The odds were not in the New Jersey Devils’ favor when they skated onto the ice at Bridgestone Arena to face the Nashville Predators on Jan. 26.
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Since the 2017-18 season, the Devils held an overall record of 1-4-3 against the Predators and were winless in four straight against former New Jersey head coach John Hynes. History would say New Jersey has taken on the role of the underdog when it comes to Nashville’s club and the thing about history is it always repeats itself.
After 60 minutes of play, Hischier summed up the night best by saying, “we didn’t deserve to win that game.”
Head coach Lindy Ruff debuted a couple of new forward lines that proved to be successful, but anything positive was overshadowed by the multitude of defensive breakdowns that occurred throughout the game. Even though the Devils played an abysmal defensive game, the play of goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood kept them in it until the end.
Blackwood Bailed Out His Blue Line
There are always instances when the analytics do not give the full story. Blackwood made 35 saves on 40 Predators’ shots, which earned him a save percentage of .875. While five goals against is never good for a netminder, Blackwood’s performance was a massive reason the Devils were in this game until the very end.
“He gave us everything again,” Hischier said. “He gave us a chance to still win that game even if we gave so many chances (against). He played unbelievably for us. It’s totally, definitely not on him tonight at all.”
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The Predators came out flying and in the opening frame fired 22 shots at Blackwood. The Devils’ goaltender made 20 saves and was the only reason his team headed to the first intermission tied with their opponent. Blackwood had to stop multiple breakaways that included a potential shorthanded goal when Dougie Hamilton gave up the puck at the blue line. On paper, his performance may have seemed mediocre at best, but he was one of the top players on the ice for New Jersey.
Giveaways and Odd-Man Rushes and Breakaways, Oh My!
To say it was not a good night for the Devils’ defense would be an understatement. By the time the final buzzer sounded New Jersey had 10 giveaways and the defense was responsible for seven of them. It seemed that every single member of the team’s blue line struggled with sloppy play and poor decision-making.
“We give them that many odd-man rushes and that many breakaways, you’re doing something wrong,” said Hischier post-game. “It’s that simple.”
In the second period, it was a Ryan Graves’ turnover that led to the Predators’ third goal of the night as his pass was intercepted by Ryan Johansen and led to Mikael Granlund’s sixth goal of the season. Another giveaway led to the Predators’ fifth goal and Filip Forsberg’s 19th goal of the season.
“We were sloppy,” said Graves. “Just bad in that area tonight. Not sure exactly what it is, just sloppy play and that can’t happen.”
It was a weak defensive performance all around with endless turnovers that turned into multiple odd-man rushes and breakaway opportunities for the Predators. It was easily one of the worst performances from the Devils’ blue line that fans have seen this season.
The Sharangovich-Hughes-Zetterlund Line
Fabian Zetterlund jumped back into the lineup after missing the team’s last six games as a healthy scratch. Ruff was brutally honest when explaining his reasoning behind scratching the 23-year-old.
“Either you’ve got to produce, or you’ve got to be a guy that the other team hates playing against,” said Ruff. “Let’s just look at the numbers. It’s got to be better than that. If you’re not producing then you better be hitting, if you’re not doing either one, you’ve got to bring something else to the table…Zetterlund needs to bring more.”
The coaching staff put the Swede in a position to succeed placing him on a line with superstar Jack Hughes. Zetterlund found the scoresheet in the second period collecting the primary assist on Hughes’ 31st goal of the season. He finished the game with three shots, one block, and one hit.
Yegor Sharangovich is another player who was moved up to play alongside Hughes. Entering last night’s contest he was goalless in his last 13 outings and Ruff was hoping the change would help get the versatile winger going.
“We know what he can bring offensively,” said Ruff. “I think guys like Sharangovich, who need to get out of a scoring rut, sometimes have to get tighter to the net and the inside opportunities have to get greater. Those are the types of situations he has to put himself into.”
In the first period Sharangovich lit the lamp and celebrated his 11th goal of the season with Hughes earning the sole assist on the play. The trio combined for four points including two of the team’s four goals. In addition to his contributions to the scoresheet, the Devils’ former first-overall pick took 15 faceoffs winning seven for a faceoff-win percentage of 46.67.
The good news is the Devils will not have a lot of time to overanalyze their performance. After the game, they boarded a plane to travel the two hours to Texas where they will face the Dallas Stars tonight at 8:30 P.M. It is the final meeting of the season between the two clubs with the Stars earning a 4-1 victory at Prudential Center on Dec. 13. MSG Networks will have the call with the pre-show starting at 8:00 P.M.