Devils Edged by Jets Following Strong Effort

Well, it was definitely a different game than the Devils trip to Winnipeg in early December was, even if the ultimate outcome was the same.

The Devils fell to the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 tonight in a game that they largely dominated.

It was Travis Zajac Night at the Prudential Center with a celebration of the career of the long-time Devils forward. It was a way to honor Zajac both for 1,000 NHL games played back in 2021 – something that could not be properly acknowledged with fan restrictions due to the pandemic at the time followed by Zajac being traded to the New York Islanders late last season.

It was also a way to let the fans pay homage to Zajac for his career as a whole. He decided to retire this past summer and signed a one-day contract as a free agent with the Devils to finish his career where it started.

Zajac came out onto the ice in full gear and uniform, skating a final lap around the Prudential Center rink before going to center ice for the ceremonial faceoff. His family – his wife and three children – dropped the puck as Travis himself took the draw against Jets captain Blake Wheeler.

The timing of the game was, of course, no accident as Zajac is a native of Winnipeg and made for a great way to celebrate a player who may not have always grabbed the headlines, but who was as steady and reliable as they came.

The guests on the MSG+2 broadcast saw Devils Assistant General Manager/General Manager of the Utica Comets Dan MacKinnon on the pregame show. He discussed the AHL prospects and the success of the Comets with Erika Wachter and Bryce Salvador. Zajac was the second intermission guest, as gracious and humble as ever as he answered questions and talked about some memories with Salvador.

As for the current Devils on the ice, the lineup remained exactly the same as the win over Colorado from Tuesday. Nico Hischier remained out with injury for the second straight game. Head coach Lindy Ruff reported that he has not skated but is working out off the ice. He joined Colton White and Christian Jaros as scratches.

The Devils did go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen as Mason Geertsen was dressed as a blue liner.

In goal, it was right back to Nico Daws. The young netminder suffered his first loss at home as he stopped 28 of the Jets’ 30 total shots for a .933 save percentage on the night. He stopped Winnipeg’s lone shorthanded shot while the Jets did not register a power play shot en route to going 0-for-2 on the man advantage. At five-on-five he made 27 saves on 29 shots.

The Jets countered with Eric Comrie (who coincidentally started one game for the Devils last season – January 31, 2021 – against the Buffalo Sabres that I just do not remember at all). Anyway, Comrie stopped 33 of the Devils’ 34 shots for a .971 save percentage. He turned aside five of the six New Jersey power play shots with the Devils only goal of the evening coming on the man advantage. The Devils finished 1-for-3 on the power play as a team. Comrie stopped all 28 shots he faced at even strength.

The Winnipeg Jets made their last appearance at the Prudential Center on opening night 2019. That was the infamous night that the Devils blew a lead and ended up losing in a shootout to kick off the “less-than-successful” 2019-20 season.

The Jets kicked off the scoring just 3:22 into the game when Brenden Dillon connected to make it 1-0.

The Devils were caught deep in the Winnipeg zone with the New Jersey defenseman pinching in a bit too much on the far side. Wheeler recognized this and flipped an outlet saucer pass to Mark Scheifele. Scheifele and Dillon were into the Devils zone on a 2-on-1 with Dillon taking the pass and finding the back of the net.

It would take almost the entire length of the first period, but New Jersey would tie things before the time was up.

Dillon was called for cross checking Jesper Bratt at the 17:57 mark to put the Devils on their second power play of the night already.

With the 5-on-4 advantage, Jack Hughes tied things when he converted at 18:27 gone by.

Damon Severson was positioned up top as the quarterback and moved the puck to Bratt down along the left side wall. Bratt made a slight move of a stutter step to gain some space. That allowed him to have room to slide the puck across to Hughes stationed at the near faceoff circle. Hughes used his quick release while shooting off one knee and scored to tie the game at one.

The Devils seemed to be right back in control and things would get great, then weird for them in the following period.

To begin with, Hughes was not on the bench to start the second period for the Devils. He returned very quickly though, as play-by-play man Steve Cangialosi noted that it was merely a skate repair issue and not injury related. He played the rest of the game for the Devils.

The second period for the Devils was, simply put, dominating.

It was nonstop action for the good portion of the frame as the Devils just ran the show. In the end, the second period 7:09 straight without a whistle in the middle of the period. Most of the time saw the Devils applying that pressure in the Winnipeg zone.

That is why the Jets goal that came within the final minute of the period, the one that would go on to be the game winner, was so heartbreaking in the end.

With 54 seconds left in the second period, Winnipeg got their best scoring chance of the period – and made good on it.

Bratt was controlling the puck just inside the Jets blue line and got legally hooked by the Winnipeg player defending him and ended up losing one of his gloves in the process. Due mostly to this, he also lost the handle on the puck and turned it over to Kyle Connor.

Connor was off on a partial breakaway. He went to his backhand shot and hit the crossbar. The puck bounced down and in, getting stuck behind the goal camera inside of the net. The referee lost sight of the puck in the immediate moment and initially signaled no goal. However, when the whistle was blown, it was revealed where the puck actually was and the goal counted without much controversy.

MSG+2 was set to head to a commercial break but came right back as it was apparent that the goal was good. Connor scored unassisted and the Jets had a 2-1 lead heading into the final period.

And that would be it for the scoring on the night.

The Devils continued getting chances, including a 3-on-1 early in the period that involved Bratt, Tomas Tatar and Pavel Zacha. Zacha was stopped by Comrie as he moved right to left through his crease. The Devils did end up on the power play when Dylan DeMelo was called for hooking Bratt on the same play.

The Jets would kill that off and things continued on.

Eventually, as we ticked down and the Devils were still down by one, Daws was pulled with about two minutes left in regulation.

Dougie Hamilton would take a tripping minor with 1:36 remaining in the game to prevent an empty net goal by Scheifele.

With that, the Devils would finish the game killing off a penalty. Daws would be pulled with about 1:16 remaining int the game after the Devils controlled the defensive zone faceoff. With Daws out of his crease, things were evened out at 5-on-5 again.

But the Jets just kept denying the Devils. Time ran out and Winnipeg had the 2-1 win to bring  the Devils two-game home winning streak to an end.

The Devils outshot the Jets 34 to 30. The Devils were badly out played in the faceoff circle, winning only 38-percent of the game’s draws. Jesper Boqvist led the Devils centers with a personal 50-percent winning clip.

The Jets accumulated six penalty minutes on the night while the Devils had four. Winnipeg outhit the Devils 17 to ten. The Jets also had 13 blocked shots to the Devils’ nine. As a team, Winnipeg had six giveaways to New Jersey’s 11.

Severson once again led all Devils skaters with 23:49 of total ice time (which included 2:38 of power play time and 1:52 of shorthanded ice time). Those times also allowed Severson to lead the defensemen in special teams time as well.

Amongst the forwards, Hughes led in total time with 21:45 (including 3:05 on the PP and 1:35 on the PK). These special teams times were also tops among forwards in that category.

Hughes led in shots on goal with five totaled. Hits were led by Hamilton with two. The big blue liner also led in blocked shots with two as well. Ty Smith led in personal giveaways with three while personal takeaways were led by Yegor Sharangovich and Severson with two each.

Next up, the Devils will welcome the Anaheim Ducks to Prudential Center for a 7 PM game on Saturday.

We will have coverage for you following the MSG+ broadcast then.

Can’t wait to see you then and I hope everyone has a great Friday in the meantime.

Zajac Retires from NHL as a Devil

First off, I know that this is a little bit late, but I have an excuse as I was in the hospital for a week. Nothing serious or major but something that will greatly make quality of life much better for me. A big thank you to the Wall Township Police Department, the staff and doctors at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and, of course, my family, all of whom played a key role at one time or another in getting me back in the game!

Now on to business. As training camps across the NHL started last week, Travis Zajac found himself in a strange situation. The Islanders were not keen on resigning him, it seemed, and he did not really want to leave the area where his kids were growing up and his family was being raised to play hockey in another city.

As Zajac told Sam Kasan of the Devils’ official website, he “took some time off, and then took some more time off. I realized that I didn’t have that fire in me to keep going. I never fell out of love with the game of hockey itself, but I did fall out of love with what it takes to keep playing – the time, the commitment, the conditioning, the sacrifice.”

That is when Zajac knew that it was time to hang up his skates for the final time in the NHL.

Last Monday, September 20, Zajac signed a one-day contract with the Devils and then promptly retired a Devil to put a cap on his 15-year NHL career, spent all with the Devils save a month or two (13 games according to the Devils’ PR team) with the Islanders.

Zajac will work as an on/off ice-player development coach and in a consulting role with the Devils. He will also work with the team’s “youth hockey initiatives” in trying to grow the game even more in the state of New Jersey.

Zajac’s statement to family, friends and fans read: “I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sing one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.

“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt of playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils.

“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed – thank you. And thanks to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me.

“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine.

“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.

“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.

“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”

After being drafted out of the University of North Dakota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where he played two years from 2004 to 2006 (and playing in an NCAA Championship Game in 2004 – his freshman year and the Frozen Four as a sophomore), Zajac arrived in New Jersey.

He played in a total of 1,037 NHL games, collected 203 goals and 349 assists toalign 552 points over his career. The 36-year-old center played in his 1,000th game last season. Fans were not in the building for that milestone, due to COVID-19. However, the team announced that this season, on March 10, 2022 – fittingly against the Winnipeg Jets at Prudential Center – Zajac will be recognized by the Devils and fans will have a chance to give him a proper sendoff.

Thank you to Travis Zajac for the many years of stellar hockey (the 2012 Stanley Cup Final run will never be forgotten, nor will his OT winner in game six against the Panthers that kept the Devils’ postseason light flickering. Who can forget his Running Man Zajac celebration on that goal either?). Good luck in retirement!