Tonight was the first game of four consecutive games between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers, Our Hated Rivals. The professionals in charge of the broadcast and the team have come to call this Rivalry Week. I have dubbed this run of games with a more accurate term: The Week of Hate. Case in point, the first 90 (or so) seconds of the game was stopped by a rare event in today’s NHL and this Devils season: an actual fight between Damon Severson and Chris Kreider. Furthering the point that the contempt runs that much deeper between these two teams, there was a second fight in this game. I cannot even tell you the last time there were two legitimate fights in a Devils game. The Devils won those fights. They threw hits. They stood up Our Hated Rivals on several occasions to put them down. The Devils tried to put bodies in front on offense. They did several of the things some of the People Who Matter have clamored for this season. And this all led to absolutely nothing for New Jersey with respect to what actually matters in a hockey game as they lost to Our Hated Rivals 0-3.
Yes, the Devils were the victims of Igor Shesterkin’s first shutout. To be fair, he did well. Denying Jesper Bratt on his doorstep in the game’s first shot was impressive. However, a lot of the Devils’ lack of finishing was due to their own mistakes. From Miles Wood missing on a breakaway to Andreas Johnsson getting a gift of a pass from Jesper Boqvist in the slot and hammering the puck way wide off the heel of his stick to Michael McLeod and P.K. Subban showing the world how to waste a 3-on-1 rush, if the Devils had a way to make the least of a situation, they often found it this evening. There were many attempts to get bodies in front only for the shots to be blocked or knocked wide. There were a few tries at just trying to shoot for a rebound, only for said rebound to be missed, whiffed on, or swallowed up. One very late try saw the very expensive skates of Jacob Trouba deny a goal. It would be easy to say the Devils lacked finishing tonight. It would be correct. After all, the Devils did have scoring chances like Our Hated rivals did and did convert. They even had two power plays and did nothing with either. Yet, good finishing comes from good plays and the Devils squandered several chances for those and even more situations where they could have created a chance to create a chance. In short, the Devils did not do enough and what they did make they failed to take. It was not a particularly difficult shutout for Mr. Shesterkin.
That is not to say this game was not tough. This was a tightly-checked game. The first period was definitely more wide open, which suited the visitors as they created the more dangerous opportunities. Fortunately, Trouba missed the net on multiple back-door plays and Blackwood denied Artemi Panarin on a breakaway. Unfortunately, Ryan Murray tried to stick check Vitali Kravstov in the neutral zone, the puck went to Mika Zibanejad who had all of the space behind Murray, and he broke in for a score. But from that point on, both sides tried to close things down with varying success. Our Hated Rivals would stick check and body up the Devils over and over, which the Devils only played into. The Devils would be much better about winning pucks on defense and making their exits count. They were stronger along the boards, which limited Our Hated Rivals from generating a lot of pressure for shifts at a time. But with the early goal, the pressure was on New Jersey to break through and they did not.
The pressure only increased on the Devils in the third period, which was a disappointment. The Devils ended a second period where they out-attempted the visitors 21-10 and yet only out-shot them 8-4. Still, they kept them from doing a whole lot of anything. It was still only 0-1 on the scoreboard. Logic would suggest the Devils would want to keep that up. It would have been great to see the sheer will and fortitude displayed back on February 16 when the Devils roared in the third period to take that game. Instead, we witnessed Our Hated Rivals out-attempt the Devils 17-11 and out-shoot them 7-5 in 5-on-5 play. Worse, we also witnessed Filip Chytil fire a pass in between three Devils to an open Panarin, who slammed his one timer past Blackwood. It was not an easy pass to make. It was harder to believe that someone (Will Butcher) could leave Panarin alone. But it was made, it did happen, and it was 0-2. The Devils responded to that by not being able to generate enough offense to make Shesterkin sweat all that much.
Puck possession and protection were such issues for the Devils this evening that Lindy Ruff opted to wait until 2:09 left instead of over 3 minutes to pull Blackwood to try to make up the two goal deficit that we saw in the last two games against Pittsburgh. This actually went fine and Ryan Lindgren decided to make things spicier by high-sticking Jesper Bratt during the 6-on-5. He was called and so the Devils had a 1:19 power play. They even won the faceoff to maintain the zone in the 6-on-4 situation. What did we see? Three Devils actually involved in moving the puck, Miles Wood and two others just stationary taking up space, and eventually Ty Smith lost the puck on his own. On his way back to the neutral zone, he hit P.K. Subban with a pass, who then tried to pass it past Pavel Buchnevich. That failed, Buchnevich took the puck, and fired in an empty netter to truly seal the game. That is how the 0-3 final score was created and it was another example of bad decisions in a game filled with less-than-good ones, only compounded by it being on special teams,involving the highest paid player on the Devils, and against Our Hated Rivals.
To be objective, the Devils did not play a bad game. I actually think this was better than their performance in Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh. To be honest, I expletiving hate this result. The many blueshirts at the Rock were able to celebrate a victory just like they did back in March and just like so many other opponents have done at the Prudential Center this season. It is the exact opposite of what I wanted to see and hear on TV. I would hope someone at the New Jersey Devils feels similar and may want to ask Tom Fitzgerald in private if this was “competitive.” It would be one thing if Shesterkin was forced to stand on his helmet and recite War and Peace as he was shelled for 40 shots and magically stopped them all. It would be one thing if this was against a team that was going to make the playoffs like, say, the New York Islanders. But no. The Devils battled hard and literally won some fights, but they were not smart on the puck, they could not force Our Hated Rivals to play off of them more, and they could not finish their chances like the opponents did. Of course, I hate this loss from that sense. Appropriately so in this week, The Week of Hate.
The Game Highlights: No. Keep it moving.
Who Did Well Despite the Score: The best line for the Devils tonight by a mile was the one led by Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, and Janne Kuokkanen. As much as I gave out about a lack of offensive opportunities, this line actually provided quite a few of them. When Hughes was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Our Hated Rivals 20-5. Again, a lot of that did not lead to as much as it could have shots just being 8-3. Still, Hughes was constantly in motion, constantly fighting and trying to steal (and succeeding sometimes) pucks, and looking for plays. I know the Devils were shutout, but this line was not the issue this evening.
The best defenseman in my view was Damon Severson. He was absolutely terrible on Sunday. He played a much better, steadier, and smarter game on defense. While he did not much on offense, he was positive in the run of play and, more importantly, did not give up a backbreaking play through a turnover. More games like this from Severson, and those terrible games will become a memory.
I also thought Mackenzie Blackwood played a strong game too. The goals against him were a breakaway goal, which came shortly after a breakaway save; and a one-timer on his flank that he would be incredibly lucky to have stopped if he did. There were no soft ones here. And given how Our Hated Rivals picked apart the Devils’ defense in the first period and had the majority of offense in the third, he was a consistent performer. As with a lot of games this season, the goaltender gave the Devils a chance to compete. It was the other 18 men who were responsible for the loss.
The Debut of Siegenthaler: Jonas Siegenthaler suited up for his first game as a Devils since they traded for him on Sunday. He had an OK game by the numbers. He definitely looked big as he was paired with Butcher. He had some struggles early on at the Devils blueline, such as when he missed a puck at the blueline that allowed an easy opportunity for Our Hated Rivals that Blackwood stopped. I felt he played a bit better as time went on. I know he was present on the second goal against, but I think the fault for that one should go more to his partner. I think he needs to acclimate to the team. He was not a strength this evening, but he was not a total liability either.
The Return of Hischier: Nico Hischier returned to the lineup in over a month for his first game. He played like he had not played a game in over a month. I want to give him a pass because we did see earlier this season that his first few games back from his first injury were rough. Hischier played a lot better after those games and then, unfortunately, took a deflected Subban shot to the sinuses, which broke them. That stated, Our Hated Rivals made it a long night for #13. Hischier ended up dead last in CF%; when he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 9-23 (oof). They were also out-shot, 6-10, only his linemate Wood and Butcher saw as many shots against in 5-on-5 play. The coaching staff decided on starting Hischier with Wood and Bratt in his return. Instead of changing the line to give Hischier a chance with someone else, they just kept that line together despite getting bodied. It was a return to forget. But Hischier is not going to get into game shape by not playing so the Devils have to take their lumps so Hischier can get back to being the Nico that the People Who Matter know and love.
Ugggggggggggggggggggh: As you would expect in a 0-3 loss to Our Hated Rivals, there are multiple players I thought were really bad or made some detrimental errors.
- Ryan Murray was terrible in the first period. He was constantly pinned back, he handled pucks poorly, he made bad passes, and he created the first goal against. Do not let the boxscore mislead you. Buchnevich and Adam Fox did not make that Zibanejad goal. Murray’s stickcheck created Zibanejad’s goal. Murray did play a little better as time went on and I’m sure some fans loved his big hit (or dodge) on Ryan Strome; but he was heinous overall for the Devils this evening.
- Miles Wood may be the team’s leading goal scorer but you would not have known it from this game. From missed breakaways to misreads on passes to losing pucks in chases and nearly joining Hischier with a sub 30% CF% (Wood finished at 30% even, 9-21), Wood was wasteful with the puck. And that one 2-on-1 he led that saw him shoot the puck and try to put in his own rebound were his only official shots on net of the night. Wood was bad this evening.
- Jesper Bratt may have been worse, though. Bratt was constantly losing the puck and failing to get ahead or around with his shiftiness. When Wood found him in front to open the game, that was a great moment that forced a great stop. That was pretty much it from Bratt. He was not helpful at all in 5-on-5 or special teams. He has been quite good this season, but definitely not on this night.
- Tyce Thompson and Mikhail Maltsev did not move the needle much in 5-on-5. While not getting picked on is one thing, both were out-attempted in 5-on-5 and both were present for just one shot on net by New Jersey. It could have been more but both were adept at losing pucks. While I have some reason to think Maltsev can bounce back; I wonder if Thompson needs some AHL time because he has been a non-factor in the last few games. It is something to think about.
- Will Butcher. While he finished the night even in attempts, Butcher demonstrated why he was on the scratch list for so many games this season. Butcher has an offensive skill set; yet his four shots on net did not create much of anything of note. Defensively, his biggest sin was leaving Panarin alone and not having his stick in the lane that Chytil passed it through. Siegenthaler tried to get it in. Kuokkanen was coming back just too late. Butcher’s was tucked in the opposite direction of it. Unless he is helping to make productive offense, these kinds of failures are why he sits. Tom Fitzgerald stated in his post-deadline presser that he will get opportunities to play. I presume it is on Butcher to keep getting them. Do better, please.
- The power play. So many questions. Why was Hischier thrown onto this? Why is Wood involved, especially with how his night was going? Why burn 40 seconds of the end of the first period with that stupid slingshot that has fooled no one and its execution is not good enough to warrant further use? Why reduce your 5-on-4 or 6-on-4 situation by putting players in places that will not see the puck unless an opposing penalty killer is way out of position? Can we say the Devils did not get their chances from the refs when the Devils had two power plays to the zero of Our Hated Rivals? As ever with the 2021 season, the power play has been a reason for why the Devils have been bad.
An Aside on the Officiating: The referees made a point of it to let the players play. A lot of those little holds, interfering hits, and small slashes were just uncalled. Strangely, there was nothing egregious for either side that warranted a call. The two on Our Hated Rivals were legit. There was nothing exceptionally bad done by the Devils. I can get used to this kind of refereeing. I certainly do not mind it as the Devils’ special teams have been garbage.
This is where I can concede a point that the Devils played perhaps their most physical game of the season and did not take a penalty. I repeat: It did not lead to a penalty; I am now aware it is possible. It also did not lead to a goal. Or a win. Again, the Devils won the fights but lost at what mattered this evening. Especially as physical play had zero to do with either of the three goals against. So it clearly does not really matter.
Do I expect this refereeing in any of the next three games in The Week of Hate? No, not at all. Especially if there will be different men in stripes in those games.
Tally it Up for the Suits in the Sales Department in Newark: Why was the arena filled with blueshirted fans this evening? Easy: The Devils’ home record going into this game was 4-15-3. It is now 4-16-3.
A Not So Fun Fact: This was the second time the Devils have been shutout by an opponent this season. After the first time – a 0-4 loss to Washington on March 26 – the Devils have scored 3 or more goals in a game in five of the following eight games. They also won just two of those games and one of which was a 1-0 special in Boston. So even if the Devils follow up this game with a whole lot of lamps being lit, recent history suggests it does not guarantee a win.
I told you this was not a fun fact. I did not have any fun looking it up or writing it.
One Final Thought: Boston beat Buffalo in a shootout. Our Hated Rivals can continue to enjoy not making the playoffs as they sit in fifth place in the East. You know what that means despite this game…
Your Take: The Week of Hate is now 0-1-0 against the team that we support and/or love. I continue to be unhappy with the Devils’ performances and lack of results at home. I would like to think you are too. Please feel free to share your thoughts about this shutout loss to the one team we would rather not see a shutout loss to in the comments. Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree, maybe you think something else. If it is about this game, then please leave them here.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview and Mike for taking care of the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed along there. Thank you for reading.