One of these days, the New Jersey Devils will learn how to put together a full sixty minute effort.
Until that day comes, they’ll continue to get manhandled and fold when they face any adversity. Tuesday was no different. The New Jersey Devils did a lot of good things for a long stretch of their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and led 3-1 midway through the second period, but allowed five unanswered goals in the blink of an eye to find a way to lose once again, this time by a score of 6-3.
The Bolts got things started gaining the Devils zone but the Devils eventually got a clear. Tampa turned the puck over reentering the zone and Pavel Zacha was off the mark off of a feed from Nico Hischier. The two teams traded offsides infractions before Dawson Mercer worked the puck towards Andrei Vasilevsky’s crease before it was cleared. PK Subban fired a puck into somebody’s shins and we were off to the races the other way, but Jack Hughes eventually cleared the puck to the neutral zone. Tampa regained the zone after a stoppage in play before the Studenic-Boqvist-Vesey line got a clear and the Lightning reset. Nico Hischier intercepted a feed out in front of Jon Gillies’s cage. The captain found Zacha racing along the boards. Zacha sent it back to Hischier, but Hischier didn’t get his best shot on net. The Devils got some offensive zone time as Tomas Tatar won the puck along the boards but Damon Severson’s shot was blocked down in front.
The Hughes line came on as Yegor Sharangovich gained the offensive zone. Sharangovich fed it in front for Mercer, who worked the puck in front to Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak. The young blueliner struggled to control it as Jack Hughes used his speed and poked at Cernak’s stick (and perhaps the puck as well) and he managed to punch it past Vasilevsky. Whether Hughes or Mercer technically touched it last is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, although Mercer was ultimately credited with the goal, and the Devils had a 1-0 lead.
Tampa got that goal right back though as PK Subban and Ty Smith got outworked by the Lightning forecheck. Corey Perry worked it in front for Maroon but a sprawling Subban blocked the shot. Jesper Boqvist tried to punch the puck out to the corner but it deflected off of Jimmy Vesey and back in front for Maroon. The former Devils winger made the most of his second chance and slipped it by Gillies to tie the game.
The Hughes line continued to do things offensively as #86 gained the zone a couple times and set up Sharangovich, but Vasilevsky turned him aside and the puck was eventually deflected out of play. Jimmy Vesey, who played in his 400th NHL game this evening, gained the zone and fired the puck off of the side of the net. Tampa gained the zone and besieged Gillies with a barrage of shots but couldn’t put it past him. The Devils got a clear and Zacha sent a shot into Vasilevsky’s chest for the stoppage and TV timeout.
The Devils got the puck in deep as Hughes did a nice job maintaining control along the boards, working the puck to Subban. They had an open net situation where Mercer couldn’t quite bury it. Tampa got called for a Too Many Men penalty with 2:12 to go. The Devils did a decent job moving the puck quickly before Tampa got a clear. New Jersey regained the zone and Hughes’s shot was deflected out of play. The second unit came on and Boqvist stripped Victor Hedman of the puck. Mercer grabbed the loose puck and worked it to Tatar, who fired on net. The puck bounced out to Sharangovich who didn’t miss and the Devils regained the lead.
The rest of the period was uneventful as the Devils took a 2-1 lead to the dressing room.
The Devils started the second with Mason Geertsen finishing a check along the boards and the loose puck coming over to Nathan Bastian. Bastian’s shot was turned aside by Vasilevsky. On the next shift, Dawson Mercer won a board battle against Cal Foote and punched the puck ahead to Jack Hughes. Hughes made his move in on Vasilevsky who stopped the initial shot, but Hughes buried the rebound for the 3-1 lead.
Tampa picked up the pace and pinned the Hischier line deep but the Devils eventually got a clear and Gillies covered up the puck after Ross Colton knocked the net off the moorings. The Devils got a 2-on-1 situation where Marian Studenic took the puck away in the neutral zone but he dumped the puck off to Jimmy Vesey for some reason and Vesey made an equally baffling decision to send it back to Studenic who was in too tight at this point, negating a scoring chance. It was one of those situations where you would’ve liked to have seen somebody bury the puck, as Lindy Ruff alluded to postgame, to take a 4-1 lead. But the Devils didn’t.
The Lightning pressured the Devils 4th line until Mason Geertsen was sent to the box for hooking Ryan McDonagh in the crease, giving the Bolts their first power play. Tampa cycled the puck before Nico Hischier intercepted a pass, killing off several seconds and the Devils kept the pressure up on the kill. Jon Gillies had to fight off a high shot that was flipped towards the crease. Ryan Graves cleared the zone with about 30 seconds left on the man advantage. Gillies deflected a shot out of play seconds after Geertsen exited the box on the successful kill.
After the TV timeout, Nico Hischier drew a hooking call on Jan Rutta to go back on the power play with 6:59 left in the second. The second PP unit started things with Tatar sailing a shot wide. The Lightning eventually got a clear and the Devils got the first unit on. The Devils got set up with 30 seconds left and Zacha and Bastian kept the play alive along the boards. They got the puck to Hughes, who nearly found Bastian in front for the power play goal, but no such luck as the Devils once again failed to extend their lead, and Tampa killed the rest of the penalty.
Tampa won an offensive zone draw and worked the puck back to Jan Rutta, who found Nikita Kucherov along the boards. Kucherov fed Stamkos, who fired a rocket of a shot off the post and in to pull Tampa within one. I don’t think there’s much Gillies can do on this one as it is a pure goal scorer’s goal. Tampa got the equalizer moments later as Mikhail Sergachev corralled the puck along the blueline and made a nifty move to create some space with Hughes on his trail. Sergachev worked his way towards the middle of the ice and fired the puck towards the net, which got deflected in front by Alex Killorn, whom Ty Smith failed to box out, and past Gillies to tie the game. The Lightning continued to tilt the ice before the Devils settled things down as the final seconds ticked off in the second period. If you’ve watched the Devils all year, you kind of had a sense where this game was going though.
The Devils lost the opening draw of the third period but eventually gained the zone, with Colton White firing a shot wide of the cage before the Bolts iced the puck. Hischier won the ensuing draw but Tampa eventually cleared the puck to center ice before Subban fired a shot that was deflected out of play. The Devils third line did a nice job keeping the puck in the zone before finding Jesper Boqvist alone in front, but the former Vezina winner Vasilevsky turned him aside. Tampa turned up the heat as McLeod failed to clear the zone and the Lightning held the zone, but the Devils eventually chipped the puck out to center ice before Tampa regained the zone and Hedman ripped the puck that deflected off the pipe. Tatar got a shot on Vasilevsky off of a drop pass from Hischier that was easily turned aside. Tampa pinned the Devils deep before Siegenthaler iced the puck with 13:56 to go. The Devils eventually cleared it and Studenic sailed a point-blank chance wide after a defensive zone turnover by the Lightning.
Tampa gained their first lead of the night shortly after the first TV timeout as Hischier lost a defensive zone draw. Tampa cycled the puck along the boards to Victor Hedman, who fired it towards Gillies, who might’ve been partially screened with another Lightning player and Ryan Graves in front of him. 4-3 Tampa. The Lightning added to their lead moments later as Jimmy Vesey intercepted the puck. Vesey had to pull up in the Lightning offensive zone to wait for reinforcements and Subban couldn’t handle a cross-ice feed, with Point finding Kucherov, who was off to the races the other way. The former Hart Trophy winner easily manhandled Gillies for the 5-3 lead. The Lightning put the cherry on top as Corey Perry gained the zone and fired the puck on net from a tight angle. Gillies lost track of the puck, and he’s prone to do, Perry poked the puck into the back of Gillies’s pads, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare tapped in the easy goal for the 6-3 lead as Jonas Siegenthaler and Jack Hughes couldn’t clear it.
Nico Daws came on in relief of Gillies, but by then, the damage had already been done. Frustrations settled in as Mason Geertsen and Pat Maroon had a lengthy, animated chat. Erik Cernak and Nathan Bastian dropped the gloves and Geertsen earned himself a game misconduct for his efforts in stirring the pot with the Devils already down 3 and the game over. Marian Studenic went in hard on Vasilevsky and Cal Foote took exception even though he drove Studenic into the goaltender. Damon Severson and Mikhail Sergachev decided to take an early trip to the showers by fighting each other with 1:24 to go. The Devils somehow got a power play out of that whole sequence but they did nothing of note with the man advantage and Tampa wins 6-3.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit Raw Charge if you want to read the Lightning perspective on tonight’s game.
A Tale Of Two Games
Once again, the Devils did a lot of good things over a prolonged stretch of a hockey game. They outplayed Tampa in the first period, but also did a lot of little things that winning teams do. Hughes poking at a puck on Cernak’s stick and getting a fortunate bounce. Boqvist stealing a puck to lead to a goal. Mercer winning a board battle to lead to a goal early in the second. Because of plays like that, the Devils held a 3-1 lead well into the second period. They earned that lead.
And yet, in typical fashion under Lindy Ruff, these Devils folded after being punched in the mouth as they had in previous games, such as Toronto. Once again, the game got away from them.
Tonight’s game hammered home some recurring themes we’ve seen with this team throughout the season, such as being mentally weak. How porous goaltending has continued to sink this team. How Lindy Ruff has continued to fail to try to help this team out. None of this is new, unfortunately, and it undid the good things the Devils did tonight.
The most frustrating part of this is that we’ve seen this Devils team BEAT this Lightning team after overcoming some adversity! This season! They ARE capable of elevating their game.....at times. But those efforts are too far and between. More often than not, they pack it in at the first sign of trouble. Ruff even alluded to the air going out of their sails after the two goals in the second, which is the understatement of the year.
Give a veteran, champion team like Tampa credit, as they’re more talented, more experienced, and better equipped to fight back and win a game like this. I don’t know if this is part of the process of “learning how to win”, but I do know the Devils have mastered the art of losing, and I’m getting tired of coming on here after losses and repeating myself on why they continue to lose. I’d like to see them actually put a full sixty minute effort together against a halfway decent team (no, not Montreal) with a good goaltender (no, not St. Louis either).
Another Rough Night at the Office for Ty Smith and PK Subban
I don’t get any pleasure pointin this out yet again after a recap, but again, Ty Smith and PK Subban continue to let the Devils down with their subpar defensive play and mistakes at critical times. It continues to be a problem for this team.
Smith and Subban were outworked down low on what was eventually the Maroon goal. Smith failed to box out Killorn on the tying goal in the second. The stats aren’t pretty either as Smith was 0-5 HDCF with a 15.10 xGF% through two periods. He wasn’t much better in the third either when the game got out of hand.
Subban’s stats were less egregious, but he had moments he’d like to forget (in particular, his inability to control the puck on what became the Kucherov goal), but if you put stock into plus/minus (spoiler: you shouldn’t), he was a -4. Any way you want to slice it, its just not good enough.
I would hope that during this long break coming up, the Devils take a long, hard look at Ty Smith’s play. Not only has he been bad defensively, but he’s not contributing offensively either. He’s a liability out there. Through 42 games this season, he’s been the worst defensemen among the regulars for the Devils and his play has certainly warranted an AHL demotion, but for whatever reason, the Devils have been reluctant to pull the trigger on such a move. I believe it’s time, and I hope the Devils make that move during this break.
As for Subban, tonight was a good reminder that the Devils can and probably should look to upgrade this offseason. That begins with moving him at the deadline for whatever you can get. I like PK Subban the person, but PK Subban the hockey player has been a disappointment for most of his 2 and a half seasons in New Jersey. Committing any term for the pending unrestricted free agent who turns 33 in May is not advisable unless the Devils want to close this window of contention before it ever opens. I think Tom Fitzgerald is smart enough to see that.
No, Gillies Is Not Part of the Answer Going Forward
....not unless the question is “Should Jon Gillies be an ex-Devil at the end of the year?” Then the answer is “Yeah, he should be an ex-Devil”.
Gillies had been serviceable in net, or at least serviceable compared to what the Devils had been getting previously, with a .900 save percentage over his last 10 outings before tonight’s debacle, but once again, he just wasn’t good tonight. His rebound control is awful and he has a tendency to let the puck trickle away from him, as we saw on the Bellemare goal. His positioning isn’t great. And once the game got away from the Devils, they more or less packed it in because they knew once again, their goaltending would give them no chance.
I know the Devils poor goaltending topic has been beaten to death this season, and I know the Devils don’t have any better options to play out the string, but I’ve seen enough from Gillies to know I don’t want to see him next season in any capacity.
Mercer as a Winger Experiment is Working
If you want a positive from tonight, it’s that Dawson Mercer doesn’t look out of place on Jack Hughes’s wing. In fact, they looked quite good over the first 20 minutes of this game before everything bad happened.
Lol maybe let's stick with this for a bit? pic.twitter.com/Fmx0jISCCi— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) February 16, 2022
Mercer being a viable option on Hughes’s wing presents a lot more options with how Lindy Ruff fills out his lineup card once Jesper Bratt (and to a lesser extent, Andreas Johnsson) return to the lineup. Bratt has shown he can generate offense this season regardless of where he plays in the lineup, so it gives the Devils the option of putting him on Hischier’s wing. Or perhaps if the Devils want to try to juice up the trade value for a certain former 6th overall pick, maybe they can stick Bratt and Zacha on a line together, as they’ve had success in the past.
In any case, I’d like to see the Sharangovich-Hughes-Mercer trio stay together for awhile, as they were one of the few good things worth writing home about this evening.
What did you think of the latest loss tonight? How frustrated are you that the usual suspects continue to sink this team? Will the Devils make any dramatic changes during this upcoming break? Are you pleased with the Mercer on the wing experiment? Please feel free to vent in the comments section below, and thank you for reading.