When a team is in a slump and have had several winless games in a row, fans increasingly care less about how they end the slide, just that they actually do it. Spirits were understandably low going into tonight’s game in Sunrise, Florida. The New Jersey Devils just lost 1-4 to Carolina. Mackenzie Blackwood was set to get his first start since November 3 and gave up a goal off his back in his first appearance in said loss to Carolina. The Devils were struggling to score amid their six game winless streak. The Florida Panthers beat the Devils just two games prior, were at home, coming off a big loss to Boston, had no game to play on Tuesday night like New Jersey, and were still mad about Nico Hischier accidentally taking down Aleksander Barkov’s leg on Saturday night. There was plenty of reason to be worried about this game being another loss for the Devils.
The worries only increased with the start of the game. Ryan Graves fell awkwardly in a collision with Zac Dalpe in the left corner of the Devils’ zone in the first period. He could not even stand up. He crawled toward the bench before the trainer got off to help him off. Graves would not return. The Devils were left with five defensemen to support a possibly rusty Blackwood. Oh, and about a minute after that injury, the fourth line was caved in as Michael McLeod and Miles Wood stood about like statues as Eric Staal put in a rebound for the Devils to go down 0-1. It looked to be the start of another long night and another addition to the slump.
One of the key factors in the slump was the lack of scoring, particularly scoring by players not named Jack Hughes. Where was the support of, say, big-time (and future big-money) winger Jesper Bratt? He was goalless since the Devils’ last win on December 6. Bratt would end his own streak. First, he finished a wonderful pass from Hughes on a power play to tie up the game. Yes, the Devils scored a power play goal - also an improvement over recent games. Bratt would continue to play more like the player he was in October and November instead of the prior six games. While the run of play was not entirely favorable for Bratt, he was able to find space against the Panthers defense and look for options. Bratt would strike again in the second period. Down 1-2, the Devils needed some kind of break. Dougie Hamilton turned a Florida turnover in the neutral zone into a pass to Bratt for a 2-on-1. Bratt kept it himself and torched Sergei Bobrovsky’s left side to tie up the game. Bratt’s brace along with three other shots and four other shooting attempts made him tonight’s most prolific attacker for the Devils. He played over 20 minutes at even strength alone, often with Hughes. Bratt’s own slump ended and that is a very good thing for the Devils and the People Who Matter who want to meme him with a clumsy abbreviation. Bratt was one of the most important Devils tonight.
Speaking of scoring by players not named Jack Hughes, the Devils got a fortunate tip from someone who has been goalless for even longer: Yegor Sharangovich. Sharangovich did not play much tonight. He was kept to exactly 10 minutes of ice time tonight. Yet, he was able to provide the most important touch on a puck. Michael McLeod, in his one good play this evening, carried the puck in and circled around the zone to look for an option. He found Jonas Siegenthaler at the center point. Siegenthaler, who had a great game, fired a long shot. Sharangovich had a body on him but not on his stick. He got a tip on Siegenthaler’s shot to change the trajectory towards the net, which beat Bobrovsky. That goal stood up as the game winner. Sharangovich scored his first goal since his brace against Our Hated Rivals on November 28, or nine games ago. He can take credit for the GWG that ended a six-game slide.
The most important Devil on the ice was Mackenzie Blackwood. Yes, he conceded two goals. A rebound by Staal where someone on his team should have done something about Staal. Especially those perceived to be tough, gritty, character, energy guys. The other goal: an open shot just next to the slot by Eetu Luostarinen that converted a power play and was created by Sam Bennett, who should have been denied earlier. Hardly soft goals or embarassments like pucks put in off one’s back. Blackwood faced 33 other shots for a total of 35. Which is a lot considering that Florida put up 76 shooting attempts, 47 scoring chances, and 20 high-danger chances. The Panthers were expected to score 3.89 goals by Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model and Blackwood allowed just two. This included some huge stops, such as a 3-on-2 shorthanded rush, denying Sam Lomberg at the left post in the third period, all six of Aaron Ekblad’s bombs that created chaos in front of the net, and keeping Sam Reinhart and chumpstain Matt Tkachuk off the board despite their multiple shots. Blackwood was excellent at going post to post and reacting to the myriad of second efforts from the Panthers. Sure, I would have liked for him to concede fewer rebounds but a lot of those were in situations where he really needed to make the stop instead of being perfect. Blackwood played a great game on its own, a fantastic game relative to the Devils’ recent games and his own past issues, and made it possible for the Devils to comeback and end their slump tonight.
The game as a whole was an intense affair. Both teams played like they had a point to prove. Florida certainly took most of the run of play in the first and third periods. There was plenty of physical play including an unexpected fight between Anton Lundell and Erik Haula. An event that led to the power play for Bratt’s PPG. The whole storyline of whether Florida would keep picking on Nico Hischier did not really become of anything until the game was out of doubt. Which was intense on its own with the Panthers throwing everything forward, pucks lying under players and trying to be fished out for a quick shot or clearance, a missed empty net chance but no icing, the Devils forechecking after that empty net try, and Tomas Tatar being taken down as he slid in the game-securing score. Then and only then did someone try to go after the captain. It would be Matthew Tkachuk, held scoreless tonight, to have a go at Nico Hischier. This sparked a huge scrum with gloved punches thrown, Tkachuk trying to beat on Hischier, the officials pulling Hischier away from Tkachuk, and Tkachuk working harder to go after Hischier to try to pummel him over the officials than he did at trying to score tonight. Tkachuk was given a penalty and hopefully gets a suspension for his nonsense. Damon Severson, Ekblad, Brandon Montour, and Reinhart were all given misconducts for their involvement in the huge post-ENG scrum. Even this went the Devils way. The Devils got a power play, only one player got a misconduct to three for Florida, Hischier was no worse for wear, the People Who Matter and Lindy Ruff got to see the Devils stick up for Hischier, and TNT showed Matthew Tkachuk to be a chump who clearly cannot handle losses. Which is a bit surprising as his team is now sitting behind Buffalo and Detroit in the league standings. You do not get there without a good number of losses.
Ultimately, the Devils snapped their winless streak and if they did it in a super-ugly fashion like their one and only win over (sigh) Philadelphia, then we would be happy for it. The Devils showed they can be more than fine in a physical, intense game; they can accomplish all of this with five defensemen - including heavy minutes for Severson and Brendan Smith; they can still make multi-goal comebacks in the third period (they turned 1-2 to 4-2); they can score more than two goals in a game; they do not need Jack Hughes to do everything; and they can secure the win against a desperate opponent. With all that in mind, it was a very good win for the New Jersey Devils this evening.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: Check out NHL.com for a highlight video of tonight’s win. Yes, a Devils win. It feels good to write that.
Good Devils Outside of Blackwood & Bratt: Jonas Siegenthaler, take a bow. In a game where Florida controlled the run of play and exploited a defense that was down to five defensemen and did not have John Marino available (he was hurt in the Carolina game), the Devils went an amazing 28-20 in attempts and 15-9 in shots when he took a shift in 5-on-5. The Panthers, as a team, out-attempted the Devils 64-49 (the Devils out-shot them 29-27). Siegenthaler was great at shutting plays down and supporting offensive efforts. He was rewarded by having his shot tipped for the eventual game winning goal. After a bunch of not-so-good or notable games from #71, Siegenthaler made his mark on this one.
Likewise Dougie Hamilton another fine night. While the Devils were out-attempted when he was on the ice, 19-22, the Devils out-shot the Panthers 11-6 with Hamilton. He created Bratt’s second goal, he played quite a bit in tough situations, and often did well on the puck. I think Siegenthaler was the best defenseman tonight for New Jersey. Hamilton was not too shabby himself. Which was important since, again, the Devils had to go play with five defensemen.
I want to give some love to the line of Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, and Fabian Zetterlund. No, they did not create a goal tonight as a line; although Tatar did put in an empty net goal. They spelled the Hughes line quite well in the run of play, being only out-attempted by one and out-shooting the Panthers 6-3 when they were on the ice. Being able to push the play forward just to keep the Panthers from crashing the net in waves played a role in ensuring Blackwood was not totally overwhelmed. Hischier did not wilt. Tatar and Zetterlund certainly did not either.
While they were creamed in the run of play, I think this was one of the better nights for Damon Severson and Brendan Smith. Two defensemen with some very good 5-on-5 numbers with significant flaws: Smith being slow and a penalty-liability and Severson’s history of catastrophic turnovers and plays. The Devils were out-attempted 17-33 when Smith took a shift and out-attempted 23-33 when Severson took a shift. Yet, the Devils were only out-shot 11-12 with Smith and out-shot 15-18 with Severson. Which is quite good given how many attempts the Panthers were able to get off against either defender. Smith did not take a penalty tonight and threw his body around well. I think he was overzealous on Bennett, which did lead to the one PPGA. But Smith put in a better performance than what he has done in New Jersey despite a huge negative CF%. As for Severson, Ruff kept going to him to the point of over 25 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. Which is a ton for anyone, much less Severson. Again, Severson was not perfect. He created that 3-on-2 shorthanded rush with a real dumb blind pass in the neutral zone during a power play. But Severson kept his boneheaded plays to a minimum and largely kept cleaning things up in his own end. Again, much better than what we are used to seeing from Severson. Given the Graves injury, both had to play a lot. Both did well when called upon, which contributed to tonight’s win.
Bad Devils: Michael McLeod’s one good play tonight created the shot for the game winning goal. Other than that, Michael McLeod absolutely stunk out there. Turnovers? You bet. Failed zone exits? He has those too. Taking pucks on defense and putting himself into trouble by skating to Panthers? He did that multiple times. Getting caught looking on the Staal goal? Yeah. Getting caught chasing plays and not creating much? Totally. The play of the McLeod line plus Lindy Ruff’s continued dissatisfaction with a fourth line that he created led to a real shortening of the bench for the forwards tonight. While McLeod played fewer than 10 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, the Devils were out-attempted 8-15 with McLeod and out-shot 6-9. It was so bad that Miles Wood took some shifts with other players just to see if McLeod was really the issue. To a degree it was. At least he did not take a penalty or get involved in multiple goals against. But McLeod was awful in Raleigh and awful again tonight. This has to be better. The four faceoff wins out of seven is not worth it.
Speaking of Miles Wood, goodness did Florida enjoy playing against Wood! Wood at least did not take a stupid penalty. He did tip down a long shot with a stick about a foot above the crossbar for an easy no-goal call in the first period. Wood was just a liability out there from watching Lomberg and Staal for the game’s opening goal to being out-attempted 9-23 and out-shot 5-12 when he was on the ice. Wood did not provide any “energy” except for the other team. He racked up the highest on-ice xGA out of all of the Devils in 5-on-5 with a 1.54, which is just heinous. McLeod and Wood together was a bad, bad, bad scene. Jesper Boqvist was not saving them. Wood needs to be better than this too.
I really need Ruff to make a fourth line that he will use instead of leaning so much on Hughes’ and Hischier’s lines in 5-on-5 play. Dawson Mercer was a non-factor but also kept to fewer than 7:30 of ice time in the most common situation in hockey. Sharangovich got some more looks and it was important that he did given that he scored. He really should get some more consistent ice time instead of being the victim of his linemates. Alex Holtz was benched in favor of Andreas Johnsson who played a whopping 3:37 over five shifts. I will not blame you if you had no idea he was in tonight’s game. Given that this was after a game played last night and with Graves’ injury, shortening the bench was a non-ideal decision that thankfully did not blow up in Ruff’s face. I can agree that Mercer did not do well and Johnsson was not going to do well, but they need more than just a few shifts to actually show that instead of being given a shorter leash than McLeod, who I think deserves a night off just to sort out his own game.
What’s Next for the Defense?: It remains to be seen what exactly is Marino’s injury, what exactly is Graves’ injury, and how long each will be out. While the NHL has a roster freeze in effect through December 28, teams are allowed to make call ups for injury purposes. Utica plays tomorrow night. I would have to think at least someone is being brought up. Nikita Okhotiuk would be a decent enough choice as Simon Nemec is with Slovakia for the 2022 World Junior Championships that start next week. We shall see soon who they decide to bring up, if anyone.
Don’t Tell Me About Toughness, Grit, Etc.: During this slump or, for some, any day that ends in ‘y,’ there is a vocal set of the People Who Matter who complain about the Devils lacking toughness since, well, at least a decade plus now. That they are not heavy enough. That they get pushed around. Odd complaints about a team that goes to the net constantly and has lost their previous six games in large part of a lack of goalscoring. I can agree that not sticking up for Hischier in Saturday’s game was not good. But given that Florida lightened up on that - presumably because Paul Maurice told them to knock it off and focus on getting a needed win - in tonight’s game until Tatar secured the win, it was not much of an issue. Both teams threw a lot of checks tonight. The refs let plenty go in terms of fouls, so a lot of whistles were swallowed. Both teams crashed the net. Both teams skated at a high pace as the game went on, which was surprising for New Jersey as they did play last night. The Devils did all of this while going down to five defensemen, surviving waves of attacking hockey and one final 5-on-6 push before Tatar’s goal, and having played a game the night before. The Devils showed a lot of heart, moxie, guts, spunk (which Ed Asner hates), and whole other bunch of descriptive words to describe a team or player as not being the dreaded s-word (soft). Therefore, I must write this plea that I hope will be read by some:
Please do not tell me the 2022-23 Devils are soft or get easily knocked around or any of that junk. Because it is junk. This game was evidence of that being junk. If given the time, I can even point you to other games where the Devils prevailed over the supposedly scary and heavier hockey teams. Please start watching games instead of lazily pointing out how the Devils lose a 1-2 game to a super-hot goalie performance because they do not have enough beef or heaviness. Spare me about complaints about the playoffs. The Devils really should get there first before you worry about something that has not happened since 2018. If you’re still mad, concerned, worried, and so forth about a perceived lack of toughness, then I do not know what to tell you after a night like this one. Oh, and the Devils now have 22 wins in 33 games so it is not like they need your non-Javier Bernal big body desires to succeed in this league. In a word: Cope.
One Last Thought: Tonight’s game was on TNT. I felt that the commentary and the broadcast was pretty good. I would have rather have heard Bill Spaulding, but I understand he has been sick and so I hope he feels better. I would have also preferred Bryce Salvador over the collective of Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Rick Tocchet. And absolutely over Darren Pang, who I am surprised get as much air time as he does. Still, it was not bad. I prefer it to ESPN.
Your Take: The Devils won their first game since December 6 and there were a lot of positives beyond just getting a much needed win. Who on the Devils impressed you the most tonight? Did you expect a win tonight, much less a third-period come back win? What would you like to see the Devils improve upon before they host Boston on Friday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments. Thanks to everyone for their comments during the game in the Gamethread and those who followed @AAtJerseyBlog throughout the game. Thank you for reading.