Devils somehow split a sloppy West Coast trip

A few games ago I said at one point the early part of this Devils season was a study in glass half-full and half-empty thinking. They lived that to a tee on the West Coast, following an ugly loss in Anaheim with a uneven overtime loss at LA on Friday, then culminating the WC trip with a fortunate shootout win at San Jose last night/this morning. I guess you’d take three points out of six on the West Coast in any scenario, particularly after an 0 for 2 on Tuesday, but like with the Devils’ opening homestand it was pretty much just accomplishing a bare minimum required against three rebuilding-mediocre teams. Our schedule won’t be quite as fortunate this week with the Panther-Islander-Bruin-Ranger gauntlet looming over a six-day stretch so clearly they’ll have to play better just to keep up their NHL .500 record since Jack Hughes’ injury.

Still, it could have been far worse. Late tying goals by Pavel Zacha in LA and Janne Kuokkanen in San Jose prevented a trip with three straight regulation losses and the team having 0 points to show for the California week, instead of three. At least the Devils finally have both their goalies healthy and playing after Mackenzie Blackwood made his season debut in LA on Friday with a solid enough performance (26 saves) to get the team to OT, though Blackwood himself admitted he should have stopped the second goal – an unscreened point shot on a Kings power play late in the third. Blackwood wasn’t the ultimate goat on the night though, Damon Severson was, after the most nightmarish twenty-two minutes possible. There’s nothing else you can call playing sieve defense on the Kings’ opening goal late in the second period, then taking no fewer than three straight minor penalties in the third, which helped lead to the Kings’ second goal late on the PP and got Severson benched for the final few shifts of the game. Defensive partner Ty Smith didn’t help matters either, getting outmuscled on a turnover behind the net in OT that led to the Kings’ winner.

Even more than Severson’s meltdown on Friday, the bigger overall concern for the Devils continues to be their special teams. Our PP took the collar in all three California games, going 0-6 in the LA and San Jose back-to-back while the PK also predictably gave up goals in both games. Granted the PK actually went 5-6 in LA with Blackwood giving up an unscreened shot but I can’t say I would have had a lot of confidence at a sixth straight kill regardless. Last night’s third period PK goal allowed was partly bad luck too, as Severson’s stick broke during the defensive zone shift – leaving the Sharks with a virtual 5-on-3.5 that they promptly scored on, right around the stick-less Severson (who did take another early penalty in the first period last night as well). Still, whatever the reason you can’t continually have both ends of your special teams serve as momentum killers.

Despite the Devils’ special teams, plus missing their top forward (Hughes) and defenseman (Dougie Hamilton, who should be back in the lineup on Tuesday), the team did still find a way to rally and get points out of both games despite never holding a lead in either game. Without a functioning power play, there were still some great individual plays to get the goals we did score. Particularly on our first goal in LA, when Nico Hischier caused a turnover in the defensive zone, then Andreas Johnsson sprang Jesper Bratt with a beautiful outlet pass for a breakaway goal. While Johnsson is continuing his zero to hero surge this season, Pavel Zacha is resuming his breakout into one of the team’s top offensive forwards with one of his typical hard wristers through traffic on a 6-on-5 empty net that tied the game in LA with just twenty-three seconds left.

Hischier again had a secondary role in the team’s first goal in San Jose, this time causing a turnover in the neutral zone then taking a return feed from Mike McLeod to find a streaking Ryan Graves(?!) heading toward the net for what wound up being an easy tap-in goal. We all knew Graves was a solid defensive defenseman but his offensive aptitude so far has been surprising. Even though it was only his first goal it was a great read knowing when to pinch, and he’s had several nice assists already as well. Maybe he should start getting PP time, couldn’t be worse than what we’ve been running out there for the most part. Kuokkannen’s tying goal with just over three minutes remaining came off a broken play when a blocked shot got lost in a maze of opposing players and Kuokkanen was johnny on the spot, putting the rebound past a sprawling James Reimer in net.

Bratt continued his sizzling play since his benching with a shootout goal, but it was left up to Severson of all people to put home the winner in the skills competition, barely twenty-four hours after being the goat in LA he turned into the hero in San Jose, against old buddy John MacLean who’s now 2-1-1 as the interim coach in San Jose with head coach Bob Boughner still recovering from a bout with COVID. Still a lot better than his record was here eleven years ago. Our own record is now 5-3-2, matching our first ten games from last season. Of course we know about the great divide that happened last year after our ninth game pre and post-COVID. Hopefully we’re not also looking back at a great divide this year considering the upcoming schedule. But hey, Florida’s due for a letdown sometime right?

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