After grinding out a win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils looked more like themselves yesterday. Facing a Chicago Blackhawks team sans Jonathan Toews, who was out of the lineup due to illness, the Devils rolled to a 3-0 shutout win. The victory moved them to 18-1-1 in their last 20 games ahead of a divisional showdown against the New York Islanders on Friday evening. Here are five takeaways from yesterday’s contest.
Hamilton With a Season-Best Performance
Dougie Hamilton had been relatively quiet in recent games, with no points across his previous three appearances heading into last night’s tilt. He certainly changed that, as he totaled three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and fired seven shots on goal. Perhaps the opponent had something to do with it, but Hamilton dominated the game when it was at full strength.
In 18:01 at five-on-five, the Devils had a 30-9 shot attempt advantage — a 76.92 Corsi for percentage (CF%) — and controlled 89.79 percent of the expected goals (xG%) with Hamilton on the ice. Not only were his on-ice metrics dominant, but he generated quite a bit of his own chances. He finished with ten shot attempts, five scoring chances and one high-danger chance at that game state. Not to mention that all his shots on goal came at five-on-five too.
Hamilton finished with a game score of 6.03, ranking among the top 10 performances for all skaters leaguewide this season. It was easily his best outing of the season, and he’s had some stellar performances already. When firing on all cylinders, he’s one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and can turn into a game-breaker, which is not something many defensemen can do.
Vanecek Solid Once Again
Though the Blackhawks are one of the weaker teams in the league, especially at five-on-five, they got off to a pretty good start last night. It’s not that the Devils played poorly in the first period. They were the better team, but the Blackhawks showed some punch too. Chicago finished the first frame with 0.7 expected goals and seven scoring chances, and that was just at five-on-five. When adding the power play, they totaled 0.85 expected goals at all strengths.
Latest News & Highlights
That meant Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek had to be sharp, and he was. He finished the opening frame by making 13 saves on 13 shots, and as the numbers indicate, he had to prevent some quality looks from finding the back of the net. The Blackhawks had a few odd-man rushes (some were 2-on-1s) where Vanecek shut the door, and he rarely gave up a rebound on the saves.
The Devils buckled down defensively after the first period and only allowed six scoring chances combined over the final 40 minutes at five-on-five. It wasn’t a walk in the park for Vanecek, but he certainly didn’t have to do much after the first period. Still, he finished the night with 24 saves on 24 shots and stopped 1.71 goals above expected. The win moved him to 12-2-1 on the season and raised his save percentage to .922, one of the best save percentages in the league among qualified starters.
Hughes Was a Magician
Jack Hughes was absolutely electric again. Every time the puck was on his stick, something eye-popping happened. That was especially true when he tallied the primary assist on Hamilton’s goal that opened the scoring for the game. The pass itself was tremendous, but the leadup to the tally was something else from the Devils’ star center:
Not only did Hughes show off his elite vision on the assist, but he essentially took on the Blackhawks 1-on-4 and still managed to create a passing lane for himself to get the puck to Hamilton. Later in the game, with the Devils looking to build on their 2-0 lead, Hughes made a slick royal road pass to set up Jesper Bratt for a one-timer blast on the power play for a 3-0 lead in the second period.
Hughes finished the night with two assists, bringing him to 31 points in 26 games — a 98-point pace over 82 games. He was a force at five-on-five, finishing with a 60.75 xG%. Even with Nico Hischier and Bratt having career seasons, Hughes has reinforced the notion that he’s the Devils’ best player and why he was the first overall pick in 2019.
Boqvist Line Rebounds
After not seeing the ice in the third period of Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Flyers, the line of Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist and Alexander Holtz responded in a big way. They didn’t find the score sheet, but they played very well at five-on-five; the Devils had a 66.67 CF% and 66.4 xG% with them on the ice.
It was a particularly good night for Holtz, who struggled against the Flyers after having his best game of the season versus the Nashville Predators on Thursday. He fired a couple of shots on goal, made an impressive cross-ice pass to Damon Severson on the rush in the third period for a scoring chance, and even had a couple of shot blocks defensively. There will still be ups and downs for the 20-year-old winger, but there are signs of progress.
And it seems he has some chemistry playing with Sharangovich and Boqvist too. In a small sample size of 28 minutes, this trio has posted a 58.97 CF% and 72.2 xG%. With a weak defensive team in the Islanders on tap next for the Devils, there’s an opportunity for head coach Lindy Ruff to keep getting Holtz and this line some more momentum.
Hischier’s Line Quietly Dominated
Ruff chose to return to the Tomáš Tatar, Hischier and Bratt line after splitting them up for the third period of the Flyers game, and that decision proved to be wise. The Devils had a 17-5 shot attempt advantage (77.27 CF%) and 92.72 xG% with them on the ice. They managed to tally a goal when Hischier put home a one-timer to give the Devils a 2-0 lead.
Hischier was excellent, as he finished the night with five shots on goal, six shot attempts, four scoring chances, and three high-danger chances at five-on-five. His game score of 2.69 ranked third behind Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler among Devils and Blackhawks skaters. Even later in the third period, when it was clear the Devils were going to come away with the victory, Hischier was still backchecking and playing a strong two-way game. That speaks volumes about the season the Devils’ captain is having.
Devils Quick Hits
- Even though Hamilton was the star defenseman last night, his defense partner, Siegenthaler, had a terrific game too. He spent most of his minutes against Patrick Kane’s line and held Kane to an xG% of 1.77 percent. Yes, you read that correctly. That is one percent. Part of that is because the Devils caved the Blackhawks in with Hamilton on the ice, but Siegenthaler still looked like his typical self. And he even picked up an assist.
- With Nathan Bastian injured, Fabian Zetterlund has fit in well alongside Miles Wood and Michael McLeod. The Devils had a 72.22 CF% and 66.2 xG% with this trio on the ice last night. Though still a small sample size, they’ve posted better five-on-five numbers than the BMW Line of Wood, McLeod and Bastian, so there may be something to build on here.
- Though the Blackhawks are not a good five-on-five team, their power play is one of the better ones in the league. It came into yesterday’s tilt clicking at just under 26 percent, making it the 11th-best man advantage in the NHL. The Devils held them in check, killing off all three Blackhawks’ power plays and holding them to just 0.33 xG. The Devils’ have a top-five penalty kill, and it won the battle last night.
Next up for the Devils is a showdown with the Islanders, who are coming off a wild 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues last night. The Islanders currently sit in a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division in fourth place, so this game will have some meaning for each side. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage.
* * *
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