After five long years, the New Jersey Devils have officially returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Rock was sold out even with exorbitant primary and secondary market ticket prices. Our Hated Rivals were the opponent; further incentive to want to make a statement in the playoffs. The Devils capped off one of the best seasons ever in franchise history with a 3-goal comeback win. The team was healthy. The People Who Matter were all in. The Rock was loud. Game 1 began. And the result of their first game back was a 1-5 decisive loss to the one team that the People Who Matter does not want to win at the expense of the Devils.
In a word: Womp. In another word: Crud. A third singular word would be: disappointment. Should you want a hyphenated-phrase: Anxiety-ridden. Whatever you choose, even if it is something else, it was a bad loss in the franchise’s return to the postseason.
What happened? Here is a quick list of things I have noticed being pointed out by the People Who Matter during and after the game:
- The Devils were nervous.
- The Devils’ power play was utter garbage with 0 shots on net with 4 power play opportunities.
- The Devils’ penalty kill was beaten twice.
- The Devils’ discipline was bad given the penalties they did take.
- The Devils over-passed pucks on offense.
- The Devils did not shoot the puck enough.
- The Devils struggled to get pucks to the net.
- The Devils could not solve Igor Shesterkin until the end.
- The Devils goaltender, Vitek Vanecek, was not good.
- The Devils coach, Lindy Ruff, and his staff were out-coached.
Which of these was correct? Why all of them. The simplest way to describe the performance was that this was a classic Bad Game. A whole lot went wrong for the Devils to lose 1-5 to Our Hated Rivals. Such that even if you changed one or two of these points, the Devils still probably lose the game. For example, let us say that the Devils killed Miles Wood’s stupid penalty in the first period and Michael McLeod’s selfish penalty in the third period. All things being equal, the Devils would lose 1-3 instead of 1-5. That speaks to how many things went poorly for the Devils.
Some of it is not in the Devils control. Igor Shesterkin making good saves is what he is paid to do. I would agree the Devils did not challenge him nearly enough as they should have. The Devils generated a whopping 2.68 xGF in all situations this evening. Fitting that the only time he was beaten was when he was one-on-one with The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, on a penalty shot. That offensive output from the skaters is not going to get it done (and it didn’t!), especially as the Devils were chasing the game from two goals down for the majority of it. Likewise, Chris Kreider re-directing in two pucks perfectly past Vitek Vanecek is not something the goalie could really stop or even the penalty kill. I would have liked better coverage, but I would have liked not having the PK out there given why they were. Still, he got the tips for the scores. As much as I do not like it, I did point out in my massive series preview that Our Hated Rivals were a good PK team and a good team defensively. We saw how tonight. They struggled at generating offense outside of their power play - which did happen. Of course, given how the scoring went, it did not matter much. Our Hated Rivals were good enough on the puck as to not give the Devils a lot of free opportunities and extra zone entries. These are things that the Devils can only do so much about in a game.
What the Devils can control is exactly what they need to fix for Game 2. Their execution on and off the puck, especially on offense, was rough. Passes missing their mark. Reads to nowhere or teammates already covered. Shots being forced into traffic, which only helped Our Hated Rivals rack up 23 blocks. I understand the team wants to get Shesterkin moving; beating him straight up is a tall order. But when the team is struggling for shots and down a couple of goals, there has to be some times to take what is given. This was most apparent on their power play, which was absolutely awful. Eight minutes, no official shots on net (I swore Shesterkin made two saves on the first one but whatever), and just eight shooting attempts is real bad. Our Hated Rivals can PK well but the Devils hurt their own cause with the man advantage. The Devils’ own penalty kill struggled in front of the net mostly because there were moments of no one being in front of the net at all. That cost them two goals on top of the remarkably bad penalties that led to those situations in the first place. After the one successful kill they did have, Vanecek left the right post enough for Ryan Lindgren to score maybe the greatest goal of his life to really put the Devils down deep at 0-3. The first goal allowed featured multiple Devils not able to win a puck before Vladimir Tarasenko put it home. There were a lot of big plays and little plays left wanting by the Devils’ own issues of execution and working against Our Hated Rivals.
This is why I firmly agree that the Devils were out-coached. Gerard Gallant, head coach of Our Hated Rivals, seemingly had John Tortorella’s old notes with how much his charges stuck to filling in shooting lanes, sacrificing the body for blocks, and being content with letting chaos reign in front. It clearly worked as rebounds, loose pucks, and potential opportunities eluded the Devils all night long. The rush-rush-rush ways of the Devils attack was slowed down despite a Devils team flying on the ice at times. The Devils had to respect Our Hated Rivals’ forecheck and struggled to find space when they would set up in their own end, much less stay in their end of the rink. Even with a shot attempt and shot differential advantage in 5-on-5, these factors yielded expected goal difference was not that large at 2.27 to 1.51 in favor of the Devils. And Shesterkin is more than capable of keeping 2.27 down to 1 goal allowed. The Devils’ game plan did pick on some OHR’s flaws but it was not good enough and the adjustments the team needed were just not there. Just as the guys on the ice largely struggled in this one, so did the coaching staff. Andrew Brunette’s power play was especially bad, in particular.
I also agree that the team’s mentality was an issue. After the game, I saw plenty of quotes about nerves and jitters and such. I cannot disagree since that did come from players. From my observation point, I thought they were just anxious. That whole first period saw a Devils team almost trying too hard to make plays, win pucks, out-skate the opposition, and make things happen. Laudable and understandable, but it was something that ended up hindering the team and it showed in the performance. I cannot even blame only the playoff inexperienced; this applied just as much to guys who have been in the playoffs before like Erik Haula or Timo Meier or Ryan Graves. It did get better as the game went on, but the Devils were in such a hole on the scoreboard that it did not yield any kind of turnaround.
This is a whole lot to say that Our Hated Rivals were calmer about the game, they took advantage when given the chance, and a lot of Devils just had bad or second-rate performances. When you look at all of the points where they failed or failed enough at, it is the kind of performance that would lead to a 1-5 loss to anyone from Boston to Anaheim. That it was to Our Hated Rivals and in the playoffs does sting more.
As a final major point in this recap, I will emphasize something. Plenty of the People Who Matter who comment here claim to be fans of the team for a long time. They do (or should!) know this point all to well: nothing is over. This was literally one bad game by the Devils. The series is now a bit harder for New Jersey, yes, but there are games to play. Even the last playoff series against Our Hated Rivals started off with a Game 1 shutout loss, 0-3. They even entered Game 4 down 1-2 in the series. It worked out. I am not saying that will happen again this year, but I bring it up to justify the point that nothing is over. The Devils had a Bad Game today; Thursday is another day. That is what happened and how it should be treated. By all means, panic if we see a repeat of this on Thursday in Game 2. If they sort out what they can control, Game 2 should be much better and, hopefully, tie up the series.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, should you want to see them for some reason.
The Broken Car: The BMW Line is the cute nickname for the line of Nathan Bastian, Miles Wood, and Michael McLeod. Sure, they can be an energetic fourth line and pot in some contributions once in a while. They get plenty of love from some of the People Who Matter and others like Ken Daneyko for the grit, the toughness, the physical play, and the greasiness. For the most part though, they are just a fourth line that rides the breakeven mark in 5-on-5 play and carries legitimate risk for penalties. Like a lot of teams, their fourth line is at least a little bit overrated in terms of how much they actually help their team succeed.
Tonight showcased why the BMW Line really is overrated. Miles Wood’s highlight tonight where tackling Artemi Panarin’s legs in the offensive zone after falling into the corner on his own by, I think, skating too fast. Wood’s tackle was very stupid and it was punished by Kreider re-directing home a feed from Adam Fox. (The other highlight was him losing the puck on a potential breakaway in the second period to the other team.) Later in the third period, after Vanecek froze the puck on a save, the line proceeded to have a I Am Mad And So I Must Scuffle moment and started a legitimate melee behind the net. Wood and Barclay Goodrow, who indeed played in this game, had it out. But McLeod got an unsportsmanlike minor for grabbing a visor in the scuffle. This led to another Fox shot from the center point and tipped into the net by Kreider for another punishment. Both penalties were not at all needed. Both were pretty selfish what they were. And both only sent the message to Our Hated Rivals that they are willing to do stupid things to get their very potent power play on the ice - which they did.
Oh, Nathan Bastian did approximately nothing of note in this game.
While the other three forward lines had their issues, I could count with less than five fingers how many good things this unit actually did. It needs a change at a minimum. With Yegor Sharangovich and Curtis Lazar scratched tonight, I hope they come in for at least two members of this line for Game 2. If it remains, it needs to be a whole lot smarter and effective than this. Skating real fast to bring Energy! and Grit! is not at all what the Devils needed tonight or what they will need in this series. The Devils may have thrown the bigger hits tonight and showed up well in the macho aspects of the game tonight, but it led to exactly diddley squat in anything that mattered. Change this, please, Mr. Ruff.
Also, Please Change Something, Mr. Brunette: While the Devils’ own lack of discipline cost them, Our Hated Rivals’ silliness was not punished at all. Vincent Trocheck tripped Jonas Siegenthaler: nothing. Adam Fox grabbing Jesper Bratt in the right corner because Fox was beaten like a mule: nothing. Braden Schneider high-sticking Timo Meier in the face away from the play: nothing. Tyler Motte delaying the game for repeated faceoff violations for a faceoff after the puck went into the benches shortly after Lindgren’s goal: nothing. I do not mean just no goals, I mean nothing. The only foul punished with any actual offense was Jacob Trouba slashing The Big Deal on a breakaway, which led to the penalty shot goal.
Once again, in 8 minutes of 5-on-4 time: No shots on net. Just eight shooting attempts total. Our Hated Rivals had three shots on net shorthanded. The Devils’ power play just could not figure anything out despite having an extra man on the ice. Still, the power play performance was just unacceptable. I can understand going 0-for-4 but at least make the other team sweat. Make their coaching staff remind the players to be careful out there. The effect of doing nothing on a power play is not just not scoring and frustrating the fans. It is also telling the other team that they can keep fouling and doing dumb stuff since nothing bad will happen to them other than sitting in a box.
I understand changing a system is not a viable option at this point. But Andrew Brunette has to have them do something different. A 5-on-4 should lead to some actual offense being created at a minimum. None happened tonight. This cannot continue. It just cannot.
Other Lackluster Efforts Included: While Jack Hughes did get the lone goal for the Devils, a penalty shot in his playoff debut, he, Bratt, and Ondrej Palat struggled in their 5-on-5 matchup. They saw a lot of Fox and Lindgren. While they may have had more shooting attempts and did not concede to them, they created very, very little. I understand Ruff can and should change that matchup for Game 2. But those three have to be much better at attacking than that. Given that the Nico Hischier line had their own issues with K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba in 5-on-5, a switch there may be worth doing to start the next game.
Speaking of that top six, Palat and Bratt did not add very much as they had one shot on net between the two of them. Perhaps Timo Meier should slot in one of their spots with Hughes instead of Erik Haula at some point in Game 2. At least Meier put up seven shooting attempts and three shots on net.
Defensively, I am unsure what Ryan Graves was doing on the PK. He was better in 5-on-5. However, I am also unsure why Graves attempted six shots on net. Only one got on net at all. Weirdly, this matched Dougie Hamilton’s offensive output. Given that a big part of Hamilton’s value is how much he brings at both ends, that has to be better in Game 2. Ditto for Damon Severson, who I felt played a good game yet ended up with five shooting attempts and none of them hitting Shesterkin. A larger question: If half of the blueline attempting 17 shots on net and ending up with just 2 shots on net, then why should that continue?
Vitek Vanecek needed to stop the Lindgren goal. Simple as. I do not think it is time for Akira Schmid to get his playoff pads ready, but it has to be considered if Game 2 is another discouraging performance. With the other goalie being Igor Shesterkin, soft goals allowed is something that the Devils cannot afford.
Perhaps it would be easier if I just listed who I thought played well. Despite being shotless, Severson was actually good in his own end. Nico Hischier was very much working his skates off and put up 5 shots on net even when the Devils were struggling to get much of anything. Ditto Tomas Tatar with his 4 shots. The Big Deal scored a goal. That is 4 players out of 18 dressed for the Devils. And obviously none of the coaches’ plans worked out well. That is how this game went.
About the Disallowed Goal: The Devils indeed get the benefit of a video review. I am documenting this in the hopes that some of the People Who Matter remember this instead of lamenting the lie that the NHL never gives them a call. Anyway, this happened during the Devils’ second penalty kill of the night. Haula was called for holding in the offensive zone. Kind of a soft call, but it was what it was. Anyway, if I recall correctly, Jacob Trouba fired a rising shot from the center point. It was going to go well over the net and hit the back glass. However, Alexis Lafreniere decided to raise his stick and nearly whack John Marino in the face, which deflected the puck down and into the net. The call on the ice was a goal but a video review was held after conferencing. The review showed that Lafreniere’s stick was well above the crossbar, so there was no goal. 11 seconds later, the Devils killed the penalty. Then shortly after that Lindgren walked in along the goal line and caught Vanecek away from the post enough to roof it past him. Sigh.
Why: I know the answer I will get is that “It doesn’t matter if they lost 1-4 or 1-5,” but I still do not understand Ruff pulling Vanecek for an extra skater after Hughes’ goal. It would be one thing if the Devils were dominating the run of play and were applying pressure late. It would be another thing if the Devils were only down two goals. Yet, given how the Devils were performing, especially with how they did with a man advantage, pulling Vanecek all but guaranteed a goal against. And it did when Filip Chytil did so, giving a cheap assist to Fox to make it a four-assist night for him and giving Kaapo Kakko something about him in this game other than nearly coughing up the puck to Haula in the first period.
Steve Valiquette is a Doofus: The Rock was very much a pro-Devils, mostly-Devils supporting crowd at Game 1. They were loud and in charge for much of the game. But the Devils’ own performance and OHR winning wore them out of the game. Those in blue that showed up, which made up about 30% of the crowd, looked far larger and sounded far louder by the end of the game. Helped by People Who Matter leaving early after it was 0-3 and 0-4 in the third period. Further helped by the Devils not giving the People Who Matter much to cheer about. By no means was this a “home game” for Our Hated Rivals, but any crowd support had little impact on how the game was played.
One Last Thought: If it felt like this game dragged a bit, then that is because it did. There were 60 non-goalie stoppages tonight between icings, offside, pucks going out of play, and goals scored by Our Hated Rivals. It took just about 2:40 to play the game in regulation that OHR won by a significant margin. It is not as if OHR was particularly great at faceoffs either. The Devils led there 35-32. But just like Hughes’ hit on Kreider, Hischier shoving down Schneider, and any other physical moment you can recall, winning the faceoff battle ultimately did not matter all that much. I can buy OHR wanting to slow the game down, but given how many icings they took, it is something that Gallant may want to caution against for Game 2.
In fact, I would anticipate Gallant wanting to have his players not take the fouls that they did and push to create more offense instead of just sitting on the lead. That would be the adjustments he should seek out for Game 2. Personally, I hope he does not as to not make Thursday’s game any harder.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-5 to Our Hated Rivals to open their first playoff series since 2018. Far from what any of us, the People Who Matter, wanted to see at all. What are your thoughts about the loss? What did you think of the Devils performance? What has to change by Thursday for what should hopefully be a tied series going into Game 3? Please leave your thoughts and other thoughts about this defeat in the comments.
Thanks to Matt for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog during the game. Thank you for reading.