In the first game of 2023 for the New Jersey Devils, they lost 4-5 to the Carolina Hurricanes through a shootout. It was the first time the Devils were in a shootout this season. It was also a game where I go back and forth about how to best explain what happened today and whether it was ultimately good or not.
On the one hand, consider the opponent. The Carolina Hurricanes are red-hot. They went into this game with 10 wins in a row and 16 straight games with at least one point earned in the standings. The Canes also beat the Devils not that long ago too, 1-4.
On the other hand, consider the Devils. They went into this game with six winless games at home and had another large crowd at the Rock to please. They were up in the game in the third period. The lead was lost and, ultimately, the shootout did them in. Therefore, they have now lost seven straight at home.
Back to that first hand, consider how the scoring went. Carolina went up 0-1, 1-2, and 2-3. The Devils managed to answer back each time to tie up the game and ultimately made it 4-3 in the third period. What is more is that they did this against Antti Raanta. Raanta went into this game with two straight shut out wins and kept the Devils to nothing (with the help of the goal frame twice) in the first period. Jack Hughes ended his shutout streak with aplomb and Jaccob Slavin - one of the league’s best defensive defensemen - sliding into the net. In the third period, the Devils beat Raanta three more times on shots that Raanta probably wished he had back. For a Devils team that has been struggling to score, putting four past formerly-hot Raanta on 28 shots is a real great sight. As is seeing a brace from Jesper Bratt and a wraparound goal from Nico Hischier on the shift after Stepan made it 2-3.
Back to that second hand, consider the several bad sights in this game that hurt the Devils. The Devils were guilty of errors that cost them the goals they did allow this afternoon.
- The first goal was a 2-on-1 created by a poor play on offense by Yegor Sharangovich, Kevin Bahl getting caught on a pinch, and a returning Ryan Graves making like Damon Severson and defended nothing on his belly during the 2-on-1 - which ended with Stefan Noesen passing it across to Derek Stepan for the score.
- The second goal started with Jack Hughes losing a puck in his skates, Dougie Hamilton faltering getting the puck forward, and Mackenzie Blackwood whiffing on a loose puck at the worst possible time. Sebastian Aho scored the easiest shorthanded non-empty net goal of his career. It was the worst shorthanded goal I have ever seen live. Absolutely shambolic. And just about unacceptable for a NHL goaltender.
- The third goal was a result of Calvin de Haan throwing a puck in front, Noesen beating Brendan Smith to touch that puck across, and Derek Stepan roofing it at the end. Keep in mind that Kevin Bahl and his 6’6”, 230 pound frame was boxing out Stepan. He had the right position on him. Somehow, Stepan scored around him. Utica awaits, young Kevin.
- The fourth goal was a shot from the center point by Martin Necas through traffic in a power play that was technically a 3-on-5 situation and was easily the least offensive of the four. Although the refereeing that led to the situation was quite irksome.
That’s three out of four goals where better execution or even one fewer error would have led to no goal being scored against the Devils. Given how good the Hurricanes have been, the Devils could not afford to help them out. Yet, they did.
The first hand will be up front and say that it cannot defend the shorthanded goal against. However, the first hand will point out that Blackwood was not a calamity like he was in the first game against Boston (another game where Blackwood helped the other team score). Carolina put up a 2.07 xGF in 5-on-5 and a 4.02 xGF in all situations. Blackwood allowed two goals in 5-on-5 and four goals in all situations. Blackwood also denied Carolina three breakaways in overtime, robbed Stepan with his glove early in the third before Jesper Bratt’s first of the game, and made 42 saves out of 46. It was not Blackwood’s fault the team conceded as much as they did, but he ensured the game would not be a blowout. And it was not given it was a shootout loss. Blackwood may be an inconsistent player and not someone with a long-term future in New Jersey, but he was not the sole reason why this game was not a win.
The second hand will remind the first hand that, no, but a better Blackwood maybe could have led to a win. But, the first hand is right that Blackwood did not allow Carolina to attempt 90 shots and put 46 on net. The Canes put on a masterclass on how to beat the 2022-23 Devils. It requires players to put up pressure in all three zones, especially during penalty kills as the Devils kept looking for passes to break coverage - and often failed. The Devils love to get in deep in 5-on-5 situations where they are not rushing up ice and work the puck low-to-high. Carolina counted that and kneecapped the Devils’ offense many times by putting skaters by the halfwalls to either intercept the low-to-high pass or force puck battles where the Canes could win the puck back. The Devils love to look for stretch passes or quick zone exits. Carolina made a point of it to have support on both sides of the blueline to deny exits, get pucks back, and pin the Devils further in their own end. The Devils did not have much of a Plan B nor did they execute well enough to force Carolina to ease up in the game. Hence, the Devils were out-shot 28-46, out-attempted 44-90, out-chanced 24-38, and out-high-danger-chanced 13-18 in all situations. No, it was not any prettier in 5-on-5 only hockey.
In that first hand is an admission that the second hand has a point about that. But also that the first hand needs to recognize that A) Carolina is well-coached, B) Carolina is arguably the best 5-on-5 team in hockey, and C) the Devils managed to still out-score the Canes in 5-on-5 and put up 4 on a previously blazing Antti Raanta. As good as the Devils have been this season in 5-on-5 in their own right, every team is going to have games where things really do not work out. Bounces go against teams, passes just miss the mark, decisions seem off, and the other team can prey on that all day long when those games happen. In an 82-game season, you are bound to have a rough game. The Devils managed to get a point out of it in spite of all that and that is worth being pleased about.
In that second hand is an admission that those points are correct. However, the frustration felt is not just from the fact that the Devils did not win, but also that the fact that the Devils have not won at home since December 6 against a sleepwalking Chicago team. This could have been a win. It would have been a huge statement win for the Devils to be the one team to deny Carolina an 11th straight win. It would have been a great start to the year. It would have sent the crowd home happy instead of disappointed. While the Devils are still in second place in the division, they really need wins to avoid a bigger fall. In a results-oriented business, celebrating games without wins is not really worth it. And hockey is very much a results-oriented business.
Is there anything the two hands can agree on? Absolutely. The refereeing in this game went stupid with the embellishment call on Jonas Siegenthaler. Tuevo Teravainen stuck his stick in between Siegenthaler’s legs while the defenseman was skating. Concepts in physics such as The Law of Gravity would explain why Siegenthaler fell. He did not sell it. Yet, Justin Kea (who refereed that infamous game against Toronto earlier this season) and Francois St. Laurent believed otherwise. The other calls in the game were valid - and I wish Ryan Graves did not clear the glass with the puck during a Dawson Mercer high-sticking penalty - but the embellishment call is up there with one of the worst of the season in a Devils game.
Ultimately, the two hands will have to agree to disagree about how to view this game other than that embellishment call. I will point out that either is valid to a point. Not that anyone wants to read that this game was akin to judging if a glass half-full or half-empty. But it is the best way I can describe it while pointing out what went well and did not go so well in this game. So it goes as the new year begins.
The Opposition Opinion: Ryan Henkel wrote up this recap at Canes Country.
The Game Highlights: Here are the highlights of today’s shootout loss from NHL.com
Ah, Yes, The Shootout: How can I forget this important part of the game? It did decide the winner, after all. The Devils did play in their first shootout of the season today. I understand there are still many of the People Who Matter who gripe about the shootout. That it is a gimmick. That Real Fans(TM) do not care about it. That it should go away. That it is all Gary Bettman’s fault. In reality, the shootout has been around since 2005. We are almost at a point where a draft class is coming in that only knows of the NHL having a shootout. It is not going anywhere. It is here. It has been here for a while. Accept it. Besides, the Devils have done a very good job making it easy for the People Who Matter to not worry about it since this was their first one of the season.
Of course, more would be accepting of the shootout if the Devils ever returned to their pre-2012 form in it. Today, Tomas Tatar, Jesper Bratt, and Jack Hughes all tried to beat Raanta low. This made sense as he was beaten mostly on low shots in regulation. Raanta stopped them. Andrei Svechnikov beat Mackenzie Blackwood, who denied him seven (!) other times in the game. That was it.
I am not sure this is so much a problem since it was the first time this season. If anything, the Devils could have lessened the impact of their slump (ongoing slump?) if they were able to drag more games beyond regulation and pick up some points here and there. It is what it is.
Disappointments? Yeah, I Have a Few: Carolina dominated the run of play so much so that you do not even need to look at the numbers. Even by eyesight, you would have noticed a lot of white and red in the Devils’ half of the rink this afternoon. The line of Erik Haula, Dawson Mercer, and Jack Hughes suffered the worst in 5-on-5. All of those attempted stretch passes, breakouts, and quick exits forced those three back a whole lot of times. It is a credit to Hughes to break ahead of Slavin as he did for a score. And for Blackwood for stopping everything that line faced. But this line needed to be better today. Those wanting Haula elsewhere, I hear you. Alas, I think the Devils’ answer is going to be Ondrej Palat so we shall wait some more.
I do want to “highlight” Michael McLeod line with Miles Wood and today’s winger, Tyce Thompson as a unit that I really hated watching today. At least the Hughes line had Jack Hughes, who scored a lovely goal. This unit resembled a beat-up 1984 BMW Alpina with 250,000 miles on it and was clearly misaligned. Wood was a trainwreck on and off the puck, McLeod was even crushed at the dots (7 out of 19 faceoff wins), and Thompson was just a guy on the ice. Seriously, just a guy. Alexander Holtz sitting is one thing, but I am mystified that he is sitting for Tyce Thompson. I understand this is meant to be an “energy” line to spell the others, but this line provided none of it except for Carolina. I really do think this needs to be shaken up as Wood is certainly not providing any bits of offense, McLeod certainly will not, and, again, Thompson is just a guy.
I do want to point out the power play units in the first period were pretty good and Hughes was a post away from scoring early. But the second period power play yielded a horrendous shorthanded goal and nearly a second later on. The third period power play yielded a high-sticking penalty on Mercer that ultimately the Hurricanes would punish. The power play was real bad on the puck as aggressive penalty killers on Carolina just killed things with what appeared to be the greatest of ease. Andrew Brunette is not on the ice to make the passes, but his system needs some serious tweaking.
As much as he made some important stops and a lot of them, Mackenzie Blackwood still did this.
I am still shaking my head.
The defense as a whole was weak seeing as they conceded 47 shots and 90 shot attempts today. Dougie Hamilton was not as good as he was in Pittsburgh. Damon Severson took calls and did not help matters outside of overtime. Siegenthaler was penned in a lot, although the embellishment call on him was garbage. Brendan Smith’s lack of speed was exposed. Kevin Bahl showed why he should be a Comet real soon.
Was it all bad? In a way, I have to say no. The Devils have made errors big and small against Carolina all afternoon and found themselves tied 3-3 in the third period with fewer than ten minutes left. That is mildly impressive. Some things did go right. I’ll get there.
The Ryan Graves Section: The only defenseman I want to soften my criticism against would be Graves. He was listed as week-to-week. He was activated ahead of this game and replaced Nikita Okhotiuk in the lineup. Is he an upgrade over Okhotiuk? Absolutely. Did Ruff play him? Absolutely. 18:10 with 1:23 of penalty killing time, to be exact. Graves even got a secondary assist on Bratt’s second goal. He almost scored in the first period when a long shot surprised everyone - even Raanta - when it hit the crossbar and the puck went down and out. There were some good things there. Did Graves hurt the team? Honestly, yes. His Severson-like belly flop against the giant space between Noesen and Stepan in the 2-on-1 against the Devils in the second period was bad. It stopped nothing and Stepan scored. His clearance over the glass ensured a longer penalty killing situation for the Devils as they were in a 3-on-4 from Mercer’s high-stick. Graves’ penalty was not punished, but Mercer’s was. Thankfully, the Devils did not concede again after that one as it would have given Carolina the lead. Do I think Graves will be better? I think so. But this was not a great return even if he is an upgrade over Okhotiuk.
OK, So What Did You Like Beyond What You Already Wrote: The Nico Hischier line was the Devils’ best in the run of play. What is more is that they were rewarded with goals. Bratt and Hischier scored in 5-on-5 and Bratt scored in a 4-on-4 situation that should have been a 5-on-4 to begin with. While the line finished below 50% in CF% and just a touch under it in SF%, their positive xGF% and very positive actual GF% (2-0) were far and away better than the other Devils lines today. Additionally, Hischier was the only Devil to win a majority of his faceoffs today.
I also liked how Bratt put up a brace. He ended a six-game goalless streak with a brace in Florida on December 21. He ended a three-game goalless streak today with a brace. Both goals were crucial as the first one tied it up at 2-2 and the second one put the Devils ahead 4-3. They also cooled off Raanta completely, which may be good news for Pytor Kochetkov. Bratt is now at 14 goals and 37 points in 37 games. The Devils could use his production appearing more frequently. This is something to keep an eye on going forward.
I did like how Blackwood performed in the third period. I wish he got Stepan’s second goal of the game but it was a surprising lift of the puck given that Bahl should have completely kept Stepan from doing anything. He made tough stops, stopped 14 shots from Svechnikov and Burns alone (7 each), and really kept the Devils in it when the Hurricanes tried and did breakaway - especially in overtime. He could have fallen apart completely after his horrible, terrible, miserable, no-good shorthanded goal against. He, as the broadcasters would say, battled. He was not a sole reason for this result. That said, I still think Vitek Vanecek should have started this game.
I did appreciate Graves coming back at all. It was a big surprise and he did not look any worse for the wear for it regardless of his performance. That bodes well for the Devils having five of their regular defensemen from here on out. Fingers crossed for a recovery for John Marino soon.
Jack Hughes is The Big Deal. He opened the scoring for the Devils and nearly ended it twice in OT by cutting through Carolina’s skaters. He led the Devils with six shots on net and continues to show that he is a Goal Scorer.
One Last Thought: In each of their last five games, the Devils have scored three, three, one, three, and four non-empty net goals. They were against Bobrovsky, Ullmark, Ullmark, Jarry, and Raanta. (Also known as: overpriced backup, top goalie in the NHL twice, a legitimately good Jarry, and a very now formerly hot Raanta) They went 2-2-1 in two games against Boston, a road game in Pittsburgh, this game, and a road game in Florida. I do not want to be presumptuous but the scoring slump may be ending. The next step would be to see some more goals outside of Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt. This means goals from Dawson Mercer, Tomas Tatar, Miles Wood, Fabian Zetterlund, Yegor Sharangovich, and, yes, Erik Haula. If they can get more from them along with the Devils’ best forwards, then the wins really should be coming back. Going to Detroit and hosting St. Louis are good opportunities for that to happen. It is, not coincidentally, their next two games.
Your Take: The Devils lost in a shootout for a 4-5 final score with Carolina, who has now won 11 in a row. What is your take on this game? Who impressed you? Who disappointed you? What did you think about Graves’ return? Were you as mad as I was with Blackwood on the SHGA and are you still mad about it? What should the Devils do differently ahead of their back-to-back set in the middle of this week? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this shootout loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thanks to Matt for the game preview. Thank you for reading.