Today, the New Jersey Devils are hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in a critical Game 3. It is all but a must-win for the Devils to have any shot at making this playoff series competitive. It is true that the series would not be over if the Devils lost to Carolina this afternoon. But the Devils would be on the brink and would have to perform some miracles to win four straight. Especially against this Hurricanes team that flat out crushed the Devils in Games 1 and 2. If this seems like a familiar situation, then it is. It was the Devils’ situation about two weeks ago in the first round against Our Hated Rivals.
Expect plenty of comparisons and hope from the more optimistic People Who Matter with this Game 3 and that one. It makes sense. The Devils went down 0-2 in the first round to Our Hated Rivals. Those first two games were ugly as they lost them by a combined score of 2-10. They came back and won the series in seven. The Devils are down 0-2 to Carolina after two games by a combined score of 2-11. Should the Devils win Game 3, then expect the comparisons to continue. I get it. I actually would like to see it happen.
However, it must be pointed out that while the results and feelings of those first two games were similar, this second round series and 0-2 deficit to Carolina is very different from the 0-2 deficit to Our Hated Rivals in the first round. Allow me to explain in this post.
A Summary of the Two Losses to Our Hated Rivals
The Devils lost to Our Hated Rivals in Game 1 and Game 2 each by a score of 1-5. How did that happen? In the first round to Our Hated Rivals, the Devils opened up the series by trying to give them the business. Many Devils looked for the body first and the puck second. This did not intimidate or throw off New York’s game. This also did not help their cause with the referees, who actually were willing to and did call penalties. A Devils team built to rush teams down over and over were denied the middle of the ice by OHR. This limited the Devils to 28 shots on net and 13 high-danger chances. The Devils power play was effectively absent in Game 1 and the penalty kill’s diamond was torn apart by Adam Fox and Chris Kreider. It was a bad game where Our Hated Rivals maintained composure, picked on the Devils’ PK for two scores, and let the Devils play a different game than they are used to.
Game 2 to Our Hated Rivals was more of the same. Brendan Smith drew in for Jonas Siegenthaler, who proceeded to take a penalty shortly after the officials went to Lindy Ruff to tell his team to knock it off. It would be the first of seven power plays for New York - which absolutely hindered the Devils from getting much going. Not that they did with the 24 shots on net and 18 high-danger chances. The Devils wanted to bonk some heads like in Game 1 and got bonked instead. Despite Erik Haula piling in a loose puck for a PPG, New York roared back with a tip in front from Vladimir Tarasenko, a pair of PPGs from Kreider in front, and a Bratt-giveaway to Patrick Kane for a score. Vitek Vanecek was more victimized in Game 2 than bad, but he was beaten too many times to warrant keeping in the crease for Game 3.
The Devils ended up out-attempting OHR in 5-on-5 in both games, but both happened as OHR took the game over on the scoreboard. And it really was in attempts. The Devils won the 5v5 xG battle but not by much at 2.27 to 1.72 in Game 1. They actually lost it in Game 2 at 1.43 to 1.59. Both speak to the Devils’ offense being non-threatening (and did not cover Vanecek in glory). Special teams were a big negative. As the visitors scored, the Devils efforts waned. They did not give up on a game but both were fairly comfortable wins by Our Hated Rivals, who cruised to the end in both games. As evidenced by the Devils out-attempting, shooting, and chancing OHR in the third period of both games - which was all consolation. But the rush-them-down style of the Devils was not present in both games. This did not really happen until the later parts of Game 3. The Devils did not play their preferred style of game almost by choice instead of by whatever Our Hated Rivals were doing.
A Summary of the Two Losses to Carolina
Carolina, well, they have had a lot more to do with keeping the Devils at bay. In Game 1, the Devils got a heavy dose of the Hurricanes 1-2-2 aggressive forecheck. An approach so pressure heavy that it looked like a 2-1-2 at times. Even if the Devils got the puck out of their own end, they were already on the outside going up against 3 to 4 Hurricanes in the neutral and offensive zones. This was a big reason why the Devils registered one (1) shot on net in the entire first period and one (1) shot on net for the remainder of the game after Brady Skjei’s dagger in the third period. While the Devils’ power play was powerless, the Canes hit big in 5-on-5. A faceoff loss to Jordan Staal set up Brett Pesce for the goal through traffic. Seth Jarvis picked off Ryan Graves after a Devils faceoff win for a 2-on-1 that he finished himself. After Jordan Martinook got away with ripping off Jonas Siegenthaler’s helmet, he got a shot that Jesperi Kotkaniemi tipped in at the right post. The Devils were down 0-3 before registering their second shot of the game. While that was a goal by Nathan Bastian, it was the definition of too little, too late. Carolina never stopped their forecheck or their man-to-man defense. The Devils were held to 18 shots and 9 high-danger chances in the 1-5 loss. They were even in attempts in 5-on-5 at 41-41, but out-attempted in all situations and, again, the Canes were up by three goals for a majority of the game. The expected goals model at NST had the Devils just ahead in 5-on-5 at 1.91 to 1.8. Generating 1.91 xG speaks to how the Canes throttled the Devils. That it was just 1.8 xGA speaks to how Schmid (and Vanecek) were lit up.
In Game 2, the Devils got more of the same. More of the 1-2-2 forecheck. More of the man-to-man defense. More puck battles just won by better positioning, effort, and support by the home team. It took ten minutes for the Canes to get going with their systems and once they did, the goals eventually came. A PPG for Kotkaniemi. A rare overload on Martinook behind the net failed and Kotkaniemi cleaned it up in front of Akira Schmid. The dagger was Jack Drury playing Staal behind all of the Devils for a breakaway goal. Martin Necas cleaning up in the slot after a horrid misplay by Schmid and equally horrid backchecking in a 4-on-4 situation. Martinook broke away thanks to a terrible turnover by Nico Hischier and Stefan Noesen buried a 2-on-1 feed from Sebastian Aho to make it a 1-6 loss. The Devils did get more on net with 29 shots; helped out by a functional-looking pair power plays in the first ten minutes. But the Canes kept them to 13 high danger chances, still out-shot them by a good margin, and even won the attempt battle in 5-on-5 and all situations despite the big lead. Carolina also won in 5-on-5 xG in Game 2; the Devils were kept to 1.82 xG and the Canes generated 2.94 xG. Again, the Canes throttled the Devils offense and the goaltending was beaten.
The Major Differences
Let me summarize the major differences between the two sets of losses:
- In the two OHR losses, Our Hated Rivals were content to sit back in a more passive 1-2-2 and collapse on defense. In the Carolina losses, the Hurricanes were far more aggressive in their 1-2-2 forecheck and on defense in man-coverage. Both made the Devils’ struggle on offense, but Carolina generated much more from their ways in 5-on-5 per the model and, more importantly, in reality.
- In the two OHR losses, the Devils tried to go physical instead of rushing them down. OHR was not moved by this. The refs did not like it. The swap of Smith for Siegenthaler and Miles Wood playing up a line in Game 2 cemented that it was intentional. In the two Hurricanes losses, Carolina’s systems are keeping the Devils from rushing them down and winning lots of pucks back.
- In the two OHR losses, a lack of discipline or special teams were a huge cause. The Devils PK went 6-for-10 and all four PPGAs by Kreider contributed to the big deficits. The Devils’ PP did nothing in Game 1 and while they scored in Game 2, it ultimately meant nothing. Not to mention having to kill 10 shorthanded situations over two games is a challenge in of itself. In the two Hurricanes losses, special teams were not as big of a factor. While the PP is 0-for-5 in total, they hit a post and did generate a good chunk of their Game 2 offense with the man advantage. The PK was perfect in Game 1 and beaten for the first time since Game 6 against Our Hated Rivals in Game 2. Even so, the Devils just had 5 penalty kills in total in both games. Whether the refs were more lenient or the Devils were better disciplined, this is not a special teams situation.
- In the two OHR losses, the goals came from Kreider (4), Tarasenko (2), Kane, Kakko, Lindgren, Fox, and Chytil (ENG). The production came from three in the OHR’s top-six (or, more accurately, PP1), two defensemen, and two third liners. In the two Carolina losses, the goals came from Kotkaniemi (3), Martinook, Pesce, Fast, Skjei, Jarvis, Staal, Necas, and Noesen. The entire third line of Carolina has five goals against New Jersey; two came from defensemen; and four came from their top six (Noesen plays with Jarvis and Aho). The goals were more spread out through Carolina’s depth than OHR’s.
- In the two OHR losses, Vitek Vanecek was lit up but stayed in net for both games. In the two Carolina losses, Schmid was replaced by Vanecek in each game. Vanecek was beaten once in Game 1 and twice in Game 2, too.
- In the two OHR losses, the Devils ended up out-attempting their opponents in 5-on-5 due in part of being behind so much. While bad in Game 2, the Devils at least reached above 2 xGF in Game 1. In the two Carolina losses, Carolina matched the Devils in 5-on-5 attempts in Game 1 and beat them out-right in Game 2. They fell short of 2 xGF in both games and 2.94 xGA in Game 2 is the most the Devils have allowed all playoffs.
- The Carolina Hurricanes have been the more successful team in 5-on-5 and just punished the Devils for their errors, over and over. Our Hated Rivals used their power play to boost their game to put the Devils in deep on their way to victories.
- These points all show that this situation that the Devils are is a different one than the one they were in two weeks ago.
One More Thing
This may be the playoffs, but the regular season games have provided some clues as to how a playoff series would go between teams. It did not dawn on me until Trapezoid Tim asked me in the comments to my post about Carolina’s forecheck how the Devils beat the Hurricanes in the regular season and what could they learn from those games. The Devils went 2-1-1 against the Canes this season. I looked back at the shootout loss on January 1 and the two wins. (For this post, I’ll throw in the 1-4 loss on December 20.) To summarize my response to Tim, this is what I noticed:
- The Devils were out-done in the run of play in 5-on-5 against Carolina overall. By Corsi, the Devils only led in the game they lost 1-4 as they were chasing the game, 47-31. In the other three games (in order of date): 31-61, 31-59, and 36-59. It was not even close. Shots were a bit more favorable: 26-15 in the loss, 18-31, 17-17, and 15-28 in the other three games. Do you like expected goals? It was 2.7-2.35 in favor of NJ in the loss, 1.59-2.07 in the shootout loss, 1.71-2.31 in the comeback win, and 2.35-2.02 in favor of the shutout win. The Canes’ forecheck and defensive approach in 5-on-5 gave the Devils problems in terms of creating offense. Especially in the the games the Devils got a result in. That would be somewhat understandable in the last one as the Devils went up 2-0 relatively early in regulation. Less so in the two January games.
- The Devils got a lot of help from not-good goaltending moments from Pytor Kochetkov (loss on December 20, win on January 10, win on March 12) and Antti Raanta (the 4-5 shootout loss on January 1) to get those results. In the January 10 game, Kochetkov gave up that near post shot to Siegenthaler in the 5-3 win and a pair of five-hole specials. In the March 12 game, he was beaten five-hole twice and had that bizarre turnover outside of his net towards Jack Hughes that Jesper Bratt buried. As for the January 1 game, Raanta was rounded by Hughes cutting across the net, got torched five-hole by Bratt, got beaten to the left post on a Hischier wraparound, and had a Bratt shot hit off him and in. To put it nicely, the Canes goalies did not look good at all. They played less good. Problem: Neither are in net for the Canes in this series and, as Game 2 showed, Frederik Andersen is up to the task.
- Those scoring plays were also helped by Hurricanes players making mistakes. Examples: Skjei getting confused and then beaten along the boards by Bratt before his first goal against Raanta. Slavin getting caught flat footed against Hughes going downhill after him for his goal against Raanta. Hughes stripping Calvin de Haan to create the one-on-one with Kochetkov. Dylan Coghlan falling down before Boqvist’s goal in the January 10 game. It is not a coincidence that Coghlan and de Haan are not even in Carolina’s lineup. Skjei and Slavin have been fantastic in both games.
I understand that this is the playoffs and so things are more intense and whatnot. But Carolina has not really changed its way of playing and it was an issue in their four regular season games. The Devils overcame it in large parts by Carolina’s goaltenders - who, again, are not playing in this series so far - faltering and Carolina skaters making mistakes that were punished. Andersen has been near-perfect in both games so far and, amazingly, no one skater on Carolina has had a bad game so far. We can expect their perfection to not continue forever, but it speaks to how the Devils really needed the Hurricanes to have their own failings to succeed. That has not happened in Games 1 and 2 nearly enough and so this is the result that you see.
This is also another big contrast from the first round. The Devils have beaten Our Hated Rivals three times out of four with the exception being an overtime loss. The Devils have scored plenty of goals against Igor Shesterkin, their PK was not torched in the season, and the Devils made a point of it to make OHR pay for their turnovers, neutral zone play, and overwhelm their more passive 1-2-2 set-up. Those games showed how the Devils’ own system can lead to results. Not coincidentally, we saw that in Games 4, 5, and 7 in the first round - all for wins. The proof of the Devils being able to match-up well and dictate the pace and the playstyle to Our Hated Rivals was there in the regular season and it absolutely came up in the postseason. It has been the opposite with Carolina. The Devils never had much of a systemic edge on the Canes in their results against them, there was evidence the Devils struggled to attack against their more aggressive 1-2-2 set-up and a man-to-man defense. The only time they had the better 5-on-5 numbers was when they lost decisively by three in Raleigh, so that may have been more from score effects.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
How the Devils lost their games to Carolina was different to how they lost them to Our Hated Rivals. Understanding that is the first step to figuring out how the Devils can make a comeback. It is also the first step to accepting that being down in a 0-2 hole in a series is a bad place to be in even if the Devils just overcame such a deficit about a couple of weeks ago.
I understand and empathize with a lot of the frustration and bewilderment from the People Who Matter. I want to agree with the optimists that it will be fine if the Devils can win Games 3 and 4. I want that to happen! I do! But how they go about doing it is going to be different.
The first round was a case of the Devils going away from what they should have done in the first place to Our Hated Rivals. This round against Carolina is a case of the Hurricanes giving the Devils fits through their tactics and the Devils have yet to figure out how to beat it, how to deal with it, and/or how to succeed in spite of it. If they can, a real turnaround is possible. It is not as simple as just do the same thing as they did in the first round. Rod Brind’Amour and his team, not unlike the 1995 Devils, are committed to their gameplan. The Devils will not get the help of the now-departed Gerard Gallant failing to adjust to the Devils’ return to the style of hockey that won them most of the 52 wins they earned this season (3 of which were against Gallant).
Sure, the Devils will look different today. Luke Hughes is in for Ryan Graves, which was announced on Saturday afternoon. I would expect find different line combinations. Maybe even some other changes to the roster. As long as it is not stupid like Smith-for-Siegenthaler Part 2 or starting MacKenzie Blackwood, I am on board or can be convinced to get on board with it. But until the Devils can address how to play against Carolina’s system(s) and, ideally, give Carolina reasons to at least play less aggressively, I am not so confident in the comeback right now Of course, I was also not so confident leaving the Rock after Game 2 a little over two weeks ago. Should the Devils want to make more believers out of the People Who Matter and get wins in these now-crucial games in Newark, then they need to accept that this is not the same situation. Again, I see that acknowledgment as the first step to solving this.
Now I want to know your take about all of this. Do you accept that this is different than what it was a few weeks ago? What can the Devils as they are now do about it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the different series in the comments. Thank you for reading.