Ken Daneyko had the understatement of the season during tonight’s MSG+ broadcast of the Devils-Coyotes game when he said that this was certainly “frustrating” for the Devils and their fans.
While Dano’s restraint is applauded (he could have called tonight’s performance a few other, more choice, things) “frustrating” is an apropos word.
The Devils fell 4-1 to the Arizona Coyotes at Prudential Center this evening following a layoff of a little under seven days.
The Devils last played on Thursday, January 13 at the Islanders, falling 3-2 in that game. In the meantime, with two games postponed in Canada on Saturday (at Montreal) and Monday (at Toronto), the Devils had plenty of time to get healthy, completely clearing out their COVID list. Everyone who was in quarantine has now returned, including Dougie Hamilton – who will remain out with his fractured jaw.
The Devils had reinforcements for their ranks and almost all of them had gotten some practice time in as well. Mason Geertsen, Marian Studenic and Jesper Boqvist were the scratches for New Jersey. In other roster news, defenseman Colton White was placed on waivers today with the intention of sending him to AHL Utica.
With their available goaltenders back, coach Lindy Ruff went right back to the Mackenzie Blackwood well. Although this is a necessary evil at this point due to lack of depth between the pipes, Blackwood is clearly not 100-percent healthy (what with COVID, a concussion and his offseason heel surgery all catching up to him) and will now need to bear the load for the Devils going forward. It’s a dangerous game to play, but do not be surprised when things like this happen as a result.
Blackwood made 13 saves on 17 total shots against for a nightly save percentage of .765. He turned aside all four of Arizona’s power play shots (the Coyotes were 0-for-2 on the man advantage) while stopping nine of the Coyotes’ 13 five-on-five shots against.
Facing him was Karel Vejmelka – a right-hand catching goalie – who has been a bit of a story for the Coyotes. He was drafted by the Nashville Predators, never played for them and was signed by the Coyotes as a free agent last May. He played last year with HC Kometa Brno in the Czech Extraliga.
He’s been playing well for the Yotes and tonight he singlehandedly kept them in the game when the Devils came out flying in the first period. He ended up stopping 35 of the Devils’ 36 total shots for a .972 save percentage on the game. He turned aside both of the Devils’ shorthanded shots with the only goal he let in coming on the power play. He stopped four of the Devils’ five power play shots as the Devils were 1-for-2 with the extra attacker overall. He got all 29 of the Devils’ shots at full strength.
These teams had not met since December of 2019. That game was in Glendale and was resulted in 2-1 win for the visiting Devils. It was a few weeks before the trade that sent Taylor Hall to the desert as well.
Tonight’s game was kicking off a four-game homestand for the Devils at Prudential Center with things getting progressively more difficult for them from here.
In addition, it was Hispanic Heritage Night at the Rock with the Devils wearing special “Los Diablos de New Jersey” warmup jerseys that will be autographed and auctioned off to benefit the Devils Youth Foundation. For the game itself, the team was in black and white their third uniforms.
As mentioned above, the Devils came out flying. Nico Hischier hit the post just about 1:30 into the game as New Jersey pressed early on.
The Devils were further in business when Arizona’s Christian Fischer was called for holding Janne Kuokkanen 5:22 into the first period. Fischer ended up almost horse collaring Kuokkanen to the ice leading to referee Dean Morton being caught on an ice-level mic as joking that Fischer was making his first call of the night “an easy one.” It was the truth and pointed out by Devils play-by-play man Steve Cangialosi.
The Devils would capitalize on that power play at the 6:09 mark of the first when Jack Hughes got behind the Coyotes’ defense, cut in on Vejmelka. Hughes lost control of the puck and it drifted off to the far corner where Jesper Bratt recovered it and made a nice pass to Hischier in the high slot. Nico snapped off a quick shot that Vejmelka could only get a small piece of as it went into the Arizona net to make it 1-0 Devils.
The Devils scored on their first official shot of the game (and the first shot of the game for either team for that matter) and Nico had his ninth point in his last nine games on the goal.
The Devils would continue on through the first, getting chances but failing to finish. Vejmelka came up with save after save as the Devils outshot the Coyotes 12-1 in the first period. This performance by the Arizona goalie let the Yotes hang around and that would come back to bite the Devils later on.
And “later on” did not take that long to get here, all things told. Just 6:50 into the second period, Loui Eriksson would move the puck against the grain, banking it from behind the Devils net off the boards right to Dysin Mayo at the near side point. Mayo was able to tee up a one-timer from the perfectly placed pass and fired from just inside the Devils blue line. He scored, beating Blackwood cleanly and tied the game at one. Alex Galchenyuk had the secondary assist.
It was a little bit annoying that the Devils had had their chances, could not take advantage and the game was now tied, but there was still plenty of time remaining.
Then, what would go down as the game-winner for Arizona 11:32 into the second when Anton Stralman got the puck to Eriksson at the near point. Eriksson took a shot on Blackwood and Arizona was able to funnel down, collapsing on the Devils net. Devils defenseman Ryan Graves fanned on a clearing attempt with Lawson Crouse falling to his knees right in front of the Devils net. Crouse got the puck and took a shot from his knees that beat Blackwood to give the Coyotes the 2-1 lead. They would not relinquish that lead the rest of the night.
The Coyotes would pad their lead a little heading into the second intermission when Travis Boyd scored at 14:13.
That goal saw Jakob Chychrun move the puck to Clayton Keller at the point. Keller switched up with the other pointman to get a clearer shot and ended up just throwing a bit of a seeing eye shot towards net that was tipped by Blackwood by Boyd to make it 3-1 Arizona.
Now things were starting to look bad for the Devils. Vejmelka was playing well enough to keep the Yotes in things and they had build up a two-goal lead heading into the third period.
Only it would not stay a two-goal lead for long. The Coyotes made it a three-goal lead 8:27 into the final frame when Phil Kessel chipped the puck from behind the Devils net to Crouse in the slot. Crouse was not in a good position to shoot and made a nice backhand pass to a wide open Johan Larsson a little higher up the middle of the ice. Larsson was on his forehand and had a clear shot, snapping one by Blackwood to make it 4-1.
Jimmy Vesey bookended the night by beating Vejmelka cleanly glove side (being one of the few Devils who had seemingly solved a right-hand catching goalie) and hitting the post square on late in the game. It complemented Hischier’s hit post early in the opening minutes very well.
Blackwood was pulled with 3:05 left in regulation but to no avail. Our final score was 4-1.
How well did Vejmelka actually play? The Devils outshot the Coyotes 36-17 for the game, including 12-1 in the first period and 15-7 in the second. Things evened out in the third with each team logging nine shots apiece, but Vejmelka had a lot more work early in the game and was equal to the task. Blackwood, with a relatively lighter load tonight, was not.
Vejmelka was named the game’s first star as a result of this.
The Devils won 48-percent of the game’s total faceoffs with Hischier leading Devils centers with a 67-percent personal winning percentage.
Each team accumulated four penalty minutes as a team. The Devils were outhit 24-16 and Arizona also had 16 blocked shots to New Jersey’s nine. The Coyotes had three more giveaways as a team at 17 to the Devils’ 14.
Damon Severson again logged big minutes, leading Devils skaters in ice time with 24:06 (including 1:59 on the power play and 1:58 killing penalties). Graves spent the most time on the PK amongst Devils defensemen with 2:31 of PK time out of his 20:40 total ice time.
Hughes led the forwards in ice time with 21:04 (which included 1:52 of PP time). Vesey led in forward shorthanded time with 2:12 logged out of his 10:52 of total TOI.
Severson led the Devils in shots on goal with five. Nate Bastian was again the hits leader with four. Dawson Mercer had two blocks to lead in that category. Hughes led in personal giveaways with three while takeaways were led by Hischier, Mercer and Hughes, who each had three.
Remember how I said things would be getting tougher for the Devils on this homestand? Well, Saturday they go from the worst team in the Western Conference in the Coyotes to the second-best team in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes paying a visit.
(To put things a bit in perspective, tonight was just Arizona’s tenth win of the season. The Canes have not lost ten games yet. We are in mid-late January here.)
That game begins at 7 PM in Newark and will be televised on MSG+. We will have coverage for you here afterwards.
Until then, try to have a good rest of the week Devils fans.