After an impressive 5-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday evening, the New Jersey Devils returned home to play the Minnesota Wild. Though they had plenty of shots and chances, they couldn’t solve Filip Gustavsson, who’s been one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league. Here are four takeaways and some quick hits from the 2-1 overtime loss.
Devils Peppered Gustavsson
While the score may not indicate so, both teams generated plenty of quality chances at five-on-five. The Wild had 2.29 expected goals through the first 40 minutes before the Devils created a full two expected goals in the third period alone. Timo Meier got the team’s lone goal during the final frame on a wraparound, the flukey type of tally the team needed to beat Gustavsson.
Though the Devils didn’t come away with the win, it was encouraging seeing them play their best hockey in the third period when the game was on the line. Eleven of their 16 high-danger chances at five-on-five came in the final frame, as well as 15 of their 29 scoring chances. Even in overtime, they added three more high-danger chances, including Jack Hughes hitting the post seconds before Matthew Boldy won the game with a buzzer-beater on a breakaway off the rebound of Hughes’ shot.
In all, the Devils finished with 48 shots on goal but ran into the brick wall that is Gustavsson, whose save percentage now sits above .930 for the season. New Jersey’s schedule does ease up a bit for the rest of the week, so there should be opportunities to rebound after getting goalie’d by Gustavsson.
Vanecek Getting Back on Track
Vitek Vanecek had gone through a relatively lengthy slump for about the last month, but it seems he’s getting out of it. He delivered a quality start against the Lightning on Sunday and had one of his best starts in weeks against the Wild yesterday. Vanecek made 27 saves on 29 shots and stopped 1.28 goals above expected. It was the first time he had a save percentage above .920 in a start since Feb. 18 (nine games played).
By the eye, it was the most comfortable Vanecek had looked in net in weeks. If the Wild went high on him, he was there with the glove or blocker to make the save. He was kicking rebounds out into low-danger areas and was stopping shots that goalies shouldn’t always be expected to save.
Vanecek’s SV% stayed steady at .909 with that effort. But the more important takeaway is he’s given the Devils two quality starts in a row. With the standings as they are, their first-round opponent in the playoffs will likely be Igor Shesterkin and the New York Rangers. To have a chance at beating the Rangers’ high-powered offense and outplaying Shesterkin, Vanecek will need to be at his best. So finishing the season strong by providing quality starts will be crucial.
Hughes Is Due
Jack Hughes has only two goals in his last 17 games, but yesterday’s performance may be a sign he’s due to break out. He finished with ten shots on goal, 12 shot attempts, nine scoring chances and four high-danger chances at all strengths. Of course, there was the post in overtime, which sums up his shooting luck recently.
With yesterday’s effort, Hughes has 71 shots on goal in his last 17 games with only two goals to show for it, a shooting percentage of 2.8 percent. Perhaps that’s the hockey gods punishing him for scoring 17 goals in 15 games before this stretch, but the goals will come. With his shot volume, plus the strength of his shot, he will not continue shooting 2.8 percent.
Related: Devils’ Siegenthaler Rebounding After Rough Patch
Latest News & Highlights
Another takeaway regarding Hughes last night was that head coach Lindy Ruff did break up the line of Erik Haula, Hughes and Dawson Mercer in the third period. He was right in doing so, as they posted a 26.74 expected goals percentage (xG%). The solution, in this case, was putting Yegor Sharangovich on a line with Hughes and Mercer. They generated a couple of quality chances in the third period, but it was too small a sample size to draw any conclusions.
The question is, will Ruff stick with Haula, Hughes and Mercer to start against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday evening? That trio has played well together this season; they did so in the 5-2 win against the Lightning. The Sabres have been bleeding shots and chances lately, so it’s worth giving them another look. But at least Ruff knows he could lean on Sharangovich, who’s played very well since coming back into the lineup, to shuffle things around if Haula, Hughes and Mercer struggle again.
Hischier Getting Meier and Bratt Going
These days, when a player is going through a rut, the solution seems to get him alongside Nico Hischier. Not that Meier was struggling since the Devils acquired him from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline, but he’s looked his best alongside Hischier and Jesper Bratt in the team’s last two games. Though he only had an assist against the Lightning, his net-front presence wreaked havoc on Andrei Vasilevskiy to help the Devils tally two goals.
Last night against the Wild, Meier was providing a physical presence by once again getting to the net front; he even drew a power play late in the third period by getting to the crease in front of Gustavsson. Of course, he scored the game-tying goal, so he’s making an impact.
As for Bratt, all he’s done in his last two games since getting put back on Hischier’s line is tally a hat trick against the Lightning and the secondary assist on Meier’s game-tying goal against the Wild. He was also going through a slump, so getting him back on track will pay dividends for the stretch run. Once Hughes finds better shooting luck, the Devils’ star players will be where they need to be entering the playoffs.
Devils Quick Hits
- The Devils’ power play has been struggling for a bit. One reason, which Ruff mentioned in his post-game availability, is that they aren’t generating enough quality chances. Since Meier’s first game with the team (March 5), they rank 18th in the NHL in expected goals for per 60 minutes on the power play. Part of that may be because they have too many good options for the first unit, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them tinker with some personnel to find the best setup.
- Ondrej Palát was the Devils’ marquee addition this offseason, but the team needs more from him. His underlying numbers have been good, but he has just five points in his last 18 games. Part of that may be due to him playing third-line minutes since Meier’s acquisition, and as we know, he comes up with big goals in the playoffs. Still, it’d help if the Devils could find ways to get him on the scoresheet consistently over their final 11 games of the regular season.
The Devils will face a reeling Sabres team on Friday that’s leaked shots, chances and goals lately. After getting goalie’d by Gustavsson, that might present a ripe opportunity to light the lamp.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick