- The Devils entered Pittsburgh as a team that went 5-5 in their last ten and on a three-game losing streak; the Penguins, meanwhile, were 6-4 but on a five-game winning streak, surpassing the Devils in the Metropolitan standings.
- After getting banged up against Winnipeg, Timo Meier joined the cast of key Devils unavailable due to injury, prompting the coaching staff to roster 11-7 to work Colin Miller into the game.
- The Penguins got on the board first, but the Devils battled back and secured a 2-2 tie entering the third period.
- They broke the third period wide open, scoring three and stifling the Penguins’ best players to secure a convincing 5-2 victory.
The Game Highlights, via NHL.com.
The Penguins are known for starting strong. The Devils are not.
Still, the boys in red did not start the first period out awfully. Well, not at first. They had their moments offensively through the beginning three or four minutes, Then, something all too familiar for Devils fans occurred: a long pass through the neutral zone evaded traffic and ended up on Bryan Rust’s stick. Rust was already well in behind Dougie Hamilton, who couldn’t backcheck quick enough to prevent Rust from walking in alone on Vitek Vanecek. Rust had time and space: he used both to execute a simple deke and backhand a nifty shot through the Devils’ netminder to put the Penguins up 1-0.
Fun fact: Bryan Rust has 27 points (15G-12A) in 34 career games against the Devils. It’s the most points he’s picked up vs. any one team and seven more than his next closest opponent. pic.twitter.com/2wi1uFiXET— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 17, 2023
Rust has earned himself a reputation as a Devils killer over his career. Of course, the most productive years of his career have come against some of the worst years New Jersey could offer. Nevertheless, this Devils team (yes, sans three of their most important players) is supposed to be better than Devils teams past. They certainly have not been playing like it. Hamilton in particular has drawn the fans’ ire, and his early defensive gaffes against the Penguins won’t have helped his case. Especially considering he coughed up the puck again shortly after Rust’s goal, forcing Vanecek to make a save lest the Devils go down 2-0.
They strung together a few messy shifts that resulted in Kevin Bahl taking a penalty, putting the Devils’ shorthanded unit to the test for the first time. Credit to their special teams units, they kept their legs moving and worked their way back into the game instead of crumpling. They mustered a couple shorthanded chances, and for once it was the Devils taking advantage of a neutral zone misplay to create their own odd-man rush. Erik Haula, who was dangerous all through the first period, sent an early pass to Curtis Lazar on the rush. Lazar froze the goalie with a pair of stickhandles before ripping the shot low, beneath Tristan Jarry’s pad to tie the game at one apiece.
Shot had a fricken Lazar beam on it. pic.twitter.com/pObcJP2kNa— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
Jarry probably should’ve had that one, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I thought it was extra funny that Lazar was the scorer of the Devils’ first goal of the night. There was a bit of a discussion about Lazar in the Winnipeg game thread. The fact remains that Lazar is often a negative on the ice in terms of possession, expected goals for, and all the stats that tell us how much a player impacts the game beyond what we can see in the moment. Nobody—myself included—is making the argument that Lazar is some great NHL forward. But I will say that there’s a difference between being good and being useful. Lazar is a useful player, in the right situation. He’s also been one of their more consistent depth players this season.
The Devils were fortunate to enter the second period tied 1-1.
Jesper Bratt started off the second period with a nice scoring chance, dancing around the defenders and dragging the puck through the crease for a forehand snap shot on Jarry. The Penguins goaltender was up to the task, however, and truth be told Bratt didn’t leave himself with too much space to work with. A counterattack led to Vanecek making a save of his own.
New Jersey upped the pressure with several quick shots on Jarry. He made the stops, but I wouldn’t say he looked sharp, fumbling one high shot that almost led to a rebound chance. It looked like everything was beginning to go the Devils’ way—until a relatively innocent pass into the slot ended up on Rust’s stick once more. Rust had already out-muscled Kevin Bahl to get himself into that position. The quick shot that came next found twine.
Doesn't look Rusty to us pic.twitter.com/rZvdyPS69N— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) November 17, 2023
This goal was one of simple arithmetic: two Penguins with their sticks on the ice in front of the net, but only one Devil—and one with an inferior body position to Rust. Nobody tied anybody’s stick up. Small mistakes, especially in front of the net, cost you in the end.
It felt like so many other goals against this season: the dagger that they never would truly recover from, close as they might come. But no. Just 38 seconds later, Nate Bastian answered Rust with a goal of his own. It was a typical Bastian goal: in front of the net, a borderline garbage goal with very little fancy or finesse about the play. It’s also exactly the kind of goal the Devils need to score more of if they want to survive without three of their top forwards.
Bass Pro Shot gets us level. pic.twitter.com/H8SitavfU2— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
At this point of the game, they were solidly outshooting the Penguins 18-12. The game was far from one-sided—the Penguins still were getting dangerous offensive looks—but the Devils definitely began tilting the ice by midway through the second period. They traded chances back and forth, but Jarry and Vanecek stood strong to keep the game tied. The final few minutes of the period were quieter. Despite a Penguins opportunity that saw the puck slip through the crease a little too close for comfort, the Devils entered the final period tied 2-2 after controlling play for much of the second period.
Bratt began the third period by drawing a tripping penalty behind the Penguins net, putting the Devils power play to work for the first time. They only enjoyed about forty seconds with the man advantage, though, as Haula took a questionable tripping/interference in the offensive zone. Four-on-four ensued.
Even without Hughes, Hischier, and Meier, the Devils still look incredibly dangerous with more open ice. Luke Hughes channeled his brother on this one, dancing through one Penguins defender to enter the zone and set up Bratt. Bratt drove the far post, keeping himself out of range from the defender in front of the net and the back-checker behind.
Hughes-to-Bratt of any variety is music to our ears. pic.twitter.com/QRrXHmZN4G— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
Vanecek followed up the goal with two massive saves: one with the shoulder on a butterfly slide across the crease, and the second with the pad. I’ll admit I got nervous here. The Penguins peppered Vanecek with quality shots, and I was afraid they’d claw their way right back into the game. But the much-maligned Devils goaltender made the saves he needed to make. And as harsh as we’ve been on their defense corps (rightfully so), the Devils managed clean zone exits more often than not to activate their offense.
Jarry responded with a big save of his own on Alex Holtz. Holtz was sprung for his chance by Luke Hughes, who was making smart little passes and offensive plays all night.
Minutes later, Palat finally showed us a glimpse of the player he’d once been in Tampa Bay. Palat worked the puck into the offensive zone. Instead of waiting for reinforcements and a zone cycle, he sent a quick pass to Dawson Mercer behind the net, who himself made another quick pass to Holtz just feet away. Jarry didn’t even see Mercer’s pass—or Holtz’s shot. 4-2 lead for the Devils.
This was Palat at his best. Persistent, strong on the puck and along the boards, with a playmaking eye that’s frankly underrated when he’s performing well. That’s the Palat the Devils need night in and night out. It’s a shame we haven’t seen this Palat before that third-period goal. But it’s a positive sign. It means that player is still in there, somewhere. He just needs help being that player all the time.
Holtz onto your butts, we’ve got a 4-2 lead! pic.twitter.com/WQEwelgJVb— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
With a 4-2 lead already secured, the Devils pressed their foot to the gas pedal and came right back to score another. A flip-in to the offensive blue line saw Bratt and Toffoli on a brief two-on-one. Bratt’s pass found Toffoli’s stick, and Toffoli’s shot found the back of the net. A pure sniper kind of goal aided by the passing of a great playmaker. Any time Toffoli gets the puck in that position, he has a better than 50-50 shot at scoring.
The one and only: Tyler Toffoli. pic.twitter.com/fuAZFAnQXF— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 17, 2023
Hamilton took a tripping penalty shortly after, but the Devils penalty killers got the better of the special teams battle with a shorthanded two-on-one that didn’t quite connect off Mercer’s pass. After they killed the penalty, Bratt and Toffoli linked up once more in the final minutes and almost scored again, prevented only by a sprawling Tristan Jarry.
In the dying minutes of the third, the Penguins were unable to muster any significant bounce-back, and the Devils finally shattered their three-game losing streak by defeating Pittsburgh 5-2.
An Important Win
Some wins matter more than others. This win was important. Here’s why:
- The Devils were on their heels with a three-game losing streak, their confidence at an all-time low this season.
- They’d suffered a battering in Winnipeg, losing 6-3 in a game that saw Timo Meier hurt, who remained out of the lineup tonight.
- The Penguins, a Metropolitan Division rival, entered the night with a five-game winning streak and had leapfrogged the Devils in the standings. They reclaimed their spot over the Penguins, staunched the bleeding, and kept themselves close to the playoff pack.
- After defensive miscues brought ruin to New Jersey several games in a row, they calmed the defensive side of the game down after the first two Penguins goals and didn’t surrender another.
- Players up and down the lineup, including current whipping boys Ondrej Palat and Dawson Mercer, contributed on the scoresheet. This win was a team effort.
- With confidence in goaltending at its lowest, Vanecek bounced back and played a steady, even game.
Add your own list in the comments below, if you so desire.
In the end, this was a win they sorely needed, and they won in a convincing manner that should hopefully galvanize them through the remainder of November. It’s not just that they won. It’s how they won.
Contributions Up and Down the Lineup
Eight of the Devils’ eleven forwards scored at least one point tonight. Three—Curtis Lazar, Jesper Bratt, and Erik Haula—had two. That, combined with better (not perfect, but better) defensive play and much better goaltending was enough for a 5-2 win. In a way, tonight only illuminated how they could’ve been winning all this time had they just committed themselves to better team defense and received league-average goaltending. But I’m not pointing out the negatives tonight.
Early on, their depth forwards—Lazar and Bastian—were the difference-makers on the scoresheet. Without their contributions, they might never have clawed their way back into this game. But the third and fourth lines pitched in when they were desperately needed. They gave the Devils’ surviving stars their chance to shine in the third period when they broke the Penguins’ proverbial back with a trio of unanswered goals. That’s how they need to win right now.
Vanecek had a good game. He made several key stops, made other saves he should have, and the two goals against I can’t really fault him for.
This was Colin Miller’s first game of the season. He was quite good. He and Luke Hughes led the team in CF%; Hughes led xGF%, while Miller was third behind only Hughes and Erik Haula. Miller’s performance was one of the most positive developments of the game. After missing the entire start of the season due to injury, he hit the ice and put together a very solid performance beside one of the Devils’ most electric young stars on defense. If fans want to see less of Brendan Smith (who wasn’t bad, by the way), this kind of performance from Miller might just convince Lindy Ruff once the roster evens out with a more traditional 12-6 format.
#NJDevils Miller & Hughes finished with a total combined 22-7 chance share.— James Nichols (@JamesNicholsNHL) November 17, 2023
-Miller accrued a 70.37 CF%
-Hughes totaled a 79.19 CF%.
Even more impressive was Luke's team-best 89.76 xGF%. https://t.co/br1s67ScQ5
Alex Holtz also had a good night. He backchecked hard, wasn’t afraid to get into board battles, and seems like he’s doing everything the coaching staff might’ve asked of him. He’s still not the fastest skater at his top-end speed, but he’s working hard enough to make up for that. He played 18:39, good enough for third among forwards. The advanced stats tell a different story—he was a negative in possession and xGF%—but his line wasn’t scored on and had positive possession numbers. For me, I don’t need Holtz dominating every shift and every game across every stat line. I just need him to work hard, form good habits, and score when the opportunity is there. He was rewarded with a goal and the ice time against the Penguins.
What did you make of Colin Miller? How important was tonight’s win? Does Dougie Hamilton for Connor McDavid (half-retained) and a seventh-round pick make sense for the Devils? What would you like to see from this team heading into their weekend matchup against the Rangers? Let us know the comments below.