In two words: That sucked.
The New Jersey Devils followed up a 6-3 win in Chicago to end their final back-to-back set of the regular season with a crushing loss in Winnipeg. This was against type as the Devils been largely successful in the second half of back-to-back games this season at 9-2-0 going into this one. Ditto that the game was in Canada as the Devils have taken nothing but wins from the Great White North all season. Yet, every team is going to have a night where a lot of it stinks and tonight was that night for the New Jersey Devils. They lost 1-6 in a game where the only positives are that A) I don’t think anyone was injured and B) Nico Hischier jammed in a puck for a power play goal with 13 seconds left to avoid their first shutout loss of the season. Anytime you have to write or say, “Well, at least they did not get shutout,” then you know it was a brutal game.
The main lesson that I think the Devils need to learn from this one is summed up in three words: Attention to Detail.
The Devils conceded five goals primarily because of a lack of it. Erik Haula trying and failing to breakout on the strong side, Dougie Hamilton missing Nikolaj Ehlers hanging out in a prime position, and Jesper Boqvist being a world away from him? Goal against. Boqvist failing to dump in after a penalty was killed and no one looking for Nino Neiderreiter crashing the net on the left side? Goal against. Damon Severson getting beaten by Morgan Barron, catching up to him, and taking out his leg? Penalty shot and Vitek Vanecek chose correctly to go down but was just too late as Barron beat him low. Goal against. Kyle Connor sneaking up as a trailer in a 5-on-5 situation? Goal against. Ondrej Palat standing near Pierre-Luc DuBois but not in a position to do anything about, say, a potential one timer? Goal against. And those are just on the plays that cost the Devils goals outside of Ehler’s PPG. The list of potential offensive and neutral zone plays that could have led to something being wiped out due to a bad pass, a bad read, or forcing through coverage is even larger.
The main point I want to stress is that things like coverage and picking up players off the puck making moves are matters of effort and not talent. You do not need to be Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, or even Scott Pellerin to identify where opponents are open, stepping up on them to deny them as options, and making good decisions with the puck to avoid having the play come back the other way. This loss was not because the Winnipeg Jets are this vastly superior team to the Devils - which they are demonstrably not. Hungrier? Sure. The Jets need points in the worst way given how they have faded in this season. But the Devils beat this team back in February so it is not as if they are this amazing powerhouse or terrible match-up for the Devils. On this night, the Jets preyed on a Devils team that was off enough in all three zones for a massive blowout win. Sometimes it just is not your night in hockey, but there was a real lack of effort from top to bottom tonight from the Devils. Very atypical given how the Devils have crushed it on the road and in the second of back-to-back sets this season. They were typically punished for their lack of effort.
It would be foolish to proclaim that this game is anything more than a bad game. The Devils are coming off a win, for one. For another, the last time the Devils did pay attention to detail was in the long, long ago time of last Thursday against Our Hated Rivals. A game where just about everyone from The Big Deal and Nico Hischier to even Miles Wood and Michael McLeod were playing a responsible game. I’m not going to pretend those last two games did not happen because this game was stinkier than an infant’s diaper garbage can. So I will not. If you want the template for the postseason, the win over Our Hated Rivals is pretty much the one I think they should follow.
Now, if the Devils get crushed in performances like this in their next few games, then by all means, get worried. Get concerned. Be tempted by the Panic Button. Declare that the Devils are Not Stanley Cup/Playoff Ready. I may join you at that point. Not that you need my permission for anything; your feelings are yours anyway. But that has not happened yet. Tonight was just that: a bad performance. It sucked. It sucked real bad. Arguably the team’s worst loss since the first two games of the season and the worst of the season period.
The Game Highlights: Well, fine. If you must, here they are from NHL.com.
A Milestone Out of the Way First: Not that there is anything to actually celebrate from this performance, but The Big Deal has become the fifth ever Devil to reach 90 points in a season. He set up Nico Hischier for the team’s lone goal of the game. That is his 50th assist, which is the 18th time that has happened in Devils franchise history. Hughes still has a remote shot at the season-record in franchise history, held by Patrik Elias’ 96-point campaign in 2000-01. Six points in five games is not out of the question. We’ll see if he does it. That said, I think Jack Hughes would agree that this is not an appropriate thing to celebrate as his performance was lackluster along with everyone else’s on the team tonight.
Ditto for Hischier, Jesper Bratt (the other assist on Hischier’s goal), Timo Meier, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar, Jesper Boqvist (oh, especially Boqvist’s line), Erik Haula, etc. Harsh as it seems, I struggle to say any Devil forward had a legitimately good night from start to finish. I’m certainly not going to praise a defenseman for this one.
Context Matters: Some of the People Who Matter will look at the game stats at NST and poke fun at how the Devils were so much more productive in 5-on-5 and still lost by five. It is worth noting that the Jets were right there with them in 5-on-5 in the first period and went up 2-0. The Devils did not get going in 5-on-5 until after Barron’s penalty shot goal, which meant they were chasing the game from three goals down. While, for example, out-high-danger-chancing a team 12-2 over the second and third periods is generally good, it means a lot less given this context.
The same applies to some of the individual stat lines from this game. For example: Damon Severson. He looked utterly brilliant with an on-ice Corsi differential of +20 and the Devils out-shot the Jets 12-3 when he took a shift. You just have to look past that one little moment where he fouled Barron on a breakaway that led to an already deep 0-2 hole to a really deep 0-3 hole. I do not know about you, but I really cannot look past that one if we’re going to discuss how Severson performed. It was a classic “everything’s great if you ignore the one elephant in the room” game from #28. By the way, yeah, I think the penalty shot call was a little harsh as Barron got a shot off but Severson also did not need to take out his leg on the play either. I can understand why it was given. For all of his experience in dealing with guys breaking away from him, Severson could and should have done better.
I Don’t Want to Believe in a Goalie Controversy: Vitek Vanecek was pulled after the second period for MacKenzie Blackwood. Vanecek was victimized on the first two goals against and arguably the fourth. But he was not great at all on Barron’s goal. Nor he did he come up with the kind of stops the Devils could build on as with past nights. Four goals allowed on 1.75 xGF is far from convincing. Knowing that Blackwood is still seen in the organization as a guy with something and perhaps only seen by the organization in that way, one could see that change in the third period as a message that Vanecek’s spot is not so secure.
To that end, seeing Blackwood get beaten twice out of six shots should hopefully convince the decision makers that #29 is not so viable either. Similar to Vanecek, I don’t think Blackwood had a real chance on either goal. DuBois beat him post-to-post on one cross-slot pass for a one-timer. Ehlers did the same on a late Jets power play, but the opposite way. Still, two goals allowed out of 0.57 xGF should be a clue that Blackwood is not any kind of form. Hopefully, the Devils do not overthink the Vanecek performance as a sign to feed Blackwood more games in the hopes he figures something out.
To that end, I refuse to believe in a goalie controversy. Even a minor one. Even one that is not really a Thing among most of the People Who Matter.
Yes, They Got Goalied: Connor Hellebuyck is a very talented goaltender and almost did something no one has done to the Devils this season: shut them out. Hellebuyck did have to make a few tough stops in the first period. But as the Jets built up a big lead, the pressure was clearly off Hellebuyck to be great in what was an important game for Winnipeg. I want to think that helped Hellebuyck play even better. Knowing he did not need to be near-perfect with a multiple-goal lead helped him actually be near-perfect in the crease. The Devils generated 3.62 xGF and it took Hischier jamming a puck through his legs on a second effort during a late third period power play for him to be beaten. That’s a night where they got goalied; but given that the Devils were already down, at best, 0-2 when they turned up their offensive attack, I can understand why some of you may have not felt that way. Or that it mattered much given how much Winnipeg blew the Devils away.
Credit to the Jets: The Jets really did not play this super-amazing performance where they resembled the Boston Bruins for 60 minutes. They definitely played with more effort. More attention to detail. More effective puck movement and management. They preyed upon the Devils’ lax coverage on defense and their lack of attention to detail overall for scores. Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Morrissey, and Nikolaj Ehlers did not just luck into multiple-point nights. Barron worked hard for that breakaway and the foul gave him a second crack at it for a score. Nate Schmidt played a very strong game on defense along with Dylan Samberg. But the Jets were not just on fire and the Devils were just victims of the heat. The Devils could and probably should have played far better than this. Maybe Winnipeg pulls out the win but in a far more competitive and respectable scoreline.
I will point out that this game was big for the Jets. They have fallen from competing with Dallas for first in the Central to holding on to the second wild card spot in the Western Conference. They entered tonight just two points ahead of Calgary (playing Anaheim tonight) and three from Nashville; and Nashville has two games in hand on Winnipeg. They are far from safe for a variety of reasons ranging from a lack of scoring (20 goals below expected in 5-on-5 even with this game) to a very unimpressive road record in light of a strong home record (24-12-2). This win was big for them, and so they deserve the credit as this result makes it harder for their spot to be lost.
Speaking of Playoff Races: Carolina won. The Devils are now three points back of them and the Canes still have a game in hand. Our Hated Rivals won in the afternoon, so the Devils are three points ahead of them. The Devils’ situation remains the same as it was this morning: they need help as well as helping themselves to catch Carolina; and they control their own destiny with respect to Our Hated Rivals and time is on their side for that.
One Last Thought: Not that it has anything to do with the performance or the game, but the Devils clearly did not send anyone to Winnipeg for this game. I get it. ESPN2 had the Chicago game. Why fly out Bill, Dano, and a crew to Manitoba just to bring them back for two home games. Still, the broadcast definitely lacked without that live commentary on top of Bill and Dano generally being insufferable about the defeat. While writing about these kinds of games is easy - they stunk! that’s pretty much it! - I know it is very hard to commentate and still put a show for the People Who Matter watching. But this was not it. Maybe it is me, but sometimes I felt that the Shep Messing approach should have been used tonight. In other words: Just say they stunk and stick to that. We do not always need the soft sell. Plus, I’d like to hear Daneyko attempt the phrase “Absolutely shambolic.”
Your Take: The Devils suffered their biggest loss of the season, a 1-6 defeat to Winnipeg. What is your take about this loss? Did any Devil look good to you? Who was the worst Devil? Other than attention to detail, what do you want to see differently from the Devils ahead of their home game with Pittsburgh on Tuesday? Thanks to Chris for the game preview, thanks to everyone who commented and followed briefly on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog, and thank you for reading.