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Poor Power Play Sinks the Devils Yet Again in 3-2 Loss to Maple Leafs

The New Jersey Devils had their chances to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, but an inept power play that surrendered two short-handed goals saw to it that Toronto would get the W

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs
The Devils gave up two more SHG, bringing their season total to 11
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Game Recap

The Devils started things off against the Leafs, who were decked out in third jerseys designed by pop star Justin Bieber, by losing the opening draw but they got a clear after the Leafs were errant with their passing. The Devils came back with Jesper Bratt sailing a shot wide of net, followed by Jimmy Vesey hitting the outside of the post moments later. The Devils slowed the pace down as they got the Hughes line on. Hughes’s pass in front of Petr Mrazek’s cage was tipped away. The fourth line came on with AJ Greer missing the net. Mrazek stopped a feed in front by PK Subban. Ilya Mikheyev tipped away a Hamilton-to-Siegenthaler pass that led to a Leafs chance the other way. Fortunately, it led to nothing, although Daws had to make a stop moments later after an errant Michael McLeod pass was intercepted in the defensive zone. The Devils continued their porous play in their end with Daws denying Auston Matthews up close. Nathan Bastian was stopped on a power move in front on Mrazek as we hit the first TV timeout.

The Leafs top line of Bunting-Matthews-Marner gained the zone with Bunting chipping the puck towards Daws. The Devils netminder made the cover for the stoppage. The Leafs kept the pressure on setting up Matthews for a one-timer that he missed the net on and the Devils cleared. Bunting had an opportunity down low on Daws that he had to make a tough save on and the Devils cleared again.

The Hughes line came on and iced the puck, necessitating a defensive zone draw. The Devils eventually got it out to center though and got the fourth line on. AJ Greer gained the zone and worked the puck across for Dougie Hamilton. The Devils got it down low for Bastian for a point-blank chance that Mrazek stopped. The Leafs came right back, sailed a shot wide, and eventually had to retreat after Jesper Bratt tipped a pass out to the neutral zone. The Devils iced the puck again and Toronto won the draw, but Jesper Boqvist eventually gloved down a puck in the air and cleared the zone. The top line came on with Hughes intercepting a pass in the neutral zone, but he got stripped entering the Leafs zone.

The Devils continued their sluggish start, struggling to get much of anything going. After a lost board battle, Matthews fed Marner for a shot that Daws just got a piece of to deflect into the corner. The Devils survived the final minute of the first after Holl missed off of a setup by Nylander and Daws stopped a Matthews shot. No score after 20 minutes of play despite the Leafs holding an edge in SOG (11-3), HDCF (8-0), and xGF% (81.43%). Fortunately for the Devils, Daws was up to the task in the first.

Auston Matthews won the opening draw of the second period but the Leafs promptly iced the puck. Hischier won the offensive zone faceoff and worked it to Jesper Bratt, with the puck eventually coming back to Bratt for a shot that Mrazek covered up. Sharangovich’s pass in the defensive zone for Mercer was intercepted by Kampf, leading to Mikheyev driving to the net. Kevin Bahl slashed him to give the Leafs their first power play chance of the game. The Devils did a nice job keeping the Leafs top-ranked power play from getting anything going in the first minute of the man advantage. Toronto finally got set up with Matthews and Mark Giordano working the puck back and forth to look for a chance down low, but the puck was deflected out of play. Graves cleared the puck with 14 seconds to go and the Devils killed the Bahl penalty as the Devils got the Hughes line on. Hughes collected the puck and made a move but Mrazek denied him.

Pierre Engvall tripped up Siegenthaler along the boards to give the Devils a power play opportunity. The Devils made the Leafs pay for this mistake as Severson collected a pass from Bratt. Severson tried to feed Hughes in front, but the puck took a fortuitous bounce off of Lyubushkin and in to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead.

After a Kevin Bahl icing, PK Subban cleared the puck over the glass in the defensive zone at the 6:22 mark for a delay of game penalty. The Devils got an early clear and Michael McLeod showed off some nifty hands to nearly beat his man and make it 2-0, but was denied. The Devils continued to be stingy and keep the Leafs from getting set up with a Ryan Graves backhanded clear off the boards. Jason Spezza missed on a pass back to the blueline for Mark Giordano and Subban exited the box. Severson found Hughes while the Leafs were changing, but Mrazek stopped the slapshot. Moments later, Hischier nearly connected with Bratt on a feed in front. TV timeout.

The Hughes line got tied up along the boards, but eventually worked the puck over to Dougie Hamilton. His shot was deflected out of play. Andreas Johnsson made a nice play in the defensive zone knocking Matthews down to deny him a shot attempt. The Devils came right back with Hischier and Bratt doing the give and go. Mrazek stopped Bratt’s shot, but Matthews had hooked Hischier way back in the defensive zone so power play #2 for the Devils. The Devils immediately gave up an odd-man rush the other way but closed the gap with the backcheck to deny a scoring chance. Sharangovich turned the puck over gaining the zone, leading to another Leafs chance the other way. Mikheyev beat Subban, who slowed up on the play for some reason, and beat Daws to tie the game. It is the 10th shorthanded goal the Devils have surrendered this season.

After giving up one more shorthanded chance to Colin Blackwell, the Devils came back and got that goal back. Severson worked the puck down low to Hamilton who one-time passed it to Hughes by the crease. Mrazek stopped the initial shot by Hughes but Hischier was there on the doorstep to score the greasy goal to make it 2-1 New Jersey.

The Leafs came right back against the Devils fourth line as Marner and Bunting worked it up along the boards to Matthews. Matthews found Marner with some space in front, and he ripped it past Daws to tie the game 2-2.

After a lengthy tie up along the boards, the Devils eventually sprung Hughes for a chance, but Matthews did a nice job on the backcheck to strip him of the puck to lead to a Michael Bunting chance the other way that Daws stopped. The Leafs came back with some nice passing with Daws making a nice pad save up close on Tavares. Toronto iced the puck with 17.9 seconds left so the Devils used that chance to get the Hischier line and Hamilton on. Unfortunately, Toronto chipped the puck out to center and the second period came to an end.

New Jersey won the opening draw to start the third but Bratt sailed a shot wide of the cage. Toronto came right back but Severson blocked a Marner shot attempt. Tomas Tatar went the other way and got tripped up by Giordano for a power play. Or so it should have been. The referees got together and determined that Giordano didn’t trip Tatar, even though he pretty clearly made contact with the back of Tatar’s skate with his stick. No call.

Damon Severson took a slapper to the hand and had to shake it off, but was fortunately out there for his next shift. Toronto picked up the physicality in the first few minutes of the third, with Mercer and Hughes being on the receiving end.

The Devils fourth line kept the run of play in the Leafs end. They got the Boqvist line on after a clear with Johnsson sending the puck wide of the net and a clear by the Leafs. Toronto came back with Matthews setting up Bunting on a high flip pass but Daws was good for the save. Holl sent a shot in front that was blocked by Severson. After gaining the offensive zone, the Devils got Hughes on, but his shot attempt was deflected out of play. Hughes had another chance as Mrazek kicked out a shot attempt, but he stopped the rebound attempt as well. The Devils fourth line finally got sick of the Leafs physicality and got into a shoving match with Wayne Simmonds and company as we hit a commercial break.

Hischier’s stick got tied up on the offensive zone draw and play went the other way. TJ Brodie sent a shot towards the outside of Daws’s cage that he lost track of, but the Devils eventually cleared it. Severson set up Hughes on a cross-ice pass that was tipped out of play. Subban found a streaking Johnsson on an outlet pass. Johnsson sent the rising shot that Mrazek fought off.

Mikheyev caught Johnsson in the mouth with a high stick and drew a double minor. Play opened up in the early portion of the power play as Hamilton’s shot was blocked, Marner came back the other way with a shot that was stopped by Daws, and Hughes danced through traffic for an attempt that was stopped by Mrazek. The Devils slowed the pace down as they cycled the second unit on and weren’t particularly crisp with their passing. The Devils inept power play continued as Severson missed a drop pass by Bratt, leading to an Engvall shorthanded chance the other way. Engvall beat Dougie Hamilton who took himself out of the play by sliding on his stomach too early and beat Daws for the go-ahead goal, the second shorthanded goal by the Leafs. 3-2 Toronto.

Lindy Ruff called timeout after the Engvall goal and the Devils responded in the worst way possible as Hamilton tripped up David Kampf to wipe out the remainder of the double minor. The Devils killed off the abbreviated Leafs power play, leading to the final TV timeout with 2:05 to go.

Toronto won the offensive zone draw, preventing the Devils from getting Daws off for the extra attacker. Daws finally came off as the Devils gained the zone with 1:32 to go. The Devils mostly kept the puck along the perimeter with no clear lanes down low. Toronto nearly got the empty netter with the Devils did a nice job backchecking to keep the game in reach. Toronto fired the puck at the empty net but there was no icing as someone on the Devils got a piece of the puck. The Devils had one last chance as a Mercer shot attempt was blocked in front and cleared as time expired. Toronto wins 3-2.

Lowlights

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Visit Pension Plan Puppets if you want to read how tonight’s game affected the Leafs. Since they won, I would think they’d be pleased.

The Power Play Is Bad and the Devils Should Feel Bad

I thought the Devils power play yesterday in the third period where they gave up multiple scoring chances (before Hughes eventually scored) was one of the worst power plays I’ve seen this season.

The Devils were worse tonight.

The Leafs had no less than three scoring chances on the power play after the Matthews penalty, with the lowlight being the Sharangovich turnover as he was trying to make a move gaining the offensive zone and Mikheyev came back the other way to score. I get that a carry-in is better than a dump and chase, but when you’re skating into two defenders on the blueline and getting stonewalled, sometimes, the simplest play is the best. Chip the puck into the corner, let one of your teammates chase it down and fish it out, and live to fight another day. Just an inexcusable decision by Sharangovich.

And yet, the Devils power play managed to find a new low to sink to on the double minor power play. Bryce Salvador did a nice job on the postgame breaking it down as the Leafs did a good job denying the Devils clean zone entries and keeping the puck on the outside along the boards, but the Bratt drop-pass with Severson out of position (not the first time that has happened this season on a SHG against) meant we were off to the races the other way. Dougie Hamilton looked like he was on an island trying to cover up the mistake on the other end of the ice and while Hischier did an admirable job getting back, he had to take away Nylander on the outside, leaving Engvall plenty of space to beat Daws.

It’s bad enough the power play itself isn’t particularly efficient and very lackluster, but at the absolute bare minimum, can it not be a net negative going forward? Can the Devils not give up scoring chance after scoring chance after scoring chance the other way when they have the man advantage, which is becoming a daily occurence? I have watched every game this season and have written enough recaps where I would know.

The two SHG tonight brings the season total to 11, and its a minor miracle that number isn’t double with the level of frequency the Devils surrender chances and the general ineptness Devils goaltending has been this season. Lindy Ruff didn’t mince words postgame, placing the blame on the players for their “stupid, careless mistakes”.

Ruff isn’t wrong that the players share some of the blame. After all, they’re the ones out there on the ice. Where he is wrong is the insinuation that its all on the players.

I linked the story above that John wrote back in November on why the power play is lackluster and bad. Four months later, I don’t see a whole heck of a lot that’s changed. Sure, personnel has changed, as the Devils have recently removed Nathan Bastian from the top unit and are opting to go with two defensemen (which has not worked). The Devils have tinkered with personnel all season due to injuries, COVID, and ineffectiveness. The drop pass when gaining the zone isn’t anything new though as that’s been a staple of their power play. The Devils have consistently had trouble getting set up under 2+ seasons under Recchi. This is where I place the blame on the coaches.

Lindy Ruff has over 1600 games of NHL head coaching experience, not to mention almost 700 more as a player and even more as an assistant. Mark Recchi was a Hall of Fame player with 200 power play goals to his credit over 1652 games as a player, not to mention 8 seasons worth of experience as an assistant coach. They have all the experience in the world, yet the message continues to not get through. At some point, the coaches have to share responsibility for that by either communicating better or tweaking what they’re trying to do. I’m not an Alain Nasreddine fan at all, but the penalty kill has made significant strides since their struggles earlier in the season and now sit at 11th in the league. You can make adjustments, yet the Devils seem content to try to keep hammering the square peg into the round hole despite it not working all season long.

It’s a shame too, as two critical “stupid, careless mistakes” undid a lot of the good the Devils did tonight. Ruff pointed out how the Devils did a good job slowing down Matthews, and while I don’t think they did as good a job as he seems to think, they did hold the NHL’s leading goal scorer off the scoreboard (sans an assist on the Marner goal). I disagreed with the decision to start Nico Daws on both ends of a back-to-back, but he played well and probably deserved a better result. Nico Hischier continues to lead by example and be the Devils best two-way forward and leader of this group, but he was visibly frustrated with the mistakes on the power play as well. And the Devils penalty kill did a brilliant job tonight with the Leafs top rated power play. We should be singing the praises of a brilliant Devils penalty kill this evening, yet we’re killing the power play for continuing to not be able to get out of their own way.

Also, no.....I don’t care that the Devils actually scored a power play goal in this game or got their other goal shortly after another power play. When you give up two SHG and your power play is as inefficient as the Devils is, I’m not going to praise the minor successes you do have. Even if the Devils didn’t give up scoring chance after scoring chance after scoring chance, it doesn’t change the fact the power play is 27th in the league and generally sucks any momentum out of the arena.

I don’t know why the Devils continue to make the same mistakes on the power play they make, but at some point, the coaches need to share responsibility for the shortcomings of the unit. Seeing as this isn’t the first time Recchi’s power play has failed to mesh with star players, I’m inclined to change the staff before changing the personnel.

Other Things I Didn’t Like

The Devils didn’t generate nearly enough scoring chances against a struggling goaltender in Petr Mrazek to my liking. Give credit to the Leafs for clogging lanes, blocking shots, and making the Devils work for their chances, but Toronto held a decisive edge in HDCF (13-5) and xGF (61.16%) at 5v5. Only getting 22 shots on goal against a goaltender who was terrible enough to be put on waivers earlier this week is unacceptable. Even if the Devils power play wasn’t completely inept, you can argue the Leafs deserved to win anyways.

I also didn’t care for the lack of response in the third when the Leafs dialed up the physicality. With the Devils roster being what it is, they simply don’t have a lot of answers once teams start taking liberties. I would expect the Devils to make it a point this offseason to become “harder to play against”.

Hughes led the Devils forwards in SOG, CF%, HDCF, and xGF. All of that is great, but I thought some of the shots were of the low percentage variety and a lot of his chances got tipped, deflected, or blocked. The Devils were very careful about trying to get him and his line in favorable matchups, which was the right call with the Leafs dangerous Top Six.

Final Thoughts

What did you think of the loss tonight? What can the Devils even do with their power play at this point? Do you blame the players or the coaches? Or perhaps both? What else stood out to you, positively or negatively? Please feel free to make your voice heard in the comments section below, and thank you for reading.