Last night’s contest against the Colorado Avalanche did not get off to a good start for the New Jersey Devils. They fell behind 3-0 midway through the second period, but as it turns out, their best hockey was still ahead of them. They’d end up scoring five unanswered goals en route to a 5-3 win over the NHL’s best team. Here’s what stood out from arguably the team’s most impressive performance of the 2021-22 season.
Zacha Line Steps up Without Hischier
The Devils were without Nico Hischier last night, as he’s dealing with a lower-body injury that has him listed as “questionable” at the moment. Pavel Zacha moved into his place at center on the second line with Jesper Bratt and Tomáš Tatar, and they ended up being the team’s best trio. Tatar’s goal got the comeback started when he made it a 3-1 game, but they carried play throughout the contest.
With the Zacha line on the ice, the Devils finished with a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 66.67 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 92.47 percent. Most of their minutes came against the Nathan MacKinnon line, but they still managed to control the run of play. That’s not an easy task, even for the best units in hockey.
There isn’t a firm timetable on Hischier’s injury. But if he’s out for a few games, it looks like the Devils have something to build on with this unit. Bratt finished with three points, while Zacha and Tatar each had a point. That’ll do with how Jack Hughes and his line are playing right now.
Hughes’ Line Continues to Produce
Speaking of the Hughes line, it was another strong showing for this trio. Hughes had two assists last night but could’ve had a couple of more points with the way he played. He created numerous chances and rang a shot off the iron in the third period that would’ve given the Devils a 4-3 lead. Just how active was he offensively? He led the team in shot contributions by a wide margin (shot assists are passes that lead to shots on goal):
After tallying two points yesterday, Hughes would be on pace for 38 goals and 96 points in 82 games. But he wasn’t the only member of his line who came to play. Yegor Sharangovich finished with a goal and an assist and stood out on the penalty kill late in the game. He’s now up to 21 points in his last 25 games — a 68-point pace over 82 games. With Dawson Mercer settling in on the opposite wing, the Devils may have the makings of their first line of the future.
Ty Smith Rebounding After Healthy Scratch
It has not been a good season for Ty Smith by any stretch. He was even a healthy scratch for three games before returning to the lineup against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday afternoon. It does appear he’s responded to being a healthy scratch, however. He scored his second goal in as many games and posted some of his best underlying numbers of the season last night. He finished with a CF% of 64 percent and xG% of 87.71 percent, while his game score of 2.62 was his second-best of 2021-22.
Smith will always have some defensive flaws, but he can make up for it when he’s scoring as he has the last two games. The Devils don’t need him to be that high-end defender when their top-four consists of Ryan Graves, Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson. If he builds off these last two games and keeps finding ways to contribute offensively, he should have a strong close to the season.
Daws Rock Solid in Net
There have been plenty of times where I’ve talked about goaltending costing the Devils a win. That was not the case with Nico Daws last night and has not been the case with him for the most part over his previous six starts. He stopped 23/26 shots against the Avalanche, which might not seem spectacular. But he allowed three goals on 2.99 expected goals, so he stopped what was expected of him. That’s the kind of goaltending the Devils have not been getting for most of 2021-22.
Fortunately, it appears Daws has given them some stability in between the pipes. Since taking over the reins as the Devils’ No. 1 starter two weeks ago, he has a .919 save percentage and has stopped 1.5 goals above expected. He just turned 21 years old in December, so there will still be some bumps in the road as he continues to develop. But for now, he’s given the Devils the goaltending they’ve been seeking for quite some time.
Devils Skated the Avalanche Into the Ground
The Avalanche entered last night with a 41-11-5. They’re the best team in the NHL this season, and I don’t think it’s all that close. They were on the second half of a back-to-back, which is a factor. However, they were 6-0-1 in the second halves of back-to-backs this season. Even with some things working against the Avalanche, it’s not easy to straight-up skate them into the ground, but that’s what happened.
The Devils finished yesterday’s game with a 58-41 shot attempt advantage over the Avalanche at five-on-five, a CF% of 58.59 percent. They also doubled up the Avalanche in five-on-five expected goals (3.05 to 1.51), an xG% of 66.85 percent. Even when the Devils were trailing 3-0, they were still winning the five-on-five battle. Had it not been for a couple of Avalanche power-play goals in the first period, the game may not have been as close as it was heading into the final 20 minutes. And remember, this came out with Hischier, who has 13 points in his last 10 games.
The Devils’ comeback win might not mean much for the 2021-22 season, but it does in the grand scheme of things. A year ago, they would’ve gotten caved in by the Avalanche. It shows that they’re making progress and that the pieces they’ve assembled are actually starting to fall in place. Once they settle the goaltending situation and round out a couple of other flaws on their roster, they could be players in the Metropolitan Division, even as early as next season.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017