The 2023-24 New Jersey Devils season has been filled with bad losses, whether they have come via lack of effort from the skaters, awful performances from the goaltenders, insane defensive lapses leading to easy goals, or any combination of the above. While I would not consider this evening a bad loss, it was every bit as brutal, as the Devils dropped a heartbreaking pitcher’s duel in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes, 1-0. Pyotr Kochetkov recorded the shutout, stopping all 34 shots New Jersey fired at him, and Sebastian Aho scored the only goal of the game, batting in a rebound out of midair and past Vitek Vanecek.
I felt as though the Devils faded just a little bit in the third period. However, I wouldn’t call it an outright bad frame, and overall New Jersey put in a pretty terrific effort on the road against one of the best teams in the league. The defensive structure, long the bane of every fan’s existence, was strong this evening. Meanwhile the offense generated a good amount of quality looks against a Hurricanes team known for not letting opponents generate quality looks. But Kochetkov had himself a wonderful game as he turned aside everything the Devils threw his way. According to Natural Stat Trick, New Jersey produced 2.82 Expected Goals For in all situations this evening. And yet they scored zero actual goals. That’s just a plain old stolen game by a goaltender.
Heck even Vanecek, coming off yet another miserable performance two nights ago against the Calgary Flames, played almost certainly his best game of the season. He made some big time saves, including on a breakaway chance by Jordan Martinook in the third period to keep the game scoreless. The overtime goal was just a great play by Aho, although the rebound he let up wasn’t great. If Aho didn’t bat the puck out of the air it would’ve landed in a very dangerous area in front of the net. But it’s hard to get too mad at Vanecek tonight, he did his part.
It was - to put it nicely - a curious decision by head coach Lindy Ruff to start Vanecek in the first place. The Devils were coming off a loss to the Flames that they probably should have won, but Vanecek let in multiple unacceptable, back-breaking goals. He failed to give his team a chance to win, and yet he was back between the pipes two nights later while Nico Daws continues to idle away on the bench. Even knowing what happened tonight, I honestly still don’t think it was a good choice to roll with Vanecek again. There was zero indication that he would be able to put together a performance like this, and countless indications that he would once again not give his team a chance. But credit where it’s due, Vanecek stepped up tonight.
In the end, the Devils did get a point out of this loss, but missing out on the second point really hurts. This game was about as high-octane and action packed as a 1-0 decision can get, with plenty of opportunities for both sides. But tonight the bounces just did not go the Devils’ way, while the Hurricanes got one to break right for them. Perhaps you think differently, but I’m not mad at this loss. I thought the Devils, including Vanecek, played a very good game, but one unlucky bounce in overtime sunk them. So my emotions after this game are less anger and more sadness and frustration. This season is slipping away from New Jersey, and even though they played well enough to deserve two points, they only collected one. And on and on it goes.
The Game Highlights: Here you go, courtesy of NHL.com
We all know that the Devils lost in the second round of the playoffs to Carolina last season. It was a series defined by New Jersey’s inability to solve the Hurricanes’ forecheck and overall system. That same issue reared it’s ugly head in the first matchup of 2023-24 between these two squads back on January 25th as well. But tonight was a step in the right direction, as the Devils did a much better job of breaking out of their own zone and gaining the Carolina zone. And once they got into the offensive zone, they got their fair share of chances.
Quite frankly, Carolina as a team relies on luck to generate offense more than just about any team in the league. Their offensive “system” involves having their defensemen fling pucks in the general direction of the net in the hopes of getting deflections, rebounds, and lucky bounces. They know how to position themselves to generate as many of these chances as possible, so credit to them for figuring out a way to create as much good luck as possible.
In addition to their reliance on greasy goals, they’re also a team that walks the line between physical and dirty quite often. Chris alluded to this in his preview for this game, and I think he’s dead on. This is a team that clutches and grabs more than any team since the Dead Puck Era, and referees generally let them get away with more than they should. Sebastian Aho, the lone goal-scorer tonight, has recently developed a reputation for being a bit of a dirty player, exemplified by his knee-on-knee hit on the New York Rangers’ Adam Fox earlier this season. Even tonight, there was Andrei Svechnikov hitting Nico Hischier borderline knee-on-knee late after a whistle, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi laying a head shot on Alexander Holtz (thankfully Holtz stayed in the game). Neither of those hits were called by the way.
All of this - the chaotic nature of their offense, their willingness to drag games into the mud, and their overall sheer tenacity bordering on dirty play - make them a very tough team to play against. The Devils couldn’t figure them out last postseason, but if tonight is any indication, they might finally have cracked the code. And keep in mind New Jersey played this game without their usual top pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler. So there’s reason for optimism despite the brutal loss.
But then again, is it too late? The Devils are in serious danger of missing the playoffs, so even if they have figured out how to play against Carolina, it won’t matter if they can’t make it past game 82. If New Jersey wants to make good on this rebuild and win a Stanley Cup in this era of Devils hockey, they will most likely have to go through the Hurricanes at some point. It might not be this season, but that day may come eventually.
Ryan McGill’s Time To Shine
As mentioned earlier, the Devils’ defensive structure (or lack thereof) has been much maligned this season by Devils fans everywhere. Time after time we’ve seen lapses in coverage that have led to easy goals for opponents. The goaltenders have certainly not done the skaters any favors this season, but the defense has to share a part of the blame as well.
But tonight was different. New Jersey showed remarkably improved defensive zone coverage this evening. The defensemen and forwards were all working hard and working smart, with each player providing a ton of defensive support to limit the Hurricanes to low-danger chances as much as possible. On the MSG broadcast, Bill Spaulding and Ken Daneyko made sure to discuss how assistant coach Ryan McGill, who is in charge of the defense, really emphasized defensive effort in New Jersey’s practice yesterday. Amanda Stein noticed the same thing at that practice on Friday:
Defense coach Ryan McGill is being very, very intense and intentional with his defensemen today at practice.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) February 9, 2024
Stopped a drill entirely, pulled his defensemen to the side, and had a chat, if you will, before they rejoined the forwards.
From what I could gather, the focus of McGill’s drills were tying sticks up in front, and making sure opponents are marked sufficiently. Well obviously the end result of tonight’s game was not what McGill wanted, but I’d say mission accomplished on the defensive end. It’s only one game so I hesitate to say that New Jersey’s defensive zone play is fixed, but if this is a sign of things to come then maybe, just maybe, the Devils can go on that run they need to secure a playoff spot after all.
The Devils received four power plays tonight. The Devils scored zero power play goals tonight.
This is now officially a major problem.
With this 0-for-4 performance, New Jersey has now failed to score during their last 22 man advantages. Zero goals in 22 tries! That is completely unacceptable, and it is costing this team games. If the Devils had converted on even a single power play this evening, that would have been enough. But as it turned out, New Jersey’s power outage cost them a second point tonight.
I’m not a hockey coach, I don’t know what exactly needs to be done to fix the Devils power play. But I do know that it is in desperate need of fixing. Take Luke off PP1, have Jack and Bratt switch sides, try different zone entry methods...I don’t know, just try something. Anything. The power play carried the Devils early this season, and now it’s holding this team back. Please for the love of god Ruff and pals, fix it.
Out Of Town Scoreboard
The New York Islanders lost 5-2 to the Calgary Flames. Yay.
The Washington Capitals (who are certainly fading but we’ll include them anyway) shut out the Boston Bruins 3-0. Sigh.
The Philadelphia Flyers edged the Seattle Kraken 3-2. Sigh.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lost in regulation to the Winnipeg Jets 2-1. Yay.
The Detroit Red Wings beat the Vancouver Canucks in overtime 4-3. Sigh.
The Tampa Bay Lightning doubled up the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2. Sigh.
Much appreciation to the Flames and Jets, but otherwise the Devils didn’t get any help around the league.
Next Time Out
The Devils are back in action on Monday when they play host to the Seattle Kraken. Puck drop is slated for 7:00pm in Newark.
What did you make of tonight’s game? Were you as impressed with the defensive structure as I was? What are your thoughts on the current chances of making the playoffs? What do you expect next time out? As always, thanks for reading.