In their season-opening win against the Detroit Red Wings, the New Jersey Devils played far from their A-game. It wasn’t the worst showing in the world, as after a dreadful first period the Devils did right the ship enough to come away with the victory. Tonight, the sloppy play continued, and this time the blinding star power of Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt was not enough to overcome the mistakes. New Jersey fell to the Arizona Coyotes in a shootout, 4-3, in a game with enough unforced errors to last us a while.
There were certainly positives to take away from tonight’s contest. Bratt scored his first two goals of the season. Hughes still looks like a superstar, registering three assists and bumping his season total to five points in two games. Dougie Hamilton continued to devastate opposing goalies with that absolute rocket of a shot he’s got, scoring his second goal in as many nights.
But even the scoring plays from tonight’s game come with caveats. The Devils did not score any of their goals at 5-on-5, with Bratt’s first goal coming in 4-on-4 action, Hamilton’s goal coming on a 4-on-3 power play, and Bratt’s second tally coming on a 5-on-3 power play. In the most common game state in hockey, the Devils got run over by a scrappy yet clearly inferior Coyotes team. The good folks over at Natural Stat Trick tell us that, during 5-on-5 play, while New Jersey out-attempted Arizona 43-37, the Devils lost the Scoring Chance and High Danger Corsi For battle 22-17 and 12-3 respectively. It all added up to a 5-on-5 Expected Goals For% of 31.88%, a dismal showing from a team of the Devils’ caliber. I could point to a few isolated moments of positivity for the Devils tonight, but the overall picture was quite ugly.
One of the lone bright spots that doesn’t come with an asterisk tonight is the play of Akira Schmid. The Swiss netminder got his first start of the season this evening and looked very good against a feisty Coyotes team. He allowed three goals on 33 shots, and according to NST, Schmid saved 1.01 goals above expected. I’d say the eye test backs this up, as I can recall numerous big time saves Schmid made to keep the Devils in this game, especially early on.
Aside from Schmid, there isn’t much to feel great about tonight. When Matt Dumba opened the scoring at the 6:22 mark of the first period, it was the culmination of a lot of minutes spent in New Jersey’s end of the ice. In fact, to that point in the game, the Devils had only one shot, with Dumba’s goal marking the sixth one for Arizona. When Sean Durzi scored on a second period power play to double Arizona’s lead, it was the result of the Devils failing to do much of anything to disrupt the Coyotes’ man advantage. Even when New Jersey ripped off three straight goals in the second period thanks largely to Bratt, Hughes, and Hamilton, they couldn’t hold their 3-2 lead, giving up another power play goal late in the third. On that tying goal, credit should be given to hotshot rookie Logan Cooley for making a killer pass to Nick Schmaltz who ripped home the equalizer. But it was yet another example of New Jersey’s sloppy play coming back to bite them, as that power play was courtesy of a Brendan Smith trip, and the penalty kill could not find a way to clear the puck despite an opportunity to do so.
In the end, the Devils did collect three of four points from their season-opening back-to-back. That’s a good result. And if I decide to take the optimistic point of view, I could say that New Jersey banked points despite putting together a couple of lackluster performances. When a squad can find ways to keep getting results even when off their game, that’s the sign of a great team. And once the Devils do find their footing, watch out! I’m also certainly not saying it’s time to panic. New Jersey will be fine. But tonight, it’s a bitter pill to swallow watching a game slip away against a team the Devils should have handled easily.
The Opposition Opinion: Five For Howling has the Coyotes perspective on this game.
The Game Highlights: Here they are, courtesy of NHL.com
A Busy Second Period for the Men in Stripes
The first period was pretty standard when it came to penalties, with each team getting called for one minor infraction apiece. Then the second period rolled around, and all of a sudden it was bedlam at The Rock. The Devils and Coyotes only played 10:13 of the second period at 5-on-5. The rest of the 9:47 was spent either at 4-on-4 or with one of the teams on the power play. The parade of players to the box brought the game to a grinding halt, though as it turned out, this would be the high water mark of the Devils’ night. Thanks to all that open ice in the second period, New Jersey put three up on the board.
It makes sense that New Jersey would thrive in these game states given their team speed and the amount of creativity some of their top forwards have. And while it was great to see the flurry of penalty-aided goals, it would be nice to see this dominance carry over to 5-on-5, where the vast majority of each game will be played. The Coyotes would not get called for a penalty in the third period (though Ondrej Palat getting pinned to the back of the Arizona net by Josh Brown late in the third likely should have been called), so the Devils couldn’t take advantage of any power plays or open ice after the second. Given this team’s track record of 5-on-5 dominance though, I’m confident we’ll see them bounce back in that game state eventually.
The Luke Hughes Experience
I don’t think I need to tell anyone that Luke Hughes is an incredibly talented young hockey player. I also don’t think I need to tell anyone that what we will most likely see a lot of from the youngest Hughes brother this season is dazzling work with the puck, as well as tremendous skating...but with a healthy amount of rookie mistakes to go along with that dazzling work. Tonight we saw just that. Hughes finished with two shots on goal, with plenty of great passes, stickhandling, and individual rushes. He seems to love doing this little move of collecting the puck along the boards, curling off of pressure toward the middle of the ice, and carrying the puck toward the slot. When he pulls it off, it can be electric. But we also saw him get too cute at his own blueline, lose the puck, and have to commit a penalty to prevent a break the other way for the Coyotes. The fancy stats weren’t kind to him tonight either, with Hughes registering a 5-on-5 Expected Goals For percentage of 23.58%.
On the one hand, it’s admirable that Hughes has such confidence at such a young age, and one of the last things any of us should want is for that confidence to evaporate. On the other hand, those types of mistakes can lead to crushing results.
I also found it notable that at one point late in the game with the score tied, Luke Hughes was out there taking his normal shift. Now this might be noteworthy enough, with the headline being that Ruff has no problem sending Hughes out there in crunch time of a tie game. But what made it even more noteworthy for me is the fact that the Haula line was deployed with Hughes, but Nate Bastian replaced Alex Holtz on that shift. To me, that’s a perfect encapsulation of how the coaching staff views Hughes and Holtz. We already saw Ruff throw Hughes to the wolves in the Carolina series last May (with Hughes responding quite well), despite Luke’s obvious and potentially devastating mistakes. It seems like Ruff thinks the positives that Hughes brings far outweigh the negatives, to the point that he’s willing to send him over the boards in big spots. Hughes will grow and learn when to take the calculated risks he loves to take and become a much more dangerous player because of the experience he will gain over time. But for now, the Luke Hughes rollercoaster continues.
For the second night in a row, the Timo Meier-Nico Hischier-Dawson Mercer line failed to make a big impact. They were passable against Detroit, but the trio absolutely drowned in the run of play tonight, finishing at or near the bottom of the team in all the major advanced stats. Ruff loves to match a Hischier-led line against the top line of the opposing team, and for good reason. The captain is one of the best defensive forwards in the league, evidenced by his second place Selke Trophy finish a season ago. Tonight was no exception, as his line mostly lined up against Arizona’s top line of Nick Schmaltz-Barrett Hayton-Clayton Keller. There’s no shame in losing the territorial battle to another team’s top line, but frankly that’s not a particularly scary top line. Keller is a wonderful player who put up a lot of points in 2022-23, but I don’t think Schmaltz and Hayton are true top line talents.
I’m not panicking over a couple of mediocre to rough nights for the Meier-Hischier-Mercer line, but I do wonder if we see a change coming soon. I’m not even saying I’d agree with a change, but we all know Ruff has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to putting his lines in a blender. After two games of relatively disappointing results from one of the team’s top lines, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change the next time the Devils suit up.
Speaking of Lineup Decisions...
Nate Bastian drew in for tonight’s game, taking the place of Curtis Lazar. This was the only lineup change we saw tonight. I’m curious if Ruff plans to rotate troops in and out of the lineup regularly this season. Might we see Colin Miller draw in next time out, likely for Smith? Will Chris Tierney get a crack in place of Tomas Nosek? Will Ruff give Luke Hughes a periodic night off to help ease the young man into the NHL? Will veteran players like Palat, Erik Haula, or Tyler Toffoli get maintenance days like we see in the NBA? I really have no idea, but either way it’s interesting to think about how the Devils coaching staff might manage their roster this season.
Scary Moments for Young Devils Players
Early in the third period, Alex Holtz took a puck up high and ended up with a big gash on his chin. He was bleeding immediately and had to exit for a while. He only missed a shift or two, so thankfully it looks like Holtz avoided major damage.
Meanwhile, perhaps an even scarier moment occured in upstate New York this evening involving another one of the Devils’ blue chip prospects, Simon Nemec:
That...does not look good.
There is good news though: According Ben Birnell and Steve Jones of the Rome Sentinel, Nemec did finish out the second period, but was held out of the third period and overtime of that game as a precaution by Utica head coach Kevin Dineen. The fact that he was able to continue on is a great sign, and I think the decision to hold him out of the third period and overtime was the right one. It appears as though Nemec avoided major injury here, which is a very pleasant surprise given how violent that hit looked.
Next Time Out
The Devils have the rest of the weekend off before returning to action on Monday. They’ll play host to the defending Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers, with gametime slated for 7:00pm.
It was a disappointing shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes tonight. What were your overall thoughts on the game? Do you think we’ll see any line changes following this game? What about lineup changes? Did anyone stand out as particularly impressive to you tonight? What is the one area of the Devils’ game you’d like to see cleaned up before their next game? As always, thanks for reading!