After about ten months – 310 days to be exact – the New Jersey Devils played their first game of meaningful ice hockey against an opponent. The opponent was the Boston Bruins, who last played a game on August 31 in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. How would the game begin between two teams who have been inactive for at least four months and had no preseason games to get ready? It would go absolutely poorly for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils played like it was a training camp scrimmage. The Bruins played like it was an actual NHL game. It is from this perspective, I am actually pleased the Devils ultimately lost the game through a shootout for a final score of 2-3.
I cannot stress enough how badly the Devils started off this game. The Devils struggled to win the puck and when they often did have it on their sticks, it did not take long for them to turn it over either right to the Bruins or into empty space. Nikita Gusev seemingly forgot who his teammates were. Kyle Palmieri played like he was actually Nick Palmieri on a bad night. The young guys getting anxious with the puck was one thing. To see Travis Zajac or P.K. Subban just look out of sorts was mystifying. Only two Devils actually played well in that period: rookie Yegor Sharangovich, who drew two penalties that led to two ultimately meaningless power plays; and goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who actually showed up to play. Even with Blackwood putting up a wall, a heinous turnover by Palmieri during a penalty kill led to Patrice Bergeron knocking it to David Krejci, who went down the wing and fed Brad Marchand at the far post for a tap-in past Blackwood’s right skate and a stickless Dmitry Kulikov. Blackwood could have allowed 3 goals and would have looked miles ahead of the remainder of his team, who were out-shot 4 to 16 in the first period. That’s four shots on Tuukka Rask with two power plays yielded by Sharangovich. The nicest phrase I can use to describe the Devils’ performance was “hideously terrible.”
However, the Devils did improve as time went on. Players got their legs under themselves some more. The Devils stopped treating every third pass like they were hurling a grenade or throwing it to a spot hoping a teammate was there. More veteran players realized they should probably play like them instead of just leaning on Blackwood and the young ones to carry the day. Boston started making some errors here and there. Did this lead to the Devils coming back? No. The second period was more or less stemming the bleeding. The power play was still poor and occasionally porous. But the defensive effort was a bit stiffer and the offense existed for more than just four shots. Getting out-shot 7-10 is an upgrade after 4-16. Still, the Bruins were very much in control of the game – they were still out-shooting the Devils 26-11 – and Blackwood was the main reason why they were just up by one goal.
Get used to reading a sentence like that throughout this season. It may be the common point in any game where the Devils earned something in the standings. Because Blackwood kept the game within reach, the Devils really just needed one good third period to erase an absolutely awful first period and a more “meh” second period. They at least got the goals they needed. Two unlikely ones. After Jack Hughes bodied up Sean Kuraly to knock the puck loose, Miles Wood skated as fast as he could in a straight line, went off on a breakaway and fired a wrister past Tuukka Rask instead of flying into him. I cannot believe I saw it and wrote that sentence either. That made it 1-1. A little later, Wood backed his thing back up into Rask’s face all by himself during a power play. After the resulting goaltender inteference call and Devils fans around the world groaning, the Bruins re-took the lead. Near the end of the penalty kill, Marchand found Nick Ritchie at the right post. One great pass later, Ritchie popped in a puck over Blackwood to make it 1-2. Then the Devils got an even bigger break. Ty Smith fired a shot into traffic from the right point. The puck pinballed off the traffic and ultimately bounced off Charlie McAvoy and past Rask to make it 2-2. Welcome to the NHL and scoring goals, young Smith.
And the Devils played a much sharper game in the remaining six minutes to preserve the score. They did not create a lot, but they denied Boston as much as they could. A far cry from what happened in the first period. Normally and typically, taking an opponent beyond regulation and earning a point is not the same as a win. After the first two periods of this game, it certainly felt like one to me.
What was astonishing was how the Devils nearly won it in overtime multiple times. The Devils did much more with the puck than Boston did. Despite seeing some odd names out there in 3-on-3, it nearly worked. Pavel Zacha blew past a Bruin and nearly won it on a backhander. Sharangovich nearly beat Rask far post. Subban and Damon Severson were viable defensively. Kyle Palmieri, clearly near the end of his shift, went off on a breakaway to nearly win it. Jack Hughes looked like a stud in 3-on-3, creating opportunities; helping out on defense; and went off on a breakaway in the final seconds. Rask denied him, the puck bounced loose, and poor Zajac missed the bouncing puck to slam into the net. In his defense, he was falling down himself. But the Devils were really, really close to stealing this game in overtime.
The shootout was less dramatic. Nikita Gusev, Jesper Boqvist, and Hughes each tried to go low on Rask. They were stopped, stopped, and knocked away, respectively. For Boston, Blackwood put up two good stops on Charlie Coyle and Ondrej Kase. But Marchand slid a low puck past Blackwood to take the shootout and the other point. Normally, that would be deflating sight.
For a Devils team with few expectations and very little hope in the game – especially after that first period – it was not. The Devils took a point on the back of Blackwood playing excellent and two fortunate scoring circumstances amid a performance that Boston would normally crush. That the Devils took the B’s this far was a real pleasant surprise. And they nearly grabbed the ‘W’ in 3-on-3. I can understand those who wanted the Devils to win this one; let’s start by hoping they play far, far, far better than how they started this game. I can appreciate the effort to comeback to get a post-regulation loss instead of the blowout they maybe would have received on another night.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Stanley Cup of Chowder for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here is the highlight video of the game:
It also showed the gap in preparation between the two teams. To be fair, the circumstances of both teams were different. While Zdeno Chara moved on, most of Boston’s core players returned. As Bruce Cassidy has become a staple behind the bench, the B’s did not need to learn a whole lot of new things. Their camp was likely more about preparation for the season as opposed to a Devils team that had to teach a fairly young squad about a whole new way playing. In time, we shall see the wingers recognize their defensive responsibilities better. But this was New Jersey’s first game with this unfamiliar method of playing in their own end. Throw in the experienced players coughing up pucks and, yeah, Boston just needed to take advantage. And they largely did. This meant a lot of pressure on the goaltender, who was magnificent tonight.
Your First, Second, and Third Star Should Be: Mackenzie Blackwood. Just as I cannot stress enough how badly the Devils performed in the first period, I cannot stress enough how well Blackwood played tonight. His teammates get pinned back? Blackwood holds it down. Chaos in front of the net with the puck bouncing around? Blackwood manages to track it well and stay in front of it. A turnover and/or breakdown in coverage leads to an odd man rush? Blackwood stood tall and stopped the rebound. Blackwood did his very best to not let the losses by his skaters lead to goals against. It was fitting that the only times he was beaten were on both on his right flank and it took a great pass across the slot to make it possible during a penalty kill. The first may have even been bailed out if Kulikov had a stick – and it should not have happened had Palmieri did the simple thing on that play. Again, Blackwood could have given up twice as many goals and still would have had a good game. He ensured that the game was reachable if the Devils could get something going and they kind of did. His 35-save performance was fantastic.
Good Wood and Bad Wood: If Blackwood was the best Wood of the game, then Wood was, well, more of his regular Wood-like self. OK, that is a little harsh. Wood did have a good game, all things considered. Wood finished the game with five shots on net (most on the Devils, who had 22 total) and finished on the right side of 50% in terms of Corsi with 58.8% (10 attempts for, 7 against when on the ice). He even received a shift in 3-on-3 that did not set his team on fire. His apex was scoring a on breakaway. Miles Wood getting a breakaway is one thing. Him scoring on one was a sight to behold. It was important too as it did tie up the game at one at the time.
And as it was the Devils’ first goal of the season, yes, it will get a goal breakdown in the coming days. The AAtJ Tradition will continue.
Unfortunately, Wood also showed his flaws. Namely, his penchant for taking stupid penalties. He took two entirely avoidable ones. In the first period, he went on a breakaway and instead of scoring or getting a good shot on Rask, he just flew into the man. No Bruin was close to pushing him in; that goaltender interference call was all on Wood. And the Devils were punished by it after Palmieri tried to force a pass at his blueline past Bergeron (a mistake) instead of doing the simple thing and clearing it away. The avoidable penalty yielded a power play goal against thanks to an avoidable mistake. In the third period, during a Devils power play, Wood was on the second power play unit trying to screen Rask. He skated back into the goaltender and knocked Rask and himself down in the process. Again, no Bruin was close by so that was also all on Wood too. Another easy goalie interference call. And that was also punished. The regrettable part of Miles Wood’s game also appeared along with the contributing part.
Poor Butcher: Will Butcher was scratched for this game. Maybe there was a reason given out in the post-game. Based on what I saw and confirmed by the stats, he really should have played tonight. The Lindy Ruff Systems so far did see plenty of defensemen activated to join up on rushes and attacks after being set up. Surprising to me, even Kulikov looked good in this respect. But the third pairing of Smith and Matt Tennyson did not. Sure, Smith scored a goal off a very favorable bounce. Outside of that score, the Smith-Tennyson pairing was rolled over by the Bruins. When that pairing was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 3 to 14 in 5-on-5 play and out-shot 3 to 8. Boston had 40 shooting attempts in 5-on-5 tonight so Smith-Tennyson witnessed a hefty chunk of Boston’s offense in just 8:55 of ice time. For the statistically non-inclined, they were wrecked.
I can understand the coaching staff wanting to see what Smith can do and I am glad he got his first NHL goal tonight. I do not understand Matt Tennyson’s involvement; he was a total non-factor on the ice this evening. This pairing was so bad in the run of play, you cannot convince me that a Butcher-Smith pairing would have been so much worse. Maybe a Butcher-Tennyson pairing or a Butcher-Carrick pairing would have been. But if there is a change to make in the lineup for Saturday’s game, this is one I would make. Among the many lessons to learn from this game, the fact is that Butcher is one of the six best defensemen on this team right now. Play him.
What Worked in the Run of Play: Despite how heinous that first period was, some players really helped turn the tide in the run of play in 5-on-5 to make the game more competitive and ultimately positive. The pairing of Kulikov and Severson were the opposite of Smith-Tennyson. Together, the Devils out-attempted the Bruins 10-4 when they were on the ice for 10:36 tonight. I would have liked to have seen more shots but the forwards, well, they were not so kind. And, unfortunately, Gusev flubbed a fantastic diagonal pass from Kulikov that could and should have tied up the game in the second period as Rask was totally unaware about the potential one-timer. The Goose hit the puck with the heel of his stick, so instead of the gaping net, the puck went to the side netting. Regardless of that, Kulikov-Severson is viable for at least another game. (So would Ryan Murray and P.K. Subban as they sorted themselves out after that first period and ended up about even in the run of play.)
If you watched this game and thought, “Huh, Michael McLeod seemed good,” then the CF% supports your thought. He led all Devils by being present for 11 shooting attempts and only six against for a CF% of 64.71%. His linemates of Nathan Bastian and Janne Kuokkanen (who drew one call, took another) had similarly great CF%s as well. For an inexperienced line that played about 10 minutes, that is nice to see given that those lines tend to get pounded on by deeper and more experienced squads. That said, it was not all good as the line did not generate a shot on net. At least they pushed the play away from their end to give their defense and Blackwood some respite.
While their CF% numbers were not gaudy, the unit of Zajac, Wood, and Boqvist at right wing actually took on a couple of shifts of Bergeron, Marchand, and Studnicka – and won those shifts. While Marchand had a hand in the two power play goals and the lone shootout winner, that line had a poor night in the run of play given their skillset. The Zajac line did their job to keep them quiet. I am uncertain they can do it again on Saturday, but it was a small victory in the bigger scheme of the game.
What Didn’t Work in the Run of Play: Lindy Ruff did the right thing with the last change to ensure that a first line of Yegor Sharangovich, Jack Hughes, and Kyle Palmieri did not have to get matched up with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Jack Studnicka in 5-on-5. Unfortunately, their match up of Kase, Krejci, and Jake DeBrusk was a blowout in favor of the Bruins. The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey played with about zero pride and that really hindered the two young players. The four-ish minutes with Smith-Tennyson behind them was especially poor. Thankfully, they mostly had Kulikov-Severson to support them. But its a minor miracle Sharangovich drew three penalties tonight and Hughes picked up two assists and played like a boss in OT. Palmieri was just horrendous tonight and I really think that drew the whole unit down. The line’s CF% finished just above 20% – which is just terrible no matter how you look at it. I really want to see more from Palmieri to see if that unit can be salvaged. Otherwise, Ruff may need to move things around already.
Similarly, the veteran member of the Gusev, Andreas Johnsson, and Zacha line also had its struggles. They did improve as the game went on. But that first period was stinky. Gusev was a turnover machine and both Zacha and Johnsson were ghosts out there. Gusev did calm down as the game went on and Zacha and Johnsson did some things here and there. Ultimately, the line still finished below 50% CF% meaning that Boston did ultimately generate more against them when they were present. But it was seemingly about as low as the Hughes line after that first period.
Does the Team Really Miss Hischier, Bratt, and Vatanen: Yes. If not, they should. I miss them.
Special Team Woes: The penalty kill was not as bad as conceding two goals would suggest. One was a direct mistake by someone who normally does not play on the penalty kill, Palmieri, and the other was more of an excellent play to finish a penalty that should have been avoided in the first place, Wood. Still, it could have been much better for those reasons stated.
As for the power play. Yikes. It definitely tried to move up ice differently than last season. And they had their chances as the Devils did have five opportunities lasting just over eight minutes. But the units were just totally out of sync. It was especially annoying as Charlie McAvoy, Boston’s best defenseman, sat in the box for two of those and the Devils made just about nothing happen with them. Boston’s penalty kill was appropriately aggressive and generated better shots than the Devils did over those eight minutes. Their PK had two shots and the Devils PP had three total. A lot of work needs to be done. And some personnel changes could be considered. As the first unit had Gusev and Palmieri and those two were terrible tonight, maybe that resolves itself. The second unit with Smith in the back and Wood present at all, well, perhaps Butcher (or Severson?) and any other forward in place of Wood would be an upgrade there. We’ll see on Saturday.
Over all, the special teams were a net negative. And that could have absolutely sunk the Devils given how 5-on-5 went, especially in the first period. Good on the Devils to get two past a really, really good goaltender in Rask in 5-on-5 despite being put in a deep hole after the first period during the run of play. Even better on Blackwood for keeping it all close as possible.
One Final Thought: I can appreciate that the Devils played off some of the rust and that helped the performance a bit. But I really do hope this game was also a wake-up call. While the expectations for the season may be fairly low, there should be an understanding that the goal is to be more competitive. The score was tied up and OT nearly won it for New Jersey. A shootout loss to a likely division leader is not a bad result at all. But if they come out anything like they did tonight in future games, then they are likely to be routed. I hope Ruff and his staff made it clear that the Devils kind of got away with this result. I also hope this means the Devils will start off playing smarter on and off the puck on Saturday. And I especially hope we see much better from Palmieri and Gusev.
Your Take: The Devils managed to take the Bruins all the way to the shootout despite how the game began. I think that is not bad. It could have been a lot worse, like losing 0-4 to a rival. What do you think of this game? How did you react to both goals? Other than Blackwood, who else impressed you tonight? Who disappointed you and why? What lessons do you think the Devils should take from this game and apply them to their game on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thanks to everyone on staff who interacted with fans on social media and/or in the comments. Thanks to all who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.