The last time the New Jersey Devils met the Philadelphia Flyers, a mere five days ago, the Devils romped their way to a 6-0 win at The Rock. This time around, the end result - a win - was the same, but the process to get there was anything but. After a little over 60 minutes of play that featured a lot of possession in the Devils’ end of the rink, New Jersey escaped Philadelphia with a 3-2 overtime victory. Erik Haula notched the game-winner, and Curtis Lazar and Alex Holtz also scored for Jersey’s team. The win moves the Devils to 4-0-0 in preseason play, which is pleasant to see even if the games don’t actually count.
Beyond Haula’s heroics, Vitek Vanecek was the story of this game for New Jersey. Unlike last time out when he played only the first 40 minutes against the Flyers, Vanecek played the entire contest this evening, stopping 29 of 31 shots. He looked sturdy in net, and was the main reason the Devils won tonight. Yes, he gave up a late tying goal, but Philadelphia was swarming him throughout much of that third period. It was only a matter of time before they broke through, and once they finally did, he kept them off the board the rest of the way. It’s only five periods of preseason hockey (plus a brief overtime) against a rebuilding Flyers squad, but it is encouraging to see Vanecek perform well thus far in preseason.
Looking at the rest of the Devils’ roster tonight, there are not a lot of inspiring performances to revel in. Holtz scored again, which is terrific. In fact his goal tonight was eerily similar to the one he scored in the preseason opener against this same Flyers team.
Tyce Thompson took an early penalty, but almost immediately after the Devils killed his penalty off and he returned to the ice, he made a great play to set up New Jersey’s opening goal.
Major Lazar reporting for duty. pic.twitter.com/ReE53X2cDx— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 30, 2023
And of course, Dawson Mercer combined with Haula to send the Devils home happy on a pretty play in overtime.
Drop pass from Dawg and Haula buries it home. pic.twitter.com/JARwPxKZ6e— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 1, 2023
There were a handful of decent shorthanded opportunities for the Devils (more on that below), and a few transition chances here and there, such as a Haula breakaway in the second period that Carter Hart stopped. But otherwise, this was a game mostly dominated by the Flyers. Philadelphia outshot the Devils 31-22, and according to Natural Stat Trick, New Jersey registered a paltry 5-on-5 Expected Goals For Percentage of 32.80%. Shot attempts were 65-30 in favor of Philly at 5-on-5, and the Flyers also won the Scoring Chance battle 26-17 in that same game state. Looking at these numbers tells me three things. One, Vanecek was very good tonight. Two, the Devils were lucky to pull out the win given how much of this game they spent without the puck. And three, Philadelphia REALLY needs to work on their shooting accuracy if they collected 65 shot attempts and managed to hit the net on less than half of them.
In the end though, it’s still preseason, so I’d say it’s not worth worrying too much about a lackluster game. Heck, the Devils even managed to win this lackluster game! All the Devils can do is thank Vanecek, be happy they left with no injuries (probably), and prepare for the next contest. The regular season draws ever closer.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Broad Street Hockey for a view of this game from a Flyers perspective
About Those Young Devils: I mentioned Holtz and Thompson contributing some very important plays tonight. These were two players I tried to keep my eye on this evening, given their status as potentially impactful young guns that can take the Devils’ offense to the next level this season. Caveats about me being very far from a professional scout aside, I thought both players looked solid. Holtz looked a bit more surehanded than he did in the preseason opener, with less fumbling of the puck and fewer whiffed passes. He did have a bad pass in the neutral zone that led to a good Flyers opportunity in the second period, but that was his only big mistake as far as I can recall. Obviously his goal tonight was encouraging, but beyond the tally, I thought he once again kept up with play well enough and made some smarter decisions both with and without the puck. He showed he was not afraid to battle on the boards (even if he didn’t end up winning all those battles) and he combined with Hischier and Meier for a few quality scoring chances. The Natural Stat Trick numbers weren’t too impressed with him tonight (though he did manage to win the High Danger Corsi For battle 3-1 in his 5-on-5 minutes), but then again no one really looked good by those numbers. Overall I felt Holtz had another positive game, proving for now that he can hang on a line with Hischier and Meier.
Thompson was solid tonight as well, and in fact he might have been the Devils’ best skater this evening. He led the team in 5-on-5 Corsi For %, and was one of only two Devils (the other being Chris Tierney) to finish above 50% in that category. In his 5-on-5 minutes tonight, the Devils led in Scoring Chances 8-3, High Danger Corsi For 4-2, and Thompson also led the team in xGF% at 49.89%. His penalty obviously is a negative, but as mentioned above, he very quickly made up for it with a wonderful effort to set up Lazar’s goal. I’m not quite sure how the New Jersey decision makers view Thompson, or what exactly he has to do to earn a roster spot, but games like tonight certainly have to help his cause.
Any Other Positives?: I thought the Jonas Siegenthaler-Dougie Hamilton pairing didn’t look horrible, though that’s damning with faint praise. Santeri Hatakka also stood out to me in a positive way, though admittedly the NST numbers don’t exactly agree with that conclusion. Still, I thought he made some strong plays to jump up in some rushes and activate from the blueline tonight. And the Hischier line had some scattered opportunities that I alluded to earlier. That’s about it as far as notable positives though.
Let’s Talk About Line Combos: This is now the second game in which we’ve seen a Meier-Hischier-Holtz line. It’s easy to look at that (and look at the overall fine numbers that trio has put up in their two games together) and say that’s what we can expect to see come opening night. It’s also fun to think about how good this combo can be (something Jared took a crack at earlier this week). But all we have to do is look at last preseason to see that a line staying together throughout the preseason does not guarantee it will live to see the light of day come regular season time. Nevertheless, we can only work off of the information given to us, and so far Lindy Ruff and the Devils coaching staff has seen fit to stick Holtz with the dynamic Swiss forward duo.
We also saw a line of Ondrej Palat-Haula-Mercer tonight as well. Might this be the Devils’ third line going into the season? If so, I suppose the other top-9 trio will be Jesper Bratt-Jack Hughes-Tyler Toffoli? And then the fourth line will be comprised of some combination of Michael McLeod centering Nate Bastian, Tomas Nosek, Thompson, Tierney, or Lazar?
I’m not really trying to advocate for, or rally against, these potential line combinations. And like I said, I don’t even know if these trios mean anything in the end, it could all just be wasted prognostication. Really I’m just musing aloud at the possibilities given what we’ve seen this preseason, and I’d love to know what your thoughts are on what we’ve seen in terms of deployment during the exhibition season.
Dodging a Bullet: In the third period, Curtis Lazar got tangled up with a Flyer while chasing down a puck, and went crashing legs-first into the boards. He was very slow to get up and skated gingerly back to the bench. Thankfully for Lazar and the Devils, he stayed on the bench and was back out for his next shift. Given how scary this looked in real time, it was a very pleasant surprise to see Lazar shake it off and remain in the game. Aside from this, the Devils managed to get through another preseason game without any injuries. It’s always nice to be able to write that.
Special Teams: The Devils did not receive a single power play tonight, which is kind of frustrating. Honestly though, until Meier was tripped up in overtime, I can’t really recall a play in which I thought New Jersey should have gotten a call and didn’t. So I guess I can’t complain too much.
On the other hand, the Flyers had three power plays tonight, and boy did they pick up where they left off last season. Philadelphia finished last season dead last in the league in power play conversion rate (they finished 2021-22 dead last as well, so this is not a new problem for them). The Devils were stale to open this game, and in fact they did not register their first shot on net until about seven and a half minutes in when Haula fired a wrister on net during a Devils’ penalty kill. Who knew all the Devils needed to do to kickstart their offense was give the Flyers a man advantage! Later in the first, during the Flyers’ second power play of the night, the Devils somehow managed to get themselves a 2-on-0(!) with Lazar and Palat coming in all alone on Hart. They couldn’t convert, but the fact that New Jersey managed a 2-on-0 rush down a man is preposterous. Philadelphia’s third and final power play of the night was significantly better, but still a far cry from threatening. As much as I’d like to credit the Devils’ kill for doing outstanding work, I think it was mostly the doing of a completely inept Flyers power play, a unit that has sputtered for going on three full seasons now. Truly remarkable stuff.
How...: I watched the Flyers broadcast tonight, and while I thought their presentation of the game from the broadcasters to the camera work to the graphics were mostly fine, it was pretty jarring to see this pop up on my screen:
Yes, when Hischier took a penalty in the first period, this is what appeared. Somehow the Flyers broadcast crew confused one Metropolitan division forward who wears #13 with another. One that, shall we say, is not well-liked in these parts.
And as if that weren’t enough, they did it again later in the game! When Holtz scored his goal, Hischier collected one of the assists along with Meier. The broadcast, however, tried to convince us that Johnny Gaudreau, not our beloved captain, assisted on Holtz’s goal with Meier. And while I can’t find a screenshot for this one, I’m not the only one that caught it:
Assists to Meier and Gaudreau https://t.co/o4aZcbE2ag— Alex Chauvancy (@AlexC_THW) September 30, 2023
I’m fascinated by this, how does this happen? This is so amusing to me.
Next Game: The next time we see the Devils in action will be Monday, October 2nd. They will battle the New York Islanders at 7:00pm in Newark.
Your Take: It wasn’t exactly how the Devils envisioned it, but they managed to claw their way to a 3-2 overtime victory over the Flyers tonight. What did you make of the game? Who impressed you the most? Who disappointed you the most? What do you make of the line combinations we’ve seen so far this preseason? What are you most looking forward to about the game on Monday? Thanks to Chris for previewing this game tonight, and as always, thanks for reading!