5 Devils Takeaways From 5-2 Preseason Win vs. the Rangers

The New Jersey Devils’ solid start to the preseason continued last night with a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. With most of the Devils’ top skaters sitting out ahead of a home contest against the Rangers tonight, they had no trouble controlling play at five-on-five against a Rangers team with a few of their top players in the lineup. Here are five takeaways and a few quick hits from their third win in three preseason games. 

Haula’s Unit Impresses in First-Line Minutes

With the Devils sitting out Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Ondrej Palát and missing Nico Hischier due to injury, they played a mostly watered-down lineup, with Tomáš Tatar, Erik Haula and Fabian Zetterlund anchoring the team as the top line. They were up to the task, as the Devils finished with a 10-3 shot attempt advantage — a 76.92 Corsi for percentage (CF%) — and a 68.83 expected goals percentage (xG%) with them on the ice at five-on-five. 

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Their individual performances were quite noteworthy as well. Tatar led Devils skaters with a 77.78 CF% and had a 73.64 xG% to go along with his goal. Haula tied Dougie Hamilton for the most shots on goal and had an empty-net tally from essentially the opposite goal line to seal the game. He also won 17 of his 22 faceoffs, good for a 77.3 faceoff percentage, while logging 24:15 in ice time. Zetterlund didn’t finish with a point, but he was active and impressed at five-on-five with a 70 CF% and 66.79 xG%. 

This trio was one I wrote about a few weeks ago as a possible experiment for head coach Lindy Ruff. It could end up as the Devils’ third line, and since Tatar and Zetterlund have play-driving ability — something Haula needs to succeed best — it made plenty of sense to try it at some point. The early returns were positive, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they get another look during the preseason. 

Hamilton Looks Like He’s Back

The 2021-22 season was one to forget for Hamilton. After signing a seven-year contract worth $9 million annually last summer, his first year in New Jersey did not go as planned due to injuries. He suffered a broken jaw in early January against the Washington Capitals and also played through a broken toe during the second half of the season. 

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After a long offseason to recover from his injuries, Hamilton has looked the part in his two preseason appearances. He was quite impressive against the Rangers last night, totaling a goal and two assists. As mentioned, he tied Haula for the team lead in shots on goal (6) and displayed the offensive ability that made him a top-flight offensive defenseman before his injuries last season. His stretch pass on Miles Wood’s goal was highlight-reel worthy, and he made a smooth breakout pass to Tatar in the neutral zone during the third period that sprung Tatar free on the rush to give the Devils a 4-1 lead. 

Hamilton’s skating looked noticeably better last night than it did a season ago, likely a sign that the broken toe is no longer affecting him. He was a prime bounce-back candidate heading into the 2022-23 campaign. Based on last night, he seems on the right track to bounce back and play a significant role for the Devils this season. 

Bahl & Marino Stand Out Defensively 

Perhaps the Devils’ most underrated offseason acquisition, John Marino has been sharp during the team’s first two preseason games. He didn’t find the scoresheet against the Rangers, but he was rock solid defensively for the second straight game. He made a good read on the Rangers’ power play early in the game that caused a turnover and forced Mika Zibanejad to take a penalty. 

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And that’s what’s stood out about Marino in his first two preseason games with the Devils; his ability to make the correct read. He made a smart pinch in the offensive zone early in the first period to keep the attack alive, and he seems to know exactly when to stand up at the blue line or jump up in the neutral zone to end the opposing team’s rush. He finished the night with a 72.14 xG% at five-on-five, partly because the Devils gave up nothing when he was on the ice. 

Related: Devils’ Boqvist Needs a Strong Preseason

As for Bahl, he looks NHL-ready. He had another strong outing, finishing with an 88.84 xG%, which led all Devils skaters. His ability to defend one-on-one is where it needs to be for an NHLer, and he can now play against the rush effectively. Combine that with his smooth skating and long reach, and he should be a good bet to make the opening night roster, possibly alongside Marino on the team’s third pair. 

Bastian Makes His Case

With so many players fighting for bottom-six spots on the Devils’ roster, someone will have to separate themselves from the pack. That’s what Nathan Bastian did last night, as he finished with a goal and an assist, as well as five shots on goal and five hits. His goal contained some skill you’re not used to seeing from him, either. 

Bastian was one of the Devils’ top five-on-five skaters, as he finished with a 58.82 CF% and 70.38 xG%. Even though he’s played well as a fourth-liner for the Devils over the last two seasons, his spot as a regular is far from guaranteed, with Zetterlund pushing for the opening night lineup. Last night he showed why he’ll be right in the mix with Zetterlund until the final preseason game. 

Devils’ Power Play Struggles

It’s hard to assess the Devils’ power play last night since, aside from Hamilton, none of their top power-play skaters were in the lineup. With that said, it did feel a bit familiar to last season when the team gave up too many shorthanded chances. The Rangers’ two goals were both shorthanded, and they occurred because of sloppy play from Devils forwards. 

On the other hand, there was no Hughes, Bratt, Palát, or Alexander Holtz, and the Devils’ power play did look solid in their first two outings. Time will tell if this was a blip on the radar, but it’s sure to be something Ruff and new associate coach Andrew Brunette address heading into tonight’s game against the Rangers and over the rest of the preseason. 

Quick Hits

  • Even though Vitek Vanecek gave up more goals than expected at all strengths, he still played well. The two shorthanded goals were not his fault, and that’s something the Devils should be able to clean up. Though the Rangers didn’t generate much at five-on-five, he made 12 saves on 12 shots and stopped 1.19 goals above expected. In all, another solid outing for him. 
Vitek Vanecek New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Vitek Vanecek (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • With Hischier out at least ten days, the Devils shifted Dawson Mercer back to center from right wing. He seemed to have no trouble making the switch, as he finished with an assist in 19:53 of ice time. He had two grade B and grade A chances at five-on-five and a 64.29 CF% and 73.67 xG%. If Hischier does miss the start of the regular season, the Devils should be in good hands with Mercer as their second-line center. 
  • Any concern about nagging issues from hip surgery seems to lessen every time Miles Wood hits the ice. He scored the Devils’ first goal and had four shots on goal, but that’s not what stood out to me. Instead, it seems his skating hasn’t lost a step. His speed is still there, and he’s been able to use it effectively in his first two preseason games. That’s a welcomed sight for someone who should play a crucial role for the team’s scoring depth this season. 

The Devils wrap up this week’s slate of preseason games with a tilt against the Rangers tonight. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest coverage. 

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