Tonight, the New Jersey Devils took to the ice to host Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers. The Devils, coming off a win against a previously hot Pittsburgh team, had an opportunity to get a result against the similarly hot team from Manhattan. After all, the Blueshirts have not lost in regulation since October 19. Which is a big reason why they have dominated the Weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot headline photos, much to my own annoyance. And the Devils doubled down on that by blowing the third period to the one team that we, the People Who Matter, do not want them to blow games to. Needless to say, I am not happy about this 3-5 loss to the New York Rangers.
Consider this perspective. The Devils, who were coming off a win, would get a big return back in their lineup. The Big Deal. Jack Hughes re-entered the lineup. With an 11-forward, 7-defenseman roster - because that was what the Devils used in Pittsburgh - Hughes would get loads of additional minutes. The Big Deal was sensational. He put up eight shots on net, scored the Devils’ first goal, and effectively set-up Erik Haula’s put back in the third period. He had eight shots on net, 14 shooting attempts, and took plenty of hits while continuing to rush down Our Hated Rivals for the better part of his 22 minutes of ice time. Was The Big Deal at 100%? If he was not, then the NHL is going to be put on notice very soon because Jack Hughes dominated in his return.
The Rangers received a big return to their lineup, too. Their ace goaltender, Igor Shesterkin. He was held out since November 2 in Carolina, effectively missing about as much time as Jack Hughes. Shesterkin proceeded to concede two of the worst goals of his entire career in the first period. A seemingly harmless shot to the breadbasket by Jack Hughes that would be frozen 99.9% of the time somehow got loose and rolled into the net. It was a good goal upon review as per Rule 37.3. That tied up the game at 1-1, by the way. Late in the period, Ondrej Palat was set up across the zone by Jesper Bratt on a power play. Palat shot it, the puck seemingly hit off Nick Bonino, and went through the legs of a standing Shesterkin. Had the Vezina-caliber goaltender had his stick down or a leg (or both) down, it would have been a save. Instead, it was a super-soft PPG for NJ to make it 2-2 in the final minute of the first period. It could be argued the sprawling out and rebound left for Erik Haula’s third period goal was not a good look for the goalie. The point is that the Rangers’ top goaltender, who is legitimately an all-world goalie, gifted the Devils at least two goals tonight.
Oh, and that Haula goal made it 3-2 in the third period. Yes, the Devils held onto a 2-2 score in the second period. Vitek Vanecek made some important saves. As did Shesterkin, which meant the Devils attacked in the second period to try to go ahead. Were there breakdowns? Sure. A Palat turnover that yielded a 3-on-1 that thankfully led to a backdoor pass to Alexis Lafreniere that missed was the low-point of the odd man rushes against. But the Devils survived those and they were were in the game and managing it as best as they could. And the Devils broke through ahead early in the third period. They killed two penalties, they pushed to get a fourth goal, and they were seemingly holding on. This was a winnable game!
And it was lost! The Devils obviously failed as I am writing a game recap about a 3-5 loss to Our Hated Rivals. And I am not happy about how the Devils effectively threw away an awesome return by The Big Deal, a terrible performance by Shesterkin, and a 3-2 lead within the third period as the Devils conceded three goals in about nine minutes.
The culprit is the same garbage that has plagued the Devils all season: fixable errors and goaltending. The goaltending part is the easy one to explain. Vanecek was not much better than Shesterkin tonight. Especially when it came to rebounds. No, I cannot fault Vanecek for not snagging a cross-ice one timer from Artemi Panarin for a PPG that opened the scoring. But he gave up rebounds and two of them were slammed back into the net by the apparently mighty Jimmy Vesey. Yes, the same Vesey who was often Just A Guy for the Devils back in that 2021-22 season that has been left in the dustbin of history. The second goal by Panarin, a shot right off a faceoff loss, was a great shot - but you would have liked a save there. Whereas Vanecek settled things down and performed well in Pittsburgh, that went out the window tonight against Our Hated Rivals. This game, this month, and this season has done nothing to quell the concerns about the Devils goaltending. Getting a new goalie is one thing, and a thing GM Tom Fitzgerald is surely thinking about. Wondering what Devils goaltending coach Dave Rogalski is doing is another.
The fixable errors are the ones that irk me the most. That is my catch-all term for the missed coverages, bad positioning, lack of communication, and lack of good puck movement that have nearly or actually ended up in the back of the net. I was very pleased with the win in Pittsburgh because the Devils cleaned up a lot of that in that third period, which helped them big-time in both letting Vanecek doing his job and securing the win. Tonight, they clearly did not learn that would help them in games.
The Devils skaters seemingly forgot that tying up sticks is a thing they can do. Yes, Vanecek should have controlled his rebounds better. But Brendan Smith and John Marino could have tied up Vesey’s stick instead of getting out-worked by the fourth-liner. That would have stopped either goal by him tonight. And his second would end up being the game winning goal; a rush play where Vesey literally walked past Marino (and others, but Marino was the one who could and should have done something about him) did a turnaround shot past the lazily stretched stick of Marino being too little, too late. This is madness. Just tie up a stick! Body up an opponent! Get inside position on them! You do not need to be an all-star talent or a top prospect or a future Hall of Famer. It is not a matter of talent, it is all effort! So Put some effort in! Or even take a penalty in the third period since the refs swallowed their whistles on a lot tonight! Dawson Mercer did that to deny Panarin a chance from the slot; it worked out! I am exasperated that I, a middle-aged hockey blogger, am seeing these details come back to bite the Devils. And baffled that Jimmy Vesey out-worked two guys who really should do better in those spots.
Then there are Panarin’s goals. While the first one was in a shorthanded situation, Tomas Nosek and Kevin Bahl were way too loose and late to deny a cross-ice pass from circle to circle. Vincent Trocheck may be a jerk but with a lane as wide as a valley, he made that pass to Panarin and the one-timer was in the net shortly thereafter. The formation was a 3-2 formation that spread out the wingers - a new trend in the NHL, Toronto does it a lot. In that spot, either the pass has to be denied or the man has to be covered. Neither happened. I will say the Devils’ penalty kill played better after that one, but again, a lack of attention to detail led to a fixable error that cost the team on the scoreboard.
As for the second one, shortly after a heinous no-call on Curtis Lazar’s stick being slashed out of his hands, the Devils iced the puck. I do not recall who iced it. I do recall it was not a heads-up, just launch the puck away before it ends up in the net situation. It was an exit clearance that went too far. The No Quit in NY skaters let up on the puck sailing into their end, but the refs called it all the same. Trocheck won the draw from Haula, the puck went right to Panarin, and he wired it in to make it 3-3. Again, a simple icing when one really was not needed ended up costing the team. A fixable error.
And those were just the fixable errors that led to goals against. I could add the awful too many men on the ice call the Devils took in the third period of a 3-2 game. I could mention the myriad of times Michael McLeod’s line was pinned back on defense. After praising his fill-in performance, McLeod was quite poor tonight. Or Dawson Mercer’s ghostly night. Or the odd man rushes resulting from pinching too much and/or not getting guys back when they do happen (This did get better in the third period.) Or Nathan Bastian giving the team a whole lot of not much once again. Or repeat how the gritty heart-filled veteran presence of Brendan Smith could not even bother to lock up Jimmy Vesey in front of his own net. There were a lot of shortfalls in this game that the Devils could have avoided with better attention to detail, awareness of what is going on them, and better decisions on and off the puck. They did not do it, so they blew it tonight in a 3-5 loss.
I know that players make mistakes and hockey, like any sport, is a game where punishing mistakes is the difference between winning and losing. I know the Devils have had a rough go of things and a lot of errors have led to goals against. I know that. I also know it was not all bad. The Devils got great games out of Curtis Lazar, Haula, and The Big Deal. Jack was double-shifted a lot but that line actually did really well -especially against Braden Schneider. The Luke Hughes-Colin Miller connection was positive as Miller is playing like what most expected from Smith. (Aside for Ruff: Bench Smith, start Miller, go to 12-6 on Wednesday) Even Alexander Holtz, who was knocked out of most of the second period by Vincent Trochek, had a positive outing. But I really cannot offer much praise after the Devils blew a 3-2 lead by giving up three goals - one empty-netter - within nine minutes to lose in regulation. Especially to the one team that none of the People Who Matter want to see the Devils lose to. And by the same nonsense that this veteran filled and coached team has struggled with for most of this season, including in some of their wins.
What do you do at this point? Replace a practice with a video session detailing all of these failures? Or make the guys re-watch the Pittsburgh game while repeating “Do this again, please?” Have a bag skate? Have a player’s only meeting? Do nothing and hope it all works out? Get Tom Fitzgerald to trade for (insert Nikita Zadorov or goaltender here) and hope that leads to changes? Something has to give here. Even an awesome game from Jack Hughes could not overcome the Devils getting out-worked in their own end for the loss.
I am frustrated. I am perturbed. I am tired of this trash. I am not happy. And now the Devils get to stew in this defeat until a game in Detroit on Wednesday. Where I am sure the same talking points from the team and Lindy Ruff and the players will be repeated about needing to be smarter on the puck and work harder in their own end and put in the work and blah blah blah. Let me preempt that: Make like Nike and Just Do It already. And don’t do this again on Wednesday or Black Friday or February 22, 2024 for the rematch against Our Hated Rivals.
The Game Highlights: From Sportsnet, here are tonight’s highlights, which definitely did not end well.
Also Drawing Ire, Tonight’s Officials: The Devils did not lose this game because of the referees. However, this game could have gone out of control because of the poor performances of Kelly Sutherland and Francois St. Laurent. In the first period, shortly before the 14th minute (and Vesey’s first goal), a shift ensued where Nathan Bastian was taken down with an apparent slewfoot, the Devils rushed forward, Tomas Nosek charged to the net and Jacob Trouba head-shotted Nosek, and the play went to the other end of the rink where a big melee ensued while Nosek was down. Play stopped as the trained helped Nosek off the ice. Amazingly, there were no penalties called for that entire sequence. While debate may have ensued about whether Trouba threw an elbow, he absolutely got Nosek in the head. The point of “he had his head down” may have been OK in 1994, but not in today’s game where there is a rule - Rule 48 - outlawing that kind of thing. Somehow, Sutherland and St. Laurent missed the slewfoot, giving Trouba anything for literally taking Nosek out of the game, or even the beef that followed on that shift. Not even roughing minors to tell the teams to knock it off.
Worse, the result of the stoppage meant a defensive zone draw that New York kept in the zone. That led to Braden Schneider taking a shot and Vesey beating both Smith and Vanecek to the short rebound. Oh, and the Devils were with 10 forwards for the remainder of the game. 9 when Holtz was taken out for most of the second period due to a more legal hit by Trocheck.
But the goal is immaterial to the long term effect of one Tomas Nosek. I do not want to diagnose him but he absolutely was not going to return to the game after that hit. Given how head injuries are unknown in terms of recovery, who knows how long Nosek will be out and how well he will even be when he does recover. Jacob Trouba is one of the poster boys of one of the league’s and sport’s biggest ongoing problems. How do you get headshots out of the game? I can tell you that Trouba getting absolutely nothing in the PIM count for it will not do it. Or a token game suspension because the NHL and the NHLPA do not want to argue before an arbitrator for Trouba’s latest nonsense.
I know I am salty about the loss but Nosek is at a point in his career where he needs to continue to show he belongs. Trouba may have taken that opportunity away from him. And Sutherland and St. Laurent were too scared to even think about Rule 48.
The ironic thing is that both refs did show some spine. They conferenced and reviewed Jack Hughes’ first goal, citing Rule 37.3. After giving McLeod a major penalty in the second period, they reviewed it and then ruled that there would be no penalty involved. Which is odd because it definitely looked like he boarded Ryan Lindgren. I have never seen a NHL ref go from major to nothing. So the Devils got the benefit of both calls. And the game was bereft of the nonsense from the first period that could have led to a rather violent game. But Nosek’s health got no benefit and he is currently suffering for it. Jacob Trouba will continue on to be That Kind of Player. Maybe one day someone outside of a blog or X or Reddit will give him his deserved reputation for it.
Lastly: Lazar’s stick was very clearly knocked out of his hands in the third period. A reliable insta-whistle from the refs for that kind of play was missed. That was garbage too.
But again, the Devils did not lose this game because of the refs. And, yes, I am indeed salty.
Extracting a Pound of Flesh Has Never Put Points on the Scoreboard: Between Trouba knocking out Nosek, Trocheck temporarily knocking out Holtz, Trocheck boarding Jack Hughes in the first period (which led to the one and only power play of the night) and the Devils blowing it, those who demand and call for the Devils to get tougher, meaner, “hold opponents accountable,” and more testosterone have increased their pleas. I will continue to disregard them and/or mock them. The bitter Devils red pill that some have refused to swallow is that hitting back may feel good and it means absolutely nothing in the game. Someone wrecking Trouba or Trocheck or someone in white and blue would have received a huge pop from the crowd, but it would not put a goal on the board or make the Devils more likely to get one - much less win this winnable game.
Here is another bitter Devils red pill: Teams are not afraid of the Devils because of the aforementioned fixable errors they keep committing! Who is going to worry about an opponent who does not tie up sticks? Or struggles to keep up with defensive stands in their own end? Or an opponent whose players sometimes play like they do not need to communicate or position themselves well? Or takes undisciplined penalties? Who is going to be intimidated of an opponent who is not putting in the work or paying attention to details? No one! Out work the Devils and you win! Punish their mistakes and you win! It is reductive, but still true! Notice how none of that has anything to do with how much damage you wish Kevin Bahl or Nathan Bastian can do to someone in a Ranger or a Sabre or whichever uniform you would like. What scared New York tonight was any time the Devils forced a rush up ice (e.g. Jesper Bratt’s breakaway after the third period penalty kill) and/or anytime Jack Hughes had the puck. It also could have led to some goals, which are the thing that matters in this sport and something the Devils need a lot of given their errors have cost them goals. Revenge by hits and fights may satisfy your desires, but it has yet to count in the standings or the scoreboard. And that is what the game is all about.
One Last Game Thought: Vanecek was pulled late for an extra skater. This led to a long clearance for a goal by Blake Wheeler for the empty-netter. For reasons I do not understand, Lindy Ruff used his timeout after this ENG and would pull Vanecek for six skaters again. There was 1:33 left. Given that Shesterkin stopped letting in tissue-paper soft goals, the likelihood of two goals from the Devils was incredibly low. At least Panarin or Vesey did not get to complete hat tricks within the final minute and a half of the game.
One Last Non-Game Thought: Prior to the game, Igor Shesterkin - he of the two supremely soft goals allowed tonight - had this to say per B/R Open Ice:
“Did they win the Stanley Cup? Then it doesn’t matter.”
This ESPN-Who’s-Now tier comment about RINGZ from Shesterkin was about the Devils sending him and his team home on May 1, 2023. It can also apply to every single New York Ranger team since 1995, including his Hall of Fame predecessor Henrik Lundqvist, his captain and Rule 48 Abuser Jacob Trouba, Artemi “Bakery May Be Closed After Game 82” Panarin, and, of course, himself among others. Fittingly, the picture B/R Open Ice used looks like Shesterkin is reacting to giving up a goal slipping through his legs to roll over the line on a rather harmless shot by Jack Hughes. Or realizing he should not have eaten that whole personal pizza in three bites. At least we, the People Who Matter, can turn into Tripper and cite Igor Shesterkin’s quote to any fan of Our Hated Rivals who wants to brag about their team beating the Devils tonight.
Your Take: I know I have ranted and raved about this disappointment of a loss. One multiplied by how it went down and who it was against. I know I am salty about this one. I know you probably are too. So, provided you follow the site rules in doing so, let it out. What is your take on this loss? How would you fix up the defense? Or the goaltending? Or whatever else? Leave them in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to those who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on X. Thank you for reading. I wish this loss did not happen.