Can you feel that? It’s the weight of the proverbial monkey getting lifted off the New Jersey Devils’ backs. They came into last night’s tilt against the Florida Panthers on a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) and in desperate need of a win. They had to fight for it, but led by impressive performances from Mackenzie Blackwood and Jesper Bratt, the Devils came away with a 4-2 win. Here are some key takeaways ahead of their final contest tomorrow night before the NHL Christmas break.
Bratt & Blackwood Led the Way
When on a six-game winless streak as the Devils were, you need your best players to step up and pull you out of the hole. You can debate whether Blackwood is one of the best players on the team, but he certainly was their best last night. In his first start after suffering an MCL sprain in early November, he made 34/36 saves, good for a .944 save percentage, the second-best SV% of his 2022-23 season.
Many of Blackwood’s saves were of high quality as well. The Panthers came to play, as they finished the first period with ten high-danger chances and 1.58 expected goals at five-on-five. The Devils buckled down defensively after then and allowed just seven high-danger chances at five-on-five for the rest of regulation. But Blackwood stopped 9/10 of the high-danger chances he faced at that game state and 13/14 at all strengths, which is excellent. He saved 2.02 goals above expected at all strengths, with his best stop coming in the third period and arguably shifting the momentum of the game:
If Blackwood doesn’t make this save, the Panthers would’ve gone up 3-1, and that could’ve been loss No. 7 in a row. But just moments later, Jesper Bratt scored his second of the game to tie it at 2-2. The Devils didn’t look back after then, as Yegor Sharangovich would tally the game-winner, while Tomáš Tatar sealed it with the empty-net goal.
Bratt’s effort was instrumental in helping the Devils end their skid too. He opened up the scoring in the first period on a one-timer after a sweet royal road pass from Jack Hughes on the power play. He finished the night with a game score of 2.52, which led all skaters between the two teams. And even on a night where the Devils didn’t dominate at five-on-five, he still finished with a 58.49 expected goals percentage (xG%).
Even though Bratt had gone his previous six games without a tally, the goals were going to come. He had more than his fair share of chances against the Carolina Hurricanes 24 hours earlier. He just got stonewalled by rookie sensation Pyotr Kochetkov. That wasn’t the case last night, and his two goals — along with Blackwood’s effort in net — brought the Devils back from the dead. Without either of these players stepping up, the team likely heads back home to New Jersey looking to snap a seven-game winless slide.
Devils Defense Stepped Up a Man Down
With Ryan Graves leaving the game after a hard fall into the boards on his first shift, the Devils had to play with five defensemen for all but one to two minutes of the contest. To their credit, they answered the bell, especially after the first period when they held the Panthers in check at five-on-five.
After having a few rough outings during the team’s six-game skid, Jonas Siegenthaler stepped up and had one of his best games of the 2022-23 season. When up against the line of Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe, the Devils literally did not give up a shot attempt with Siegenthaler on the ice. Obviously, that means putting up a 100 xG% too. And to top it off, he added the primary assist on Sharangovich’s game-winner.
Siegenthaler’s defense partner, Dougie Hamilton, also had a strong bounce-back effort, picking up two helpers and finishing with a game score of 1.32. With Graves leaving as early as he did, plus John Marino out of the lineup after picking up an injury against the Hurricanes the night before, the Devils needed a big-time performance from the Siegenthaler and Hamilton pair. And they got exactly that.
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They weren’t the only defensemen to step up, either. Damon Severson has responded quite well to being a healthy scratch against the Panthers on Saturday (Dec. 17). He logged a team-high 28:24 in ice time since the team was down to five defensemen, but he still finished with a 52.75 xG%. The amount of ice time he had may have factored into this, but he still finished second on the team in shot blocks (5) to Brendan Smith (7), who had a strong game himself. If Graves is out long-term, the Devils will need Severson to keep it up.
Devils Quick Hits
- Sharangovich didn’t log much ice time last night (ten minutes even), but he certainly made the most of it. He showed tremendous hand-eye coordination to redirect Siegenthaler’s point shot for the eventual game-winner, snapping a stretch of nine games without a tally. He also played well at five-on-five, totaling an 81.92 xG% in his limited minutes, ranked first on the Devils. Even with the goalless drought, he’s still on pace for 22 goals this season. Perhaps his effort last night gets him going, which would go a long way for the Devils regaining the depth scoring they had to start the season.
- Given what happened in the team’s last matchup (Dec. 17) between Nico Hischier and Aleksander Barkov, there was undoubtedly going to be some chippiness in yesterday’s rematch. That came to fruition, but the Devils responded from the opening faceoff. Tatar, Smith, Erik Haula and Kevin Bahl were throwing around their weight; Haula even dropped the gloves with Anton Lundell in the first period. Considering how Saturday’s tilt went, the Devils needed to show some pushback and stand up for Hischier, their captain, which they undoubtedly did.
- Even though Miles Wood and Michael McLeod did not have the best night in their own end, they still found a way to make up for the poor defensive effort on the Panthers’ first goal by being on the ice for Sharangovich’s game-winner. McLeod got the sequence going by gaining the offensive zone off the rush. He skated around the net and eventually fed the puck to Siegenthaler at the point, who fired the shot that Sharangovich deflected past Sergei Bobrovsky. The Devils do need Wood and McLeod to get going after some rough outings, and perhaps contributing to the game-winner does so.
The Devils play their final game before the NHL Christmas break tomorrow at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, against the Boston Bruins. The puck drops at 7 PM and can be seen on MSG SN in the New York City area.
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