4 Takeaways From Devils’ 3-2 Win vs. The Flyers

Good teams find ways to win games that they don’t deserve to win. That’s what the New Jersey Devils did last night when they defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 for their franchise-record 11th road win in a row. The Flyers were the better team, but opportunistic scoring and another strong start from Akira Schmid helped the Devils come out on top and improve their record to 20-4-1. Here are four takeaways from yesterday’s contest. 

Schmid Stands Tall Again

The Devils have been one of the best five-on-five teams this season, but they did not have their A-game last night. The team has gotten off to slow starts in the first period lately (more on that in a bit), but unlike previous games, it took them a while to find their footing.  

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The Devils got outplayed in the first period at five-on-five, as the Flyers had a 17-6 shot attempt advantage and controlled 66.77 percent of the expected goals (xG%). Schmid stood up to the task, making 12 saves and stopping 0.58 goals above expected. And that would be a sign of things to come for the rest of the game. 

Akira Schmid New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Akira Schmid (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Schmid finished with 31 saves on 33 shots and a goals save above expected (GSAx) of 0.25. He had a clutch stop on Owen Tippett with 15:50 left in the third period, moments after Dawson Mercer had scored to give the Devils a 2-1 lead. He locked it down in the final few minutes after the Flyers scored to make it a 3-2 affair as they pushed to get the game tied. 

But even with that final push and the overall shot advantage, the Flyers only managed seven high-danger chances at five-on-five. When you expand it to all strengths, they had just 10 high-danger chances, so the Devils’ defense did prevent the Flyers from generating quality shots. A team with more high-end skill would’ve created more grade-A chances with that kind of shot advantage, though, so the Devils need to be sharper out of the gate when the competition picks up later this month. 

Devils’ Slow Starts Becoming a Concern

It hasn’t burned the Devils yet, but their slow starts to games are starting to become a slight concern. They fell down 2-0 to the New York Rangers on Monday but came back to win 5-3. They went behind 2-0 to the Nashville Predators on Thursday but took a 3-2 lead before dropping the game 4-3 in overtime. They didn’t trail against the Flyers, but it was another slow start out of the gate too. 

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Eventually, the Devils won’t be able to overcome a slow start or an early deficit. Their next three games come against the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and a struggling Rangers team. But after then, they’re going to play some games against the top teams in the league during the second half of December, including the Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes. These next three games are a prime opportunity for them to get off to good first periods and right the ship before facing some of the most difficult tests of the 2022-23 season.

Ruff’s Line Changes Provided a Spark

With the Devils not playing their best through two periods, head coach Lindy Ruff changed his line combos to start the final frame. The move paid off, as he switched to some familiar units, moving around his top-nine and rolling three lines over the final 20 minutes: 

  • Tomáš Tatar – Nico Hischier – Fabian Zetterlund
  • Erik Haula – Jack Hughes – Jesper Bratt
  • Miles Wood – Michael McLeod – Mercer
  • Yegor Sharangovich – Jesper Boqvist – Alexander Holtz

The Devils controlled 56.23 percent of the expected goals in the third, and their middle two lines had the most significant impact. The trio of Wood, McLeod and Mercer scored the go-ahead goal to make it 2-1, though it did come off a brutal turnover from Flyers goaltender Carter Hart when he played the puck behind his net. Later in the third, Hughes put on a show with a tremendous individual effort to give the Devils a 3-1 lead: 

Hughes has had great chemistry with Bratt and Haula this season. They continued their impressive work in the third period, as the Devils had a 6-2 shot attempt advantage with them on the ice and xG% of 90.73 percent. The Wood, McLeod and Mercer trio excelled as well, as they had a 61.54 xG%. Ruff has shown a tendency to stick with lines that work, so don’t be surprised if he starts Tuesday’s game against the Blackhawks with the combos that ended last night. 

Mercer, Zetterlund Could Be Solutions With Wood & McLeod

The Devils had an excellent thing going with the BMW Line of Wood, McLeod and Nathan Bastian. But with Bastian out indefinitely after suffering an upper-body injury against the Washington Capitals a week ago, Ruff is still searching for the third catalyst to complement Wood and McLeod. 

It looks like he may have found something, as Zetterlund and Mercer have had success with Wood and McLeod. Before switching up the lines, Wood, McLeod and Zetterlund combined to score the Devils’ lone goal of the game with some good work on the cycle. With two assists, Wood is on pace for 44 points, while McLeod is on pace for 39 after picking up one helper. This is coming as fourth-liners, by the way, and though they will miss Bastian’s forechecking to round out their unit, the team’s scoring depth shouldn’t suffer much if Mercer and Zetterlund are the solutions.

Devils Quick Hits

  • Even though the Devils didn’t win the five-on-five battle as a team, they sure did when Bratt was on the ice. They had a 17-4 shot attempt advantage and an xG% of 87.88 percent during his five-on-five minutes. He may not have found the scoresheet, but he found other ways to impact the game by helping the Devils control play on a night when other units were struggling to do so. 
Jesper Bratt New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Jesper Bratt (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • Holtz didn’t see the ice in the third period (neither did his linemates), but it wasn’t his best performance. Though he did have a couple of good moments in the first period when he intercepted a pass in the defensive zone and made a good play in the neutral zone to force a turnover, he finished in the bottom three in xG% among Devils skaters. It’s still a work in progress for him, and he had his best game of the season against the Predators on Thursday. Just a little bit of patience is needed with him. 
  • They aren’t playing top-pair minutes, but Brendan Smith and Damon Severson are performing well in their roles. Coming into last night’s tilt, they ranked third in the NHL in xG% among defense pairs with 150 minutes or more logged at five-on-five (via Money Puck). Smith finished with a game score of 1.76, while Severson had a game score of 1.20. They’ve been one of the better third pairs in the league and have stabilized the defense on nights when the team isn’t at its best. 

The Devils will take on the Blackhawks, who are coming off an impressive 5-2 win over the Rangers, on Tuesday evening. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage. 

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