Well, that stunk.
The New Jersey Devils played their first postseason game in five years last night, but let’s be real. They got dominated on special teams, and they lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to the New York Rangers by a score of 5-1. We all saw the game and saw what happened, and you can read John’s recap here if you missed it.
The fact that the Devils dropped Game 1 in and of itself isn’t a reason to panic. After all, the last time the Devils got blitzed by the Rangers in Game 1 of a playoff series was the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, and we ultimately know how that series ended. The Devils made mistakes that didn’t help matters and contributed to the loss, but they also did things that were uncharacteristic of this group and the team we’ve seen all season.
What can we takeaway from Game 1 though? What is a legitimate cause for concern, and what isn’t really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things? It’s very easy to be reactionary and a prisoner of the moment as every play, every shift, and every game is amplified. But there are bigger priorities at hand for the Devils to tackle as they look to rebound in Game 2.
Concern: The Rangers Power Play was as Advertised
Aside from the Rangers having Igor Shesterkin in net, the Rangers greatest strength is their power play, and we saw that on full display. The Rangers were one Alexis Lafreniere high stick redirection away from being a perfect 3-for-3 on the night with the man advantage, and the one power play that they officially didn’t score on flipped the momentum of the game anyways as the Devils had just gained their footing after falling behind 2-0. Ryan Lindgren’s seeing-eye goal didn’t come on the power play as it happened after Erik Haula’s holding penalty expired, but it was effectively the dagger and came off of carryover momentum from the man advantage.
I still feel confident in the Devils ability to win this series, but let’s be blunt. They are not going to win this series if they don’t come up with an answer for Chris Kreider or anyone else in front of the net redirecting pucks in. They are not going to win this series if the Rangers are operating at 40% with the man advantage, let alone 66.67% like they were last night. The Rangers made the most of the three chances they got and we haven’t even gotten to the game yet where the NHL/officials hit the “Screw the Devils, give the Rangers all the power plays” button that you know is coming at some point later this series.
The Devils have to find an answer on the penalty kill. It’s not exactly a secret that Kreider parks his big rear end by the goaltender and looks for redirections and rebounds, but the Rangers have plenty of guys who can burn you from distance as well. Too often, the Devils got caught out of position, and the Rangers were able to capitalize.
Concern: Zero Shots on net on Four Devils Power Plays
Simply put, getting zero shots on net when you have the man advantage FOUR times is unacceptable and can not happen under any circumstances. Lindy Ruff and Andrew Brunette will have their work cut out for them to figure this out over the next 35 hours or so before Game 2.
In fairness to the Rangers, I thought they played a great defensive game that I didn’t think they had in them. They blocked 23 shots, they were aggressive with their forecheck, and they got sticks in lanes to break up passes and force turnovers, and the Devils didn’t get a lot of clean looks on Igor Shesterkin until it was far too late to make a difference. I don’t know that I would trust them to do this three more times in the next six games, but they showed that they are capable of doing that and that they have that tool in their toolbox. So give credit where credit is due.
With that said, the Devils simply have to find ways to get more pucks on the net. This goes for even strength as well. The Devils made things far too easy on Shesterkin when the game was still in reach and it took a Jack Hughes penalty shot in garbage time to keep the Devils shutout-less streak alive. I’m not sure what the answer is, whether its throwing everything on net, more pump fakes to get defenders to bite and commit, etc. The Devils have to figure it out with the man advantage where they’re at least threatening, and this needs to be priority #2 behind priority #1.....figuring out how to stop the Rangers when they’re on the power play.
Not a Concern: Vitek Vanecek’s play
Vanecek was beaten four times in Game 1, and while the results are ultimately what they are, I have little reason to believe the Devils would’ve fared any better last night with Akira Schmid or Mackenzie Blackwood in net.
Two of the goals Vanecek surrendered were the aforementioned Kreider redirections on the power play, one was Ryan Lindgren’s goal that I’ll get to in a moment, and the last one was the first goal of the game as Vladimir Tarasenko ripped one past him. If you want to say he should’ve had that first one, I guess I can go down that hypothetical road with you. My bigger issue with that whole sequence was Jonas Siegenthaler’s play along the boards to turn it over to Tarasenko as he gained the offensive zone, Siegenthaler and Mercer failing to separate Tarasenko from the puck when they had him tied up, and then Siegenthaler getting lost in no-man’s land as Tarasenko escaped, played give-and-go with K’Andre Miller, and ripped it home as the Devils left too much space in the center of the ice.
You may have noticed a trend there on who I would primarily assign blame to on the Tarasenko goal.
As for Lindgren’s goal....
Not a Concern: Ryan Lindgren Scoring a Goalscorer’s Goal
Here’s where Vanecek was positioned before Lindgren took his shot.
And here’s where he was after.
I get that Vanecek moved his head an inch or two, and I get that as a result, Lindgren was able to bury the shot in a hole not much larger than your fist. I’m also not sure Lindgren, who now has 10 goals between regular season and playoffs in his five-year career, makes that particular shot in that tight a window again if you give him 100 tries.
You don’t want guys from point blank range getting relatively clean looks, but if you are going to give them up, you want them coming off the stick of a defensive defensemen from sharp angles with nothing, or almost nothing, to shoot at. This is the type of shot selection you can live with. Give Lindgren credit for making the most of his opportunity and burying it, but I hesitate to call this a bad goal or rip into Vanecek for allowing it. I know John was critical of this goal in his recap but I couldn’t disagree with him more on this.
Last thing on Devils goaltending....I was pleased to see Lindy Ruff made the right call and had Akira Schmid as the backup. As we discussed weeks ago, Mackenzie Blackwood belonged nowhere near the ice in a game of this importance and I’m glad for one night at least, the coaching staff agrees with me. Of course, I wasn’t quite as pleased with some of Ruff’s other calls.
Concern: Lindy panicking and shortening his lineup after one period
It only took one bad playoff period for Lindy Ruff to not only break out the line blender, but also staple Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist, and Miles Wood to the bench. Michael McLeod also played sparingly in the second period, and the only reason their ice time looked respectable in the end was due to the game itself getting out of hand.
The Devils have been at their best this season when they’ve been able to run four lines. All of that went out the window with one rough period where the Devils failed to muster a whole lot offensively and Miles Wood took a bad penalty that immediately led to a Rangers PPG.
I don’t really have an issue sitting Wood for making a mistake that led to a goal against. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t have played him in the first place due to his penchant for taking dumb penalties. And its not like Bastian, Boqvist, or McLeod did anything of note in this game when they did play. That being said, I also don’t think rolling three lines is a recipe for success. If Ruff is going to have that short a leash where he effectively benches Wood for a mistake like that, or the entire BMW line in general, then it might behoove him to consider inserting Curtis Lazar or Yegor Sharangovich in the lineup over them. Or perhaps even Luke Hughes if the Devils want to try to come up with a power play spark and go 11-7.
I’m not as concerned about a little lineup shuffling in-game since its what Ruff has done all year in-game and more often than not, he’s been able to find something that works. But Ruff’s shortening of the bench in game reeked of a panic move, which isn’t really what you want 25 minutes into Game 1 of a playoff series.
Not a Concern: Playoff Physicality and the Devils Ability to Withstand it
The Devils lost Game 1 for a lot of reasons. Most of them I’ve hit on already. Shesterkin was good. The Rangers power play being good. The Devils power play being trash. The Devils not getting enough pucks on net.
They did not lose this game because they’re not tough enough, or because they’re too small and soft when compared to their opponent (In his series preview, John laid out that this is far from being the case). They didn’t lose because they got outhit (32-30 NYR, for those keeping score at home). They didn’t lose because of whatever nonsense narrative you want to regurgitate about playoff hockey, the intensity of it, and the Devils wilting under pressure of it.
Ironically, the Devils trying to toughen up contributed to their loss. Miles Wood does Miles Wood things and takes dumb penalties. McLeod got sent to the sin bin for grabbing the visor, a penalty I’ve admittedly never heard of but is a thing. The Devils promptly surrendered two PPG against as a result of them mixing it up.
That’s not to say playoff games are or aren’t more intense. That’s not to say this game didn’t have more intensity than your typical regular season game. It’s just the Devils supposedly being soft isn’t why they lost this game. If anything, the Devils trying to ramp it up contributed to the loss. Anyone who watched the game can see that.
Not a Concern: Playoff Experience, or the lack thereof
The Devils took a punch in the mouth in the first 10 minutes of this game, surrendering two early goals before seemingly settling in for the middle portion of the game.
Was that because of playoff experience, or their lack of it? Or was that because they didn’t play well?
Playoff experience is one of those things that pundits love to bring up when they want to support their argument why one team will beat another, and I’m not oblivious to the fact that a healthy chunk of the Devils roster played in their first postseason game last night. The Devils even admitted as much after the game that “nerves/jitters” may have been a factor.
(It’s at this point where I’d point out the Devils had the same four-day break to prepare for this game and series that the Rangers did. It’s at this point that I’d suggest maybe part of the reason why there were nerves and jitters directly correlates with how prepared they actually were, which might speak to the job the coaching staff and veteran leaders did in their preparation for this game and series. But I digress....)
We’re not that far removed from the Devils opponent being the team that lacked playoff experience. The Rangers made it to the Eastern Conference Final last year despite a so-called lack of experience. Of course, a big part of the reason why they got that far in the first place was the fact they faced backup and third-string goaltenders along the way and Jacob Trouba’s chicken-wing elbow knocking Sidney Crosby out of a series, but I guess we’re not allowed to bring that up because it doesn’t fit the experience narrative. Or is it water under the bridge now because the bulk of this Rangers team got 20 games of playoff experience in the past year.
The Devils may or may not win this series, but experience isn’t going to be the reason why. And now that they have first playoff game under their belt, they know what to expect going forward. Continuing to suggest the lack of experience is a factor, frankly, is lazy commentary and making an excuse for poor play and poor execution in other areas.
Mike Stromberg summed it up best with this tweet.
Kraken using their superior playoff experience to humble the inexperienced Avalanche— mike (@ColdSportsTakes) April 19, 2023
Concern: Not getting enough shots on Shesterkin
I already mentioned it with the power play struggles, so I’ll be brief....the Devils picked up the pace in the third period and got more pucks on net against Igor Shesterkin, but by then, it was too little, too late as they were already down 3-0. Seven shots on net in the first period and fifteen through the first 40 minutes isn’t gonna cut it.
I had planned on writing about how the Devils have beaten Shesterkin this week, but scrapped it after this game. Nowhere in that article that will now never see the light of day did it say “barely get the puck on net and barely make him work”. Quite the opposite, as my whole point was how the Devils have succeeded against him this year by unloading a barrage of shots and generating offense off of the rush.
Shesterkin is too good a player where he’ll have no problem picking up the win while barely breaking a sweat if the Devils are missing the net and getting a bunch of shots blocked. Its not a winning strategy by New Jersey, and its one I’d suggest they stop doing.
Not a Concern: The Rangers blocking a billion shots
Generally speaking, your opponent blocking or trying to block a bunch of shots isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, since its a result of them not having the puck and having to exert all sorts of energy in the defensive zone. It’s similar to the argument that losing the hits battle isn’t a big deal because the teams doing the hitting is the team that doesn’t have the puck, while the team that does have the puck is doing things that have a more tangible effect on winning the game such as shooting and scoring goals.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, the Rangers blocking a bunch of shots against the Devils isn’t anything new.
The bigger takeaway is that for the most part in this game, the Rangers did not have the puck at 5v5. I wouldn’t take a victory lap on them winning the Corsi battle or having more xG at even strength in a game they were trailing throughout, but it is worth pointing out if you’re looking for something to hold your hat on as the Devils try to come back in this series. The Devils possessing the puck more should hopefully turn fortunes in their favor as the series progresses.
Of course, the Rangers have made a living out of saying that chart cant stop me because I can’t read, losing the possession battle but riding power play goals and elite goaltending to victories in the Gerard Gallant era. But the Devils have had success against the Rangers prior to and even with them previously them channeling their inner-Tortorella and trying to block party their way to victory. The Devils seemed to make an adjustment in the third period and got more pucks on net, and I think they’ll continue to do so as the series progresses.
Concern: Jack Hughes not being selfish enough
Your best players need to be your best players, whether its Game 34 of the regular season or Game 1 of a playoff series. I thought Nico Hischier did everything he could while the game was still in reach to get the Devils on the board and came up short, so I had no issue with his game. I can’t quite say the same for Jack Hughes though.
I thought Jack (and a lot of skaters, the more I think about it) was too passive earlier in the game, deferring to his linemates and trying to set up a higher-percentage play rather than firing the puck on net and hoping for a rebound. I think as a result of overpassing, the Devils turned the puck over and killed some potential scoring chances before they could ever really get started, which only put them in a deeper hole as the game went on.
Hughes had 28 shots on goal in the four regular season matchups against the Rangers. He had three last night. Hughes wound up being the only Devil who found the back of the net in Game 1 and he did it on a penalty shot. I don’t think I’m asking too much to say that I need more from #86.
Not a Concern: Jack Hughes turnovers
If you’re still one of those people who simply doesn’t get it, doesn’t see how special Hughes is and wants to take potshots at #86....A. I feel bad for you, and B. you’ll have a field day seeing he had 5 giveaways in a playoff loss.
None of them were as egregious as the one in Game 82 vs. Washington that wound up in the back of the net, of course. By now, you know that turnovers are a product of one of the best playmakers in the league having the puck on his stick as much as he does. The best players in the league turnover the puck a lot because it comes with the territory of playmakers looking to make plays. But I think this also goes hand-in-hand with my comments on Hughes needing to be more selfish and shooting more. Generally speaking, good things tend to happen when Hughes shoots.
Concern: Devils getting away from their game
The Devils had as much success as they have against the Rangers (and teams in general) during the season because of their ability to generate offense off of the rush, keeping the Rangers on their heels defensively, and applying all sorts of pressure offensively where opposing goaltenders are under siege all night.
Last night, that was not the case.
They did get back to playing their style of game as it went on, although part of that might also be the Rangers taking their foot off of the gas a little bit and score effects. But the Devils also need to do much more than what they did in Game 1 if they want to beat Shesterkin and the Rangers.
Not a Concern (yet): Trailing the series 1-0
The Devils have been a team that has come back all year, so why would the playoffs be any different? They’ve shown the ability to overcome deficits in games, and if they lose a game against a team, they usually have an adjustment and a different look to throw at the opposition the next time they meet.
This series is far from over.
That’s not to say they don’t have things they need to fix, because we’ve covered the gambit on that here. And that’s not to say that that opinion might not change if they fall behind 2-0 with the series shifting to The World’s Most Overrated Arena. Obviously, the mountain becomes tougher to climb under those circumstances.
I’m just saying it would be very uncharacteristic of this Devils team, after what we’ve seen from them all year, to have zero response. I expect a much more competitive game in Game 2. I expect the Devils to play like their season is on the line, because it probably is. I expect a win, and if they don’t get it, then they damn well better empty the tank in trying to get the win. The Devils have thrived all year as the comeback kids, but digging yourself an 0-2 hole and putting yourself in a position where you have to win 4 out of 5 games to keep your season alive is a tall order. Especially when this is a team that is far from unbeatable. The Devils can beat the Rangers. They need to execute better in order to do so.
That’s how I see things after Game 1. Perhaps you see things differently. Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thanks for reading.