4 Takeaways From Devils’ 3-1 Loss to Bruins

The concern level for the New Jersey Devils is beginning to rise. In what has been a common theme over the last month, they played a strong game but still couldn’t find a way to outscore their opponent. The result was a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, moving them to 1-7-1 in their last nine games. While there was good to take away again, the team needs to shuffle things around in a hurry. Here are four takeaways from the loss. 

Devils’ Finishing Now a Significant Concern

Scoring goals has been a problem for the Devils for the last few weeks. But the hope was that four days off between games due to the NHL Christmas break would help them reset and turn around their shooting luck. That was not the case, as Linus Ullmark made 26 saves on 27 shots, and it’s not like the Devils didn’t have chances. 

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In the first period, New Jersey fired 14 shots on goal and had 11 high-danger chances at five-on-five. Jesper Boqvist rang a wicked shot off the crossbar, so that was a bit unlucky. But otherwise, they couldn’t find a way past Ullmark, who, to be fair, had a .937 save percentage coming into last night’s tilt. He’s been doing this to almost every team he’s played against this season, but still, the Devils’ scoring woes precede facing him two times in a row. 

I’m not sure if getting shutout in the first period took the wind out of the Devils’ sails for the final 40 minutes, but they had just four high-danger chances at five-on-five over the last two periods. The Bruins did a good job of keeping things to the perimeter, but the Devils certainly didn’t generate the chances they were beforehand. That’s why burying your opportunities when you have them is so important, because they aren’t always going to come freely. 

Ruff Needs To Shake Up Top-Six

Head coach Lindy Ruff has generally stuck with his main line combos, even through this stretch. But it’s probably time he breaks up his top-six and shuffles things around to find some scoring, even before Ondrej Palát returns to the lineup in the coming days. 

Ondrej Palat New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Ondrej Palát (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The reason is that the Devils’ top-six isn’t scoring at the rate it needs for the team to break out of this slump. Erik Haula has played well on Jack Hughes’ line, but he has two goals this season and one in his last 17 appearances. Fabian Zetterlund did pick up the primary assist on Nico Hischier’s game-tying goal last night, but that was his first point in 10 games, and he hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers. 

Sure, the Tomáš Tatar, Hischier and Zetterlund line has great underlying metrics, but you can only sell that for so long. They’ve only scored one goal in 48 minutes together over the last ten games, despite controlling over 59 percent of the expected goals and generating 2.65 xG. The same is true of the Haula, Hughes and Jesper Bratt trio. They’ve controlled over 79 percent of the expected goals and created 4.18 xG but have only scored twice. 

Related: 3 Takeaways From Bruins’ 3-1 Win Over Devils

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Eventually, expected goals have to turn into actual goals, but that’s not happening now. Ruff should tweak his lines and reunite Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer with Hughes while moving Bratt to a unit with Hischier and Tatar. That’d give the Devils this look until Palát returns: 

  • Tatar – Hischier – Bratt
  • Sharangovich – Hughes – Mercer
  • Haula – Boqvist – Zetterlund
  • Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Tyce Thompson

Mercer and Hughes have been great together this season; the Devils have controlled 57.16 of the expected goals and have tallied 16 goals on 9.9 xG with them on the ice at five-on-five. Mercer has gone seven games without potting one, and I can’t think of a better way to get him going than by placing him alongside Hughes. Regardless, the top-six needs to change. Unless Palát is back tomorrow night, Ruff can’t wait until he returns to find a spark. 

Hamilton Dominated

Much of the Devils’ offense last night came when Dougie Hamilton was on the ice. At five-on-five, they out-attempted the Bruins 36-15 and generated 2.18 expected goals compared to the Bruins’ 0.67 when he was on the ice. Not only did the Devils create offense during his minutes, but he also kept the Bruins’ top players at bay. 

Dougie Hamilton New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils controlled over 96 percent of the expected goals when Hamilton was on the ice against David Pastrnak, meaning they gave up nothing to one of the best snipers in the league. Unfortunately, the Devils couldn’t find the back of the net often enough to reward Hamilton for one of his best performances of the season. But it’s hard to argue he could’ve done much more to make a difference. 

Vanecek With a Big Rebound Effort

In the Devils’ 4-3 loss to the Bruins before the Christmas break, they couldn’t overcome a poor outing in net from Mackenzie Blackwood. He gave up two goals above expected and could not come up with saves when the Devils needed them. Vitek Vanecek made up for that effort with one of his best starts in weeks, stopping 24/26 shots and saving 1.39 goals above expected. 

If Vanecek is beginning to turn a corner after a rough stretch of his own, goaltending shouldn’t be much of a concern for the Devils for the foreseeable future. It’s about exorcising their scoring demons, and perhaps they can do so against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that blew a 4-0 lead and lost 5-4 to the Detroit Red Wings in overtime yesterday evening. 

Devils Quick Hits

  • Though Boqvist got unlucky when he rang a shot off the crossbar in the first period, he was one of the Devils’ best skaters last night. He didn’t fire a shot on goal, but he was great on and off the puck. He created space for his linemates, Mercer and Sharangovich, to get off prime scoring opportunities. The Devils controlled 77.4 percent of the expected goals when Boqvist was on the ice, so the numbers backed up how he looked. 
  • With Ryan Graves and John Marino on injured reserve, Kevin Bahl will get an extended run in the lineup. Last night did not go well, as he took two careless penalties and finished with a 27.06 expected goals percentage at five-on-five. He’s played well in a small sample until this point, but it’ll be interesting to see if that changes as he logs more regular minutes. 
Kevin Bahl New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Kevin Bahl (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • This didn’t decide the game since the Devils managed to tie it up, but Michael McLeod made an awful play that led to the Bruins’ first goal. You could argue that he was tripped, but even then, he fired a blind pass from his knees in his own zone to the center of the ice with no Devil in sight. Trent Frederic picked up the puck at the blue line and fired a perfect wrister past Vanecek for a 1-0 lead. Other Devils have made less egregious turnovers than that but have gotten benched or even healthy scratched for them. 

The Devils are still 22-11-2, and while concern is warranted, it’s not panic time yet. However, that conversation can swiftly change if they don’t string together two or three wins in a row. It’s not going to get easier with the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes as their next two opponents. But they have to net positive results in the standings from those contests since they’re division rivals. 

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