After an impressive bounce-back win against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils made a statement on Friday evening, defeating the Colorado Avalanche — the defending Stanley Cup champions — 1-0 at the Prudential Center. It wasn’t the usual high-paced affair we’ve seen from the Devils so far this season, but that’s what was most impressive about their victory. Here are four takeaways and a few quick hits from last night’s win.
Devils Defense Stepped Up to the Task
Though the Avalanche were without Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin yesterday, they still had plenty of firepower with Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. One may have expected a high-event affair featuring plenty of scoring chances, but that was the exact opposite of what occurred.
Instead, it was a tight-checking contest, and the Devils’ defense stepped up to the task. They held the Avalanche to just 32 shot attempts, 1.4 expected goals and five high-danger chances at five-on-five. There wasn’t much space for the Avalanche to attack through the neutral zone. And once they did gain the offensive zone, the Devils did a good job of bottling things up and making it difficult for the Avalanche to generate sustained attacks.
Above is a heat map of shot attempt locations at five-on-five. The darker the blue, the more shot attempts the Avalanche generated in that specific location. As you can see, the blue is relatively light for the most part, even in high-danger areas. We know that on most nights, the Devils will create scoring chances. But from time to time, they’ll need to clamp things down and win a tight-checking game as they did last night. Sometimes a team has to find different ways to win, and last night, they showed they’re capable of that.
Devils Penalty Kill Was a Difference-Maker
Coming into last night’s game, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with a 50 percent success rate (10/20). Even with some injuries to start the season, they ranked in the top 10 of the NHL in 5-on-4 scoring and high-danger chances per 60 minutes.
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Taking a bunch of penalties is less than ideal against a power play such as the Avalanche’s. But that’s what the Devils did, as they had six minors. Aside from Yegor Sharangovich’s hooking penalty, the other five were legit infractions. That meant the penalty kill saw a lot of action, but just like their five-on-five defense, they stood up to the task and killed off all six Avalanche power plays — including a Tomáš Tatar cross-check in the final 59 seconds of regulation.
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The Avalanche had no shortage of opportunities on the penalty kill, totaling 11 scoring chances and four high-danger chances. But whether it was a timely save from Vitek Vanecek, a crucial faceoff win that led to a clear, or blocking a shot, their penalty kill found the way to get the job done. Had they not shown up last night, the Avalanche would’ve come away with the win.
Vanecek’s Best Performance Yet
While the Devils played a strong defensive game, Vanecek also had a significant say in the win. Coming off a solid start against the Red Wings on Tuesday evening, he recorded a 24-save shutout, his first as a Devil and seventh of his career, and stopped 2.5 goals above expected at all strengths.
Vanecek came up big in different moments throughout the game too. Early in the first period, he made a strong save on J.T. Compher to keep the game at 0-0. During the third period, when the Devils had a 1-0 lead thanks to Jack Hughes’ power-play goal, he made a game-saving stop on an Evan Rodrigues breakaway and held down the fort on the Avalanche’s power play to seal the win.
While Vanecek played well against the Red Wings, last night was the most comfortable he looked in his three starts in a Devils uniform. There were no shaky moments, and you could tell as the game went on that the team felt more and more comfortable every time he came up with a clutch save. The Devils aren’t asking for anything more than league-average netminding from him and Mackenzie Blackwood. But if Vanecek performs as he did last night more often than not, which he’s capable of, the Devils will be in the playoff race.
Marino Held MacKinnon’s Line in Check
Even though John Marino’s on-ice metrics weren’t great last night, he still had a solid outing. He finished with an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 38.48 percent, but head coach Lindy Ruff also hard-matched him against the Nathan MacKinnon line.
The results were good, as MacKinnon finished the night with three shots on goal, two scoring chances, and no high-danger chances at five-on-five. His linemates — Artturi Lehkonen and Rantanen — didn’t generate much, either; Lehkonen finished with one shot on goal and zero high-danger chances, while Rantanen had one shot on goal and two high-danger chances.
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And even though Marino’s put up better numbers at five-on-five this season, he was one of the Devils’ best penalty killers last night. He made the big clear when he needed to and broke up a couple of rush opportunities the Avalanche tried to generate on the power play. He also had a big shot block on Rodrigues in the second period that prevented a sure Avalanche power-play goal that would’ve made it 1-0.
It’s clear Ruff trusts Marino the most in high-leverage defensive situations, as he finished the night with a team-high 22:01 in ice time. Considering what the Devils gave up for him this summer, he’s been everything they could’ve asked for and more.
- Even though the Devils found the back of the net only once, Jesper Bratt still found the scoresheet, extending his point streak to eight games with the primary assist on Hughes’ goal. He’s now up to 13 points in eight games, placing him in the top five in NHL scoring, and he has the best average game score in the league at 2.35.
- While Marino caught everyone’s attention with his defensive effort, Dougie Hamilton was quietly excellent. He finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 66.67 percent and 86.19 xG% at five-on-five. Even though Hamilton wasn’t logging the level of competition Marino was, the Devils still didn’t give up much of anything when he was on the ice. He also led the way offensively at five-on-five, finishing with six shot attempts, three shots on goal, and one high-danger chance. That’s the kind of outing the team is looking for from him.
- After being a healthy scratch since the team’s season opener, Jesper Boqvist found his way back into the lineup and quietly had a solid game. The Devils had a 10-1 shot attempt advantage (90.91 CF%) and 76.16 xG% with him on the ice. The line of him, Yegor Sharangovich, and Dawson Mercer fared well, posting a 73.84 xG%, so I’d expect to see them remain together tomorrow against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
- While Tatar had gotten off to a relatively strong start this season, he had a rough outing last night. He took two minor penalties and got bailed out by Vanecek on a careless turnover that led to Compher’s scoring chance mentioned earlier in this post. Bad games happen, but with Ondrej Palát out with an injury, for the time being, the team will need Tatar to step up on the first line with Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund.
The Devils will look to go for their sixth win in seven games when they take on the Blue Jackets in a Sunday matinee at the Prudential Center before heading to Western Canada for a three-game road trip. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage.
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