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Devils Defense Gives Up Breakaway After Breakaway in 6-4 Loss to Predators

The defense was terrible tonight. Everyone else showed up, for the most part.

New Jersey Devils v Nashville Predators Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

First Period

The Devils’ redone second and third lines looked good on their respective first shifts. Fabian Zetterlund applied pressure behind the net to force a bad pass and turnover, with Sharangovich and Hughes working it back for a Dougie Hamilton shot that was deflected out of play. On the other end, Sharangovich fumbled the puck to Matt Duchene, who just ripped it wide. With the new third line on, Erik Haula almost got his fifth goal of the season when he rang a shot off the post on a feed from Nikita Okhotiuk on the rush.

I thought the New Jersey Devils forwards had the better of the Nashville Predators in the early stages of the game. They looked much faster (as they often do) — but they seemed particularly determined not to let Nashville take another game from them. The fourth line did have a tough time, forcing Mackenzie Blackwood to make a few saves — but it was a much better start than the teams’ previous match.

Tanner Jeannot got behind Brendan Smith and Nikita Okhotiuk after the Predators beat the hard-nosed forechecking of Dawson Mercer and stretched the ice behind the Devils’ defensive pair. Erik Haula chased behind Jeannot, and shoveled the rebound back to Blackwood so it could be frozen. Later, Smith took a high sticking penalty when he whacked Roman Josi alongside the boards.

The Devils were clinging for dear life in the first minute or so of the penalty kill. The Predators fired at will, and a shot beat Blackwood but rang off the inside of the iron, off the stick of Mikael Granlund. Dawson Mercer finally worked a partial clear with just 20 seconds left to kill. Erik Haula cleared the puck all the way down as the penalty expired. Then, Dougie Hamilton stretched a pass from the Devils’ zone, across the middle of the ice to the far blueline, to Jesper Bratt. Bratt faked a slap shot and went five hole to beat Juuse Saros! 1-0, Devils.

Shortly after the goal, Jonas Siegenthaler spun to the ice as he failed to settle a pass from the Predators directly to him. Nino Niedereitter took it away and went across the crease as Blackwood dove out for the puck, knocking him over. For this, Blackwood got a tripping penalty — and it was served by Ondrej Palat.

Nico Hischier won the draw, but Brendan Smith played the puck weakly to the point for a slap shot that went over the bar. Yegor Sharangovich later cleared with a backhand slap on a far rebound from the end boards, off a slap shot. Blackwood then made another save, this time on Matt Duchene, on the rush — and the Predators recollected again. Late in the second minute, Cody Glass finished a rebound and tied the game. Lindy Ruff, still angry at the call, gave his two cents to the referees.

With four minutes left in the period, Yegor Sharangovich, back on Jack Hughes’ wing this game, skated with him on a rush into the offensive zone. Jack slid it across on the backhand, and Sharangovich shoveled it past Saros — 2-1. This was in the midst of a long stretch of play after the second penalty kill in which the Predators were dominating play, and getting a lot of high-danger chances. Of course, Mackenzie Blackwood would allow another game-tying score immediately after the Sharangovich goal, when Cole Smith batted down a point shot from Juuso Parsinen. 2-2.

Again, Brendan Smith let Ryan Johansen get behind him for one final Predators breakaway of the period. Blackwood made the big save, and the Devils were able to avert danger in the final seconds to take the game into the first intermission tied at 2-2. They let the penalties kill their early momentum — and by the end of the period, Mackenzie Blackwood had made 21 saves on 23 shots.

Second Period

A few minutes in, Nico Hischier had a great chance on the rush when skating with Bratt and Severson — but Juuse Saros was able to kick it out. Bratt tried to push it to Severson, but the puck was a bit behind, and the Devils could not get a rebound shot on goal. Just a minute later, Jack Hughes spun off Mattias Ekholm and backhanded it across to Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton tried to shoot it through, but it deflected and came back out to Hughes, who beat Saros with the high chip on the rebound! 3-2, Devils. Fabian Zetterlund got the primary assist in his first game back for tipping the shot from Dougie.

A bit past eight minutes in, Cody Glass went to the box for interfering with Miles Wood around the Nashville net. The Devils went to the power play and had a couple early chances before Nashville cleared the puck away. Ondrej Palat, on the second unit, had a one-timer saved by Saros. Wood could not clean it up, and Dawson Mercer was set up by Jack Hughes for a shot from the slot which deflected high off Saros.

A few minutes after play returned to even strength, Mikael Granlund tied the game when Ryan Graves made a terrible pass from behind the net directly to the Predators. Off a quick shot, Granlund cleaned the rebound up with Severson in front of him in the crease. 3-3.

With a bit over six minutes to play, Miles Wood was hurt as he was checked into the boards and hit his face off the glass. No penalty. The Predators soon after pinned the Devils’ first line, and Nico Hischier largely played without a stick as he had to lend his to Jonas Siegenthaler. Wood returned to the bench a few minutes later.

Ondrej Palat was tripped, clear as day, by Nino Niedereitter, with two minutes to play. Nino looked at the refs. They had their arms down. The period finished at 3-3.

Third Period

After Jesper Bratt took a late hit, Nico Hischier collected a puck off a turnover and tried to beat Saros. Saros saved the initial shot, and Nico banged away with Palat at the rebound. Later on, Nico passed up the ice to Palat, who shielded the puck against Ekholm and powered to the net. Saros made the save again.

Past the five-minute mark, Dougie Hamilton took a stick to the face from Cole Smith. This penalty was called. Nico Hischier won the draw, but Dougie Hamilton coughed up the puck at the blueline to Tanner Jeannot. Jeannot’s shot went wide past Blackwood. The first unit had several attempts, and a few on goal — but Saros continued to deny them. The second unit came on for the final 55 seconds, and Miles Wood passed back off the draw to no-man’s land. When the Devils retook the zone, Wood lost the puck and made them regroup again. Finally in the zone, Wood took a wrist shot through Haula’s screen from the faceoff dot, but Saros handled it with ease. Saros made five saves on this power play.

Mackenzie Blackwood’s lack of rebound control came back to bite them, as the Predators took the lead with 11:11 to play. Matt Duchene got behind Okhotiuk, shot off the pad, and got his own rebound on the backhand before Graves could get to him. Graves was coming off the bench for Smith, who changed at a bad time. 4-3, Predators.

Just a shift after Damon Severson gave the puck away and forced Mackenzie Blackwood to make a breakaway save, Ryan Graves lost the puck at the blueline and gave up another breakaway. Jonas Siegenthaler saw this coming, but still could not get back to stop Ryan Johansen from padding the Nashville lead to 5-3.

The Devils pulled Blackwood with 3:24 to play. Hughes played as a defenseman, with Mercer as the extra attacker. The Predators iced the puck with 2:33 to play after a lengthy shift, with the only shot on goal coming from Dougie Hamilton. After another icing, Nico Hischier won the draw back. Dougie Hamilton took a point shot, after which the Devils jumped on the rebound. Palat took the puck around the net for Dougie to follow up at the open net, but it deflected to Dawson Mercer who pulled the team to 5-4 with 2:13 to play!

With the Devils trying to gain the zone, Blackwood could not get off and saw a shot ring off the post before he was able to get off the ice. Jack Hughes threw the body in open ice to prevent an empty net goal. With a minute to play, the Devils’ top group gained possession and took the offensive zone. They simply ran out of gas, and looked like they could barely get any speed in the neutral zone once the Predators got the puck out of the zone. The game finished 6-4 on an empty net goal by Granlund.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Faceoff Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Check out On the Forecheck.

Defense? Who?

So I have tried to make a point this season of not shredding the team when they have a bad game. After all, the Devils are one of the best teams in the league by record and by goals scored and allowed. This is not a year I find myself being critical of players very often.

That said, I am extremely disappointed in the defense tonight. Every single one of them played like they had a sudden case of the yips at some point tonight. Dougie Hamilton got dogged on the power play and let up a couple Predators get behind him tonight. Jonas Siegenthaler got uncharacteristically spun to the ice when trying to corral a simple, soft turnover that ended up in his skates. Damon Severson was in the crease for Granlund’s goal and coughed up the puck at a critical point of the game...just about 30 seconds or so before Ryan Graves turned the puck over for Nashville’s second goal of the night off one of his turnovers. Nikita Okhotiuk played like he’s never skated with an NHL team before. He was behind the play and a total non-factor in the neutral zone.

Brendan Smith let up three breakaways at minimum in the first period alone. I stopped keeping track after that. With Okhotiuk as his partner, the Devils had two shots on goal and allowed 15 shots against in 12:22 of 5v5 time. That rates out to over 70 shots against per 60. The Devils had a 13.86 xGF% with Smith on the ice and a 12.44 xGF% with Okhotiuk. Then, factor in the first penalty that helped strip the Devils of any early juice they had, and Brendan Smith played as badly as I have ever seen a defenseman play without seeing his team give up a goal against. Truly, it’s remarkable that Blackwood decided to be on his best gave for those shifts.

Mackenzie Blackwood was the victim of some really bad play tonight. He gave up five goals on 4.98 expected goals against. His save percentage was .875 — 35 saves on 40 shots. I will say his rebound control continues to be poor, as he saw 12 rebound shots during this game. He did as much as he could against the breakaways and odd-man rushes off turnovers, but his rebounds still need to be cleaner as well.

What I Liked

I enjoyed Zetterlund’s return to the lineup, as well as Sharangovich’s return to Hughes’ line. I felt they were a bit inconsistent, but the offensive flash is there — and the forechecking for turnovers seems to be there with this combination. Jack Hughes is also a great six-on-five defenseman, for the record. I like the five-forward configuration there. I also liked the team’s power plays today. They seem much more willing to vary their puck movement, rather than just pass around the top of the zone as they did earlier this season.

What I Want to See Tomorrow Night

Miles Wood needs to sit tomorrow night. Call it a healthy scratch, but I would just call it a rest day. This is his first full season back from a major hip surgery, and he looks far from fresh right now. Let Boqvist take his spot in the lineup, as he has been much crisper on his skates than Wood has looked in the past few weeks. I do not expect Wood to suddenly look better in the back-end of a back-to-back, so I think he should sit tomorrow. With how the third line struggled to break free with the puck at any point, I would like to see something like a Tatar-Boqvist-Mercer third line and a Haula-McLeod-Bastian fourth line. Will Ruff do that? Probably not, but Boqvist was doing well (finally) before he came out of the lineup and the third line did not end up as good as it first looked to me.

I would also like to see Okhotiuk get sent down. It’s not working. Whether it’s Tyler Wotherspoon, Reilly Walsh, or Simon Nemec — the defense needs another player actively trying to earn minutes. Smith, Bahl, and Okhotiuk have not cut it of late, and I think I would like to see Tom Fitzgerald give Walsh a chance most of the Utica defensemen mentioned.

Your Thoughts

What did you think of tonight’s game? How annoyed were you with the defense? How do you think Blackwood played? What adjustments do you want to see for Dallas? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

And whether you followed in the gamethread, or on Twitter @AATJerseyBlog, thanks for reading. This is Chris — goodnight.