With seven players in Covid protocol, the Devils fought hard, but came up short in Columbus.
Jesper Bratt, Nathan Bastian, Pavel Zacha, Yegor Sharangovich, Andreas Johnsson, Mason Geertsen, and Dougie Hamilton were all on the NHL’s Covid protocol list when the Devils faced off with the Blue Jackets on Saturday night. Now, Hamilton is injured with a recently broken jaw and would have been unavailable regardless of testing positive for Covid and Geertsen should be a healthy scratch pretty much every game anyway. However, the other five members of the team that were held out due to the NHL’s Covid protocols are important pieces to the Devils roster on a nightly basis. To illustrate this point, there are typically just eight wingers dressed for an NHL team in a game. Saturday night, five of the Devils usual eight wingers were out, including two of the teams top three point producers this season. That is a tough obstacle for any team to overcome, but the Devils almost managed to do so anyway.
The Devils started slow and fell behind 2-0 early in the first period. Very quickly, it looked like the Blue Jackets and an energetic Columbus crowd were going to run the depleted Devils out of the building and the score would end up being very lopsided in the home team’s favor. However, the Devils showed a great deal of resiliency and fought back from multiple deficits throughout the game. This started when Devils captain Nico Hischier took a pass from Damon Severson and ripped a shot through a screen past Jonas Korpisalo for the Devils first goal. The captain, who is quietly having the best season of his young career, gave the Devils a boost of confidence late in the first period. Not only is Hischier producing at the highest points per game pace of his career (21 points in 30 games), but he is also second on the team in faceoff wins and faceoff winning percentage. You can also look at possession metrics to see that Hischier is having his best year to date. If a player has a “Corsi for percentage” above 50%, this means that the player’s team has the puck more often than not with that player on the ice. This season, Hischier has the highest Corsi for percentage of his career with 55.4%. Not only is Hischier contributing with offensive production, but he is helping to keep the puck out of the Devils net by helping the team control the majority of the play while he is on the ice.
As the first period winded down, the Devils were determined not to go into the intermission down a goal. Jack Hughes carried the puck into the offensive zone and tried to connect with Damon Severson on a cross ice pass. When that pass did not get through, Hughes ran over Benstrom in the corner, and freed up the puck for Dawson Mercer, who found Jimmy Vesey in the slot. After falling behind 2-0 early, going into the break tied has to be a huge mental boost for the undermanned Devils team. The goal was Vesey’s second point of the game, after assisting on the Hischier goal a few minutes earlier. After signing a PTO with the Devils in training camp, Vesey now has 10 points in 32 games. With low expectations coming in a prove it deal, Vesey has made himself a valuable member of the Devils roster. He has played in 32 of the teams 36 games so far and averages over 15 minutes of ice time per game. Vesey has made himself a valuable member of the teams penalty kill, even scoring two short handed goals so far this season. For a team that has struggled to find depth scoring this season, it is important for the Devils to get contributions from bottom six forwards such as Vesey.
After falling behind yet again in the second period, the Devils still refused to quit. Jesper Boqvist raced into the Blue Jackets zone while Marian Studenic crashed the net. Boqvist threw the puck on net and Studenic hacked away at it until he finally slapped the puck past Jonas Korpisalo to tie the game for the Devils yet again. Studenic was a 5th round pick of the Devils in 2017 and has yet to find a steady role in the NHL. Studenic has shown that he can score at the AHL level with 10 points in 13 games for the Comets this season, but has yet to show that potential in the NHL. in 23 career NHL games so far, Studenic has just three points. However, the way he scored this goal is the way he needs to play more often. Studenic needs to use his strong skating to race to the net and then battle for rebounds in front. He does not have the stick handling or vision to create much off the rush at the NHL level so he should do what he can, as he did in this goal here. With players like Bratt, Johnsson and Zacha out, it was good to see players like Vesey, Studenic and Boqvist create offense and get points with the extra ice time they won’t normally get.
With the game tied at three and 20 seconds to go in the second period, the Devils were on the power play. McLeod won the faceoff back to Severson who dished to Hughes. Hughes briefly held the puck before sending a perfect cross ice pass to a wide open Nico Hischier. Hischier hammered a one timer that was grabbed by Jonas Korpisalo in what can only be described as an impossible save. The pass from Hughes to Hischier went all the way across the zone and Hischier ripped a perfect one timer to a gaping net. Yet somehow, inexplicably, Korpislao got across to rob Hischier with his glove. The Devils did everything right there but still didn’t score because Korpisalo was literally perfect on that play. This is what gave me the feeling that Saturday was not the Devils night. After seeing the depleted Devils roster battle back from multiple deficits to tie the game, set up a perfect play on the power play, but still not be able to take the lead, I had a bad feeling. Columbus would take the lead in the third, and despite multiple pushes from the Devils, that is how the game would end. 4-3 bad guys.
The Devils upcoming schedule is a bit chaotic with games in Montreal and Toronto being postponed due to crowd restrictions in Canada. However, before the Lightning come to Newark on Monday night, the Devils hope to have both Sharangovich and Zacha back from the Covid list. The Devils and Lightning have met once already this year, a 5-3 win for New Jersey in Tampa on November 20th. Regardless of that fact, Tampa is still one of the NHL’s top teams with great players such as Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, and Vasilevskiy to name a few. The Devils will have their hands full there but with the next two games against the weak Islanders and Coyotes, the Devils have a chance to inch closer towards the NHL .500 mark as they, hopefully, get healthier and are able to put their best roster possible on the ice more often.
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Stats for this article from hockey-reference.com