The New Jersey Devils are beginning one of the more difficult parts of their season with three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning this week. It got off to a rough start, as they fell 4-1 in their first tilt against the Lightning. They’ll have to regroup quickly, as they have a rematch with the Bolts tomorrow at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Here are four takeaways and some quick hits.
Vanecek Had a Rough Night
The Devils’ goaltending has been solid this season, but Vitek Vanecek has been in a rut lately. He was stellar against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday evening, making 32 saves in a 3-0 shutout win. But otherwise, his save percentage has been below .900 in six of his last seven starts.
Vanecek wasn’t at fault for every goal last night, but as Devils analyst Bryce Salvador mentioned during post-game coverage, Vanecek should have stopped the Lightning’s middle two goals. To his credit, he had a solid third period, saving all 11 shots he faced. Still, he finished the night with 26 saves on 30 shots, a save percentage of .867, while giving up 2.12 goals above expected.
Vanecek’s start was his 40th of the season, breaking the career-high of 39 he set with the Washington Capitals a season ago. There’s still a month left in the regular season, but head coach Lindy Ruff should probably consider load management with Vanecek, given his recent play. Sure, taking on the Lightning three times in a week has the feel of a mini-playoff series, but the long game is more important. The Devils don’t want to overwork Vanecek ahead of the playoffs, especially with their place in the standings.
It’s not like they don’t have a goaltender to turn to, either. Akira Schmid has a .944 save percentage across his last five outings and started two consecutive games last week against the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens; both were wins where he stopped 43 of 46 shots combined. He has a .927 save percentage in 14 games this season, and with Mackenzie Blackwood nearing a return from an injury, there’s a path to easing Vanecek’s workload to help him reset.
Devils Out-chanced the Lightning Despite the Score
Even though there were some defensive breakdowns, the Devils still had the better quality chances over the Lightning at five-on-five, especially over the first two periods. Tampa Bay was opportunistic and capitalized on Vanecek having an off night, but the Devils finished the game controlling 59.72 percent of the expected goals (xG%) at five-on-five.
Related: Devils Have Found the Perfect 3rd Line
Latest News & Highlights
Nikita Kucherov’s goal with 0.5 seconds left in the second period to make it 4-1 seemed to take the life out of the Devils, as it was all Lightning in the third period. But the Devils were playing well until that point. They also had no puck luck, as they hit the post four times. Sometimes, that’s how the game plays out, but it was far from the team’s worst performance of the season.
There’s no doubt the Devils have some things to clean up before their rematch with the Lightning tomorrow. Tampa Bay did a relatively good job neutralizing the Devils’ rush game, so that’s one thing on Ruff’s plate that he and his staff will have to find an adjustment for in hopes of a rebound effort. But otherwise, I wouldn’t call that performance a cause for concern.
Meier, Hughes & Bratt Starting to Click
The Devils’ lone goal of the game did come courtesy of the Timo Meier, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt line. Meier fired a shot on goal, with Damon Severson cleaning up the rebound for the tally, but that wasn’t the only chance they created. Hughes also set up Dougie Hamilton for a glorious chance in the first period, but Hamilton wired the shot off the post.
Meier looked the most comfortable as a Devil since the team acquired him from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. He laid a hard hit on Erik Cernak in the third period, knocking the puck loose to Bratt, who fed Hamilton for a grade-A chance that he unfortunately fired high and wide.
Overall, Meier, Hughes and Bratt had a solid game. The Devils had a 73.97 xG% with them on the ice at five-on-five, plus a 7-3 advantage in scoring chances. Even with the team trailing 4-1 in the third period, Ruff stuck with them as a unit. They deserve an extended run, given their play together. And eventually, the chances they’re creating will find the back of the net more often.
Devils Third Line Continues to Impress
Before the game got out of hand, the Devils’ third line of Ondrej Palát, Erik Haula and Jesper Boqvist was having another strong outing. They had a couple of sustained shifts in the offensive zone where the Lightning couldn’t handle their work on the forecheck and cycle. They finished the night with a 76.37 xG% and a 6-2 advantage in scoring chances at five-on-five.
I thought Boqvist had the most impressive game from this line. He led the team with three takeaways, drew a penalty, had four scoring chances, four high-danger chances and an xG% of 79.21 percent. He’s been playing his best hockey of the season over the last couple of weeks, and it’s usually come when he’s been on a line with Palát and Haula. It’s hard to argue against this trio as the best third line the Devils have used this season.
Devils Quick Hits
- Whether it’s with Brendan Smith or Kevin Bahl as his defense partner, Severson has taken advantage of third-pair minutes. The Devils finished with a 72.05 xG% with him on the ice while generating 1.37 expected goals. Ruff has deployed him in offensive minutes against teams’ bottom sixes, and it’s beginning to pay off on the scoresheet, as he has six points in his last eight games (2 goals, 4 assists).
- After dealing with visa issues, Curtis Lazar made his Devils debut a week and a half after the team acquired him from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline. He filled in for Nathan Bastian, who was out with an upper-body injury. It will take him some time to adjust to a new system, but Lazar already provided a physical presence and some solid minutes on the penalty kill. He should be a valuable depth presence as a fourth-line forward when someone like Bastian gets injured.
- Miles Wood picked up an injury and did not return to action after leaving early in the second period. Ruff didn’t have an update in his post-game media scrum, but if Wood isn’t available tomorrow, Yegor Sharangovich could find his way back into the lineup. He’s been a healthy scratch since the Meier trade, so returning to the lineup is an opportunity he needs to show he can provide value for the stretch run.
Can the Devils rebound against the Lightning in a rematch? Will Ruff turn to Schmid to rest Vanecek after another tough outing? Keep an eye on The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick