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Devils Come Up Short Against Blue Jackets, fall 4-3

The New Jersey Devils, with two more players entering COVID protocol, fought hard, but came up short against their Metropolitan Division rivals

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets
Death, taxes, and Oliver Bjorkstrand scoring on the Devils
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey were already shorthanded heading into Saturday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and got more bad news earlier in the day as the team announced Nathan Bastian and Jesper Bratt were entering COVID protocols. It would’ve been easy to write off Saturday’s game as an automatic-loss with a depleted lineup, but to their credit, they fought hard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough and Columbus was just a little bit better as the Blue Jackets got the 4-3 win.

The game got started after a brief delay as the Blue Jackets honored Jakub Voracek for playing his 1000th game this past week. Damon Severson grabbed the stick of Voracek behind Blackwood’s net and Columbus got an early power play opportunity. The Devils got a couple early clears before Boone Jenner got a shot on net that Mackenzie Blackwood turned aside. Columbus kept it in the offensive zone and made some nifty one-touch passes, ultimately finding Devils killer Oliver Bjorkstrand in front to make it 1-0 Blue Jackets. Columbus added to their lead moments later as Boone Jenner fed the puck in front and it deflected in off of Jack Hughes’s skate to make it 2-0.

The Devils got their first power play shortly after as Vladislav Gavrikov held Nico Hischier behind Joonas Korpisalo’s net. Columbus got an early clear and got another clear into the neutral zone, but they regained the offensive zone and Hughes was denied on a shot. The rest of the Devils power play was uneventful as Gavrikov exited the box.

The makeshift Devils lineup continued to generate little offensively in the opening frame, with their best look coming off a Dawson Mercer feed in front for Hughes that was turned away. Blackwood had to stop a redirected Zach Werenski shot on the other end. The Devils got another decent opportunity with a loose puck in front of Korpisalo that he eventually covered up.

The Devils finally got on the board as Nico Hischier won the puck along the boards and punched it over to Jimmy Vesey. Vesey got it to Damon Severson, who fed Hischier in the high slot, and the captain got the seeing-eye shot through some bodies in front to cut the deficit to one.

Columbus answered with a really strong shift keeping the puck in the Devils end for awhile before getting it out to center ice. The Devils tied the game moments later as the puck was flipped forward for Jack Hughes. Hughes fed it in front with the pass being intercepted by Emil Bemstrom. Bemstrom turned the puck over to Dawson Mercer, who fed a trailing Jimmy Vesey for the equalizer with 20 seconds left in the period.

The Devils got the puck in deep to start the second period before Columbus took control and exited the defensive zone. New Jersey regained the zone and made some great passes before Voracek got back in front to block the open net for an otherwise sure goal by Jonas Siegenthaler. The Devils were fortunate not to get scored on by Voracek as he corralled the puck on a failed zone entry. The veteran forward, who was trailed by Ryan Graves, just failed to slip the puck under Blackwood’s pads and the referees blew the whistle quickly before Blackwood covered up.

Columbus regained the lead at the 9:31 mark as they dumped the puck into the Devils end and Sean Kuraly took the puck away from Ty Smith. The Jackets got the puck in front for New Jersey native Eric Robinson, who fed Yegor Chinakhov for the go-ahead goal. 3-2 Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo tripped up AJ Greer and the Devils went back on the power play. The Devils won the offensive zone draw before a return pass was cleared out of the zone. The Devils passing was a little off and Mercer partially fanned on a shot that rolled out to him in the right circle. Columbus killed off the rest of the power play.

The Devils tied the game again as Jesper Boqvist gained the offensive zone with a head of steam. Boqvist fed Marian Studenic on the doorstep who whacked it past Korpisalo to tie the game yet again.

Blackwood made a nice stop with 2:36 to go as Zach Werenski fed the puck in front for Gustav Nyquist, but fortunately Hischier got his stick tied up and prevented the veteran forward from getting a good shot on the loose puck in front. AJ Greer, who was denied on the doorstep by Korpisalo, drew a hooking penalty on Max Domi and the Devils went back on the power play with 1:16 to go. Hischier tried to set up Hughes in the left circle but the pass was errant and Hughes sent the shot off of Korpisalo’s mask. Korpisalo made a highlight reel save moments later as McLeod won the offensive zone draw and Hughes fed Hischier, but Korpisalo robbed the Devils captain in what was probably a momentum-shifting play. Hughes fired one last shot on net as the horn sounded and we went to the dressing room tied at 3.

The Devils won the faceoff to start the third and Hughes went in with a head of steam but Korpisalo turned him aside. Robinson fired off a quick wrister the other way that Blackwood needed to stop shorthanded. PK Subban fired a shot from the point that was loose in front but Vesey and McLeod couldn’t take advantage of the loose puck. The Devils continued to apply pressure with Studenic feeding Boqvist in front and Mercer getting a decent look to no avail. The Devils won an offensive zone draw but Tomas Tatar passed the puck to Adam Boqvist, who fed Voracek. Voracek sent the quick seam pass to Bjorkstrand for his second of the night and a 4-3 lead at the 5:00 mark.

Michael McLeod went to the box at the 6:36 mark for high sticking Andrew Peeke. Columbus won the faceoff and Blackwood made a stop before the puck got cleared to the neutral zone. The Jackets regained the zone with Laine and Voracek trying to get shots on net, but Laine was blocked and Blackwood stopped the other. Nyquist tried to slip a backhander by Blackwood in the closing seconds with no success and McLeod exited the box. Columbus continued to apply the pressure until PK Subban blatantly tripped Chinakhov in front of Blackwood and the referee. The second penalty kill of the period did a better job limiting the dangerous chances by Columbus and McLeod cleared the puck with 12 seconds to go on the kill to effectively end the threat for the home team.

The Mercer-Hughes combo threatened to tie the game after the Subban penalty ended. Mercer won a footrace to the puck and fed a streaking Hughes in front who sailed the puck high on Korpisalo, and Hughes found an open Mercer who couldn’t cleanly corral the bouncing puck and whiffed on the shot.

Nico Hischier went to the bench in pain after a shot hit him on the inside of the knee, but no harm, no foul as he was back out there for his next shift. Columbus iced the puck with Hughes’s line out there. McLeod won the offensive zone draw and Subban fired from the blueline, but Greer couldn’t put the loose puck past Korpisalo.

For some reason, the McLeod line took the next offensive zone draw after the TV timeout, but to their credit, they had a solid shift keeping the puck in the Columbus end. Hischier’s line was up next but the Devils lost the draw and Werenski cleared the puck. Janne Kuokkanen couldn’t cleanly feed the puck in front for Tatar but the Hughes line kept it in the zone. Tatar took the puck away from Voracek and fed it in front for Hughes, who couldn’t put it past the Finnish netminder.

The Devils pulled Blackwood for the extra skater with two minutes to go and were fortunate that Severson blocked Bjorkstrand from the empty netter and the hat trick. Hughes passed the puck the length of the ice for Hischier, who couldn’t quite control it cleanly. The Devils won the offensive zone draw and Mercer couldn’t make something out of nothing firing the puck off of Korpisalo in front. The Devils kept the puck in the zone but struggled to get anything dangerous on net as Columbus tightened up defensively. The Devils gained the zone one last time and fired wide of Korpisalo’s cage as the final seconds ticked off the clock and Columbus got the hard-fought 4-3 win.

Highlights

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Visit Jackets Cannon if you want to read the Blue Jackets perspective on today’s game.

Hughes, Hischier Snakebit. It Happens.

A phrase we’ve heard a lot this year is “Your best players have to be your best players”, or something to that effect. With all due respect to Dougie Hamilton and Jesper Bratt, the Devils best players are Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and Lindy Ruff leaned on them heavily tonight. They came to play, but were a little bit snakebit in terms of tangible results.

Let’s start with Hughes, who had one of his patented “could have been a two or three point game” games that he had so many times last year. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Natural Stat Trick stats in front of me as the website has been down most of the night, but he had five shots on goal himself, fed Mercer on an open look where the puck bounced away, made a brilliant pass Hischier in the closing minutes that he couldn’t handle cleanly, and was denied an assist on the Hischier power play opportunity due to a great save by Korpisalo. I do think the passing for Hughes was a smidge off at times, and I would agree if you said he missed Jesper Bratt out there, but he was noticeably dangerous throughout the 25:48 of ice time he got. It’s unfortunate his point streak came to an end because he deserved better.

As for Hischier, he was a little more fortunate as he managed to land on the scoresheet with a goal, but again, give Korpisalo credit for making the point-blank stop on him. Hischier’s contributions might be a little less tangible on the scoresheet as he only had three shots on goal, but his two-way game was on display as he made a nice play to deny Nyquist a scoring chance. Ruff leaned heavily on his captain as well with 21 minutes of ice time.

I get that #13 and #86 can be popular whipping boys on here when things aren’t going well, but I don’t see how you can watch the game tonight and pin blame on them. Certainly not with the lineup the Devils are running out there due to so many wingers being in COVID protocols. It’s unfortunate they weren’t rewarded tonight, but it wasn’t from a lack of effort.

The Other Guys Came To Play

We all knew tonight was going to be an uphill battle with a makeshift top line of Tatar-Hughes-Mercer but I thought the Devils understudies played hard. Vesey had arguably his best game as a Devil with a goal and an assist. Studenic got his first goal of the season and was finally rewarded as he’s been playing with a high motor when he’s gotten an opportunity. I though Jesper Boqvist, Marian Studenic and even AJ Greer were noticeable in a positive way, although the advanced stats might say otherwise (Bear with me, again, as Natural Stat Trick has been down essentially all night).

That’s not to say that everybody stepped up. I didn’t see a ton from Nolan Foote to suggest to me he’s capable of playing at this level and I believe he should be the first player sat down if the Devils get some players back from the COVID list early this week. Christian Jaros continued to look lost out there defensively and the Devils were smart to try to limit the minutes of their bottom three defensemen (Smith, Jaros, White) as much as possible.

Special Teams Not so Special

I thought special teams let the Devils down once again tonight. I expect that from the power play at this point, which was 0-3 and was mostly ineffective with the exception of the final power play late in the second period, but Korpisalo made an incredible save to deny Hischier. Not ideal, but that happens.

I was frustrated with the Devils penalty kill though, as Columbus broke through for a power play goal before the fans could even settle into their seats and the Devils were damn near fortunate that Columbus didn’t score a second goal with the man advantage on the McLeod penalty. The final penalty kill was much better, but at that point, the Devils were already trailing and couldn’t find one more goal to extend the game.

Its tough to get on either unit too much considering the Devils makeshift lineup and the fact the Devils penalty kill has been playing better in general, so I’d at least give Alain Nasreddine’s unit a pass tonight. That said, it was disappointing to see that the specials couldn’t pick the rest of the team up when they needed it.

Blackwood Was Mostly Fine, I Guess?

I didn’t think MacKenzie Blackwood was as awful tonight as the numbers would indicate. I did think he failed to come up with that one big save the Devils needed though, a la Korpisalo robbing Hischier, and that was ultimately the difference in the game.

If you look at the goals individually, its tough to point at any one goal allowed in isolation and say “It’s the goaltender’s fault”. Bjorkstrand scored twice off of perfect feeds from Voracek, one of which was on a defensive zone turnover by Tatar. A puck went in off of Hughes’s skate that Blackwood couldn’t do much with, and there a questionable defensive zone play by Ty Smith that led to the other goal. But again, it’s almost impossible to win consistently in this league when you’re giving up 4 goals, and the results are what they are.

There were a couple instances where I thought Blackwood was fortunate not to get scored on more than he actually did. I already alluded to the one play by Voracek where the refs had a quick whistle on the stoppage. There was other instances watching the game where I thought Blackwood was a little slow to react or flat-out lost track of the puck. I do think his rebound control was a little bit better tonight, but frankly, there are enough warts in his game right now where there’s a lot left to be desired.

Final Thoughts

I thought the Devils played hard, forechecked their asses off, and created some good opportunities despite being undermanned, but give credit where credit is due. Joonas Korpisalo was just a little bit better than Mackenzie Blackwood, the Blue Jackets were a little bit better defensively than the Devils were, and Columbus earned the two points tonight. Hopefully, the Devils won’t have to skate 11 forwards and 7 defensemen in their next game as Pavel Zacha and Yegor Sharangovich would be eligible for Monday night against Tampa if they can clear COVID protocols.

What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you mostly pleased with the effort as I was, or are you disappointed they came up short? Are you in agreement with me that Hughes and Hischier weren’t the issue tonight? Did any of the Devils extras catch your eye tonight? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.