Illness, injuries, and sub par goaltending end Devils winning streak at three.
Starting on December 29th in Buffalo, the Devils looked like a competent NHL team for the first time in weeks. New Jersey defeated Buffalo 4-3 in regulation, then took down Edmonton and Washington, each in overtime, by scores of 6-5 and 4-3 respectively. However, between the exhilarating win in Washington and puck drop in Boston, the Devils were hit with a rash of injuries and additions to the Covid list. A puck fractured Dougie Hamilton’s jaw, Nico Hischier injured his foot blocking a shot, and both Yegor Sharangovich and Pavel Zacha were added to the Covid list. When a hot team has several key players sidelined all at once, it is a pretty good cause for concern. However, the Devils showed a lot of fight in the 5-3 loss to the Bruins on Tuesday night.
The Devils fell behind to the Bruins in the first period when a very stoppable shot from Curtis Lazar found its way past Blackwood and into the net. (More on that later.) With the abundance of players unavailable and an early deficit, it appeared that this would be a long night for the Devils and their fans. However, the Devils fought back repeatedly. The first example of this comes from a very smart and skillful play by Seattle Kraken legend Nathan Bastian. Bastian read the play perfectly, intercepted the Bruins pass at the blue line, and raced in on a breakaway before unleashing a perfect shot to tie the score at one with his fifth goal of the season. One of the Devils biggest issues this year, which I have pointed out in earlier blogs, is their lack of secondary scoring. The team has relied too heavily on guys like Jesper Bratt, Andreas Johnsson, and Jack Hughes to produce almost all of the offense. As a result, the Devils are in the bottom half of the league in goals scored, and reside in the bottom half of the standings. Seeing bottom six players like Bastian create offense is highly encouraging for the future of the Devils season. Bastian doesn’t need to score 20 goals to be useful. If he can score 10-15 goals and be a physical presence, like he was when he led the Devils in hits last year despite missing 13 games, he will be a very important piece of the Devils getting better.
When a fluke goal from Oskar Steen put the Bruins up 2-1, the Devils quickly bounced back and tied the game. Tomas Tatar, who had not played since December 19th due to Covid protocol, buried the rebound of a Jack Hughes shot and tied the game at two. Tatar had been off to a much slower start to the season than had been expected, scoring only six goals in his first 30 games as a New Jersey Devil. The Devils rely on Tatar to be what he has been all his career, a winger who can score at least 20 goals. The hope at the beginning of the season was for Tatar to be on the wing of either Hischier or Hughes and finish plays set up by either of the young centers. That has yet to consistently happen, however we can hope that this is the start of something. It is also worth noting how this goal was scored. The Devils had a very simple approach here. Multiple forwards went to the front of the net, they got a low shot on net looking for a rebound, and one of the net crashing forwards in front put the rebound behind the goaltender. A very simple strategy that bears results. Too often this year, the Devils have made one pass too many and turned the puck over in the offensive zone without getting a shot on net. A simple approach with a low shot for a rebound and multiple players crashing the net is an effective strategy the Devils should absolutely employ more often.
When Damon Severson took a penalty early in the third period, it was a cause for concern that the Bruins, who have the 11th best power play in the NHL, would take a two goal lead and end the Devils hopes of winning four straight games. However, the Devils penalty kill was fantastic and never let the Bruins sustain any serious pressure. One player who stood out in particular on this Devils kill was Michael McLeod. McLeod broke up plays and cleared the zone several times in this penalty kill. He then ended the kill by taking possession of the puck and giving an outstanding pass to Damon Severson, who went in on a breakaway and tied the game again for New Jersey. This goal continued arguably the best season of Severson’s career and put him at 5th all time in scoring for a Devils defenseman.
All of these goals show the Devils fighting back to the tie the game after the Bruins had taken the lead. You might be asking yourself why or how the Bruins had the lead three separate times. Well, the answer is very simple. Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood simply allowed the Bruins to take those leads by playing shockingly bad. I give you, exhibit A.
Just no way that goal can be allowed by an NHL goalie. A relatively soft attempted pass across the crease should not itself be a goal. No way, no how. However, this could be forgiven if Blackwood played like an average NHL goalie the rest of the game. Sadly, he did not and instead continued to play exceedingly poorly. I present, exhibit B…
A backhand shot from behind the goal line that hit nothing other than the goalie ended up in the back of the net. There is no excuse for that. No NHL goalie should ever allow a goal like that. When speaking of goals that shouldn’t have been allowed by any NHL goaltender, we should travel back in time to the Devils overtime win in Washington when they had a chance to win in regulation.
Blackwood quite literally handed the Caps a point by giving them the late Christmas present of the tying goal. Poor play from Blackwood, and all Devils goalies has unfortunately been a trend this year, as I touched on in an earlier blog. By save percentage and goals against average, this is by far the worst season of Blackwood’s career so far. It is becoming more and more clear that what we saw in his first two seasons was an aberration. Advanced stats, which I am not personally a huge fan of, also point to this being the worst season of Blackwood’s career by far. His “scoring chance save percentage” is far lower this year than in any previous year of his career. The same can be said about his “high danger scoring chance save percentage”. In all statistical categories, Blackwood has sharply regressed over the last two seasons. With Nico Daws and Akira Schmid both young and inexperienced, and Johnathan Bernier out for the year with a hip injury, the Devils have few viable options in net besides Blackwood, so we may just have to deal with watching this minor league level goaltending for a while. However, there are Devils players who have been playing well. Players such as,
Jack Hughes. When he has been on the ice this season, Hughes has been one of the most exciting players in the entire NHL. He is constantly on the puck, he skates around NHL players making them look like pylons, he takes the puck away from the opposition seemingly whenever he feels like it, which is often, and most importantly, he produces points. In his last four games played, Hughes has 9 points, including the overtime winner against the Oilers. While the continued emergence of Jack Hughes as a star in the NHL has been a joy to watch, we can’t forget other young Devils who are putting the NHL on notice.
Jesper Bratt is the Devils leader in goals, assists and points. He doesn’t get as much attention as Jack does, but Bratt is having an elite season of his own. Bratt has six points in his last four games played and has been one of the best players on the ice, for either team, in pretty much every game he has played this season. We as Devil fans should all make it our personal mission to send him to his first NHL All Star Game this season.
Captain Nico Hischier is quietly having the best season of his career as well. With 20 points in 28 games, Nico is having his best points per game season of his career. Furthermore, he is showing that he is the true leader of the team by doing everything that is needed. He plays big minutes in all situations, he blocks shots, he creates offense. In the game against Washington, he scored the overtime winner after sustaining the injury that held him out of the lineup in Boston.
The Devils finally look like a competent NHL team again and seem to be finding their stride as we quickly approach the halfway mark of the season. With still a long climb to get back into the playoff race, they need to keep up their overall play and hope the goaltending improves drastically.