The New Jersey Devils season effectively ended months ago when poor goaltending and injuries sunk any potential this season had, but that doesn’t mean the games are all entirely meaningless as they play out the stretch. On Tuesday evening, they hosted the Colorado Avalanche, who have the best record in the league and have been a Stanley Cup contender for a few seasons now. It would’ve been easy to go through the motions and pack it in, especially after a few rough bounces and an early three-goal deficit, but the Devils stayed with it and picked up a hard-fought win against a top NHL team.
The two teams started things out with the Avalanche getting settled in the offensive zone before Dougie Hamilton sprung Jack Hughes for a breakaway opportunity, but Hughes sailed the shot wide glove-side. The makeshift second-line of Tatar-Zacha-Bratt came on with Tomas Tatar’s shot being stopped by Darcy Kuemper. The second line stayed out there and tried to get something going with some east-west passing but the Avs got the clear. The Devils came back the other way with Kuemper having to turn aside a Jesper Boqvist shot attempt, but Andreas Johnsson couldn’t quite corral the loose puck for the rebound. The Avs came back the other way with a slick setup for Nathan MacKinnon, but he elevated the puck too much and it sailed out of play. Jimmy Vesey dug a puck out of the corner for a point-blank chance for Mike McLeod that didn’t go. Hamilton sent a puck towards the net that Ryan Graves redirected off of the post, as the Devils continued to apply pressure in the early going.
Michael McLeod got caught slashing Andre Burakovsky at the 7:48 mark of the first period to give Colorado their first power play opportunity of the night. The Devils got a quick clear before play stopped due to Nazem Kadri playing the puck with a high stick and got a second clear off the subsequent faceoff. Colorado finally got set up but an errant pass got past Kadri to the neutral zone. The Avs regained the zone and worked the puck down low to Gabriel Landeskog, but his shot was deflected high in the air. MacKinnon batted it out of mid-air and got enough of a piece of the puck to bounce it past Nico Daws for the power play goal and the 1-0 Avs lead.
The Devils got a clear after an errant Jack Hughes pass in the defensive zone went the other way, but no harm, no foul as Colorado didn’t score. The Devils went back the other way with Zacha being denied on the doorstep. Yegor Sharangovich sprung Jack Hughes for another breakaway opportunity but Erik Johnson made a nice defensive play to keep him from getting the shot off.
After the next TV timeout, Nathan MacKinnon sailed a shot wide of the cage. MacKinnon dug the puck out from along the boards and tried to make a move but got tripped up by Damon Severson for another power play opportunity. Colorado immediately made the Devils pay as Kadri won the ensuing faceoff. The Avs moved the puck laterally at high speeds to set up Mikko Rantanen near the right circle, who fired it off the post and in for the second power play goal of the period.
The Devils came back the other way after the next commercial break with a partial 2-on-1, Hughes had to elevate a saucer pass to Dawson Mercer, who couldn’t quite handle it cleanly and it ultimately gave Kuemper enough time to recover and make the stop. The Avs got the puck deep in the Devils zone for most of the final minute of the first period, but Daws held strong including a glove stop on Logan O’Connor. Daws made one final stop against MacKinnon as time expired and the teams went to the intermission. 2-0 Avalanche after 20 minutes of play.
Overall, it wasn’t the worst 20 minutes the Devils have played this season. They held a 5-1 edge in HDCF and nearly doubled up the Avs on expected goals, but they failed to bury any of their chances off of the rush. Add in the two penalties and two power play goals against and its tough to argue the Devils deserved a better result in the heat of the moment.
Colorado started the second period with a prompt offsides infraction. The Devils won the faceoff and got the puck in deep, with Bastian trying to dig the puck out of the corner and make a move on Kuemper, but to no avail. They came back the other way with a Yegor Sharangovich shot being deflected out of play. Tomas Tatar won a faceoff back after Zacha got thrown out of the dot and the Devils worked the puck to Subban for a shot from the blueline that somehow got through, but Kuemper stopped it. The pace of play slowed down considerably with a lot of quick stoppages for pucks being covered up and deflected out of play.
Damon Severson passed up a shot attempt as he tried to find Jimmy Vesey for a redirect down front, but it got deflected and went the other way in an odd man rush. Burakovsky dropped it for MacKinnon who set up Devon Toews, who fired it on net, but Cale Makar was there on the doorstep to put home the rebound to make it 3-0 Avalanche.
The Devils had a scoring chance that they again failed to bury as Zacha dug a puck out of the corner for Tatar. Tatar sent it to Bratt, who sent it right back to Tatar but he couldn’t handle Bratt’s pass cleanly for the easy tap-in. The Devils finally caught a break a few moments later as Jonas Siegenthaler ripped one off of the post and Tomas Tatar made a nice stick play to redirect it in to cut the deficit to 3-1 Colorado.
The Devils nearly cut the Colorado lead to 1 as Sharangovich missed a point-blank chance and Jack Hughes nearly had a highlight-reel goal skating through the Avs defense, but he ran out of real estate in front of Kuemper and couldn’t lift the puck over his glove. The Devils finally did pull within one as Jack Hughes continued to show off his playmaking ability. After missing on a sharp-angle shot, Hughes brought the puck back towards the blueline and dumped it off for Ty Smith. Smith made his move and flipped it towards the net, getting a fortuitous bounce off of Kuemper’s pad and in to make it 3-2 Avs.
The Devils got their first power play opportunity shortly after the Smith goal as Nazem Kadri tripped up Vesey in the neutral zone, but the power play did not look good as they allowed another odd-man rush the other way. Fortunately, the Avs did not score shorthanded. Jack Johnson tripped up Jesper Bratt to give the Devils another power play opportunity. The Avs got an early clear but the Devils regained the zone and got setup. Severson took the pass from Bratt in the circle and fired the puck through the open lane in front in Kuemper and in to tie the game!
Sevy, Sevy, things are gettin’ heavy. pic.twitter.com/b7I7B2q4Gt— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) March 9, 2022
The Devils went right back to the power play as Gabe Landeskog got his stick caught up in Hughes’s skates. Severson sent another shot from the point that got tipped up but Bastian couldn’t get his stick on it to give the Devils the lead. The second period came to an end and the Devils went to the dressing room tied 3-3 in another period where the Devils outplayed the Avalanche at 5v5.
The Avs controlled the early portion of the third period (and killed off the remainder of the Landeskog penalty) before the Devils got the puck out of the zone. Colorado’s second line got reset and worked the puck to the circle for a Jack Johnson shot attempt that was blocked and cleared by PK Subban. Sharangovich sprung Hughes for a 2-in-1 partial breakaway. The Devils young phenom elected to shoot instead of passing to Dawson Mercer, but Kuemper made the glove stop. Hughes got another opportunity off of a line change where he collected a loose puck in the neutral zone and had a little bit of space, but sailed the shot wide. Bratt had a chance off of the rush but passed to Ryan Graves who shot the puck into Kuemper’s chest to send us to the first TV timeout of the period.
Jonas Siegenthaler went to the box for tripping MacKinnon with 13:03 to go, giving the Avs another power play chance. The Devils did a good job in the early portion of the kill getting a couple clears but Colorado got set up. Daws made arguably his biggest stop of the game to this point off of a point-blank chance in front by MacKinnon. After the penalty expired and Siegenthaler left the box, Mercer fed Hughes in transition, who rang the shot off the pipe.
The Sharangovich-Hughes-Mercer line continued to make their presence known with Mercer feeding Hughes for another shot attempt that was tipped away. Mikko Rantanen tripped up Siegenthaler to give the Devils a power play chance with 7:25 to go. Bratt fed the puck cross-ice to Hughes, who fired it towards the net. Kuemper redirected it off of Nathan Bastian’s chest and the big man knocked in the loose puck for the 4-3 lead.
Subban got caught tripping Kadri with 3:14 to go in regulation. The Devils won the faceoff and got a clear on a second chance opportunity. Vesey took the puck away from MacKinnon as he regained the zone but sailed the pass high to McLeod. Colorado pulled Kuemper with 2:25 to go to give the Avs a 6-on-4 advantage. Rantanen nearly tied the game but credit Nico Daws for getting over in time to cover the far post and make the key stop. The Devils put the exclamation point on the game as Nathan MacKinnon was stripped of the puck in the offensive zone by Dawson Mercer and Yegor Sharangovich sent it the length of the ice for the empty-net shorty. 5-3 New Jersey.
The Devils were content to ice the puck multiple times over the final minute to try to get that sixth goal. They didn’t get that goal, but they did get a hard fought 5-3 win over one of the NHL’s best teams. As Steve Cangialosi pointed out during the MSG broadcast, this is the first game Colorado has lost after jumping out to a three goal lead since 2018. These Colorado teams have been among the very best in the league in that timeframe. It’s yet another promising sign going forward that the Devils, who are still several pieces away from contention, are on the right track.
The Opposition Opinion: Visit Mile High Hockey if you want to read the Avs perspective on tonight’s game.
If This Was a Measuring Stick Game, the Devils Measured Up
I thought going into this game, you could make the argument that this was a “measuring stick” type of game for the Devils to see where they stood against an elite team. To get where the Devils ultimately want to go as a hockey team, they’re going to need to play well and show they can not only hang with the best teams in the league, but beat them.
It would’ve been very easy for the Devils to pack it in after falling behind 3-0. Heck, the Devils have folded plenty of times earlier this season when they’ve taken a punch in the face. But I didn’t think the Devils played all that poorly even as they fell behind 3-0. Colorado, to their credit, got some fortuitous bounces and took advantage of their opportunities. Its a credit to their star players like MacKinnon, Makar, and Rantanen who are all among the best players in the NHL, not to mention Kuemper who I thought played well in defeat. But with that said, the Devils had plenty of scoring chances throughout the game. They just weren’t burying them early.
I’ll elaborate more on it when I get to Daws, but this is why I wanted the Devils to play Daws tonight, and I’m glad they did. If this was a MacKenzie Blackwood or Akira Schmid or Jon Gillies stinker, the Devils probably would’ve quit. But because their goaltender gives them a chance every night, they have it in them to fight back.
Hughes Doing Hughes Things
Folks, we have a homegrown superstar on our hands. And his name is Jack Hughes.
Jack Hughes is years away from his peak, folks. pic.twitter.com/T8pxZ2uYiQ— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) March 9, 2022
Hughes had two assists in this game, but this was one of those “Jack Hughes is going to take over and be an offensive force and YOU can’t do a DAMN THING to stop it” type of games. He was all over the ice in a positive way creating offense. He was his usual shifty self and made several Avalanche players look foolish defensively. He could’ve easily had 4 or 5 points with a little better puck luck with the way he was playing. And that’s probably the scariest thing. This is becoming the floor for him, not the ceiling. He’s JUST scratching the surface of what he’s capable of. Hughes doesn’t turn 21 for two more months and he’s ours for the next 8 seasons.
Let’s also give some credit to his linemates Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer, who have been perfect compliments to Hughes’s game. Sharangovich’s shot hasn’t been as lethal as it was last season, but he’s done a better job of late playing a stronger two-way game and digging the puck out along the boards, and he looks like a winger who should be somewhere in the Devils plans moving forward. Mercer hit a bit of a rookie wall once Jesper Bratt was moved off of his line earlier in the season, but seems to be rejuvenated as Hughes’s wingman. It’s also nice to know going forward you have the flexibility to use Mercer as a Top Six winger instead of an overqualified 3C if the situation warranted.
Back to Hughes though.....please direct any and all whining and “bUt ThE tUrNoVeRs” complaints into the trash where those trash takes belong. Enjoy what you’re watching with #86, because he’s a special talent. And he will be for a long time.
Daws Coming Up Big When It Mattered Most
The numbers weren’t pretty as Daws stopped 23-of-26, but Daws was impressive when it mattered the most and slammed the door shut after falling behind 3-0. The Devils in general haven’t gotten a lot of timely saves, but Daws got those timely saves tonight. His stop on MacKinnon when the game was tied 3-3 and his save on Rantanen when Colorado had the late 6-on-4 advantage stand out as the type of saves this team has desperately missed all season long.
I don’t think you can really rip Daws either for any of the goals he allowed. MAYBE the second goal, although the Avalanche are lethal enough offensively to move the puck at speeds where opposing netminders can’t keep up? MAYBE the third goal, but that was off of an odd-man rush where he stopped the initial shot. The MacKinnon goal was a weird one, but its also one of the best players in the world making a play, so give credit where its due. Either way, Daws was fine and the Devils probably lose if Gillies or Schmid started instead.
It does need to be said though....I have no issue with Daws starting tonight. I have no issue with Daws getting the last 5 starts in net. I just hope the Devils are smart enough not to overwork the rookie to chase wins. Perhaps if Blackwood is as close to returning to the lineup as Frank Seravalli suggests, they won’t need to.
Other Positives From Tonight
With three more assists, Jesper Bratt extended his points lead over Jack Hughes. I’m not sure what else there is to say about Bratt and the season he’s putting together other than “PAY THAT MAN, FITZ”.
Let’s give Pavel Zacha some credit as well. Zacha stepped in for Nico Hischier as the second line center and you could argue that collectively, the Tatar-Zacha-Bratt line was the Devils best line tonight. They led the way in terms of CF%, xGF%, and High Danger chances. It was nice to see Tatar get rewarded on the scoresheet with the goal, and he could’ve had a second had he handled that one pass from Bratt cleanly.
While we’re on the topic of giving credit where credit is due, it’s been a ROUGH season for Ty Smith, but hopefully with two goals in two games since returning to the lineup, this is a sign of things to come. The Subban-Smith pairing also had a relatively incident-free night defensively, minus the late Subban penalty. That’s about all I can ask for from a third pairing defensively.
There were also plays that didn’t make the scoresheet that contributed to the win. The Devils did the little things like winning puck battles and forechecking/backchecking. The penalty kill gave up a couple goals early, but you could argue they were both a smidge fluky and they settled in when it mattered the most in the third period. The Devils continually kept the Avalanche off balance with their skating and their transition game and for a team that usually struggles passing the puck, I thought the Devils passed it very well this evening, to the point where even guys like Jimmy Vesey were creating opportunities offensively.
Lastly, congratulations to Lindy Ruff on this career milestone, moving into 6th all time among head coaches for wins in NHL history.
It's official!— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) March 9, 2022
Lindy Ruff is 6th in all-time wins in NHL history. Congrats, Coach! pic.twitter.com/qmeon7Ygl4
The Devils fell behind early but they showed some resilience. They outworked and outskated one of the best teams in the NHL to get a hard-fought and well-deserved 5-3 win. Nico Daws continued to be perfectly adequate in net and was good when it mattered the most, while the Devils young stars in Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt continue to lead the way and give you hope going forward that they are the building blocks to lead this team back into contention.
Also, because I can’t be all sunshine and butterflies uber-positive in a recap.....if Nico Hischier is going to miss any significant time, let’s get another forward up here. I’m not gonna pile on Mason Geertsen the hockey player other than he played 2:55 total over four shifts and did nothing. If we’re gonna do that and essentially play 11 forwards, what’s the point of Geertsen being on the roster? I know I praised Jimmy Vesey earlier, but he should not be playing 17:20 in an NHL game in 2022. Let’s get Fabian Zetterlund or AJ Greer or someone else who can give you competent minutes in the bottom six.
What did you think of the win tonight? Are you as pleased with the win as I am? Are you in agreement with me that Jack Hughes is a superstar in the making? What about Jesper Bratt and Nico Daws’s performances? 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.