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Devils Mount Comeback Too Late, Fall 4-3 to Panthers

Once again, the Devils found themselves behind entering the third period. And once again, their comeback attempt came too late to earn them a victory.

NHL: Florida Panthers at New Jersey Devils John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Key Takeaways

  • After sluggish starts against Detroit and Arizona, the Devils had the opportunity to earn two points against a Florida Panthers team missing key players such as Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour.
  • The Devils were slow out of the gate and surrendered four goals before mounting a comeback that proved too late to secure overtime, as they fell 4-3 to the Panthers.
  • Next time, the Devils need to do more than start the game on time. They need some of their best players to play their best.

Essential Links:

NHL Boxscore | Natural Stat Trick

Game Thread | Game Preview

The Game Highlights, via NHL.com

Entering the Game Tonight

The Devils were 1-0-1 and in need of a small kick to the hockey pants. They out-talented Detroit for a 4-3 win, but it wasn’t enough against Arizona, where they dropped 4-3 in the shootout after a comeback attempt. While Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton all excelled, the rest of the lineup—notably Nico Hischier’s line—struggled to create and finish offense.

Lindy Ruff shook up the lines heading into the game, promoting Ondrej Palat onto the Hischier and Timo Meier line while dropping Dawson Mercer to the third line. The excellent Bratt - J. Hughes - Toffoli line naturally remained intact.

So how did the line changes benefit the Devils tonight?

Well . . . they didn’t. Not really. Meier found himself benched in the third period, Hischier did not score, and Palat felt just as invisible alongside them. I thought Mercer played with more fire tonight, and Holtz did eventually notch an assist—but on a line with McLeod and Haula.

The Panthers were 0-2 and desperately did not want to start their season 0-3. Despite missing Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, they were the hungrier team tonight—even though the Devils have more to prove, judging by last season’s playoffs. It was enough to secure the Panthers their first win tonight, and it was enough to send the Devils to a mediocre 1-1-1 record through three games.

First Period

After getting out-worked in the first period against Detroit and Arizona, the Devils really needed to jump out of the gate and take advantage of a Florida Panthers squad missing Aaron Ekblad. They knew that. They spoke about it after the Coyotes game. Ruff pointed it out specifically in his interview at practice on Sunday.

So you can imagine my surprise when they started against the Panthers flat-footed, behind a step, and looking like they’d just eaten a full Thanksgiving meal instead of the hungry team they’re supposed to play like.

Florida scored first, not even four minutes into the game. I wasn’t pleased with this goal. Jonas Siegenthaler sent the puck around the back of the net and up the boards, where Curtis Lazar and Michael McLeod lost a puck battle. What should have been a fairly routine board battle and clear ended up in the back of the net. Initially, I was frustrated with Vanecek, thinking he’d just surrendered a five-hole goal from outside the circles, but you can see that Florida’s Sam Reinhart tipped the puck in front. That velocity changeup and redirection was just enough to slip through the five-hole.

This was a breakdown in defensive zone coverage. Neither Hamilton nor Siegenthaler were covering Reinhart, who was allowed to enter a prime scoring position uncontested. It ended up in the back of the net.

Those hoping the Devils would use the goal as motivation to propel them through the rest of the first were disappointed again. The Panthers scored the next one after Brendan Smith took a swing at a chip-in, missed, and found himself unable to stop a storming Carter Verhaege from walking in on Vanecek. Those are the kinds of mistakes I expect from Luke Hughes, who played his seventh NHL game tonight. It’s the kind of mistake I do not want to see from Brendan Smith, who has played more than 600 NHL games.

Like the first goal, I can forgive Vanecek on this one. It was an unexpected breakaway. This shot should never have happened. However, I don’t like him getting beat on the backhand short side. Vanecek was square to Verhaege’s body, not the puck, which allowed Verhaege to pull the puck onto his backhand and roof it.

Two routine plays ended up in the Devils’ net. They entered the second down 2-0, despite a late attempt by Toffoli that almost beat Sergei Bobrovsky.

Second Period

I wouldn’t say the Devils were shot out of a cannon to start the second period, but it did look like they got a stern talking-to during intermission.

They had two prime opportunities to tie the game with a pair of power plays, but Florida’s diamond penalty kill setup took away the entire center of the ice, and the Devils weren’t able to convert with the man advantage. Luke Hughes had a great opportunity, but Bobrovsky was there with the glove.

It seemed like the tide was turning—until Niko Mikkola tapped the puck in off a backdoor pass. Mikkola, a defenseman, streaked all the way in from the point. Neither Bahl, Marino, or Vanecek broke up the pass from Matt Tkachuk through the crease. Nobody picked Mikkola up from the point. It was too easy for the Panthers.

Three defensive zone breakdowns. Three Panthers goals.

In a game the Devils needed—needed—to start fast and start strong, they were down 3-0 by the middle of the second period. After Meier took a couple of penalties (and a pair of kills came from the Devils’ penalty killing units), they weren’t able to generate any real momentum heading into the third.

Third Period

The Devils started the third period no better. After a scuffle put them in the penalty box, Reinhart scored on the power play within the first minute. The 4-0 hole proved far too much for this flat Devils squad to climb out from.

The Devils finally got on the board when Erik Haula redirected Jack Hughes’ shot from the slot on the power play, the first time they showed any signs of life on the night.

After Ruff threw the D-pairings into the blender, and with the momentum of an entire goal on their side, the Devils came right back minutes later with another goal. The brand-new line of McLeod, Haula, and Holtz managed a pair of chances in the offensive zone. McLeod worked himself behind Bobrovsky and was in perfect position to bang in a rebound that slipped through the netminder.

At this point in the game, the coaching staff benched Meier. He ended with only 11:29 TOI, four penalty minutes, and one shot on net. Marino also saw no more than 11:52 of ice time.

It didn’t seem to detract from what was coming. On a 6-on-4 power play with the netminder pulled, the Devils hammered Bobrovsky with shots, earning themselves numerous scoring opportunities. After Bobrovsky stifled a few chances, Jesper Bratt rifled a shot over the goalie’s glove hand and pulled the Devils to within one goal.

Much like the Coyotes game, the comeback fell short. A tripping non-call that would’ve sent the Devils to another power play sapped what little hope remained for the Devils to tie, but the refs certainly did not lose this game for New Jersey. They didn’t deserve to win this game, and they didn’t. The Devils could’ve won, but playing twenty minutes of hockey isn’t enough to win most games. It’s insane they brought it to within one goal. Just think what they could do if they played a full sixty.

We’ve seen what they can do when they’re playing like they should. So why can’t they play that way all the time? If a single goal is all it takes for this team to work as hard as they need to, it only underscores how important scoring first should become for the Devils.

Nearing a Trend

If two games are too few to identify a trend, then three is hardly better. If the Devils were 3-0, or perhaps 2-0-1, then my upcoming point would be irrelevant. I wouldn’t even bring it up. But if three games aren’t enough to call something a trend, then it’s getting close.

Hischier, Meier, Mercer, and Luke Hughes are all scoreless. Holtz notched an assist tonight. They’re also getting consistently out-possessed and out-chanced. I don’t think anybody blinks an eye if any number of them go on a three-game scoreless streak during the middle of the season. But it’s something we notice when they’ve only played three games.

If Hughes, Bratt, and Toffoli are all scoring (and they are), and the depth is scoring, then the Devils can withstand cold streaks from two—maybe even three—of the above. But their depth isn’t scoring, and neither are the aforementioned players a paragraph above. I don’t doubt that they’ll all find their games—and Ruff will find the right lines—eventually. But as I wrote in my game preview earlier: it gets late real early.

I’m nowhere near the panic button yet. But the Devils have to show up next game. The good news is that I believe the question of effort is easily solved. That’s down to the players, and to Ruff, motivating themselves and each other. I also think the effort equation solves some—probably not all, but some—of the scoring issues.

The defensive breakdowns are another matter entirely. Either the players have misunderstood Ruff’s system and are not executing it properly, or the system is flawed. Again, the good news is that the season is still early.

But whichever the answer, I hope they solve it soon.

Are the Devils Asking Too Much of Brendan Smith?

Brendan Smith went from an adequate performance in game one to a mediocre one in game two, to a disastrous performance tonight. The fault might not entirely lie with him. Yes, he is at best a sixth defenseman. Yes, he was bad tonight. But is Ruff asking him to do too much as Luke Hughes’s defense partner?

While the pairing is already receiving sheltered minutes, it’s asking a lot of Smith—grading on a heavy curve—to play as the stalwart, virtually mistake-free partner to Luke Hughes, who is naturally going to have some miscues as a rookie offensive defenseman. By the end of the game, it seemed Ruff agreed. The pairings through the final ten minutes were Hughes and Hamilton, Bahl and Smith, and Siegenthaler and Marino.

I’m not sure what the answer here is—either shaking up the pairings or bringing in Colin Miller—but it’s clear that Brendan Smith has thus far proved incapable of meeting the marginal demands Lindy Ruff has placed at his feet.

Will Timo Meier Please Stand Up?

I don’t have much to write here. I wrote in the AAtJ staff predictions that Meier would need more time to adjust before he started scoring. (I was hoping he would prove me wrong.) At least during the playoffs (when he also wasn’t scoring), he threw hits, he made plays, and he was a factor on the ice. Other than the four penalty minutes, Meier was all but invisible tonight. There’s plenty of time for him to find his game, but I would’ve hoped he’d come into the season—with a full playoff run and offseason to integrate—with more to show.

Your Thoughts

The Devils have a few days off. They don’t return to game action until Friday, when they’ll play the New York Islanders.

What did you like tonight? What made you tear your hair out? How long will it take for Timo Meier and co. to find their games, and what should the defense pairings be against the Islanders? Let us know in the comments below.