Why the Bruins Have Struggled Against the Devils This Season

The Boston Bruins eked out a much-needed 5-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night, coming back from a two-goal deficit, surviving a penalty in overtime, and sealing the deal with a perfect shootout performance from Charlie Coyle, David Pastrnak, and Jaroslav Halak.

Brad Marchand, Matt Grzelcyk and a rowdy TD Garden propelled the Bruins to a crucial comeback victory.

The win revealed a lot of character, and the Bruins finally regained their footing in the five-on-five game. However, the question still stands: Why have the Bruins struggled so much against the Devils, of all teams, this season? The team statistics do not suggest that the Devils have won four out of six games. In fact, Boston has the advantage in almost every major category, particularly in shots on goal and face-offs.

After going back and watching the film, I’ve found that a few unusual factors have played into the Bruins’ four losses to the Devils this season. First, New Jersey’s goalie tandem of Mackenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood have both put up monster performances. The Bruins offense was active and generating opportunities, but the goalies shut the door on them time and time again.

Second, potential trade target Kyle Palmieri only seems to show up offensively against the Bruins. He has been a thorn in Boston’s side in all six games this season. Lastly, some awful luck has struck them multiple times, most notably in the closing minutes of their brutal 1-0 loss on Sunday.

The ‘Woods Have Put Up a Wall

The 40-save performance of Blackwood on Sunday is still fresh in the minds of Bruins fans, but this isn’t the first time the young goaltender has stifled the Bruins this season. He made 27 saves with a .964 save percentage all the way back in their matchup on Jan. 16, in which the Devils won 2-1 in overtime.

He also made 25 saves in their 3-2 victory over the Bruins on Feb. 18, fresh off a two-week break due to COVID-19, no less. Of course, we all remember the last of his 40 saves on Sunday when Boston appeared to be centimeters away from tying the game and forcing overtime. Even in Boston’s season-opening 3-2 shootout victory on Jan. 14, he still made an impressive 35 saves. The kid has simply had their number this year.

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Wedgewood also shined against the Bruins in his one start against them. On March 7, he earned a perfect 40-save performance in a shutout victory, his best performance of the season by far.

It took six games for the Bruins to figure out the Devils’ goaltending, as they finally broke through for four goals (including three at even strength) in their win on Tuesday. While it was nice to see Boston get back on track offensively, we are still left wondering how two relatively average goalies stumped the Bruins time and time again.

Palmieri Steps Up

In the Devils’ four wins against the Bruins this year, Palmieri has scored five goals – over half of his eight-goal total on the season. Three of them have been game-winners. He also assisted on the Devils’ overtime goal in their 2-1 victory on Jan. 16.

Like the aforementioned goalies, this guy just has a knack for getting under Boston’s skin. This seems like a strange coincidence on the surface, but upon further investigation, Boston has been pretty weak at defending him in these contests. Palmieri has averaged 2.75 SOG per game when the Devils beat them. While that number is not insane, a look at the film shows that and most of these shots are wide open with little help from the defense. This was especially the case in their Feb. 18 matchup, when Palmieri scored on two easy chances.

Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils
Kyle Palmieri (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He put the Devils up 4-2 after a terrible Bruins giveaway in the second period on Tuesday, which nearly sucked the life out of TD Garden. The Bruins managed to turn it around in the third, but for a while it looked like Palmieri had struck the final blow against them once again.

Palmieri is certainly making Don Sweeney’s life harder as the trade deadline draws closer. He has made a strong case for the Bruins to pursue him in a trade, but I am of the opinion that there are better options out there than the 30-year-old right winger. Still, he has undoubtedly played his best hockey against Boston this season, much to our frustration.

Remarkably Bad Luck

This reason is the most recent and also the most painful. One could make the argument that the Bruins scored twice in the final minutes of their 1-0 loss to the Devils on Sunday (many fans certainly have). In any case, it seems like the Bruins did something to anger the hockey gods before that game. Hockey is a sport full of superstition, after all. Perhaps one of the players broke his pre-game routine, or the team didn’t play an obligatory game of two-touch outside the locker room.

Maybe the nutrition staff changed up the texture of the peanut butter in the players’ pre-game PB&J sandwiches. It’s really anyone’s guess as to what caused such an unfortunate turn of events in that game. Whether or not you agree with the referees’ decisions, the fact that those calls were that close shows that something beyond our understanding was going on.

James van Riemsdyk Flyers Scott Wedgewood Devils
Scott Wedgewood (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This bad luck also ties in with the first point about New Jersey’s unusually good goaltending. Both Blackwood and Wedgewood have rather unimpressive stat lines on the season. The former has allowed 2.87 goals-against average (GAA) with a .911 save percentage (SV%) in 20 starts, while the latter is only slightly better with 2.72 GAA and .914 SV% in 11 starts. For whatever reason, both of them have played their best hockey against the Bruins.

Blame Still Falls on Boston

These are not meant to be excuses for the Bruins. The losses still sit firmly on their shoulders. The Devils have simply outplayed them in the moments that mattered. By the way, while they are not very good, they are not bad either. They are certainly a cut above the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators. It is also fair to say that fortune has favored New Jersey in these matchups, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a season series between any two teams in the NHL that resembles this one.

Boston’s win on Tuesday night was indeed sloppy, but there were some positives to be found. Brad Marchand sparked the team like he always does, Brandon Carlo returned from his scary head injury, and names like Matt Grzelcyk and Craig Smith are beginning to find their groove offensively. They have a tough road to the playoffs and will probably need to add another piece to be legit contenders. In the here and now, though, they should feel relieved that they don’t have to play the Devils again this season.

Boston continues its lengthy homestand on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The puck drops at 7 p.m.