Rarely have the New Jersey Devils had a loss this season as they did last night. Up 3-2 with five minutes to go in regulation, the Toronto Maple Leafs scored two late third-period goals to come away with the 4-3 win. There was quite a bit of good to take from the Devils’ play, but there are things to clean up and some growing concerns about Vitek Vanecek’s play in net. Here are five takeaways and some quick hits.
Vanecek in a Rut
Vanecek is a significant reason why the Devils are 41-16-6 and have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, but he’s struggled lately. It’d be hard to fault him for any of the goals against the Maple Leafs yesterday, but this is more about his general play over his last five starts.
He made 21 saves on 25 shots against the Maple Leafs and allowed 1.76 goals above expected. With those numbers, Vanecek has a .821 save percentage over his last five games and has given up 9.44 goals above expected. Sure, the Devils need to clean up some things defensively at five-on-five. That was evident against the Maple Leafs, especially on Calle Jarnkrok and Michael Bunting’s goals.
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Still, there’s no denying Vanecek is in a rut. He had his worst outing of the season against the Colorado Avalanche last week and a so-so game against the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday. Even if the team defense needs to tighten up, it’s not just on the team defense when your goaltender has a .821 SV% in his last five outings.
The good news is that’s an unsustainably low SV%, so Vanecek is due for positive regression. Eventually, pucks will hit him and not find the back of the net. With him closing in on a career-high in starts with five weeks to go in the regular season, it’d also help to give Akira Schmid some work while Mackenzie Blackwood recovers from an injury. Schmid has stopped 59 of 62 shots in his last three appearances and has a .926 SV% on the season, so he can be relied upon to ease Vanecek’s workload during a very busy month of hockey.
Haula Line Firing on All Cylinders
Since acquiring Timo Meier, the Devils have had a third line of Ondrej Palát, Erik Haula and Jesper Boqvist. They were the team’s best line against the Maple Leafs, as they accounted for their two five-on-five goals. The Devils had a 94.08 xG% with this trio on the ice, and all three players found the scoresheet.
Haula had arguably his best game as a Devil, totaling two goals and an assist. Both his tallies came from the net front, as his first was him cleaning up a rebound off a Boqvist rush chance, while his second was a sweet redirect off a harmless wrist shot from Palát, who had a goal and two assists on the night. Haula was only going to shoot four percent for so long, so perhaps this is the start of a scoring streak.
As for Boqvist, he continues to click at right wing alongside Haula and Palát. He has at least a point in his last three games (2 goals, 2 assists) and looks to be settling into his new role. The Devils have a good thing going with this trio and have finally found the third line they’ve been seeking for most of 2022-23.
Hughes Line Show Its Potential
Head coach Lindy Ruff broke up the trio of Meier, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt a little more than halfway through the game. But before then, they looked like they were starting to find chemistry with each other. Here’s how the Devils fared with this trio on the ice at five-on-five:
- 14-6 shot attempt advantage
- 76.64 xG%
- 8-3 scoring chance advantage
- 3-1 high-danger chance advantage
Ruff moved Meier alongside Nico Hischier and Dawson Mercer to find more offense with the Devils trailing. There’d be no issue sticking with that trio, but Meier, Hughes and Bratt deserve more runway. Though they didn’t score, they created plenty of chances before Ruff split them up. The potential is there, and some more reps together should eventually lead to a dominant line at five-on-five.
Severson Continues to Feast in 3rd-Pair Role
Damon Severson has received plenty of criticism during his Devils tenure, but much of it is unwarranted. He has been playing terrific hockey lately, with his effort against the Maple Leafs being one of his best of 2022-23. Severson had a few key defensive plays to break up Maple Leafs’ threats or scoring chances. And though he didn’t end up on the scoresheet, he was creating offense, as evidenced when he sprung Bratt loose for a breakaway in the third period that Ilya Samsonov saved.
For the game, Severson finished with a 59.64 xG%, something that’s become a regular occurrence since Kevin Bahl made his way back into the lineup a couple of weeks ago in favor of Brendan Smith on the third pair. They’ve feasted on easier competition, which has really benefited Severson, who’s better than most third-pair defenders in the NHL.
Devils Solid at 5-on-5 Despite Defensive Lapses
Though the Devils had some defensive lapses at five-on-five, specifically on Jarnkrok and Bunting’s goal, they still had the majority of the scoring chances at that game state. They controlled 78.95 percent of the expected goals (xG%) and had a 15-4 advantage in high-danger chances over the Maple Leafs.
The process was there for the Devils again. The difference is that Samsonov made saves he shouldn’t have, as he stopped 1.03 goals above expected. Ruff doesn’t have to change much about the Devils’ play other than tightening up the team’s defense. But otherwise, they’re playing well most nights and have been winning more often than not. This isn’t a squad that needs an overhaul after losing to one of the best teams in the NHL.
Devils Quick Hits
- Another reason the Devils fell to the Maple Leafs is they lost the special teams battle. They gave up a shorthanded goal early in the third period after Meier was unaware he had Mitch Marner trailing him in the neutral zone. They did get it back with Palát’s power-play marker soon after, but they lost the game on Auston Matthews’ power-play tally after Michael McLeod lost coverage on him in the slot.
- The Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton pairing finished well above water in xG% (68.8 percent) for the second game in a row. Though their minutes weren’t against the Maple Leafs’ top line, they still went up against William Nylander’s unit. Another encouraging sign that Siegenthaler and Hamilton may be trending toward the results they posted in the first half of the season.
The Devils can rebound tomorrow night as they take on the Capitals in Washington. Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage, with playoff races heating up in the final weeks of the 2022-23 regular season.
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