- Jack Hughes returned to the lineup tonight for a much needed boost to their offense; Alexander Holtz, in a game where eighteen scouts were in attendance, skated alongside him.
- The Devils actually hammered the Flames hard through the first half of the game, but Jacob Markstrom was a difference-maker and Vitek Vanecek was not. At the halfway mark, Markstrom had saved 18/19—including several high-danger chances—and Vanecek had stopped only 11/13, surrendering two goals on shots that NHL goalies should save 99.99% of the time. They headed into the final period trailing 2-1 and momentum suddenly on the Flames’ side.
- While the Devils made a good comeback attempt, as has happened all too many times it fell short of the mark. The Devils lost 5-3.
- Essential Links: The NHL.com Boxscore | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The Game Thread | The Game Preview, by Chris | The Game Highlights via NHL.com
The Devils began with a jump in their step, with Meier just barely missing out on a prime scoring chance when he whiffed on a sitting puck outside the slot. The Flames came right back with a shot off the post. Bratt went hard into the boards and appeared in some pain on the bench, but luckily he returned to game action without missing a shift.
As has often been the case with the Devils, despite one or two early chances, the Flames quickly settled into the game and began pressuring them in the defensive zone. Credit to the Devils, they swung things back in their favor with the new-look Toffoli - Hughes - Holtz line. They created two offensive chances for themselves, but Markstrom stood tall in net. Bratt and Toffoli combined for what should’ve been a sure goal shortly after. Bratt passed the puck through the crease to Hischier, who waited on the back door. Hischier got a solid stick on it—but Markstrom anticipated the pass and got a pad on the shot. Nemec and Toffoli also deked Markstrom all the way out of the net just minutes later. The defenders were strong on Toffoli, though, leaving Markstrom enough time to return to the net and make several saves.
The game remained 0-0 halfway through the first.
With 7:30 left in the period, the Devils executed a perfect tic-tac-toe passing play in the offensive zone. Bratt had the puck on the back door—and it should’ve, could’ve been a goal on another night. Instead, the puck passed along the goal line and out of danger. But finally, Ondrej Palat beat Markstrom on a two-on-one rush. Bratt froze Markstrom and the defenseman by faking the shot, passed to Palat, and Palat one-timed the shot to beat the goalie and give the Devils the 1-0 lead they deserved. According to the broadcast, they had given up the first goal of the game in seven consecutive games. Thank God that streak ended.
Unfortunately, the Flames tied it within minutes. Luke Hughes gathered a dumped puck in the corner but was out-muscled by Blake Coleman and Andrew Mangiapane. Mangiapane wheeled behind the net with the puck, passed to Mikael Backlund below the faceoff circle, and Backlund chipped the puck between the post and Vitek Vanecek’s shoulder. You can’t allow that goal.
1-1 heading into the second.
Once again, thank you Sweden for Mikael Backlund!! pic.twitter.com/xILbJIe8A0— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) February 9, 2024
The Devils killed the Timo Meier penalty at the beginning of the second period. Markstrom continued his reign of terror, stonewalling several Devils chances that might’ve beaten most goaltenders in the league, including a Hughes to Holtz one-timer at speed.
At the other end, meanwhile . . .
Vanecek made a relatively innocuous save on a low shot from Nazem Kadri. Everything appeared normal, until the puck dribbled behind Vanecek and sat two feet from the goal line. Connor Zary was there. A Devil was not. Zary put the rebound, if you can call it that, into the net and put the Devils down 2-1. Scratch two for you can’t have that happen.
The Devils headed to their first power play immediately after the goal off a Jonathan Huberdeau high-stick. The Devils made lots of passes but very few shots on the power play, leading to a Flames kill. At this stage of the goal, the Devils were solidly out-possessing and out-chancing the Flames but had merely one goal and two against to show for it. Markstrom had stopped 17/18 near the halfway mark. Vanecek had stopped 11/13. Vanecek did later make several difficult saves during a time of immense offensive pressure by the Flames, but the damage was pretty much already done to the Devils’ momentum and confidence.
The Flames also began doing a better job of stuffing the Devils into corners or along the boards and clogging the neutral zone, which tended to cut their rushes off before they could ‘get on their horse,’ as Cangi used to say. They headed to the third period down 2-1, a score that might’ve been far worse had four or five shots from the Flames not hit the post and miraculously stayed out of the net.
The Flames began the third period as they ended the second: out in front, driving play. Eventually, Hanifin chipped the puck to Kevin Rooney, who was within a foot of Vanecek right in the crease. Rooney smacked the puck through the goalie. After some initial confusion as to whether Vanecek was pushed into the net (he wasn’t, really, and the puck had been in the net long before then), the referee signaled a good goal. The Devils went down 3-1.
Of course, Erik Haula high-sticked Chris Tanev immediately after the goal. He drew blood, resulting in a double-minor. It was at this point I began drinking.
Sharangovich rang yet another puck off the post—the crossbar this time—on a quick rush early in the Devils’ penalty kill. This game might’ve been 6-1 or 7-1 at this point if you accounted for the number of posts. THANKFULLY, Bratt stripped Andrei Kuzmenko of the puck at the defensive blue line and chipped the puck to Hischier in the middle of the ice. Hischier out-skated the back-checkers, froze Markstrom with a deke, and slipped a shot through the pads to bring the Devils back within one. With fifteen minutes left, they trailed 3-2.
As always, Cap is clutch. pic.twitter.com/UXDWO5s5CF— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 9, 2024
The momentum swung the other direction, and Curtis Lazar got a chance of his own on the penalty kill that just barely did not go. Sharangovich almost put them under on a rebound—but Vanecek made a strong lateral push and stretched his left pad to stop the follow-up with his toe. Alas, ‘twas not to be. On another shot from the point that resulted in a heavy rebound into the slot, Kuzmenko collected the puck and spun, beating Vanecek down low for a 4-2 lead and deflating whatever momentum they’d just collected. It was at this point I began groaning whenever the puck entered the Devils’ zone. I was surprised it took this long.
2 games as a Flame, 2 goals as a Flame pic.twitter.com/1YTs16suIV— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) February 9, 2024
Somehow, Ondrej Palat deflected a Colin Miller point-shot past the brick wall that had been Jacob Markstrom, earning the Devils a lucky goal that drew them back within one. Lazar followed up the goal with a one-timer that Markstrom was good for, but the offensive pressure drew a penalty and sent the Devils to the power play.
Unfortunately, the power play did not result in a goal, which really is the only thing that mattered at that stage of the game. Then, as the puck trickled into the Devils zone, Vanecek sprinted to the halfboards and collided with a pair of Flames. I . . . I am at a loss. I suppose it did stop a breakaway or two-on-one situation from arising, even though the puck eventually ended up in the net (after the whistle). So. Points for trying?
Naturally, with the goalie then pulled for the extra attacker, the Devils surrendered an empty net goal. Toffoli turned over the puck at the defensive blue line, and that was that. Lindy Ruff took advantage of the Flames winning by calling a timeout to gather the troops. The Devils lost 4-3.
Asking too much of the offense
Not every forward was perfect tonight. Yes, though Toffoli had a few nice shots that might’ve went in against goalies not named Jacob Markstrom and was part of the Devils’ best forward line, he had a few bad turnovers and played much as he has since December. Yes, Nosek, Bastian, and Lazar were caved in at five-on-five.
Nevertheless, the offense did enough to secure them a victory tonight. Markstrom obviously had something to say about that, but they still scored three against him at the near top of his game. Jack Hughes sparked the team; Bratt, Hischier, and Palat all had great games. Holtz did too, until he was taken off Jack’s line in favor of Dawson Mercer—a head-scratching move, as Mercer had done a whole lot of not much through fifty minutes of play.
I digress. Three goals is not enough to win every night—that would require above average goaltending. It should’ve been enough to win this night, however.
A segue to the next section:
It wasn’t a goalie duel, but the game was won and lost in net
Let’s see-saw back and forth between these two scenarios:
- The Devils play well but allow too many terrible goals. It’s the goalie’s fault.
- The goalie plays well, but the rest of the team is horrible. It’s the coach’s fault.
Both of these refrains have been true many, many, many losses this season. While Lindy Ruff is likely not the guy to lead the Devils to a Stanley Cup, if you gave him a decent goaltender this team is easily in the playoffs right now and half the fanbase isn’t calling for his job. There are few coaches who can survive poor goaltending. It cost Jay Woodcroft, an excellent coach, his job earlier this season.
It doesn’t matter how you measure it: eye test, save percentage, expected goals against, and so on. Vitek Vanecek is the worst goaltender in the league this season. Not an opinion but a fact backed by data and 30 games of watching the team. I wish it weren’t so. He seems like a great guy. Nevertheless.
The defense has not historically helped him or Nico Daws or Akira Schmid, but I didn’t see a team that was scrambling in their own end tonight. There were a few moments of hard offensive pressure they struggled to clear, yet that happened to the Flames as well. Maybe Kevin Bahl puts a body on Kuzmenko and prevents him from spinning into a wrister that beat Vanecek low. Maybe one of those nine or ten posts becomes a goal instead.
Though the short-side post goal in the first period was perhaps the most egregious, the one that frustrated me the most was Kuzmenko’s because it provides yet more evidence that Vanecek does not think the game very well. Yes, ‘hockey sense,’ the ability to see a play unfold and predict what will happen is critical even in goalies. That exact kind of spin-o-rama shot has beaten Vanecek several times. He hasn’t learned how to stop them yet. On this occasion, he sprawled—legs wide, glove reaching for air—when those kinds of shots almost always go low in the same way that backhands usually go high.
You’d think that someone might’ve taught him that by now. I’m pretty sure that the Devils have someone on staff who works with goalies. I’m pretty sure his name is Dave Rogalski.
Maybe Rogalski has been teaching him and it’s just not getting through. Either way though, Lindy Ruff or no Lindy Ruff, the Devils need a goaltender, and if they have to spend big to get one, that’s entirely their fault. The need is critical and if the time is not now, then the offseason is the eleventh hour and they risk losing out in the shuffle.
Are the Devils a Tanev away from the playoffs? Are they a goalie away from the Stanley Cup?
Those are the questions Fitzgerald is faced with. I don’t pretend to know myself. However, as the discussion occurred in the game thread, I believe the reason Fitzgerald may not have fired Ruff or acquired the goalie is because he already thinks that the season is lost. As the new president of hockey operations, Fitzgerald is looking at the next five to ten seasons. Why spend needlessly when this team doesn’t deserve the help that comes from Chris Tanev? He’ll need a goalie one way or another, but does he want to get one now or use NHL Draft Pick 14 to go get one at the draft itself? Maybe he knows Ruff isn’t the answer but, hey, it’s too late for this season. They were too injured and the goaltending was too bad and the prices were too high to address that immediately. Bank it as a loss, make your apologies to the ownership, hire an extra season tickets rep, collect your high draft picks, and see what your options are in the summer.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. I don’t know Tom Fitzgerald, except I know he has a reputation for being patient. If I was a patient man, I may very well decide to stand firm and make my adjustments later, when more options are available to me.
Well that one was a bummer. I was hoping to write a Colorado Avalanche-like victory article where we can all say that the break was what they needed to get back on track, but some of those ugly old issues arose today. Should the Devils become buyers at the deadline, or is it time to look toward next season? Was Ruff out-coached, or did the goaltending end the game prematurely? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.