Finally! The New Jersey Devils went into Quebec the night after a frustrating 1-4 loss to Ottawa, their seventh in a row. The performance was so poor and porous, I was fearful that the Devils could actually lose to the legitimately worst team in the NHL this season: the Montreal Canadiens. The Devils flopped hard to Arizona, the other main basement dweller in the league standings, prior to this losing streak. The Devils followed up a third-period choke job in Toronto by getting obliterated by them in Newark. And this after a miserable loss in Ottawa. It was possible that the Devils could be the Canadiens’ ninth win this season. I was dreading it all day. The worry was real for a new low to be hit this evening.
I am happy to write that my dread and worry was all for nothing. The New Jersey Devils won. They finally won their first game since stunning Carolina back on January 22. That was a night where a lot went right for the Devils and the offense just kept scoring. This game was similar to that except for Montreal being way worse than Carolina and Jon Gillies performing better than he did that evening. This game was more than just a win - it was a beating on Montreal.
I can better understand why they went into this evening with a mere eight wins this season. This team is just out of sorts. The first period saw the Devils shutting down Montreal attacks before a Canadien could even get a shot off more often than the number of shots they actually put on Gillies (5). While the first goal was from a positive bounce - a long shot by Ryan Graves leaving a rebound for Michael McLeod to put back - the second goal showed a Devils team finding spaces among the Canadien defense. Ty Smith played a lovely long pass for Jesper Boqvist to gain the zone. Boqvist saw Dawson Mercer get past the Canadien defense. A simple pass was settled by the rookie and he fired in his first goal in a long time to make it 2-0. The McLeod goal was fortunate. This was more intentional. It made me at least think perhaps tonight would be different. The loss to Arizona was still on my mind.
Montreal did wake up and actually play NHL-level hockey in the second period. While it was not a fully tilted rink, one could tell that the Canadiens were playing to the score. When Brett Kulak got his long shot through traffic (I thought Ryan Poehling tipped it in), it was 2-1 and the doubt creeped back into my mind. It creeped in further when Nathan Bastian was given a penalty for tripping Dennis Wideman off a missed bodycheck. Second periods have been real bad for the Devils and they literally lost last night’s game in it. But one solid penalty kill and this goal by the captain, Nico Hischier, erased that doubt.
Watch that video in full. It started with P.K. Subban winning a puck battle behind the net and outletting it to Hischier. He recognizes Yegor Sharangovich opposite to him in the neutral zone. Sharangovich cut across the neutral zone for the entry and saw Dawson Mercer in an interesting spot. Sharangovich’s cut was followed by Hischier going the other way and the Canadiens on Mercer’s side of the puck. Mercer found the open seam and fed a lovely pass to Hischier. And Hischier finished that play. That goal made it 3-1. That goal restored a two goal lead. That goal made me start thinking: Tonight is going to be different.
And it was! There was still some difficulties. Damon Severson committed textbook interference on Nick Suzuki on the next shift. But the Devils killed that call. Montreal amped up the pressure a bit more. But Gillies made the stops and the Devils stemmed it from getting too out of control. P.K. Subban had to take a slash on Cole Caufield. The Devils killed that penalty and generated a 3-on-1 rush right after it. While it was a bit disappointing that Nathan Bastian took a shot that was blocked by the one on that rush, the Devils resumed their attack. It would pay off. A good possession shift by Andreas Johnsson and Jimmy Vesey ended with Jesper Boqvist firing a shot from the high slot that beat Cayden Primeau. On the next shift, Montreal iced the puck. On the resulting faceoff, Michael McLeod won it, Mason Geertsen tapped the puck back to Ty Smith, Smith passed it across to Graves, Graves unloaded a slapshot, and the puck bounced right to McLeod to the right of the crease for his second put-back of the night. Two quick goals. A goal scored right before the end of the period. It was 5-1. Tonight was definitely different. Only a horrible and enraging collapse would cause the Devils to lose this game.
There was no collapse. There was professionalism on the ice displayed by the Devils. In other words, they kept going. Jeff Petry took down Boqvist in the slot way away from the play early in the third period. A power play was awarded to New Jersey. Seconds after, Pavel Zacha wired a shot to the top corner past a Bastian screen for a PPG. Play continued and the Devils just had good responses to whatever the Canadiens tried to do. Zacha cut off a reverse by Montreal as Tomas Tatar headed to the net. Zacha intercepted the puck, found Tatar alone in front, pass, shot, score, and it became 7-1. (Aside: Devils should really try to make more of those plays happen instead of going high-low so much.) It could have been worse when Dennis Wideman fouled Mason Geertsen, but that power play did not go. Which was fine because it was 7-1 at this point.
The game slowed down but it did not stop the Devils from cruising to a win. The only drama, if you can call it that, was Mike Hoffman (who apparently played in this game) going after Tatar for throwing a legal bodycheck on Suzuki. The refs let that go with no calls despite it stopping play (and a possible scoring chance for New Jersey). As the time ticked down, I was not dreading anything anymore. I felt calm. I felt confident. More importantly, I felt relief.
Any time a team is losing seven in a row, including some really awful losses, any kind of win is welcomed. Even close, lucky, fluke wins. You cannot be picky of the kind of win when you are deprived of victory. That the Devils won tonight by such a big margin makes it all the better. We, the People Who Matter, do need to be careful about putting this win on a big pedestal. No, the Devils are not suddenly going to turn their season around. No, the Devils’ issues on display during that losing streak have not been resolved. No, the guys who scored are not necessarily going to turn a corner (looking at you, Pavel Zacha). No, this one win does not make up for this awful season so far. No, scoring 7 goals does not mean the Devils’ systems are actually fine. Let us remember the Devils beat the very worst team in the NHL this season. There is a real chance St. Louis - a team in a playoff spot who is 17-5-2 at home this season - puts this team back in it place on Thursday night. But that is on Thursday. Now is the time to appreciate this win. A win that ended a streak. More than that, it at least means that the Devils are not the worst team in the NHL this season. That means quite a bit given the trajectory they were on during this streak. If nothing else, they proved tonight that they are not in a dire place like the Montreal Canadiens. The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils are not as bad as the worst team in the NHL.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Habs Eyes on the Prize, this quick recap by Anton Rasegård was what you would expect from a team that is still sitting on eight wins this season.
The NHL.com Highlights: The Devils won! For the first time in over two weeks! They scored seven goals! Check these highlights out! Exclamation marks!
Let’s Get A Critical Point Out of the Way: The Devils’ main method of attack in 5-on-5 when they are in the opposition zone is to go low-to-high. This means the forwards work the puck down low to win possession and then pass it back to an open man at the point. Defensemen on New Jersey are encouraged to pinch to support this as well as fire away if they see a shooting lane. In theory, these long shots can be deflected in, find its way through traffic, and create rebounds to put back. 46 games of practice in this season and it mostly leads to a lot of easy saves, blocks that the opposition can quickly punish the Devils for if it bounces unfavorably, or misses. A lot of hard work for really low-percentage shots. However, when it does go the way the theory intends, it can lead to goals.
So it did tonight. Graves created two for McLeod. Great for McLeod, who has not been contributing a whole lot of anything on offense this season. Great for Graves, who clearly was not shy about shooting as he led the team with five shots on net tonight and nine shooting attempts. Great for the game as the first one opened the scoring and the second one demoralized Montreal just a bit more before the second intermission. My concern is that this will continue to justify this attack and when it does not work out so favorably, the offense and the Devils will suffer for it. But that is likely only going to change when some personnel behind the bench also change. Tonight, though, it worked.
This is also why I really liked that Tatar goal. That’s something the Devils should seek to do more of in 5-on-5. Sure, Zacha made a great interception. But Tatar cutting to the net is something we do not see enough of from the Devils when playing off the perimeter and going in deep. It can at least diversify the attack and force opposing forwards to not just wait for the Devils defenders to get the puck and then get in their way when the shot comes through. Again, I do not expect it, but it would be a good adjustment to make when those long shots from the defenders are not yielding any rebounds, leading to any tips, and not getting through traffic.
The Pointless: Five Devils did not register a point tonight. This does not mean they were bad. Just that they did not get on the scoresheet.
- Nathan Bastian - Bastian had no shots on net as all three of his attempts were either blocked or missed the net. However, he did help by screening Primeau on Zacha’s shot. It certainly helped the power play in that moment.
- Jimmy Vesey - While the night was not all that hot in the run of play for Zacha (or the McLeod line), Vesey had a very good possession shift along with Johnsson that led to Boqvist’s goal that blew the game wide open late in the second period. He even stickhandled through a Canadien like he was The Big Deal. If they gave out three assists for a goal, then he would have received one. Vesey’s play on the penalty kill was also very good as the PK killed three calls in the second period.
- Mason Geertsen - Geertsen was put in the lineup for Janne Kuokkanen. Tonight turned out to be Geertsen’s best game as a Devil. Was the run of play good with Geertsen on the ice? Goodness, no. Did he do anything stupid himself? Other than a groan-worthy giveaway, no. Even when the game was out of doubt and he was getting extra shifts, he played fine. He even drew a penalty. He also knocked a puck back to Smith, which led to McLeod’s second goal. Again, if there was such a thing as tertiary assists, he would have received one there.
- Jonas Siegenthaler. Did you know that Siegenthaler had four shots on net tonight? Anyway, Siegenthaler’s defense was generally on point. When he was on the ice, the Devils were around breakeven in terms of attempts and shots. His PK work was excellent. Another fine game for the non-descript defender.
- P.K. Subban - The Subban-Smith pairing was rough in the run of play. Easily the worst of the three pairings in terms of CF%, SF%, and xGF% tonight in 5-on-5. I would argue Smith had a harder time in dealing with Canadiens skating at or around him. And it did not help that the most common forwards in front of him were Zacha, Tatar, and Vesey - whom Montreal enjoyed playing against, especially in the second period. And Subban did take a penalty, although I think it denied a chance for Caufield so it is understandable. However, that is pretty much it in terms of actual actions from Subban. He did not commit any horrid turnovers that the Devils paid for. He did not take a silly or an avoidable penalty. He did not grip-it-and-rip-it to a point of stick breaking; he did not even attempt a shot himself all night. He was there. And it was OK.
That I can argue in favor of most of these guys that did not get on the scoresheet in a 7-1 game speaks to how well the performance was for the Devils.
The Best Jesper: Believe it or not, Jesper Boqvist was the better Jesper tonight. When he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils out-attempted the Canadiens 16-8, out-shot them 11-5, and the expected goals model favored New Jersey by a stunning 1.16 to 0.11. This is not to say that Bratt was bad; his 5-on-5 on-ice numbers were almost as good. But it was not as one-sided as it was when Boqvist was out there. Further, Bratt only had an assist while Boqvist had a goal that opened the game right open and set up Mercer in the first period. It is rare that Bratt, who has been the Devils’ most valuable player this season, is out done by his namesake in this game. It happened tonight in Montreal, as #70 hustled hard whenever the play went forward.
The 23-year old Boqvist has not only shown more pep in his step, but has some production to go along with it. This is the kind of thing that one was hoping for from one of the call-ups from Utica. Even amid the losing streak, Boqvist was a sort-of silver lining. I do not know if it is a case of him Figuring It Out and Breaking Out. But Boqvist was legitimately the Devils’ best forward this evening. Keep this up and you may be asked to get a place in New Jersey in time.
Other Streaks Snapped: Dawson Mercer scored his first goal in 2022 as his last one was in the 6-5 win over Edmonton on New Year’s Eve. Since that game, the rookie has gone cold with just five assists over the next 14 games. Needless to say, finishing that feed from Boqvist had to have felt great.
It was pointed out prior to the game on the MSG Broadcast that the Devils have not received a whole lot of production recently from players like Mercer, Tatar, Zacha, Johnsson, Subban, and Smith. All but Subban found the scoresheet tonight. Zacha’s two-point night makes it the third time this year where he was on the box score (a goal in Toronto, two points against Carolina, and that’s it). Ditto for Johnsson. Tatar scored his first goal since January 6, a 11-game scoreless run. Smith registered his first point since January 13, ending a six-game drought.
Again, I would not take this to mean that these guys are now going to Get Going and the Devils’ offense will have some depth beyond Bratt, Hischier, and whenever Jack Hughes gets back. The Devils’ system in 5-on-5 is a hinderance for some of them; and it is possible that they go cold again. No corners have been turned; not even for an experienced guy like Zacha. But it is worth recognizing that these points did happen. And it is a relief for them on top of the win.
Poor, Poor Montreal: During the third period, I kept feeling bad for Cayden Primeau. Why was he in this game after the second intermission? I know Sam Montembeault has not been all that great either. But why let Primeau continue getting lit up? I didn’t get it, but hey, more goals for the Devils.
I also felt bad for Primeau because the Devils effectively picked on two-thirds of the Montreal defense. Kulak may have scored but it was no accident that he was on the ice for 15 shots (out of 29!) by the Devils in 5-on-5. Petry was horrid and his penalty was a particular low point for a player I always thought never got the respect he deserved. Ben Chiarot and someone named Kale Clague may have well been just dudes wearing their numbers on the ice.
While the Devils did lose some matchups to Tyler Toffoli and Artturi Lehoknen in the run of play, neither were particularly notable or effective. I am surprised Laurent Dauphin, Brendan Gallagher, and Hoffman were in the game at all. The most dangerous forward line from what I saw came from Joel Armia, Ryan Poehling, and Caufield. Fortunately for the Devils, they were not used all that much and became more anonymous as the game went on. While Evans nearly got a sneaky goal past Gillies shortly after the second power play ended, the Devils finished very well against him and his line, as he got to see four out of six goals against while on the ice. In general, I saw a lot of guys just being there as opposed to making a game of it outside of the second period. It is more refreshing to see the opposition be like that instead of, say, the Devils.
I can understand that the Canadiens’ issues are similar to the Devils. A team that does not always respond well to bad plays or goals against combined with bad goaltending, an inconsistent-but-usually-ineffective offense, and a coaching staff seemingly in over its head? Sounds familiar! But the Canadiens seem to have accepted their fate of needing some kind of change. They have a new GM in Kent Hughes - no relation to The Big Deal, but he is the father of 2022 Draft prospect Jack D. Hughes - and surely change will come as he gets settled in. Until then, they looked and played like a team that knew things were eventually going to go wrong. Credit to the Devils for doing the right thing and proving them correct. (And negative fans like me wrong).
Speaking of Proving People Wrong: The Critics of Nico Hischier should be much quieter for a day or two. His goal was crucial tonight - the turning point of the game, in my view - and the line he centered was quite good in the run of play.
One Last Point: Jon Gillies was quite good in the net. He was quite good in a number of games during the last seven losses, such as in the Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, and Carolina games. This time, the Devils were sharper in their own end and did not leave too many opposing players open in dangerous locations. This time, the Devils skaters gave him plenty of goals to work with. This time, the Devils skaters did not give up on rush plays against, even when beaten. Gillies did as well as one could expect and I am happy to see that he was rewarded with a win. Those who have clamored for decent goaltending have to recognize that he has been providing it more than just once in a while in recent weeks. Tonight, the Devils did right by him. (And I can understand if you think Gillies and not Boqvist was the best Devil tonight.)
Your Take: I am happy that the Devils have won. They won big! Do I think they will go on to do well in St. Louis? No! But I will be happy to be wrong if that does happen. Let us focus on this game instead of trying to stretch out this one winning result to determine What It Means for This Season and Beyond. What was your reaction to the win? Who do you think was the best Devil on the ice tonight? What can the Devils learn from this game before they play a playoff-caliber team in St. Louis? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thanks to Mike for taking care of the Twitter account. Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Jared for letting me take this recap. Most of all, thank you for reading.