Players often say that getting two points for their team is a daunting task in NHL against better competition. When a franchise hasn’t encountered much luck of late, those points become increasingly tough to attain.
Consider the New Jersey Devils, whose season was far what many anticipated during the preseason. Blown leads and ineffective play on both ends led to a coaching change with John Hynes relieved of his responsibilities. The season suddenly changed direction once the Devils sat at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division with development taking precedence.
Under interim head coach Alain Nasreddine, the Devils sought more balanced play and viewed their matchup with the New York Islanders on January 7 as a test against a team with designs on competing for the Stanley Cup. Although the Devils battled to claim a point in their 4-3 overtime loss in Newark, they recognize that flawless play is necessary to translate effort into wins.
“I liked our work ethic for the majority of the game,” Nasreddine said. “I just felt that we worked hard, but not necessarily smart. A bunch of decisions that weren’t good on our part. We gave up easy offense, which is not something we want to against a team that is stingy in defense.”
Coming off the second end of a back-to-back game, the Islanders started strongly with a Casey Cizikas goal in the crease just four minutes into the game. The Devils wouldn’t retreat, answering on P.K. Subban’s goal from the point, and trailed 2-1 after one period. Cizikas battled two Devils defenders to net the Matt Martin rebound, maintaining a physical mindset.
“The first goal started with a turnover,” Nasreddine said. “It was a pure battle in front of the net. There was a loose puck, and it ends up in the back of our net. We know how the Islanders play. They are a big, heavy team that goes to the net hard. We have to be good around that area.”
Subban, who joined the Devils in an offseason trade with the Nashville Predators got off to an inauspicious start in his new surroundings and sought methods of playing with more consistency. In recent weeks, however, Subban began rounding into the form, showing glimpses of the Norris level player he was in Nashville and Edmonton. The key to Subban’s turnaround is an assertive approach on both ends of the ice that benefits a relatively young team.
“P.K. has been more assertive with his puck play,” Nasreddine explains. “He’s shooting the puck more, and you can see that he has that shooting mentality. Early on, he was trying to do too much, and then he tried to simplify things. Now I think he’s got the right balance. We need him to be more assertive and dynamic, so he’s in control of the play.”
Nico Hischier, on the other hand, continues rounding into a solid contributor on the second line, with his efforts recognized as an All-Star final vote contender. Improved two-way play in his third season and growing anticipation enables Hischier to get closer to his potential. Facing a trapping style Islanders defense, Hischier battled for position in the slot, with his plight rewarded on a backhanded goal to give the Devils the lead in the second period. The Islanders made Hischier battle for points, surrounding him when he touched the puck.
“I knew they were going to play me one-on-one, so I tried to speed to the net, and go upstairs with the puck in the slot,” Hischier said. “I tried to attack the puck on that play. Goals like this help give your team momentum. The guys have to hold their heads up because I think we played well enough to win this game.”
The Devils took the lead in the third period on Kyle Palmieri’s power-play goal but squandered a potential victory when Thomas Kuhnhackl had enough positioning to beat Mackenzie Blackwood. Despite losing their one-goal advantage, the Devils kept pace with a superior Islanders until overtime as captain Anders Lee scoring the game-winning goal to seal the extra point for his club. Positioning and over anticipation prevented the Devils from recording a victory in a game where they matched their opponent.
“We understand the way the Islanders play. They are not going to give you easy offense,” Palmieri said. “They will make you force play and careless decisions. We gave them easy offense. We know their strengths, and we played into them a little bit too much. They have a lot of offensive talent that can play on that side of the puck too. We just didn’t do a good enough job of sticking to our gameplan.”
Giving an admirable effort against a team of the caliber of the Islanders is an optimistic sign for a club that hasn’t had many games go their way, but playing more consistently with fewer defensive breakdowns is vital in taking further steps. The Devils’ overall play improved since Nasreddine took over behind the bench, as players began grasping his system. The result is a team attempting to discover an identity while seeking to shape into a winning product.
“I think after the Colorado game the other night, it was a chance to reset,” Palmieri said. “We have been playing good hockey up to that point, and I think it was a little bit of an off-game for us. In this game, we came back and did a lot of good things, be we fell a little short.”