One of the more frustrating parts about the game of hockey is that even when you outplay and outskate your opponent, it still comes down to whether or not you beat the guy in the other net. If you can’t score, you’re not gonna win. Lately, the New Jersey Devils have done a good job most nights of beating opposing goaltenders, but sometimes, they get exposed for their lack of finish when the opposing netminder plays well. Tonight’s game against Eric Comrie and the Winnipeg Jets is a good example of that, as the Devils mostly played well but all they had to show for their efforts was a 2-1 regulation loss.
The Jets won the opening faceoff and dumped the puck in, but the Devils got a clear thanks to Dougie Hamilton. The Devils got Jack Hughes on for his first shift and made a nifty cutback move to get a shot on former Devils goaltender Eric Comrie. Comrie also fought off a sharp angle shot attempt by Andreas Johnsson before a whistle for a high stick. Blake Wheeler corralled a loose puck in the Jets defense zone after it got past Ryan Graves on a bad pinch and he flipped it up the ice for Mark Scheifele as the Jets caught the Devils on a 2-on-1 with Hamilton back on defense. Scheifele fed Brendan Dillon who ripped it past Nico Daws for a 1-0 Jets lead.
The Devils gained the offensive zone with their top line, but not much notable happened other than a Hughes feed for Jonas Siegenthaler that was easily turned aside. The Devils got the fourth line on and McLeod sent a puck on net that Comrie never really saw and had to fight off at the last moment. Hughes stole a puck in the defensive zone and skated the length of the ice but Logan Stanley made a nice play to deny him the scoring chance.
The Devils won an offensive zone draw and Damon Severson somehow got a shot through traffic that was deflected away. Lindy Ruff got the third line on with Jesper Boqvist feeding Andreas Johnsson in front for a chance but he was in a little too tight to do much of anything with the puck.
Logan Stanley crosschecked Dawson Mercer behind Comrie’s net to give the Devils their first power play chance with 8:14 to go in the first. Unfortunately, the Devils wasted the first 40 seconds of it gaining the zone and getting set up. They finally did get set up with Severson setting up Hughes for a blast from the right circle that deflected off of Josh Morrissey’s skate. Zacha deflected a Severson shot from the point that Comrie covered up for the stoppage. The Devils won the ensuing draw and set up Mercer for a chance down low that was stopped. Comrie made one last stop as the power play expired.
Yegor Sharangovich got a scoring chance off of a Jets defensive zone turnover that I believe Jack Hughes tipped towards him (forgive me as I missed the replay). The refs missed a hold and/or a trip on Hughes on the ensuing shift and decided to call neither. The officials, however, did catch Brenden Dillon crosschecking Jesper Bratt along the boards to give the Devils another power play opportunity with 2:03 to go in the first. The Jets got an immediate clear but the Devils regained the zone and got set up. Severson fed Bratt along the wing, who drew the Jets attention. Bratt fed the saucer pass cross ice to the open Hughes, who fired it by Comrie to tie the game.
Aside from a nifty move by Ryan Graves that didn’t result in a goal and some frustrations boiling over from the Jets side, not much happened after the Hughes goal and we went to the dressing room tied at 1.
The Jets and Devils traded short possessions and clears from their respective defensive zones over the first minute and a half of the second period. The Jets eventually set up a cutting Logan Stanley for a shot attempt that was sent wide of the net. The Devils came back the other way with Mercer trying to force a puck through a screen that got blocked away. Pavel Zacha came back the other way sending a shot wide of the cage. Tomas Tatar misfired as he chipped the puck out of the defensive zone and wound up icing the puck. Steve Cangialosi mentioned that Jack Hughes wasn’t on the bench as play continued but was back out there for the next shift as he simply had an issue with his skate. The Devils fourth line pinned the Jets deep for a stretch, but couldn’t capitalize. Hughes and Mercer caught the Jets in transition, with Hughes keeping the puck and keeping the Jets off balance, but Comrie stuck with the play for the impressive pad stop. Hughes had another impressive sequence where he skated through the Jets blueline towards the crease that could’ve been a “goal of the year” candidate had it gone in. Alas, it didn’t, as he couldn’t slip through Comrie’s five hole as someone on the Jets just caught a piece of Hughes’s stick.
The Devils fourth line continued to pin the Jets back and won battles in the offensive zone. They continued to apply pressure as the Hughes line pinned them back as well and the Devils managed to get a full line change while keeping the zone in one of the better shifts this team has had all year. Winnipeg finally got a clear off of an errant pass by Bratt. The Jets came back the other way and finally got a couple shots on Daws that he turned away. Play opened up a bit more as we didn’t have a whistle for a stoppage for quite awhile.
The Jets pinned the Devils back after the next commercial break but the Devils got the puck out as Dougie Hamilton flung the puck off the side of the cage. Jesper Bratt got separated from the puck due to a hook/slash/haul down (no call) that Bratt lost a glove on. The puck went right to Kyle Connor going the other way with a head of steam. Connor ripped it off the crossbar and in (and fooled pretty much everybody in the building in the process). 2-1 Winnipeg, which was the score at the end of two.
Winnipeg won the opening draw to start the third, with Daws covering up a Morrissey shot to force the whistle. Mark Scheifele had the puck and cut to the net, but elected to pass to Blake Wheeler for some reason instead of just shooting. Okay? Hughes came back the other way but ran out of space and lost the puck in the Jets end. Dylan Demelo got caught hooking Jesper Bratt with the Devils in transition on a partial 3-on-1. Bratt fed Tatar, who set up Zacha for the grade A scoring chance (see the photo above) but Comrie got over to make the stop and the Devils went back on the power play. The Devils started out with the second unit and struggled to get much going over the first 45 seconds until they got the first unit on. Hughes got tripped up in the offensive zone (no call) leading to a 2-on-1 the other way but Daws made the stop on the Kyle Connor shot. Hughes fired a shot off of Comrie’s pad as the power play expired.
The Jets pushed the pace for the next few minutes as the physicality picked up a little bit. Sharangovich gained the zone and fired a shot at Comrie that he covered up easily. Hughes sent one towards the crease that took a healthy bounce that nobody could take advantage of. Sharangovich couldn’t connect with Mercer as the Devils regained the zone after a Jets clear. Lindy Ruff got the second line on as Tatar fed Bratt for a good chance, but unfortunately, Bratt only found iron instead of the back of the net.
After the next commercial, Hughes gained the zone but his shot was deflected away. Ty Smith turned the puck over moments later with an ill-advised cross-ice pass and got called for hooking Nikolaj Ehlers going back the other way to prevent the scoring chance against, giving Winnipeg their first chance on the power play. Another questionable call or non-call by this officiating crew (more on that in a bit). The Devils lost Kyle Connor in coverage during the kill and were fortunate not to get scored on as he had a point blank look that Daws turned aside. Jimmy Vesey got a clear with :40 seconds remaining on the kill. The Devils got one final clear after Pierre-Luc Dubois hit the pipe to kill the remainder of the Winnipeg power play and send us to the TV timeout with 5:57 left in regulation.
Tatar gained the Devils zone and set up PK Subban with the drop pass into a slapper that Comrie turned aside. Zacha missed Bratt on a pass coming back the other way to gain the zone and Winnipeg set up Ehlers for a shot on goal that Daws stopped with 3:52 left. The Jets nearly scored on a feed in front for Paul Stastny that was deflected into the corner. Hughes lost an edge in the corner of the offensive zone leading to the Jets getting a chance coming back. Zacha lost a defensive zone draw with 2:30 to go but the Devils got the sixth attacker on with 2:08 left after they exited the zone. Bratt sailed a shot wide of the net. Wheeler got position on Tatar and intercepted a pass, forcing Tatar to haul him down to prevent the empty net goal against. The Devils took their timeout with 1:35 left going on the kill. Severson got a clear but the Devils couldn’t pull Daws until there was 1:13 left. Jack Hughes came on, but the most notable thing he did late was making a nice desperation play to prevent the empty net goal against, as the Devils failed to generate anything at 5v5. Ty Smith turned the puck over gaining the offensive zone with 5 seconds remaining and the Devils come up short with a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg in a game where they mostly outplayed the opposition.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit Arctic Ice Hockey if you want to read the Jets perspective on tonight’s game.
Getting Goalie’d is Not Fun
It’s one thing to get goalie’d against Igor Shesterkin like the Devils did last week at The World’s Most Overrated Arena. It’s quite another to get goalie’d by Eric Comrie (who the Devils should have kept last season over Scott Wedgewood, by the way.....another bangup job by Tom Fitzgerald there).
I don’t write that to diminish Comrie’s performance in net. He played really well and deserves credit for that, especially with a lousy Jets blueline in front of him that the Devils had no problem generating scoring chances against. Comrie had to stop a lot of good chances, as the Devils held a 13-7 edge in HDCF. Unfortunately, sometimes you’re just not going to finish your chances. Which brings me to.....
Despite the breakout seasons by both Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes this season, it is apparent the Devils still lack finishers. I give Bratt (who hit a post) and Hughes (who did score and probably could’ve had another) a bit of a break as they’ve done a lot for this team, but it wasn’t a great night at the office for some of the other guys on the roster. Pavel Zacha missed a golden chance to score, although with some other opportunities to get the puck on net. Andreas Johnsson had 4 shots on goal but I’d be hard pressed to say any of them should’ve gone in. Jimmy Vesey apparently had 4 shots as well, but I don’t recall any of them. Tomas Tatar, in general, continues to be one of the more frustrating players on this team. Even Yegor Sharangovich, who I thought played fine overall, still looks like his shot is a smidge off.
Long-term, I expect the Devils to address the lack of finish between Alex Holtz becoming a part of this team and the Devils looking at external options (side note: if the Jets ever make Kyle Connor available, call the Jets and don’t hang up the phone until his flight to Newark is booked). But the Devils simply can’t rely on outskating other teams and catching them off balance in transition. When it works, it works, but you still need guys who can finish.
Daws Sharp Yet Again
Nico Daws was brilliant again for the Devils and its tough to pin either goal against on him. Two odd-man rushes against and one of the goals was a Kyle Connor goal that fooled literally everybody in the building except for Daws, as he acknowledged postgame. It happens. Just don’t overwork him, Lindy. This was the sixth straight starts now for Daws. The Devils already worked one goaltender this season onto injured reserve. I’ll be keeping an eye on Daws’s usage the rest of the way, as the Devils have not earned the benefit of the doubt from me on this topic.
The Officiating Stunk Tonight
It might come across as sour grapes, especially in a loss, and particularly in a game where the Devils had a 3-2 edge in terms of power play opportunities. But there were a lot of questionable calls and non-calls tonight that did not go the Devils way. I acknowledged all of them above so go back and read them again.
Do the Devils win if they’re called correctly? I don’t know, but it sure didn’t help matters. Be better, refs.
Who Else Stunk Tonight Besides the Refs?
I thought it was a brutal game for Tomas Tatar. I briefly mentioned it with the lack of finishing, but it was really frustrating to see him do nothing with the chances Jesper Bratt provided. Tatar effectively clinched the game for Winnipeg when Wheeler took the puck away from him on the 6-on-5 and he had to trip him up. It felt like every time Tatar touched the puck, he either skated his way into losing possession of said puck or shot it into Comrie’s chest. I think it was his worst game as a Devil.
Ty Smith was mostly invisible (in a good way) until his turnover at the blueline gave the Jets a power play, and even though Winnipeg didn’t score on it, it’s the type of poor decision making Smith has shown all season. I didn’t really like what I saw from Ryan Graves or Dougie Hamilton on the first Winnipeg goal either. Graves got caught out of position with his pinch, which has happened to him quite a few times this season, and while I get Hamilton is in no-man’s land on the 2-on-1, I thought he needed to do a better job committing to Scheifele and living with the results if Dillon beats you on the goal. It was one of those half-hearted 2-on-1 defensive coverages where he didn’t take away the passing lane and I get it. I’d take my chances with Dillon shooting instead of Scheifele as well.
Lastly, again.....what is the point of Mason Geertsen? If he is going to play, then he needs to be a physical presence and establish that tone early, especially against a team like Winnipeg that has a history of cheap shots. Instead, its 6:46 of ineffective hockey for the most part. This is just another example of why carrying 13 forwards and 8 defensemen, with Geertsen as the 13th forward, is poor roster management.
Travis Zajac Honored During Pregame Ceremony
As I mentioned above and as Gerard wrote about earlier today, former Devils center Travis Zajac was honored pregame. Zajac reached the 1000 games played milestone (1024, to be exact) in a Devils sweater last season, but due to COVID-related attendance restrictions, he was unable to celebrate that moment with his family and friends in front of a home crowd at Prudential Center. That changed tonight, as the Devils honored the now-retired Zajac a year after reaching that milestone. You can watch the brief ceremony here if you missed it.
Zajac joined Erika Wachter and Bryce Salvador during the first intermission and acknowledged that it was nice to take that final lap in front of the fans before talking about the work he’s doing on the developmental side to try to help the younger guys on this current team. I hope the Devils continue to find ways to keep Zajac involved in the organization. With over 1000 NHL games under his belt, he can be a valuable resource off of the ice for the players to lean on, and he can a positive influence in the community as well in an alumni role.
Congratulations to Travis Zajac on his retirement. If the Devils do expand their Ring of Honor as Corey Masisak from The Athletic suggested, Zajac would be an obvious candidate to receive that honor someday.
Dan MacKinnon Speaks Pregame
Devils senior VP and assistant general manager Dan MacKinnon joined Erika Wachter and Bryce Salvador during the pregame show. Since they asked him about specific prospects, I thought it was worth transcribing what he’s saying about those particular players and you can draw your own conclusions off of that. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much here outside of general hockey cliches and certainly very little on when we might see any of these players in Newark.
Alex Holtz: He talked about how they’re seeing what they want to see from him in terms of driving offense, scoring and contributing on the power play.
Nolan Foote: Dan talked about how his growth and learning curve. With him, it’s about learning how to play that power forward role and doing it consistently.
Graeme Clarke: He said Clarke handles the puck well, and sees the ice, but like with Foote, its about the consistency with him and how he needs to do a better job moving his feet.
Fabian Zetterlund: You can see the confidence he’s playing with. He knows he can score and won’t get outmuscled or outworked in the gym. Has taken his game to another level at the AHL level.
Luke Hughes: He wouldn’t say he’s surprised about the year he put together at Michigan, but he might be even better than they thought. He’s an elite skater and he’s terrific with and without the puck and is a tremendous competitor. Also joked that he has a very high ceiling.
Reilly Walsh: He had a great first half and was supposed to get a game at the NHL level in December before testing positive for COVID. With him, its mostly about tightening up things defensively as that’s an area where he continues to improve, but he’s made strides.
Kevin Bahl: They’ve been very pleased with what they’ve seen from Kevin, as he’s been more assertive and is playing with confidence. He’s done a good job separating opposing players from the puck and skates well for a man his size.
Shakir Mukhamadullin: There has been constant communication with Shakir with their Russian liaisons throughout the season and how they’ve been watching a lot of his film. He sounded particularly pleased with how he has looked. Also, if you were curious, there was no mention of whether or not he might see time with Utica late in the season or any general concerns over what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine.
Honestly, my biggest takeaway from that interview was when he said Luke might be even better than they thought, although his praise of Bahl and Mukhamadullin went noted as well. I don’t think there was anything earth-shattering here that you need to drop what you’re doing to go watch, but if the Devils website or YouTube channel posts the interview, it might be worth checking out.
The Devils outplayed the Jets for long stretches of this game, but tip your cap and give credit where its due as Eric Comrie outdueled Nico Daws tonight and earned the 2-1 win for Winnipeg.
What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you as frustrated with the loss as I am? Are you concerned about this team’s ability to finish the opportunities they create, because tonight was a good example of what happens when they don’t. Did you also think the officiating stunk tonight? Anybody else stand out to you, positive or negatively? Please feel free to make your voice heard in the comments section below, and thank you for reading.