As has been noted on this site by CJ, John and others, and on other sites as well, one area that kept the New Jersey Devils afloat this season was their high danger percentages. Throughout the season, the Devils ranked 8th in the NHL in High Danger Corsi, or HDCF, which sat at 52.84% after 82 games. When you would look at a heat map of a game, the area right in front of the opposition’s net would usually be quite bright, meaning that the Devils may not have gotten many attempts elsewhere, but were getting quality looks in the slot and in front of the net, and those chances have a much better shot at leading to goals. This was a major reason for NJ’s regular season success.
On Thursday night in Tampa Bay, however, the Devils mostly looked outmatched. Especially early, but late too and generally throughout the game, New Jersey looked like the inferior team. They were not getting their game established, and this was especially true in the offensive zone. Just look at the heat map from the game from Natural Stat Trick. The link to it is there, and here is a picture of what it looks like:
Tampa’s heat map shows a beautiful red right in the slot, and three of their goals came at 5v5 in that area. They were getting lots of high danger attempts on Keith Kinkaid, and that paid off with goals and ultimately a victory. The Devils’ defense was unable to push Tampa to the edges of the ice, instead allowing too many grade A chances. That type of play is unsustainable, and is one reason why they looked outmatched.
On the other side of the map, however, look how sad the Devils’ map looks. The one goal, off of a dumb decision by Ondrej Palat in the defensive zone, was made in a high danger area in the slot by the always dangerous superstar Taylor Hall. Other than that? Nothing, just a lot of cold green. The hottest area of the map there, the darkest blue, was at the right point where defensemen would have been firing the puck towards net. That is anything but a high danger area, and somewhere that gives Andrei Vasilevskiy all day to track the puck and prevent it from reaching the net.
Throughout the regular season, there is a much better chance that the heat map for any Devils game you pull up would show something quite different. More than likely, the Devils would have the much better looking heat map, with more high danger chances. I mean, over the course of 82 games, the Devils produced 726 high danger Corsi attempts while only allowing 648 against. That is a fairly good difference, and one that led to a good amount of wins. On Thursday night at Amalie Arena, however, Tampa clearly had a game plan to prevent New Jersey from continuing their dominance in high danger opportunities, and it paid off for them with a convincing win and a bad NJ loss.
If the Devils are going to put up a more competent fight today and look like they belong in this series, they will need to reassert their dominance over the high danger areas of the ice, namely in the slot and right in front of Vasilevskiy. It might not lead to a win today, as you never know the end result of those chances. But just by generating more of those chances and getting back to playing in those gritty areas, the Devils will be reasserting themselves and playing their style of hockey. That is what they will need to do over the next three games and beyond if they want to have a chance at moving beyond Tampa.
Will it be easy? Absolutely not. Will we be nervous today watching them play game 2? Absolutely. But if you want to look analytically at the game as you watch, think about where the Devils are producing their chances from. Are they just firing pucks on net from the point hoping for deflections and rebounds? At times that is a great strategy and can pay off. However, try to keep a look out for NJ’s high danger chances, and compare them to what Tampa is getting. Who is getting more looks in the slot and in front of the net? If you see red sweaters creating looks in front of Vasilevskiy, then you can know that the Devils are reasserting themselves and that they belong. If, however, you really only see it when blue sweaters are dominating in front of Kinkaid, then that will be another major problem, and it will most likely lead to an 0-2 start in the series for our favorite team.