The New Jersey Devils had their 13-game win streak snapped earlier this week. What have they done since then? Win their next two games, and their latest came in impressive fashion. No, they weren’t their usual dominant selves, but stellar performances from Vitek Vanecek and Jack Hughes powered the Devils to a 5-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Here are four takeaways ahead of the first Hudson River Showdown tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden.
Vanecek Superb Against Former Team
It was hard to pick who to open this article with, but let’s start with Vanecek. The Czech netminder made his first start against his former team since the Devils acquired him from the Capitals at the NHL Draft this summer. He could not have had a better performance, as he made 37 saves on 38 shots, but his save totals don’t tell the whole picture.
While the Devils potted five goals, the Capitals brought their A game at five-on-five. They had a 60-33 shot attempt advantage over the Devils and controlled over 59 percent of the expected goals (xG%). The Capitals finished with 34 scoring chances and nine high-danger chances, so Vanecek faced quite a bit of work. He stopped all 28 shots he faced at five-on-five, and his work on the power play was equally impressive.
The Capitals generated eight scoring chances on the power play and 1.13 expected goals. Vanecek saved seven of the Capitals’ eight shots on goal, with the one being a one-time blast from John Carlson that he didn’t have much chance of stopping. When all was said and done, he stopped 2.75 expected goals above expected at all strengths, making for one of the best starts of his young Devils tenure. His save percentage now sits at .923 for the season. That ranks seventh in the league for goaltenders who have logged at least 200 minutes at all strengths, so I’d say that trade has worked out quite well so far.
Hughes Pots First Career Hat Trick
The other star of the night was Hughes, and with good reason. He recorded the first hat trick of his career, and each was of the highlight-reel variety. It started in the second period when Hughes made a great read to intercept a Capitals breakout pass. He then drove to the net and used his stickhandling to sneak the puck behind Capitals goaltender Charlie Lindgren and off his skate for the tally.
Yet, that somehow wasn’t Hughes’ prettiest goal of the night. With the puck on his stick from the goal line, he fired a shot short-side shelf off the back of Lindgren and into the net, similar to what he did against Tristan Jarry in March 2021:
Hughes would cap off the night with the hat trick in the third period off a beautiful feed from Erik Haula on a 2-on-1. Even though the Devils didn’t have their best stuff at five-on-five, Hughes still finished with a 73.1 xG%. That’s what star players do. They carry their teams when most everyone else is having off nights, and Hughes did that yesterday.
Devils Special Teams Showed Up
It wasn’t a surprise the Devils didn’t have their best stuff at five-on-five yesterday evening. It was the second half of a back-to-back which came with an 8 PM start against the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday night. That can get offset with a good night on special teams, and the Devils won the special teams battle yesterday. They finished 1/3 on the power play, courtesy of Nico Hischier, and they also killed three of the Capitals’ four man-advantages.
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The Devils’ penalty kill came up big in the first period when Washington had two power plays. Vanecek played his part in keeping the Capitals’ power play off the board, but those were two crucial kills to preserve the 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission. By the time the Capitals scored a power-play goal, the game was out of reach, as the Devils were up 4-0. Good teams find different ways to win, and with the Devils having a rare off night at five-on-five, their special teams played a big part in helping them win their 15th game in their last 16 tries.
Mercer Beginning to Settle In
Dawson Mercer got off to a bit of a slow start this season, but he’s really picked it up as of late. With two assists yesterday, he has five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in his last four games. And though he only has one goal in that span, it’s not for lack of chances. He was second on the team in high-danger chances at all strengths against the Capitals and had the most against the Sabres on Friday.
The goals will come eventually, and his play at five-on-five suggests that as well. Mercer led the team with an 80.29 xG% yesterday, and it seems that head coach Lindy Ruff has found something with Hughes and Mercer as linemates. That shouldn’t be a surprise since they had success together a season ago, but the Devils have dominated teams with them on the ice as a pair this season (107-minute sample size):
- Corsi for percentage: 58.88%
- Scoring chances for percentage: 68.42%
- High-danger chances for percentage: 79.55%
- xG%: 66.75
As they say, don’t fix what ain’t broke. For the time being, Haula has played well alongside Hughes and Mercer, but don’t be surprised if Ondrej Palát joins the fray once he returns from groin surgery in the coming weeks.
Devils Quick Hits
- On a night when both of the Devils’ top two defense pairs got caved in at five-on-five, the unit of Brendan Smith and Damon Severson stepped up. They were the only Devils defensemen to finish above water in xG%, allowed one high-danger when they were on the ice, and finished with three shot blocks apiece. That speaks volumes of the Devils’ defensive depth when their third pair can pick up the slack.
- Nathan Bastian, one of the Devils’ most important role players, left the game early in the first period after taking a hard hit from Garnet Hathaway. He appeared to be favoring his shoulder and did not return. Time will tell if it’s a long-term injury, but he’s been instrumental in the BMW Line’s success with Michael McLeod and Miles Wood. Losing him would hurt the team’s depth up front.
- Because the Devils were down to 11 forwards with Bastian’s injury, Fabian Zetterlund became the odd man out as Ruff decided to roll three lines. Still, he found his way onto the score sheet with a rocket of a one-timer to ice the game in the third period. He’s pacing for 18 goals and 49 points this season, and if Bastian misses extended time, he’ll be key in helping the Devils maintain their scoring depth.
The Devils and New York Rangers are in two very different places heading into tomorrow’s tilt at MSG. The Devils are atop the Metropolitan Division standings, while the Rangers are coming off a crushing 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers in which they gave up four unanswered in the third period. Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage of this pivotal divisional matchup.
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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