The New Jersey Devils went seven games against Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers. After a disappointing Game 6, the Devils had to host one of the most agonizing games for anyone to experience. A true win-or-stay-home situation for the Devils. There were heroes and villains of the night. The heroes deserve the recognition. Michael McLeod with a shorthanded goal thanks to Ondrej Palat. John Marino, who had an awesome night, with a killer assist to Tomas Tatar. The surging Erik Haula slammed in a dagger from The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, in the third period. The biggest hero: Akira Schmid who robbed every player with a diagonally listed name for his second playoff shutout, putting him second all-time in franchise history for playoff shutouts. The Devils won 4-0. The Rock was a party atmosphere. There was a whole lot of Quit in New York. The celebration continues on for the People Who Matter.
Not so for the Devils. They have another round to play and it is starting tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow. The Devils are facing the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round. The division finals, if you will. There is some history here. And the Hurricanes proved their value in a six-game series win over the Islanders. The winner: a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to play the winners of Toronto-Florida. The loser: sees their season end, but at least has a series win to feel good about.
This post will preview the series between the two as completely as possible, even on short notice.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (2nd in Metropolitan Division, 52-22-8, 112 points; 4-3 over Our Hated Rivals) vs. the Carolina Hurricanes (1st in Metropolitan Division, 52-21-9, 113 points; 4-2 over Islanders)
The Series Schedule: From NHL.com. It is all national coverage from here on out. Audio will be the Devils Hockey Network through Audacy, so you can still get your Matt Loughlin and Chico Resch fix.
- Game 1 - Devils at Carolina: Wednesday, May 3, 7 PM ET - National TV: ESPN, TVAS, SNE, SNO, SNP
- Game 2 - Devils at Carolina: Friday, May 5, 8 PM ET - National TV: TNT, SN, TVAS
- Game 3 – Devils vs. Carolina: Sunday, May 7, 3:30 PM ET - National TV: TBS, SN1, TVAS
- Game 4 – Devils vs. Carolina: Tuesday, May 9, 7 PM ET - National TV: ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
- Game 5 (if necessary) – Devils at Carolina: Thursday, May 11, TBD - National TV: TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS
- Game 6 (if necessary) – Devils vs. Carolina: Saturday, May 13, TBD - National TV: ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
- Game 7 (if necessary) – Devils at Carolina: Monday, May 15, TBD - National TV: ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS
Another favorable schedule in that there are no back-to-back sets. A Sunday afternoon against Carolina on Sunday could be a fun time, in fact. As for the television coverage, the Worldwide Leader is what it is, which is sad. Perhaps TNT/TBS will do a more appreciable job in Games 2, 3, and 5. Spoiler: I think this is going well beyond four games.
The Set-up: The New Jersey Devils were atop the Metropolitan Division back in the beginning of December or so thanks to a 13-game winning streak. A total heater. Then the Devils slumped a bit in December while Carolina got hot on their own. The Hurricanes proceeded to stay ahead of the Devils all the way until the end of the season. They were tied in points for a handful of days – such as after the last Devils-Hurricanes – game. But with Carolina beating Florida in their final game, they edged out the Devils for first in the division. This meant the Hurricanes hosted the Islanders in a playoff series while the Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals.
You know what happened with the Devils series. Here is a quick summary of the Hurricanes’ series.
It was close. It was low-scoring with just 31 goals between the two teams over six games, including two overtime games. Only two games were won by more than one goal; a Game 3 win by the Islanders, 5-1; and a Game 4 win by the Hurricanes, 5-2. All else was decided by one shot. Carolina switched goaltenders from Antti Raanta to Frederik Andersen for Game 6, lost Teuvo Teravainen to injury in Game 2 - and had hand surgery afterwards, were frustrated by Ilya Sorokin at times, and needed contributions from everyone from Sebastian Aho and Brent Burns to Derek Stepan and Paul Stastny. The latter scoring the OT winner at UBS Arena to win the series-clinching Game 6. No, Carolina did not play seven games. It was far from an easy series.
The Injuries: I am 100% confident no one is 100% healthy. Everyone is carrying some kind of knock, bump, bruise, or whatever you call it. Perhaps something more seriously. I am defining injury in this case as entirely unable to play.
For the Devils, Timo Meier was taken out of Game 7 by Jacob Trouba with a hit to the head that is technically within the rules but it was the kind of hit that makes one wonder why it was within the rules. Meier did return to the bench but did not play since leaving the ice from Trouba’s hit. His status is a concern. Jonathan Bernier is on long term injured reserve since the beginning of the season.
For Carolina, the injuries have undercut their forwards. Max Pacioretty remains out with a torn Achilles. Ondrej Kase remains out with a concussion. Teravainen is out with a broken hand from the Isles series. He had surgery just about two weeks ago. I doubt he will force a comeback. Andrei Svechnikov had knee surgery on March 16 and will try to return by training camp for Carolina. Svechnikov was a significant part of the Canes offense in this season with 23 goals, 55 points, 64 games. He was surely missed in a low-scoring series with the Isles. At least they appear to get Jack Drury back for the start of this series.
The Playoff History: It is a grim history for the Devils. The Devils never saw Hartford as they were in different divisions in the 1980s and the two never met in the conference-style series in the 1990s. The Devils have only faced the Hurricanes. They are 1-3 lifetime against them. Their first meeting was in the first round of the 2001 playoffs. The Devils prevailed 4-2. They were an overtime away from sweeping them and they got a bit of a scare in Game 5. This was responded with a 5-1 win in Carolina to end that series as the Devils marched on to Toronto. Since then, elimination has been in the Canes’ hands. In 2002, the Canes surprised the Devils with a 2-4 series loss wherein they won the first two games by a 1-2 score, and took Game 5 at 3-2 in OT and took Game 6 at 1-0. In 2006, fresh off the Devils sweeping Our Hated Rivals and the month of April, the Hurricanes cooled off and knocked off New Jersey. Starting with a 0-6 thrashing in Game 1, it was a “gentleman’s sweep” where the Devils lost in 5 to the eventual Cup champs. At least Carolina was an excellent team in 2005-06.
Then 2008-09. Oh, 2009. In 2008-09, the Devils were the superior team in the season but fell apart in an upset to the Canes. The two teams traded off wins as the Devils could never get the job done successfully. Game 7 was seemingly won before a collapse/choke-job within the final two minutes that yielded a 3-4 loss to enrage the People Who Matter at the Rock and all over the world, myself absolutely included. Needless to say, the Canes have enjoyed their playoff games against the Devils even if it has been a while since the last one.
The Hatred: Mild. I am sure the feelings of 2009 will come back for some. But that was also over a decade ago. Games between the two since then have not been heated or nasty or anything much like it. If that Game 7 loss did not lead to a rivalry growing, then I cannot say the hatred is all that strong. I am sure some will dislike how much of a challenge the Canes will present. Unless the Canes bring Brad Marchand or Jacob Trouba into the series in disguise, this is not likely going to grow into a hated series. Certainly not even close to the first round that the Devils won.
The Home & Road Splits: Pretty close for two teams that finished a point apart from each other. The Canes have been the better home team with a 28-10-3 record in the season and 2-1 at home. The Devils have the better road record: 28-9-4 in the regular season and 2-1 on the road in the playoffs.
The Season Series
The two teams played each other four times this season. They have split results, although the Devils earned five points to the Canes’ four. Not that a shootout result matters in the playoffs anymore than these games.
- Season Game #1: December 20, 2022 - Devils at Carolina, Devils lost 1-4.
- Season Game #2: January 1, 2023 – Devils vs. Carolina, Devils lost 4-5 through a shootout.
- Season Game #3: January 10, 2023 - Devils at Carolina, Devils won 5-3
- Season Game #4: March 12, 2023 – Devils vs. Carolina, Devils won 3-0
The March 12 game was an especially important game at the time as it put the Devils briefly in a tie with Carolina on points for first in the division. While the Hurricanes ultimately pulled away just enough, it did show how an inspired Devils team would play against Carolina. Unfortunately, the previous first round series showed how the regular season results may not lead to how the playoffs would go. The Devils also faced against goalie Pytor Kochetkov in three of these four games. That also adds to this being more novelty than telling about how this upcoming series would go.
Which would be something for the power play units to keep in mind. In four games against the Canes, the Devils have scored exactly zero power play goals out of thirteen opportunities. They have conceded four shorthanded goals. Yeah, let us wipe that away mentally. But only for the power play. The Devils’ penalty kill was near perfect against Carolina with just one power play goal allowed across 14 different opportunities. The scoring in this series was largely done in even strength situations, which makes sense as both teams are built for 5-on-5 play.
The 5-on-5 Play
The New Jersey Devils were really good in 5-on-5 during the regular season. Carolina was even better. Seemingly ever since the organization hired Eric Tulsky, the Hurricanes have made their 5-on-5 play a point of emphasis. Even when they were not making the playoffs, the Canes were a difficult opponent for many because of this. It was their greatest strength in the regular season - even besting New Jersey in most categories.
The only major flaw in the Hurricanes’ 5-on-5 play was their finishing. The team shot relatively cold. Despite hefty advantages in shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances, the goals were not always there. Take away Svechnikov and Teravainen, and the offense is more based on how well Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, the defensemen, and the depth can finish. Aho has showed up for the playoffs. Brent Burns has been a creator with five assists. Guys like Jesper Fast, Stefan Noesen, and Paul Stastny supplemented the offense well. Necas has been strangely cold.
This was more than made up for by the defense and the goaltending. I will get to the goaltending in its own section. The Carolina defense, on paper, may be the best defense in the entire NHL. Brent Burns had a fantastic season in terms of production with 18 goals and 61 points. Expect Burns to be like Adam Fox was for Our Hated Rivals; a constant threat from the back. Brady Skjei was also wonderful in adding 18 goals of his own. Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin - especially Slavin, who took all of four penalties all season - were big-minute eating defensemen all season long. The team added Shayne Gostisbehere to support the depth defenders of Jalen Chatfield and Calvin de Haan. On paper, Gostisbehere has been a wonderful add with 10 points and awesome 5-on-5 numbers in limited minutes. Speaking of: Gaze upon the 5-on-5 numbers of the Hurricanes defensemen at Natural Stat Trick and be marveled. No defenseman with a CA/60 over 50. No defenseman with an xGA/60 of 2.3. No matter who is on the ice, the Canes went forward in 2022-23. And heavily so.
Which speaks to how the Canes have done their business in 5-on-5. Loads of volume, possession, and generating enough chances that even if the finish is not always there, there will be more coming. The Devils had the 5-on-5 advantage on paper in their first round series. They will not in this series.
Except that was all from the regular season. What did the playoff 5-on-5 numbers look like? Did their season dominance continue into their respective playoff series? (Note: Top 4 stats are in green, Bottom 4 stats are in red)
Surprising to me, 5-on-5 did not as well for the Devils in the series against Our Hated Rivals as I thought. The Devils were goalie’d as a whole by Igor Shesterkin seeing how the Devils scored at a rate of nearly two fewer goals per 60 minutes. Those 11 goals against did get boosted from decisive losses in Games 1, 2, and 5. Still, the rates of offense were quite favorable. Especially at generating scoring chances. This helped the expected goals model look so good. Even by eye, one could see how Shesterkin kept the Devils from just going off on some nights in the series. The Devils did well and, in some respects, dominated. But it also took over two games to have the Devils rush down their opponents and crash the net repeatedly for great metrics and, eventually, a handful of goals.
As for the Hurricanes, they were also good but not as dominant as they were in the season. Like the Devils, their sticks were cold. Unlike the Devils, they were relatively cold in the regular season too. Carolina shot the puck a ton in their games against New York’s Better Team and did quite well at generating chances. Surprising to me, their against rate stats were not so hot. They were not awful, but not nearly as good as I would have expected based on the regular season. It may be worth the Devils’ coaches time to look into how the Isles broke down the Hurricanes in the neutral zone and in their defensive zone to create opportunities. The goaltending held up decently so it was not like the Isles scored a heap of goals. But the Hurricanes were not the lock-down 5-on-5 team that they were in the regular season. Especially Skjei, whose numbers in 5-on-5 stuck out like a sore thumb compared to Slavin, Burns, and Gostisbehere.
Still, the defense supported a forward group that has been more than capable of tilting the ice. Derek Stepan, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Paul Stastny may play limited minutes, but they have been a force in 5-on-5 and have provided some crucial points. Aho and Jarvis have been great. Jordan Staal, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Stefan Noesen, well, not so much. The Devils should try to target them when they can in 5-on-5. Especially if Nico Hischier and whoever is linemates are get any of those three. The surprise: Necas. One of Carolina’s top scorers had just one goal and three points against the Isles and he has been run over in 5-on-5. Hopefully, regular season Necas does not come back too soon in this series.
As for the Devils, the potential loss of Meier is huge for the 5-on-5 game. While he was held without a goal, Meier did a whole lot to push the play forward and create a lot of offense. Our Hated Rivals had little legal answer for him. Hopefully, Meier is not rushed back too quickly from injury. As much as I want him to return, I want him to be effective and not cut his career short. OHR also had little answer for Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, Tomas Tatar, and The Big Deal - Jack Hughes. Again, like Meier, most of that group was not so productive in the postseason so far. Only Hughes had scored goals, plural. Tatar and Bratt scored their first of the postseason in Game 7. Mercer scored his first of the postseason in Game 5. Hischier remains goalless but does have three assists. If those guys can start finding the back of the net more often in conjunction with controlling the run of play, then that would be huge for the Devils offense. The issue for New Jersey at forward: Our Hated Rivals generally did well against fourth liners - looking at you, Miles Wood and Nathan Bastian - and Ondrej Palat had a real rough series at time. The Canes could seek to pick on that fourth line, especially with the first two games being in Raleigh. As for Palat, he has been with Hughes and his Game 7 was good. He needs to continue being good. Overall, it is still a group of speed, skill, and attacking the net a whole lot. That last bit is an important wrinkle compared with Carolina.
As far as the defense goes, outside of a really contentious game from Brendan Smith, the Devils have stuck with Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, Ryan Graves, Damon Severson, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Kevin Bahl. Siegenthaler was a hero in Game 4 and has been solid as a rock since Game 1. Ditto Hamilton, who will face his former team in this series. Marino has been quite good too. Graves have had some issues at times, but overall has been fine. Statistically, it is Bahl that could be a concern. He had some fine games but also has had some long shifts in his own end.
Overall, the Devils 5-on-5 play was very good but was not as exceptional as Carolina in the regular season. After one round in the playoffs, the Devils may have a bit of an edge. But Carolina’s high-volume ways yielding quality and occasionally, goals, will really test the Devils. I can believe that the Devils will hang with Carolina in 5-on-5. But I have to give the edge in this game state to the Hurricanes.
Who’s Better: The Hurricanes - to a point. The Hurricanes’ defense struggling to keep away the Isles is something to keep in mind if/when the Devils rush it down on the ice. The Devils’ defense did an awesome job overall against Our Hated Rivals but they will have to contend with a more aggressive and faster Canes team.
The Power Play
Power plays can absolutely turn the tide in any game. Punishing an opponent for a foul feels good. In what could end up being a series of close-score games, an extra goal or two with a man advantage can play a big role in how the series is played. That said, neither team is going to be particularly confident about their play on the man advantage.
During the season, the Devils were good. OK at worst. Better than decent but nothing extremely exceptional save for their lack of opportunites. Carolina, on the other hand, did a far better job getting to man advantage situations. They were great at firing attempts. Getting those attempts on net and doing so from decent locations, not as great, but not bad either. I would think Canes fans wished their team was more clinical on the power play during the regular season. Devils fans may just wish for more power plays at all. The playoffs are a bit of a different story.
The Devils’ power play was not all that good. While a couple of those PPGs were important - Jack Hughes in Game 3, Erik Haula in Game 5 - there were just four power play goals. Our Hated Rivals had a strong PK and they frustrated the Devils from setting up on plenty of those 24 man advantage situations. As a result, the Devils were not able to generate shot attempts, much less shots, on net. Their power play breakouts were denied by a strong presence at the line and penalty killers winning the second or third puck in the zone for an easy-looking exit. The Devils’ power play needs to show something different. There have been some personnel changes. Palat has seen some time on PP1. Bratt and Mercer have seen time on both units. On paper, the Devils absolutely have the players you would want on a power play. Hughes, Hamilton, Hischier, Bratt, and Meier on one unit and a hot Haula, Palat, Severson, Tatar, and Mercer on the other. But it has not generated much offense, much less goals in the first round. It needs to be much better I have some more bad news for the Devils power play in a section.
Carolina’s power play is nothing to write too much home about either. Despite firing tons of pucks in the season on their man advantages, they were just outside of the bottom four in CF/60 during their man advantages. Like the Devils, they did not generate high rates of shots or scoring chances. Unlike the Devils, they also had ten fewer man advantages to work with. So even with a higher shooting percentage, the Canes PP units generated just one more goal than New Jersey’s. Again, the Canes have some serious PP threats in Burns, Necas, and Aho. Noesen and Jarvis have rounded out the first unit with those three with the secondary unit featuring Kotkaniemi, Gostisbehere and/or Skjei, Puljujarvi, and Stastny. But I am sure Carolina will want to get more from their power plays - and even just getting more power plays. Something the Devils would be very wise to avoid, especially after this past series.
Who’s Better: Push. I would not call either power play to be all that good. While the Canes’ power play has been better than the Devils in the postseason, it is not by much and the season stats show the Devils’ power play was more effective.
The Penalty Kill
As much as penalty calls in the playoffs are even more unreliable and inconsistent than they are in the regular season, a team is bound to have to kill off some shorthanded situations at some point. Being able to kill off a penalty will not only keep the score as-is, but also wear down offensive players for a few shifts before the normal 5-on-5 flow of lines returns.’
Just like the 5-on-5 stats, the Devils were good but the Canes were just much better on the penalty kill. Maybe not across the board. The Devils did have a better xGA/60 rate and, more importantly, had 26 fewer shorthanded situations to kill. That said, the Canes got it done all over. Their goaltenders were top-ten in shorthanded situations and the skaters, who already put together arguably the league’s best defensive numbers in 5-on-5, were top-five in the NHL in all other stats other than expected goals, minutes, and situations. The Devils should know this well; their power play went 0-for-14 in all four games against the Canes. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes’ fantastic penalty kill did not change much in the playoffs from a results perspective.
The Devils’ penalty kill was gashed in the first two games. Then, between Akira Schmid’s hotness and some solid work by the skaters, the PK has been far more successful. John Marino and Ryan Graves have played the most minutes; but Kevin Bahl and Jonas Siegenthaler have prevailed on a secondary unit (with a cameo from Damon Severson in that one game Siegenthaler was bizarrely scratched in). Nico Hischier and Erik Haula have been the primary forwards while others have come up big in lesser minutes like Mercer, Nathan Bastian, and Michael McLeod. The Devils’ penalty kill going from 4 PPGAs allowed in the first two games to just one allowed in the final five was a huge reason why the Devils made it a series at all. Even that last one was a lucky bounce off Chris Kreider’s leg.
That said, Carolina’s penalty kill was elite. Elite. Going 17 for 18 on kills is massive against any opponent. Just taking 18 shorthanded situations is quite good. The Canes’ PK against the Isles ended up performing how you would expect one of the best defensive units in the NHL would perform. Even if they broke down Jaccob Slavin, Jordan Staal, Jordan Martinook, Brett Pesce, Brent Burns, Sebastian Aho, or Jesper Fast, , both Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen just shut the door. This is the bad news for the Devils power play I referred to earlier. They are going from a really good PK team in New York to arguably the best PK in the NHL. Carolina was relatively disciplined in the postseason and absolutely took care of business in their first round.
Who’s Better: Carolina. Clearly.
New Jersey: Akira Schmid, Vitek Vanecek
In my series preview against Our Hated Rivals, I pointed out that if Vitek Vanecek was not in a game, then something really bad happened. Well, it turned out Vanecek getting lit up for nine goals in two games was the bad thing. Devils management and Lindy Ruff made the choice to try out Schmid in Game 3. The rookie went out there and managed to hang with Igor Shesterkin, who was playing like it was 2022. Schmid conceded 1, 1, 0, 5, and 0 goals from Games 3 to 7. That Game 6 was the exception, not a breaking point. By the end of the series, Schmid has an overall save percentage of 95.1%, a 95.7% save percentage on the PK, and an even strength save percentage of 94.9%. Schmid’s 94.8% save percentage in 5-on-5 ranked tied for fourth in the whole league after the first round. (And behind Shesterkin’s mind-boggling 95.5% save percentage) In all situations, Schmid was expected to concede 12.74 goals (12-13 goals, really) and only allowed seven. That was a super-hot run that should guarantee a NHL career for the former fifth-round draft pick for years to come. Expect Schmid to keep starting in games for New Jersey until he cools off big-time or he literally cannot.
Based on the season stats, Schmid did have the best statline albeit with only 14 stats and 18 appearances. If Vanecek has to come into this series, then it should not be seen as something to doom the Devils. He was perfectly fine with a 91.1% overall save percentage and a 91.6% even strength save percentage in 48 starts and 52 appearances. Vanecek also owns a shutout over Carolina this season in that win on March 12. That is at least a fun fact.
By the way, what about Mackenzie Blackwood? He did not even dress for any of the seven games against Our Hated Rivals. He is absolutely the third-stringer now. The save percentages justify that decision from the coaching staff.
Carolina: Antti Raanta, Frederik Andersen, Pytor Kochetkov
Rod Brind’Amour went with Raanta for the first five games against the Islanders. Over all five games, he had his moments. He posted a 90.6% overall save percentage, a 90.6% even strength save percentage, and even a 90.6% 5-on-5 save percentage. He was much better on the PK with a 93.8%; but a 90.6% is a somewhat decent save percentage. He was expected to give up 14-15 goals and he allowed 13. Something workable - especially with Carolina’s defense - but could be an issue in such a tight series. Brind’Amour decided to put in Andersen for his first playoff game and his first game since their season ender against Florida. Andersen stopped 33 of 34 in a 2-1 OT win to move on to the second round. He absolutely came up big in a game where they really needed it. Only one game, but Andersen made the most of it.
I would expect Carolina to openly switch between the two in this series. Between injuries and form, the Hurricanes have used three goaltenders throughout the season. Andersen started 33 games and played in 34. Raanta started 26 games and played in 27 - and started one against the Devils. Kochetkov started 23 games and played in 24 - including three against the Devils. Andersen is a bit of an unknown to the 2022-23 Devils. Statistically, Raanta had the best overall save percentage with 91% and an even strength save percentage of 92.3%. Andersen was not as strong at 90.3% overall and 90.8% even strength, respectively. Kochetkov had a good season for a third-stringer at 90.9% overall and 90.4% even strength, respectively. On paper, it made sense for Raanta to start in the postseason. However, with Andersen’s Game 6 performance, he is absolutely a viable option for the Canes going forward.
Who’s Better: New Jersey. Schmid is indeed hot right now. Vanecek is a capable goalie when called upon. The edge goes to the Devils because the Hurricanes’ goaltenders are not so amazing. They are good. They are viable for a contending team. With how good their PK has performed and their defensemen have been this season, they do not need Shesterkin-level goaltending to succeed. Sure, Andersen, Raanta, and Kochetkov can have great nights and get into a zone like any goaltender can - like Akira Schmid. But the regular season (and Raanta after five games against the Isles) has shown that they are not on Shesterkin’s level.
The Devils: Lindy Ruff, assisted by Andrew Brunette, Ryan McGill, Chris Taylor, Sergei Brylin, Dave Rogalski
Lindy Ruff seemingly got it all wrong in the first two games. Rather than lean on a Devils team built to play up-tempo, aggressive-on-the-puck, transition-based hockey, he had the Devils try to be heavier and nastier than usual. This led to more penalties, a lot less offense, absolutely no favor from the refs (28 shorthanded situations in 7 games is not favorable) and played more into New York’s hands. Game 3’s overtime winner did not just give the Devils their first win in the series. That goal was pretty much a great example of how the Devils played under Ruff this season. Forcing a quick exit, playing the puck out into space, and activating a defenseman to take that space for a great shot. That speaks to the Devils’ strengths in 5-on-5 this season. From then on, the Devils played more of their game and broke through Our Hated Rivals. More and more Deviled skaters crashed the net, went down the middle, and created more rush plays with 2-on-2s, 2-on-1s with a backchecker, and straight-up 2-on-1s. The Devils played much better and, oh yeah, came back to win the series.
Ruff does tend to stick to the “old school” mindset of wanting energy when things are not working well. He does mix up lines if/when they are not working. He does stick to the same decisions if they are. But once he saw the Devils’ standard way was finding success against Gerard Gallant’s plans, he kept hammering it home. More importantly, he kept the Devils in the right mentality. The Devils may have had two awful games to start their series, but the Devils did not quit or sulk after goals against. Even when Game 6 went out of hand, the team battled to just defend an empty net - successfully at that. Discipline remains a concern. And Ruff is still searching for a set lineup given a fully healthy group. But Ruff deserves as much credit for the 7-game series win as much as the Devils players that got the win. If Ruff does not overthink things, then he can absolutely hold his own against any coach in the league.
The Hurricanes: Rod Brind’Amour, assisted by Jeff Daniels, Tim Gleason, Chris Huffine, Paul Schonfelder
Rod the Bod has a slightly smaller staff than New Jersey’s staff. Schonfelder is a goalie coach and Huffine is the team’s video coach. It is a very experienced staff. Huffine and Daniels have been with the organization for at least 20 years. Gleason and Schonfelder have been with the team for four seasons now. Brind’Amour was promoted to the head coaching job since May 2018; he was previously an assistant and development coach since 2011. There is a lot of history and organizational knowledge behind the bench.
Brind’Amour is seen as a very good coach. He won the Jack Adams for the 2020-21 shortened season, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs in every season he has been in charge behind the bench, and he is not afraid to make some bold moves. For example, he went with Antti Raanta for the first five games against the Isles. Then he made the decision to give Frederik Andersen the start in Game 6, which led to a one-goal allowed performance and a series win. The team’s 5-on-5 stats show that the team is very good in the run of play and their tactic of just firing away has been successful. Skaters fire away and their teammates can and do attack the net for screens, tips, rebounds, and other kinds of chaos to finish attacks. All those shots support a defense that is very, very sound one-on-one and a squad that plays fast. In other words, Brind’Amour and his staff have his team play a fast, attacking, and supportive kind of hockey. If it seems familiar, then it does.
Who’s Better: Push. On the one hand, Carolina has the edge in 5-on-5 stats, PK stats, and even PP stats - albeit for the playoffs. On the other hand, the Devils finished one point behind Carolina, they went 2-1-1 against the Canes, and the Devils overcame more in their series win than the Hurricanes did. I think it is fair to put these coaching staffs on the same level. I also think whoever does a better job managing each game will give their team a real edge in this series.
Some Narratives Addressed
The Playoff Experience: Well, this did not matter at all. Not to the Devils, who shutout Our Hated Rivals, 4-0. Not to Boston, Our Hated Rivals, and Colorado, who got knocked out in Game 7. It. Does. Not. Matter. That. Much.
The Analytics: Carolina is correctly seen as a leader in this since they bought into Eric Tulsky and groomed him up the chain such that he went from analyst to assistant GM. He could very well be a GM of a NHL team real soon. The truth is that all 32 franchises have this kind of analysis going on. Most teams have such personnel in positions of various power, such as Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane leading a group in New Jersey. Some (all?) buy into third-party tracking for some stats. Others have their own models and stat-collection plans. The point is that every organization has something going on at this level. It is not undercutting the NHL. It is the NHL.
The Referees: The Devils were called for some dubious penalties, called for legit penalties while not getting calls for legit penalties against them, and ultimately went shorthanded 28 times. Despite multiple sets of referee crews in the first round, the Devils seemingly lost favor with the officials in almost each game of the series. Carolina, on the other hand, kept their relative calm. Or at least kept their nonsense more concealed and less obvious (looking at you, Miles Wood and your two costly offensive zone penalties).
Scouting the Refs has a list of who is available for the second round. Wes McCauley is there. Gord Dwyer is there. Chris Rooney is there. Kyle Rehman is there. Jean Hebert is there. They are all not going away or being replaced by others. The officials are going to do as they wish. It will be on the Devils to not do so many things stupid things in front of them and Carolina to continue to avoid their eye, relative to other teams. Will refereeing continue to be a controversy in the postseason? Yes. Welcome to every playoff in just about every sport.
The Cold Players: Again, Hischier has been goalless for a while, Bratt just got an ENG for his one and only playoff goal in Game 7, and Timo Meier did everything but score in the first round. The only Devils to score multiple goals in the first round were Erik Haula, Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, and Ondrej Palat. And Haula and Palat have ENGs among their number. It is one thing for Dougie Hamilton or Jonas Siegenthaler to only have one goal or a fourth liner like Curtis Lazar. But Meier, Hischier, and Bratt took so many shots, generated so much expected goals, and set up others for shots to have so few points that is almost seems unfair. I am falling for the Gambler’s Fallacy, I know. But the Devils really could use those guys getting going to join Hughes and Haula.
Carolina would love it if Martin Necas to produce so much more. Seth Jarvis will be an important player for them, sure. It is great that Noesen and Stastny and Fast have goals. But Necas led the team in scoring with 28 goals and 71 points and he had just a goal and two assists in six games against the Isles. The Canes faithful will continue to hope Necas figures it out. Or hope that Aho and the rest can make up the potential production Necas could provide.
The Memories: Hamilton is a former Hurricane! Haula is a former Cane and former opponent of Carolina in the playoffs! Noesen is a former Devil! These are all nice facts to know, but will have little impact on how the games will go. I do not think anyone has a book on anyone else.
Some Potential X-Factors
For The Devils & Hurricanes: Coaching. Both teams play up-tempo hockey built around winning pucks with skill, rushing down opponents, getting quick exits on defense, going strong side on breakouts, and involving their defensemen in the attack. The major difference I can tell is that Carolina prefers to fire away from wherever and try to get tips, screens, and traffic to create more chances in front; and New Jersey prefers to go more direct to the net and go low-to-high if they get set-up on offense. I do not know whether the winner of this series will be based on who can defend against the other’s offense better, who can slow the other down better, and/or who can just out-perform the other at being a high-octane hockey team pushing forward. The adjustments and details in control by the coaching staff will go a long way to determining who wins this series.
For the Devils: Ondrej Palat. The playoff veteran was real bad for most of the series against Our Hated Rivals. But he had legitimately important contributions in Game 4 (clearing a puck off the line, scoring an ENG in a 2-1 game), Game 5 (opening goal), and Game 7 (the McLeod SHG). If Palat can smarten up and thrive next to Jack Hughes, then we can see more of why he got a big, fat contract from Tom Fitzgerald for all of his playoff experience from Tampa Bay.
Damon Severson. Severson has been quite fine in the first round. When he is not making catastrophic errors or taking bad calls, he can be a real capable and useful defenseman. Keep it up, Damon!
Discipline. To quote Jack Hughes, “No silly penalties!” Spare me the complaints about the referees. Quite a few of those 28 shorthanded situations were the fault of the penalized.
For The Hurricanes: Brady Skjei. He was great in the regular season and, oddly, a weakpoint on the defense in the postseason. The goals are not frequent from him. Neither is the offense. Can he step up his performances to strengthen an already-great-on-paper Canes defense? Or will the Devils pick on him further for what could be costly goals?
Martin Necas. Seriously, Carolina’s top scorer has been cold in the first round. If he can return to form, then the Hurricanes will be so, so much tougher of an opponent. If he cannot, then it is an advantage for the Devils.
The Prediction that May Age Badly in its Boldness
This will also be an agonizingly close series. On paper, the Hurricanes should have the edge. They have been better than the Devils in the area of the game the Devils have been real strong in. Their special teams have been more successful in the postseason and their PK could make a sad-looking Devils’ power play look even sadder. Carolina just played a low-scoring, very close series against the Isles. They are in a prime position to contend and may like their chances against anyone, much less the Devils.
However, the Devils just overcame a stupendous performance from Igor Shesterkin, a two-game deficit, and a heap of shorthanded situations to win a seven-game series against their most hated rivals. They did this with a rookie goalie getting hot, a penalty kill getting far more stout, and the Devils playing their game and realizing game-by-game that New York had little answer for it after all. The Devils should be coming into Wednesday’s game with plenty of confidence and belief in their game. Plus, as good as Andersen, Raanta, or Kotchetkov can be, they are not Igor Shesterkin. This is not going to be an easy matchup for Carolina anymore than the four games against them in the season were. Which they were not, even in the 3-0 win or the 1-4 loss by the Devils.
I think this is going to go seven games. I am going to be a homer and say the Devils will win it. It would be poetic for the Devils to win Game 7 by a 4-3 final score with the Devils scoring their third and fourth goals within the final two minutes. It will not go down like that. But I want to believe the Devils can scrape by in this series.
The Devils have won their first playoff series since 2012 and earned massive bragging rights. There is no rest for the Devils as the series starts on Wednesday night. Maybe that is good so they do not dwell. Maybe that is bad because a little rest could do the Devils some good. I think this is a close series even with some of the on-paper advantages Carolina have and some of the form advantages New Jersey could have. You know what I think about this series and how the matchup looks. Now it is your turn.
What do you think will happen in this series? Who do you think will excel? Who do you think will suffer? What will the Devils have to do to get an edge on Carolina? What would the Devils have to avoid
Thanks to everyone at AAtJ and the People Who Matter all over the world for their support as well as Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com for housing the majority of stats used in this post.