The New Jersey Devils saw a six-game home winning streak snapped at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens of all teams. The Devils lost solidly, 2-5. They tied up the game in the first period but after a quick double from the visitors in the second period, they could not come back on the scoreboard. There are several ways to look at this game. I am sure The People Who Matter have already decided on a number of them. Allow me to tell you what I noticed the most.
Three of the four goals against Vitek Vanecek were from the weakside. (Note: Goal Against (GA) #5 was an empty netter.) Specifically, to Vanecek’s left from passes made from the right side of the zone. I am admittedly still learning about hockey tactics and how to pick up on them in games. However, this was a massive issue in the last two seasons of Devils hockey, where the defense often overloaded on a puck carrier and should the puck come out to someone away from that area, then they have a ton of space to work with. It was a massive issue tonight. Three times, the Devils backchecked their way to the side where the puck was - leaving someone open. The Devils failed to stop the killer passes of Nick Suzuki, Jesse Ylonen, and Evgeny Dadonov to Justin Barron (GA #1), Johnathan Kovacevic (GA #2), and Rem Pitlick (GA #4 and the man in the headline photo). All three goal scorers were open in part because none of the five Devils on the ice managed to catch up to them or breakaway. They were either so focused on the puck as not look for someone else or they were scrambling and failed to account for a man in white and red. Call it attention to detail. Call it what you will. It smacks of a systemic flaw even if it has not been a constant thorn like opponents denying the Devils up the wall on the strong side for breakouts and defensive zone exits.
To be fair, this has not been as persistent of an issue this season. Mostly because the Devils do not overload so much. But the Canadiens were able to make the most of their mere 18 shots on net because they were able to create good value and the shooter was able to beat Vanecek post-to-post. They did not attack much, but they sought to counter and got away with enough makeshift odd man rushes or one-on-ones to make you wonder if the Devils were talking to each other on defense.
This thought came to my mind on offense. On the one hand, the Devils impressively put up 81 shot attempts in all situations and out-shot the Canadiens 40-18. With just two goals scored, it is clear the goaltender was just standing on his head. Sam Montembeault was burned by a long-ish wrister from Jesper Bratt in the first period. I took that as a sign that he was beatable. Then he became unbeatable among the massive number of shots. Per Natural Stat Trick’s expected goal model, the Devils ran up an xGF of 5.21 in all situations - which is an incredible amount. Alas, Montembeault made just about all of the tough saves and a lot of not-so-tough saves from then on. (And he did rob Ondrej Palat in front early in the game.) By the time he was beaten a second time, it was too late. And it came from Dawson Mercer piling in a rebound from a scrum; hardly a result of some not-so-great goaltending.
Yet, a lot of those 81 shot attempts and 40 shots on net were wasteful. The Devils did well to attack the net and get to Montembeault in front. They generated multiple breakaways. Not that Brendan Smith coming out of the box or Miles Wood can be expected to score on them, but they had their chances and the goalie was just better. Yet, the team also fired a lot of shots from 40 to 60 feet away. There were shifts where the shot attempts came from the points, including a memorable second period shift where the Devils attempted six shots and five of them were from a few feet in front of the blueline by Ryan Graves and Smith. It is true the Devils racked up a good share of scoring chances. 39, to be exact. But there were a lot of lost pucks due to trying to beat the pressure directly - The Big Deal tried and tried; good shooting opportunities denied by a block literally in front of the shooter; or just miscommunication with the pass. Sure, taking 81 attempts is normally fantastic, but what good is it if half of them are not going to get to the goaltender? Almost every Devil had at least one attempt blocked as the team got stuffed 28 times and missed the net 13 times.
I agree it is odd to complain about the shooting with 40 shots on the board and 81 attempts taken. They were chasing the game and they buried Montreal with pucks for stretches of the game. Yet, for all of the usual gripes about playing too fancy, the Devils could have used some more fanciness and judiciousness. Of course, Montembeault playing incredible in his crease tonight maybe makes that moot.
I have to give credit to Montreal. While they basically turtled their way through the game, they did not really let up. They did their best to recover if they did turn over the puck. They did their best to get in the shooter’s way. They did their best to limit their penalties, although they would be caught a few times and get punished once - the Mercer goal was a PPG. I know from Elliott’s preview that the Canadiens were absolutely not even close to 100% in terms of their roster. I learned that Montreal head coach Martin St. Louis was not going to let them sag their way to the end of the season for more lottery balls. They caught the Devils lacking and punished them thrice. Throw in Nick Suzuki burning Vanecek with a top far post corner shot shortly after Kovacevic’s goal and Montembeault’s night and they earned this win.
There was definitely a sense that something was off with the Devils. Defenseman John Marino ended up being a gametime decision due to illness. He did play and not particularly well. Head coach Lindy Ruff noted that several other players were playing some kind of bug per Amanda Stein after the game. That may explain some of the lack of sharpness on display at the Rock. Then again, that will get the Devils zero sympathy in a league where every team is playing with less than 100%. Brendan Smith, for example, is not going to get a pass for another night of a needless minor penalty, struggling to keep up in his own end, and a giveaway - which ended up leading to Pitlick’s goal. Sick or not, the games are still going to happen and the expectation is to perform.
It is tempting to look at this kind of game and just say, “Well, it is what it is. Burn the tape and rebound in the next one.” I think it would be better to learn what went wrong and try to address at least some of it in their next game. If a non-playoff team like Montreal can and did beat the Devils this way, then imagine what a playoff-caliber team like Los Angeles could do. By the way, the Devils host Los Angeles on Thursday.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here is a video of the game’s highlights.
Wasted Opportunity at a Bigger Picture: Whether you agree or not with what I think the major issues are with this performance, I think most of the People Who Matter would agree that the larger lament of this kind of performance is tied to the league standings. The Devils were playing the one team in the Atlantic Division that is absolutely not going to make the playoffs. A team that is missing several important players. A team that just got waxed 5-1 in Toronto and 6-2 to Carolina in their previous two games. For the Devils to come out at home and suffer a 2-5 defeat to such a team does sting. I can agree that teams like Montreal and with their recent form and long injury list, you would think a contending playoff team should be able to beat them. And the Devils did not.
Adding to the sting is seeing Carolina put down St. Louis and not taking advantage of Our Hated Rivals finally losing a game last night, so the Devils are now further back from chasing first place and lost a chance to add some space between them and third place. Further, as the Devils are playing four games in seven nights at home this week, this game was the easiest one on paper. They had two other playoff-caliber teams in Winnipeg and Los Angeles and then Philadelphia, who has had the Devils number this season, in this week. Surely, the Devils would beat a Montreal team with nothing to play for. Yet, they did not.
I agree with that sentiment. However, allow me to talk myself - and maybe yourself, too - away from despair over this kind of loss. This does happen to every team. Boston, the best team in the NHL this season, has losses to Arizona (4-3 on December 9) and Ottawa (3-2 shootout loss, December 27) among their relatively few defeats. Carolina, the team the Devils are chasing, dropped points to Columbus and Vancouver in shootout losses last month as well as lost in regulation to Nashville. Not to mention they needed a miracle comeback to force OT at home to San Jose. Dallas, the current division leaders in the Central, suffered a 4-1 loss at home to Columbus last Saturday, needed a shootout to beat Anaheim on February 6, and lost to San Jose 5-3 on January 18. The point is that even the top tier teams in the NHL are going to have nights where they struggle and even lose to teams that, on paper, they should be able to decisively beat. It happens. Tonight, it happened to the Devils. Provided the Devils get back to winning ways, then it will just be a small bump in the road.
Which is all the more reason I would want the Devils to learn how they lost this game.
I Need You to Be Better on Thursday: Statistically and by eye-sight, Marino looked real off. In retrospect, he should have been given tonight off and Kevin Bahl wouldhave played in his place. When Marino was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils were evened up in attempts and shots - which is not great as the Devils crushed Montreal in 5-on-5 - and the Devils had an on-ice xGF% of just under 26%. That is just, well, awful. And he did not cover himself in glory prior to Suzuki ripping it.
Brendan Smith’s on-ice numbers were much better but he continues to frustrate the People Who Matter with his other activities. A bunch of offensive movements that went nowhere? Check. Struggling to keep up with the few times Montreal rushed at him? Check. A needless minor penalty? Smith held up and put down Christian Dvorak in front of the referee in the Devils’ right corner in the second period. So check. A turnover? Check -and it was a bad one that just gave the puck right back to the Canadiens in the Devils’ zone. This led to a domino-effect of the Devils trying to keep up with the passes that ended with Dadonov finding Pitlick for what would be a crushing insurance goal. Smith is similar to Damon Severson in that his 5-on-5 on-ice rates are great and at the surface level looks pretty dang good, but his struggles and penalty issues belie lesser value than said stats. Smith has been much better than he was tonight, so I am not going to say he needs to sit for Bahl or whomever else is Utica. I know Lindy Ruff can be stubborn in his ways, too. But I think he needs to stop getting shifts on a top pairing next to Dougie Hamilton. Let Smith beat up weaker competition on a third pairing - like and with Severson, actually.
Vanecek has been the hero for most nights. I will not fault him for three of the goals, but he was caught frozen on Suzuki’s goal. Giving up two goals out of four shots is never a good look. Part of why the Devils have been so successful in the 2023 portion of this season is because Vanecek (and to an extent, Mackenzie Blackwood) has been excellent and bailed out the Devils when they struggled. When he has a less-than-excellent night, then it hurts the cause. I am not writing I expected him to deny the other three goals, but I do have to point out that if it is fair to criticize Blackwood for giving up two goals on six shots in the first period against Winnipeg, then it is fair to do so for Vanecek with his second period tonight.
I could be pickier about others, but this was more or less a team loss rather than a game where one or two or three players were just so awful. Still, I would like to see these three rebound for Thursday among others.
Fun Facts: Miles Wood has been a regular on the second power play unit all season. A role that fit him about as well as a pair of pants four inches too small in the waist and six inches too short in the length. In the third period, the unit had Jack Hughes on it as well as Dougie Hamilton as they were apparently changing as Tomas Tatar, Wood, and Mercer were on it too. Anyway, The Big Deal took a shot, Wood jammed at the puck that eventually Mercer put in on a rebound. That assist is Miles Wood’s first power play point of the season. It took 56 games but Wood finally has a PPP.
A more fun fact is that Jack Hughes became the fastest Devil to reach 70 points in a season per Mike Morreale. The 70th point was taking down a puck in the neutral zone and firing it to Jesper Bratt, who proceeded to burn Montembeault with a wrister and tie up the game at one at that time. His secondary assist on Mercer’s power play goal was his 71st. Even on a night where Hughes seemed to be forcing things too much with the puck, he still ended up with two assists. The Big Deal, indeed.
One Last Thought: I know it is very difficult to make changes to a game plan, but the theme of this month has been me wanting to see Ruff make some legitimate adjustments to his gameplan. While Montreal did not jump on the Devils’ use of the halfwall for breakouts and zone exits on the strong side, teams ranging in quality from Columbus to Winnipeg have done so throughout this month. Montreal exposed the Devils’ tendency to focus too much on one side of their zone for three goals. They also got in the way of the Devils shots, knowing they would want to attempt shots from a distance if they cannot work the puck closer to the net. You cannot install a new system 57 games in to the season, much less with weeks of three to four games per week like the Devils are going to have for the most part from now until the end of the season. But I would appreciate some more adjustments to how the Devils attack and defend, if only to be less predictable to opponents so they cannot do the same thing for three periods and get a result against a very good Devils team. Montreal may have provided a bit of an exception to what the Devils have suffered throughout this month, but the larger issue remained in this 2-5 defeat.
Your Take: The Devils lost 2-5. What about the performance bothered you the most? What did you like, if anything, from the Devils? Who do you want to see have a better night? Who do you want to see do better on Thursday night against Los Angeles? What, if anything, do you want to see adjusted in how the Devils attack or defend against the Kings? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thanks to Elliott for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.