Devils Impress, Then Struggle, In Important Games

New Jersey went 2-1-1 in games against four Eastern Conference contenders, showing that they can stay in the playoff picture despite their flaws.

We are 14 games into the 2021-2022 Devils season and the Devils are still a real factor in the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. This is a welcome change of pace for us Devils fans who are far to accustomed to our team being an afterthought and a doormat all season long. For example, in the 2018-19 season, the Devils had a 6-7-1 record after 14 games. The 2019-2020 Devils went 4-6-4 in their first 14 games. The 2021 Devils started the season with a record of 6-6-2. This is the first time the Devils have had a point percentage over 50% 14 games into a season since the 2017-2018 season. With all that in mind, it is incredibly refreshing and exciting to look at the standings right now and see the Devils holding onto a playoff spot, the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

In the last four games, the Devils played the Panthers, Islanders, Bruins and Rangers. In those games, New Jersey earned 5 out of the 8 possible points which is better than almost anyone would have expected coming in. The Panthers came into the Rock last Tuesday with a record of 10-1-1 and were favored to beat the Devils. However, that is not what happened. The Panthers came into Newark and received a 7-3 spanking from Jersey’s Team. Goals from Johnsson (x2), Hischier, Subban, Zacha, Smith, and Vesey, along with 35 saves from Mackenzie Blackwood, propelled the Devils to a statement win over one of the best teams in the entire NHL. The Devils trailed 1-0 and 3-2 at points in this game but were still able to comfortably defeat a highly skilled Panthers team. The Devils displayed a balanced attack while firing 30 shots on the Panthers young net minder Spencer Knight. 12 different Devils players earned points, showing that even without Jack Hughes the Devils are capable of scoring in bunches.

Next up, the New York Islanders, along with many of their fans, came to visit the Prudential Center. The Islanders were nearing the end of their 13 game road trip to start the season and came into New Jersey with a 5-3-2 record. The Isles have been to the third round of the playoffs in the last two seasons and are a strong veteran team that is well coached and likely to compete for a playoff spot this year. However, their strong veteran core and outstanding coaching could not help them beat Mackenzie Blackwood and the Devils. Blackwood stopped all 42 Islander shots while goals from Kuokkanen, Tatar, Mercer and Hamilton catapulted the Devils to their second statement win in a row. It is always satisfying to beat a divisional rival in regulation. Any time you can gain two points and keep someone else in your division from gaining any, it is a fantastic day. It is especially satisfying for the Devils to beat the Islanders because the Islanders are ran by the former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello and have multiple former Devils on their roster, including Zach Parise, Kyle Palmieri and Andy Greene. It would be upsetting to watch the Devils of years past come into New Jersey and beat the Devils of the present. Thankfully, we did not have to endure that this time and got to celebrate a convincing win.

On Saturday afternoon, the Bruins were in town and brought the Devils back down to Earth by handing New Jersey a 5-2 loss. The Bruins are a highly skilled team with world class players like Bergeron, Marchand, McAvoy and Pastrnak, all of whom had points in this game. They have struggled a little bit out of the gate but with the talent on their roster, it is almost impossible to imagine the Bruins missing the playoffs this season. This game showed that the Devils still have some work to do to close the gap between themselves and teams who expect to make deep runs in the playoffs every year. The Bruins took advantage of turnovers, penalties, and the Devils inability to clear rebounds from in front of the net to score 4 goals before icing the game with an empty netter to win 5-2.

Finally,the Devils closed the week with a trip across the Hudson River to take on the arch rival Rangers. This was a seesaw affair that saw the two teams trade scoring chances all night. The Devils lead 1-0, the Rangers took a 2-1 lead, the Devils tied the game, the Rangers took a 3-2 lead in the third and then the Devils tied the game again to force overtime. This was a hotly contested game between two young teams on the rise and had more than its fair share of controversy. In the third period, Rangers forward Sammy Blais and Devils defensman PK Subban went into the corner to chase a loose puck. Anyone with a functioning brain and functioning pair of eyes can see it was a bad luck fall for Blais and not a dirty play by Subban. However, that hasn’t stopped Ranger fans from calling for Subban to be suspended because of his recent history with dirty plays. However, just because he has played dirty in the past does not mean he was playing dirty here.

The controversy in the game did not stop there. Following a brutal and unacceptable turnover from Ryan Graves, noted draft bust Kappo Kakko came racing into the Devils zone looking to score his first goal of the year by any means necessary. In his quest to finally score a goal this season, Kakko delivered an elbow to the head of goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood before sliding the puck into the net to give the Rangers the lead. No one pushed Kakko and he made no effort to stop. Kakko simply just plowed over the goalie, striking Blackwood’s head with his elbow, before sliding the puck over the goal line. This play was not challenged by head coach Lindy Ruff for fear of putting the very dangerous Rangers power play on the ice to possibly extend their lead late in the game.

Despite falling behind late in the third period on the road as a result of a questionable, at best, goal, the Devils did not give up. Their resilience paid off as Pavel Zacha tied the game with under three minutes to go in the third period by burying his own rebound. The teams went to overtime and a seven round shootout that sadly ended with the Rangers emerging victorious. Despite the heart breaking loss to the team we hate the most, there were still some positives to take from this game.

  1. The Devils were able to battle back from deficits to tie the game multiple times. Despite being out played for much of the game and severely out shot (41-27), the Devils never let the game get away from them and hung around long enough to steal a point. This was due in large part to another stellar performance from Mackenzie Blackwood who saved 30 of the 33 shots he faced before being removed from the game in the third period by NHL concussion spotters as a result of the Kakko incident. Blackwood has been outstanding since returning from injury and this game was no exception. He is showing that he has what it takes to be an elite goalie in the NHL.
  2. The Devils are getting clutch scoring that they have lacked in recent years, this time from Pavel Zacha. In previous years, the Devils would not have been mentally strong enough to force overtime after trailing multiple times on the road. That is not the case anymore and not in this game thanks to Pavel Zacha. Zacha is building off of his strong season last year with a good start to this season. Zacha’s career high in points was 35 points in 50 games played last year. This year, he already has 11 points (7G, 4A) in 14 games, including the goal that sent the Ranger game to OT and secured a point for the Devils.
  3. #MERCERFORCALDER. Dawson Mercer had a beauty of a pass to spring Jesper Bratt on a breakaway and help the Devils score their first goal. He is off to a hot start in his NHL career with 11 points in 14 games and has made several high end offensive plays to help fill the void left by Jack Hughes. Just look at this pass he made to Bratt. Mercer is turning a lot of heads with his strong start and giving Devils fans even more hope for an already bright looking future.

This four game stretch showed that the Devils can be competitive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. However, they also made some critical mistakes. On the ice, they need to take better care of the puck as turnovers led to several goals against. Ty Smith turned the puck over with a bad pass up the middle and created a 4 on 2 rush for the Bruins for their first goal of the game. Ryan Graves had an abysmal turnover that led to the Kakko goal and Blackwood pull. Kakko never would have had the opportunity to run Blackwood like he did if Graves never turned the puck over. The Devils were also slow to clear rebounds out from in front of their net. This led to goals against New Jersey by Barkov (FLA), Marchand (BOS), Bergeron (BOS), and Fox (NYR).

Coaching blunders also did not put the Devils in their best position to win. Mason Geertsen has played the last two games while Alex Holtz has sat in the press box. Geertsen brings absolutely nothing to the table. He is slow, has no offensive upside and does not use his size or toughness to intimidate the other teams and create space for the Devils skilled players. If you have seen a use for him in the lineup so far this year, please feel free to let me know. Meanwhile, Holtz has been held out of the lineup. While I admit Holtz has not exactly set the world on fire in his first few NHL games, he was the 7th overall pick in 2020 for a reason. He has an elite shot and sky high offensive upside, as shown by his 5 goals in four AHL games this season. If Geertsen isn’t bringing toughness, lock down defense, or offensive production, which he isn’t, why is he in the lineup? What is he doing? Those lineup decisions coupled with the decision not to challenge the Kakko goal baffle me.

All in all, the Devils are off to a good start, despite being without our best player for most of the season so far and still being a few weeks away from his return. New Jersey is currently sitting in playoff spot and on pace for 99 points. The positives have outweighed the negatives and things are looking up for the Devils.

Follow me on Twitter at Patboooooth

(All stats from this article from Hockey-reference.com and hockeydb.com)

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