- Despite a successful 5-2-1 record through eight games, the Devils haven’t had successful first periods. They’ve also struggled defensively and in net. Without Nico Hischier (upper-body injury), they needed to get into the game early and take advantage of a weaker Minnesota Wild team.
- The Devils scored twice in the first period and jumped to an early 2-0 lead off goals from Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod, giving them an opportunity to put their proverbial foot to the pedal the rest of the game and leave no doubt.
- Though Minnesota eventually clawed to within one goal, New Jersey’s special teams and offensive talent were too much to overcome, and the Bratt-led Devils won 5-3.
The Devils scored first tonight! Yes, you may be as surprised as I was. Ondrej Palat received a great feed and almost put it past Filip Gustavsson in the first couple minutes, but it was Alexander Holtz streaking into the offensive zone from the bench who ended up getting the Devils on the board. Holtz, perhaps seeing Gustavsson sprawling onto the ice (or just wanting to get the puck on net), ripped the shot as fast as he could and hit twine.
As much as you can credit Holtz for finishing the play here, the lion’s share of credit should go to Nate Bastian. This was Bastian at his best. First he tried to drive the net, but when he was out-bodied and pushed to the outside, Bastian stayed with the puck, saw Holtz entering the zone with speed, and found him with a pass through the slot. Though he later took a dumb penalty for holding an opponent’s stick in the final minutes of the period, Bastian’s physicality was a positive early on and helped spark the Devils to their early lead.
For maybe the first time this season, the Devils set the tone at puck drop. There were a couple moments when Minnesota sustained some pressure in New Jersey’s defensive zone, but the Devils took it to the Wild through the first twenty and hammered a team that’s been struggling to keep the puck out of their own net. With Nico Hischier not making the trip due to his upper-body injury, it’s all the more important that players like Holtz step up in the captain’s absence. They’re missing his defensive prowess and—though Hischier wasn’t yet scoring at the pace he’d shown last season—his contributions on offense. But Stanley Cup-contending teams can suffer key injuries and play winning hockey, like the Tampa Bay Lightning of yesteryear.
This was the Devils opportunity to prove they could do the same.
Well, as far as the first period was concerned, they played like they had something to prove. If grit and physicality made the Devils’ first goal happen, pure finesse by way of Jesper Bratt secured their second. Bratt darted into the offensive zone at speed, taking the puck west to east in a way that few can and confusing the Wild’s defensive coverage, which clogged itself up in the slot. Bratt found Palat on the back door, who in turn found Mike McLeod with a short pass right in front. McLeod had his stick planted on the ice and his skates dug in. He tapped the puck past Gustavsson to earn the Devils a 2-0 lead.
Mikey gives us a two goal lead! pic.twitter.com/X3BdmcZpjV— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 3, 2023
They closed the first period out with a successful penalty kill after Bastian was sent to the box for holding the stick. You don’t see many stick holding penalties called—not because they don’t happen, but because they have to be particularly egregious to draw the referee’s attention. This one was pretty egregious. Nevertheless, I’m feeling charitable after Bastian’s goal, so let’s just chalk this up as an opportunity for the penalty kill to practice.
There were a couple close calls on the PK. Vanecek made a pair of stops down low during a scramble in front, but the Devils weathered the man disadvantage and went into the second period up 2-0.
The Devils went back to the power play within the first two minutes of the period. They picked Minnesota apart with the man advantage, and though the Wild cleared once, the Hughes brothers and the rest of the first power play unit had nothing but space to operate. Minnesota had no answer to their ability to make three, even four tape-to-tape passes in the offensive zone at speed, and Jack Hughes found Timo Meier in front for a tap-in goal. 3-0 Devils.
Another goal by getting a man in front. First it was McLeod at five-on-five, then Meier on the power play. Later, Meier almost had another net-front goal when the Devils went to yet another power play. They didn’t score on their second man advantage of the period, but once again they kept the offensive pressure going and momentum on their side.
At least until Dougie Hamilton goofed a keep-in on the left point, springing Minnesota’s Connor Dewar for a breakaway. Vanecek made two good saves—once on the breakaway, and again on another shot that resulted—to keep the Devils ahead. The momentum shifted noticeably here. Minnesota smelled blood, and they extracted blood just minutes later as Hamilton went to the box for hooking. Kirill Kaprizov scored on the ensuing power play and cut the lead by one.
Kaprizov’s shot came at range and through traffic in front. With three bodies obscuring his vision, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect Vanecek to stop that one. Especially considering he made a huge sprawling toe save just moments later to keep the Devils’ two-goal lead intact.
Though the Wild clawed momentum back their way through the middle of the second period, it was fleeting at best. Possession had been largely even—with New Jersey just slightly ahead in shots—through most of the game up until this point. But by the end of the second, the Devils speed was just too much for Minnesota to handle. The advanced stats back up the eye test: more than half the Devils had positive possession numbers, with Meier, Toffoli, and Jack Hughes, Luke Hughes, and Bratt all earning a CF% of more than 65 through the first two periods. Those same players—with the addition of McLeod—were responsible for xGF% over 82 and beyond as well.
The third period began with another solid save made by Vanecek, but Minnesota sustained pressure through the next minute and ended up banging in a garbage goal off a scramble in the crease just 1:10 into the final twenty. With nineteen minutes left, the Devils’ lead became a single goal. 3-2.
If the Devils needed a reminder that no game is won in forty minutes, the third period was that reminder.
The energy definitely seemed to shift here. Though Toffoli and Hughes manufactured a decent scoring chance off the rush, it was all Minnesota through the early third period. I’ll give the Devils credit, though. The Wild scored and hammered them with chances, but the Devils at least tried to match the energy coming from the other end. They kept their feet moving. They didn’t get lazy. They were on the back foot, but they were still playing hard. Coming from past games that felt like the Devils were sleepwalking, I took that as a positive change.
The physicality kicked up a notch here. Jack Hughes and Joel Eriksson Ek went back and forth at each other in the neutral zone before Meier got involved. Board battles were heated. And Calen Addison found himself in the box with five minutes left in the game.
It cut the Wild’s momentum off at the knees. Meier almost scored in a similar position as before—in the front of Gustavsson—moments into the power play, but it was Bratt who scored from the slot (and a weak-side one-timer to boot) that gave the Devils a two goal lead once more.
It didn’t last long. An innocuous shot from the point hit a sliding Luke Hughes and bounced toward the net. Upon first look, it appeared that it was deflected one more time, giving it just the angle to slip through Vanecek’s five-hole. Upon second look, you can see that Vanecek deflected the puck himself with his own stick. That’s a rough one to give up, especially on a shot that had lost about 50% of its momentum. Yes, it changed direction after hitting Hughes. Yes, Vanecek was screened in front. Yes, Kaprizov’s skate may have prevented Vanecek from getting his blocker and paddle down where he wanted them. Ultimately, though, Vanecek put himself in a poor position to track the puck, and he just didn’t see it until it was too late. This is something I’ve harped on Vanecek for in the past. His puck tracking is a weakness that too often ends up biting him in the end.
Luckily, Minnesota played hilariously undisciplined in the last two minutes and sent the Devils to a five-on-three power play. Jack Hughes played keepaway alongside Hamilton for a few passes until Hamilton tired of that and hammered a shot past Gustavsson, securing a 5-3 victory for New Jersey.
(Almost) Everybody Contributed
I’ll say it one more time in this recap: without Hischier, there’s more responsibility throughout the lineup for everybody to contribute. And they did. From the top of the lineup to depth forwards like Bastian, the forward corps was clicking tonight and they were rewarded for their tenacity. The skilled players like Bratt picked Minnesota apart with agility and tape-to-tape passes. The rugged players like Bastian played physically, forechecked hard, and even earned themselves a mention on the scoresheet. Only four forwards—Haula, Mercer, Lazar, and Tierney—didn’t register a point, and of those only Tierney didn’t post any shots.
I really liked Timo Meier tonight. Did you know that he was benched in the third game of the season? I may have read or heard that somewhere. Maybe in The Athletic. And 32 Thoughts. And Puck Soup. And ESPN. And NHL.com. And—
I digress. We saw the Meier that wreaks havoc tonight. He was physical and jawing at the opposition. He was shooting. He was scoring. He was being a pain in front of the net. Now, after an admittedly rough start, he’s up to eight points in nine games. It’s a good time for Meier to heat up.
Jesper Bratt also had an incredible game. It’s kind of funny: you can tell how much we’re getting spoiled in Jersey when I barely bat an eye at a four point game. Still, with tonight in the rearview mirror, I’m taking a moment to appreciate not just the fact that Bratt is playing like one of the top forwards in the league, but that he’s staying in New Jersey for a long time. Bratt and the Devils have had such seemingly contentious negotiations that it took some of the luster off his shine in seasons past. With all that behind us, now we can bask in the show he puts on night after night. And with a $7.875 million AAV over eight years, we might want to start talking about Bratt’s contract in the same breath as Jack Hughes’s deal.
Finally, the defense corps played better as a unit. Aside from Hamilton’s second period, some of the goofs and gaffes we’ve come to expect this season were mostly absent tonight.
As for Jack Hughes, I think this says it all:
Jack Hughes stretched his League lead in points with his 19th of the season and set a @NJDevils / Rockies / Scouts benchmark in the process.#NHLStats: https://t.co/4kx7xmvfCX pic.twitter.com/M4HxOeQ2lY— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) November 3, 2023
What Should Have Been Vitek Vanecek Appreciation
I started writing this section after the second period. Here’s what I originally wrote: “Vanecek has experienced some well-documented struggles this season and last. But tonight? Tonight he was excellent.”
Well, that remains true—mostly. But sometimes one goal makes all the difference.
Now, I won’t go all doom-and-gloom here. Vanecek actually was quite good tonight, and I think he deserves credit for keeping the Devils’ lead intact through the moments in the second period when it looked like Minnesota might catch up. It’s too bad his stats won’t reflect that. At the end of the day, all most will see is that he surrendered three goals on 25 shots for a characteristic .880 SV%.
Something we might have to get comfortable with is—well, just that. A goaltender who can play quite well, give up a goal you’d rather have back, and come in under .900 SV% as often as over. There are many goalies like that in league; the Devils happen to have one. The Andrei Vasilevskiys and Ilya Sorokins are few and far between, and even Connor Hellebuyck is having a rough season. The question remains what it’s always been: do the Devils have enough firepower and defensive acuity to compensate for the net, especially when they’ll likely go up against Sorokin and/or Shesterkin in the playoffs?
Maybe they do. Having good-not-great goaltenders certainly seems to have worked for Vegas, and the Hurricanes. But I think we have to get comfortable with the idea that this is Vanecek in his natural state. I hope he proves me wrong.
Still, he was part of the Devils’ 4-3 win tonight, and he came up big when they needed him to. If they keep scoring like this in the playoffs, that’s all they need from him.
What I’d Like to See Next Time
The Devils are garnering a deserved reputation as power play merchants. It’s always great to have your special teams firing on all cylinders, but it’s more sustainable to score most of your goals at five-on-five. They took steps in that direction tonight, out-possessing Minnesota in all situations. Still, I want them to create more when the power play isn’t on the ice, because eventually it will regress to the mean and the power plays will not come as often.
What did you think of tonight’s game? What changes would you like to see ahead of their game against the Blues tomorrow? Was I too harsh on Vanecek’s performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!