The New Jersey Devils will end their stay at the Rock this week with a Saturday night game against Arizona. It would be tempting to call this one an easy matchup. There are no easy matchups in the NHL, though. Looking past Arizona is a Bad Idea.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, BSAZ Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Ottawa on Thursday night. The Devils started off well enough. A bounce-filled shift ended with Tomas Tatar firing in his second of the season from the high slot for an early lead. However, this lead went away when Shane Pinto re-directed a killer pass by Claude Giroux on a power play from Brendan Smith’s second penalty of the first period. The Devils were caught bunched up down low and the puck came out to Travis Hamonic in wide open space. Hamonic finished the shot to put the Devils down 1-2. This did not last either. Nico Hischier charged in from a pass by John Marino and fired in a shot past Anton Forsberg to tie it up 2-2. In the second period, the Devils swarmed Forsberg with 21 shots. Many were saved. Miles Wood slamming in a rebound from a close shot by Michael McLeod was not. The Devils were up 3-2. Then a disaster happened. Thomas Chabot charged in close on a rush and kneed Vitek Vanecek in the head. Vanecek went down and the trainer had to come out. He stayed in. The Devils could not extend the lead or punish Chabot on that power play. Early in the third period, Pinto rocketed a shot in past Vanecek to tie it up. The Sens pressed more and the Devils could not must much of a response. Then it was decided by New Jersey to pull Vanecek out for precautionary reasons and replace him with Akira Schmid. The Devils did well to keep Ottawa to two shots on Schmid and did push to win the game in regulation late. It did not quite work. Overtime was needed. Hischier hit the post on the first shift. Then Marino was called for slashing. A soft call, but a call the nonetheless. Schmid was called upon to make tough stops in a 3-on-4 and he did it. Brady Tkachuk could not finish. The Devils killed the call. Then another big call was made. After a Jack Hughes turnover, Ottawa missed the net, the puck rimmed around, and Hughes had a chance to go one-on-one. Chabot took him down. In the 4-on-3 power play with less than 40 seconds left, it did not take long for this punishment. Faceoff win by Hischier, puck taken by Hughes, passed to Dougie Hamilton, Hamilton fired, and the puck hit off Hischier for the goal. The Devils punished Chabot after all. The Devils won 4-3 in overtime. The Devils won their eighth in a row. Matt recapped the win here.
The Last Coyotes Game: The Coyotes continued their epic road trip that began on November 5 and will end on December 7. They visited Long Island on Thursday night. Karel Vejmelka took the net again as Arizona was looking to make it three wins in a row. They would get it done. They took an advantage in the run of play as the first went on, mostly after killing the Islander’s second power play. In the second period, the Coyotes out-shot the Isles 9-3 and the play wavered but was still more in Arizona’s favor. Josh Bailey made a mistake with 8 seconds left in the second period. He held up Shayne Gostisbehere. In the third period, the successful Arizona power play broke the 0-0 score with a PPG by Travis Boyd set up by Clayton Keller. Down by just a goal, the Isles kind-of tried to fight back. They did out-attempt the Coyotes in the third, but did not out-shoot them. The visitors matched them shot for shot as Vejmelka stopped each one from the Isles. With about 30 seconds left, Jack McBain secured the win with an empty netter. Arizona won their third straight game with a 24-save shutout by Vejmelka. Carl Pavlock recapped the win over at Five for Howling.
The Goal: Discipline is key. Arizona does not create a lot of offense. However, their power play has been remarkably successful this season. They have the third highest success rate in the NHL at 29.6%. It is not so much they create a lot of offense, but they have 13 PPGs thanks to a really high team shooting percentage. Multiple Coyotes have got involved in the scoring, led by Nick Ritchie with 4 power play goals and winger Matias Maccelli with 6 power play points. The Devils’ penalty kill has been leaky as of late. They have allowed six power play goals against in their last five games, including two in the rematch against Calgary and two to Vancouver. The PK was only perfect in the first game in Calgary, a respite within this set of games. Even if they limit the damage to only one PPGA, the penalties the Devils have been punished for have often been avoidable calls. The Devils should do their best to keep this game at 5-on-5 as Arizona has been real bad at it this season. They should not help Arizona get into the game or catch up in by giving them power plays. This will help stem the bleeding by the shorthanded units and help the Devils on their way to get a result in their ninth straight game.
How’s Arizona Doing?: It is easy to discount the Coyotes. After all, they are clearly rebuilding for a future that has yet to be realized. They are sharing a four-figure arena with a college team. They are there in the hopes that they will finally have a viable arena in the Tempe area. Something that did pass the Tempe city council to allow a special referendum in May 2023 to vote for its approval. The team has the second lowest cap hit in the league. They figure to draft a team given the plethora of picks they have for the next three seasons. They are clearly re-building with little expectation for 2022-23.
Then you look beyond the image and into the reality of things. Sure, the Coyotes are not that good as indicated by their -9 goal differential. The underlying numbers show that this is a team that is not expected to compete. There is validity to thinking that the Devils should out-shine them tonight. However, hockey does not always work out the way you would expect. As not-good as the Coyotes’ record is, neither is most of the Central Division right now. Arizona is not only not in last place, but they are within striking distance of third place in the division along with Minnesota and, surprisingly, Chicago. Their six wins include victories over Florida, Washington, Toronto, Buffalo, Columbus, and the New York Islanders. Only Columbus has went on to be crummy early in this season. After giving up six goals in four of their first five games, they have only conceded that many once - in their last home game against Dallas, 7-2. They responded to that with a three game winning streak on the road with a close win over Washington, a decisive 4-1 win in Buffalo, and a shutout on Long Island. Arizona is on a hot streak of their own. This is a team that is at least capable of pulling off a winning result provided their goaltender turns into a wall and the Coyotes make the most their few shots on net.
You disrespect an opponent in the NHL at your peril. Especially one who just won their last three games.
The Arizona Offense: Arizona is a team that scores by committee and does not score a lot in 5-on-5. Or do all that much positive in 5-on-5 Per Natural Stat Trick, their expected goals for per 60 minute rate is a mere 1.82 (dead last in the NHL) and their actual goals for per 60 minute rate is a mere 1.81 (next to last in the NHL). They are are still among the least productive teams in the NHL by both process and production. This is likely because the Coyotes are also near or at the bottom in terms of creating shot attempts, shots on net, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Their saving grace is a team shooting percentage of 7.69% in 5-on-5 play, except that has fell in the past few games towards the bottom half of the NHL. It is almost the inverse of how the Devils have played at 5-on-5 this season.
In terms of players of note, there are a couple to know among their leading scorers. Lawson Crouse and Nick Ritchie lead the team in goals with six each. Clayton Keller is the leader in points with 15 (4 goals and 11 assists); he is a straw that stirs the drink. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere has the most shots on net with 34 along with four goals and six assists. Matias Maccelli has been a surprise with a goal and eight assists, mostly on the power play. There have been a collection of contributions here and there from the likes of Travis Boyd, rookie Dylan Guenther, the not-related-to-me Christian Fischer, and defender J.J. Moser. That is all in terms of production. In terms of the run of play in 5-on-5, it is U-G-L-Y past Jusso Valimaki (and even he is below 50% CF%) and, I guess relative to everyone else, Barret Hayton and Ritchie. Arizona’s coaches have no alibi. Their 5-on-5 offense (and their play overall) is pretty awful except when their few shots find their way in.
The power play is a bit of a different story. The stats that reflect their man advantage process are still not that great. The Coyotes have a power play xGF/60 of 5.68, which is one of the fewest rates in the NHL. Similar to their 5-on-5 play, they just do not generate a lot of shots or scoring chances. However, the Coyotes’ power play success rate is actually one of the highest in the NHL. It is sitting at 29.6%. It is the third highest in the NHL. The team has converted 13 out of 44 opportunities. How? In two words: shooting percentage. Arizona’s team shooting percentage in man advantage situations is at an incredible (and unsustainable) 24.07%. It is second to Colorado in the entire NHL and one of five teams with a team shooting percentage over 20% in power play situations. When they actually get a shot on a power play, it has a decent chance of being a goal. Hence the goal (along with the Devils giving up PPGAs as of late).
This has been a key source of production for Arizona’s top scorers. Ritchie has four of the team’s twelve PPGs. Guenther, Crouse, and Gostisbehere have contributed two. Seven of Maccelli’s nine points are on the power play. Even Keller, the team’s leading scorer at even strength, has four power play points. It could be argued that the Devils should avoid giving Arizona any man advantages. It may not last, but their power play has been hot when given the chance.
For the Devils to respect Arizona’s offense, they would be wise to not just keep the game at 5-on-5 but focus their better defensive efforts against Keller, Crouse, Ritchie, and Guenther up front. When Gostisbehere or Moser are on the ice, they should also be aware. Their individual crummy 5-on-5 on-ice rates suggest they have played a lot of defense this season anyway. The Devils should seek to continue that. Especially when John Marino or Dougie Hamilton or Jonas Siegenthaler or even Ryan Graves gets an early stop on defense and can counter attack. As we saw with the Ottawa game, though, it only takes a couple of lulls for a team to get a few chances to get back into games. So either New Jersey has to go up by a lot before they can relax or Arizona has to play to what their stats suggest and the Devils just have to avoid making big errors.
The Arizona Defense: Arizona has played a lot of defense this season. This is a result of being out-attempted and out-shot in just about every game so far this season. They have had just two games where they were on the right side of those counts. Last night’s 2-0 win in Long Island and a 7-2 loss to Dallas that had a lot of garbage time in it. You would think with a lot of time on defense that they would be good at it.
Not quite. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Coyotes are among the worst in the NHL in terms of allowing attempts (a CA/60 rate decidedly above 60), shots (well over 30 SA/60, it is actually just shy of 35 SA/60), scoring chances (a SCA/60 just below 35 SCA/60) and high danger chances (just shy of 14 HDCA/60). While Arizona has had some games where they kept the shot count against at a reasonable amount, they have had plenty of games go out of hand in the run of play. It puts a lot of pressure on their goaltenders. The expected goals model at NST has the Coyotes give up 3 xGA/60 - and the Coyotes have “beat” that by allowing 3.32 goals against per 60 minutes in 5-on-5. It is not a good team defense.
Moser and Gostisbehere are the leaders on defense (and on the team) in ice time per game this season. Gostisbehere has attacked the most and produced the most among the defenders. Moser is behind him in that sense. They are followed by the likes of Josh Brown, Troy Stetcher, Valimaki, and a rotation of Patrik Nemeth and Dysin Mayo. Conor Timmins being out hurt, well, hurts. The Coyotes have used seven defensemen in recent games to spread it out. However, the on-ice rates show that only Valimaki has performed well relative to the other defenders. Everyone else has been lit up or lit up a lot in 5-on-5. It is not like the forwards have been locking things down either with Liam O’Brien providing the fewest SA/60 rate among regular Coyote forwards at 29.2. Which is still not a good rate. (Aside: Lawson Crouse, do you even defend with your 40.36 SA/60?!) Plenty of teams have rushed down the Coyotes. The Devils can absolutely do it to them. It could be glorious.
On the penalty kill, Arizona’s success rate has been pretty good. They are above the league median and just outside of the top ten with an 81.6% success rate. They have killed 37 out of 46 situations and scored one shorthanded goal. Arizona’s discipline has been an issue as they rank eighth in the NHL with a 3.77 shorthanded situations per game average. In terms of on-ice rates, the Coyotes are not that good but they are not near the bottom like they are in 5-on-5 play when it comes to allowing attempts or shots. For a team that gets crushed in 5-on-5, posting an xGA/60 of 7.99 in shorthanded situations is pretty good. It is manageable. It also helps that they are getting better than average goaltending during PKs with a team save percentage of 88.61%.
The Devils’ power play needs to get into sync on its entries and getting set up. Once there, they can at least be functional. Arizona may make that tricky; their penalty kill units are not pushovers. In 5-on-5, though, the Devils really should be able to take any unit on. Whether it is the Hughes line, the Hischier line, the Mercer line (which has struggled as of late), or the McLeod line, there will be a lot of opportunities allowed to attack. The Devils just need to stay focused, keep their passes to their sticks and not skates or off touches, and not over-play situations. The Coyotes will try to put up a resistance but multiple teams have blown it up this season. The Devils can absolutely be the next one to do it to them.
The Arizona Goaltenders: Arizona goaltending has been very busy. This will happen when the team is giving up a rate of just under 35 shots per 60 in 5-on-5 hockey alone. In shorthanded situations, it has been good with an 88.61% team save percentage. That is above the league median. In 5-on-5 situations, though, the pressure has led to a lot of goals against and a team save percentage of 90.38%. A percentage that just rose above 90% due to a shutout in Thursday’s game. It is the seventh lowest save percentage in the league, so while it has risen recently it is still not good.
Arizona has a clear-cut #1 and #2 goaltender. The #1 is Karel Vejmelka. He has appeared in 9 games and started 8. He has done quite well, all things considered. Vejmelka has a solid 92% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations, a decent 86.7% in shorthanded situations, and a respectable overall save percentage of 91.5%. Vejmelka has already faced over 350 shots this season for an average of 35.1 per appearance. He has the capability of standing tall in the face of a lot of rubber. He did just shut out the Islanders on the road on Thursday night. He has been excellent as of late in Arizona’s winning streak. He has had to be in excellent form, especially in 5-on-5, for the Coyotes to win the five games that they have won with him. He is a very good goaltender in light of his situation.
The #2 goalie is Connor Ingram. He has not done so well in his four starts. He has a ghastly 5-on-5 save percentage of 85.2%. In shorthanded situations, he has been excellent at 94.7% with just one power play goal allowed. However, that terrible 5-on-5 save percentage (and, by extension, terrible even strength save percentage) totally undercuts that. Ingram’s overall save percentage is a very low 87.4%. Worse, he has faced a lighter workload in his games; his average shots per game against him has been just 27.75 per appearance. Ingram has not played nearly as well as Vejmelka.
Clearly, Vejmelka has been the superior goaltender for Arizona. However, it is possible we could see a change in net. The Coyotes will be playing back-to-back this weekend. They will be visiting the World’s Most Overrated Arena on Sunday evening. They are also in the early part of an epic road trip that will last for 14 games that started on November 5 and will end on December 7. This back-to-back set is the only one of its kind on the road. Yet, I would like to think they do not want to risk wearing Vejmelka out in both games. It will be interesting to see how the Coyotes split the games.
Vejmelka would be the one with the ability to withstand a Devils team that has racked up shots like there is no tomorrow. However, if they see Our Hated Rivals as a bigger threat, then they may roll the dice with Ingram against the Devils and leave Vejmelka for Manhattan. I would hope it is the latter as Ingram has been notably worse than Vejmelka. I would count on the Devils seeing Vejmelka and trying their best to break him down. When he’s on, then the Coyotes can win. If it is Ingram, then I am more confident of the Devils putting plenty of pucks past Arizona.
Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils won their eighth straight game. However, it came with another goaltender injury. Thomas Chabot kneed Vitek Vanecek in the head when he crashed the net in the second period. Vanecek went down and stayed down with the trainer. He did stay in net for the rest of the second period and played about 10 minutes in the third period. Then he was pulled out of the game for precautionary reasons. Akira Schmid had to take over. Schmid was truly tested in overtime and he passed with flying colors. Vanecek did participate in practice yesterday per Amanda Stein albeit not with the main group and on his own. This is a positive development; he is not so hurt that he cannot take to the ice.
Still, it is possible that Vanecek does not play in this game. It may be safer to give him this game off and ensure he is fully good to go for next week’s trip to Eastern Canada. If there is a game to give Akira Schmid a start, then a low-shooting Arizona team would be a very good choice. Arizona is indeed hot but those 5-on-5 numbers do not lie. The Coyotes are not an offensive force short of the Devils just playing stupid on the ice. All the same, I want to see the Devils help out their goaltender as much as they can. This means being as stingy as they can in the run of play, try to have most of the game played in Arizona’s half of the rink, and do not take avoidable calls to give Arizona’s hot power play a chance to convert.
This matches with what I want to see from the skaters regardless of the goaltender situation. I want the Devils should do to Arizona what they did during their best stretches in the Ottawa game. In a word, repeated four times: Swarm, swarm, swarm, swarm. The New Jersey Devils’ hot start has been fueled by utterly dominant numbers in 5-on-5. Numbers that reflect a team that has tilted the ice often against opponents. Stats that show the team is indeed putting a load of shots on net, which is in turn keeping the opposition from responding. While Edmonton and Calgary have put a dent in that, the Coyotes are none of those teams. Arizona’s five-on-five stats are among the worst in the league per Natural Stat Trick. They do not shoot a lot and they allow a load of shots relative to everyone else in the league. They create among the fewest high danger changes in the NHL and allow one of the highest such rates against them. The Devils should be able to feast on the Coyotes. Basically, if the Devils can overwhelm Arizona to a point where they cannot get a foothold in the game, then they should prevail. If Vejmelka is in net, they may need to throw a lot at him to beat him multiple times. Swarming has been the Devils way this season. It should do the job tonight.
I would like to see the Hischier and Hughes lines continue to attack a whole lot. Hischier had two goals; Hughes set up two goals; and they often put the Sens are their heels. Less so from the bottom six, although the fourth line did contribute a whole lot. I would love it if Haula can finally get a goal. Or that Tatar gets some more. Or Bratt and Hughes put in some pucks themselves. But tilting the ice definitely has its own value and I would look to the Devils’ top lines to do that tonight against a leaky Arizona squad.
One Last Thought: I doubt this will happen, but I would like to see Kevin Bahl come in for Brendan Smith. Smith took two penalties in the first period against Ottawa and one yielded a goal against. Smith looked fine in the run of play from an attempts perspective (15-9), less so from a shots perspective (8-6). He is not really adding much positive on the ice. I doubt there will be a change because the team has been winning and Ruff is very much a “don’t change anything about a winning team” coach. But if there is a game to get Bahl in, then this would be a safe one to do so. It is at home. It is against one of the statistically weaker offenses in the NHL. It would be for a third pairing. Provided Damon Severson limits his turnovers, this is a good time to make it happen. Only I do not expect it.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will end their homestand tonight against the Coyotes. I think it will not be a push over as there are no push over teams in this league. What do you think of this match-up? Can the Devils keep the Coyotes at bay like most of their opponents have done this season? Will the Devils be smart and not turn this game into who has better special teams? Can the Devils break down Vejmelka, assuming he starts? Who on Arizona concerns you, if any? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.