Newark, NJ — The New Jersey Devils somewhat created a rivalry with the Florida Panthers last season. It all started when Nico Hischier and Sasha Barkov became tangled up in a faceoff, causing the Panthers captain to miss a small amount of time. That sparked consistent tension between the two clubs that saw plenty of fireworks between whistles in their meetings last season. The Devils and the Panthers faced off against each other in Justin Sourdif’s NHL debut for the first time in the 2023-24 season. Let’s dive into Monday night’s 4-3 regulation loss as slow starts continue.
Devils Quick Wrap
Another sloppy first period saw New Jersey trail 2-0 after 20 minutes of play. Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe each got the Cats on the board in the opening frame. Continuing to leave men open in the second period, Matthew Tkachuk found a streaking Nikko Mikkola for an easy tap-in goal, his first as a Panther. On the power play in the third period, Reinhart netted his second goal of the game, quadrupling Florida’s lead. The Devils fought back in the third period, finally waking up and finding their legs. Two power-play goals by Jesper Bratt and Erik Haula propelled New Jersey to a potential comeback. Michael McLeod potted a goal at even strength as well. However, time ran out before the Devils could overcome the four-goal hole they dug themselves in.
Vitek Vanecek ended the night by stopping 26 of 30 pucks. Sergei Bobrovsky made 31 saves on 34 shots.
Slow Starts Continue to Haunt Devils
New Jersey can’t get out of their way in the opening frame this season. Reinhart and Verhaeghe, to their credit, took advantage of the sloppy Devils defense that saw New Jersey chasing the game once again.
With the puck up against the boards, McLeod and Curtis Lazar lost a puck battle against Barkov who kicked the puck to the slot. Evan Rodrigues retrieved the puck and his shot on net was redirected past Vanecek. What’s worse might be that Reinhart could freely position himself close to the Devils’ goal with no resistance from Dougie Hamilton or Jonas Siegenthaler.
As you can imagine, it gets worse. What appeared to be an innocent zone clear in the Panthers’ end by Matthew Tkachuk turned into a puck hopping over the stick of stick-swinging Brendan Smith and onto Verhaeghe’s tape. The former 40-goal scorer was behind the Devils’ defense and popped the puck over Vanecek’s shoulder to pad Florida’s lead.
New Jersey’s slow start wasn’t AS slow as it’s been. Florida out-chanced New Jersey 13-11 and matched high-danger chances, creating three each, according to Natural Stat Trick. However, Florida cashed in on two out of the three and the Devils first period woes continue. Still, the Devils continue to allow their opposition to play them, rather than take ownership of the ice like they did in 2022-23.
“I thought they out-skated us,” Head Coach Lindy Ruff grumbled. ” I thought the 50/50 compete, they won more battles than us. Our (defensive) zone coverage on the first goal, terrible. The one where they went to the net on the two defensemen, terrible again. That’s an area that we’ve taken a lot of pride in and there was no pride taken in some of our coverage, not the desperation we need.”
Bobrovsky Saw Too Many Pucks
The Devils have been making it too easy on goaltenders to make saves. On Monday, not a single body screened Bobrovsky, allowing him to track pucks with ease until the third period.
As far as secondary scoring chances go, New Jersey struggled in that department as well. To Bobrovsky’s credit, his rebound control was on. Yet, even on the few rebound chances he did allow, the Devils couldn’t take advantage and typically squandered the scoring chance.
When New Jersey finally put bodies in front of Florida’s crease, they were able to cash in. Haula, in front of Bobrovsky, scored on the power play as a Jack Hughes shot from the point was redirected past the Florida goaltender. Later, McLeod deposited a Haula shot that trickled past Bobrovsky with the net wide open. A little more grease before the final 20 minutes of play could go a long way for the Devils.
“Yeah, we gotta create a little bit more,” Hischier said. “I think we’re gripping our sticks a little bit too much. Gotta get going there.”
He continued: “We gotta get in the goalies’ eyes. (Goaltenders) can’t save them if they don’t see them. We have to put a lot of pucks on net and have to start doing it from the get-go. That’s important.”
Meier Struggles to Produce
Ruff tweaked the lines for a reason on Sunday morning. They looked excellent in the preseason, however, the preseason chemistry between Nico Hischier and Timo Meier hasn’t translated to regular-season play. Ruff elevated Ondrej Palat to the first line and moved Dawson Mercer down to play with Erik Haula. Unfortunately, the switch didn’t do much to elevate Hischier’s and Meier’s play.
Halfway through the second period on Monday, Ruff tweaked the lines again. This time, Meier moved down with Haula and Alexander Holtz. Mercer moved back up with Hischier and Palat. The Meier, Palat, and Hischier line finished the night playing 3:13 together, creating just one scoring chance as opposed to allowing three.
Individually, Meier was New Jersey’s worst skater against the Panthers. He took just one shift in the third period after taking two undisciplined penalties and struggled not only to score but to make any sort of positive impact on the ice. Meier finished the game with just 8:04 of ice time as he was out-chanced 10-4. The No.28 era is off to a rough start for Meier.
“He can’t take the penalties he took,” Ruff muttered. “We’ve talked about not taking penalties. Obviously, we need more.”
On Friday against the Arizona Coyotes, the Devils took an astonishing eight penalties in the shootout loss. Ruff expected his team to come out and play a more disciplined style on Monday after two days off of game action.
Although they didn’t take eight penalties, New Jersey was sent to the sin bin five times against the Panthers as they continue to display a lack of discipline. The Devils killed off three of four penalties, however, the one they allowed proved to be the difference Monday night.
Following the loss, Ruff was clearly frustrated with the lack of discipline.
“(I won’t) play them if they take penalties,” Ruff said of those who continue to take penalties. “If we’re not going to come out, we’ll shorten the bench right away. The desperation has to be there. It really is just that we have an obligation to a man to be ready to play.”
- John Marino and Curtis Lazar each only took one shift in the third period.
- “Just coaches decision on anyone who didn’t play (in the third),” Ruff explained.
- Jack Hughes tied the Devils franchise record for the most points in the first three games of a single season with six (two goals, four assists).