It’s been a trying season for the New Jersey Devils, but they showed some flashes of what could’ve been in their four-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
After losing the opening game in heartbreaking fashion, the Devils reeled off three consecutive wins to come away with three wins in four tries against their turnpike rivals. And they did so in ways you wouldn’t have expected given how their season has gone. Let’s look back on the highs and lows of the four-game set.
Special Teams Come Through
Both the power play and penalty kill have been sore spots for the Devils this season, but they got the job done against the Flyers. Their power play went 4-for-11, while their penalty kill staved off six of the Flyers’ seven power play opportunities.
The Devils’ power play came up big in a couple of spots. In looking to end their 10-game winless streak, it scored two crucial goals in Tuesday night’s 6-4 win. They followed that up with two more power play goals in Thursday night’s 5-3 win. Without those efforts, they could’ve easily lost both games.
And it’s probably a good thing the Devils’ power play showed up because they struggled at five-on-five in this series. Their Corsi-for percentage (CF%) was 40.5 percent, while their expected goals percentage (xG%) was 38.2 percent. That’s the opposite of how most of the Devils’ season has gone, as they’ve mostly gotten strong five-on-five play but poor special teams. It goes to show what could’ve been of their season had their special teams been up to par during their first 50 games.
Bahl Makes His NHL Debut
Kevin Bahl, who was the centerpiece of the Taylor Hall trade in Dec. 2019, made his NHL debut on Thursday night. He looked great in game one and had strong five-on-five numbers, finishing with the best CF% and xG% of any Devil that night. Though he didn’t end up with an assist, his play that led to a Flyers turnover in the neutral zone led directly to a Jesper Boqvist goal.
Bahl’s second game didn’t go quite as well, at least by the five-on-five numbers, but he still had a fine performance. He tallied his first NHL point on Jesper Bratt’s goal. He did so by breaking up a Flyers forecheck in the offensive zone that led to Pavel Zacha rushing up the ice and setting up Bratt for the goal. Bahl was effective in using his size and long reach to end some Flyers’ opportunities too.
What catches everyone’s eye about Bahl is his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame, but he’s not your typical “big” defenseman. He’s not out there looking to throw the bone-jarring hit every time, and he skates quite well for someone his size. He’s never going to put up gaudy point totals, but he can pass the puck and get it out of the defensive zone without chipping it off the glass every time. That isn’t always the case with defensemen who earn the “stay-at-home” label. And that’s what really stands out about Bahl rather than his size.
Hischier Line Continues to Produce
It wasn’t a great series for the Devils at five-on-five, but the line of Zacha, Nico Hischier and Bratt continued to find ways to score. That line had three goals at five-on-five and finished with an xG% of 52.5 percent.
Zacha was particularly good during this series, as he finished with three goals and three assists across the four games. This is probably something worth doing a deep dive on at some point, but he looks like a completely different forward playing left wing rather than center. He has less defensive responsibility and doesn’t have to carry a line as he would at center.
Each of Hischier and Bratt finished with three points across four games. Bratt now sits at 28 points in 41 games — a 56-point pace over 82 games. He’s showing his end to the 2019-20 season was no fluke and that he can be a consistent top-six player for the Devils moving forward.
As for Hischier, his season has been marred by injuries, but it’s good to see him finding the scoresheet more often. He has good chemistry with Zacha and Bratt, and if they continue their strong play, it should be something to build on heading into the 2021-22 campaign.
He can’t stop and won’t stop scoring. Yegor Sharangovich has been absolutely on fire lately and was a terror against the Flyers, finishing with four goals and an assist in four games.
As has been the case since the Devils traded Travis Zajac, Sharangovich remained on a line with Jack Hughes and Janne Kuokkanen. The trio didn’t drive play as they had before the Flyers series, but they still gave the Flyers plenty of problems in the defensive zone. Hughes and Sharangovich seem to be natural fits as linemates. Hughes is a dynamic playmaker, while Sharangovich has the finishing ability that Hughes has needed since coming into the league last season.
And the thing is, Sharangovich’s output has only been getting better as the season has gone along. He has 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists) in his last 16 games to go along with a CF% of 55.5 percent and xG% of 55.5 percent. In an 82-game season, he’d be on pace for 25 goals and 47 points. He’s been really, really good, and it’s no coincidence a majority of that time has come alongside Hughes. As the Hischier line could be something to build on, the Devils seem to have struck gold with Hughes and Sharangovich too.
Blackwood Coming Around
It’s been a whirlwind of a season for Mackenzie Blackwood, and this series was no different. It got off to a rough start, especially in the team’s 6-4 win on Tuesday, but he progressively got better as the week went on.
Blackwood made 21 saves on 24 shots in their 5-3 win Thursday evening, but he was at his absolute best last night. He made 31 saves on 32 shots and had a goals saved above expected of 1.79 (via Evolving-Hockey) en route to a 4-1 Devils win. It was one of his best performances, if not the best, of the season.
And though the Devils are eliminated from playoff contention, his performances mean something. With six games remaining on their schedule, Blackwood will start most of those, if not all of them. He’s had a difficult season, especially after a rough bout with COVID in January and the start of February. If he can get on a roll to close out the season, that’d do wonders for his confidence heading into 2021-22 when the Devils will need him playing at a high level out of the gate.
The Devils have a busy final week of the regular season, with five games in seven nights (two against the Boston Bruins, two against the New York Islanders) before concluding their schedule next Monday when they take on the Flyers. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers as we wrap up the campaign before heading into what should be a busy offseason for the Devils.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, except where noted