After defeating the Florida Panthers 7-3 a bit over a week ago, the tables turned last night, as the New Jersey Devils fell to the Panthers 4-1 in Sunrise, Florida. The Devils came out of the gate flying, but things quickly unraveled after Carter Verhaeghe’s late first-period goal. Here are some takeaways before the Devils take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tomorrow afternoon in Tampa, Florida.
Verhaeghe’s Goal Was a Back-Breaker
The Devils were clearly the better team in the first period. They out-attempted the Panthers 24-18 and controlled over 61 percent of the expected goals (xG%) at five-on-five. But Verhaeghe’s goal with six seconds left in the opening frame completely changed the look of the game. The Panthers scored three goals in the first half of the second period, and that was that. Not only did they tally three goals, but they also skated the Devils into the ground:
The four red dots you see on the visual above are the Panthers’ four goals. You’ll notice after the first red dot, Verhaeghe’s goal, that the Panthers completely tilted the ice in their favor. The Devils are the youngest team in the league, but their response has to be better than that. They did play a pretty decent third period, but the game was out of reach at that point. If they have a similar performance against the Lightning, it’ll be hard to come away with two points.
Blackwood Struggled; Bernier Strong in Relief
Mackenzie Blackwood had been pretty terrific leading up to yesterday’s contest. But it proved to be his first rough performance of 2021-22, as he allowed four goals on 2.19 expected goals against. It’s hard to fault him for the fourth goal he gave up, and the team did not play well in front of him in the second period before head coach Lindy Ruff replaced him with Jonathan Bernier. With that said, his off night was part of the reason they lost.
On the flip side, Bernier had another more than solid relief appearance after entering the game in the middle of the second period. He saved all 14 shots he faced and stopped 0.78 goals above expected. It’ll be interesting to see if Ruff decides to go back to Blackwood on Saturday or if he gives Bernier the nod, because the latter certainly made his case for a start.
Holtz Needs to Play
Despite losing 4-1, the Devils still created quite a few chances. They finished the game with 46 shots on goal, even after their dreadful second period, and finished with an expected goals of 3.70 at all strengths. They just couldn’t finish their chances, and it didn’t help that Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight stood on his head.
The Devils have had trouble converting their scoring chances from time to time this season. Because of that, it’s probably time for Ruff to give Alex Holtz another look in the lineup. Holtz may have some things to work on defensively and off the puck, but his shot can be a game-changer if he finds the space. Even if he isn’t playing on the first or second lines, having him in a middle-six role where Ruff can shelter his minutes is better than nothing. Plus, he could be of help for a struggling power play too.
Tatar Plays Well, But Still Looking for Breakthrough
Not much went right for the Devils last night, but Tomáš Tatar was one of the few bright spots. He didn’t finish with a point, but he led the Devils in CF% and was third in xG%. He also rifled a shot off the post early in the first period. In hindsight, that could’ve made a difference for the Devils if they were leading 2-1 at the first intermission instead of being tied 1-1. Not only did Tatar have good on-ice results, but he was also highly involved offensively:
The Devils need Tatar to start scoring goals and collecting points. That’s why they signed him as a free agent this offseason. He’s had some poor shooting luck to start 2021-22, but that should change eventually, especially if he plays the way he did last night. Perhaps that’s an effort that gets him heading in the right direction.
Zetterlund Stands Out in NHL Debut
Fabian Zetterlund made his NHL debut against the Panthers and had a solid showing. He finished with three shots on goal and had a CF% of 56.25 percent plus an xG% of 68.42 percent, the latter of which was the best on the team. The Devils have been searching for a little bit of a spark in their bottom-six, specifically on their fourth line. Based on how he played against the Panthers, there’s no reason to take Zetterlund out of the lineup against the Lightning.
With Zetterlund presumably staying in and Holtz deserving of a chance to play, the Devils could roll out four lines that look similar to this against the Lightning:
- Pavel Zacha – Nico Hischier – Tatar
- Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Jesper Bratt
- Yegor Sharangovich – Jesper Boqvist – Holtz
- Jimmy Vesey – Michael McLeod – Zetterlund
The final unit of Vesey, McLeod and Zetterlund was one of the Devils’ best against the Panthers, so they have to stay together. The line that got caved in was that of Sharangovich, Boqvist and Janne Kuokkanen. Kuokkanen finished with a CF% of 28.13 percent and xG% of 20.57 percent, both the worst on the Devils. He was a healthy scratch for a few games early during the 2020-21 season, and it proved to serve him well. Perhaps giving him a night off and letting Holtz see what he can do could benefit everyone involved.
The Devils have a bit of a quicker turnaround than usual, with tomorrow’s game against the Lightning scheduled for 4 PM. They’ll practice today and hope to work on some things to help themselves get back in the win column before having a few days off until their next contest against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 24.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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