Tonight was the final home game of the 2021 regular season for the New Jersey Devils. It began with no fans in the stands. In March, the state of New Jersey allowed a partial crowd. This was increased in April. All the while, the Devils compiled one of the worst home records in the entire NHL. It makes little sense. One would think that a young, inexperienced team would find playing at home an advantage. Nope. Visitors have to come to the Rock and often left with two more points. The few fans who attended were often disappointed as teams like Our Hated Rivals or Washington constantly put them down. Yesterday was the latest in a long line ofgames where the fans were sent home unhappy and/or wondering why they paid money to see the game. Tonight, the Devils hosted their second straight Fan Appreciation Night in their second straight game against the Boston Bruins. I am happy to write that the fans had something to appreciate: a solid performance by Mackenzie Blackwood, a third-period comeback, Jack Hughes dialing up offense while being double-shifted, and Pavel Zacha finishing the game off in overtime with a sick backhander for the 4-3 victory.
As the roar of the 3,600 people allowed at the Rock went on, I felt relief. Monday’s 0-3 loss was a grind to watch from a Devils perspective. Tonight’s game had some stretches pulled right out of that game and some of the similar results, such as another huge shot disparity as the Devils were out-shot 21-36. But Boston was not as sharp, particularly in the neutral zone and defensive zone. The Devils were more up for the game and legitimately battled back. While the win is ultimately meaningless for the Devils’ season, it does demonstrate that the players had a more professional mindset. They wanted to make a game of it in the third period and they did.
Case in point, consider the sequence of events of the third period. A shot from distance by Damon Severson was stopped by Jaroslav Halak. The rebound bounced right to Jesper Boqvist, who missed the net on at least four open opportunities earlier in the game. He did not miss and tied up the game at 2-2. On the next shift, Boston equalized. David Pastrnak fired a shot as Sean Kuraly charged past Severson and to the net. The shot hit off Kuraly’s skate and re-directed in behind Blackwood. I was expecting Boston to just clamp down on the game. Instead, the Devils acted like they should have and did do: they re-grouped and looked to tie it back up. After Pavel Zacha was less than an inch from doing so, Severson found Yegor Sharangovich open at the Bruins’ blueline. The winger skated in and torched Halak with a wrist shot to make it 3-3. Were the Devils done? No. While they risked giving up a fourth goal, the Bruins left a lot of potential spots where a different bounce or timing could have seen the Devils go up 4-3 in regulation. The Devils were not merely content with getting close and calling it a night.
The attitude continued into overtime, where the Devils sought the win from the first shift onward. The first shot was a result of Blackwood winning a puck behind the net and Severson heaving a long pass to Jesper Bratt, who turned on the jets to cut to the middle for a strong shot. Jesper Boqvist could have had the second shot but he drew a penalty as Kuraly hacked him. Did the Devils settle for Boston touching up and potentially subjecting the People Who Matter to another possibly horrid 4-on-3 overtime power play? No. They maintained possession, re-grouped, got a solid 4-man personnel out there and controlled the puck in Boston’s end. The interplay between Will Butcher and Jack Hughes and Hischier ended with Hughes giving a pass to Zacha on the right side of the zone. Zacha charged in and beat Halak badly with a backhander. The Devils on the ice celebrated. The crowd erupted. Halak threw a tantrum.
Ultimately, the result and how the Devils achieved it from the third period onward was more of what I wanted to see out of the Devils this season. I did not expect this team to be good. I did want them to be competitive. Getting waxed repeatedly at home by Our Hated Rivals is not it. Getting swept by Washington in eight games is not it. Dropping points and games to Buffalo is not it. Making a comeback effort and completing it against a team with something to play for was absolutely it. And I loved to see it. It has been a trying season for the Devils, especially in their games in Newark. At the least the last one was something to smile about.
The Opposition Opinion: As per this recap at Stanley Cup of Chowder, SkyonAir faults the game on a disastrous shift in overtime. That is not wrong, but it is also not right. There were also the disastrous shifts in the third period that cost the Bruins this game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Power Play, Power Play, Power Play: What helped the Devils get off to a good start tonight was their power play. It helped that Boston took three straight penalties. Thank you to Matt Grzelcyk, Connor Clifton, and Charlie McAvoy for the help. The Devils actually did quite well on the first two power plays. They created good looks. They created shots for players that were open. There were indeed open Devils getting the puck. The last call on McAvoy was critical as it came with three seconds left on Clifton’s penalty. Hischier won the draw, Hughes got the puck and fired a quick pass to Zacha in the slot. Zacha hammered the one-timer, the puck touched off Jeremy Lauzon’s glove, and beat Halak for the score. It was officially a 5-on-4 goal as Clifton’s time was up just before the puck went in after a lengthy review. Still, it got the Devils going, there was a conversion, and it was off an actual good play as opposed to a fortunate break. Points for Hischier, Hughes, and Zacha are always nice to see.
The Devils’ fourth power play was more typical of what we have seen this season: nothing much doing and a risk of the opposition embarassing the Devils. Brad Marchand decided skate hard at Blackwood out of his net. Blackwood was playing a puck, but it is Marchand so who knows what intent he had. He tripped over Blackwood’s left skate and went hard into the boards. He got up and tried to take advantage of a bad turnover by Butcher, but he was offside the whole way so there was no concern of a Marchand shorty. That was literally the only notable part of that power play.
Then there was the power play that never was. Zacha won the game in OT in what was essentially a power play situation during the delayed call. I really appreciated how the Devils took their time to get a power play-like unit on the ice and looked for an actual shooting situation instead of just firing it away at the first chance. Another primary assist for Hughes and another goal for Zacha.
Ultimately, the power play units were a positive this evening and contributed to the win - even if the last goal was not technically during an actual power play.
Blackwood Locked In: I felt bad for Scott Wedgewood yesterday as he was shelled. I was concerned about Blackwood re-taking the crease and getting shelled again. He did. He faced 36 shots on net. In 5-on-5 play alone, he contended with 56 shooting attempts and 64 in total. Patrice Bergeron alone put 7 shots on him as his line with Marchand and Pastrnak just ate up whomever the Devils matched up against him. From denying Nick Ritchie right in front to maintaining rebound control on longer shots from Brandon Carlo to holding steady on a Reilly Smith breakaway (Smith whiffed on the puck, but never you mind). Blackwood was not named as a star of the game by Tonight’s Attending Media, but this win is just as much his as it was Zacha’s or Hughes’ or Sharangovich’s.
The three goals against would be hard to pin on him. The first was a power play goal by Patrice Bergeron, which was created on accident. Pastrnak wound up for a slapshot and his stick broke. The puck slid calmly to Bergeron, who turned around and sniped the top corner. The second featured Matt Tennyson stick-checking a puck off Taylor Hall’s stick. It did happen and it was sweet. Grzelcyk followed up the loose puck as Hall headed to the crease. The defenseman shot it and the puck went in off the leg of a mid-air Hall to make it 1-2 at the time. Lindy Ruff tried to help his goalie by challenging the goal for interference; but the challenge failed as Hall’s contact with Blackwood was middling at best. The third was a re-direction of a shot off a skate behind him. These were not bad goals to allow and I would argue the Hall and Kuraly goals were bad breaks. It is not like Blackwood was torched on a wrist shot about a shift after getting beaten on a Zacha shot that died on the goal line.
A Quick Aside about the Passive Diamond PK: Other than Bergeron’s goal, the passive diamond still allowed Bergeron to fire a hard shot off the post from the slot that it is supposed to protect. And their tendency to over-commit to the puck carrying side nearly cost them again as Marchand was found wide open for a one-timer on the opposite side, only to be denied by a great post-to-post stop by Blackwood. While it was beaten just once on a real good shot by Bergeron and conceded only three shots on net, those moments reminded me how much this penalty killing system needs to go.
Why I Think Halak Booted a Wooden Stool After the Game Ended: Halak made his first appearance since the beginning of April. While he was out with Coronavirus, goaltenders Jeremy Swayman and Daniel Vladar made the most of their opportunities filling in for Tuukka Rask. This was a big game for him to show that he should at least be the #2 goalie for the Bruins as they head into the postseason. Out of 21 shots, he was beaten four times and it arguably should have been five or six.
A quick summary of all of those: A hard slapshot one-timer that went off a defenders glove was the first goal and was more or less a bad break for the goalie. The others were not as defensible. A post saved him from a power play goal by Miles Wood in the first. A juicy rebound in front bounced right to Boqvist for the Devils’ second goal. Zacha powered through two Bruins while entering the zone and fired a hard wrist shot that got through Halak and the puck somehow stayed on the goalline. All Hischier had to do was dive at it, but the B’s saved the day. On the next shift, Sharangovich beats him straight up with a wrister that really should have been a save. Then in OT, he gets added to Zacha’s personal highlight reel as he was beaten straight up by a rising backhander.
I would not be shocked if Halak feels as if he failed in his chance to re-take the net. Sure, he may be the #2 for the time being. But this may be one of those performances that management looks at in a few months and decides to let Halak go test free agency. Especially when they have younger, cheaper goaltenders who have proven they can do the job of being decent when Rask needs a rest or cannot play. It sucks, but it happens in professional sports. If I were him, I maybe would have punted that stool too.
A Benching Leading to More Minutes for Hughes: One of the more notable things about this game is that Jack Hughes played a whopping 22:16 over 29 shifts, with over 18 minutes at even strength. This was largely due to Nick Merkley being benched in this game. He played all of eight shifts for 4:27. He took a really bad hooking penalty on Carlo in the second period, which ended with Bergeron’s PPG. After then, he played just two short shifts in the second and one in the third. This meant extra shifts were needed and they often went to Hughes.
It took some time to get going, but in the third period, Boqvist and Studenic (welcome back to the lineup) seemed to have a better idea of how to play off of Hughes. That trio did get a goal, albeit a off a rebound in front. That goal also featured Marian Studenic’s first NHL assist, a secondary as he moved the puck to Severson. Congratulations to him. The Sharangovich, Hughes, and Kuokkanen line was not as impactful until the third period as that trio went from good shift to good shift as time went on. They still finished in the red with respect to attempt, shot, and expected goal differential, but the third was much better than their first or second periods.
This was all the more impressive as Hughes took a scary crash into the right corner late in the second period. He lost an edge after shooting a puck and he and Mike Reilly collided and careened into the boards. Hughes got up and went right to the locker room. He did return for the third period and he was in constant motion, trying to make things happen. I hope Hughes is ultimately OK and gets some rest tomorrow. He earned it from all of the extra ice time wherein he took on Bruins defenders and kept looking to win pucks and move them to make plays.
As for Merkley, well, these last few games should matter to him. Boqvist missed the net a whole bunch and had a costly turnover that Smith thankfully wasted on a breakaway, but he finished a rebound and drew the call in OT that led to the situation Zacha scored on. Boqvist will likely play the next few games. Merkley, not so much. And when it comes time to review the season and for management to make decisions for next season and beyond, being benched and seeing the team succeed despite 11 forwards being used is not a good look. Should Merkley get to play on Thursday, Saturday, or Monday, then I encourage him to play a whole lot smarter and harder off the puck. It is better to leave a good last impression than hope the coaches and management remember a good first or second one instead of this one.
No Smith, Tennyson Instead: Matt Tennyson was healthy enough to return as Ty Smith re-aggravated an injury in last night’s game. (Smith was healthy enough to be at the game to surprise Hughes in his post-game interview.) This meant we got to see a pairing of Kevin Bahl and Matt Tennyson. Boston feasted on this pairing as they did to all of the Devils. But this one was especially poor in 5-on-5 as when Tennyson-Bahl were on the ice, the Bruins out-attempted the Devils 16-4 and out-shot them 10-3. Craig Smith, Charlie Coyle, Nick Ritchie, and Sean Kuraly had plenty of good shifts against them. It was also the pairing of record for Hall’s goal against, although I do not think Tennyson did anything wrong and I do not think Bahl was even in a position to get to Hall, much less have the speed to do so. At least each saw a goal by the Devils and Bahl got a secondary assist on Sharangovich’s equalizer.
I would not read a whole lot into CF% for a particular pairing or a line because every Devil fell below 50% in CF%, only Sharangovich finished at exactly 50% in SF%, and only Jesper Bratt finished above 50% in xGF% (Tennyson did come close in expected goals). But I am pointing out that this pairing was getting rolled through by Boston’s rolling lines just like the pairings of Severson and Ryan Murray (they did see a lot of Bergeron and his line plus above five minutes of Taylor Hall), and Connor Carrick and Butcher (they did see a lot of Taylor Hall, David Krejci, and Smith).
While we saw some changes among the forwards forced by Merkley’s benching and some players not being available for a few times here and there, I think some changes in pairing are warranted as the team conceded over 35 shots back-to-back and were pinned back a lot in their own end.
The Sherman Abrams Section: Sherman, do you want to do it tonight or are you going to run back to Alpine like a coward?
Shut up. I’ll do it.
The floor is yours.
Stupid Zacha! You’re meant to be a bust! Not score two goals and send the fans home happy! You were supposed to cough up the puck to, I don’t know, Kuraly in OT and make Ken Daneyko wax poetic again about how you battled hard or whatever. No thanks to your backhander, the Devils moved up to 28th overall with 43 points in 53 games. They are just a point behind 27th place Columbus (53 games played) and two behind 26th place Detroit (54 GP) and 25th place Ottawa (52 GP). Do you want this team to not pick in the top five?
In this year’s draft class and with an injured Luke Hughes, does it matter? Hey, how come you’re not griping about Buffalo winning back-to-back against the Islanders?
Because unlike some teams, they know how to lose. Their four points still keeps them in 31st behind Anaheim with 37 points in 54 games. Their win tonight was in the shootout, so they lose in any tiebreaker with Anaheim. It is fine for them to spoil the Islanders. It is not fine for the Devils to do so! They need to cultivate and maintain a culture of losing until an 18 year old prospect fixes it all!
Be that as it may, I am tired of losing and I appreciate the Devils winning their seventh game at home this season. Now, go and be mad.
By the Way: You’re welcome for the OT win, rest of the East Division playoff teams? Had it not been for Boqvist, Sharangovich and Zacha, this game could have been another regulation win for a Boston team who can still surge up the standings. Capitals fans surely have to like the Bruins being two points back instead of one. Islanders fans, who are surely surly about their squad dropping games in Buffalo, have to like they are just one point behind Boston instead of two. Pittsburgh, who won tonight, now has a four point lead over a three point lead. It does not seem like much, but with just a handful of games left for all involved, being ahead by one more point than feared can be a big benefit.
Some Last Thoughts: I was not able to go to the Rock this season. I hope everyone who did get to go tonight or the precious few others were able to do so. Life and government edicts will help determine whether I am back in Section 1 for 2021-22. For those who have attended, I wish you the best and I hope you at least enjoyed this game as much as I enjoyed it from home.
Similarly, I want to thank all of the Prudential Center staff for making the best of a difficult and fluid situation of hosting games, the MSG broadcast, and fans at the arena throughout this season. I hope the Devils and arena management have done right by you for this year’s work.
And, I want to thank the MSG broadcasters. As much as I lamented Ken Daneyko’s ways of carrying on as a commentator at times, and how the broadcasts put on a lot of lipstick on pigs of performances that did not deserve it, I do appreciate that they put in the effort to have as a normal broadcast as possible. I understand and recognize that various members, public and otherwise, were out sick or unavailable for other reasons. I recognize it took a lot to pull off shows that resembled the normal broadcasts that we are used to seeing. I appreciate the larger inclusion of analytics and microstats to make a point beyond “they got their legs under them and they look good, Cang.” I thank you all for making it work as a viewer.
The remainder of the 2021 New Jersey Devils season will go to Uniondale, New York before ending in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hopefully, the Rock will be larger, louder, and witness more successes in the Fall.
Your Turn: The Devils won 4-3 in overtime over Boston. I appreciated the win. I hope the fans at the Rock appreciated it. What did you think of the game? Did you think the win was fortunate despite Boston controlling over half of the game? Who impressed you the most from the Devils? What can the Devils take away from this game and apply it to their next two games in Long Island? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter during the game. Thanks to everyone who followed along and/or commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.