The last two games for the New Jersey Devils have gone quite differently. In the game on Tuesday in St. Louis, the Devils were trounced, thoroughly outplayed, and as a result, were shutout. Not producing a single high danger chance at 5 on 5 is a great way to not score, and the Devils managed that. On Thursday, despite going down 0-1 early on, the Devils managed to rally and come back to win the game 2-1. It was a tale of two different teams and their desire to compete out there.
However, some parts of both games were similar. For instance, in both games, New Jersey got crushed in possession. They managed a measley 35.06 CF% against St. Louis, and while they did marginally better against San Jose, still did not do well with possessing the puck despite being down for a large portion of the game, only managing a 44.09 CF%. Like many of the games they’ve won this year, the Devils managed to succeed against the general run of play.
Another similarity was the quality play of one Nikita Gusev, who has played quite well recently. Look at some of his 5v5 possession stats from both of the last two games, thanks to those links above from Natural Stat Trick (all stats below are from the same links):
Being above 20% in relative Corsi, and being top 5 in relative Corsi on the team in both games is very impressive. You might argue that he is being sheltered somewhat, and there is an argument to be made there. Against St. Louis, his offensive zone faceoff percentage was at 60%, tied for the highest percentage on the team with his linemates in that game, Miles Wood and Travis Zajac. Against San Jose, his OZFO% was at 50%. However, in that game, there were several skaters who were more sheltered than him (P.K. Subban was at 100% for example), and others who were also at 50%, so that percentage does not necessarily indicate a sheltered game for him.
Of course, Gusev was also on the ice for the lone 5v5 goal the Devils had in either of those two games when he assisted on Jesper Bratt’s goal late in the second period to tie the game. He also had the lone assist on Subban’s game winning power play goal in the third too, speaking more to how well he has played recently.
Despite his strong play, the coaching staff did not keep him with similar linemates in these games. As I just mentioned, in the game on Tuesday, Gusev played most of his 5v5 minutes with Zajac and Wood. Given how poorly the team overall played in that game, there really isn’t much positive to say, but that line was surely the best line out there on the ice that night. Check out the numbers:
The possession numbers are astounding there, really showing only one good line. Gusev’s line was the only one with positive possession, and their relative Corsi shows just how much better they were than the other three lines. The top line was crushed in possession, only 6 CF versus 11 CA, but had about an even relative Corsi. Gusev, Zajac and Wood, meanwhile, were distinctly positive with a 62.5 CF% and a dominant relative Corsi well over 30%. Meanwhile, the bottom two lines were just dominated.
Now, in the San Jose game on Thursday night, Gusev was given different linemates, Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt. However, look at the similar positive play from his line:
This time, Gusev’s line was second best in terms of relative Corsi, but only by one attempt against. Otherwise, it was as good as the Zajac and Wood line, of which Gusev was on the game before, but which was now finished with Simmonds. Those two lines really drove the game, the other two just trying to keep their heads above water.
Now, you can look at this information a couple of different ways. First, you might want to make the claim that Zajac and Wood are playing really well together and have gelled to the point they should remain together for quite some time (unless someone gets traded of course). That is a valid argument, perhaps for another day if that strong play continues, but for now it isn’t the one I want to touch on. The other argument is that Gusev’s play has improved a lot, and those who are on his line are playing better with him than without. This is definitely true for Pavel Zacha, who had a poor game playing with Merkley and Simmonds, but a great game playing with Gusev and Bratt. Look at his personal possession numbers over the two games:
The performances are definitely different. Pavel was sinking bad in the St. Louis game, but was having a much better game against San Jose, especially offensively. While out there, the Devils gave up around the same amount of attempts in both games, but the team had 16 offensive attempts while he was out there against San Jose, way better than the 7 offensive attempts against St. Louis.
Now, is this improvement in Zacha’s performance all because of Gusev? Probably not. The other linemate, Jesper Bratt, was also different, and he also played really well, to the point where you wonder why he was scratched on Tuesday. That trio together was great on Thursday night, and I would really like to see them play together more often and more regularly to see what they can do. Three young guys, potentially all improving and getting better, and a couple who might have decently high ceilings. Why not keep them together? It definitely isn’t worth scratching Bratt in my opinion. You could argue that Gusev’s line was better when he was with Zajac and Wood, but those two have proven to be successful with others, while Zacha was struggling badly Tuesday night. I like that young line, and I want to see more of it.
In a turbulent time with lots of trade rumors and lineup changes happening, this is something positive to focus on and look at as the Devils take on Washington in a couple of hours. Will Gusev continue to produce strong numbers? Is he improving the games of those on his line, or were the numbers I looked at over the last couple of games really just coincidence? If the Gusev-Zacha-Bratt line is together again today, what do they do against a tougher opponent? Developments like these are what will drive this team the rest of the way, despite it being obvious that this is yet another rebuild.