If you thought December was tough enough as it is, then check this week out. The New Jersey Devils will get three games in four nights at Carolina, at Florida, and then at home against Boston. That is a contender within New Jersey’s division, a legitimately talented (and oddly underachieving) Florida team, and the best team in the NHL by record.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, BSSO; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils hosted Florida. It was close. It was chippy as an accidental shot to the knee by Nico Hischier took out Aleksander Barkov, which led to the Panthers taking heaps of shots at Hischier throughout the game. In terms of scoring, the Panthers went up first and second. A Brendan Smith slashing penalty yielded a Sam Reinhart power play goal to open the score. In the second period, Gustav Forsling double the Florida lead. John Marino put in a long shot past a fallen Sergei Bobrovsky to get the Devils on the board. After a lengthy review, Eric Staal was judged to push Dawson Mercer into Bobrovsky so the goal stood up. As did the 1-2 score until the final minute. With a stickless Hischier, the Devils failed to clear the zone. Aaron Ekblad sent in a harmless looking shot that Reinhart tipped down to make it very harmful - and a goal past Akira Schmid. The Devils went into the second intermission down 1-3. The pressure to get back into the game was uneven at best. There was late glimpse of hope when Michael McLeod set up Erik Haula in front for a badly-needed goal - since scoring Haula has missed a load of scorable shots - to make it 2-3. Alas, the extra man situation yielded an empty net goal for Carter Verhaegae. The Devils lost 2-4 for their fifth winless game in a row. Matt recapped the game here.
The Last Hurricanes Game: On Sunday afternoon, the Hurricanes hosted Pittsburgh. As Carolina owned second place and the Penguins were right behind them in the standings, this game was huge. After a scoreless first period, Derek Stepan finished a touch off Stefan Noesen’s stick to open the scoring. Pittsburgh hit back shortly after Jaccob Slavin was sent to the box for clearing a puck over the glass. Five seconds into the power play, Rickard Rakell tied up the game. Early in the third period, the Penguins went up 2-1 with a goal from Brock McGinn. The Canes would rally. Minutes later, Brady Skjei found the back of the net to tie up the game. At the 13:33 mark, Jordan Staal managed to beat Casey DeSmith for the go-ahead goal. It was enough for the win as the Canes clamped down on the Penguins. Whatever did get through was denied by Pytor Kochetkov. The Hurricanes won the game, earned at least a point in 11 straight games, and entered a tie in points with the Devils in the standings. Check out Canes Country for their take on the game.
The Goal: Everyone has to step up. Carolina is not just a team tied with the Devils in the standings in terms of points. They are arguably the most complete team the Devils will face outside of Boston this month. There is very little that Carolina does not do well. They are successful at home (8-3-1) and on the road (11-3-5). They do not concede a lot of goals. They can score quite a few goals. They are monsters in 5-on-5 play. Their power play is not that successful relative to the rest of the league, which is hardly a major weakpoint for a team that has earned 71% of all possible points this season. What makes Carolina such a difficult opponent is that the entire team contributes in some way or form. On their current point streak, they have received points and goals not just from their top guys like Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, and Sebastian Aho. They prevailed over Pittsburgh with offensive contributions from Stefan Noesen, Derek Stepan, Jordan Stall, Jesper Fast, and Brady Skjei. Like a lot of contending teams, Carolina has depth. If the Devils are going to end their slump tonight, then they are going to need more than one line or pairing to perform well. They need just about everyone to contribute because every match-up is going to be a challenge. The Devils have the capability of doing this; it is a big reason why they won 13 games straight and racked up 21 already (as of Sunday evening, only five teams have 20 or more wins this season). They need to demonstrate it to end a slump and get a big win over a team now standing right with them in the standings.
How’s Carolina Doing?: Very well. And, dare I suggest, as expected.
The Carolina Hurricanes won 54 games and earned 116 points last season as they won the Metropolitan Division and finished second in the East. They did it by being excellent in attacking, defending, and 5-on-5 play in general. This season’s team found a new goaltender, changed some of the depth players, and largely kept doing what they have been doing in the run of play. As a result, they are, once again, contenders. Once again, they are excellent in attacking and defending. There is a strong argument that Carolina is the best 5-on-5 team in the NHL. Should things break the right way, a Cup run is entirely possible for this Carolina Hurricanes team.
They also have been hot as of late. They won their last four games. They have not lost in regulation since getting smoked by Arizona (really) 4-0 back on November 23. In the 11 games since then, the Canes have went 9-0-2 with points earned in each game. The non-wins were an OT loss to Boston at November 25 and an OT loss at Anaheim (really) on December 6. Among those nine wins is an array of different types of games. High-scoring games? Carolina beat St. Louis 6-4 on December 1 and Dallas on December 17 5-4 in overtime. More “traditional” scorelines? Yep. 4-2 over Los Angeles on December 3, 3-2 over Seattle on December 15, and their most recent games. Games where their goalie was dominant? How about a pair of shutouts in consecutive games: 3-0 over the Isles on December 10 and 1-0 over Detroit on December 13. The Canes have won over very good teams, very mid teams, and even some bad teams. They have won in different ways. This is all to say that not much will faze them at this point. If it is close, if it is wide open, if it is up tempo, or low event goaltending, the Canes can make it all work. Just like last season’s team.
The Carolina Offense: While plenty of teams have scored more goals than Carolina’s 90 this season, I certainly would give their offense a lot of respect. Especially in 5-on-5 play. Here’s a quick breakdown after their game on Sunday from Natural Stat Trick:
- Corsi For per 60 minutes: 66.58 (1st, Devils are 2nd with 66.33)
- Shots For per 60 minutes: 33.41 (4th, Devils are 2nd with 35.78)
- Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 32.27 (4th, Devils are 1st with 35.58)
- High Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 13.69 (4th, Devils are 3rd with 14.46)
- Expected Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.92 (3rd, Devils are 1st with 3.19)
- Actual Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.44 (19th, Devils are 1st with 3.14)
- Team Shooting Percentage: 7.32% (26th, Devils are 10th with 8.79%)
You can see the big flaw for Carolina: puck luck. The Canes take a lot of shot attempts, get a lot of them on net, and take them in very good locations. They just do not go in. In a way, this could make the Hurricanes even more frightening. If they are able to go 9-0-2 in a season where they are not blasting teams away with goals on most nights, then imagine when their sticks heat up a bit. It can already a very strong 5-on-5 offense and make it overwhelming for opposition teams.
This is not to say the Canes lack talent. Far from it. Martin Necas, Andrei Svechnikov, and Sebastian Aho are very good on the puck and at shooting it. So much so that they are Carolina’s top scorers. But just like in the Pittsburgh game, they get contributions from others to more than supplant the goal scoring if they do not get on the board. Seth Jarvis has six goals and 15 points. Stefan Noesen has five goals and 15 points. Jordan Martinook has seven goals and 14 points. Jordan Staal has eight goals and 12 points. Teuvo Teravainen finally scored his first of the season last week - he did miss close to a month with an injury - and has nine assists. Defensemen Brent Burns (four goals, 22 points) and Brady Skjei (six goals, 14 points) add more to the attack. Should Paul Stastny, Derek Stepan, Jesper Kotkaniemi, and Jesper Fast get going more often, that will only deepen the pool of players who can get on the board.
As it stands, everyone on the Canes helps out in the run of play. And it is exceptional. Out of all 22 skaters, defenseman Calvin de Haan has the worst CF% on the team - at 57.12%. Which is simply fantastic on its own. That is what the Devils are going to be dealing with tonight. A team where the worst performer by way of on-ice attempt differential is still heavily favorable for his own team. The Devils do not need to just step up to attack but definitely to support on defense. They need to make their zone exit attempts count unless they want the many waves of Hurricanes to pin them back. This means the Devils need smart games from Jonas Siegenthaler all the way down to Brendan Smith and/or Damon Severson.
Weirdly, Carolina’s offense has another area of improvement beyond getting better shooting luck. The Hurricanes’ power play is not that productive. After Sunday’s games, the Canes sit at 27th in success rate at 18.3%, or 19 power play goals out of 104 opportunities. Carolina gets about a league median amount of power play situations. Per Natural Stat Trick, they certainly can attack as they have strong xGF/60 rate of 9.26 - the sixth best in power play situations. They have personnel that should be on a power play in Burns, Necas, Svechnikov, and Aho taking most of the minutes in power play situations. They have given plenty of looks to Noesen, Jarvis, Stastny, and Kotkaniemi. But, again, the pucks just do not go in the net all that much for Carolina. The team’s shooting percentage of 10.92% in power play situations is the third lowest in the NHL. Again, if this starts righting itself, then the Canes go from being formidable to dominant on offense. The Devils should make a point of it to not give them too many chances anyway. With the way slumping teams going, it could provide the spark the Hurricanes power play may need to get scoring more often.
Regardless of a lack of goal scoring and certainly not for a lack of talent, effort, and skill, Carolina is winning loads of games. Why? Their defense has been exceptional.
The Carolina Defense: It is real and it is spectacular. The addition of Brent Burns has been wonderful for Carolina, leading the core that returned the impeccable Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Brady Skeji has been very good in the top-four while the third pairing of Jalen Chatfield and Calvin de Haan has been more than acceptable. Here is another breakdown of their 5-on-5 from NST after Carolina’s win on Sunday; read them and possibly weep for the Devils offense.
- Corsi Against per 60 minutes: 43.76 (1st, Devils are 2nd with 50.44)
- Shots Against per 60 minutes: 24.24 (1st, Devils are 2nd with 25.41)
- Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 21.84 (1st, Devils are 4th with 24.55)
- High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 10.31 (1st, Devils are 1st with 9.03)
- Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.08 (1st, Devils are 3rd with 2.17)
- Actual Goals Against per 60 minutes: 1.87 (3rd, Devils are 4th with 1.92)
Carolina just has locked teams down in 5-on-5 compared to the rest of the league. They make the Devils’ excellent numbers look far less exceptional. This is a team that absolutely limits what they allow. This means the Canes can more than handle things when their offense is only providing 2-3 goals. They can keep their opponents to about that many or less.
This is bad news for the New Jersey Devils. A few weeks ago, I would see this as a match-up of the irresistible force against the immovable object. The Devils at least scored more than one goal on Saturday after two one-goal outings. Still, they have been slumping with more chances going begging than being turned goals that we saw a few weeks ago. Carolina’s defense could really frustrate a team that has been frustrated quite a bit over the last week of games. This is also why I believe the goal for the night has to be everyone stepping up. The Devils are not likely going to end their slump and get a result in Raleigh if Jack Hughes gets a highlight reelworthy goal and that is it. The Devils need something from Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Tomas Tatar, and others on the board. Carolina’s defense is going to make that incredibly difficult. And with defenders like Burns and Skjei, they can exploit the Devils if they get caught pinching in too much or a puck goes free from a block or miss.
Curiously, their penalty kill success rate is not that hot. It sits just around the league median at 79.4%. The Canes have allowed 22 power play goals out of 107 shorthanded situations. In terms of the run of play, the Canes are exceptional in shorthanded situations. They have an xGA/60 rate of 6.55, which is the second lowest such rate in the NHL per NST. The team that can shut it down in 5-on-5 does not allow a lot in 4-on-5 or similar situations. The goaltending has been less than exceptional, which may explain the not so great success rate. This could be something the Devils power play could exploit. Except the units have become messier and messier over the past few weeks, leading to fewer goals and opportunities taken to attack. As the Devils entered their slump, their power play was seemingly there already. Short of great night, I doubt the Devils will be able to pick on a less-than-great PK success rate. Especially if the Canes’ skaters continue to defend as well as they have been this season.
The Carolina Goaltenders: In 2021-22, the Canes leaned largely on Frederik Andersen and Raanta. They got a couple of games, some out of necessity , for Alex Lyon, Jack LaFontaine (whom the Devils crushed), and a Russian goaltender by the name of Pytor Kochetkov. He was a fifth round pick in 2019 and made his way to North America last season. The plan was for Andersen and Raanta to still own the crease. Then Andersen went down in November with an injury. Kochetkov had to get involved.
He has been sensational for the Hurricanes. Kochetkov has a 93.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 play, which is among the best in the NHL along with Semyon Varlamov, Ilya Samsonov, Filip Gustavsson, Alexandar Georgiev, and Conor Hellebuyck. He has appeared in 14 games, keeping Raanta to just 10 - who was already behind Andersen prior to his injury. Kochetkov was expected to allow 23 goals in 5-on-5 and he has allowed five fewer actual goals than that. Kochetkov has been the cure for what has ailed the Carolina PK with a 92.6% save percentage in shorthanded situations; a far cry better than Raanta’s 82.5% and Andersen’s hideous 66.7%.
In other words, Carolina has a goaltender who has been hot and has been a big driver of the team’s success. Even if they are not scoring many goals and even when the defense does get beat, Kochetkov has been there to keep the Hurricanes in just about every game he has played in.
Unless Carolina wants to show mercy to the Devils and start Raanta - and maybe they will ahead of a Pennsylvania back-to-back set later in their week - the Devils are expected to face Kochetkov. He is hot right now, which is not at all what a slumping team needs to face. They got goalie’d in the last week by Scott Wedgewood and Carter Hart and Igor Shesterkin eventually locked it down last Monday. If nothing else, at least recognize that Pytor Kochetkov is not this Nobody goaltender who will just bust out a good game out of nowhere. He has been very, very good so far with Carolina. Enough to make the Canes management wonder what to do when Andersen eventually returns.
Any Devils-Specific Notes: Mackenzie Blackwood is back. After two games in Utica, the Devils officially recalled him on Saturday night. On Monday, the team announced that he was back in the fold and, later in the day, Akira Schmid was sent down to Utica. This is an unfortunate circumstance. Blackwood did not exactly light the world on fire in his two games with the Comets. He also did not perform exceptionally well prior to his injury with an overall save percentage of 88% and an even strength save percentage of 89.2% in seven appearances this season. Schmid, in contrast, has been very good this season with 93.2% and 94.8% save percentages in those same categories in eight appearances. Even the most ardent Blackwood believes have to admit that going from Schmid to Blackwood is a downgrade. Which is not good for any team, much less a team in a slump with five winless games in a row going into a week against Carolina, Florida, and Boston within four nights of each other. Which is the current situation for the Devils.
That stated, the timing stinks but there is not much the Devils can do. They cannot keep Blackwood on IR indefinitely or until after they win some games. He had his conditioning loan and that has limits on timing. Schmid is waiver-ineligible so moving him down makes the most sense to make room for Blackwood. Even if you are the most ardent supporter of dumping Blackwood, then you have accept that Blackwood playing and playing well is the best case scenario. No one is really going to trade for a goaltender with junk numbers and an injury history. A goaltender who is performing better than his numbers suggest, though, something could be had beyond next-to-nothing as an asset. And it is not like Blackwood had the Devils enter a slump, go winless in their last five, or have a week of at Carolina, at Florida, and at home against Boston within four nights.
It will be a return by fire for Blackwood. The back-to-back set with Carolina and Florida necessitates a start for the returning goaltender. I do not know what would be preferable. Carolina may be shooting colder than their other stats, but a goalie returning from injury may be what their team shooting percentage desires. Florida can light things up but has been a more inconsistent team - why are they not a playoff team is a question I am still struggling with. It does not make much sense to wait until the home game with Boston, which is also a game against Boston. To me, the Devils will have to pick their poison and hope it is not so venomous. Whichever game Blackwood gets, he should play with the mindset that he is playing for his job. He very well could be. Just like Pytor Kochetkov took someone’s job in Carolina.
Sam Kasan reported these lines in practice from Monday, which should be a good indication of what the Devils will start with tonight. I strongly predict these forward lines will not last. The defense is back to its previous form with Damon Severson re-entering the lineup. The Kevin Bahl-Brendan Smith pairing did not have a great time against Florida. Severson earned his scratch - no, his very good 5-on-5 on-ice rates do not entirely make up for catastrophic errors - so bringing him back now is worth it. Hopefully he understands his proverbial leash is not as long as it was in the past. As for those forward lines, it appears Dawson Mercer is going to get a shot at center instead of Erik Haula. I do not know if I like this as Mercer has been quite good next to Jack Hughes. Why not Mercer with Jesper Bratt - who really could stand to get back on the scoresheet - and Hughes? Why keep Haula with Hughes when he scored his first goal in
forever thirteen games with a set up by Michael McLeod? Why is Jesper Boqvist next to McLeod again? Lines can and do change in-game and that is fine. I do not understand the logic of starting off with the premise of knowing the lines are highly likely going to be moved around in-game. Especially against an opponent that is a stalwart in 5-on-5 play. Of course, if these work out, then great. I would rather be happy than correct.
One Last Thought: Given how much the Devils have been crashing the net over the last week, the answer to getting more goals is not a Ken Daneyko cliche of “get a greasy goal.” (Aside: Over/under on that being said at least 8 times tonight). Instead, I want the Devils to get their shots on target more often to at least have a chance. The Devils missed the net 21 times against Florida. That cannot continue. The Devils did not forecheck well enough to get the turnovers they could use to generate offensive chances that they were getting and turning into scores (e.g. Mercer’s goal last Monday). Will this be enough to beat a goaltender who has been among the league best since coming in for Carolina? Maybe, maybe not. But you’re not to get goals from missing the net or not trying to get extra pucks for shots. If there is some shift I want to see the Devils change from the last game, then that is a big one for me.
Your Take: The Devils take a winless streak into a brutal stretch of three games in four nights this week. Carolina is very good and can very well take first place tonight, adding further misery to the Devils. Will the Devils be able to surprise and break their slump tonight? How do you think the Devils can score more goals than their opposition tonight? Who on Carolina worries you the most? What else about this matchup is important to note (e.g. lineup changes, gametime decisions, etc.)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.