After an embarrassing defeat to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday evening, the New Jersey Devils responded with a 3-1 comeback win against the Dallas Stars yesterday afternoon. Trailing 1-0 entering the final frame, the Devils scored three unanswered goals with the help of Nico Hischier to shock the Stars, who are looking to secure a spot as a wild-card team in the Western Conference playoffs. Here are some key takeaways from the Devils’ first road win in nine tries as their west-coast swing kicks into full gear this week.
Hischier Shines During Comeback
With Jack Hughes out for the remainder of 2021-22 with a low-grade MCL sprain, this is now Hischier’s team for the rest of the season. He showed why that was the case yesterday, especially with his performance in the third period. He finished with two points in the final frame and a highlight-reel goal that ended up being the game-winner:
Not only did Hischier score the game-winner, but he was the catalyst in setting up Ty Smith’s goal, which got the comeback started early in the third period. For the game, Hischier finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 56.25 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 58.96 percent. His line really got things going when coach Lindy Ruff moved Fabian Zetterlund alongside him and Yegor Sharangovich to try and create a spark to start the third period.
Zetterlund, who’s a rookie, finished the afternoon with two assists, both secondary assists on Smith and Hischier’s goals. He concluded the game with an xG% of 67.75 percent after being under 40 percent through the first two periods. This isn’t to take away from Zetterlund’s game because he played well, but Hischier is beginning to become a player that makes others around him better. That’s a rather significant development heading into the summer and next season.
Daws Gave Devils a Chance to Win
It’s no secret the Devils have had some dreadful goaltending performances this season. But if there’s been the occasional bright spot in recent weeks, it’s when Nico Daws has gotten a start. That was the case yesterday, as he stopped 1.69 goals above expected, one of his best starts of the season.
Daws had to be particularly good in the first two periods when the Stars controlled the game. Dallas had a 30-16 shot attempt advantage at five-on-five and an xG% of 57.8 percent through two periods. They also had plenty of power-play time and accumulated an xG of 1.19 on four power plays in the second period alone, so Daws had to be sharp. He stood up to the challenge and gave the Devils a chance to win the game in the third. And they responded by scoring three unanswered goals to support his strong effort.
Most of this Devils season has been about, “what if they had average goaltending?” Yesterday afternoon was much better than average from Daws, but I think it provided a pretty clear answer. They’d have plenty more wins because they can compete with most teams night in and night out.
Bahl Gets a Shot in Siegenthaler’s Absence
With Jonas Siegenthaler out for the rest of the season due to a broken hand, Kevin Bahl is likely going to a see top-four role with the Devils before ultimately returning to the AHL for the Utica Comets playoff run. Filling in for Siegenthaler is no small task, as he had been one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen before breaking his hand. In his absence, Ruff paired Bahl alongside Dougie Hamilton, and game one of this likely extended run went just about as well as it could have.
Bahl finished with an assist, which came on Hischier’s goal, but his performance was about much more than that. He finished with a CF% of 59.26 percent and xG% of 80.61 percent, the latter of which led Devils skaters by almost 13 percent. In the past, he had looked overwhelmed in the defensive zone, but that was not the case against the Stars. He was sound defensively and made good decisions with the puck, especially in transition and exiting the defensive zone.
Playing alongside Hamilton may have helped, but Bahl didn’t look out of place. Both defensemen have size (6-foot-6 and above 220 pounds) and are good skaters, but they play different styles of hockey. Bahl is more of a defensive defenseman, whereas Hamilton likes to jump in on the rush offensively. That gives this pair some potential, so it’ll be interesting to see their results over the next stretch of games as the sample size increases.
Devils’ Bottom-Six Got Caved In
There was a lot of good to come out of the Devils’ comeback win, but it wasn’t all good. A reason they struggled and had to rely on Daws through the first 40 minutes was that their bottom-six got badly outplayed. The unit of A.J. Greer, Michael McLeod and Andreas Johnsson struggled mightily, as they had CF and xG percentages of 0 percent as a line. And yes, you read that correctly.
Fourth lines don’t usually get much ice time. But when they struggle as much as they did yesterday, they’ll pretty much stay stapled to the bench. That’s why Ruff essentially rolled three lines in the third period, with Johnsson getting an occasional shift in the top-nine. Even the line of Zetterlund, Jesper Boqvist and Janne Kuokkanen struggled to get much going before Ruff moved Pavel Zacha alongside Kuokkanen and Boqvist; that line did seal the game when Boqvist fed Zacha for the insurance goal 10 seconds after Hischier scored in the third.
With Hughes out for the rest of the season, the Devils will need better efforts from their depth players. The McLeod line did have a strong outing against the Canadiens on Thursday, so they’re capable of it, especially if they’re playing a weaker opponent. Kuokkanen, Boqvist and Zacha showed some potential in the third yesterday, so they might be able to provide some depth too. They’ll have a chance to feast against two weaker teams, the Arizona Coyotes and Seattle Kraken, this coming week, though there is a contest with the Colorado Avalanche in between.
The Devils’ comeback win kicked off the beginning of a five-game road trip out west that’ll conclude against the Vegas Golden Knights on April 18. Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood is on the trip and is expected to play before the team returns to New Jersey. That’d mark his first appearance since Jan. 19, nearly three months to the date, so keep an eye out for that as the new week begins.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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