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Devils Dominate Rangers Despite Lopsided Lineup Choices in 5-2 Preseason Win

The Devils went for a largely fringe approach to tonight’s preseason game, with the Rangers playing most of their top players. The Devils outshot the Rangers 36-17.

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers
Tatar played a good game tonight.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

First Period

The New Jersey Devils, to my delight, controlled play in the opening minutes against the New York Rangers. While neither team had great chances at even strength, initially, the Devils did a good job of jumping up on defense and interrupting passing lanes. Tomas Tatar finally got a golden opportunity when he picked off a pass and made a move on Shesterkin, but he was tripped up and dragged down by the Rangers goaltender before he could score.

On the power play, Dougie Hamilton found himself defending a three-on-one after Mika Zibanejad took the puck away from Erik Haula* at the top of the zone. Chris Kreider scored off a pass from Adam Fox, with Hamilton failing to take away the pass. For the rest of the power play, the Devils did decent but did not threaten much to score. Following the power play’s expiration, the Devils went back to the man advantage when Mark Bartkowski went to the box for hooking Fabian Zetterlund.

*Post previously attributed the turnover to Zetterlund - it was actually Haula as you can see here.

For the second power play, Marino quarterbacked with Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Dawson Mercer, and Nathan Bastian up front. This unit overloaded the boards to a far-too-high degree, and the Rangers penalty kill had little trouble dealing with them until the first unit came on for the second minute. Dougie Hamilton saw the puck turned away by Shesterkin through a screen, but otherwise did not do much to create pressure on goal.

Vitek Vanecek almost gave up another goal when he was barreled over by Julien Gauthier, who was “hooked” by Brendan Smith. While the puck went in, the referees decided to only award a power play to the Rangers rather than give them the goal. There was no response to Vanecek getting run over by the Devils, either.

The penalty kill did rather well to suppress the Rangers’ attack, and I noticed the penalty kill looked much more aggressive in nature than the power play. They managed a couple full-ice clears, but mostly just kept the Rangers from pressuring Vanecek. After the penalty expired, Dawson Mercer jumped on a rebound and tripped over Shesterkin, out of the crease, as he tried to shoot.

The Devils went to the penalty kill again, with five minutes remaining, when Michael McLeod high sticked Ryan Lindgren. Erik Hala won the initial draw, and Fabian Zetterlund sent them out of the zone. Haula’s pass back hopped over Zetterlund’s stick, and shortly after the Rangers took control back, Zibanejad interfered with Haula - who was about to leave the zone again with the puck.

At four-on-four, Dougie Hamilton found Miles Wood with a stretch pass. Wood, still with speed, picked the puck off the boards and held the puck away from Welinski as he rifled a shot past Igor Shesterkin. 1-1. Shortly after the goal by Wood, Graeme Clarke found Dougie Hamilton at the side of the circle, who snapped off a goal of his own. 2-1, Devils. Nathan Bastian got the secondary assist for digging the puck out from the side boards to Clarke.

Second Period

The Devils took awhile to get back into it during the second period. Unlike the first period, the Rangers seemed to be in control of the flow of the game in the opening minutes - and it was not until Tomas Tatar set up a one-timer for Erik Haula about seven or so minutes into the period that the Devils started looking more decisive with the puck.

With a bit over five minutes remaining, Nathan Bastian scored a kind of goal that you can only hope he is capable of repeating with regularity. He cut from the boards to the net along the goal line, with the puck on his backhand. Bastian ever so slightly pulled to the forehand and lifted the puck past Shesterkin on the far side to give the Devils a 3-1 lead. Dawson Mercer and Brendan Smith picked up assists on the play.

Erik Haula drew a penalty deep in the offensive zone with under four minutes to play. The Devils got the extra man on and had nearly a minute to set something up, but could not. Brandon Scanlin went to the box.

Third Period

The Rangers replaced Shesterkin with Olof Lindbom in the third period. Early in the period, Alexis Lafreniere had a perfect chance off a feed from Filip Chytil, but Vitek Vanecek shut it down, smothering the puck in his padding as Lafreniere went for a quick backhand move. The Devils largely took control from there, and Tomas Tatar was finally able to capitalize on the chances he had been creating throughout the game when he put the Devils up 4-1 with a backhand goal after he flew from center ice, past Adam Fox, and to the right circle as his shot went top shelf.

Dougie Hamilton took a bad penalty halfway through the period when he threw Brendan Othmann down to the ice when Othmann finished his check. He was called for roughing. The penalty kill did his job, and Othmann went to the box for slashing Brendan Smith. The power play struggled to stop the Rangers from generating shorthanded opportunities, and Alexis Lafreniere took a loose puck away from Graeme Clarke, beating Vanecek with a move from the backhand to the forehand. 4-2.

Erik Haula put the Devils up three when the Rangers pulled the goaltender with three minutes remaining. Fox’s point shot was knocked out by Vanecek to Erik Haula around the net, and he quickly fired high and far, hitting the net dead on. The Devils closed it out with ease after that.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Check out Blueshirt Banter.

A Good Team Win

The Devils were down a man early on, with Tyce Thompson leaving with an undisclosed injury after just one shift. As a result of the injury, and the need to rely on a limited number of centers, three forwards logged over 20 minutes - Erik Haula (23:24), Fabian Zetterlund (21:33), and Dawson Mercer (20:43). On top of Thompson’s injury, Lindy Ruff was really not inclined to give minutes to Brian Halonen (9:52) and Mason Geertsen (7:37). This was a game where the veterans showed why they should be trusted to lead - they shut down much of the Rangers’ NHL forward group tonight. The Rangers only had 12 five-on-five shots - and the commitment to structure and ability to take passing lanes from the Devils led them to a win. I normally would not care much in the preseason, but it feels better than usual tonight because of the fact so much of the Devils’ lineup are competing for depth spots. It gives me confidence these position battles, for once, are not for nothing.

Players Who Had Great Games

Erik Haula: I really hope tonight is not a mirage. Because if Erik Haula can be this good in all zones during the regular season, then the Devils will have their best third line center since - I’d say - Adam Henrique in 2017 just before he was traded (a move I maintain was a mistake). Haula led the Devils, with Dougie Hamilton, in shots with six. He was tied with Tatar and Hamilton for the lead in scoring chances with four. He also won 17 of 22 draws, drew a penalty in the offensive zone, and nailed a full-ice shot at the empty net. He was excellent on the penalty kill, but did have the giveaway leading to the first shorthanded goal against (that I mistakenly attributed to Zetterlund). In all, though, he had an excellent game for someone you expect to be a third line center.

Tomas Tatar: Tatar is coming off a rough season, and I think I saw him play the game at a faster pace today than I ever saw him play in 2021-22. He really built up good speed on his give-and-go with Dougie Hamilton leading up to his goal, and he was fantastic at creating chances for himself and others throughout the night. Hopefully this is a sign of more to come.

Miles Wood: Miles Wood used his speed on his goal, and also to stretch the ice at times for the Devils. The Rangers still seemed to be on their heels when he got a head of steam with the puck. This really bodes well for his full return to play, as I was worried about whether he would be able to skate at full speed. He seemed able to handle the skating, but I think Sammy Blais was bothering him along the boards at times.

Graeme Clarke: He may be a bit of a floater at times, but Clarke makes the right plays with the puck. He could be a skilled bottom sixer, if he gets a chance. I think he needs to shoot a bit quicker at times, like when he tried to make a bunch of moves in close on Shesterkin only to get stuffed at the side of the net by the pad. He had a very good game though - he was able to pass well tonight and worked well within the Devils system. He might not get a chance off the bat, but he’d be at the top of my call-up list at the moment.

John Marino: I do not recall seeing any Devils right-handed defenseman in the past several years swiftly move up and down in the offensive zone to cut down opportunities for the opponent to set up a breakout like Marino. His skating ability is truly an asset, and gives a nice change of pace to the more precise styles of Hamilton and Severson.

Nathan Bastian: Bastian continues to show that he is a multi-situation player that is capable of chipping in goals every now and then. It is really hard to ask for a better kind of fourth line right wing. He is one of the better forwards at winning the puck alongside the wall, and I have yet to see anyone come along at wing to make me feel like the Devils have a better option for that type of player.

Vitek Vanecek: People forget Vitek is still a young goalie, who may not have shown everything that he will be in his short tenure in Washington. He was capable and composed in close situations, and is vastly superior to the level of goaltending we saw last season. I would not blame either of the shorthanded goals allowed on him, as Hamilton failed to support him on a two-on-one and Lafreniere was uncontested once he stripped the puck away from Clarke. He stopped plenty of dangerous chances, and I see no reason at the moment to be uncomfortable with him in net.

Players Who Have Something to Improve On

Fabian Zetterlund: I am rooting for Zetterlund to make the team. But he looked like he had trouble corralling the puck - perhaps an issue with the MSG ice - yet still an issue that seemed worse for him than others. A moment where he did make a positive impact was when he drew the hooking call as he cut to the net. He also did rather well on the penalty kill with Erik Haula, and their line with Tatar was the best for the Devils at creating offensive chances. If Zetterlund can handle the puck better next game - hopefully given a shot with the same linemates (it sounds like an ideal third line to me), he can get more chances to put the puck on goal.

Dawson Mercer: I do not think Dawson Mercer is in the same boat as most of the others in the forward group tonight. His number one job this preseason is not to earn a spot: it’s to stay healthy and get ready for the season. Even so, I wish he were showing more initiative with the puck on the power play. He made a bad pass leading up to the second goal against and did not register a single power play shot or attempt. Since Mercer needs to be a part of the solution to the power play woes, this is something I’m wary about. On the other hand, Mercer’s line was fantastic at suppressing shots - the team outshot the Rangers 17-5 with him on the ice at even strength.

Who Had A Bad Night?

Michael McLeod: A bad time to play poorly is when there are a slew of AHLers trying to take your job in the preseason. Considering that the Devils outshot the Rangers by a ridiculous margin, no line should have been underwater in possession numbers. Yet, McLeod’s was. Much of this stems from his timid play outside of the defensive zone and his indecisiveness with the puck. But we already knew that is how Michael McLeod plays - we saw it all last season. To make matters worse, it is already uncomfortable watching him play as it is. I feel nothing but a sinking, empty feeling when he is on the ice. The situation simply feels untenable.

Nolan Foote: With fellow Utica Comets such as Fabian Zetterlund and Graeme Clarke regularly offering good reasons for them to make the roster, and while Miles Wood shows he can still bring it - Nolan Foote needed to have a good preseason. He showed nothing tonihgt. He is a step behind most plays I notice him in, and he created nothing offensively tonight. This is not a good look for him, as the team was outstanding tonight.

Your Thoughts

What did you think of tonight’s game? Who stood out to you? How did you feel about the depth squad beating the Rangers, with plenty of their top six and Fox? What did you think of Vanecek? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

Edit note: Turnover leading to first Rangers goal was mistakenly attributed to Fabian Zetterlund in original post - it has been updated, as Erik Haula was the puck carrier prior to the goal against. Post edited at 4:19 PM ET.