You might have to call that one a clunker–a dud, even. A fast and attacking start that should have reflected more so in the score, but ultimately came unglued. But if you knew any better you’d call it familiar.
The Devils 6-1 thumping at home to the Rangers on Thursday were all of the above and then some more. They allowed six goals, a season-high, had a -5 goal differential, a season-high and yanked Mackenzie Blackwood after allowing four goals on 14 shots and picking up a .733 save percentage–a season-low. The loss was the team’s seventh in their last eight–all in regulation. At game No. 19 in the season, it’s hard to call this a particular ‘bottom.’ After all, there’s still too much that hasn’t been played. And, after all, this is hardly new to parts of that locker room and pretty much all of the fan base.
Make no mistake about it, the Devils have lost their way a bit and they’ll have to dig themselves out of it and it just might get worse before it gets better. Nico Hischier is week-to-week with a sinus fracture, Nikita Gusev, who has been mostly snake-bitten in a contract year, was a healthy scratch and the team’s power play is empty on its last 11 tries.
But through 19, there’s also this: Six one-goal losses including two shootout defeats that earned them a point; Seven contests with a 55+ Corsi rating; and, middle high-danger chances against in the NHL (172). Special teams…problematic. Even-strength…has yielded some good looks and a competitive team that puts some of its best attacking together there.
In other words, it’s progress from the season’s past. Among them: 21 five-plus goals allowed games last season; 22 in 2018-19 including one win, a pair of 8GA games and a 9-4 loss in Calgary that had to have felt like late 80’s hockey. But just because there’s been some progress doesn’t mean there’s not angst. Angst that the club will again fall into familiar habits.
“We haven’t had a game like this,” Lindy Ruff said. “Tonight, ultimately, every breakdown that was created was probably on the hand of our stick.”
Jack Hughes scored his fifth goal of the season and third against the Rangers 7:12 into the contest as the Devils took advantage of a Rangers team that looked like they missed the bus to the Rock, holding a 14-6 shot advantage.
But as the Rangers chipped away at a second period, Chris Kreider scoring twice including once on the power play and a tip-in in front of the net, the Devils started to lose control of the contest. And, by the time New York’s No. 20 scored the hat trick for his 13th of the season–9th in his last six games, it was becoming even tougher for a young New Jersey team to gain any kind of composure.
“When you start pressing, you’re starting to think shots from some terrible places,” Ruff said. “You get down. We played a really solid first period. We see probably their first really good opportunity went in the net, but that’s when really you have to bare down, you have to stay with it.
“When you get down by a couple or three, I think you put a bit more risk in our game to try and get back in it, but we know that til we start scoring, the foundation will have to be how well we play five-on-five.”
But even at a mostly five-on-five game, it was noticeable how quickly the ask to rebound from 3-1 started to unravel. Pavel Buchnevich off a feed from Alexis Lafreniere cemented it in New York’s favor and with Blackwood chased, Brendan Smith and Lafreniere would close out the night. It gave Ruff and company their first taste of the season of a familiar blend.
The clunkers and duds will happen. Especially with a young team. And the club’s struggles of late might even render them more prone to them at the moment. But getting that foundation to limit these showings will be another part of the process in this team climbing out from the teams of past.