The 2022-23 New Jersey Devils season is over.
Yes, it went further than anyone expected back in September or October 2022. Yes, the season was full of hot runs, historic achievements, and fantastic comebacks and moments. Yes, the Devils even won a playoff series over Our Hated Rivals. Yes, yes, yes, this season was a magnificent success given the situation they were in last Summer.
Unfortunately, there will now be plenty of time to discuss, remember, and highlight all of that. For the Devils season is now over.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils went into Raleigh to play the Carolina Hurricanes. After getting demolished at the Rock on Tuesday night, the Devils were in a win-or-else situation. They could not afford to have a bad game. They could not afford to have an average game or even a really good one. All that mattered was that the Devils needed to win Game 5 tonight in order to keep playing this season. Fair or not, the Devils needed to win this game.
To me, and maybe me alone among the People Who Matter, that was what I wanted. I was not ready for this season to end. And, yes, the team did exceed my very low expectations far beyond anything I dreamed. That said, why settle for a gentleman’s sweep in a series? That’s loser talk. I wanted the Devils to show that they can hang with the Hurricanes, gut out a win, and see if they can do it two more times. This is a Devils team that won nearly 30 games this season in comeback attempts and just came back from an 0-2 series deficit to win in seven over Our Hated Rivals. I know this series against Carolina was very different and I especially know the Devils’ chances were slim given how the previous losses went. I still wanted it to happen. Why settle for less - for anything, really?
Furthermore, there is a whole offseason and summer where we can exalt this season. Again, there is now time to do that. Please allow me to focus on this game for this recap, though.
For the first time all series, the Devils and Hurricanes played a close game. At least, it was close on the scoreboard. A 2-3 loss in overtime by its existence is a close game. In some respects, this was not a close game as Carolina continued to do the one thing the Devils had issues with: being a better at playing hockey.
I do reference and highlight stats beyond the score to point out how the game went on. Carolina, as they have done all season, have flooded opponents with shot attempts in 5-on-5. How did they do that? Anyone who watched this series got to see it in full effect. Their aggressive 1-2-2 forecheck, their man-to-man defense, and a squad committed to playing this way up and down the lineup have been the primary reasons why the Hurricanes won the division and made a 52-win Devils team who beat them twice in the season look like they were in over their heads. Mostly because there were a lot of shifts in this series where the Devils were in over their heads. The difference tonight was the issue with the Canes in the season and even at times in their postseason run: the shot attempts did not always yield successful shots or chances. Their volume of firing pucks would generate dangerous opportunities as well as tips and favorable bounces for scores. The forecheck and the strong defensive play could - and did - create counter-attack rushes. For all of the critics wondering whether the New Jersey Devils up-tempo skill-based game could work in the playoffs, they got to see Carolina excel in those same respects only with a more aggressive team game to pin the Devils back.
Regardless, the 5-on-5 numbers - which matter a lot as 63 minutes of this game was at 5-on-5 - show a Devils team that was out-attempted 52-78, out-hot 27-35, out-chanced 31-36, and out-high danger chanced 16-18. While the expected goals count was actually close for a change at 2.8 to 3.23, the attempts - the Corsi - is the key figure. Even if those attempts were blocked away or missed the net entirely, it meant the Canes were forcing the Devils to defend. And there were a lot of plays where the Devils had to scramble back to deny a killer opportunity from Michael McLeod denying Jesper Fast a gift from Schmid behind the net to Dougie Hamilton killing a 2-on-1 rush near the end of regulation to Luke Hughes blocking out a 2-on-1 attempt after Brent Burns’ goal late in the second. No, a team cannot win on Corsi alone, but the Hurricanes are built to just fire, fire, and fire away and pin their opponents back. Which they did a lot of in the third period of a 2-2 game where the Devils had to win or see their season end.
What this means is that anyone playing the Canes has to finish whatever chances they can create. Especially if the team can get the Canes to play on their heels and unable to set up that 1-2-2 forecheck. The Devils got that in the first period where a quick zone exit on defense led to a wonderful pass by Timo Meier to Dawson Mercer for the game’s first goal in the first period. There was a stretch of about 13 minutes of the second period where the Canes had one (1) shot on net and the Devils were just rolling. Alas, the Devils could not bury the puck. Not when Curtis Lazar had a rebound try. Not when Damon Severson tried to hook up Nathan Bastian for a one-timer. And, most painfully, not when The Big Deal set up Meier at the side of the net for an empty net - that Meier put the puck across the crease instead of the net.
Not finishing opportunities against a Canes team that can bomb away and for long stretches at a time can cost a team. It did in the second period as Carolina opened the period with all kinds of pressure and a long shot by Jaccob Slavin that found its way through on a deflection (I thought the tip was by Jordan Martinook) to tie up the game at 1-1. Brent Burns tied up the game late in the second period after a defensive zone shift where Playoff Experienced Ondrej Palat failed to make a clearance and failed to get the puck after a Jack Drury shot (to end the 13 minute near-drought) and Jesper Bratt failed to pressure Burns from the point. Burns fired a puck past a battling Jonas Siegenthaler and Jordan Staal to make it 2-2. Then the Devils had to survive a third period where they conceded 30 shot attempts and 11 shots and holding your breath each time the puck heads towards Schmid because any old thing could get through in a 2-2 game.
Coincidentally, this game was decided on special teams. For the first Devils game all playoffs, the referees were incredibly loose with the non-calls. The Devils broke the 1-1 tie with a rarity in this series and this playoffs: a goal by power play unit #1. Jesperi Kotkaniemi punched Curtis Lazar after Lazar hit him by the bench. The refs called that retalitation and the Devils punished it quickly. A faceoff win to Jack Hughes to Dougie Hamilton, who fired a hard, low shot from the center point. Frederik Andersen made the save and Meier slammed in the rebound. 2-1 just 15 seconds into the power play. A big moment and the Devils absolutely built on that - to no result, unfortunately.
The worst penalty would come in overtime. After a quasi-overtime of a third period, an actual one took place. Tomas Tatar, who has been horrid nearly all series, decided to make an unneeded back pass to Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler fired the puck up and out - and over the glass. An easy penalty to call. One of the few the refs have to call. And one that every player has to know better by now given it has been in place for a long time. I winced when I saw it. I felt a lot of guilt for Siegenthaler, who was battling all game at least.
My fear was realized that the power play would be the series. The Devils made exits but the puck kept going out of play. The puck remained in New Jersey’s end. In a one-shot game, the second power play unit of Carolina got that one shot. After trying to stretch out the PK and look for options, Shanye Gostisbehere found Kotkaniemi flash to the top of the left circle. Nico Hischier went to one knee to try to block what would come. Flung out his stick too. Kotkaniemi delayed enough, fired a rising shot, and an uncovered Jesper Fast tipped it in for the win. The Canes’ 39th shot on net of the game. The end of the Devils season.
My heart sank. For Siegenthaler who did a lot well all season and nearly won it in overtime himself but Sebastian Aho denied a potentially killer far-post shot with his stick. For the Devils PK, who did a great job for most of this season and surviving a first period call on Palat, and received the fantastic fortune of Fast missing a wide open net after the kill ended. Units that held up well for a minute until it was over by Kotkaniemi and Fast. For a Devils team who, for the first time all series, did not get blown out and managed to find themselves in a chance to do the unlikely thing and win. In a season full of unlikely events and occurrences and achievements. This time, the odds won, the unlikely thing did not happen, and now it is over. All at the hands of a Carolina Hurricanes team that demonstrated over and over that they are better at what really matters in hockey: winning pucks, denying the other team chances, and firing away even when it is not going well. Believing and hoping and such are helpful, but they cannot beat a great plan executed even better.
Like the Lemaire Devils of the 1990s, a talented, hard-working team committed to playing a system of hockey suited to their game is a very tough opponent. That is what I saw when I saw the Hurricanes in this series. Perhaps this is their year. And if it is, expect a lot more teams emulating what Rod Brind’Amour and his staff have put together.
As for the Devils, the ending was like a lot of endings. It was abrupt and final. There will be much to analyze and discuss and debate. The offseason starts now.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Canes Country, they are probably happy. I do not know for sure, but I think it is a safe bet. I wrote this mostly before their recap went up.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight’s highlights.
Detailed Thoughts About Devils I Did Not Think Did Well Tonight: There has been a lot, and I mean a lot, of frustration and anger and disappointment in one (1) Jesper Bratt. He has scored one (1) goal all playoffs and it was an empty netter. The five assists? The 21 shots? No matter. The pending restricted free agent had chances to make an impact and he faltered again. He was called out by Jack Adams Finalist and head coach Lindy Ruff for not going inside after Game 4. Bratt took that to heart by going hard to the net when he could. He went inside and around the net frequently. And had Ondrej Palat in the third period finished his feed or Siegenthaler was not blocked by Aho’s stick in overtime, perhaps Bratt would have appeared on the scoresheet for a hugely important goal. Unfortunately, not only did that happen, his most memorable play was not closing down on Burns towards the end of the second period. Burns scored a massive equalizer to end a Devils run of offense, tie up the game, and send the Devils back to the locker room wondering what happened. There will be a lot of words written about Bratt over the next six to eight weeks. Let me point out that he did have a better game tonight than Game 4, but that is not saying much. But the expectation is that he needed to produce and he failed to do so. Once again, he was not even the best Jesper in this game, much less in the series or playoffs.
Did I think he did enough to do well? Look at the name of the section again. Seriously, man, you needed to sell out for a block on Burns there!
However, if you wanted to identify smallish, European-born wingers also having a bad game tonight, then you had options other than Bratt: Palat, Tatar, and Erik Haula. All three were bad. All three made Bratt look, well, at least a little better.
Palat took a stupid high-sticking penalty on offense in the first period and coughed up the puck in all three zones. He had a chance at redemption thanks to Bratt but Andersen denied him to his face twice. And managed to get one official shot on net for it - his only one of the game. I can understand that Palat may not be as 100% has he let on since recovering from his surgery months ago. But if he is on the ice, then I expect him to perform. For all of his playoff experience in Tampa Bay, Palat left a lot to be desired in this postseason. Getting out-attempted 15-21 when on the ice hurt the cause.
As for Haula, he was really a non-factor in this evening. He was surging in the first round. He returned to a “just kind of there” level of performance. Tatar has been “just kind of there” for most of this postseason and his ill-advised pass back to Siegenthaler will be remembered for many wrong reasons. The Big Deal did not make a huge impact in 5-on-5 tonight mostly because these two were his linemates. They were rarely in position to receive passes. The passes they would make often missed the mark, which the Canes appreciated. They contributed little off the puck. It is not an accident that a combo of Jack Hughes, Michael McLeod and Timo Meier created the goal that Meier should have scored. While Jack Adams Finalist and head coach Lindy Ruff got some things right with the roster, putting Hughes with those two was not it and the Canes owned that match-up. Then again, you could have put any player - McDavid! MacKinnon! Crosby! Either Tkachuk! - in the NHL with Haula and Tatar and they would have struggled to do much of anything. Haula and Tatar rounded out the bad section of the forwards tonight.
Defensively, Hamilton and Siegenthaler were pinned back a lot. While both were not awful per se, I cannot defend a performance where the Devils were ouyt-attempted 14-38 when Hamilton was on the ice and 16-35 when Siegenthaler was out there. They were out-shot 5-18 and 6-20, respectively. I feel bad because I thought they put in more effort but they had a lot of extended shifts on defense and struggled to find the exits that would have released some pressure. Siegenthaler, in particular, was seen battling on both goals against in regulation and took that ultimately season-killing delay of game call. A bad, bad night for a pairing that was otherwise so, so good this season.
Detailed Thoughts About Devils I Think Did Well Tonight: Positives? In this loss? Yes, really.
First and foremost, Akira Schmid. He faced an expected 3.61 goals and allowed three. All three were either deflected, off screens, or in the case of the series-winner both. Schmid was lucky that Fast did not score on his blindside in the first period. Schmid was lucky that a Seth Jarvis deflection hit the post early in the game. Schmid was lucky that his turnover to Fast in the third period was denied by McLeod. But Schmid also made a lot of saves among traffic. He set himself well such that the Canes seemingly fired into him instead of Schmid reacting into saves. In a series where the Devils’ goaltending has been highly questionable, Schmid provided at least acceptable goaltending. I know it is odd to praise a goalie in a 2-3, season-ending loss, but Vanecek and Schmid were that bad in the previous four games. Schmid gave the Devils a chance to win, even when Carolina was thriving in New Jersey’s end for extended shifts. That is something.
Second, Luke Hughes. Luke Hughes had a contentious Game 4. In Game 5, a win-or-else game, Luke was getting heavy minutes all the way through the game. He took fewer risks. He was more aware of where he needed to be on defense. He helped the Devils get forward as the Devils were only out-attempted 25-28 when he was on the ice and the Devils out-shot them 16-12 in 5-on-5 play. Luke ultimately played 25 minutes in a critical playoff game on the road, second only to John Marino. And this was his fifth NHL game ever. Luke Hughes is going to be a stud and it may happen a lot faster than we may think.
Third, John Marino. While the 5-on-5 numbers were not kind, Marino did a lot of little things right. While the Devils were out-attempted 19-34 when he was on the ice, the shots were 12-13. Marino had a lot to do with that. He took a puck to the face in overtime, got gauze jammed into his nostrils, and continued to play even as one turned, well, bloody red. He kept playing and ended up playing 30:36. He put in the most effort out of any Devil and I liked a lot of it, even if I wish more of those minutes were outside of the Devils’ end.
Fourth, the fourth liners. Michael McLeod, Miles Wood, Nathan Bastian, and Curtis Lazar should feel real good for their efforts tonight. McLeod, in particular, was thrown out on the ice for a lot of extra shifts to play 22:39. While hammered in 5-on-5, McLeod’s ethic was on full display. He absolutely wanted a Game 6. He has been, for better or worse, one of the better Devils in this series. But Wood, Bastian, and Lazar were able to break through to at least make the Canes worry a bit on defense. From Wood playing a puck ahead to himself for one of New Jersey’s early chances in the game to Lazar and Bastian camping out by Andersen for rebound tries, the fourths handled their business well. Yes, there were some rough defensive shifts but they did their best to help the cause this evening. A lot more impactful than some other Devils I could name.
But What About...: I did not mention some Devils. So some quick bullets.
- Jack Hughes, the Big Deal only played 14:16 tonight. I wonder if he was nursing an injury. He did have a hand in creating the Devils’ second power play goal of this series and should have had an assist but Meier missed the net. He also got tripped up and flew while crashing the net on that play. I wonder if that hurt him?
- Nico Hischier was not actively bad but did not have much of an impact on this game. The Captain has been a supremely hard worker but this game was just not one of his better ones Alas.
- Timo Meier - WHY DID YOU MISS THE EMPTY NET IN THE SECOND PERIOD. I know there were other things and he scored a PPG and even great players have odd things happen like the time Bryce Salvador scored from the neutral zone on Henrik Lundqvist in the playoffs but still HOW DID YOU MISS THE NET. Ugggggggggggggggggggggh.
- Damon Severson, Catastrophic Defender was on display for the first period. Including a brutal turnover up the middle of the ice near the end of the first period that, somehow, the Canes did not punish. But Severson settled down and had a better game as time went on. When he was on the ice, the Devils eventually had their most success in 5-on-5.
- Ryan Graves returned to the lineup in place of Kevin Bahl. Graves had his struggles and had to play a lot in his own end. But he did not cough up the puck as badly as, say, Severson did. Or some of the forwards from the halfwall on attempted strong-side breakouts. As much as I think Bahl has grown in recent months, I do not think Bahl would have done a whole lot better than Graves tonight.
- Mercer scored a goal! Then went back to being a guy out there being forced to play a lot of defense. If there is one thing I want him to work on this Summer, it is his off the puck play in the neutral and defensive zones. I think he can be effective but tonight showed he has a way to go.
- And while not a player, Jack Adams Finalist and head coach Lindy Ruff. Well, he did not figure out how to best address Carolina’s systems or their superior execution of said systems. He did not figure out how to get them off their game. But Ruff correctly started Schmid for this game, he correctly dressed Luke Hughes and kept going to him when it was clear he was more than up for this situation, he opted to mix up some forwards either for fatigue and performance based reasons, and while it was odd, Graves for Bahl was not that bad. The team’s mentality was a lot better and I give him credit for that. Rod Brind’Amour out-coached him once more but that was not likely to change within 48 hours of the Game 4 loss. That said, Ruff did not lose this game with bad roster decisions or keeping the Devils playing some kind of way that just made it easy for the Hurricanes. Plus, he did not tell the team to just lose pucks in their own end repeatedly.
What About the Opposition: I thought I made it clear in the first part of this recap that they were great. I suppose I must repeat it. They were great. The inclusion of Mackenzie MacEachern on their fourth line in place of Jesse Puljujarvi was small but very effective. Jesper Fast was, once again, the best Jesper in the series. Kotkaniemi and Martinook continued to pound the Devils in between territorial dominance by Jordan Staal, Jack Drury (an underrated series for him), and Martin Necas and Sebastian Aho, Seth Jarvis, and Stefan Noesen. Canes defensemen may make up the best blueline in the NHL and they played the largest roles on the scoresheet with Slavin, Burns, and Gostisbehere. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei continued to show that their awful Game 3 was just one bad game. Frederik Andersen made some important stops. The Hurricanes squad was, once again, superior in their game plan and in their execution. Credit to the Devils for making this one a close game.
I think the Hurricanes have to be seen as the favorites to come out of the East. I was not being cheeky about my reference to the Lemaire Devils from the 1990s. They are a very good team and can mess up anyone real badly if they are able to execute and not fall apart in other areas (goaltending, special teams). Florida will provide a challenge in the ECFs, but I think this could be Carolina’s year. And a lot of organizations are going to realize what many in the Metropolitan have known for years: the Carolina Hurricanes are a top-tier team.
One Last Thought: Thank you. I do not know what I will have for tomorrow. But I will have...something.
Your Take: The Devils’ season is over. They lost 2-3 in overtime to Carolina. A game close on the scoreboard, less close in the run of play, but over all the same thanks to a Jesper Fast tip-in on a power play. What did you think of the game? What are your final takeaways from the game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the overtime loss and the series and even the playoffs as a whole in the comments.
Expect an open thread about the rest of the playoffs and the upcoming World Championships soon. I am on the fence of doing a May in review. It will not be tomorrow if there is one. We will transition to free agency, trades, and prospects in the near future, but I have to plan that out. Your patience is appreciated. Again, I did not want it to end tonight. But it did.
Thanks to Elliot for what was the final game preview of 2022-23 for the Devils. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and/or on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading this recap and any others all season long. Thank you. You may not be right. You may not be aware. You may not agree. But you are, indeed, the People Who Matter.