The New Jersey Devils are one game away from a Christmas break. That one game is a tough one. They are playing the first-place team in the entire NHL tonight. A team that seemingly has it all from model citizen skaters to an utter cheap-shotting scumbag.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN2, NESN; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Boston Bruins (SBN Blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder)
The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils were in Sunrise, Florida to play the Panthers. How would the Devils fare coming off a loss in Carolina? How would they handle all of the Physical Brutality? It did not start well. Ryan Graves’ legs were tied up in a collision with Zac Dalpe. Graves could not get up; he had to be assisted to the locker room with a trainer. He would be out for the remainder of the game; forcing the Devils to play with five defensemen. Worse, Eric Staal was able to freely put a rebound past Mackenzie Blackwood while vaunted character/energy/gritty guys Michael McLeod and Miles Wood stood about like statues. The Devils were down 0-1. Then a fight between Erik Haula and Anton Lundell happened. Lundell got an extra penalty and the Devils punished him for it. A faceoff win to Dougie Hamilton to Jack Hughes to Jesper Bratt rifling in a one-timer to tie up the game. Bratt’s first goal in six games was the equalizer. In the second period, Florida would get back in front. A Kevin Bahl penalty was nearly killed until Sam Bennett put a move on Brendan Smith and Dawson Mercer on a zone entry. It gave him the space to pass it across to Eetu Luostarinen, put beat Blackwood for a 1-2 score. Blackwood was making plenty of big stops but that was not going to be one of them. The Devils held on but would need a third-period comeback. They would get one thanks to Blackwood locking it down and a turnover by Florida in the neutral zone. Hamilton flung the puck up to Bratt to lead a 2-on-1 with Hughes. Bratt trusted his shot and beat Sergei Bobrovsky to his left to make it a 2-2 game. The Devils held steady until later on when Michael McLeod made a legitimately good play to carry the puck into the zone. He circled around to find Jonas Siegenthaler at the center point. The defenseman fired a shot and Yegor Sharangovich - yes, him - was open along the way to re-direct it. The re-direction beat Bobrovsky and put the Devils up. Sharangovich broke a nine-game goal drought with that one. The Devils held on, survived a desperate 5-on-6 wave of offense at the end, countered with a non-icing empty-net-goal miss, forechecked, and Tomas Tatar put in the ENG to secure the game. Matthew Tkachuk immediately reacted by trying to fight Nico Hischier, which caused a massive scrum and Tkachuk trying to pummel the Devils captain after the refs separated them. Don’t tell me this Devils team is soft given what they went through to end their six-game slide with a 4-2 win. My recap of the victory is here.
The Last Bruins Game: Last night, the Bruins hosted Winnipeg. It was a very poor start for the B’s. Mark Scheifele scored his 20th of the season just before the two-minute mark and Jansen Harkins made it 2-0 at the 7:20 mark of the first period. Connor Hellebuyck was strong early on and the Jets had a strong lead going into the second period. The Bruins would turn up the pressure. It would eventually crack Winnipeg in the second period. David Pastrnak broke Hellebuyck’s shutout at 12:08 of the middle frame. A tripping penalty by Scheifele would be punished. Specifically by Jake DeBrusk with helpers from Pastrnak and Hampus Lindholm. The B’s got another power play shortly thereafter but the Jets escaped. Still, Boston would not really let up. Their efforts would pay off once again in the third period. Nick Foligno would be left open in a pocket of space in the slot. He fired one low past the goalie to break the tie at 3-2. The score stood up for yet another win for the Bruins in Boston. They remain without a regulation loss at home. In 20 home games.
The Goal: Take advantage of the rest advantage. As this preview will show, there is not a lot of weakness within the team with the best record in the NHL. This means the Devils need to take whatever edges they can get. The fact that Boston played and won a close game last night provides one such edge. The Devils had yesterday off. They will play this game with some rest in their favor. Will it be enough to hand the Bruins a rare loss? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Devils want to prevail, then they need to set the tone early, make the game uncomfortable for Boston, and ideally go up early. Sure, Boston can come back. They literally just did so against Winnipeg. However, I like New Jersey’s chances with an early lead built up while Boston is getting their legs under them as opposed to a tied-score situation or, worse, the Devils chasing the score early on.
How’s Boston Doing?: Incredible. Magnificent. Marvelous. Awe-inspiring. You get the picture.
Boston has the best record in the NHL. They are 26-4-2. They have not lost a game at home in regulation out of 20 attempts by opponents. On the road, they are 8-4-0, which is still quite good. The B’s have a goal differential of +55. That is not a typo. The Bruins are ahead of everyone else in the NHL and have games in hand on just about everyone anywhere within ten points of them. Of which only six teams are as of this morning. The Bruins have been sensational from the first game through to tonight.
Sure, it is easy to meme that they lost a game to Arizona. And their perception was not good going into this season between an aging core, David Pastrnak not being signed, Charlie McAvoy expected to miss a lot of time due to injury, head coach Bruce Cassidy leaving for Las Vegas, and questions as to whether goaltenders Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman are for real. The Bruins proved the haters and losers were dead wrong immediately. That they have just six out of 32 games without a win is evidence enough that they have been exceptional. They won a lot before McAvoy returned and they won a lot after he returned, they won a lot with Swayman and Ullmark. They won a lot with Pastrnak - who is a top scorer in the NHL - and his undecided future. They won a lot with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall, all contributing quite a bit while being 31 years old or over. They won a lot with their new head coach, Jim Montgomery. Boston just has won a lot of games.
Seriously, the only major failure from the Bruins in this part of the 2022-23 season was that bizarre, unnecessary, and tone-deaf signing of Mitchell Miller. Everything else: Impeccable.
Boston is the best team in the NHL. And the Devils will see them tonight and again after Christmas on December 28.
The Boston Offense: In a word: prolific. They sit tied with Edmonton for the second most goals in the NHL with 124 and two behind Buffalo, the league leader in team scoring. You will not be surprised that the B’s are quite good at generating offense in 5-on-5 hockey. Here’s a quick breakdown after last night’s games from Natural Stat Trick:
- Corsi For per 60 minutes: 58.69 (10th, Devils are 2nd with 65.87)
- Shots For per 60 minutes: 33.23 (4th, Devils are 2nd with 35.65)
- Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 31.57 (7th, Devils are 1st with 35.62)
- High Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 13.23 (6th, Devils are 3rd with 14.55)
- Expected Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.80 (7th, Devils are 1st with 3.20)
- Actual Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.91 (5th, Devils are 1st with 3.06)
- Team Shooting Percentage: 8.77% (12th, Devils are 15th with 8.59%)
By these metrics, it appears that the Bruins are a very good but perhaps not elite offensive team in 5-on-5 like, say, Carolina. One could say there is room for growth. I think that undersells it. Being a top-ten team in all of these categories except for team shooting percentage is really good. Clearly, it has worked out for them with a high rate of actual goals scored and a GF/60 rate that beats the expected goals model at NST.
Boston’s offensive production has one major danger man and a whole bunch of dangerous players. The main one is David Pastrnak. With 22 goals, 23 assists, and 45 points, he sits sixth in the entire league in scoring. He has more points than even Sidney Crosby. He has taken a lot of shots (162), he plays a lot of minutes (nearly averages 20 minutes per game), he absolutely crushes it in 5-on-5 situations, and he has nearly 20 more points than the second most prolific scorer on Boston. You may have heard of that guy too: his name is Taylor Hall.
This may surprise you, but Hall has been a very effective producer and player for the Bruins. Great 5-on-5 numbers, 13 goals, 27 points, and 91 shots, and playing off Pastrnak. Which has been mostly with Hall and Pavel Zacha. What of their older core members? They are doing more than fine without Pasrtnak. Those would be future Hall of Famer Patrice Bergeron who continues to have stupefying brilliant numbers in 5-on-5 play (a xGF% of 67.15% is mindboggling) and noted cheap-shot artist Brad Marchand. Oh, Bergeron and Marchand also have 26 points each in case if you wondered if they were getting on the board. The depth gets thicker for the B’s. Jake DeBrusk has been a very fine winger with 12 goals and 24 points. Defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy have been supremely productive with point-per-game rates of 0.75 and 0.89 respectively. Pavel Zacha may have not turned a corner but with three goals and 19 points, he is not dragging anyone down. David Krejci may be old but he still has loads of game as indicated by his 10 goals and 24 points in 27 games. Charlie Coyle, Nick Foligno, and Trent Frederic add further depth to the scoring department. Oh, and almost all of those players I named have been fantastic to above-water in 5-on-5 play (the exceptions are Coyle and Foligno). Pastrnak will be a Problem. The Bruins have several players who can be Problems for opposition defenses.
What will also be a Problem for the Devils tonight will be penalties, should they take plenty of them. The Bruins have one of the most successful power plays in the entire NHL. With 36 power play goals out of 122 opportunities, they sit third in the NHL in success rate with a 29.5%. They also sit fourth in the NHL in total power play opportunities; they have been quite good at generating man advantages. When the B’s do get a man advantage, their team has put up a very good 9.35 xGF/60 rate, which is another top-ten rate in the NHL per Natural Stat Trick. Except for two of the six teams with better power play expected goal rates, the Bruins have a very potent 16.75% shooting percentage on power plays. The most productive players on Boston’s power plays have been Pastrnak (10 PPGs, 22 PP points) and Marchand (6 PPGs, 18 PP points). But just like their total scoring, there are several who have produced and therefore will command respect. McAvoy, DeBrusk, Krejci, and Bergeron each have 10 power play points, with Lindholm having nine. Hall oddly only has five power play points, but that just makes his production more impressive as he is not feasting on primarily-offensive situations like power plays. When the Devils take a call, they will have the displeasure of dealing with Pastrnak and Marchand getting even more space to work with and pick apart than they already do in 5-on-5.
This is all to say that Boston’s offense is very potent. Even if the Devils can keep Pastrnak to a minimum, he will likely get on the board similar to how Jason Roberson, Tage Thompson, and Crosby tend to do. He is involved so much that offense just runs through him. And the Bruins have more than enough players to make match-ups very difficult and force every pairing and line to be mindful on the puck. Look at Boston’s most recent win. Yes, Pastrnak played a big role. So did Nick Foligno and DeBrusk on a power play. They are quite deep and that alone makes the Bruins a difficult opponent for any team, nevermind the Devils.
The Boston Defense: Of course, even if the Devils can repel the Bruins’ attack, then there is the matter of the Bruins defense. They are also really good at that too - and they now have a fully in-form McAvoy which has made it even stingier. Here’s a another breakdown after last night’s games from Natural Stat Trick to provide some data for this opinion:
- Corsi Against per 60 minutes: 51.77 (5th, Devils are 2nd with 50.97)
- Shots Against per 60 minutes: 28.05 (9th, Devils are 2nd with 25.47)
- Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 25.70 (5th, Devils are 4th with 25.20)
- High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 10.36 (3rd, Devils are 2nd with 9.46)
- Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.21 (tied 2nd, Devils are 4th with 2.23)
- Actual Goals Against per 60 minutes: 1.78 (1st, Devils are tied for 5th with 1.95)
I have a separate section for goaltending and I will spoil the main message for it here: it is really, really good. Just like Boston’s against rate stats in 5-on-5 play. They have consistently been a top-ten or top-five team in these stats. That speaks well to how effective the group has been overall.
It helps a lot to have defensively responsible forwards like Bergeron, DeBrusk, and Marchand. Those three forwards have xGA/60 rates below two, which is quite impressive. It also helps a lot to have very talented defensemen. McAvoy has been very good since returning from injury on November 10. Lindholm has been wonderful in all three zones. Both average over 23 minutes per game and the Devils will see a lot of both in various situations. More unsung support has come from the likes of Connor Clifton, Brandon Carlo, Derek Forbort (who came off LTIR at the end of November), and Matt Grzelcyk. The most vulnerable of the group is Forbort in 5-on-5 and even he has a favorable xGF% of 50.33. While those four may not bring a lot offensively, they absolutely take care of business in their own end. Especially Carlo, who has the blueline’s best xGA/60 rate of 1.95 on the team. What this means is that between the personnel and the team stats, it is not going to be easy for the Devils to generate offensive opportunities. They may come and when they do, they must take advantage because it is not guaranteed there will be more.
What about a power play? A man advantage would help? In theory, yes. And the Devils did get a PPG in their last game, which is something to build on. However, Boston has the most successful penalty kill in the NHL. Their success rate of 104 kills out of 122, or 85.3%, is the highest success rate in the NHL. Boston does take plenty of shorthanded situations; they are tied with Los Angeles for the sixth-most in the NHL. However just like in 5-on-5 situations, the Bruins can handle business in their zone quite well in shorthanded situations. The Bruins have the best xGA/60 rate in the NHL in shorthanded situations at 6.28 per Natural Stat Trick. Thanks to their goaltending, their actual rate of power play goals against is 5.22. Oh, and the B’s have three shorthanded goals to their name this season. In other words, I would not expect the Devils (or many other teams to rack up) PPGs on Boston short of some impeccable play and mistakes by the Bruins tonight.
As their team stats in shorthanded and 5-on-5 hockey show, they really do not make a lot of costly errors. The Devils offense is very potent and showed signs of their former selves in their win over Florida. But Boston is more than capable of slowing them down. The Bruins, defensively, are still a Problem.
The Boston Goaltenders: Let’s say the Devils somehow dull the Bruins’ attack. Let’s also say the Devils somehow crack through the Bruins’ defense. Both would be great. I would love it. There is still a Problem. The Bruins goaltenders. Boston has the third best 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL at 93.65%. The Bruins have a penalty kill save percentage of 87.84%, which is great and a top-ten save percentage per NST. Combined with the skaters’ defensive efforts, the Bruins have allowed just 69 goals. Which is 11 goals fewer than the second place team in the league for goals allowed.
The big driver for that is Linus Ullmark. He is currently the best goaltender in the NHL. He has a 5-on-5 save percentage of 94.5%. The only goalies with higher save percentages in that situation are goalies with one or two appearances. His penalty kill save percentage is just 89.2%, which is still just great for any goaltender and also among league leaders for goalies who have played more than just a handful of games. Ullmark has been the primary goaltender for Boston this season with 22 appearances. The #2 goaltender, Jeremy Swayman, has not been awful but certainly not been as good as Ullmark. His 90.6% save percentage in 5-on-5 hockey and 84.6% save percentage in shorthanded situations are more or less regular. Good enough for a team that can and has controlled opponents in the run of play.
I have some real bad news for the Devils. Jeremy Swayman started against Winnipeg last night. It is highly likely the Devils are getting Linus Ullmark tonight. To complete the theme of this preview so far, Ullmark is a Very Big Problem. Again, even if the Devils stop Pastrnak & Co. up front and get through Lindholm, McAvoy & Co. on defense, Ullmark alone can just deny the Devils. Sure, the Devils did just score three on Sergei Bobrovsky on Wednesday. Ullmark is a far better goaltender than the fallen star with the humongous contract. He alone can ruin the Devils night.
Again: The 2022-23 Bruins are the best team in the NHL. They are incredible. Magnificent. Marvelous. Awe-inspiring. You get the picture.
Any Devils-Specific Notes: Defenseman John Marino was held out of the Florida game due to an injury from Tuesday’s game in Carolina. Defenseman Ryan Graves was felled in a collision with Zac Dalpe early in the Florida game and would not return. The Devils needed to call up a defenseman. While there is a NHL Roster Freeze, teams can call up players to fill in for injuries. In order to make a move possible, though, someone had to go on injured reserve. As reported by Ryan Novozinsky on Thursday evening, the Devils placed Nathan Bastian on IR retroactive to November 26 (when he was hurt) and called up defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk.
Okhotiuk’s call up will certainly be welcomed. Those who wanted someone to address the not-really-an-issue of a perceived lack of beef will be pleased as Okhotiuk loves to throw his 6’1”, 195 pound frame around and can throw a punch. Those who wanted someone who can fill in without being shell shocked can appreciate that Okhotiuk has been called up for five games last season. While there was nothing to play for in April 2022, he did get two games against a legitimate powerhouse in Carolina and generally handled his business well in NHL competition. Given that the injuries to Graves and Marino left open a spot for someone to take on some minutes and not necessarily someone to attack, the call up of Okhotiuk over Reilly Walsh makes sense. One would have preferred to see Simon Nemec get a run out but I do not know if the Devils wanted to expose him to the NHL at this point anyway and he is at the World Junior Championships now so he was not an option anyway. I like this call up and wish Okhotiuk the best.
This still means the defensive shifts are going to lean heavily on Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Damon Severson, and Brendan Smith for the time being. Those four played a lot in Florida and I thought they did an admirable job all things considered. Siegenthaler was great. Hamilton provided a fine game. While Severson and Smith were pinned back, their efforts did not concede a lot of actual shots on net on the goaltender. Which is impressive given what usually happens when desperate teams attack third-pairing caliber defenders. Boston’s depth at forward was always going to be a problem. It could be a bigger one given the state of the team’s blueline. That this is a home game means that Lindy Ruff can try to protect Kevin Bahl and Okhotiuk on shifts starting with faceoffs. There is that, at least. I do hope for the best for Okhotiuk and Bahl. But I also would like Marino to come back soon and hope that Graves’ injury is not that significant.
There is another open question for the Devils. Who starts in net for this game? Vitek Vanecek has been the main goaltender when Blackwood was out. He has been very good up until recently. His performance in Carolina was not good and he was replaced by Blackwood. Blackwood, on the other hand, had an excellent outing in Sunrise and his 33 stops helped make a winless-streak-ending victory possible. Should Ruff want to go with the hot hand against Boston’s prolific offense, then I could see Blackwood getting another start. Should Ruff want to ease Blackwood in more slowly and give Vanecek first crack at the Bruins, then I could see that happen to. I am unsure about my preference. Blackwood’s past makes me uneasy to trust him going on any kind of run. Vanecek’s recent games indicated his hot November is a thing of the past. It may be moot because Boston can put up goals against all kinds of goaltenders, even excellent ones like Connor Hellebuyck.
As a more positive point, I was very pleased to see Jesper Bratt get two goals in Florida. Jack Hughes cannot do it all by himself. Others will need to produce to ensure the Devils do not slide back into another slump. Bratt getting on the board twice to end a six-game goal drought was very welcomed and I, for one, appreciate it. Now I want to see him try to build on that and have others get involved. The Devils’ success this season has been driven by the team getting contributions throughout the lineup. Similar to Boston, really. If they want a chance to win this game, then they will need that kind of effort once again. They may also need it to break some other scoring slumps amid the Devils roster.
One Last Thought: Speaking of players I want to turn things around, Michael McLeod really needs to be absolutely better than he was in his last two games. Opponents dunked on him for expected and actual goals. He somehow posted xGF%s of 26.32%, 11.26%, and 18.03% in each of his last three games. Yes, he had a hand in the game winner in Florida on Wednesday but those are stats pointing to a player that has absolutely stunk on the ice. And he did stink like a skunk with turnovers, poor positioning, and poor decision making. Lindy Ruff has developed this bad habit of not even giving a fourth line a chance to perform. Through shortening the bench, this meant more ice time for McLeod to get his books dumped in the run of play. Until McLeod messes up so bad that he has to be benched or Ruff puts a fourth line together he’ll play, then the Devils need much better performances from McLeod. He will play, he will play quite a bit, and given how deep the opponent is, he cannot continue to be a weak-link in 5-on-5 play.
Your Take: The Devils will have a Christmas break after this one and then play Boston a second time. Boston is not invincible on the road, but they are still a very impressive team with little going badly for them on the ice. It is a credit to their management, Jim Montgomery, and the players that they are this good. Do you think the Devils will somehow be able to get a win over Boston at the Rock? If so, how do you think they will be able to out-score their opponents? Who or what on Boston worries you the most? Please leave your answers and other thoughts and news about the matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.