The New Jersey Devils finished the calendar year the way they wanted. They enter 2019 on a three-game winning streak, led by Mackenzie Blackwood’s stellar goaltending. They’ve also gotten notable contributions from players not named Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson, both of whom are out with injuries. Can the Devils stay hot early in 2019 and grind their way back into the playoff picture?
Blackwood’s Been a Brick Wall
Blackwood’s been what the Devils have been looking for all season. He has two consecutive shutouts, making him the youngest goalie to pull off that feat in franchise history. All four of his starts have been quality starts. He has a .963 save percentage (SV%) in all situations, as well as a .968 SV% at 5-on-5. His goals saved above average (GSAA) of 7.96 is eighth best in the NHL (min. 200 minutes played).
As great as Blackwood has been, regression is coming his way. There’s no way in any world that a .963 SV% is sustainable, especially if he continues to start. His expected save percentage (xSV%) at 5-on-5 is .927%, and .913% in all situations. I’d expect him to retreat closer to those numbers soon.
How Blackwood handles the pending regression will be his next test. He’s going to face adversity and will eventually have a bad start or two where he allows four or five goals. His tumultuous 2017-18 may serve as a starting point for how he’ll handle his first bit of adversity. His play bottomed out so far last season it forced the Devils to send him to the Adirondack Thunder (ECHL).
Since the demotion, Blackwood has played very well. His SV% with Binghamton this season reached .929% at one point, before falling back down to .911%. That’s still a big jump from last season, where he finished with a .882% in the AHL. He’s shown he can handle tough times and respond the way he needs to be successful.
The bottom line is that Blackwood has been very good in a very short amount of time. The Devils still have a long way to go before getting back in the playoff picture, but if he continues to play the way he is, he may end up being the savior of their season.
Devils’ Role Players Stepping Up
Johansson and Hall may be out with injuries, but that hasn’t seemed to matter much. Blackwood is the main reason they’ve strung some wins together, but they’re also getting strong minutes from their role players.
Miles Wood has put together his best stretch of the season over the last week. He has a goal and two assists, and has been tearing up the ice at 5-on-5 — he has 16 shot attempts, which is double of Pavel Zacha, who’s second on the Devils during that stretch. Wood also leads the team in scoring chances and is second in high-danger chances. The Devils need him to keep it up while Johansson and Hall remain out of the lineup.
Speaking of Zacha, he’s come to life over the last week, too. He has two goals and an assist. And, like Wood, he’s been playing very well at five-on-five. Zacha has eight shots on goal — second on the team to Wood — and has five scoring chances, also second to Wood. Zacha has shown flashes of brilliance, but the consistency has never been there. Maybe this is the stretch that turns him into a steady scorer.
Another forward stepping up in the absence of Hall and Johansson has been Blake Coleman. Unlike Wood and Zacha, who have struggled until this point, Coleman is putting together a solid season. He’s on pace for 23 goals and 41 points, which is a big jump from the 25 points he totaled in 2017-18. Coleman helped the Devils seal the deal against the Bruins on Dec. 27, with two crucial goals to help give Blackwood his first NHL win. He’s also one of the team’s best penalty killers, which has also been lights out during this stretch.
Devils’ Defensemen Providing Offense
It may have flown under the radar, but the Devils blue line has been putting up some points. Andy Greene has three points in three games. Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen have two points in three games, while Will Butcher and Steven Santini each have a point.
The Devils don’t have the most offensive group of defensemen, but this is an encouraging sign. Devils head coach John Hynes has made a fast, attacking style of offense a staple of the team during his tenure. For that to work, their defensemen have to step up in the play and contribute. If it isn’t putting up points, they have to make smart pinches and keep plays alive.
That’s been occurring over the last three games and has helped the Devils fill the void left by Hall and Johansson. But, that offense can’t disappear when those two return to the lineup. If Blackwood continues to get starts, the Devils need to make life as easy as possible for him. The best way to accomplish that is to stay aggressive and keep the puck out of their own end. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
The Schedule Eases up a Bit
The Devils schedule hasn’t let up through the first part of the season, but it will ease up a bit this month. They have games against the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks, which are all winnable contests.
They also have games against teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Getting a win against one of those two would be a bonus if they can take care of business when they’re supposed to. It won’t be possible if players like Wood and Zacha go cold again, though. The same can be said if they don’t find a way to deal with Blackwood’s inevitable regression.
The good news is that Hall and Johansson aren’t expected to be out for long. If they return to a still-streaking team, it could make for an interesting second half of the season. That could change, but at least they’ve entered the new year playing their best hockey since their 4-0-0 start.
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