On paper, the New Jersey Devils were expected to beat the Chicago Blackhawks. The Devils are playoff-bound for the first time since 2018 and own the third best record in the entire NHL. The Blackhawks have nothing but lottery balls to play for as they sit in a tie in points with Columbus for dead last in the NHL. On the ice, the game was far more competitive. The Devils did indeed win and by a healthy-looking 6-3 final score. How the game got there was not as easy and simple as a member of the People Who Matter (or a suffering Chicago fan) would have thought.
What was easy and simple was who would control the game. That would be the Devils. The Devils out-shot the Blackhawks 40 to 17. I made no typo. The Blackhawks did not even get to 20 shots on MacKenzie Blackwood. Even if you counted two posts hit, they would have fell short of that round number. The Devils flooded Alex Stalock with pucks and the goals would come. Shot attempts were even more lopsided: 68 to 29 in favor of the Devils in 5-on-5 play. Which was pretty much the whole game as there was just two penalties called, one on each team. Add in that and some 6-on-5 hockey and the attempts were 72-31, starting with a 22-4 difference in the first period alone. There was no question as to who controlled the puck and the run of play this evening.
There was a question as to how it would all shake out as the first period yielded all of zero goals. There was a question to the Devils’ mindsets as they had a bad tendency to overthink their offensive zone situations. The nadir was a turnover forced by Erik Haula that led to Tomas Tatar getting the puck all alone in the slot on Stalock. Tatar proceeded to pass it back to Haula for no shot as there was a defender on him. It was not until later where the Devils decided that Alex Stalock was no Ilya Sorokin and could be comfortable shooting straight at him. There was also a question as to how the Devils would do with Blackwood getting the start given his inconsistent tendencies. Throw in the Devils’ own tendency to not pay full attention on D and that could be a bad combo. This all was in my mind when the second period became frustrating.
Sure, the Devils opened the scoring with a lovely rush play. A series of passes up ice to gain the zone and set up Dougie Hamilton for a long range bomb to make it 1-0. Yet, the worries raised when Chicago hit back on the next shift with a rush play that they missed on and Seth Jones beating Blackwood but hitting the right post. It was not long before Chicago scored a goal. The fourth line, Damon Severson, and Kevin Bahl seemingly forgot about Tyler Johnson standing at the crease. Taylor Raddysh found him to Blackwood’s right and Johnson put home the shot. Even if it was a close-range one timer, the puck did trickle in by the post; Blackwood could have stopped that. It was 1-1. The Devils’ offense re-emerged after a few shifts, but Chicago would strike again. A supremely long jaunt by Andreas Athanasiou led to him just firing a hopeful shot from the center point. The puck hit off recently-maligned Ryan Graves and then Lukas Reichel for a 1-2 score. A bad break but one has to ask: was anyone going to do anything to Athanasiou on the play? It was at that moment the fear crept in: the Devils could actually lose to the Blackhawks.
Fortunately, the Devils simplified their game and hit back with goals of their own. Timo Meier went for a wraparound that led to a rebound that Erik Haula roofed past Stalock to tie it up at 2-2. The Big Deal, who already had an assist on Hamilton’s goal, set up Jesper Boqvist. The other Jesper powered through two Blackhawks, forced Stalock to stretch out to his right, and Boqvist fired the shot around the goalie and just over the line before a defender could try to clear it. The Devils made it 3-2 in a period where they were clearly dominating the run of play but managed to disappoint many in how they went down at all.
The third period would have a similar melody as the second period but thankfully a more harmonious result for the Devils. Timo Meier got crushed behind the net and went down in pain as the Devils pinned Chicago back hard. Play continued while #96 was in pain. Haula set up a crashing Graves, who fired a high shot past Stalock to make it 4-2. A fine goal for a guy who has been slumping in his own end. Meier would go to the bench and not miss much time. But Chicago would catch the Devils unaware. A failed exit attempt led to Jonathan Toews finding an open Athanasiou on Blackwood’s left. I do not know who was to cover Athanasiou; possibly Hamilton. Still, the pass led to a tap in and a 4-3 game. The doubt crept in. Especially after a couple of big opportunities left begging by Hughes, Michael McLeod, and others.
Fortunately, Meier would return to the game. He would break it wide open. After Chicago denied a stretch pass, Damon Severson found Meier by the Chicago blueline. Even with numbers on the entry, Meier charged in like a bull. He deked a shot, Stalock bit it, Meier wrapped around, and he beat the goalie to the left post for the goal. 5-3 and the Devils could relax a bit. An ill-advised goalie pull led to John Marino flinging the puck out and Nico Hischier setting up Dawson Mercer for an easy ENG to ice the game at 6-3. The Devils, quite literally, pulled away in the third period to take this win.
I can understand some of the complaints from the People Who Matter. Shouldn’t a team that is playoff-bound, playoff-ready, has over 100 points, etc. just cream Chicago? And my answer is: That’s hockey, man. Boston is the best team in the NHL by a massive margin this season and they needed overtime to beat Columbus, a team on Chicago’s level, back on Thursday. This game was not even the closest involving a Connor Bedard lottery chasing team this season. The Devils needed a shootout to beat a crummy San Jose team in their building back in January, and they needed a last-second (OK, last 1.4 seconds) goal by Graves to win in Columbus back on Valentine’s Day. It happens. The Devils have had plenty of decisive wins and blowout victories to show that they can do it. It just does not always go that way.
All said, I think all of the People Who Matter would agree that the Devils should have picked up a win tonight and the win they got tonight is far better than any other fate. Even if it was not the most sterling performance despite some wickedly awesome on-ice stats.
The Game Highlights: Here are the highlights from tonight’s game from NHL.com, which appropriately starts in the second period.
Criticisms Out of the Way: All three goals against involved some kind of unawareness of the opposition without the puck. Johnson and Athanasiou needed to be taken account off the puck; instead they got easy-for-them goals. The double-deflection needed Athanasiou roaming around the zone with a huge lap, someone needed to step in quicker. There were a couple of other moments where Chicago could have broken through but a last-minute intervention denied the Blackhawks a scoring chance. I know it is demanding but the Devils could have been a bit smarter in their own end and this would have been a far easier game for all Devils involved.
MacKenzie Blackwood is in the lineup because he was hurt and Akira Schmid was up with the Devils on an emergency loan basis. That emergency ended so Blackwood is involved. I have no issue with Blackwood starting this game. If he is not going to start at Chicago, then there is no purpose to having him. Still, Blackwood was tentative in his reactions, gave up some juicy rebounds, got saved by two posts, and I still think he should have covered the post better on Johnson’s goal. Blackwood did not have a lot to do and that was a good thing as I worry when he is in a position to make a stop. I do not think there is any question that Vitek Vanecek is the main man in the net for New Jersey. I think those clamoring for Schmid to replace Blackwood were not dissuaded by this result. But, hey, this team can overcome some un-confident goaltending for a win. There is that.
The offense simplified itself to greater success after the Reichel goal. There really were multiple cases where the Devils would get a turnover or lead a 3-on-2 rush or find a Devil with a clear path to the net, and the puck carrier would just try to find a pass or make some sort of decision or hesitate - all making a good chance go worse. To be fair, the Devils attempted a ton of shots and put a lot on Stalock even with some head-scratching decisions on the puck. I think the scores in the second period helped the team’s collective confidence at shooting the puck. After getting one in the net in Long Island and two against Our Hated Rivals, putting up a five-spot had to have felt good.
Fun Fact: Everyone had a shot on net for the Devils tonight. Yes, even John Marino, Jonas Siegenthaler, Kevin Bahl, and Damon Severson had one. Surprisingly, Nico Hischier, Yegor Sharangovich, and Tomas Tatar also only had one. I can understand them distributing in some cases, but Tatar, in particular, really should have had more given how often he was in the Chicago zone.
The Best Devils?: Tonight, it is a toss up between Timo Meier and Erik Haula in my eyes. Really. Meier was a force to be reckoned with for five shots, a goal, and an assist. Haula won loads of pucks to keep attacks going, scored an important goal at the time, and set up Graves for what would end up being the game winning goal. Plenty of Devils showed up well from Hughes to Boqvist (great goal!) to John Marino - who had the best 5-on-5 numbers by far - but Meier and Haula were critical to tonight’s win in my view.
The Milestones in Progress: Plenty of stretch goals and milestone markers remain in play as the Devils have six games left this season. Here is a quick summary:
- With the Devils’ win, they now have 48 wins this season. They need three in their next six to tie the franchise record and four to break it. I want 50 and that’s two away now.
- The Devils’ road win puts them at 58 road points earned this season. The Devils just need two out of a trip to Winnipeg tomorrow, a trip to Boston on Saturday, and a trip to Washington on the final game of the season to break the franchise record of 59.
- Hamilton’s goal was his 20th of the season. He is the first Devil defenseman to put up 20 goals in a season. He is the first in the franchise to do so since Rob Ramage’s 20 in 1980-81 with the Rockies. He has six games to score two to tie the franchise leader, Barry Beck.
- Hamilton also had an assist on Haula’s goal in the second period. He now has 71 points. He is seven away from tying Scott Stevens’ record of 78 in a season.
- The Big Deal had a pair of assists. He now sits at 49 assists and 89 points. One more point and he is the first Devil to break 90 points since Taylor Hall’s Hart season.
- Timo Meier scored a huge insurance goal with a wraparound. Not only did it show that he was OK to play, but it was his sixth as a Devil. It’s a lot to ask, but four more to tie Ilya Kovalchuk is possible.
Add this one: Erik Haula got his 11th goal tonight. Given how long it took him to get one and given how many huge missed opportunities to score he had all season, getting beyond 10 is a huge achievement.
And Also This Milestone: Yegor Sharangovich played in his 200th NHL game tonight. He became the 11th player of the 2018 NHL Draft Class and the second picked outside of the first round to do so. Congratulations to him. It is rare for fifth round draft picks to make it in the NHL at all, nevermind to reach that many games.
Is The Graves Slump Over?: Defensively, Graves has been contentious. But the Graves-Marino pairing was solid in spite of a bad-break-double-deflection GA. Graves even scored an important goal. He did not hand the Blackhawks one in response or take a penalty. I am hoping his slump is ending. That would be great for the Devils defense overall.
The Return of Toews: Johnathan Toews returned to the Chicago lineup. Perhaps for his final stretch as a Blackhawk. Perhaps for his final stretch as a professional hockey player. Toews set up a goal that made the game possible for Chicago to comeback in the third period. i He got crushed in 5-on-5 play otherwise, but so did every Blackhawk (no, the Blackhawks may have out-shot the Devils when Seth Jones took a shift but the xGF% was around 30%). I think the expectations on him were just to make a mark and he did.
One Last Thought: With 2.1 seconds left in the second period, the Devils had an offensive zone faceoff. Lindy Ruff decided to pull Blackwood for an extra skater. It is true that Chicago had no chance for an ENG with that little time left on the clock. However, the play needed to have a Devils faceoff win and a near-immediate shot for it to work. Which would still have to be the play if kept at 5-on-5. My point is that it was a bit too clever. Especially as the Devils had a 3-2 lead and probably did not need a play like that to make it 4-2. Down a goal? Sure, try it, whatever. With a lead? It was an odd move. No matter.
Your Take: The Devils pulled ahead for a 6-3 win over Chicago. They play in Winnipeg tomorrow. What do you want to see from the Devils tomorrow other than a different starting goaltender? Who impressed you the most on New Jersey tonight? Who needs to play better tomorrow? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the victory in the comments. Thanks to Chris for the game preview, thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter, and thank you for reading.