The New Jersey Devils lost to the Washington Capitals by a score of 2-4 with an empty net goal allowed. Do not be misled by the score. The Devils played a terrible game this evening against the Capitals. One I would argue was worse than the last time the Devils hosted Washington, which was back on October 25. Chris recapped the game where the Devils got sonned 0-3 in the first period, roared back with four goals within six-ish minutes in the second period, and then fell flat to lose 4-6. Here were some key points from that game:
- The Devils started off the game terribly. They were out-played in the first period and it cost them three goals.
- In fact, the Devils had two shots on net.
- Vitek Vanecek gave up soft goals that hurt the larger cause of the game.
- The Devils made a comeback effort and was in a one-shot game to near the end of regulation.
- Washington ended that hope with an empty netter.
- After the game, Lindy Ruff called the team soft and stated they got what they deserved.
Despite that reaction and further vows from the Devils to do better, the Devils managed to repeat several of these points in tonight’s game on November 10, 2023.
The first period was another 2-shot effort by the Devils skaters. Yes, they were and are without Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. This did not mean the remaining 18 skaters paid to play the game of ice hockey for a living had to lose pucks like it was a ticking time bomb. The Devils did not help themselves with three interference calls. A medium one on John Marino on Tom Wilson and a soft one on Dougie Hamilton where Beck Malenstyn lost an edge and was falling on his own. Brendan Smith’s interference was a classic, “Bro, what are you even doing” as he his Aube-Kubel way away from the play. Still, two shots on net in twenty minutes is really terrible!
Washington did not score three goals while the Devils were doing a whole lot of not much out there. They got two. They scored two from similar locations. The mighty Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Beck Malenstyn scored from above the right faceoff dot. Malenstyn’s was literally on the shift after Aube-Kubel’s goal, a result of one sailed breakout pass and possibly an inadvertant deflection by Luke Hughes. Neither were good goals to allow. So unlike the last Devils-Caps game, Vanecek was pulled after the Malenstyn goal for Akira Schmid. Still, 13 games into the season and the Devils continue to sleepwalk through the openings of games. Ruff already busted out the “soft” word and that didn’t seem to work, so what now?
Anyway. Also unlike the last Devils-Caps game, the Devils continued to muddle through the second period. They would get more than two shots on Charlie Lindgren. In fact, he made 11 saves in the second period per the game summary. It took a while to get there. The shots were about 16-7 in favor of the Caps while they were up by three. Yes, three. And this one was a doozy. Kevin Bahl attempted a shot while Brendan Smith was, for some reason, pinching in real deep in the offensive zone. Bahl missed on this shot, the puck caromed off the end boards, and The NHL’s Biggest Putinist launched the puck behind Bahl. Smith hustled like crazy but he and Bahl (and Timo Meier, who was apparently backfilling Smith’s spot during his jaunt) were not going to catch the speedsters of, uh, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. It was a 2-on-0 and Wilson’s pass to Kuznetsov led to an unstoppbale shot to make it 0-3. The Devils would then put up some volume but nothing of an actual threat. Like with the Florida game in October, my question going into the third period was whether the Devils would get a goal at all.
To be fair, there was some reason to hope for that. With 25 seconds left in the second period, T.J. Oshie tripped Smith. The Devils had a power play and fresh ice. They proceeded to get no shots on net. Then Erik Haula was hauled down by Lucas Johansen a bit after that power play. Despite some nice passes from Alexander Holtz, the Devils got zero shots on net. When the hot Devils power play is getting nothing going, you know it was bad. In fact, it took after that power play for the Devils to get their first shot on net of the period. Nearly six whole minutes in. And with the news that defenseman Martin Fehervary left the game during the second period, that makes it sadder that it took the Devils two power plays and nearly six minutes into a period to get a shot on Charlie Lindgren against just five Capitals defensemen.
Somehow, things started to click after that for the Devils. Whether it was the Capitals laying off the pressure or the Devils figuring out hockey for a moment, the Devils got on the board shortly after that shot. A Michael McLeod shot on net led to Timo Meier slamming in a rebound to make it 1-3. Shutout gone. Cool. Then a bit after that, Tyler Toffoli sent a feed to the crease that got past Lindgren and Dawson Mercer one-touched into the net. It was 2-3 with over ten minutes left to play. And shortly after that, a breakdown led to a glorious wrap around attempt for Jesper Bratt - but the puck remained parallel to the goalline. The Devils were making it a game. The Devils put the pressure on the Caps. Even a Timo Meier high-sticking penalty on Malenstyn did not kill the hope.
Then the Devils pulled Schmid for an extra skater, Kuznetsov flung a clearance through Ovechkin’s legs and it went into the net. Tom Wilson sucker punched Meier during that celebration because Wilson was mad that Meier ran into Rasmus Sandin. On the resulting power play, Schmid was pulled again and the Devils, well, did not convert.
And I am weirdly fine with that because this game was truly a Bad Game from the Devils. The Devils lollygagged for two-plus periods. Vanecek assisted them in a deep hole and the Devils just did not put up the effort to fight back until it was almost too late. They wasted a good performance from Schmid, who even got an assist on the Mercer goal. While they were close, at least the October 25 comeback had the Devils out in front for a few minutes before it was lost. Even dragging the game into overtime would have felt really fortunate given how sad-sack the Devils played like this evening.
After a couple of the poorer performances and recent losses, the refrain from some of the People Who Matter has focused on the record. It’s OK, they are 7-3-1 and in second place - said after the St. Louis game. It’s OK, they are 7-4-1 and in third place, said after the Colorado game. Now the Devils are 7-5-1 and just a point ahead of Washington in the standings, whom play the Islanders tomorrow. I think concerns about the Devils are absolutely warranted. Especially since the Devils managed to put up a sadder game against the Capitals tonight and for the second time this season.
The Game Highlights: Sure. Have some highlights. Thank Sportsnet for uploading it quickly.
Few Attackers, Several Present: The Devils struggled to attack for most of this game. Even after they got going late in the third period, the Devils finished the game with only 44 shooting attempts and 22 shots on net in 5-on-5 play along with six shooting attempts and zero shots on net on the power play. For all of his warts like his stretch to no one on the Kuznetsov goal against Schmid and his high-sticking penalty, Meier got six shots on net and ten attempts by himself. That is what big money forwards tend to do. Tyler Toffoli was quiet until he was not with four shots on net and ten attempts by himself. Three were in that second period, by the way, so he can say he did not sleep until the third period. Mercer got five shots on net too, another game where we can say he is emerging from his struggles. His game was statistically strong and the goal helped, which is another positive development for #91. There were eventually some shooters on New Jersey in this game.
But I am underwhelmed with the fact it was led by so few taking that shot along with the other non-shooters. Jesper Bratt was certainly dishing it, but he is way too good and important right now to just have one shot on net in 22:35 of ice time. The Devils need him shooting. We all know he can. It could have been worse. He could have been Palat. Ondrej Palat played 16:31 including 3:30 on the power play and gave the Devils just one (1) shot on net with two (2) attempts at shooting the puck with not a lot of help in those little things he supposedly does so well. His $6.9 million salary for 2023-24 is not looking Nice now. I will also gently suggest his 13-6 attempt differential when he took a shift was not really because of #18 himself. I shall move on. Erik Haula, Curtis Lazar, Chris Tierney, and the returning Tomas Nosek are all experienced NHL players. They each got nothing on Charlie Lindgren tonight. This was Nosek’s first game back from injury, so I am more forgiving of him. But the other three are a part of the roster for better or worse at the moment. They cannot add nothing on offense. It cannot only be defense and hits; this is a two-way league after all. At least Tierney did not set up a Capital for a goal tonight.
The only other forward I can forgive having a goose egg for shots is Alexander Holtz. For some reason, with the Devils not generating anything like a spark for 46 minutes of regulation, Head Coach Lindy Ruff decided to keep Holtz to 11 shifts for 7:05 and one shift in the third period - which was on a power play. A power play that went shotless because the good passes by Holtz led to bad shot attempts by others. Not that Holtz is this scoring machine but given that nothing much was going right on offense, I am baffled at Ruff’s insistence to effectively punish Holtz whilst others just skate through games with bringing little to the proverbial table. Like, say, Lazar, Haula, Tierney, and Nosek. And, hey, throw Palat in there too.
Still, the larger point remains. The Devils did not generate offense well for the majority of this game. What was ultimately generated led to shots by just a handful of Devils. While Mercer and Meier scored, it ultimately meant the Caps could afford to relax a bit if they saw, say, Haula out for a shift. Other than Johansen’s penalty on him, he was just a guy out there.
Defensive Changes: Did you want to see some changes on the blueline? You got them. Brendan Smith ended up playing more with Kevin Bahl. Luke Hughes ended up playing more with John Marino. Those pairings did, well, not bad overall. The Bahl-Smith had that stupid Kuznetsov goal against. A play I call stupid because I am still wondering why Smith was in so deep. Yes, Ruff wants defensemen to activate but that is to go on offense. Smith brings such little offense to the table that I cannot imagine he is meant to do that. But he did. Still, the pairing stabilized and I would say Smith did well in the third period when killing that Meier penalty. Not a good game from him overall between that goal and his dumb interference penalty in the first period. Bahl was not the disaster he was in Colorado, so credit to him for that.
As for Marino-Hughes, well, it did not cost a team a goal. I still think Vanecek should have stopped Malenstyn’s shot regardless of Luke Hughes’ stick check. Marino helped create a goal. I know some of the People Who Matter wanted this pairing for a while. It happened and, well, it did not immediately set the world on fire. Not that much of the Devils’ performance tonight would allow for that.
Would it be worth going with those pairings for the Winnipeg game next week? I think so. Will Ruff do so? I do not know.
Prepare the Torpedo: As someone who wrote a lot of words about how the Devils really need to clean up their defensive issues before faulting the goaltender, I am quite disappointed in Vitek Vanecek tonight. He earned his quick hook before the game really got out of hand. Schmid did well in St. Louis and he did well tonight. There was no chance he was going to stop the Kuznetsov goal, he made some good stops elsewhere, he remained calm even when the game looked like a mortal lock for a 0-3 defeat, and he even added an assist. Schmid should have earned more trust from the coaches and we should see him get more minutes.
Vanecek has not been that bad recently and I think he was a victim in the loss to Colorado, but his short stint tonight did nothing for the lack of confidence the People Who Matter - and perhaps management - have in the net. Some good performances can only provide that. If there is a positive to take from this game, then it is in Akira Schmid.
And Ruff: Look, I know about last season. I know about the franchise record and that The Big Deal favors him and that if you are not going to trust a guy who just bossed a team to 52 wins, great 5-on-5 metrics, and a playoff series win over Our Hated Rivals, then who can you trust? And those same 5-on-5 metrics are still pretty sweet so far. Yet, I am left underwhelmed by Ruff and his staff. This was the 13th game of the season and this was, what, the 8th or 9th bad first period where the Devils are getting skated off the ice? I cannot say “burn the tape” and recharge for a tough one in Manitoba; this is a Bad Trend, not a Bad Night.
This was also another game where the Devils’ lack of focus or details hurt them. For all of the talk of cleaning up their game, while better than the Avalanche game, the Devils can only fault themselves for their mistakes being punished or almost being punished with a save from Schmid or the Caps not executing said punishment. Again, this is not a new thing or just a thing for tonight.
The Devils may have a winning record but that has been chipped away at with recent losses. I know the coaches cannot play the game and I know they cannot tell Lady Luck or whomever to have the Devils finish more of their shots in 5-on-5. But I am getting increasingly concerned about the apparent lack of game preparation and lack of in-game adjustments when things do not go so well - two things that are the responsibilities of the coaching staff. I am increasingly bothered by some of the roster decisions where Ruff will correctly bench some guys or switch some things up but then be stubborn elsewhere with lines and usage of other players. I am increasingly annoyed that Ruff has to say things after a game like this one where he is right but it does not lead to much of a difference on the ice for the next one. I do not think I am alone in this, and even if I was, I have to point it out because it is having an impact on how the Devils are performing this season.
I agreed with him after the last Devils-Caps game that the Devils played soft. They did so again for most of this game, so what is the message now from Lindy Ruff? And even if I agree with it and you agree with it and the People Who Matter will agree with it, will the players actually listen and play accordingly? That we do not know and that is a concern.
Yes, it is only November 10. It gets awful late early in this league, though. Better to fix these problems now than in December, January, or February.
Credit to Some of You: I am pleased with the People Who Matter who understand that, yes, it is a big problem that the Devils do not have The Big Deal and Hischier, but no one in this league is going to sympathize - especially while Our Hated Rivals are still on a heater without Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin. That is a Correct even if it comes with the distasteful fact of suggesting something positive about Our Hated Rivals. This is a good perspective to have, even if you are fine with the Devils “treading water” until one or both return to action.
One Final Thought: Where was the Devils’ team speed? The Devils were flying against Colorado. Even though the Avs more than kept up with them and I think it was a mistake to play high tempo against them, the Devils showed they can skate fast with anyone. Tonight, you would not have noticed. A big part of that was with the Devils’ lack of control on the puck. Plenty of passes and possessions ended with bad reads, missed targets, and/or the Caps getting in the way either on purpose or otherwise. Not having the puck under control can slow any team down and that was apparent from the Devils. The other big part of that: effort. The Devils struggled with the puck in Denver but still moved rather quick. Despite the day off on Thursday, the game being at home, and the opponent being an older, not swift Caps team who has a game tomorrow night, the Devils just did not play with the pace they really needed to play with. Add it to another flaw from this dud of a game.
Your Take: The Devils failed to show up decently until 46 minutes into the game. They made a game of it late but it was truly too little, too late. You know I am unhappy with how this game went. Now I want to know your take. What is your take on this loss? If you are Lindy Ruff, what do you do differently ahead of the Winnipeg game next Wednesday? Who on the Devils disappointed you the most? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thank you to Caleb for the game preview. Thank you to everyone who commented here and on X during the game with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.