Another game, another loss for the New Jersey Devils, this time at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights by a score of 5-3. They played well out of the gate and only trailed 2-1 heading into the second intermission. But things fell apart quickly in the third period, and they couldn’t complete the comeback despite their best efforts. Here are five takeaways as they head into a weekend back-to-back with the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jack Hughes Was a Beast
We’ll see start with a positive, and that was Jack Hughes, who played arguably his best game of the season. He finished with a goal but probably should’ve had more than one point. The Devils finished with a shot attempt advantage of 27-13 with him on the ice — a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 67.5 percent. Without him on the ice, they were out-attempted 15-31 — a CF% of 32.6 percent.
On top of shot attempts, Hughes finished with an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 67.71 percent. He alone was responsible for 41.09 percent of the expected goals the Devils generated last night (via Money Puck). And not only were his on-ice stats ridiculous, but his shot contributions at five-on-five were off the charts…literally.
Performances like last night are why the Devils signed Hughes to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension a few weeks ago. When he’s at his best, those are the types of games he’s going to have more often than not. He’s up to eight points in 11 games, which would be a 60-point pace in 82 games. The Devils could use any positive they can get right now, and performances like that from Hughes consistently will help.
Blackwood’s Struggles Continue
Mackenzie Blackwood did not have a great game on Tuesday against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was better against the Golden Knights, but he still let in a goalie he had to stop. The Golden Knights’ goal that made it a 4-1 game in the third period can’t find the back of the net. The Devils scored two goals after then to make it a 4-3 affair, so that goal against loomed large in the final score. Overall, he stopped -1.67 goals below expected, so it was another off night.
The Devils have multiple issues to address, and goaltending is certainly not helping. With Jonathan Bernier seemingly out long-term with an injury, they need Blackwood to be much better than he’s been. They have just three wins in their last 16 games, and sometimes a goalie needs to bail his team out to help turn the tides. That hasn’t happened much at all during this stretch, and it’s clearly affecting their results.
Zacha Needs a Lesser Role
Pavel Zacha got off to a hot start this season, but he’s since cooled down significantly. He’s had some poor puck luck lately, but he’s also flubbed some easy chances that he needs to convert. Last night was no different. During the first period after the Devils took a 1-0 lead, Hughes set up Zacha for a high-danger chance in front of the Golden Knights’ net. Zacha had a wide-open net and an easy tap-in. But he didn’t have his stick on the ice, and the puck went past him and into the boards.
Overall, Zacha has four points in his last 13 games, plus an xG% of 43.98 percent. If the production were there, then the Devils could live with his on-ice stats being less than stellar. But now that the scoring has dried up, it’s probably best that he moves into a middle-six role on the wing once the Devils get Nico Hischier back from COVID protocols. That’d allow Yegor Sharangovich to move to wing with Hughes, someone he’s had success with in the past.
Ty Smith Slowly Coming Along
Smith has gotten off to a very tough start in 2021-22, but there have been signs of life lately. He’s still not all the way where the Devils need him to be, but he’s getting there. He finished last night with a CF% of 52.27, xG% of 57.29 percent, and had a positive game score of 0.55. Overall, four of his 10 best game scores this season have come in the last two weeks, so that’s a good sign.
The Devils’ playoff hopes are as good as gone with the way they’re playing at the moment, but they still need individuals to perform well. Smith is an important part of their long-term plans, but progress isn’t always a straight line for young players. Making sure his slow start is just a blip and nothing more than that is a must for the rest of 2021-22.
Ruff’s Seat Getting Hotter?
Anyone who’s watched the Devils for the last month knows things are not going well. They’re 3-10-3 in their last 16 games, their power play is the worst in the NHL and just as bad as the Arizona Coyotes’ man-advantage, and they fall behind in games far too often. All those issues were quite apparent last night. Eventually head coach Lindy Ruff’s job will be on the line, and it sure feels like things are getting to that point.
Not only were the same issues that have cost them games prevalent against the Golden Knights, but things got ugly in the final minute of the game. With the Devils down 5-3 with 20 seconds remaining in regulation, Ruff sent enforcer Mason Geersten out to stir the pot. A line brawl ensued, and the Golden Knights did not appreciate it. Jonathan Marchessault made his feelings known to Golden Knights reporter Jesse Granger after the game:
Are Stanley Cup contenders pulling off these of kind stunts these days? Is this something the Tampa Bay Lightning did regularly en route to two consecutive Stanley Cup championships? What about the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015-16 and 2016-17? The Golden Knights engaged last night because they had to, but that’s not something they do on their own. Good teams don’t pull off those kinds of antics in the modern NHL. And the Devils are not a good team right now.
Is a coaching change imminent? Only general manager Tom Fitzgerald knows the answer to that. But Ruff’s seat has to be hot, as well as assistant coach Mark Recchi’s, who oversees the power play. The Vancouver Canucks are 6-0-0 since firing head coach Travis Green and hiring Bruce Boudreau. They’ve gone from being Pacific Division basement dwellers to all of a sudden being back on the bubble. A change can make a significant difference, so it’s something to keep an eye on moving forward.
With a back-to-back this weekend, the Devils need to find some magic quickly. Though the playoffs are a long shot, their goal of wanting to play meaningful games in March and April isn’t dead yet. But it will be soon if they can’t start stringing together some wins.
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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