, etc.)
- The New Jersey Devils lose at home to the opponent.
In just those nine steps, I have summed up for you tonight’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils lost to them 2-5 this evening. By the margin of defeat, this was worse than Friday’s 4-6 loss to the Penguins in the same building. By the fact that tonight’s spirited comeback effort yielded little beyond Subban’s goal, this was a worse loss. Yet, you cannot even say the Devils got no breaks in this one as their two goals were from Miles Wood crashing the net such that he re-directed an uncommonly accurate feed by Sami Vatanen past Tristan Jarry and P.K. Subban crashing the net to have put the puck over the line past Jarry, who never hard control, on a play that was originally called no goal but was called a goal after review. Those were fortunate for New Jersey; not that it mattered or the Devils did enough to take care of it. Speaking of luck, consider the Devils’ last four goals against Pittsburgh. Other than those two, there was a Jesper Boqvist pass going in off of a Penguin skate and Brian Dumoulin careening a puck off Casey DeSmith’s leg and in by accident (it was credited to Wood, which helpfully jacks up his numbers). So it’s not like the Devils have had no fortune against Pittsburgh in recent games.
And it’s not even like the Devils have had no victories against Pittsburgh before. The Devils have actually beaten Pittsburgh twice this season. They are one of the few teams to come away from Pittsburgh with points due to an overtime win back on March 21. They are one of the few visiting opponents the Devils beat at home back on March 18. Yet, it was mystifying to me that a Devils team that played largely well on Friday came out flatter than a pancake to a Penguins team that bossed them all over the ice to start this one. It was also stunning to me that the Devils corrected the course for the second period, seemed to do a lot of things right for about 15-16 minutes, collapse for the final four minutes or so, and concede a third goal against as well as a power play that led to the back-breaking fourth goal against. However, despite the surprise from the previous two periods, I was not at all surprised that the Devils would mount an attempt to try to close the gap in the third period and that they would fail to do so. After all, I’ve seen that kind of game many, many times this season. And if you have been following along this season, so have you.
Even if you have not, I feel it is more important to share this stat that is relevant to this and so many of the other Devils’ home games this season. Partially because Ken Daneyko rambled on about it in the third period on the TV broadcast tonight, claiming that there were other teams as bad as the Devils. Sorry, 3, but that is not true. They have been the worst team at home in the NHL. This is not hyperbole. This is not an emotion or a feeling after spending a bit over two and a half hours watching my favorite team fail to get anything out of a game. This is fact. Per NHL.com, the Devils’ home record of 4-15-3 is the worst record in the NHL in terms of point percentage (25%) and points earned (11). Detroit has been better at home. Anaheim has been better at home. Even Buffalo has been better at home. The Devils are literally the worst team at home this season. And against an opponent whom they have beaten at home for one of those four wins, they suffered a third ‘L’ out of fifteen this season.
This really makes little sense. Home teams get the last line change, which should be a fantastic tool that an experienced head coach like Lindy Ruff should utilize to its fullest given the young and inexperienced roster they have. Home teams have the familiarity of being, well, home with the arena, the locker room set up, and a common commute that does not involve a bus or a plane. Not needing to adjust should be a positive. There is much research in many sports to see whether crowds have an impact. The Rock has had fans in the arena now for over a month. The team has felt confident enough to bring back theme nights, which are great to see. Pride Night was tonight’s theme, which is always a good theme for the team to run. A team could use the morale boost that comes from otherwise total strangers wanting to see you succeed at something (which is a thing, I’m a hockey blogger, I know). Yet, the Devils have continually failed to use any of these advantages, real or theoretical, and have instead continually failed to turn the Rock to anything but a place for visitors to win. I know the 2021 Devils are not good, but they are legitimately one of the better road teams in the league so it’s not like they cannot play the sport well at all. It just makes no sense.
It therefore also makes no sense for people to go out in the midst of a global pandemic and spend money, time, and energy to attend these games. There’s only six left. Two against Our Hated Rivals as part of The Week of Hate; two against Philadelphia in the final week of April; and a back-to-back with Boston in the final full week of the season in May. I mean, what’s the point of going to the Rock? I can almost predict what you’re likely going to see. Take tonight’s game for example. The visitors went up early? Check; Devils were down 0-2 in the first period. The Devils made it close? Check; Devils made it 1-2 near the end of the first period. The opponents went up big before the Devils tried to make a comeback? Check; the Penguins ended the second period with the Devils down 1-3 and made it 1-4 early in the third. An easy empty net goal to ice the game? Check; Crosby won a race to a puck in New Jersey’s left corner and set up an easy ENG for Jake Guentzel.
Even some of the other common traits of this season re-appeared. We can check some of them off too. Veteran defenseman having a terrible night? Check; tonight it was Damon Severson. Mistakes in coverage and on defense for goals against? Check, check, and check. Young forwards in over their head in this one? Check; their names included Jesper Boqvist, the NHL debuting Marian Studenic, and Tyce Thompson. Special teams failures? Check; it was another net-negative with Pittsburgh getting a PPGA and the Devils converting none of their own. ‘
I would have to ask the Devils employees who read this site: Why would you expect anyone to pay money and/or risk the Coronavirus to see this team live? Keep in mind, I’m asking this as someone who wants and would personally benefit to see the Devils be good at their jobs now.
I understand the 2021 Devils not being good, but being a more competitive team means not needing to have to make big comeback efforts night after night to make the scores look closer in a loss. It means being able to hang with an opponent throughout the game. When the Devils are constantly down two, three, or even four scores, then it rings hollow when they push the effort to make up the difference because it is often too big to close. In a sense, at least the Devils did not pump me up with false hope as they did on Friday night, so there’s that other notable difference from that loss at the Rock. Of course, one could argue that the team played with pride that night and tonight on Pride Night, they only played it out. Either way, it was a similar tale at the Rock this evening and I’m left counting the number of home games left to just be done with it.
The Opposition Opinion: From PensBurgh, Hooks Orpik has this recap of the game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights:
No One to Blame but Themselves: Of course, some of the goals against involved things that went against the Devils, so clearly they were in the clear right? No. At the risk of drawing ire from the People Who Matter, allow me to keep it real:
- For the first goal against, yes, the Devils did deny a 3-on-1 rush against. This does not excuse Mackenzie Blackwood for not knowing where the puck ended up. Or the Hughes line for tracking back slowly enough to allow Colton Sceviour to figure it out and finish the play himself.
- For the second goal against, the icing call against the Devils was a bad one. That was not the issue. They lost the resulting defensive zone faceoff. While that hurt, that was not the main issue. The main issue was their reaction to losing the draw. Teams that are well-coached have plays to run when their team wins or loses draws in different zones. The Devils were positionally OK but Damon Severson was defending Sceviour way too softly. He allowed the forward to get inside position on him and did nothing to his free stick. That free stick re-directed a Mike Matheson shot from distance past Blackwood.
- For the third goal against, the Devils were pinned back on nearly consecutive shifts. After Thompson, Boqvist, and Maltsev were worked over, the Hughes line went to be worked on by the Crosby line. Whereas this matchup went well on Friday, it did not tonight and it was costly here. Bryan Rust had a free shot with traffic in front and the high shot beat Blackwood. Ruff challenged this call for goaltender interference. It was not immediately apparent what the interference was. Eventually, I figured it out it must have been from seeing Crosby bumping Ty Smith into Blackwood. But the same replay showed Smith initiating that contact and the bump into Blackwood may have not been enough to deny Blackwood from stopping the shot. My larger beef remains with why no one was stepping up to Bryan Rust, one of Pittsburgh’s top players. Because that’s how to deal with a team if you’re not going to cover players down low - the supply needs to be stopped. They did not and so it was 1-3 near the end of the second period. Since the challenge failed, there was a power play for Pittsburgh.
- For the fourth goal against, the play began with an open Crosby in front of Blackwood being denied by the goaltender. Jared McCann wins the loose puck and moved it to Rust. Rust found Jake Guentzel all alone on Blackwood’s right. Pass, shot, score, PPGA. It was a 4-on-5 situation so, no, everyone could not be bodied up. But with how the Devils were all so focused on the puck, the poor effort to win it back after Crosby’s shot and to deny Rust a passing lane was, well, poor.
And those are just the scoring plays against Blackwood. This speaks nothing to the myriad of defensive zone turnovers by Severson tonight. Or how Tyce Thompson showed that there is no ‘D’ in his game as well as in his name. Or how the team failed to even register a shot on net in the first eight minutes whilst going down a pair of goals to Sceviour. Or how the third period opened up on the penalty kill with Jared McCann getting a clean look in front of the net all by himself. As much as some fans may want to point to a bad icing call or a bad decision on a challenge, the Devils players have no one to blame but themselves for each of these failures. The common threads in all four are a lack of attention and a lack of support of each other. When one moves, someone needs to fill in the gap. When someone is being covered, they need to limit what they can do. These are things that can and should be coached up; they do not necessarily require big free agent signings, massive trades, or hot 18-year old defenseman prospects to fix. Yet, it’s game #40 for New Jersey and I am still wondering how Severson or Subban or Ryan Murray or Sami Vatanen (less so tonight) seem so lost.
Literally Too Little, Too Late: The third period on-ice stats in 5-on-5 situations: 13:18 played, Devils out-attempted the Penguins 11-7 and out-shot them 4-3, out-chanced them 6-3, and out-high danger chanced them 3-0. Keep in mind scoring chances at Natural Stat Trick includes misses. I’m face palming at those numbers again. Four out of eleven shots being on target is pathetic, especially when you consider that included Subban’s crashing goal. The team was down as many as three goals and put fewer than half of their shot attempts on net in an attempt to come back. I repeat: The Devils need to learn that they do not need to be down 2-4 goals before they try to roar back into the game.
They needed more of what they did in the second period where they really did control 75% of the period by way of out-attempting the Penguins 25-15 and 13-6 in 5-on-5. Prior to those final 4-5 minutes of the second period, the shot differential was as high as 11-2 in favor of New Jersey. The Devils did an excellent job in the second until they were unsatisfactory towards the end of it, which ultimately cost them.
An Actual Unfortunate Occurrence: One event that did hurt the Devils’ cause this evening was the loss of Pavel Zacha. I was not sure what exactly happened but he took one nine-second shift in the second period and he was done for the night. He did not return. The Devils were left to three centers and eleven forwards for a majority of the game. This explained why Jack Hughes had a lot of double-shifts. It may have contributed to the somewhat poor night Jesper Bratt had this evening (9-16 in Corsi differential? Bro.) This does make the Devils’ second period of out-shooting the Pens 14-6 and out-attempting them 28-14 more impressive. But losing Zacha did hurt some of the match-ups and it did wear on the fatigue of the attack as the game went on. Zacha was playing better hockey since last Wednesday. Hopefully whatever injury he presumably picked up is minor.
Waivered Yet Capable: Of note was that Pittsburgh recently waived Sceviour. He cleared and clearly has been on a bit of vengeance on the score sheet with three goals against the Devils in the last two games. Somewhat similarly, Vatanen was placed on waivers today and played perhaps his best game in weeks while registering his fourth assist of the season on Wood’s goal. At least they did something constructive with their motivation ahead of tomorrow’s deadline.
A Notable Scratch: Dmitry Kulikov was held out of the game for “precautionary reasons.” I will be mildly surprised if he suits up on April 13 for New Jersey.
A Mild Silver Lining: With Kulikov held out and Jonas Siegenthaler not yet with the Devils, it was decided to let Will Butcher participate in a game for the first time since March 6. Clearly, he has not fit into the Devils’ plans. I am pleased to say he did OK. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils out-attempted the Penguins 17-10 and shots were even at 4 each. No goals were scored against Butcher and the expected goals were 0.78-0.22 in favor of the Devils. This is all to point out that he was actually fine this evening. Will he be fine later? Who knows. With Siegenthaler joining soon, he may not get a chance. But he was not the issue this evening.
Sigh, Damon: I have done a lot of defending of Damon Severson. Over the whole season, he has not been the tire-fire that he sometimes is perceived as. But tonight, his play in both ends resembled a large pile of rubber being lit ablaze. From lazy puck movement in his own zone leading to turnovers to failing to engage with players near him, he only needed to register an own goal to fully meet the perception of those Devils fans who think he stinks. Make no mistake, if there was a game to criticize Severson for being bad, then this was the one. The good news is that he should be able to bounce back in the future. This game should not define his season unless this horrid game persists. His most ardent haters will insist it will. The perception will remain. But reality is more kind to him. Still, he sucked tonight.
Sigh, Andreas: There are few people defending Andreas Johnsson. Mostly because there is usually nothing much to defend. Or support. Or exalt. Johnsson has not scored in a very long time, he has not produced in a long time, and he has not been particularly good in the run of play or in defensive situations either. To my dismay, he was out on the power play and out on the penalty kill (and for the PPGA). I understand this may have been driven by Zacha leaving the game, but surely there has to be better options than to show off Johnsson in these areas where he has made little impact. More over, who is actually asking to have Andreas Johnsson shown off to them? I know I didn’t. I’m pretty sure you didn’t. Who?
One Last Thought - Please Do Better as it is Now The Week of Hate: Now that the Devils are done with the Penguins for a little over a week, it is all about Our Hated Rivals. The Devils have literally nothing to play for this season. They can make up a lot of goodwill and reduce a lot of frustration and subside a lot of rebuilding fatigue by playing well in their next four games. They are all against Our Hated Rivals. I have dubbed this The Week of Hate. I hate the Rangers. You most likely hate the Rangers. The Devils should want every chance to make up for their last two games against them, which were both embarrassing losses at the Rock. And since familiarity breeds contempt, a lot of contempt will be bred by the end of the four straight games against Our Hated Rivals. I would like the Devils to actually review the tape from this one and sort out the details on defense so they do not commit these same failures again. That would be a good start to prepare for a week where a run of wins can make everyone feel a lot less salty, frustrated, and/or down on this team.
Your Take: I’m obviously down on this loss at home. What’s your take on this one? Did you happen to attend this game? If so, I’m sorry. They should do right by you somehow, someway. What do the Devils need to fix amid their details to get that apparently rare fifth-home-win-of-the-season at the start of The Week of Hate on Tuesday? Please leave your answers and laments about this game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented and paid attention in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.