Obviously, there was not a whole lot to look positively on from last night’s performance. While the score remained close on the scoreboard for the first two periods, the New Jersey Devils were just outplayed and outmatched. In the third period, finally those goals came for Washington, and it put an exclamation point on a poor night of hockey overall.
However, one player who played one of the best games of his young NHL career was Nikita Gusev. In a little under 11 minutes of 5 on 5 action, he was one of only two skaters with a better than 40% Corsi, and if you want to look at Fenwick instead, was the only player on the team to reach 50%, and beyond that, if you just look at shots, was the only Devil with a shots for percentage over 50% (he was at 60%). The ice was still tilted against New Jersey when Gusev was out there, but it was less so than with others, and when it comes down to the attempts that truly matter, shots on net, the Devils were actually doing better than Washington. No one else can say that about their performance last night.
Gusev played his 5v5 minutes last night with Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman, and that line worked well together. Both of those players, however, played other time without Gusev, and it did not go well for either one. Coleman played an extra 2+ minutes at 5 on 5 last night without Gusev, and was crushed out there for that time. In his time without the Goose, Coleman gave up 5 Corsi attempts against and had 0 attempts for. Obviously that is as bad as it gets. Zajac was minimally better away from Gusev. He had an extra 1:33 out there without Nikita, and gave up 4 Corsi attempts against and had 0 for. So neither one of those guys was able to produce a single Corsi attempt for unless they were on the ice with Gusev.
Gusev, meanwhile, did play a minimal amount of time at 5v5 without Coleman and Zajac, mostly due to the variances of shift changes. In that short time, from as little as 7 seconds with Kyle Palmieri up to 21 seconds with Michael McLeod and Miles Wood, Gusev found another Corsi attempt for and 0 against. So if you want to figure out who played the best on the team’s best line last night, it clearly looks to be Gusev from the numbers, and of course the actual scoring sheet proves this as well. Gusev was the only Devil with multiple points last night, and that is in all scenarios.
The interesting thing is that when I started looking at these numbers, I had expected them to come with somewhat sheltered zone starts. Gusev is a pretty good candidate for a lot of offensive zone faceoffs and less in the defensive end, given his offensive skillset and not really being known as a two-way skater like Zajac. But it was probably playing alongside Travis that made that not the case. Gusev had only a 42.86 offensive zone faceoff percentage at 5 on 5, which was tied for 12th highest among all Devils, and 8th highest among all forwards. For comparative purposes, Jack Hughes had a 100% offensive zone faceoff percentage, and Wayne Simmonds and Pavel Zacha were at 80%. Yet those guys had relative Corsi numbers either at 0% or in the negatives. That is saying a lot, and I think it says more about Gusev’s positive performance than it does about the other guys’ negative performances (although you can definitely debate me on that one).
With the Devils playing yet another back-to-back set here, it is a quick turnaround. I would hope and expect the line of Gusev-Zajac-Coleman to remain intact, and I am interested to see if they can recreate similar successes to last night, and specifically Gusev, who clearly had a strong night despite the team around him really struggling to do much of anything at all. Was it just a one night fluke, or can we really start to see some serious positive growth from the talented Russian? That would be amazing for the future health of this franchise, even if it doesn’t change much this season.