The New Jersey Devils could not have asked for a better performance after their eight-day break. The players recently held a players-only meeting to discuss where they are at and how they want to finish the season, and it seems that the message was received as they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-1.
Last night, the Devils welcomed Dougie Hamilton, Jesper Bratt, and Andreas Johnsson back to the lineup. It was the first time in months that the team played their complete roster, and it was obvious from the start that New Jersey wanted to leave Pittsburgh with two points. Here are four takeaways from last night’s victory.
Devils’ Explosive First Period
New Jersey took control early. A little over a minute into the contest, Bratt scored his first of the game and scored his second under five minutes later. Before Mike Sullivan’s team knew what happened, they were behind by three goals in the first 10 minutes. It was clear the Penguins underestimated their opponent and were not prepared, as they scrambled to keep up.
While Bratt was out with injury, head coach Lindy Ruff put together a line of Yegor Sharangovich-Jack Hughes-Dawson Mercer. In the small sample size, Mercer seems to be the perfect complement to the Devils’ top line. Keeping the trio together forced him to reunite Nico Hischier with Pavel Zacha and Bratt to round out the top six. Each member of the Devils’ top two lines earned at least a point, while Bratt, Hughes, and Hischier ended the night with three each.
Devils Took Their Foot off the Gas in the Second
Now, without being negative, I want to be realistic and point out that for a few minutes it looked like a similar story would unfold. The Penguins came out flying in the second period, but goaltender Nico Daws made key saves at the right time. The Devils did not register their first shot on goal until halfway through the period when Dawson Mercer scored his 12th goal of the season.
The second period has been a concern for the Devils all season when fans have seen their team’s lead get washed away. Last night, the Penguins fired 14 shots on the 21-year-old goaltender, and only one got through on their second power-play opportunity of the game. Afterward, Ruff talked about the importance of surviving those first 10 minutes of the second period and his team being able to take back control of the game.
Devils Get Dynamic Goaltending From Daws
The coaching staff decided to give Daws the nod as it was the first of a back-to-back. It was the fourth career NHL start for the Munich, Germany native who was seeking his second career win. He was sharp from puck drop, and his saves became more impressive with each passing minute.
“Nico [Daws] was really strong for us,” Ruff said. “Especially in the second period when they had a really hard push. He had four or five really good saves to help maintain that big lead we built up.”
Most would agree that Daws’ performance was some of the best goaltending the Devils have seen in a while. His confidence grew as the game went on, not just for himself but also for the team in front of him. The goaltender finished the game with a save percentage of .974, making 37 saves on 38 shots.
Complete Team Effort
Between injuries and COVID-19, Ruff’s team has been out of sync often this season, but last night was a reminder of how good they can be when they stick to their system, and each plays their role. Excellent goaltending will go a long way, but it was the complete team effort and managing all the little things that led to the Devils’ latest victory.
Every player on the team except for Michael McLeod registered at least one shot on goal. While the 6-foot-2 center did not his the scoresheet, he had the tough task of facing Sidney Crosby in the faceoff circle and blocked three shots, which was the most among all forwards. Jimmy Vesey had two takeaways, while Hamilton and Graves each had four hits.
Ruff has talked about the team playing their system, but when things are not going their way, fans will quickly say his system doesn’t work. Last night was an example that it does work. The coaching staff has preached proper puck management since October, and when the team buys in and works together, they look like they can compete with anyone.
“A lot of times, I talk about execution and puck play,” Ruff said. “When your puck play is off, it really hurts your team. I thought our puck play and how fast we skated up ice was something that they couldn’t handle.”
The Devils are back in action tonight to face the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. They will look to make their trip a perfect 2-0 before heading back to Prudential Center to face Quinn Hughes and the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.