We come into tonight’s game with some good news and some bad news. The bad news, Mackenzie Blackwood is still in ‘Rona protocol and Aaron Dell is still waiting for waiting for his visa, so we are going to be rolling Scott Wedgewood in net. Last game was a good ‘welcome back to the NHL!” moment for him and he’ll be a bit more ready to go tonight, especially given he had little to no notice he was even playing that game beforehand. The good news is Jesper Boqvist—who has been okay but nothing special in my opinion— is taking a break for the night and we will get to see Nick Merkley make his season debut. Merkley was impressive in the few games he played for us last season, so he was my player to watch coming into this game. We also have some lineup changes :
Check out Chris’s preview from this morning for more on these new lines and the reasoning behind them.
But now, on to the game!
As usual (if not surprising) Miles Wood gets the first shot on goal for the Devils. The Devils look decent as far as puck control and zone time goes to start the game, but aren’t getting a lot of shots on net out of it just yet. I’d bet the line changes has a lot to do with this because they seem to be having some trouble connecting passes and really reading their linemates whereabouts. The first line, who stayed together, are definitely looking the best and making clean passes, as well as Wood and Zajac who are not new to each other. The Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line makes the first real scoring attempt happen with some neat tic tac toe passing that beats the defense and makes Sorokin work for the save. The top line comes back out and puts out some excellent board battles, including Jack Hughes which is so great to see, but can’t maintain the zone and on the ensuing rush the other way, the Islanders draw a high-sticking penalty from Damon Severson.
*Cue the Jaws theme song*
On to the Devils less than stellar penalty kill against the Islanders power play, which is coming in with a 20% success rate including 2 for 3 last game against us. The Islanders maintain the zone the entire time, but honestly played themselves through most of their man-advantage by making too many passes and trying to hold the puck for positioning shots too long. They did manage to take 6 shots but Scott Wedgewood is looking good so far and looked really solid throughout the two-minute onslaught.
Back at even strength, Hughes makes an odd mid-air tip trying to catch a pass out of the zone that would’ve been a nice play if he didn’t get immediately stripped of the puck that led to a sort of breakaway, but again Wedgewood gets the shot. The Islanders did not have a shot on net before the powerplay, but following it they’ve picked up some steam and definitely look like the better team. The Devils are definitely struggling to get any real control of the puck, looking more like the Devils of last year (and the year before that) where they struggle to get out of their own zone other than to dump and change. Finally, Ryan Murray makes a good outlet pass that springs Hughes with Sharangovitch with him for a 2 on 2 rush that doesn’t actually lead to anything, but it was a good break that let the Devils get up off their heels a bit. The Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line gets the next rush, a 3 on 2 that sees Wood nearly bury a bank pass/shanked shot from off the boards behind the net in the back door (and possibly lose a chicklet from an overzealous Islanders defenseman) but Sorokin was able to get over in time. Nick Merkley gets a good shot immediately off the ensuing face-off but Sorokin denies that too.
The Islanders rush into the zone and set up off the next faceoff and a bouncy rebound really makes Wedgewood work for his money but he manages to make the catch. The Devils struggle to get it out a bit, highlighting a bad turnover from Wood in the top of the zone, but Scott Wedgewood is really holding things together for this team. As the Devils finally get the play out, Damon Severson joins the rush with Zacha and Merkley and nearly puts in a tip from Merkley, but Zacha took a hook up high on the play so we’ll get a power play out of it regardless. To this point out powerplay has been, well…. not good.
Ty Smith quarterbacking the powerplay, however, is STUNNING. After a good bit of puck movement around the zone, Smith hands it to Hughes on the high boards who walks in, picks his spot and just snipes it top shelf past Ilya Sorokin’s shoulder just over 30 seconds into the man advantage. Devils are on the board with a powerplay goal, 1-0! Hughes picks up his third goal of the season and for Smith, his 5th point in 5 straight games.
The goal really seems to have really given the Devils some wind under their wings and the remaining minutes of the game are just all Devils offense. Ty Smith hands off to Gusev, who deeks the life out of Casey Czikas, and takes a shot on net. That leaves a juicy rebound for Pavel Zacha to pick up and bury short side with barely a minute left in the first period. That’s two assists for Ty Smith this game, and 2-0 Devils!
The Devils finished this period with a 67% Corsi at 5v5 and just squeeze out the total shots on goal advantage with 12 to the Islanders 10.
The Devils have a lot of momentum to work with coming into this period, but the Islanders have a bone to pick and they look like the better team off the start of play. The Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line, once again, manages to be the first line to get offensive zone time and a shot but they don’t come close to beating Sorokin. The Islanders try to get something going in the Devils zone but Johnson clips Wedgewood’s feet and yanks him to the ice, giving the Devils another power play.
The top powerplay unit looks good but doesn’t get the job done, so the second unit comes out. Zacha gets a great opportunity from the side of the net but rings it off the opposite post before the powerplay expires. The Devils fourth line takes over, with Bastian looking real good this shift, beating Czikas before battling for a puck in the corner and doing an overall good job maintaining the zone. The Islanders set up in the zone next, with some quick puck movement that really puts the Devils on their heels and nearly concedes a backdoor goal, but Wedgewood looks positively Blackwood-esque with a huge stretch to get the leg across and just absolutely robs Jordan Eberle.
The Islanders start to bring the pressure but the Devils top line is able to break that up once again. Hughes makes a gorgeous spin pass to the point that nothing really comes out of but I have to mention it because it was just really nice. I love watching this kid play.
Back to the game, Scott Wedgewood picks up a failed Islanders pass and launches it, springing Gusev and getting the Devils into the zone for a quick scoring chance that doesn’t materialize. The fourth line comes in and decides to take a page out of Miles Wood’s book as McLeod loses an edge and steamrolls an Islanders defenseman and the goalie (he doesn’t get a penalty for it though, because he isn’t Wood). The first line comes on and sets up camp n the Islanders zone, leading to a nifty little between the feet deke from Palmieri and some more excellent puck movement from Ty Smith, but they manage more passing than shooting and the Islanders eventually get the puck out.
The Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line once again gets the pressure going in the Islanders zone, and Zajac sets up Wood with a beautiful pass but Wood puts a little too much mustard on the shot and sends it from the back door to the neighbor’s house. The final few minutes of the period wane past mostly in the neutral zone, with both teams basically playing catch with each other in a series of failed zone entries for both sides. The Islanders get a couple seconds of zone time towards the very end but the Devils snuff it out and the clock winds down on period number two. We go into the second intermission still leading 2-0.
The third period opens up with some ping pong hockey. Into the offensive zone, maybe get a shot off, lose control, and repeat. The Devils look a bit better than the Islanders yet again, but the opening few minutes are rather uneventful. The top line gets a bit of pressure going around five minutes in, but nothing comes out of it. For the umpteenth time this game, the Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line gets the first real zone time of the period for either team. The top line comes in and spends some time in the Islanders kitchen as well.
Just about halfway through the third period and the Islanders start to come alive. They’re maintaining pressure and really challenging Wedgewood with shots, but the Devils manage it well and Wedgewood stays solid. Both teams start to kick on the gas now, starting to really move on their offensive chances. Hughes gets a rush, Sharangovitch gets a rush, the Islanders get back to the zone, Barzal gets a shot, and repeat, until about six minutes left in the game. As the Islanders move into the zone, Kuokkanen hooks Matt Barzal, putting the Devils onto a dangerous penalty kill late in the game. The Devils do well to keep the Isles at bay for the first minute, but they set up in the zone after that. They pass around up high but their puck movement is just sloppy enough to allow the Devils to strip Pulock and get it cleared. Pavel Zacha intercepts a pass in the neutral zone and kills some time, letting the Devils escape the rest of the penalty kill unscathed.
Back at even strength with just 3:30 left in the game and the Islanders return to the Devils zone, but are once again forced out empty-handed. They tried to pull the goalie at about 2:30 but Severson rips a long shot just as Sorokin was heading to the bench, forcing him to rush back and dive to make the save at the line. They pull him successfully at 2:00 to go in the game and pour on the pressure into the Devils zone, but once again they handle it and actually put in some pressure with Sharangovitch and Hughes behind the Islanders net before losing control again. Barry Trotz calls a timeout as Wedgewood makes a quick stop with under 30 seconds to go in the period. Whatever he said to the Islanders, it doesn’t work. Zajac chases them out of the zone off the faceoff, the team kills the remaining seconds, and the Scott Wedgewood comeback game is completed with a 2-0 shutout.
Stars of the Game
3rd star, Jack Hughes
2nd star, Ty Smith
1st star, Scott Wedgewood
The main good news from this game is that there’s lots of good news!
Thinking back to last season, there’s a huge difference between how we would’ve responded to a team suddenly turning on the pressure late in the game, and how we’ve handed it tonight. A season ago, this team would’ve spent the remaining ten minutes of the game pinned in their own zone, potentially letting in a goal or even three and giving up the game. This time, not so much. This team is not only stronger defensively and better equipped with a good zone exit strategy, but they are also generally more mentally resilient. Ruff came into this season talking about having a short memory with this condensed season—you play a game and whatever happens you move past it because you have another game coming right up to worry about. That message sure seems to have stuck with this team so far, and it’s great to see.
Y’all know what else is great to see? Jack Hughes has 7 points in 5 games, tying him on the leaderboard with John Tavares, Travis Konecny, and Connor McDavid. No big deal. Ty Smith has 6 points in 5 games, making him the current rookie scoring leader in the league. Scott Wedgewood looked absolutely fantastic after a sudden and brutal first showing, he bounced back along with the rest of the team and even picked up a shutout for himself, stopping 28 shots.
Hughes, Wood, Smith, Zajac, Palmieri is a top powerplay line I don’t think anyone would have expected last season, but they genuinely look really good so far. I’m extremely happy to see our PP1 going with a true powerplay quarterback in Ty Smith instead of Subban just bombing it every time he touches it. Don’t get me wrong, he’s good at what he does which is throw bombs at the goalie, but I prefer that as a second wave with a more traditional puck moving defenseman on the first wave like we had today. It sure seems to be working for us, as a team that was sub-10% on the powerplay coming into this game went 1 for 2 tonight.
Speaking of new lines: Wood. Zajac. Kuokkanen. I’m going to have to come up with a nickname for that line, because I’m already tired of typing it out and I have a feeling they’re going to be staying together for a bit after an absolutely fantastic showing tonight. They were by FAR our best line at 5v5 through the first two periods, though they got a bit more hemmed in when the Islanders turned things on in the third period. They led the team in shots, shot attempts, high danger chances, and of course goals, and were generally a huge driver of overall puck control as they seemed to be the first step to gaining some momentum every time. (The WZK? That sounds like a radio station)
Of old lines: the only line that remained untouched in Ruff’s shuffle was the top line of Sharangovitch, Hughes, and Palmieri. We should never touch that line again honestly. They’ve been great in every game and continued that today with a CF% of 71 and for as effective as they were offensively, they were also extremely successful defensively. They kept the Islanders to just 2 shots against them (largely due to their puck control time) and were also highly effective at breaking up the Islanders’ zone time and making clean exits. It wasn’t for lack of competition either, spending most of their time matched up against the Islanders’ top defensive line and 2nd line center Brock Nelson. I don’t know what the lines are going to look like when Hischier and Bratt are able to rejoin the party, but I can definitely see Ruff finding a way to keep this line together.
Zajac? Faceoffs? BAD? Not three words I ever expect to type, but he was just awful in the face-off circle tonight. Hughes, McLeod, and Zacha all finished around 50%, but Zajac was terrible with just 4 wins out of 10 at 5v5 and 1/3 on the penalty kill. Our penalty kill has been terrible overall lately, and not being able to win faceoffs on them is definitely not helping. Zajac finishes last season with a 47% FO% on the penalty kill and 49% overall, but he came into tonight’s game with just 27% on the penalty kill, and didn’t do anything to improve that tonight. It is a small sample size just 5 games into the season, but that is not a good way to start and it’s definitely not helping our kill, which is not helping our overall game.
Another thing that concerned me through this game was Andreas Johnsson—more specifically, the lack thereof. His relative invisibility is probably the reason he was dropped to the fourth line tonight, and that demotion definitely didn’t help. The fourth line overall wasn’t bad at all, but it seemed to be more McLeod and Bastian creating chances on their own rather than Johnsson doing much of anything. What they did generate wasn’t much either: they had just a single shot for and against them in over 8 minutes of ice time per Natural Stat Trick. The only thing I specifically noticed Johnsson do in this game was in the third period on a backchecking attempt where he actually snowed Wedgewood, which just hurt my soul as a defenseman. I don’t know what the issue is with him, but if he keeps up his Invisible Man act I can see him being the guy who gets sat when Jesper Bratt is ready to go.
Who impressed you the most tonight? Who do you think should sit out the next game? What would you do with our lines, particularly that top line, when we see our full offensive roster ready to go? What nickname should we give the Wood-Zajac-Kuokkanen line? Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, and thanks for reading!