The New Jersey Devils have had a tough go of it lately. They had lost eight of their last nine tilts coming into last night’s matchup with the Boston Bruins, including giving up 12 goals across two games against the New York Rangers on Thursday and Saturday.
But luck was on their side yesterday. Scott Wedgewood made his first start since Jan. 30 and came up with a 40-save shutout in the Devils’ 1-0 win over the Bruins. That was their first victory in 10 days and helped them end a five-game losing streak.
Let’s look back on that performance and the rest of the Devils’ last week as they look to build on their win from last night.
Zacha Still Showing Well
Pavel Zacha had his 10-game point streak snapped earlier in the week, but he continues to play well. He picked up two assists in four games, including the primary assist on Kyle Palmieri’s game-winning goal last night.
Zacha has 15 points across his last 16 games and has played well at 5-on-5. He had a Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 50.6 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 50.2 percent over the previous week. Since his near point-per-game pace began on Jan. 24, he has a CF% of 51.8 percent and xG% of 51 percent. He’s holding his own, even during the team’s struggles.
And with Nico Hischier listed as week-to-week with a sinus fracture, Zacha is in a big spot. He’s going to continue getting second-line minutes behind Jack Hughes, so they’re going to need him to keep producing. Goal-scoring has been hard to come by for the Devils as is, so whatever he can provide will go a long way.
Wedgewood Stands Tall
With Mackenzie Blackwood struggling as of late, the Devils turned to Wedgewood last night to give him a breather. He came into the game with a 1-3-1 record and .901 save percentage (SV%) in five games played. He had played well earlier in the season, but it would’ve been hard to predict last night’s performance.
On top of his 40 saves, Wedgewood had a goals saved above expected of 2.23 in all situations (via Evolving-Hockey). The Bruins had a few good looks on the power play in the third period. But he denied them all and helped keep the game at 0-0 until Palmieri scored the lone goal of the game with under five minutes remaining in regulation. After that performance, Wedgewood is up to a .923 SV% and has a goals saved above average of 4.01 on the season, both of which are the best among Devils’ goaltenders
The Devils had played Blackwood in nine of 11 contests since returning from a COVID outbreak. He had a pretty rough case of COVID, so it’s fair to wonder why he’s been playing so much since their return. Regardless, they need to manage his minutes better, so giving Wedgewood (and Aaron Dell) some more starts should be in the plan moving forward.
Subban Stepping Up
P.K. Subban’s Devils tenure hasn’t gone as expected, but he has been playing well lately. He tallied an assist on Palmieri’s goal yesterday and now has 10 points in 21 games this season, a milestone he did not reach until the Devils’ 42nd game in 2019-20. His ice time is also way up over the last few games.
The Devils’ defense had it tough last week, but that wasn’t the case for Subban. He had a CF% of 63.6 percent and xG% of 66.6 percent, second and third-best on the team. Head coach Lindy Ruff recently moved Subban to a pair with Dmitry Kulikov, and it seems to have paid off. Kulikov, a free agent signing this offseason, is quietly having an excellent season at both ends of the ice, so it seems he’s helped Subban pick up his game.
Subban may not be the defenseman he was in his prime. But he’s playing much better than he was a season ago, specifically on the offensive end. There’s no reason to move him off a pair with Kulikov, given how they’ve played lately. And that could give the Devils a reliable unit that helps take some pressure off the Ty Smith and Damon Severson pairing.
Puck Management Improves Against Bruins
A significant reason the Devils got caved in by the Rangers was because of their puck management. This was particularly an issue in their second matchup against New York. And Ruff did not hold back his thoughts during his post-game press conference, stating he was embarrassed by how they played and that it was their worst defensive outing of the season.
It appears the team got the message against the Bruins, as they played a much cleaner game. There were still some occasional hiccups, but for the most part, they made the smart play when they had the puck in the defensive zone. They chipped the puck out when they had to but made clean zone exits when the opportunity presented itself.
With the Devils playing four games every six nights for pretty much the rest of the season, they’ll need to find ways to make things easier for themselves. Their puck management last night was a good start and should be something they can build on to right the ship a bit.
Other Notes and Observations
The Devils may be slumping, but their prospects are providing some hope for the future. Dawson Mercer had a hat trick and four-point night on Saturday, including this dazzling shorthanded goal.
Mercer was the 18th overall pick at the 2020 Draft and signed his entry-level contract on Christmas Eve. He was widely considered a top 15 prospect by most scouting services, and his performance this season shows he was a bit of a steal. The Canadian forward is now up to 13 goals and 26 points in 17 games played in the QMJHL.
Reilly Walsh is also making a name for himself in the AHL, with seven points in nine games. He still needs work defensively, but he’s showing why he’s the Devils’ best defense prospect after Ty Smith. His offensive instincts are high-end, and he looks comfortable quarterbacking the Binghamton Devils’ power play.
In what’s already a unique season, last night’s 1-0 win was quite the microcosm of the Devils’ campaign. They’re 3-0-1 against the Bruins but 5-11-1 against the rest of the East Division. They’re also 6-2-1 on the road but 2-9-1 at home and just had their first winless five-game homestand in 20 years. Meanwhile, Wedgewood leads the team in SV% through 21 games, while Zacha leads the team in scoring. Weird times, indeed.
That wraps up this edition of Devils’ news and notes. They’re back on the ice tomorrow against the Washington Capitals and conclude their three-game road trip on Thursday night against the New York Islanders before beginning another five-game homestand. Make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils coverage.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick except where noted