Ahead of tonight’s game, the excitement was all about Timo Meier. The New Jersey Devils traded for him last Sunday. He was set to make his debut today. And it would be against the Arizona Coyotes. Easily the weakest team the Devils will play this month. An Arizona team where a good part of their roster really should be with Tucson in the AHL. An Arizona team that had more money tied up in contracts of players who will never play than those on the ice. An Arizona team that just got waxed 6-1 by Carolina last Friday. The expectation was for the Devils to decisively beat this bad Coyotes team and hope Meier gets off to a good start.
Meier certainly did as he opened the scoring in tonight’s game. He slid a backhander on a rebound from Dougie Hamilton through the legs of Connor Ingram. The problem was that the Coyotes cared not about the paper or the expectations. They played up to the Devils and punished New Jersey enough for their errors. Arizona turned a 4-2 game by the start of the third period to a 4-4 game with two minutes left to play in regulation - and forced overtime. Given how the Coyotes did it, I was not thinking about Meier’s first game. I was thinking about how the Devils choked this game to let it go to overtime. I was hoping the Coyotes would not break through to hand the Devils an embarrassing loss - even with a point earned.
Thankfully, Clayton Keller was stopped in overtime. Thankfully, Erik Haula was thrown out of the faceoff dot for Nico Hischier on the resulting defensiv zone draw. Thankfully, Hischier won it, played it back to Hamilton, and then got enough space for Hamilton to pass it back to Hischier for a 2-on-1. Thankfully, Haula stayed on-side and kept pace to force the defender to respect him and a backchecking Coyote stay in the middle. Thankfully, Hischier focused on Ingram and finished the game with a wicked wrist shot inside the post to the right of the goalie. The Devils won 5-4 in Arizona. I am happy for the win but not all that happy with how it came to be.
To be fair, Arizona deserves plenty of credit. They are now 14-11-3 at Arizona State University, a far cry better than their horrendous 7-21-7 road record. Those 14 wins include victories over Boston (!), Florida, Las Vegas, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay in a 1-0 shootout win. Further, Arizona certainly did not play like a team with nothing to play for. Despite the Devils out-attempting and out-shooting the Coyotes by quite a bit, the expected goals in 5-on-5 was a lot closer at 2.86 to 2.53. When Arizona was not getting forced into turnovers and losing pucks in the neutral zone, they made the Devils work in their own end. I would go as far to say that the Coyotes played up to the Devils rather than the Devils playing down to them. It helped for Arizona that Connor Ingram was not a nightmare in net even though he did get beaten five times tonight.
Arizona got back into the game and gave the Devils a lot of problems in their own end by getting them out of sorts and catching them not paying attention to the weakside. Each and every one of the four goals scored tonight was by a Coyote who was not covered and in a space that no Devil could get to in time. Some of these, such as the regulation equalizer by Jack McBain with two minutes left to play, started with a heinous turnover. This one by Hamilton - who would at least redeem himself in overtime. (Ryan Graves was definitely having a night to forget on a few of the others.) But in each case, the turnover was bad and the reaction was even worse. Devils scrambling to pick up someone except for someone open in space. Devils focusing on the puck instead of any one looking around with their head on a swivel - which was especially apparent for Nick Schmaltz’s goal early in the third period. It does not take a ton of talent for someone to look around and simply communicate for help. As much as this impacted the Hughes line more than the others (twice), it is not a new issue for the Devils. Montreal exposed it in their win over the Devils two Tuesdays ago. St. Louis exposed it earlier in the month. If non-playoff teams like them can do it, then you better believe playoff squads will rip the Devils apart for it.
By the way, I really do not fault Vitek Vanecek for the game in that sense. Sure, the rebound to Zach Kassian was heinous. What was more heinous was that Kassian was wide open for what seemed like 10 seconds in the zone. First, he was missed at the crease. Then he was missed prior to his goal. The BMW line broke down like a 2008 3-Series on that play.
Fortunately, the Devils’ offensive effort was a lot better and ultimately carried the day. Meier did get his first as a Devil. Jesper Boqvist had an awesome night with a brace. The line of Boqvist, Haula, and Ondrej Palat was marvelous all night long. The second power play unit contributed a goal; Damon Severson found it through traffic after a sick pass by Dawson Mercer. Of course, then there’s Hischier’s overtime winner. A keeper in a 2-on-1 that was finished with aplomb. The Devils created 64 shooting attempts, put 40 shots on Ingram, and put five of those past him. Outside of Mercer not finishing a few chances to extend his goal scoring streak to match Wayne Gretzky, I have little complaints about the offensive performance.
The defense, well, Lindy Ruff and Ryan McGill have some things to clean up with the players. There are nine games to play before the Devils even get two days off in March: Toronto, Washington, Carolina, Montreal, Tampa Bay three times, Florida, and Minnesota. If they are seeing what Arizona saw and took advantage tonight, then it could be a long two-and-a-half weeks. But, hey, they did not completely choke to the Arizona Coyotes tonight.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com...
The Timo Meier Debut: He scored! That’s great. He had three shots on net! That’s good. When he was on the ice, the Devils eked ahead in the run of play in 5-on-5. Which is not as great but could be worse. He took an offensive zone penalty for highsticking Barret Hayton in the third period. That’s bad, although Hayton sold it a bit and the Devils did kill that penalty. He was confused with Hughes and even Haula at times on the broadcast and even by me while watching it. That’s on us! Overall, it was a positive debut for #96.
I do think that some time to gel with Hughes and Jesper Bratt will be needed. Bratt and Hughes were not their dominant selves tonight. They had some good moments but I think their finishing and execution on the puck left something to be desired. It happens in an 82-game season so I am not so concerned. I do think that in a few games, a Bratt-Hughes-Meier line is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
By the way, Yegor Sharangovich was scratched for Meier to play. As much as I think Sharangovich has received a raw deal, his play in recent weeks on a top line has been inconsistent at best. I think it was the right call for Ruff to take out Sharangovich for Meier.
Boqvist’s Best: Hischier may have won the game but this was easily Boqvist’s best game as a New Jersey Devil. Boqvist tapped in a sick feed from Damon Severson late in the first period to make it 2-1. Later, he finished a sick feed from Palat, who took a big hit in the process, late in the second period to make it 4-2. Whenever Boqvist, Palat, and Haula were on the ice as a line, the Devils out-attempted Arizona 17-4, out-shot them 11-2, out-xG’ed them 0.79-0.15, and out-scored them 2-0. All three played great but Boqvist was the standout. He had some great looks in the previous few games. Tonight, he was able to get goals out of them. It was important for tonight’s game and important for Boqvist’s own spot on the roster. With Curtis Lazar joining the team soon after his visa issue is sorted out, another forward is going to have to sit. Boqvist made a great case tonight that it should not be him.
Poor Mercer: The Coyotes enjoyed the run of play against Hischier (who at least had 5 shots on goal and the OT winner), Tomas Tatar, and the most against Dawson Mercer in 5-on-5. This did not mean that the DAWGson did not have chances to score. On the contrary. In the first period, he was all alone on Ingram’s blindside, but he fell when attempting to get onto the pass to him. In the second period, he was sprung for a breakaway and, later, had a free shot on Ingram’s right. Ingram made better saves. It would have been cool for Mercer to break Paul Gardner’s franchise record of 8 games (Mercer tied it) and tie Wayne Gretzky for the longest goal streak by a U-21 player. I do not expect to see something like that ever again. Still, Mercer had his chances and it just was not his night.
Of course, this is not to say Mercer had a nothing night. His turnaround backhand pass to Severson for a PPG was real slick. It continues a nine-game point streak for the young forward. Onward, we all hope.
Central Success: With the OT win over Arizona, the Devils are 7-4-2 against the Central with three more games left to play against those teams. That is 16 points out of a potential 26 so far. One more point and the Devils secure a winning record against the other Western Conference division. Those three games are a home game with Minnesota on March 21, a road game in Chicago on April 1, and a road game in Winnipeg on April 2. I think it is very possible. Yet one more marker of how excellent the 2022-23 season has been for New Jersey - even if how they got some of these results was not what we would have wanted.
One Last Thought: The broadcast for this game was off. The sound was not in sync at points. The camera work was a bit behind here and there, although it did not miss anything important. Ken Daneyko’s analysis tonight was off, led off by lamenting a lack of an insurance goal for a Devils team that was up 4-2 at the start of the third thanks to Boqvist’s second goal, which was an insurance goal. Bill Spaulding mixed up numbers, which I am sympathetic but he’s the pro and I’m not. I know MSG does not want to send out all the talent on the road but it would have been good to have Bryce Salvador and Erika Wachter on site. To that end, I am pleased the Devils are coming back home on Tuesday and their road games will be in the Eastern Time Zone, which should make for better shows.
Your Take: The Devils won 5-4 through overtime against the Coyotes. How did you think the Devils played? What do you think the Devils need to do to clean up their defensive issues? What do you think Timo Meier will do going forward? Will Jesper Boqvist, Erik Haula, and Ondrej Palat build on their great games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s win in the comments.
Thanks to Elliot for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.