For the second game in a row, the New Jersey Devils came away with another convincing win against a team expected to be a legit playoff contender in the Eastern Conference. After defeating the Florida Panthers 7-3 on Tuesday night, they came away with a 4-0 victory against the New York Islanders last night in Newark. The win moves the Devils to 7-3-2 on the season, good for 16 points and fourth place in the Metropolitan Division. Here are the biggest takeaways from last night’s win.
Mac Is Back
After missing the start of the season while rehabbing from offseason heel surgery, Mackenzie Blackwood sure looks like he’s back to being in top form. It was only his third start of the season, but it was undoubtedly his best performance yet. He stopped all 42 Islanders shots he faced, including 16 in the first period.
Despite the Devils taking a 1-0 lead to intermission, the Islanders had the better of play in the opening frame. They out-attempted the Devils 23-10 and controlled most of the expected goals. The Devils settled down and were the better team over the final 40 minutes. But Blackwood’s performance early in the game may have been the difference.
The Devils gave their goaltender the support he needed after the first period. Despite the Islanders totaling 42 shots on goal, they finished the game with only 12 high-danger chances at all strengths, even with having three power plays. In all, Blackwood ended the night with a goals saved above expected of 3.36, so he was outstanding. But the team certainly made things easier in front of him over the final two periods.
Mercer Doesn’t Look Like a Rookie
While it’s still early in the season, Dawson Mercer is sure making himself known as a potential Calder Trophy finalist. He finished last night with a goal, his fourth of the season, and is now up to eight points in 12 games — nearly a 55-point pace over 82 games. Not only did he score, but he saw noticeable time on the penalty kill and even drew a power play while shorthanded that led to Tomáš Tatar’s power-play goal late in the second period.
Mercer was one of the Devils’ top players at even strength, finishing with an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 63.45 percent. His line was a factor once again, as Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt picked up the assists on Mercer’s goal. The Devils have a good thing going with that trio, especially with Jack Hughes still out with a dislocated shoulder. They’ve been the Devils’ most consistent and productive line, so don’t expect them to get broken up any time soon.
Special Teams Come Through Again
Special teams were a big reason why the Devils beat the Panthers on Tuesday night. They played a significant role against the Islanders last night too. The Devils’ penalty kill went a perfect 3/3 and did not give the Islanders much of anything on their power plays. The Devils would even add a shorthanded goal in the first period courtesy of Janne Kuokkanen.
The Devils’ power play had been struggling mightily before this week, but it’s beginning to show some life. They scored two power-play goals against the Panthers, and as mentioned above, got another marker thanks to Tatar late in the second period last night. It wasn’t often we saw the Devils’ special teams positively impacting the outcome of a game during the 2020-21 season. But that’s two games in a row where they’ve been one of the positive deciding factors in their wins. The Devils aren’t going to always be on their game at five-on-five, so having special teams pick up the slack every once in a while to help them secure two points can help make up for that.
Tatar & Kuokkanen Finding Their Game
Both Kuokkanen and Tatar had slow starts to the season, but it’s slowly beginning to come around for them. Kuokkanen’s goal was his second in three games, while Tatar’s was his first with the Devils since signing as a free agent this summer, giving him two points in his last two games.
Tatar was particularly active last night. He finished with seven shots on goal, seven shot attempts, five scoring chances, and three high-danger chances at all strengths. It was perhaps his best game as a Devil yet. But both players were quite involved offensively at five-on-five with Jesper Boqvist on the third line as well:
Head coach Lindy Ruff has been searching for some consistency out of his third line since Hughes’ injury. It seems like he may have found it with Kuokkanen, Boqvist and Tatar. Two games is a small sample size, but the early returns are encouraging. Boqvist looks like a different player than a season ago and appears to be a more confident offensive facilitator. Add an improving Tatar and Kuokkanen, and the Devils’ depth up front without Hughes takes a big step forward.
Hamilton Makes Impact After Brief Injury Absence
Dougie Hamilton missed the previous three games with a lower-body injury. The Devils went 2-0-1 without him, which is a sign of a growing team, but they were quite glad to have him back last night. He finished with an assist and absolute bomb of a goal to seal the game at 4-0 late in the third period. He finished with five shots on goal, seven shot attempts and three scoring chances.
Hamilton is now up to eight points in nine games — nearly a 73-point pace over 82 games. The Devils haven’t had a blueliner of his ilk since Brian Rafalski was on the team many moons ago. He’s a game-changer offensively and will be in the conversation for the Norris Trophy if he keeps producing at the rate he is.
The start of this week marked what was easily the toughest part of the Devils’ schedule so far. They’re 2-0-0 after wins against two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. And it only gets more difficult this weekend with matchups against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. If they can find another level at five-on-five while continuing to get strong goaltending and special teams play, then they should be able to give the Bruins and Rangers the same problems they gave the Islanders last night.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017