4 Takeaways From Devils’ 4-3 Loss to the Bruins

If it felt like you were watching a New Jersey Devils game from the 2021-22 season last night, you wouldn’t be wrong in your assessment. The Devils got off to a strong start and took an early lead but ultimately fell due to a less-than-stellar outing from Mackenzie Blackwood in net. Some sloppy play in front of Blackwood in the second period didn’t help, and he certainly wasn’t at fault for every Boston Bruins goal. Here are four takeaways from the 4-3 loss to the Bruins as the NHL Christmas break begins. 

Devils Need Better From Blackwood

There’s no denying Blackwood was great during the Devils’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers just 48 hours beforehand. He made 33/35 saves and stopped nearly two goals above expected. Last night was practically a 180, however. He made only 14 stops on 18 shots and allowed 2.18 goals above expected. Head coach Lindy Ruff would end up pulling Blackwood to start the third period, replacing him with Vitek Vanecek. 

The Bruins’ first goal of the game was on a Patrice Bergeron redirection that wasn’t Blackwood’s fault, but the Bruins’ middle two goals were problematic. Blackwood had a bad giveaway while playing the puck behind his net on Boston’s second goal. He tried sending the puck around the boards, but he handcuffed Damon Severson. David Pastrnak eventually ended up with possession but didn’t get much on the shot, one that Blackwood could’ve stopped. 

Just a few minutes later, the Bruins gained the offensive zone off the rush. Pastrnak got the puck and made a toe drag that only a few players in the NHL can pull off for a goal. Still, Blackwood was well out of position and left plenty of the net open blocker-side for Pastrnak to shoot. Ultimately, those goals cost the Devils a game they deserved to win. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At five-on-five, the Devils out-attempted the Bruins 65-41 and controlled 57.24 percent of the expected goals. They hit iron a few times and still managed to pot three markers, thanks to a late push in the third period that saw them tally two goals to bring it to 4-3. There’s no refuting that they were the better team. 

Ruff was critical of his goaltender in his post-game press conference as well. I wouldn’t say he was harsh, but he acknowledged that the team needed better from Blackwood and that there were a couple of goals he could’ve saved. To Blackwood’s credit, he took the blame during his media scrum too. But still, that doesn’t change the fact the team needs better from him moving forward. 

Related: Devils’ Blackwood Under Pressure in Return From Injury

Latest News & Highlights

The Devils are not a lottery team anymore. They’re 22-10-2 and six points up on a playoff spot at the Christmas break. If Blackwood doesn’t put together some consistently good performances after the few days off, general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to look to shake up his goaltending tandem. He’ll either have to re-call Akira Schmid or make a trade to stabilize the situation. Because missing the playoffs due to goaltending would be unacceptable with the way the team started the season. 

Tatar Helped Devils Get Back in It

Even though the Devils lost a close game, there was plenty of good to take away from last night. One player who stepped up was Tomáš Tatar, whose goal got the Devils’ late rally started by making it a 4-2 game. The Devils controlled 76.97 percent of the expected goals with him on the ice at five-on-five and out-chanced the Bruins 11-3, including having an 8-2 advantage in high-danger chances. 

Tatar is not a flashy player, but he does plenty of things that make him a high-end play driver at five-on-five. It’s part of why he’s meshed well with Nico Hischier over the last season-plus. With Ondrej Palát getting close to returning from groin surgery, perhaps he finds himself rounding out Tatar and Hischier’s unit to help the Devils break some of their shooting woes. 

Holtz Showed Promise

Though Alexander Holtz will probably end up a victim of the numbers game once Palát returns, he had arguably his best game of the season last night. He had limited ice time again (7:46 at five-on-five), but he still led Devils skaters with a 92.07 expected goals percentage. He finished with four shot attempts, two shots on goal and a scoring chance at that game state as well. 

Alexander Holtz New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Alexander Holtz (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Holtz still needs to get a bit quicker, but there are signs of progress in his game, even if he’s still a bit inconsistent. It would be nice to see Ruff give Holtz a chance alongside Hischier or Jack Hughes at some point, especially since the Devils have struggled to score lately. Holtz has a high-end shot, and leveraging it with an elite playmaker like Hughes or a facilitator like Hischier could bring out the best in him.  

Free Mercer

One line combo Ruff has used that I’m not a fan of is Miles Wood, Michael McLeod and Dawson Mercer. Wood and McLeod have plenty of experience playing together, but placing Mercer alongside each of them seems like a misuse of his best attributes. It showed in their five-on-five numbers, as they had a 26.57 expected goals percentage, the only Devils line to finish underwater in that statistic. 

Related: Devils’ Mercer Quietly Impressing in Sophomore Season

Mercer has gone without a point across his last six games since being taken off Hughes’ wing and only has nine shots on goal. Coming out of the break, Ruff needs to place Mercer back in the top-six, preferably alongside Hughes and Jesper Bratt. The Devils have a 57.16 expected goals percentage with Mercer and Hughes on the ice this season while outscoring teams 16-10 and controlling 63.89 percent of the high-danger chances. 

Sure, the trio of Erik Haula, Hughes and Bratt has dominated five-on-five, but there’s probably another level to that combo with Mercer alongside them. That’s not to say Haula hasn’t played well; he has. But Mercer’s chemistry with Hughes at this point is undeniable. Plus, with the team’s bottom-six struggling to score at the moment, moving Haula down should strengthen their depth until Palát returns:

  • Tatar – Hischier – Yegor Sharangovich
  • Bratt – Hughes – Mercer
  • Wood – Haula – Fabian Zetterlund
  • Jesper Boqvist – McLeod – Holtz 

Devils Quick Hits

  • You’ll notice I placed Sharangovich in the top-six above. When he gets hot, he usually gets hot. He scored his second goal in as many games last night and is now up to 10 in 34 contests — a 24-goal pace over 82 games. He finished with an 88.07 expected goals percentage at five-on-five, the second straight strong outing he’s had. It might make more sense to pair him with Hughes and Mercer since they have a solid track record together. But regardless, he also needs to be in the top-six coming out of the break. 
Yegor Sharangovich New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Yegor Sharangovich (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • Though Zetterlund has posted very strong numbers alongside Tatar and Hischier, it might be time to end that experiment. He’s gone his last nine games without a point, which obviously isn’t good enough to justify playing alongside Hischier. There’s scoring upside in his game, but he’d be better served in the bottom-six alongside Wood and McLeod or Wood and Haula for now. 
  • Nikita Okhotiuk played in his first NHL game of the 2022-23 season and had a very solid outing. He finished with a 66.67 Corsi percentage and had an 88.77 expected goals percentage in 14:03 at five-on-five. With Ryan Graves out for the time being with an injury, the Devils will need Okhotiuk to step up and eat some minutes. At least for one game, he showed he might be capable of it. 

The Devils are off for the next four days before a rematch against the Bruins at Prudential Center on Dec. 28. Have a safe and happy holiday, and we’ll see you on the other side once the NHL Christmas break lifts in a few days. 

* * *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick