The New Jersey Devils had been going through some rough times after returning from their COVID pause. But things appear to be turning around, as they have three wins in their last four contests, including taking four of six points against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Devils had some ups and downs against the Penguins, but there were plenty of positives to take away. Their young players continue to shine, while Scott Wedgewood and Mackenzie Blackwood came up big in net. Plus, a look at the week ahead as the Devils continue their six-game road trip.
Bratt, Hughes Continue to Gel
Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes have played plenty together this season, and that was no different against the Penguins. This time around, they found themselves on a line with Kyle Palmieri rather than Andreas Johnsson. It seemed to pay off, as the Devils had a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 62.1 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 63.1 percent with them on the ice during the three-game set. That line also outscored the Penguins 2-0 at five-on-five.
Bratt has been particularly good as of late. He has four points in his last four games, including the game-winning overtime goal yesterday. His five-on-five stats in this three-game series were among the best on the Devils, as he posted a CF% of 60.3 percent and xG% of 59.3 percent.
Hughes was even a touch better than Bratt. He had CF% of 60.6 percent and xG% of 61.8 percent and had this slick snipe on Thursday night that completely fooled Tristan Jarry.
Good things have happened when Bratt and Hughes have been on the ice together this season. Both players can carry a line, they’re highly skilled, and they both play with incredible pace to their game. With Palmieri alongside them for the foreseeable future, the Devils should have themselves a line that can generate offense consistently.
Goaltending Steps Up
Blackwood missed the first two games of the series with a nagging upper-body injury. Wedgewood started in his place and more than held his own across two starts, making 66 saves on 71 shots, good for a .930 save percentage (SV%). He played particularly well on Thursday, where he made 40 saves on 42 shots after making a last-second start due to Blackwood not feeling like himself in warmups.
After missing two games, Blackwood returned yesterday and looked like himself. He made 35 saves on 36 shots, his second consecutive start with a SV% above .940. It had been tough sledding for him since the team returned from their COVID pause. But he seems to be regaining his form over his last few starts, a good sign for the Devils moving forward. With Wedgewood playing the way he is, head coach Lindy Ruff should be able to rely on either on most nights.
Sharangovich Coming Alive
Yegor Sharangovich had gotten off to a strong start this season. Then like most everyone else, he went through a rough patch. That now seems to be a thing of the past.
Sharangovich didn’t register a point in the Devils’ three-game series against the Penguins, but he did just about everything else. His line with Travis Zajac and Janne Kuokkanen was hard-matched against Sidney Crosby’s line most of this series. But they managed to hold them in check for the most part, even though Crosby had three points in three games.
And while Sharangovich didn’t score in yesterday’s 2-1 overtime win, he was an absolute wrecking ball. He had nine shot attempts, six grade-B chances, six shots on goal, and hit the post twice. He also led the team in five-on-five shot contributions by a comfortable margin and logged a team-high 19:04 of ice time among their forwards.
While he may only have 10 points in 27 games, Sharangovich will find the scoresheet more often if he continues playing like this. As with any young player in the NHL (he’s only 22 years old), consistency comes with time. And he seems to be trending in that direction with his play over the last few games.
Power Play Improving But…
After a brutal stretch where the Devils’ power play went 0/25, it’s starting to show some signs of life. They picked up a power play goal on Thursday, a key factor in them coming away with a 3-2 win. Their power play was 0/2 for yesterday, but it played a significant role in generating momentum that led to Sami Vatanen’s eventual game-tying goal in the second period.
On the flip side, the Devils’ power play did not show up in Saturday’s 3-1 loss. They went 0-for-4 with the man advantage and had just one shot on goal. The Devils trailed 2-1 for most of the second and third periods and had multiple power play opportunities to tie it up. Unfortunately, it only generated negative momentum. And the Penguins eventually made them pay for it when Jake Guentzel made it a 3-1 game late in the third period.
The power play may be making strides, but its inconsistency is still wreaking havoc on the Devils’ results. It doesn’t have to win them games every night, but it also can’t go 0-for-4 with one shot goal. Those performances have happened a bit too often, so that’s still something they need to clean up.
Young Players Leading the Way
It was unlikely the Devils would be a playoff team this season. They got off to a 4-3-2 start and won a couple of games after their COVID pause. But that situation proved to take its toll on the season, especially with 80-90 percent of the team testing positive for the virus.
With that said, their young players have come through in big moments. It wasn’t just Hughes or Bratt contributing against the Penguins. They also got points from Kuokkanen, Ty Smith, and Pavel Zacha. All those players are 23 years old or younger. And no team has received a larger share of their points from U-23 players than the Devils (it’s not all that close either).
Given the weird circumstances of this season, how the Devils’ young players developed would say a lot about where this team is heading down the road. So far, it seems like they’re getting the most out of their young talent. The team may only be 11-14-4 on the season, but if more than half their points keep coming from U-23 players, that should bode quite well for the future.
Yesterday’s game in Pittsburgh was the first of a six-game road trip for the Devils. It continues tomorrow night with a showdown against the Philadelphia Flyers, who have really struggled to keep pucks out of their net this month. They’ll follow that up with a back-to-back against the Washington Capitals on Thursday and Friday before ending the road trip with two games against the Boston Bruins on Sunday and next Tuesday.
The Devils have played well on the road, where they’re 7-3-2 on the season. They’re also 3-0-1 against the Bruins, who are dealing with their own COVID issues at the moment. Couple that with a struggling Flyers team, and this road trip could provide the Devils a bit of an opportunity to collect some points in the standings.
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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