The Devils three game trip to California showed us the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2021-2022 New Jersey Devils
The Devils came out of the games against the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks with three of the six possible points they could have gained. While far from a disaster, it was also a missed opportunity to beat some inferior teams. They started the trip by laying an absolute egg against the Ducks with a DISGUSTING 4-0 loss on Tuesday night in Anaheim. The Devils created a few good chances early but almost nothing looked good in this game. Particularly, the special teams was flat out abysmal, going 0-5 on the power play, allowing a short handed goal, and allowing two goals to the Ducks power play. On the same theme, the Devils were horribly undisciplined taking SEVEN penalties in the game. Of the seven, two were for too many men on the ice and both occurred in the second period. Realistically, NHL teams should never be so confused that they have too many men on the ice. But even if it does happen, there is absolutely no excuse for allowing it to happen twice in the same period. That shows just how mentally out of it the Devils were in this game and they got the exact result they deserved, a blow out loss. Watching this game was actually physically painful and the 10:00pm start time certainly did not help.
Then. on Friday night in Los Angeles, the Devils stole one point by taking the Kings to overtime before ultimately losing the game. Once again, discipline and the power play were major issues. The Devils took another six penalties in this game, including three in the third period by Damon Severson alone. The Kings took four penalties of their own but not surprisingly, the horrific Devils power play was unable to score even a single goal. Despite this though, Pavel Zacha scored another clutch goal in this young season to tie the game at two with just 24 seconds remaining in the third period.
Zacha had the OT winner against Buffalo and now this goal, his fifth of the year, stole the Devils a point in a game they really did not deserve to win. Zacha is not only putting the puck in the net, he is putting the puck in the net in big moments. Only 12% of the season has been played, but Pavel Zacha has 5 goals through 10 games which means he is on pace for 41 goals this year… Just something to keep an eye on going forward. Zacha had a career high 17 goals in 50 games last season and is on pace to shatter that mark in this 82 game campaign.
This game against the Kings also gave Devils fans something we have been waiting for all year, the debut of Mackenzie Blackwood. A heel injury had kept Blackwood out of the lineup until Friday night and he looked good in his debut, saving 26 of the 29 shots he faced. While he took the OT loss, the game winning goal really could not be blamed on Blackwood. Ty Smith had the puck behind the Devils net and as they were trying to break out of their zone in the first minute of the overtime period. Smith was hounded by Phillip Danault and coughed up the puck behind the goal line. Danault then passed the puck to a wide open Alex Iafallo who was all alone in the slot. Saying he was wide open does not do justice to how much time and space Iafallo had to walk in, pick his spot and rip the puck past Blackwood. He could have stopped, untied and retied his skates, redone the tape job on his stick blade and still had time to get a shot off. (I am exaggerating, but only slightly) Zacha and Bratt were looking to break out of the zone and had both swung out wide in hopes of receiving a stretch pass from Smith. This is not the first Ty Smith turnover that led to a heart breaking goal this season either. Smith also turned the puck over to Boone Jenner against Columbus, which directly led to the Blue Jackets tying that game in the third period. Smith really needs to take better care of the puck in his own zone.
The trip concluded on Saturday night with yet another late Devils goal sending the game to overtime, except this time the good guys came away with the W in the shootout. The Devils actually came from behind twice in this game to tie it before sending it to overtime. Ryan Graves scored his first goal in a Devils jersey late in the second period to tie the game at one. A very nice passing play started by Nico Hischier taking the puck away from Sharks defenseman Santeri Hatakka in the Devils zone. Hischier and Michael McLeod then worked together to move the puck into the Sharks zone and Hischier found Graves with a beautiful cross ice pass. Graves finished the play with a hard shot into the back of the Sharks net.
After the Sharks had regained the lead, the Devils refused to quit. In the second half of back to back on the road, coming off of a tough loss, the Devils were not going to go down without a fight. With just three minutes remaining in regulation, the Devils applied pressure in the Sharks zone, passing the puck around the outside and getting traffic in front of the net, creating chaos in the offensive zone at even strength. A shot from point off the stick of Colton White pin balled around in front of the net before Janne Kuokkanen found it and lifted it over the sprawling James Reimer to tie the game. The Devils looked hungry and determined to leave San Jose with at least one point and made it happen with this late goal. It was also encouraging to see that our bottom six forwards and bottom defensive pair can create offense late in games. Especially with players like Hughes and Hamilton out, having Kuokkanen and White chip in some offensive contribution is very exciting.
The Devils then went on to do something that this franchise almost never does. Win a shootout. Nothing takes the excitement out of a Devils game for me like a shoot out because it seems like the good guys pretty much never find a way to win them. However, every now and again a blind squirrel finds a nut and the Devils were a blind squirrel on Saturday night and a shootout win was a nut. Goals from the often penalized Damon Severson and surging Jesper Bratt sent the Devils back home to the Garden State with a win and three out of a possible six points in California.
So what was the good we saw in this trip? Clutch goals late in games that secure at least one point in the standings. Jesper Bratt is heating up, earning two points against the Kings as well as scoring in the shootout in San Jose. With Hughes still out for a few weeks, the Devils will need offensive contributions from guys like Bratt desperately. Mackenzie Blackwood got his first game action of the season and looked good. Having a pair of legitimate NHL goalies is absolutely essential for any team hoping to compete in today’s NHL.
There was also some bad, starting with team discipline . In these three games, the Devils took SIXTEEN penalties. That is a recipe for disaster and must change immediately. If the Devils continue take so many penalties, we will not have any chance of seeing playoff hockey in New Jersey this spring. Turnovers were another problem that showed their ugly face on this trip, including Ty Smith’s overtime blunder. The Devils also had eight giveaways in the stinker in Anaheim and six in the win over the Sharks. The Devils need to take much better care of the puck. The Devils also got more bad news in Anaheim as Dougie Hamilton was injured in the first period and has not played since. Missing our best forward, Hughes, and now our best defenseman, Hamilton, makes competing in the NHL’s best division even harder for this young team.
In the ugly department, we have Damon Severson taking three penalties in the third period alone during the game in LA. The Kings scored on the third power play given to them by Severson and went on to win in overtime. Had Severson been able to stay out of the box and stop putting his team down a player, maybe the Devils could have won the game instead of only getting one point. Another ugly facet of the Devils play on this trip is not something new or unique to these three games. The Devils power play was 0-13 in these three games. Two of which, they lost by one goal. The Devils played 26 minutes with an extra player on the ice. ZERO goals in those 26 minutes. Zero. Not even one power play goal in thirteen attempts. That is almost incomprehensible. Assistant coach Mark Recchi needs to figure it out or be replaced by someone who can like right now. No team can contend for the playoffs when their power play is converting on only 9.6% of their chances, like the Devils are so far this year.
1-1-1. Half of the possible points. Not a disaster but not the best case scenario I was hoping for out of this road trip either. The season is already 12% over and I will have a blog later this week breaking down the major takeaways of the first 10 games and looking ahead to the next 72.
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