After an impressive 6-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils fell to the Chicago Blackhawks 8-5 at the United Center in Chicago. The final score looks worse than the actual game, as the Blackhawks scored two empty-net goals in the closing minutes. An all too familiar problem hampered the Devils’ effort to build on that win in Pittsburgh. Here are five takeaways as the Devils look to reset before another back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday.
Devils Goaltending Underwater Again
I’m not sure how many times I’ve written about goaltending costing the Devils a win this season, but it’s too many to count at this point. Jon Gillies started yesterday after Nico Daws’ impressive performance against the Penguins. Things got off to a decent start for Gillies, but things quickly unraveled in the second period. The Blackhawks scored three power-play goals, two of those being tallies he should have saved.
The Devils’ offense came to play last night. In fact, they outplayed the Blackhawks by quite a bit at five-on-five. They out-attempted Chicago 58-43 and had 2.82 expected goals (xG) to the Blackhawks’ 1.99. The Devils came back from 4-2 down to tie the game at 4, but Gillies couldn’t make the saves the team needed him to. In all, he gave up 3.27 goals above expected at all strengths.
The Devils had some poor defensive breakdowns, especially later in the game. But not every mistake or breakdown should end up in the back of the net. Those are an unavoidable part of the game, which is why goalies are there as the last line of defense. With how Daws played against the Penguins, I’d expect him to get the bulk of the workload until general manager Tom Fitzgerald can acquire another netminder, which Pierre Lebrun reported (2:40 into the video) Fitzgerald is aggressively trying to do.
Siegenthaler Has Season-Best Performance
Diehard fans of Devils are probably aware of how good Jonas Siegenthaler has been this season. Last night, he was rewarded for his efforts with a goal and two assists. Not only did he find the scoresheet for his first three-point game as a Devil, but he was rock solid defensively as he’s been in all of 2021-22.
Paired alongside Dougie Hamilton, who had a relatively strong performance himself, Siegenthaler finished with a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 62.5 percent and xG% of 62.04 percent. With last night only being Hamilton’s second game back since breaking his jaw on Jan. 4, it will take some time for the two to gel. But there is real potential for Siegenthaler and Hamilton to be the Devils’ top defense pair for many, many more games to come. Expect the two of them to remain together for a good portion of the rest of the season.
Jack Hughes Continues to Dominate
Jack Hughes is not a good hockey player. He is a very good hockey player who’s getting closer to reaching elite status. Despite the loss, Hughes was a one-man wrecking crew against the Blackhawks. He finished with a goal and two assists, bringing his total to 15 goals and 36 points in 32 games — a 92-point pace in 82 games.
Not only was Hughes scoring, but he was driving play at five-on-five as he has for much of the time since the Christmas break. He finished the night with a CF% of 58.62 percent and xG% of 61.12 percent, on-ice results that are becoming a common occurrence for him. The Devils may not be winning games, but it’s certainly not because of Hughes underperforming. He’s playing some of the best hockey of his career right now, and he’s still three months away from turning 21 years old. The best is yet to come.
Boqvist Finding Consistency
Jesper Boqvist’s path to becoming an NHL regular has been an interesting one. It’s his third year with the Devils, but he’s yet to play in a season that COVID hasn’t impacted one way or another. However, with some regular playing time lately, it does appear it’s finally clicking for him. He didn’t tally a point yesterday evening, but he was one of the Devils’ most noticeable players at five-on-five. He finished the night with a CF% of 65.71 percent, second on the team to Andreas Johnsson, while his xG% of 72.88 percent was third to Johnsson and Jimmy Vesey.
While the team was on an eight-day break because of the restructured schedule, head coach Lindy Ruff paired Boqvist with Johnsson and Tomáš Tatar on the third line during practice. That move seems to have paid off the last two games. But even before then, Boqvist was playing the best hockey of his career. He may not have scored yesterday and doesn’t have a point in his previous four games, but they will come if he continues to have similar efforts.
Mercer Still Looking To Settle In at Right Wing
It’s way too early to end the Dawson Mercer at right wing experiment, but the results have been a mixed bag so far. He’s finding the scoresheet, but the on-ice results have been less than desirable. He finished with a CF% of 30.77 percent and xG% of 43.38 percent against the Penguins, and the results were not better against the Blackhawks. Mercer’s CF% of 36 percent was the worst among Devils skaters last night, as was his xG% of 25.73 percent.
This is of the smallest sample sizes right now, but it’s something Ruff should be keeping an eye on. The Devils aren’t making the playoffs, so they should be focusing on player development for the rest of 2021-22. Mercer hasn’t played right wing since the very early days of his junior career. It might take some time for him to adjust not playing center, which is where he’s played for the better part of his hockey career since he was 16.
That’s why the Ruff should give Mercer some rope to see if he can figure it out on the wing, particularly with the way Boqvist is playing down the middle at the moment. Given the caliber of player Mercer is, I’d bet on him figuring it out eventually, especially if Hughes or Nico Hischier will be centering his line. But there may be some growing pains before he gets there.
The Devils are off this weekend. They’ll return to game action on Monday at the Prudential Center versus the Vancouver Canucks before they take on the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday in Columbus.
* * *
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