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Game Preview #10: New Jersey Devils at Vancouver Canucks

The New Jersey Devils begin a three-game road trip into Western Canada tonight with a game against the Vancouver Canucks. Read this game preview to learn a little more about Vancouver’s season, their team, and what the Devils can do to them.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Vancouver Canucks
Get ready for a lot of Elias Pettersson (R) and J.T. Miller (L) tonight.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils embark on their first road trip of their regular season. Their first stop is in British Columbia tonight. They will visit the Vancouver Canucks, who have finally won some games recently. These trips are never easy - just ask Pittsburgh - and yet this is probably the best chance for the Devils to get some points out of all three games. Read on to find out why with this preview of tonight’s game. Then take a nap because this one is a late one for those local to the Devils.

The Time: 10:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, MSG 2, SN360; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Vancouver Canucks (SBN Blog: Nucks Misconduct)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Columbus Blue Jackets. After honoring Ken Daneyko for his 40 years with the organization and awarding him an engraved silver stick, the Devils proceeded to beat on the Blue Jackets. After 17 minutes of the Devils constantly pinning the Blue Jackets back and making Elvis Merzlikins have to be great (poor Tomas Tatar, he was robbed once by the goalie and once by the iron), New Jersey found a breakthrough. Fabian Zetterlund called for a pass, Nico Hischier hooked him up in the slot, and Zetterlund’s shot ramped up off Merzlikins and in. The Swole Swede was exuberant. The Rock was pleased.The Devils finished the first up 1-0 while out-shooting the Blue Jackets 20-5. Then the flood yielded more goals in the second period. Nico Hischier fires one in off the rush. On the next shift, John Marino made a zone exit to Jack Hughes, who made a pass to Jesper Bratt, who found Ryan Graves darting through the neutral zone on the right side. Graves takes the pass and hammers a slapshot to make it 3-0. While a lost board battle yielded Cole Sillinger setting up Yegor Chinakhov for a wrist shot that beat Vitek Vanecek to make it 3-1. The Columbus tried to get back into the game, the Devils rebuffed them, and near the end of the second, a fracas occurred. Merzlikins denied McLeod a rebound try in front, Nathan Bastian poked at the loose puck and caught Merzlikins in a sensative area, and Merzlikins joined the pile on top of Bastian. Both Bastian and Merzlikins were given penalties. In 4-on-4, Andrew Peeke’s pass to Johnny Gaudreau was taken by John Marino. Marino stepped in, fired, and the shot went off Merzlikin’s glove and in to make it 4-1. Early in the third, the Devils first power play unit did everything but score. The second unit came out with Jonas Siegenthaler in the back to play out the sequence. Erik Haula and Dawson Mercer pounded it in close and Siegenthaler jumped up to put home a rebound for his second ever goal with the Devils and make it 5-1. The Devils never let up. Hughes set up Bratt for a cross-ice one-timer that torched Merzlikins to make it 6-1. Two minutes later. Bastian played up a puck to Miles Wood for a one-on-one with rookie David Jiricek. Wood phased through the defender and roofed a backhander bar-down on Merzlikins. What an exclamation point to make it 7-1. The game ended with the Devils out-shooting Columbus 53-21 and out-attempting them 91-37. This was an utter domination of an opponent who has given the Devils fits for years. I loved every second of this game. Matt’s recap of the win is here.

The Last Canucks Game: The Canucks took on Pittsburgh in the second half of a back-to-back set. They won their first game in Seattle the night prior, 5-4. They would win their second game, their first at home. No fans would be throwing jerseys on the ice. No Canuck supporters would be booing. No, they cheered when Tanner Pearson put the Canucks up 1-0 in the first period. They roared when Bo Horvat scored a power play goal early in the second period. They probably felt uneasy when Rickard Rakell converted a power play late in the second period, wondering whether Another Loss Was Happening Again. The uneasiness was helped by Spencer Martin making saves. Those worries faded past halfway through the third when Andrei Kuzmenko made it 3-1. The cheering became more common, especially after Horvat scored another PPG late and J.T. Miller made it a 5-1 game with an empty netter. The Canucks won their first home game of the season by beating a legitimately good Penguins team. Check out this recap at Nucks Misconduct by “jimmi.cynic” for a Vancouver take on the win.

The Goal: Stay out of the box! This may be the goal for all three games on this trip as Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary have had very potent power plays in the early part of this season. While the numbers may change by the time the Devils get to play them, all three have top-ten conversion rates in the NHL, with Vancouver boasting a 25.8% success rate with 8 PPGs out of 31 chances. While their on-ice rates during power play situations are closer to the league median, the Canucks rock a strong 17.78% shooting percentage with a decent shooting rate of of 54.95 SF/60 per Natural Stat Trick. Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, and Andrei Kuzmenko each have two PPGs and Elias Pettersson has three PPAs. Even with the Devils boasting one of the better penalty kills in the NHL, giving the Canucks man advantages will serve to make this game harder on themselves at best and into a loss at worst. So stay out of the box! I’m looking especially hard at these three to be smarter with their “physical play:” Damon Severson, Tomas Tatar, and Miles Wood.

How’s Vancouver Doing?: Until last Thursday, it was terrible. The Canucks were winless. The players already had a closed-door meeting. Injuries have mounted with Quinn Hughes (returning tonight), Brock Boeser (he is a gametime decision), Tucker Poolman, Curtis Lazar, Riley Stillman, and Travis Demott all hitting IR within the past week. Comments from head coach Bruce Boudreau and GM Patrick Allvin - who capped the team out perfectly by the compliance date - indicated a team in disarray and they were both shocked by it. Fans were unhappy and some even threw a jersey on the ice. It was bad in Vancouver.

However, the Canucks were able to pull out an overtime win in Seattle and throttle Pittsburgh at home. Allvin was able to bring in forward Jack Studnicka (Nucks Misconduct reaction here) and defenseman Ethan Bear (Nucks Misconduct reaction here) in trades to add support to an injury-depleted roster. Some of those players on IR are coming back soon. Quinn Hughes is expected to return and Brock Boeser is a gametime decision. Vancouver still has a heap of issues at 2-5-2 in the back end - but not last! - of the Pacific Division. But the team may be righting its direction. All this means that this game for the Devils is a bit more of a challenge than what I would have said a week ago if you asked me (and I know you did not, the Devils had a back-to-back coming up anyway).

The Vancouver Offense: Vancouver’s power play has been out-performing the expected goals model at NST with a GF/60 of 9.77 to an xGF/60 of 6.62. Even without Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes, the Canucks have plenty of offensive talents that can take advantage of extra space. Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Andrei Kuzmenko, and team-leading scorer Elias Pettersson can all ruin a team if given an extra man to play with. Brock Boeser returning tonight would give the Canucks another winger who can produce. Further, they are Vancouver’s most productive players. They have decent support up front with Ilya Mikheyev, Conor Garland, and Tanner Pearson. Vasily Podkolzin is still finding his way in the NHL but has a bright future. On paper, Vancouver’s offense does not seem that bad.

Then you look at the 5-on-5 numbers and wonder why it is not any better. As strong as Vancouver’s power play is, their 5-on-5 play leaves a lot to be desired. Per Natural Stat Trick, Vancouver is either a bottom-10 or bottom-5 team in terms of generating shot attempts (Corsi), shots, scoring chances, and high danger scoring chances. Their xGF/60 rate of 2.28 is beaten by their actual goal rate, which is not much higher at 2.35 GF/60 - another bottom ten stat. They’re down there with Detroit, Anaheim, Philadelphia, San Jose, and Washington. I mention those teams because those are teams the Devils have played. Provided the Devils do not commit bad turnovers, the skaters do their jobs in their own end, and the Devils get decent goaltending from either Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood (which has not been common as the Devils rock the league’s worst 5-on-5 save percentage), the Devils should be fine. Given how John Marino, Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ryan Graves handled Colorado just two games ago and Columbus on Sunday, I do not think Vancouver is going to give them anything they have not seen. The Devils could feasibly keep this team to well under 30 shots. Something they have done consistently throughout this season. Yes, it is a road game. Ask Detroit and the Islanders how that went.

The Vancouver Defense: Ethan Bear will make his debut tonight. Quinn Hughes coming back will give this group a boost. One that could be useful as Vancouver’s against-rate stats in 5-on-5 are a bit all over the place. It is not as bad as their for-rates. Their CA/60 of 58.40 is around the league median. Their SA/60 rate (32.17) is below it. Their SCA/60 rate is actually a top-ten rate at 27.89. Their HDCA/60 rate is close to the median at 11.73. What this all points to is a team that could be doing better in their own end, but it is not a disaster. It could be better and a return of Hughes would be a big help. If only to limit some of the extra minutes taken on by Kyle Burroughs and Luke Schenn in the wake of their injuries to the defense. Expect to see plenty of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers regardless; they have averaged over 23 minutes per game this season even with Hughes in the lineup. Will Hughes play over 27 minutes in his first game back? We shall see.

That all said, the Devils are in a position to give this group fits if they are able to connect passes and protect the puck well enough to attack with pace over and over. This is what the Devils have done throughout October. This is why the Devils have eye-poppingly good rate stats in 5-on-5 such as an attempt rate over 70 (!) per 60 minutes, a shot rate just over 40 per 60 minutes, and an expected goals rate of 3.67 xGF/60. Given Vancouver’s 2.73 xGA/60, the Devils could make it a long night for Vancouver’s blueline and their goalie. Which would also stem Vancouver’s pop-gun like attack in 5-on-5 play. Jesper Bratt has been utterly dominant this season and an array of players have supremely high on-ice shooting rates for the Devils ranging from Tatar and Fabian Zetterlund to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier to Erik Haula and Miles Wood. If the Devils get two or three of their lines going, Vancouver’s defense is going to get exposed one way or another. Even with the addition of Ethan Bear. If the Devils can bring the effort they brought to Detroit last week, the Islanders last Thursday, or Columbus just on Sunday, then it can be a very, very, very long night for Vancouver. Especially if Vancouver gets frustrated and falls apart like they did before their two wins this season.

Should this carry into the power play for New Jersey, then Vancouver could be in real trouble. While their defensive stats in 5-on-5 are not so bad, their penalty kill has been a real sore spot. Vancouver’s PK does not have a particularly high rate of attempts or shots against. They do have a high rate of high danger chances against, which feeds into a xGA/60 of 9.3 - one of the highest in the NHL. Their goalies have not been able to make that better; hence, the Canucks have a stupefying 17.85 GA/60. The result is the league’s worst success rate on penalty kills: 62.1% or 18 kills out of 29. The Canucks have given up 11 power play goals already. Not that the Devils’ power play has been on fire, but they have a streak going of three games with PPGs. This could be a night where they can further boost their power play performances with goals. Should the Devils’ attack draw calls, it is another way for the Devils to make this defense suffer.

The Vancouver Goaltenders: Vancouver has a decent 5-on-5 team save percentage of 91.82%, which is around league median. That is not bad. So why are they 2-5-2? Let us take a closer look at each goalie.

Thatcher Demko was quite good last season. In seven appearances, Demko has not been good at all this season. Demko has been fine, not exceptional, in 5-on-5, but special teams have been a nightmare. While Demko has a not-bad 90.9% even strength save percentage, his overall save percentage is a woeful 87.4% due to giving up 9 power play goals out of 29 power play shots. That is a save percentage below 70%. Demko, unfortunately, is a reason why Vancouver has the least successful penalty kill in the NHL. Tack on two shorthanded goals against out of seven shorthanded shots, and that will kneecap any save percentage. Demko is certainly talented, but this is not what he or the Canucks expected to start this season.

Backup Spencer Martin has just two appearances but has done well in both. He has conceded just 3 goals in 5-on-5 out of an expected 4.28 with a 5-on-5 save percentage of 94.5%. In even strength, he has a 93.3%. Martin has not given up - or faced - a shorthanded situation; and he has been beaten just once on power plays with seven other stops. Martin is very much the #2 in Vancouver. However, should the team go back to falling off the rails, do not be so shocked if Martin gets some more minutes here and there.

Per TSN, the Devils will see Demko tonight. This makes sense as he has been the starter throughout this season so far. If they need to know anything, then they should at least know to respect but not fear him. He is not playing particularly great so far in this season and if the Devils are able to flood Vancouver with shots, then goals will likely come. I would suggest that Demko is better than Merzlikins and Nedeljkovic. But the Devils flooded Ilya Sorokin, a goalie I think is better than Demko, and cracked him with four goals. If the goals do not come early, do not sweat. Just keep the foot on the gas pedal, keep attacking, and they should come.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils are entering this trip with two big statement wins. Their 1-0 win over Colorado on Friday is evidence that the Devils can handle their business against a perceived superior team and in a close game. Their 7-1 win over Columbus, who has had the Devils’ numbers for years, is indicative of how strong the Devils can be if they can keep up a high effort through three periods and, hopefully, that this Devils team is not like the ones from the past few years.

As the Devils won both games, I would expect the same lineup to start this one. Head coach Lindy Ruff is someone who sticks with a winning group when able. Unless someone picked up an injury on Sunday, I would anticipate on Vitek Vanecek getting the start, Brendan Smith being the #6 defenseman over Kevin Bahl, and the forward lines remaining as-is. I cannot argue against such a decision. If you’re not going to stick with the same group that dropped 53 shots on net and 7 goals on a divisional opponent and held Colorado to fewer than 25 shots in a 1-0 game, then I do not know when else it would be a good idea. My hope is that they come out with the same effort - even if the score does not go as favorably. Even if Vancouver goes up early, the Devils can flood the Canucks with shots and make them re-live their several blown leads already. I can understand that is may be difficult to keep up that kind of pace, pressure, and performance for a long period of time. But I think it can give the Devils a huge edge tonight before they play better teams in Alberta.

One Last Thought: The trip against Vancouver and the Albertan teams is never an easy one. Pittsburgh just did it and lost all three games against them. Last season, the Devils played Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton from March 15, 2022 to March 19, 2022. They lost each game 3-6. I like the Devils chances tonight provided they can play like they have been earlier in this season and provided Vancouver is still in a state of some disarray. A better state, but I do not think they are out of it yet. I still think this is the easiest of the three games. The Edmonton and Calgary games will difficult enough as-is. However, do not expect it to be a simple, decisive contest for the Devils. Something about the long trip plus Vancouver feeling somewhat good about winning something only adds to the difficulty. You and I can look past this one - partially because of the 10 PM ET start time - but the team should not.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils should be able to match up well against Vancouver. I think if they play a disciplined game and continue what they have been doing, then they have a good opportunity to leave British Columbia with more points. What do you think will happen in tonight’s game? Do you think the Devils will win or not? What will the pre-game line up show and how will that impact the game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils-Canucks game in the comments. Thank you for reading.