After an impressive 4-3 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday evening, the New Jersey Devils closed out the calendar year 2021 with a thrilling 6-5 overtime win against the Edmonton Oilers yesterday afternoon at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Here are five takeaways as the Devils look to keep the good vibes flowing into the new year.
Jack Hughes Is Here
Jack Hughes had a stellar performance against the Sabres on Wednesday, totaling a goal and two assists. He was just as good if not better against the Oilers, finishing with two goals and an assist, including the game-winner in overtime. Not only did Hughes find the scoresheet, but the Devils were routinely caving in the Oilers’ top players with him on the ice at five-on-five:
The Devils absolutely crushed the Oilers’ top defense pair of Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie with Hughes on the ice. They even carried play against Connor McDavid, as they had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 63.64 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 63.33 percent against him with Hughes on the ice. That’s not an easy thing to do against McDavid, even if the Oilers’ team defense is suspect at all times.
The Devils have a long way to go before competing in meaningful games. But if Hughes continues to play like this, they’re going to start winning more consistently. With 14 points in 15 games, he’d be on pace for 76 points in 82 games. And they seem to have found a line with him, Yegor Sharangovich and Jesper Bratt that’s clicking, so don’t look for them to get broken up anytime soon.
Siegenthaler & Severson Hold Their Own Against McDavid
With head coach Lindy Ruff not behind the bench after entering COVID protocols, acting head coach Alain Nasreddine had a clear plan against McDavid (Ruff surely had a say in it too). That was to get the defense pair of Jonas Siegenthaler and Damon Severson out against McDavid as often as he could, and it worked for the most part.
Though McDavid had the better xG% against Siegenthaler and Severson, the Devils had the better CF% and were even in goal differential (1-1) at five-on-five. Siegenthaler has been one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL at even strength this season. Seeing him hold his own against a player of McDavid’s caliber isn’t a surprise, but nor is it for Severson.
For as much flack as Severson takes from Devils fans on social media, he’s one of their top blueliners. He and Siegenthaler have really clicked over the last few weeks and not just in the game against the Oilers. Severson adds a different dimension to the pair with his high-end puck-moving ability, which complements Siegenthaler’s defensive prowess well. Whether it’s Ruff or Nasreddine behind the bench for the next stretch games, look for them to keep giving this unit the difficult defensive assignments that they’ve earned.
Mercer Comes Alive
Dawson Mercer was struggling to find his game since coming off a line with Andreas Johnsson and Bratt, that was until yesterday. He finished with a goal and an assist, his first multi-point game since Nov. 13 against the Boston Bruins. Not only was it his first multi-point game in a little more than a month and a half, but it was arguably his best game of the season too.
Mercer led all Devils players with a game score of 3.15, his best game score of the season. He was third on the team in xG% at five-on-five, and his heads-up play in the neutral zone eventually led to Janne Kuokkanen’s goal in the third period, which was the go-ahead goal at the time. He’s now on pace to finish with 46 points this season, a solid total for a first-year player. With Hughes firing on all cylinders and Nico Hischier out of COVID protocols, the Devils’ center depth is the best it’s been in weeks, especially if Mercer continues to thrive in a third-line role behind Hughes and Hischier.
Devils Power Play Beginning to Find a Rhythm
The Devils’ power play has struggled mightily this season, but it has started to look a fair bit better lately. They scored a power-play tally yesterday, courtesy of a Hughes one-timer in the first period, their third power-play goal in as many games. They have four power-play goals in their last 14 opportunities — a success rate of 28.5 percent. That could prove to be a difference-maker if it stays at that level, even if it regresses closer to 20 percent.
One thing that stuck about the Devils’ power play in their last two games has been more fluid puck movement and a knack for firing one-timers when the opportunity presents itself. In addition to Hughes’ power-play goal yesterday, Dougie Hamilton’s power-play marker against the Sabres was a one-timer from the point.
Whether it’s Hughes, Hamilton, Bratt, or even Pavel Zacha, the Devils have players capable of launching one-timers for power-play goals. It does look like there’s been a conscious effort to try and set up more one-timer opportunities on the man advantage. It’s something they should’ve been trying all along, but as they say, “it’s better late than never.” The early results have been good, so it’ll likely stick as part of their power-play strategy.
Blackwood Still Searching for Solid Ground
We’ve talked about a lot of positives from yesterday’s game, but let’s wrap up with an area of concern. Though Mackenzie Blackwood let in a weak third goal against the Sabres, he had a solid enough performance. Yesterday, however, was a rough effort from him. The Oilers did generate quite a bit offensively, but he still allowed five goals on 2.83 expected goals against.
The Devils bailed Blackwood out with an impressive offensive effort, but they’re not going to score four or six goals every night. They’ll need him to steal a game or two eventually, especially with backup Jonathan Bernier out long-term with an injury.
After the 4-3 win against the Sabres, Devils play-by-play commentator Steve Cangialosi mentioned on the MSG post-game show that Blackwood is still dealing with pain in his heel from offseason surgery. He also stated it’s something Blackwood will probably have to play through for the rest of the season. If that’s the case, it’s a good bet it’s affecting his play. But even then, the Devils need better efforts from him. He doesn’t need to be a Vezina-caliber goaltender right now. But they do need league-average goaltending from him, and an .897 save percentage isn’t close to that.
The Devils enter tomorrow’s tilt against the Washington Capitals on a two-game winning streak. That should give them some confidence against a team they did not beat in nine tries during the calendar year 2021. A win versus an opponent they’ve struggled against, and suddenly things will be looking more optimistic in New Jersey.
* * *
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