If there were three resounding themes that encapsulate what the New Jersey Devils were throughout the 2020-21 season, they were “let the kids play”, subpar defensive play, and abysmal special teams. Fortunately for the Devils on this night, the positives outweighed the negatives and they were able to come away with a 5-4 win in their preseason opener against the Washington Capitals.
Yegor Sharangovich was one of the many kids who not only got an opportunity last season....he took the ball and ran with it. It pleases me to write that he picked up exactly where he left off last season. Alex Holtz found Sharangovich as he was cutting into the offensive zone and buried a backhander behind Capitals starting netminder Zach Fucale. It was a beautiful highlight-reel goal that we’re starting to become accustomed to from Sharangovich, and it gave the Devils an early 1-0 lead before most Capitals fans had even settled into their seats at Capital One Arena.
That lead would be short-lived, however, as we saw shades of their ineffective special teams play early and often in the preseason opener. The Devils got an early chance on the power play (that later became a 5-on-3 due to a too many men penalty) as Anthony Mantha hooked Jonas Siegenthaler shortly after the Sharangovich goal. Towards the tail end of the second penalty, Nico Hischier didn’t quite get all of the puck on a pokecheck attempt, which led to an odd-man rush the other way. John Carlson did a brilliant job freezing Damon Severson by selling the idea that he’d dish the puck off, only to snap a blistering wrister high glove-side past Jonathan Bernier to tie the game at 1. The Devils power play got another opportunity as Fabian Zetterlund drew a tripping call, but failed to generate much in terms of a credible scoring threat, and they finished the period 0-for-3 on the power play and with a short-handed goal scored against them. It’s not what you want to see.
The remainder of the first period was mostly uneventful, although the Devils were fortunate that Mike Vecchione whiffed on a golden setup by Connor McMichael in the final minute. The Devils and Caps went to the dressing room tied up at 1.
The second period got started with a bang. Jack Hughes made a brilliant play with his stick to take the puck away from Michael Kempny deep in the Capitals defensive zone and flip the puck backhanded over Fucale’s shoulder for a 2-1 Devils lead 45 seconds into the second. That was immediately followed up by two more scoring opportunities by Sharangovich. Christian Jaros found a streaking Sharangovich that Fucale made a nice stop on, and Hughes dug the puck out of the corner to find Sharangovich for another point-blank chance.
Mr. Steal Yo Puck (and put it in the net) pic.twitter.com/0p83Y5lhes— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2021
The Devils failed to keep the momentum for long though. Dawson Mercer tripped Nick Jensen and the Devils and their much maligned penalty kill would be tested for the first time. It did not go well. John Carlson ripped the shot from the point off of a feed from Evgeni Kuznetsov. The puck deflected off of a body in front, and just like so many times in the 2020-21 season, the puck wound up in the back of the net with the Devils down a man. Either way, Carlson would be credited with the equalizing goal and the game was quickly tied 2-2.
The top line of Sharangovich-Hughes-Holtz would continue to wreak havoc on the Capitals as the second period continued on. The Devils caught on the Capitals twice in an odd-man rush. Holtz was unable to bury a beautiful return pass from Hughes, but would redeem himself moments later as he showed off the shot that made him the 7th overall pick in 2020. Holtz picked his corner. Holtz got his corner. And the Devils retook the lead.
Alexander rippin' shots from the circle in DC. pic.twitter.com/a9se3XttNQ— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2021
The Capitals, yet again, had an immediate response as the Devils had a bit of a defensive breakdown. Hendrix Lapierre found T.J. Oshie for a long pass down the middle as he got in behind Jaros and Jimmy Vesey. Oshie slipped the puck under Bernier’s pads, and the game was tied yet again at 3.
Washington would finally take their first lead of the game in the closing minute of the second period, and once again, the Devils would come up small on the penalty kill. Holtz went to the box for holding Alex Ovechkin as the Caps had sustained pressure in the Devils end. The Devils would fail to corral a bouncing puck in the slot and Vecchione would rip it home to give the Caps the 4-3 lead.
The third period began with both teams making a goaltending change, as Nico Daws came in for the Devils and Ilya Samsonov relieved Fucale. Daws was tested early as the Capitals got some offensive zone pressure, but would weather the storm.
Dawson Mercer continued to build on his case to make the Devils as the third period rolled on. Andreas Johnsson would find Mercer as he was finishing his shift. Mercer would work the puck down towards the corner while the Devils were finishing the line change, work his way around Jensen, and rip the puck from a sharp angle. The puck would hit Ilya Samsonov in the shoulder, and trickle past the netminder in for the equalizer. It was an incredible individual effort by the young forward.
Dawson finds a little creek. pic.twitter.com/LXwV9FXppN— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2021
Mercer would continue to do things that would impress the decision makers by drawing a high-sticking penalty late in the third towards the tail end of a Capitals power play, poking the puck away and drawing a Alexander Alexeyev high-sticking penalty. It would not take long for the Devils to take advantage of this mistake by the Capitals. Nico Hischier would cleanly win the faceoff back to Damon Severson, who would dish the puck back to the captain. Hischier would casually slip the puck past Samsonov’s pad for what is technically a power-play goal, as the penalty to Nolan Foote expired during those five seconds of action. More importantly, the Devils would take a 5-4 lead with 1:12 to go. The Capitals would have one last flurry with the extra skater, but the Devils would hold on for the win.
However, that would not be the final action we would see this evening. The NHL has granted teams the option of having a shootout regardless of what the final score is in preseason games. Our old friend Tom Gulitti reported before the game that the Devils and Capitals would indeed have a shootout. Daws, who made 10 saves in relief for the win, stopped all 4 shots he saw in the shootout, turning away TJ Oshie, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson. The Devils would send Hischier, Hughes, and Sharangovich out first, but failed to score until Holtz buried the wrister for the exclamation point in the fourth round.
The Opposition Opinion: Japers’ Rink has not posted a recap as of this writing, although they do have a gamethread if you’re curious to read about this game from a Capitals perspective.
Who made their case to make the team: Alex Holtz and Dawson Mercer did a lot of good things tonight. Holtz played on the Devils top line with Jack Hughes and Yegor Sharangovich. He did not look out of place. Everyone will talk about his shot, and rightfully so, but with this being my first time watching him in this setting, I came away impressed with his passing as well.
Dawson Mercer had a tougher assignment as he was on a line with Nolan Foote and Marian Studenic, and I thought he came on strong as the game progressed. Mercer was more or less invisible in the first period and took a penalty early in the second that ultimately led to a Capitals PPG, but he also made two of the biggest plays of the game in the third period with an incredible individual effort on his goal, as well as the penalty he drew that led to Hischier’s game winning goal. The CF% wasn’t pretty for Mercer (or most of the Devils for that matter), but the eye test showed a player who elevated his game as it went on.
Lindy Ruff had praise for the young guys on the team after the game.
“They played important roles inside that game. It’s good to see because those guys are going to be the future of this team.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2021
Lindy Ruff speaks after the 5-4 win against Washington. #NJDevils | @InvestorsBank pic.twitter.com/1BiY5IMYQX
Who else impressed: Jack Hughes, as he did many nights last season, looked like the best player on the ice for the Devils. He continued to show his hockey IQ and playmaking ability and single-handedly created a goal for the Devils with his stickwork taking a puck away from a Capitals defenseman and backhanding it into the net.
Yegor Sharangovich continues to looks more and more like a legitimate top six NHL forward the more I watch him. Aside from Alex Holtz, I believe Sharangovich has the best shot of anyone in the Devils organization.
Nico Hischier was one of the few Devils to finish with a CF% at or above 50%, despite having Jimmy Vesey and Graham Clarke as his linemates. Obviously, that will not be Hischier’s line once the games start for real, but it is a testament to the type of player Hischier is. I want to give credit to Jonas Siegenthaler as well, who I thought played a solid game. There’s one more player who impressed I want to touch on.
Leaving something to be desired: I did not think tonight was a particularly great night for Mark Jankowski and Jimmy Vesey, especially considering their ticket to making the team is likely going to be through the penalty kill. That’s not to say they can’t turn things around, but they need to show more than they did tonight. Nolan Foote looks like a guy who needs more seasoning in the AHL. I was mostly unimpressed with our defensemen outside of Siegenthaler.
Put some respect on Nico Daws’ name: Nico Daws will NOT make the Opening Night roster for the Devils unless things go horribly wrong in the next two weeks. That said, he played well in relief of Jonathan Bernier. He stopped all 10 shots he saw in the third period and stopped some of the best players in the sport in the shootout. Hopefully, Daws builds on this performance in the AHL and develops to the point where he’s a realistic option for the Devils NHL team sometime down the road.
“You always dream about playing your first NHL game. It’s just preseason, but it’s still a pretty special feeling.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2021
Nico Daws speaks after stopping all shots tonight. #NJDevils | @InvestorsBank pic.twitter.com/2UeuSYExvh
Benefit of the doubt: I mentioned the bad special teams play earlier in this recap. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few factors that may have contributed to those shortcomings. It is the preseason opener and a lot of the players are playing with each other for the first time. There is a feeling out process and learning where your teammates are going to be in certain situations, and the chemistry wasn’t quite there yet. The coaches are still teaching the system and implementing what they want to do on special teams. Mike McLeod, Pavel Zacha, Ty Smith, Dougie Hamilton, and Ryan Graves were among the Devils who did not make the trip to DC. I would expect all of these players to play some role on either the power play or the penalty kill (or both) when the games count.
Final Thoughts: All in all, there was more good than bad for the Devils on this night. The five players who scored goals for them could all potentially be core pieces for the team moving forward. That said, there are things that need to be cleaned up and worked on. There were too many odd man rushes and defensive breakdowns for both teams in this game and I’m sure the Lindy Ruff and Peter Laviolette will let their respective teams hear about it.
What did you think of the Devils performance this evening? Were you as impressed with the youth of this team as much as I was? Are you concerned that we’re in for another rough year on special teams, or do you want to see more before making a judgment. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading.