4 Takeaways From Devils’ 6-3 Loss to the Lightning

Last night’s loss was all too familiar for the New Jersey Devils. They came flying out of the gate and were the better team through 40 minutes. But like so many times, goaltending let them down. They eventually fell 6-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who scored five unanswered goals en route to the win. Here are four takeaways from the loss as the Devils begin an eight-day break before their next game on Feb. 24 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Devils Let Down by Goaltending Once Again

It’s been tough sledding for the Devils in net this season, especially with Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier dealing with injuries, the latter who’s out for the remainder of 2021-22 after having hip surgery. Jon Gillies has been their primary starter since the Christmas break. Some nights have been better than others, but last night was very much not one of those nights. 

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The game started well for Gillies, but things quickly began to unravel in the second period, and it eventually imploded in the third when the Lightning scored three goals to ice the game. Gillies finished the night by giving up 3.72 goals above expected. Had he stopped what was expected of him, the Devils could’ve at least gotten a point and more likely two, given how they played at five-on-five. 

The Devils having good to strong team efforts submarined by goaltending has been a common occurrence in 2021-22. If they were getting league average goaltending, things would likely look very different for them:

The Devils are 17-28-5 after last night’s loss. Let’s flip their record around a bit and add six wins from their regulation losses. That’d leave them with a record of 23-22-5 for 51 points — a 12-point difference in the standings. And that’s with just league average goaltending. If they were getting above average to high-end netminding, that difference would be even more stark. 

There are other flaws the Devils need to address. They could use another scorer or two and maybe some defensive depth. But none of that is what is causing them to sink to the bottom of the standings. Devils goaltenders have allowed 171 goals on 131.15 expected goals at all strengths, which is 39.85 goals above expected. Nope, that’s not a typo. That’s almost 40 goals above expected given up. General manager Tom Fitzgerald has to completely overhaul the Devils’ goaltending situation before the start of 2022-23. Otherwise, next season will be much of the same. It’s had that much of a negative impact on their results in 2021-22. 

Hughes and Mercer Show Chemistry

If not for nothing, Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer put on a show as linemates against the Lightning. Along with Yegor Sharangovich, the three combined for three goals and seven points (Sharangovich’s tally came on the power play). At five-on-five, the Lightning were having a tough time dealing with the Hughes line, at least through the first two periods. 

All three players finished with expected goals percentages (xG%) between 54 and 60 percent. At one point, the Devils were out-attempting the Lightning 12-0 with all three players on the ice. That evened out as the game progressed and things began to unravel. And even though the final score wouldn’t indicate as much, there was a lot to like about the Sharangovich, Hughes and Mercer trio. 

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since coming out of the All-Star break, the Devils have been giving Mercer an extended run at right wing. Long-term, that’s probably an ideal fit for him since he’s a player they’re going to want in their top-six. The only way that will happen is with him on the wing, and if yesterday was any indication, he and Hughes could be in for some very productive nights as linemates. I doubt head coach Lindy Ruff even contemplates moving Mercer off Hughes’ wing. They’ll probably stick together, along with Sharangovich, who has played well as Hughes’ linemate since April of last season. 

Sharangovich Looking Like 2020-21 Sharangovich

This is probably worth a deep dive at some point soon, but Sharangovich has really found his game since the extended NHL Christmas break. With a goal and an assist against the Lightning, he has 14 points in 17 games dating back to Dec. 29. He’s up to 10 goals and 24 points in 44 games, an 18-goal, 44-point pace over 82 games. That’s nearly identical to last season when he produced at a 24-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games. 

Related: 3 Players Devils Fans Have Fallen in Love With in 2021-22

Sharangovich’s on-ice results since Christmas have been some of the best on the Devils too. His Corsi-for percentage of 57.06 percent ranks second on the Devils to Jesper Bratt, while his xG% of 58.97 percent ranks third to Bratt and Hughes. Playing on a line with Hughes certainly helps, but Sharangovich is also playing quite well himself. Playoff hopes are dead at this point, but getting young players like Sharangovich producing and playing at a high level is important heading into the summer and the 2022-23 campaign. 

Devils Should Get Reinforcements After the Break

The Devils were without Andreas Johnsson and Bratt for yesterday’s game and Sunday’s tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Neither of their injuries are believed to be serious, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they returned to the lineup on Feb. 24, given the eight-day layoff. Dougie Hamilton has been practicing in a contact uniform for the last few days, and his return could come against the Penguins on Feb. 24 too. 

With how poor goaltending has been this season, their returns might not make a significant difference in the Devils’ results. But having all three of those players, specifically Hamilton and Bratt, can only help. Hamilton has missed the last six weeks with a broken jaw he suffered on Jan. 2 against the Washington Capitals. He’s their best offensive threat on the back end and should help the Devils find some more consistent goal scoring. 

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

As for Bratt, his 43 points in 45 games comes out to a 78-point pace over 82 games. He’s been the Devils’ best player in 2021-22, so having him in the lineup will make a difference. Johnsson’s scoring has fallen off a bit since a hot start to the season, but he’s still been a productive middle-six winger. Add him to the lineup, and the Devils could have a decent set of lines to work with coming out of the break:

  • Sharangovich – Hughes – Mercer
  • Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Bratt
  • Johnsson – Jesper Boqvist – Tomáš Tatar
  • Jimmy Vesey – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian

At the very least, there could be some entertaining performances from the Devils’ top-six. Most of those players figure to be part of their 2022-23 squad, and things even get interesting moving down the lineup. Boqvist has played some of his best hockey as of late, and him continuing to find success as a third-line center would be a game-changer for the Devils heading into the offseason. Having quality linemates like Tatar and Johnsson should help him continue to find more success. 

As mentioned, the Devils have eight days off until their next contest. They have come out of these long layoffs (Christmas and All-Star breaks) playing decent hockey. The win-loss record may not indicate so, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in some competitive contests, especially if Bratt, Johnsson and Hamilton return on the 24th. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick 

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