In what was a make-or-break part of the schedule for the New Jersey Devils, they rose to the occasion and came away with a record of 5-3-0 with victories against the Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Nashville Predators. Here are a few key takeaways from this difficult stretch of games, as well as what they’ll need to bank on in the final seven games of the season in order to make the playoffs.
Keith Kinkaid Still Coming up Big
The biggest reason for the Devils series of victories against some of the league’s top competition has been the performance of Keith Kinkaid. In seven games played, he was 5-1-0 with a .938 save percentage (SV%) at all-strengths, including a ridiculous .952 SV% at five-on-five. He faced 35 shots on goal or more in all six of his starts during this stretch, but he stood tall in all of them. That includes back-to-back wins in a span of 24 hours against the Pittsburgh Penguins as well as the Tampa Bay Lightning where he made a combined 75 saves.
Kinkaid’s play at five-on-five was particularly impressive. The Devils had a shot differential of minus-48 when he was in net. They were also out-attempted 263-377 and out-chanced 125-185. If Kinkaid hadn’t played the way he did, the Devils probably would’ve lost most of those games, especially with the continuing struggles of Cory Schneider.
With just seven games remaining in the season, the Devils will have to hope Kinkaid can maintain his level of play. Fortunately, their schedule eases up just a bit. Four of those games will come against teams who are eliminated or are on the brink of elimination of playoff contention (Rangers, Hurricanes, Islanders, Canadiens). Even though those games are far from guaranteed wins, it will certainly help the Devils hopes for a playoff spot. Five of those remaining seven games will also come on home ice. With the Devils defense struggling, John Hynes will have the benefit of controlling matchups to try and help limit shots and chances against, which should benefit Kinkaid.
Nico Hischier Continues to Improve
While Kinkaid has come up huge, Nico Hischier has done just the same on the offensive side of the puck. In his last eight games played, he has five goals and three assists with 21 shots on goal. In his eight previous games, he had just two assists and 10 shots on goal, so it’s been quite the turnaround at a crucial time in the schedule.
After some poor shooting luck throughout most of the season, Hischier has finally begun to find the back of the net. In his first 67 games, he had converted on just nine percent of his 144 shots on goal. In his last eight games, he has a 23.8% shooting percentage. That number may not seem sustainable, but if he keeps averaging around four shots on goal through the remainder of the season, chances are he’ll score a few more goals before all is said and done.
In addition to scoring some important goals, Hischier has made some big plays to set up his teammates. That includes this breakaway goal that Taylor Hall scored in overtime to give the Devils a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
TAYLOR HALL GETS IN ALONE AND SCOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORES! OVERTIME WINNER! pic.twitter.com/uCg2CKnyAG
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) March 24, 2018
Much like Kinkaid, the Devils will need Hischier to keep performing at a high level. The good news is he seems to thrive in the big moments. “Games like this, he’s played excellent for us in big games,” John Hynes told Chris Ryan of NJ Advance Media. “You see the play that he made to win some battles and put that puck right on Hallsy’s tape is special. Those are the types of things you don’t teach. That’s the benefit of getting the first overall draft pick, who’s an extreme competitor, great hockey sense and rises to the challenge.”
Related: Can Devils’ Kinkaid Stay Hot?
Devils Defense Must Tighten Up
Although the Devils came away with five wins in arguably the toughest eight-game stretch of the season, their defense wasn’t exactly making life easy. They were out-attempted 349-453 at five-on-five, which is good for a Corsi For (CF%) of 43.5% and was the worst in the league over that stretch. They were also out-chanced by a wide margin and had a scoring chances-for percentage (SCF%) of 43.6%, which was second worst in the league.
As great as Keith Kinkaid has been, it’d be unfair to expect him to keep posting the numbers he is if the Devils are getting out-attempted and out-chanced by the margin they are on a regular basis. A big reason for their defensive struggles is due to the play of the Devils’ top two defense pairs in the last eight games. Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen have a CF% and SCF% of 40.1 and 40.6. John Moore and Damon Severson haven’t fared much better posting a CF% and SCF% of 43.2 and 44.8.
Pretty safe to say that those numbers will catch up to the team at some point whether it’s in the regular or postseason. As I mentioned above, the Devils will have the ability to control matchups more often than not over the last seven games of the season, so that should benefit these two defense pairs down the stretch.
Will Butcher Adding Offense Once Again
After ending an 11-game point drought on Mar. 6, Will Butcher has found his offensive game at the right time. He has five points in eight games since then, including his first goal in 52 games, which he scored against the Penguins this past Friday.
Butcher continues to build on a strong rookie campaign. With just seven games remaining, he needs only three points to hit 40, which would make him the first Devils’ defenseman to do so since Marek Zidlicky in 2013-14. He’d also become the first Devils’ rookie defenseman to hit 40 points since Scott Niedermayer in 1992-93. Quite the company to be in.
A majority of teams that make the playoffs have a solid group of puck-moving defensemen. With the Devils getting most of their offense from Sami Vatanen and Will Butcher along the blue line, they will need them to continue generating chances for their teammates. If they keep up the offensive production, there’s no doubt they’ll be a key reason for the Devils holding on to a playoff spot.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick