After an 0-2-0 start to the season with many fans calling for head coach Lindy Ruff’s job, the New Jersey Devils have turned it around with impressive wins in their last two contests. Last night, they headed to UBS Arena to take on the New York Islanders and dominated from the opening faceoff, winning by a score of 4-1 and using their speed to wreak havoc. Here are five takeaways ahead of a Saturday matinee against the San Jose Sharks.
Devils Caved in the Islanders at Five-on-Five
Seemingly from puck drop, the Devils were pelting Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin with shots and quality chances. He stood tall and didn’t allow a goal in the opening frame, but New Jersey was still carrying play. They had a 19-3 shot attempt advantage over the Islanders and controlled 92.21 percent of the expected goals through one period.
It was only a matter of time before the Devils scored, and they capitalized in the second period, tallying two goals in the first 10 minutes, courtesy of Jack Hughes and Ondrej Palát. Even when the Islanders tried to push back, the Devils’ speed was too much for them. They had their way with the Islanders and dictated play until the final horn sounded.
The Devils finished the game with a 57-35 shot attempt advantage at five-on-five and generated 2.56 expected goals compared to the Islanders’ xG of 1.19, an xG% of 68.34 percent. They also had a 14-4 advantage in high-danger chances, so not only did the Devils generate quality scoring opportunities, but they also prevented the Islanders from creating much of anything. If they’re going to control play like this at five-on-five, they should win games if the goaltending holds up.
Blackwood Sharp, Even With Limited Work
Even though the Devils made life incredibly easy for Mackenzie Blackwood, he did his part when called upon. He only faced 17 shots on goal but saved 16 of them, good for a .941 save percentage. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 0.57, so the goaltending very much held up.
On top of Blackwood posting solid numbers, he looked sharp in net. His rebound control was the best it’s been in his three starts this season, and he made a couple of athletic saves, most notably on Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the third period, to keep it a 2-0 game:
The Devils don’t need Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek to beat world-beaters, especially if the team consistently plays the way they did last night. Timely saves, like the one above, are what the team has been missing for a few years. If they provide that and above-average goaltending or anything resembling Blackwood’s effort last night, the team should hopefully be in better shape moving forward.
Hischier’s Line Finding a Groove
No Devils skater had a poor game last night, but Nico Hischier’s line did most of the damage offensively. Palát finished with two goals, Hischier iced the game with the empty-net tally and had two apples, and Jesper Bratt had another multi-assist performance, finishing with two primary helpers on Palát’s goals. They led all skaters, including Islanders, in game score, an all-encompassing stat that measures a player’s total productivity.
With Ruff settling on a line of Yegor Sharangovich, Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer, for the time being, he’s used Bratt, Hischier, and Palát together, and the results have been fantastic. They played their part in the win last night and were instrumental in the team’s comeback against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday. As long as they keep producing at the rate they are, the Devils’ should have a formidable top-six for the foreseeable future. And with three goals in his last two games, Palát has so far shown his value as the Devils’ top free-agent signing this summer.
Hamilton Posting Gaudy Numbers
A healthy Dougie Hamilton was always going to be a significant factor in whether the Devils took a step forward this season. So far, he has looked like the Dougie Hamilton of old. He didn’t find the score sheet as he did against the Ducks on Tuesday, but the Devils still dominated play with him on the ice at five-on-five.
Related: Devils’ Palat & Blackwood Shine in Win Over Ducks
New Jersey had a shot attempt advantage of 18-6 with Hamilton on the ice, good for a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 75 percent, tying John Marino for the team lead. Hamilton also finished with a 76.01 xG%, so he’s back to putting up the gaudy on-ice metrics he did before he broke his jaw during a game against the Washington Capitals in early January last season.
Not only is Hamilton putting up some gaudy on-ice metrics, but his shot creation is back to the levels we’re used to seeing from him. He has 18 shots on goal through four games, just behind Hughes, who has 19. At five-on-five, he’s averaging nearly 12 shots on goal per 60 minutes and 23.83 shot attempts per 60, the latter of which leads the team. As long as he stays healthy, it looks like he’s back.
Devils’ Power Play Coming Along
Even though the Devils’ power play didn’t score a goal last night, there was a lot to like about what they did when up a man. Their first power play of the game was easily the best they had this season, as they totaled five shots on goal. Their puck movement was fluid, and the shot and chance generation was there, something they lacked in 2021-22.
The Devils had 13 shot attempts on the power play and generated 0.77 expected goals across three opportunities. If they continue to create chances as they did last night, the goals will come on the power play. With that said, they would probably benefit from adding a shooting threat to their first unit. Whether it’s Alexander Holtz or Yegor Sharangovich, it lacks a true shooter to capitalize on the chances they’re creating. But there’s no doubt their man advantage is beginning to make progress.
- I mentioned Marino before, and while he may not draw as much attention as someone like Hamilton because he doesn’t have the flash, he’s been a brick wall defensively. He finished last night with a 71.56 xG% and allowed just 0.22 xG when he was on the ice. He’s giving up 0.87 xG per 60 minutes through four contests, easily the best of any Devils skater to play in every game this season. It sure looks like the organization got a steal when they acquired Marino in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer.
- Hughes finally got off the schneid, tallying a goal on a breakaway off a beautiful stretch pass from Damon Severson. Even though he only has one goal this season, he’s been a madman when it comes to creating chances. Hughes finished last night with seven shots on goal at all strengths, eight shot attempts (5v5), seven scoring chances (5v5) and four high-danger chances (5v5). He’s only shooting 5.3 percent through four games, and with what he’s creating, it’s only a matter of time before that increases.
- Kevin Bahl dressed as the seventh defenseman last night, but he made the most of his minutes. He finished with a 66.67 CF% and 79.35 xG% at five-on-five and played a steady defensive game in the limited time he got. With Brendan Smith having some so-so performances to start the season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Bahl’s role begins to increase moving forward.
The Devils take on the Sharks, who earned their first win of the season with a 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers last night, tomorrow at 1 PM at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Be sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for continuing coverage of the Devils and NHL seasons.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Stat Cards