Devils’ 6-Game Road Trip Filled With Highs and Lows

The New Jersey Devils concluded their six-game road trip on Tuesday with a 5-4 shootout loss to the Boston Bruins. It may have been a disappointing end to the trip, considering they were up 4-2. But the loss still doesn’t take away from what was a mostly successful stint away from the Prudential Center, despite there being some low points.

The Devils finished with a 3-2-1 record on their trip, with wins against the Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins, and are now 9-5-3 on the road. Let’s look back on the good and bad from these six games as they return to New Jersey. 

Bratt Continues to Shine

Offense has been hard to come by for the Devils, at times, this season. But that wasn’t a problem for Jesper Bratt on this road trip. He finished with five points in six games and had the game-winning goal against the Penguins on March 21. 

Bratt finished the road trip with a Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 50 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 45.9 percent at five-on-five. Though had it not been for Tuesday’s game against the Bruins, those two numbers would’ve been 55 percent and 50.4 percent. 

The reason for that dip is because Bratt had new linemates in Travis Zajac and Yegor Sharangovich, the first time head coach Lindy Ruff has used that combination this season. They did team up for a goal, but their five-on-five numbers weren’t great. With that said, it was only one game, and they did some good things. Bratt and Zajac are responsible defensive players, so they should help cover some of the defensive struggles Sharangovich has had this season. 

Blackwood Returning to Form

Mackenzie Blackwood had gone through a rough patch, just like almost every Devil after the team returned from their COVID outbreak. Fortunately, it appears he’s turned a corner. 

Before this road trip began, Blackwood had a 2-8 record and .876 save percentage (SV%) in his previous 10 games. But a bounce-back performance in a home game against the Buffalo Sabres on March 16 seemed to get him going in the right direction. 

Blackwood made five starts on the trip and had a 3-1-1 record and .933 SV%. He had a 40-save shutout against the Bruins on Sunday night and had a save-of-the-year candidate in the final seconds of the game to preserve the shutout. 

Not only was Blackwood was making highlight-reel saves, but his underlying numbers on the road trip were quite good as well. He had a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 3.43 and a 1.4 goals saved above expected (GSAx). The Devils are out of the playoff picture, but a young squad such as them needs to learn how to win games. If Blackwood can stay at this level, they should be able to win some contests to close out the season. 

Palmieri Regressing to the Mean

Kyle Palmieri had gotten off to a slow start this season, even before the team’s COVID outbreak. But he’s getting hot at the right time and working his way back to his usual production rates. 

Palmieri had goals in back-to-back games against the Bruins and finished with three on this road trip. He also had some of the team’s best five-on-five numbers in these last six games. His CF% of 56.6 percent led the team, while his xG% of 57.7 percent ranked third to Miles Wood and Michael McLeod. 

Related: 2 Takeaways From Devils’ 2-Game Series Versus Bruins

And it’s not just the six-game road trip that seems to have gotten Palmieri going. He has four goals and seven points across his last 11 games. His CF% across that stretch is 52.5 percent, while his xG% is 53.8 percent. 

With the trade deadline approaching fast, Palmieri’s uptick should benefit the Devils. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent, and it’s looking more than likely that they will trade him before the April 12 deadline. With a little less than two weeks to go until then, he’s playing his best hockey of the season right now. And that should help the Devils get a decent return for him. 

McLeod Providing Depth

McLeod may not be the Devils’ best offensive player, but he showed some skill on their road trip. He scored a beautiful breakaway goal against the Flyers last Tuesday and had a similar-looking one against the Bruins two nights ago.  

Though mostly playing fourth-line minutes, McLeod has performed well. He had a CF% of 49.5 percent on the road trip, but his xG% of 58.1 percent was second-best on the team. He’d been struggling before then and was a healthy scratch on a couple of occasions. But he seems to found his game again and should remain as the team’s fourth-line center, even when Nico Hischier returns from his injury within the next week or so. 

Zacha Struggling Big Time

Zacha was one of the hottest Devils for a long stretch of games this season, but he’s come way back down to Earth. He managed to tally a couple of assists on the six-game road trip, but he was otherwise quiet centering a line with Miles Wood and Nick Merkley. 

Zacha had the second-lowest CF% and xG% on the road trip; only Jesper Boqvist had worse rates, and he played in just three games. 

Related: Why the Bruins Have Struggled Against the Devils This Season

Consistency has been an issue for Zacha across his career, and it still seems to be. Over his last 12 games, he has just three points, a CF% of 41.4 percent and xG% of 38.1 percent. That’s a far cry from when he had 16 points in his previous 17 games and decent five-on-five numbers. 

One reason for Zacha’s struggles could be because he’s moved back to center with Hischier out of the lineup. He played at left wing quite a bit before then, and it probably makes sense to place him back there once Hischier returns. He looked more comfortable on the wing, and he’ll have less defensive responsibility, which should benefit him. 

Smith Enjoying Strong Rookie Campaign

There aren’t enough good things to say about rookie defenseman Ty Smith. He has 19 points in 34 games this season, with 17 of those being assists, which leads all rookies. He was particularly great on the road trip, tallying five assists across six games. 

Ty Smith New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils’ rookie defenseman Ty Smith (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Smith had a CF% of 53.8 percent and xG% of 57.6 percent during the road trip, the best numbers for a Devils’ defenseman. He and Damon Severson have played a majority of the season together, and they continue to click, though they have received sheltered minutes. 

Kirill Kaprizov is the leading candidate to win the Calder Trophy, but Smith is in the conversation. If he keeps playing the way he is, he should, at the very least, be a Calder finalist once the nominations are handed out at the end of the season. 

Jack Hughes Not Producing But…

Hughes didn’t tally a point on this road trip. He had some rough moments in their two-game set against the Washington Capitals last week, including a benching on Friday night. 

With that said, Hughes hasn’t played all that poorly. He had a CF% of 54.1 percent on the road trip, second-best to Palmieri. His xG% of 52.8 percent also ranked sixth-best. He’s generating a good amount of chances but just hasn’t had much puck luck. If he keeps playing the way he is, the points should come. 

It’s also worth noting that Ruff said Hughes lost some of the weight he put on during the offseason due to his bout with COVID. Ruff said it’s been a grind for Hughes (and the team too). They’re playing four games every six nights, so it’s not a surprise there’s been a dip in his play. Once the offseason rolls around, he should be able to get much-needed rest and time to rebuild the gains he made last summer. So there shouldn’t be cause for concern. 

Power Play Still Wildly Inconsistent

Just when it looks like the Devils’ power play is turning things around, it reverses course and flatlines. They picked up power play goals against the Flyers and in their first game against the Capitals. It has gone 0-for-10 since then and has failed to come through in spots where they’ve needed it. 

Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes could help spark the Devils’ power play (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Take Tuesday’s loss to Bruins, for example. The Devils gave up a two-goal lead but managed to get it to overtime thanks to Blackwood. The overtime period was all Bruins until the Devils got a 4-on-3 power play for two minutes. They generated a couple of chances but nothing that made the Bruins sweat it out. Their personnel decisions on that man advantage were questionable as well, as they began it with two defensemen and two forwards. 

Had the Devils converted on that power play, they could’ve come away with two points. This isn’t to say they’d be a playoff team if their power play were effective, but its inconsistency is leaving points on the table. It’s 2-for-15 over the last six games, a 13 percent success rate. That’s not good enough, and even though they’re out of the playoff picture, they need to figure it out over their final 22 regular-season games. 

Looking Ahead

All eyes are on the trade deadline. The Devils have eight pending UFAs other than Palmieri, including three blueliners in Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov, and Sami Vatanen. It’d be a surprise if general manager Tom Fitzgerald moved every defenseman, but their blue line could have a different look as soon as next week.

As for the schedule, the Devils return home and face the Capitals tomorrow evening. They’re 0-5-1 against Washington this season, so perhaps they can get off the schneid. The Devils will also play six of their next seven games at home. They’re 4-11-2 at the Prudential Center, so this next stretch offers them the opportunity to change their fortunes on home ice. 

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