There’s no question that if the New Jersey Devils want to come back from their 2-0 series deficit against the New York Rangers, they need to make significant adjustments. They lost the first two games by a 5-1 score and strayed away from their successes of the regular season. Tactics are a crucial part of it, but head coach Lindy Ruff needs to do a better job of optimizing his lineup and getting the team back to playing the fast and speedy style of hockey that made them so successful during the regular season. Here are three lineup changes Ruff should make.
Devils Forwards Need Speed, Not More Physicality
The Devils started Game 2 with this lineup up front:
- Timo Meier – Nico Hischier – Dawson Mercer
- Ondrej Palát – Jack Hughes – Jesper Bratt
- Miles Wood – Erik Haula – Tomáš Tatar
- Yegor Sharangovich – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
First and foremost, Wood has to come out of the lineup. He finished Game 2 with a 2.12 expected goals percentage (xG%) and took another careless offensive zone penalty that led to a Rangers power-play goal. That was the second game in a row where he’s taken an OZ penalty that’s led to a goal against. He’s not providing physicality and has been a massive net negative because of the penalties.
Related: 3 Takeaways From Devils’ Game 2 Loss vs. Rangers
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Wood should make way for Jesper Boqvist, who’s been a reliable bottom-six forward with solid defensive impacts and excellent forechecking metrics all season. He should find himself alongside Haula and Palát, a trio that posted a 73.62 xG% in about 72 minutes as a line. It was the best Palát had looked this season and was one of the best third lines the Devils used in 2022-23.
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With that, we can construct a top six. The Devils have not used this combo since the middle of the season, but I would roll with a first line of Tatar, Hischier and Bratt. The trio has logged 141 minutes together and put up outstanding numbers at five-on-five:
- 61.36 Corsi for percentage (CF%)
- 65.77 Scoring chances for percentage (SCF%)
- 62.71 high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%)
- 62.52 xG%
- 10-2 goal differential
Those are fantastic numbers and in a decent sample size. Tatar has played well alongside Hischier all season long, so that’s a pair that Ruff should keep together. With them as the first line, the second line would consist of Meier, Hughes and Mercer. This isn’t a combo that’s played at all since the Devils acquired Meier from the San Jose Sharks before the trade deadline. But with a 2-0 series deficit, it’s worth trying something with potential.
At the very least, Mercer and Hughes have played well as a pair, posting a 53.14 xG% in 309 minutes together. That leaves the Devils with a forward group of:
- Tatar – Hischier – Bratt
- Meier – Hughes – Mercer
- Palát – Haula – Boqvist
- Sharangovich – McLeod – Bastian
While Meier, Hughes and Mercer is an unknown, the Hischier and Haula lines are known combos that have posted excellent underlying numbers. It’s worth a look and, at the very least, gives the Devils a much better chance of playing the rush game they played all season long.
Schmid Should Get the Start
Asking a 22-year-old rookie netminder to make his first playoff start at Madison Square Garden is a big ask. With that said, the Devils should give Akira Schmid the nod for Game 3. It’s not that their 2-0 series deficit is Vitek Vanecek’s fault, especially in Game 2, where they left him out to dry. But the Devils need a spark, and we’ve seen how goalie changes can make a difference in the postseason.
It’s not like Schmid hasn’t played in tough spots this season, either. He made four relief appearances — vs. the Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders, Colorado Avalanche and Washington Capitals — and stopped 52/54 shots in those relief appearances. The most recent came in the team’s regular-season finale, where he took over for Mackenzie Blackwood and stopped 20/20 shots in a 5-4 overtime win against the Capitals.
Schmid also made plenty of starts — 14, to be exact — and finished with a .922 save percentage in 18 games played. At 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, he’s a different goaltender from Vanecek in that he’s much more athletic. He’s shown the calmest and most collected manner in net this season. Making your first playoff start at MSG can be intimidating, but to this point, he hasn’t shown there’s a moment too big for him. With the fate of their season hanging in the balance, it’s worth taking the chance on him.
Luke Hughes Will Provide More of an Offensive Threat
The Devils generated almost nothing offensively in their first two games against the Rangers. In Game 1, it was jitters. But in the following contest, they tried a more physical brand they’re not built to play. That has to change for Game 3, and with them needing to find an offensive spark, Luke Hughes has to play.
We saw what makes Luke one of the best prospects in hockey during the team’s 5-4 win over the Capitals in the regular-season finale. He was a beast in transition and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. Not only that he put the winner in the back of the net, but he finished with a 73.1 xG% at five-on-five. Not bad for a 19-year-old who was only playing in his second-ever NHL game.
The younger Hughes adds a dynamic offensive threat they don’t really have on the back end. Even Dougie Hamilton, who’s among the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, doesn’t have the elite skating and transition ability of Luke Hughes. The question is, who should make way for him in the lineup?
Jonas Siegenthaler should be back in the rotation after being a healthy scratch in Game 2. That leaves Kevin Bahl or Brendan Smith as the odd men out. Though Bahl played well in Game 1, he struggled on the top pair with Hamilton yesterday. He should make way for Luke, leaving the Devils with these defense pairs:
- Siegenthaler – Hamilton
- Ryan Graves – John Marino
- Luke Hughes – Damon Severson
It’s tougher to shelter defense pairs on the road when you don’t have last change, but that’s a risk worth taking with Hughes and Severson. Both players can generate offense from the blue line with their skating and puck-moving ability. They need something to spark that offense since they only have two goals in two games, and Hughes gives them offensive upside they don’t get with Bahl and Smith while adding more speed.
Devils Need to Put Everything Into Speed & Offense
The Devils have no margin for error tomorrow night. If they lose, the series is all but over. They need to put out a lineup that fits the brand of hockey they played all regular season long and not try to play into the Rangers’ hand by making it a physical game. By inserting Luke Hughes into the lineup and tinkering with their forward lines to a couple of combos that have worked this season, it should give them a chance to play the rush game that made them successful.
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