In their first game back after the All-Star break, the New Jersey Devils hosted one of the best teams in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche. Despite the fact that the Avs were playing the second half of a back-to-back (they lost in overtime last night to the New York Rangers), everyone knew this would be a tough test for the Devils. Things were going surprisingly well for a while until disaster struck in the third period, but a John Marino goal deep into the game broke a tie and propelled New Jersey past Colorado for an eventual 5-3 win.
You’re going to be absolutely shocked to hear this, but tonight’s game did not start off so hot for the Devils. Less than a minute and a half into the contest, Nico Hischier committed a pretty bad turnover to Mikko Rantanen in the slot, who blistered a shot past Vitek Vanecek for a very early 1-0 lead. It was the 35th time in 48 games that New Jersey had given up the first goal. But less than a minute later, Simon Nemec flicked a shot toward the Colorado net from the point, and Chris Tierney made a perfect deflection past Avalanche goaltender Justus Annunen to answer right back and tie the game at 1.
For the first half of the opening period, Colorado was the dominant team. They controlled possession and generated the lion’s share of the chances though the first 10 minutes or so. But credit to New Jersey, who weathered that storm and began tilting the ice in their favor after that. The back half of the first period was mostly played in the Avalanche end, and even though the Devils didn’t score they took control of the game.
The second period began with a pretty deflating goal by Colorado defenseman Josh Manson...until Lindy Ruff successfully challenged for goaltender interference, wiping the goal off the board. And how did the Devils respond to that turn of fortune? With a phenomenal play from the Hischier line (more on that unit later) that ended with a Jesper Bratt goal to give New Jersey their first lead of the game.
Bratt and Nico just doing All-Star things. pic.twitter.com/DFeiACwwx3— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 7, 2024
What a thing of beauty.
Then with New Jersey continuing to keep their foot on the gas pedal, Dawson Mercer willed a puck into the net thanks to some great work in tight from Timo Meier and Erik Haula. Mercer finished the play off thanks to some dogged work in front to extend the lead to 3-1.
Can’t be leaving scraps on the table. Dawg's gonna eat. pic.twitter.com/PZOm2gO460— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 7, 2024
Side note: Pretty bad timing on that pre-recorded Jared Bednar interview.
The Devils entered the third period with that 3-1 edge, and the ESPN+ broadcast of John Buccigross and AJ Mleczko made it a point to open the final frame by talking about how great of a third-period team Colorado is. Well that unfortunately proved prescient as the Avalanche completely subsumed the Devils through basically the entirety of the period. But thanks to some great goaltending from Vitek Vanecek (yes, really) all that possession did not result in any goals...until Ross Colton and Logan O’Connor decided to try sparking their team by gooning it up after a pretty routine stoppage of play. Those two players fabricated a scrum out of nowhere, and Colton and Kevin Bahl got tagged for coincidental roughing minors.
So 4-on-4 play ensued, which is when disaster struck for the Devils. Luke Hughes took a puck behind his net and got blown up by Artturi Lehkonen, and the puck went right to Cale Makar at the side of the net who just tapped it in to cut the lead to 3-2. Then on the very next shift, 29 seconds later, Sam Girard blasted a slap shot past Vanecek to tie the game 3-3. Colton and O’Connor attempted to drag the Devils into some penalties to open up some ice, and it worked about as well as they could have hoped.
For as well as Vanecek had played to that point, those two goals (especially the second one) were positively back-breaking. Things were looking pretty bleak with New Jersey getting blowtorched by the Avalanche all period long and Colorado fighting back to tie the game with a pair of quick strikes. Even after the goals the Avalanche just kept attacking, with Vanecek having to make a terrific stop on Nathan MacKinnon, who got a half-step on Luke Hughes and put a dangerous backhander on net. It really felt like a Colorado lead was only a matter of time.
And then, out of stone cold nowhere...
Not since Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night had the Garden State seen such a shift in momentum.
Colorado pulled their goalie with about 80 seconds left, and they spent about 70 of those seconds in the Devils’ zone. But New Jersey did a great job of keeping the Avalanche skaters to the outside, and following a neutral zone faceoff caused by a Colorado offsides, Erik Haula intercepted a pass and flung a long shot into the empty net.
5-3 New Jersey with less than 10 seconds left. Ballgame.
Overall it was an uneven game for the Devils. A bad start, and fantastic middle, a horrific third period, then a late push to secure the win. But New Jersey managed to skate away with a regulation win against a bonafide Stanley Cup contender while missing some key pieces. If the Devils can build off of this and finally go on a run to secure their playoff spot, we may look back at this game as the turning point that jumpstarted them.
The Game Highlights: Enjoy courtesy of NHL.com
No Games Doesn’t Mean No News
Despite the lack of actual games, there has been a lot of news surrounding the Devils over the past week or so.
First of all, we finally got some clarity on the situation involving Michael McLeod and Cal Foote. It is certainly not my place to speculate on anything involving the direct legal situation facing these men, so all I can say right now is that McLeod and Foote will be unavailable to the Devils for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, we got some injury updates involving a few key players. Jack Hughes, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Brendan Smith all resumed skating, with Hughes actually joining practice in a non-contact jersey. It appears Hughes’ return is on the horizon, though I’m skeptical it will happen during the Devils’ next game.
Finally, we got even more roster moves today with Tomas Nosek finally returning to action after suffering a broken foot back in November. Nosek played 10:48 and put three shots on net, and per Natural Stat Trick he finished the game with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 70.69%. It was a pretty good return for Nosek.
It wasn’t all good news though, as Tyler Toffoli was a late scratch for this game due to illness. It doesn’t appear to be something that will keep him out of the lineup long-term, so hopefully he is back the next time the Devils hit the ice.
Hischier Vs. MacKinnon
We all know Lindy Ruff usually likes to use his captain as a matchup center, but tonight was extreme even for Ruff. Per NST, Hischier played 12:52 at 5-on-5 this evening. Here were his most common opponents in that 12:52:
Mikko Rantanen: 10:58 TOI against
Nathan MacKinnon: 10:42
Cale Makar: 10:04
Devon Toews: 8:49
Jonathan Drouin: 7:40
That is frankly nightmarish deployment.
So how did Hischier do while getting hard matched against arguably the best line (Rantanen-MacKinnon-Drouin) and defense pairing (Makar-Toews) in hockey? Well in his 12:52 on 5-on-5 time tonight he finished with a 30.74 xGF%...so yeah it didn’t exactly go well. However, he did hold MacKinnon without a point, and his line did score on Colorado’s five-man unit of death twice, with Hischier collecting a pair of assists.
So it was a good news/bad news night for Hischier, which in a way mirrored the Devils’ effort overall tonight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with losing the territorial battle against players of that caliber, and the fact that Nico and his line won the scoreboard battle is certainly something New Jersey will take every time.
The Rollercoaster That Is Vitek Vanecek
Vanecek may have let in a clunker to allow Colorado to tie the game, but he also made some wonderful saves, and ended up saving 0.12 goals above expected according to Natural Stat Trick. A perfectly reasonable performance.
Prior to the two goals in 29 seconds stretch, Vanecek was well on his way to having one of his best games of the season. Considering he allowed a goal before the game was two minutes old, you would never have thought that would be possible at first. But Vanecek rallied, and managed to come up with some genuinely big saves to keep the Devils in the game. Performances like these have been few and far between for New Jersey netminders in 2023-24, which made this one a welcome sight despite the bad tying goal allowed.
Power Play Woes
The Devils got three power plays tonight and came up empty on all three of them. This is nothing new for New Jersey, as they have now gone 17 straight power plays without finding the back of the net.
I understand losing Jack Hughes is going to hurt any power play. As will losing Toffoli and Dougie Hamilton. But 0-for-17 is unacceptable given how much talent is still left on the roster. The power play carried this team early in the season, and it has since regressed hard. Travis Green needs to figure out a way to jump start this unit once again.
Miles Wood was drafted by the Devils in the 4th round of the 2013 draft, made his NHL debut in 2016, and ended up playing 402 games for New Jersey. He certainly had his fair share of detractors during his time here (myself included), but there’s no denying he brought a ton of energy and effort every night he suited up, and even if I think the Devils were right to move on from Wood this past offseason, I respect him as a competitor.
Tonight was the first time he played at The Rock as a visiting player, and the team and fans gave him a warm welcome back:
Miles Wood, you can see the emotion on his face, as the crowd salutes him in his Welcome Back video. pic.twitter.com/cRCV3ITXuM— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) February 7, 2024
Meanwhile, the Devils also welcomed back old friend Zach Parise. Obviously Parise has been back to New Jersey many times before as an opposing player, but this was the first time as an Avalanche. Between Wood, Parise, and New Jersey native Ross Colton, there was a pretty strong Garden State connection among the opponents in tonight’s contest.
Also I can’t help but bring this up: At one point in the first period when Wood had the puck, John Buccigross said, “Here comes Miles Wood, former Boston College Eagle”. Gee John, do you think there might be another team that Wood used to play for that would be more relevant to mention besides Boston College? It just struck me as odd. Then again Buccigross made sure to shoehorn college hockey references into the broadcast as much as he possibly could, so I guess it really shouldn’t surprise me.
Next Time Out
The Devils are back in action on Thursday night when they host the Calgary Flames at The Rock. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00pm.
What did you make of tonight’s game? Who stood out to you? How much longer do you think the Devils will be without their key players? What do you expect in the next game against the Flames? As always, thanks for reading!