- Though the Devils recorded a 2-1-1 record through their first four games, they’ve suffered slow starts during the first period and have been forced to attempt numerous come-from-behind bids that have not always been successful this season.
- Once again, the Devils surrendered the first goal in the first period as the Montreal Canadiens took advantage of a big rebound of Vitek Vanecek’s pad.
- Despite giving Montreal the first goal, Tyler Toffoli and Jack Hughes led the Devils to a commanding 5-2 victory over a team they should comfortably beat.
We’re not even six games into the season and already I’m going to sound like a broken record. While Montreal—like a couple other teams the Devils have already faced this season—are likely not a playoff team, they need to establish good habits early in the season and start games strong. Once again, they surrendered the first goal of the game.
This was either a missed defensive assignment or miscommunication between Dougie Hamilton and Alexander Holtz. This play developed quickly and the goal resulted off a big rebound from Vanecek, so it might not necessarily be fair to levy lots of blame in any one person’s direction. In hockey, sometimes you just get scored on. Still, I can’t help but notice that Alexander Holtz drifted toward the slot—which was already covered—instead of checking the back door. Holtz is ostensibly an offensive winger who’s still learning defense at the NHL level. Hamilton was covering the front of the net. I can forgive this goal and chalk it up to a learning experience.
Especially since Holtz scored the game-tying goal on the power play in the final quarter of the first period. I wouldn’t qualify this one as a garbage goal, but it was a quick backhand off a scramble in front of the net. It might not have been a pretty one-timer or drag-and-release wrist shot, but I was actually encouraged to see this kind of goal from Holtz. He jumped on the rebound and sent it toward the net as quick as he could release the shot. That’s the kind of goal you need to score at the NHL sometimes, and I was pleased to see him work his way into a position to take advantage.
While the Devils entered the second period tied 1-1, they were just a hairsbreadth away from securing at 2-1 lead. On a two-on-one, Jesper Bratt sent a beautiful saucer pass to Ondrej Palat, who similarly snapped a quick shot on net. Unfortunately, a sprawling dive by Cayden Primeau prevented Ondrej Palat from scoring his first goal of the season.
The second saw the Devils superior speed expose deficiencies in Montreal’s game, as the Canadiens took a pair of penalties late in the period. The second remained scoreless through a majority of the period, but Tyler Toffoli finally broke through in the final minutes to put the Devils up 2-1 entering the third.
We interrupt your Frozen Frenzy feed to bring you this Tyler Toffoli snipe. pic.twitter.com/AoSju9xJi8— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 25, 2023
I have to say I loved this goal. Timo Meier pressured Montreal defender Johnathan Kovacevic, forcing an inexperienced NHLer into making a quick play—that led right to Jack Hughes manning the left point. Hughes found an open seam through the middle of the ice and fed Tyler Toffoli, who wristed a shot glove-side on Primeau. This is one of those goals where everything came together: hard work on the forecheck from Meier, smart positioning from Hughes, and a cannon of a shot from Toffoli. Good habits resulted in a good goal and the Devils taking the lead.
This goal was foreshadowing for what was to come.
Toffoli came alive against the Canadiens tonight. He’s already put together a few solid performances, notching three points in four games leading up to the game, but it was encouraging to see him not just get on the board tonight but break open the game with his scoring touch. The Devils haven’t had a pure sniper since arguably Kyle Palmieri. Toffoli—acquired for a pittance from Calgary—could be one of the Devils more important players down the stretch and into the playoffs. Not because they’re relying on him to be a premier scorer, but because he can relieve pressure from their other top players and contribute offensively when called upon.
It took the Devils more than 18 minutes to score in the second period. It took them just 34 seconds to put one on the board in the third. After going four games and the better part of a fifth without a goal, Hischier finally got on the board on the power play. Hughes, working Gretzky’s office, fed Hischier—waiting just inside the right faceoff dot—for a quick snap shot.
Jack to Cap. I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing. pic.twitter.com/9snxpjoSag— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 25, 2023
Hischier hasn’t played poorly overall, but it was frustrating for him—and fans, at times—for one of the Devils’ most important contributors to be pointless through the first four games. Hischier is obviously a Selke runner-up and contributes in other ways when he’s not scoring, but scoring is a confidence booster and Hischier needed a point. Hischier played mostly with Jesper Bratt and Ondrej Palat at 5-on-5 tonight. I thought this was a smart combination from Lindy Ruff. We know Hughes can create with almost anyone at this point; pairing Palat and Hischier with Bratt gives two rugged, hard working forwards with a dynamic offensive talent and natural playmaker.
Tyler Toffoli struck once more when they went to the power play a few minutes later. The Canadiens gifted him a second of time and a foot of space in the slot, and that was all he needed to snipe another shot past Primeau, who had sank farther back into the crease than he needed to challenge the shooter.
Tyler TwoffolI at it again. pic.twitter.com/e59gt6XKC4— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 25, 2023
Though Mike Matheson would score on the power play just a few minutes later, bringing the Canadiens to within two, the Devils kept their foot on the gas. Vanecek made a couple crucial saves late to preserve the lead, and Toffoli—after a few opportunities at the open net—secured the hat trick and a 5-2 victory with just under 30 seconds left in the game.
They might not have scored first, but this was a good win for the Devils. They should have won this game. They took Montreal by the throat and attained a promising 3-1-1 start on the season.
Hughes for Hart
Jack Hughes scored four points tonight. Jack Hughes has scored 14 points in 5 games. Jack Hughes has scored more points than any other player so far this season.
In a league with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Auston Matthews, Hughes has outplayed them all. 13 in just 5 games. This, after The Athletic published a players anonymous survey where someone said Hughes shouldn’t be counted among the NHL’s elite over Sidney Crosby. There’s no question that the competition for the Art Ross, the Hart, and the Ted Lindsay awards is stiff. Everyone above—and a few additional dark horses—has a serious shot at the NHL’s scoring title and the MVP award. Back when Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy, I remember Devils fans being pleased if somewhat bemused at the oft-backhanded praise. Hall won the Hart precisely because the Devils were a weaker team at the time, and his admittedly herculean efforts that season willed them into the playoff bubble. It was gratifying to see his performance rewarded, but I also recall a little embarrassment too. Hall wasn’t necessarily the best player in the NHL that year. He was the player most valuable to his team, according to the Hart Trophy’s intentionally vague criteria.
Jack Hughes’s performance last season—and so far this season—has been of an entirely different kind. He’s performing not just as a player more valuable to his team than anyone else. He’s performing better than anyone else. That distinction is small but important. With Connor McDavid injured, Hughes has a real opportunity to separate himself from the scoring pack and get himself some early trophy consideration.
A Better Kind of Comeback
The Devils gave up the first goal of yet another game. Maybe it was just me, but the goal felt different than the others. Against Florida, it was an oh no feeling. Against New York, it was a twinge of anxiety. Tonight, I didn’t have any doubt that the Devils were going to storm back and get the win tonight.
Call it vibes, call it chemistry, call it false confidence—whatever it was, the Devils played like they knew they were going to win tonight, and they did. They worked hard in the corners and along the boards, they forechecked, they did little things right, and that all led to a reasonably decisive 5-2 victory.
Only one Devils forward line registered negative possession numbers: Mercer - Haula - Holtz. Given Holtz scored on the power play and Haula is coming off an injury, I don’t think one line being an overall negative is anything to worry about. I would like to see more of Dawson Mercer very soon, however. He’s pointless through five games and it’s a contract year. He’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Though his ice time as a complementary winger is perhaps being taken by Toffoli—and Holtz, in some situations—I haven’t seen the Dawson Mercer Devils fans know and love yet this year. But it’s still early.
How did you think the Devils played tonight? Is Jack Hughes on the same caliber as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, or do we still have to wait and see? What does the coaching staff need to do to get Dawson Mercer going? Let us know in the comments below.