When a team is on a hot streak, it can sometimes feel like the good times will keep on rolling. When a team is in a slump, it can sometimes feel like the losing will never end. The New Jersey Devils were in the second situation. They have lost ten straight going into tonight. They went into tonight’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers with one win in April. They arguably should have won Sunday’s game but they blew it big time as they fell in a shootout, 3-4. They went onto the ice at The Rock with no wins at home since March 18 against Pittsburgh, a 3-2 win. And they came out with their Reverse Retro jerseys, a uniform they have won only once while wearing this season. My expectations for this game were quite low.
I am happy and relieved to write that the Devils proved me wrong. They won a game. They won their first game since April 8, ending a ten-game losing streak. They won their first home game since March 18. They even won their first home game by more than one goal since January 24, a 2-0 win over the Islanders. For that reason alone, the People Who Matter are likely pleased with the result. When you lose ten straight, it does not matter so much how they end it, just that they ended it is important.
That said, I would be lying by omission to the People Who Matter by not stating that the Devils did their best to nearly botch this game. Likewise, the Flyers did their best to come up short - and they succeeded. The third period alone likely has head coaches Lindy Ruff and Alain Vigeneault displeased with some of the personnel. Namely, the goaltenders.
The Devils’ save percentage has been kneecapped in this losing streak. Mackenzie Blackwood was doing his best for the most part. In the first two periods, he was quite fine. In fact, he was very good in the second period as the Flyers threw a lot of rubber at him with 24 shooting attempts and 15 shots. He was only beaten on a jam play by Oskar Lindblom, but the Devils’ lead was maintained even as the Philadelphia pressure was put on by both score effects and a team that knew the Devils handle leads like one handles anything covered in butter. But Blackwood gave up some poor goals in the third period that led to a big Flyers comeback. The second goal against, fine, he was hung out to dry as the Devils’ strong-side-focused defensive approach burned them again. The third goal against (the first equalizer), while it was an in close play by not-really-covered Claude Giroux, it did sneak through the five-hole. The fourth goal against (and second equalizer) was just awful. A shot by Sean Couturier from the right halfwall that somehow beat him to the right post. Blackwood did recover from that last one, but it was easy for the fans - myself included - to worry about when, not if, another GA was going to happen.
Fortunately for Blackwood, you, me, and the Devils, Brian Elliott decided to be much worse. In this game, Elliott conceded a power play goal to Pavel Zacha through his legs, a Miles Wood shot through traffic that he took from about 60 feet away from the net, and then two real bad goals that kept the Devils in the game in the third. First, Connor Carrick powered down the wing, beat his man, and sniped a shot to the far post past Elliott. Carrick turned Elliott into a highlight on what may be the best goal he has (and will) score as a New Jersey Devil. This put the Devils up 4-3 minutes after Giroux made it 3-3. Couturier tied it up shortly after that. Seconds after that goal, Janne Kuokkanen ultimately wins a puck battle behind the net and Elliott is steadfast at his left post. Kuokkanen flings a puck to Yegor Sharangovich on the other side. Sharangovich then has a wraparound to an empty net to make it 5-4. The Flyers lost that board battle badly behind the net, no one came around to help on the open side of the net, and Elliott committed himself so far to the left that he did not even consider the other side. That was bad all the way around and it ended up being the game’s deciding goal.
Of course, the Devils nearly coughed up a late equalizer in an extra man situation for the Flyers. After a fairly solid job of dealing with the six Flyers skaters, a puck was dumped in towards Damon Severson. Severson easily retained the puck and looked to clear it. Somehow, someway, the puck deflected
off the boards hard a Flyers’ skate and went right to Couturier in the slot. Live, I thought it was a heinous turnover. Upon replay, it was a horrible accident. Either way, I was dreading seeing the puck go into the net. Somehow, someway, Matt Tennyson made a heroic block on the shot to deny Couturier. James van Reimsdyk thankfully whiffed on a rebound effort, Zacha bounced the puck past Sanheim, and before the Devils could clear it, the whistle went as Blackwood lost his mask. It was a dramatic moment that I did not want to see, but one that the Devils needed to maintain the 5-4 lead.
Thankfully, the Devils locked things down further. After some more clearances, Claude Giroux nearly did to the Devils what he did on Sunday: get a killer pass across the slot for an open shot to Blackwood’s right. But Blackwood followed the pass and was huge to Giroux, holding onto the shot. After a few seconds of defense, Michael McLeod won a puck battle, flipped the puck out of the zone, and Mikhail Maltsev won the race ahead of Travis Sanheim to that puck. He took a poke and ushered the puck into the empty net with two seconds left. The Devils managed to get a win despite their efforts in the third period. It was objectively bad how it came about, but it still felt oh so good that it happened at all.
Especially since the Devils did fairly well through the first two periods. Sure, the Flyers dominated the shot count and the attempt count in the second and third periods. But they were chasing a game by the Devils wherein they killed a four-minute double minor in the first period by allowing one easy shot for Blackwood and one post for Giroux; they scored two power play goals for just the second time this season; they went up 3-1 and still made Flyers fans groan as they would get some really good chances to make it with their speed; and Blackwood was really sharp in the second period. It was not perfect, but it was pretty good and about a bajillion times better than most of the first and second periods from the now-over ten-game losing streak. The third period certainly was not perfect either, but I would have taken any win at this point of the streak and the season. And so they did.
The Opposition Opinion: Brad Keffer has this short recap up at Broad Street Hockey. He helpfully points out that the Flyers’ tragic number is 3. Yes, the Devils can help the Flyers be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and stay ahead of Buffalo in the standings. If you want motivation for the next two games, then there it is.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, watch this for Carrick’s goal alone. It flabbergasted me live and, presumably, Carrick as well.
Special Teams Success? Yes!: The Devils won the special teams battle, which did play a role in how the Devils built up their lead in the first two periods. First, the Devils came out turgid with zero shots on net within the first ten minutes of the game at even strength. Needing to kill four minutes due to McLeod high-sticking Couturier right off a neutral zone faceoff was a tall ask for a reeling team. But the Devils did a great job. Giroux nearly scored by hitting the post and that was pretty much it. The Devils did a great job defusing the Flyers’ zone entries, they cleared pucks cleanly, and they did not get exposed. It was legitimately a great penalty killing effort. Even better, that was their only one of the night.
As for the power play, the Devils were their typical wasteful selves until they were not. The few times they were able to set up in the Flyers’ zone led to goals. The first was a bit fortunate. A Jack Hughes one-timer got Brian Elliott going to post to post and down low, but the shot was not great and, more importantly, was blocked by Robert Haag. Nico Hischier was in the right place at the right time to take that loose puck and rifle it over the fallen Elliott to make it 1-0 late in the first. The Devils’ offense awoke in the second half of the period and that goal was its just reward.
Early in the second period, McLeod blew up Couturier with a legal hit. The apparent Code of the Game identified that is a sin, and so Sanheim tried to smite McLeod by pinning him against the boards before they dropped the gloves. Sanheim got an extra two for roughing in addition to the matching fighting majors. After about a minute plus of not much, the Devils created a score. Hischier worked the puck back to Ty Smith, who saw Hughes going down the right side. After a pass to 86, Hughes continued forward as Pavel Zacha found the soft middle of the Flyers’ coverage. Hughes made a pass to Zacha, who one-timed a shot low through Elliott’s legs for a second PPG to make it 2-0.
While I would have liked more consistency on the power play, they got the job done. They went 2-for-2 tonight and both goals led to the early lead that the Devils built up. After so many games where one or both sides of special teams were a big failure that yielded another loss, it was down right refreshing to see the Devils take care of business in this regard. And it makes the win even better as the team did not squander a rare successful night of special teams play.
By the Way: Bryce Salvador called this out during the MSG+ broadcast, but I do agree that Lindblom fouled Tennyson prior to his goal in the second period. Tennyson was able to recover enough to stand next to Lindblom. He should have either wrapped his stick up or got in between him and the goal instead. But Lindblom did interfere with him from behind into the boards, which is a dangerous play. The refs let that go. Alas.
Getting Picked On: As the Flyers tilted the ice big time after the Devils went up 3-1, the attempt, shot, and chance count favored Philadelphia. Specifically, the second period saw the Flyers attempt 24 shots to the Devils’ 10 and 22 shots to the Devils’ 14 in the third period. Therefore, a lot of Devils look poor by way of CF% and xGF%. Even before the big push, though, a few Devils were getting picked on in the run of play.
First, the line of Jesper Boqvist, Nolan Foote, and Mikhail Maltsev was being outplayed by the Philadelphia fourth line. This was a night to forget for that unit as Foote and Boqvist did not create much in either end and Maltsev seemed to do a lot of chasing. I am glad Maltsev put home the empty net goal to secure the win, but this was not one of his better nights.
Second, Michael McLeod in particular had a rough game. Sure, McLeod “drew” the extra two from Sanheim. Sure, he won a big puck battle in a 6-on-5 situation that iced the game. But in between that, he was pretty bad. His high-stick on Couturier may have not warranted four minutes due to a lack of an obvious cut, but it was stupid as he lifted his stick right into his chin after a faceoff. When he was with Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian, the Devils were out-attempted by at least seven, out-shot by at least three, and out-scored by one. Wood and Bastian were much better in the run of play without McLeod than with him. It was just a poor night for #20.
Also, question for Lindy Ruff, why would you have McLeod’s most common opponents at 5-on-5 be Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Couturier? I know there are not many better options and it may be wise to experiment, but this was not working early in the game, much less when the Flyers turned up the heat in the contest.
Third, I’m glad that Tennyson made that block near the end of the game and I’m glad Smith facilitated a power play goal. Other than those moments, the Flyers loved playing against them from the first period to the third. Worst of all was their time against the other team’s best. They only saw Giroux, Voracek, and Couturier for about four and a half minutes in 5-on-5 play. That unit put up 11 attempts on the Devils to maybe one by the Devils and shots were 6-0 or 6-1 depending on who you looked at in the matchup. I know the pickings are slim on defense with P.K. Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler unavailable. But if there was a pairing to split up, then this was one of them. Carrick and Butcher were also picked on a lot in the third period too. At least Carrick scored an absolute banger of a goal, though.
This is not to say that all of these players were useless or did not do anything good. Just that the Flyers really put the pressure on them and did hurt the cause a bit.
Oh, and to reiterate, Blackwood in the third period could have been much better than he was. That Couturier goal against was especially poor.
So Who Did Well?: The Jack Hughes line rebounded with a better performance in 5-on-5 on top of special teams duties. The trio of Hughes, Kuokkanen, and Sharangovich gave a lot of problems to Justin Braun and Ivan Provorov. Hughes provided value on the power play whilst Sharangovich and Kuokkanen created the eventual game winner. And after the deluge of attempts and possession by the Flyers in the final half of the game or so, this unit was the only one to not be out-attempted or out-shot by a heavy margin. That’s something.
I also thought Ryan Murray put in a generally good effort. He was much more active on offense with four shots on net. He made some good reads, including a really clever iced puck that Miles Wood won a race for and nearly caught Elliott by surprise by shooting it off the endboards. He did well on that penalty kill and was mostly fine in his own end of the rink. My only beef with Murray is that I am still wondering where he was on the Giroux goal. Severson tried to deny the pass from Voracek with a stickcheck. Who was Murray dealing with in the interim?
Miles Wood’s speed was a real problem for the Flyers. One thing I want to see the Devils do on Thursday and Saturday is to continue to expose the Flyers’ defense lack of quickness. Wood, Jesper Bratt, Hischier, and even Kuokkanen were able to get behind the defense. The long pass they got helped, but they had the motor to get ahead for a shot attempt. Wood faltered in his one-on-ones with Elliott. But that is the sort of thing the Devils can do to keep a team battling back into the game honest. I will credit that he got a goal on a shot I would not have wanted him to take or expect to go in. For his role, I was fine with Wood tonight - and especially when he was not with McLeod.
Also to reiterate, Blackwood in the first two periods was quite good.
Give Me More: The line of Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Zacha was not all that good in my view on Sunday. I thought they were a bit more active and positive in spots tonight. They did eventually drown in the run of play as the Flyers put on more pressure. They did draw plenty of Giroux’s line, which went as well as one would expect. But Bratt did end up with four shots on net and both Hischier and Zacha had goals. I want to see them get more in spite of the matchup. We shall see if Ruff sticks with it for Thursday night or tries to mix things up to get different looks going.
By the way, I hope Bratt is OK as it appeared on the broadcast he took an accidental boot to the groin from Couturier after a hit. Bratt missed a shift or two and returned. Still, that had to sting.
Opposition Debut: Egor Zamula made his NHL debut for the Flyers tonight. It looked like it. His big rookie moment was going D-to-D without his D-partner. Alas, the Devils did not make most of that error in the first period. I noticed him more than, say, the $7.142 Million Cap Hit Man Kevin Hayes.
A Plea For Thursday: Please play a smarter, calmer, less anxiety-inducing third period, Devils. No, this does not mean going down big in the first two periods so the third does not matter much like you have done for the last two weeks.
Sherman Abrams Watch?: Sherman is so unhappy with this result, he refused to comment about this game. Too bad.
With this win, the Devils are now 29th in the NHL with 37 points. They are two points ahead of idle Anaheim, four points ahead of Buffalo (who lost tonight) with a game in hand on the Sabres, and three points behind Ottawa. The Devils can at least continue to prove they are not the worst team in the East or the NHL. This win helps with that.
Two: They have won two games in the Reverse Retro jerseys this season.
No, this does not mean I want to see them ever again.
One Last Thought: The Devils will need to sign a backup goaltender in the offseason. Let this game be evidence that they should not consider Brian Elliott for that role.
Your Take: The Devils finally won a game! What is your take on the win? Who excelled in your eyes? Who should have done better? What stuck out to you in this performance? What do you want to see on Thursday based on what you saw this evening? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for previewing tonight’s game. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented and paid attention in the Gamethread. And thank you for reading.