The New Jersey Devils have lost their last four games before this game. Three of those games were close, competitive, and ultimately defeats in a season full of them. Two of those opponents were among the best in the East. Tonight, the Devils went to Ontario to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs in a home-and-home set. Toronto is also one of the East’s best teams. Certainly one of the league’s most explosive offenses with an average of 3.45 goals per game, fifth most in the NHL prior to tonight’s game. How would the Devils end a second straight month of painful hockey? By surprising just about anyone who had a thought about this game - at first.
Less than a minute in, Pavel Zacha - yes, Pavel Zacha - beat Jack Campbell after a great cross-slot pass by The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. The Devils proceeded to keep attacking. They were rewarded when Jesper Boqvist - yes, Jesper Boqvist - corralled a rebound from a shot by Colton White and tucked it around Campbell’s right skate to make it 2-0. Auston Matthews wired a banger of a shot on the next shift to make it 2-1. Just when you think, “OK, Toronto has awoken and things will be set to expectations,” Andreas Johnsson pounces on a miscue by 37, leads a 2-on-1 rush with Tomas Tatar, sees Campbell not covering his right post, and slides in a short-side shot. The Devils are now up 3-1. Campbell was pulled for Petr Mrazek. The Devils were also ahead, at the time, in both attempts and shots. Yes, the New Jersey Devils were doing this in Toronto.
Nothing gold could stay. Toronto actually did wake up for the remainder of the period. They saw an inexperienced Akira Schmid in his net and knew to just keep firing away. Toronto is used to scoring their way into wins this month anyhow. So they ramped up the pressure and pinned the Devils back. Matthews re-directed in a Morgan Reilly shot to make it 3-2. The ice was tilted and it felt like another goal was a matter of “when and not if.” Fortunately, the Devils escaped with the favorable score of 3-2.
The Leafs were still pressing the issue early and often in the second period. Schmid was hanging on. The Devils skaters were scrambling. But then a break emerged for the Devils. After a shot on net by Boqvist, he wheeled around the net with the puck and found Ryan Graves open from distance. Graves unloaded a shot that hit Reilly in the back. Nathan Bastian found that rebound and put it home. The Devils were up 4-2. Toronto was back down two. While they attacked and had the benefit of a power play, the Devils hit back with some of their own offense to at least keep them honest. They drew their own power play. They nearly blew that with a shorthanded rush; but Schmid came up huge against Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev. Zacha slashed Mikheyev so the period ended with a brief 4-on-4 situation and the third would begin with a power play. Two periods gone, and it is the Devils up 4-2. Toronto took the edge in attempts and shots and scoring chances (but not high-danger ones) in the second period, which makes sense since they were losing. The Devils had the more important edge: a lead.
Toronto began the third on the man advantage. The Devils not only killed it, but drew a call right at the end of it when Jason Spezza whacked Graves in the gloves from between Graves’ legs. The Devils power play did nothing of note. Then the drama ramped up. Spezza, Mikheyev, and Kerfoot cycled the Devils in their end and the end result was Mikheyev finding Spezza with a bubble of space just next to the slot. The veteran rang one in off the left post. It was now 4-3. The lead was down to just one shot. How would New Jersey fare? The game was fast. Puck control was not exactly where teams would want it to be. Chances did happen. Boqvist was denied and again on a rebound try. Then Mikheyev was stopped point-blank by Schmid a little later. The action was there. It did not look like a 71.3% point percentage team (Toronto) playing a 40.7% point percentage team (Devils). But that is part of the beauty of sports. Or agony, depending on your perspective.
Time is what it is but it can feel shorter or longer depending on your situation. For the final 10 minutes, it felt long for the Devils. Or at least this Devils fan. You’re holding your breath on every Toronto breakout. Or any Devils attack that is disrupted. Or any dump-away. This is hockey. A goal can come from all kinds of circumstances - even when it does not happen, it does not mean it cannot happen. And so you start counting with the clock. The Devils made it to 9 minutes left, they made it to 8 minutes left. You wonder whether that dump-and-change was wise or if the Devils should forecheck or if the Devils should attempt that far-post shot (which makes it likely for the puck to miss and rim around the boards and help Toronto attack). You’re weighing the risks and rewards of a game you’re not even playing in. Now the clock is below 7 minutes. And you hope this defensive zone draw does not become what you fear.
And then it does. Matthews win the puck, finds Marner in the slot away from the mass of bodies after the faceoff, and Marner finishes the play to make it 4-4. Faceoff situations are absolutely drawn up by coaches and practiced. Usually, you would see multiple Devils in the slot to prevent what just happened. But, no, they went in when they should have went out or stayed in place. Schmid will be faulted for it, especially by those who did not see the game but have a lot to say about it regardless. Either way: The lead is now gone. The two-goal lead was erased within one period. A new set of feelings emerge. A familiar feeling to any fan of a bad team: here we go again, this is going to be ruined. The team lost four straight and (insert preferred problem/beef with the team here) so what do you expect? But there is also a hopeful yet anxious one: maybe the Devils can pull this one out. Even beyond regulation - if they get to regulation at 4-4.
Meanwhile, a hockey game continued. A glorious opportunity presented itself for the Devils. David Kampf took down Jack Hughes in the neutral zone. Play continued but when the Leafs touched the puck, the whistle came. After two power plays that did not much but create shots for Toronto, would they come through in this crucial situation? The answer: No. Would Toronto? Yes. The Mark Recchi System of Power Plays commands that only three players in a 5-on-4 situation should handle and move the puck around the perimeter at the top of the zone. This makes pesty penalty killers able to poach bad, misplaced, or mishandled pucks for odd man rushes. The Devils have given up plenty of shorthanded goals in this way. Tonight, Damon Severson was the one to be beaten. Kerfoot led the rush, Mikheyev provided the finish, the Devils were now losing 4-5 late in the third. Angry comments, Tweets, posts, and other forms of communication were made or thought of by the People Who Matter all over the world.
Sure, the Devils’ season may be done and dusted, but it is still heartbreaking to see your favorite team botch a two-goal lead and to do so in the manner that they do it. Yes, the Devils’ goaltending has been bad this month and this season. Yet, the skaters make life for their goaltenders a lot harder than what is suggested by xGA or GSAA or whatever metric you prefer.
After that crushing goal against, Ryan Graves took a penalty. Head coach for the night Alain Nasreddine pulled Schmid to make it 5-on-5 when the Devils pressed forward. Auston Matthews sailed in an empty netter to make it a 4-6 final score. He gets his hat trick. Toronto gets their win. The Devils end January with a five-game losing streak. No one is going to care that they kept it close in four of those games. But many will remember this one for how they blew it and for how often it has happened this season. Despite the surprising start to this game. Despite the surprising two goal lead carried into the second period. Despite the chances to go ahead or break the tie. The Devils met the expectations set prior to this game: they would lose to a superior hockey team in a season filled with losses to teams who have played better than them.
Rage if you’d like. I’m just sighing at it. Yet, another season of this nonsense. 38 games to go.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Pension Plan Puppets, Katya Knappe has this recap highlighting the strong third period that led to Toronto’s comeback win.
The Game Highlights: I do not know why you would want to re-live this one. But in case you missed it, you want to see what got Jack Campbell chased from the net, you like the Devils botching a lead, here are the highlights. From NHL.com:
First and Foremost, Condolences: Devils head coach Lindy Ruff recently lost his father, Leeson Ruff. Losing a parent is never easy to deal with. On the behalf of everyone at All About the Jersey, we offer our condolences to Lindy Ruff, the rest of the Ruff family, and all those who knew Leeson Ruff. The Devils did announce that due to his death, he was not with the team tonight and will not be with the team tomorrow.
Second, More Crushing Numbers: I have more disappointment to add to the New Jersey Devils’ performance. First and foremost, the Devils registered two shots on net in the third period. Two. Both were by Jesper Boqvist. The Devils had a third period power play (two of them!) and not only registered nothing on Petr Mrazek, but also conceded a killer goal on the second one. The Devils were skating as fast as Toronto but they could not play or handle the puck with the same deftness. Not that the Devils needed to tilt the ice - although that would have been really helpful - but they needed to keep Toronto honest. Two shots on net is not it. It is stunning that a team with Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, an up-for-it Yegor Sharangovich (he drew a penalty!), Nico Hischier, defensemen activating all over, and depth guys scoring goals in the first two periods all faltered to make Mrazek work hard for a third period.
What is worse is that this follows a similar third period offensive swoon in Carolina, where the Devils were down 1-2 in the third period and put up just three shots on net in twenty minutes. The Devils failed in giving up the goals that they did, which is apparent on video. What was not apparent was the lack of a threat - which only helped Toronto claw back into this game. That it happened two games in a row makes me question what the coaches are saying in the second intermission. With Ruff not behind the bench, I suspect his assistants are not much better at that.
What also helped Toronto in this game were the match-ups. Johnsson scored a goal. Other than that, the Maple Leafs dominated anytime he was on the ice as the Devils generated a mere 3 attempts to Toronto’s 14 in 5-on-5 play. Similarly Jimmy Vesey, P.K. Subban, Tomas Tatar, Dawson Mercer, Boqvist, Janne Kuokkanen, White, and Graves all finished with on-ice Corsi For percentages fewer than 40%. This meant when they were on the ice, the Leafs largely pushed the play into the Devils end. Sure, some of those guys got on the scoresheet. Sure, some of them were only damaged by one or two goals against. Sure, most of the Devils were below 50% in CF% (Zacha and Bastian). But given that the Devils botched a lead and were at risk of it because of how much they were playing in their own end, the sub-40% players represented a large problem. And if you notice, most of those names are the third and fourth line forwards and non-first pairing defensemen. Some of these players have otherwise done well in the run of play this season, so some of this can be chalked up to a bad night. But these guys were the ones Toronto got going against.
Here is another crushing number: Those two third period power plays generated zero shots on net. The hot streak of the power play has run out. The whispering of Bastian or whatever buff spell he put on it ran out. The 5-on-4 set-up where three players touch the puck for the most part and passing it around from the sidewalls to the center point led to Toronto penalty killers pouncing on any miscues in that puck movement for shorthanded scoring chances - and the game winning goal. Your system still sucks, Mark Recchi. Mikheyev and Kerfoot showed why tonight. Twice.
I Feel Bad: I feel bad for Akira Schmid. His first few appearances in the NHL have been absolutely rough. Tonight, he did the best that he could. Getting beaten by a wicked shot from Auston Matthews and a deflection from him in the first period is nothing to be ashamed about. And he did not really give up anything as bad as Jack Campbell did. But the Devils did their best to not help him out on many occasions. He made some huge stops, stopping Mikheyev shorthanded wherein Zacha fouled him (and didn’t stop him) and Mikheyev point-blank in the third. But Mikheyev got behind the goalie as Severson gave up on the 2-on-1 shorthanded rush that was the game-winner. It frustrates me just as it did when Zacha moved up after a defensive zone faceoff loss, which helped leave Mitch Marner open in the slot for the game-tying goal. Just as it did when Kerfoot, Mikheyev, and Jason Spezza cycled the Devils out of sorts that ended with a Spezza shot off the post and in, which made it 3-4 in the third period (and also right after the first do-nothing-good Devils power play of the period).
I already know that the People Who Matter will use this game as another example of how the Devils goaltending is bad and they cannot win with bad goaltending. They’re not wrong about the first part. The second part, well, look at tonight’s winners and recall Campbell giving up 3 on 9 shots (and their team save percentage for the month). But even decent or good performances are going to be ruined when the skaters make big errors and do not help their goalie out enough. Schmid is still young and I can only encourage you, among the People Who Matter, to not judge his entire career or future just on this game alone.
Learn to Narrative: As I type this recap, the Devils’ post-game show has been on my TV and the narrative in response to this loss is about learning. That this is a learning experience. That the Devils need to learn how to win. What garbage. What tripe. Most of the players on this team have won hockey games before, prior to becoming pros and/or with other teams in the NHL. No, what the Devils need to learn is how to maintain their focus on the game, manage pucks against superior teams - which is just about every opponent at this point, and the younger players who can still improve to make improvements in their games. They do not need some cliche line of “Well, you got to suffer to do well.” This is not riding a bicycle where you may need to learn to fall before finding your balance in riding. This is hockey. These are adults on the ice and behind the bench. There are problems so obvious that even outsider hockey bloggers like myself can write a lot of words about them. They need to learn to address them and put in corrections where they can. And MSG can improve their production by learning to be more honest about the team than just soft-serving every criticism - especially you, Ken “It’s just a little bit ________“ Daneyko - or relying on stupid cliches that make the collective eyes of the People Who Matter roll.
Credit Where Credit is Due: Ivan Mikheyev and Alexander Kerfoot rebounded from anonymous starts to this game to play huge roles in turning this game around for the Maple Leafs. The headline photo shows the big moment, but they nearly had a SHG in the second period too. Mrazek came in relief of Campbell and showed he could be competent - which was all the Leafs needed. Their veterans on the fourth line, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds, had strong performances. Of course, Auston Matthews was the dude and the Devils had little answer for him. To be fair, neither does most of the league.
What’s Next: Toronto. Again. This time in New Jersey. Expect Jon Gilles to start this one. I suspect Mrazek will start tomorrow’s game too, but who knows. Will they hang with the Leafs? Maybe. Does it matter? Not really. Would it be nice if they began February with a win? Yes. Will they? I would not hold my breath.
Your Turn: It has been a while for me to step in to do a recap, so I hope you appreciate my take on this game. Now I want to read from you, the People Who Matter, your reaction to this loss. Are you mad? Upset? Disappointed? Frustrated? All of that and more? What do you think the Devils can do, if anything, before tomorrow’s game in New Jersey to have a better night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thank you to Jared for the game preview. Thank you to Mike for taking care of the site’s Twitter account. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading. The January 2022 Month in Review should be up tomorrow morning.