- Against an overperforming John Tortorella-coached Flyers team, the Devils jumped out to an early lead in the first period, scoring twice before the Flyers answered in the second.
- The Devils largely out-chanced and out-played the Flyers through long stretches of the game, but a collapse in discipline in the final few minutes led to Philadelphia tying the game at three and putting the contest into overtime.
- Despite nearly fumbling a win at the eleventh hour, Luke Hughes took vengeance in overtime and hammered home a one-timer to secure the 4-3 victory.
- Though they gave a needless point to the Flyers (which keeps them ahead in the standings), the Devils are now on a three-game winning streak.
We’ve all criticized the Devils for not starting games on time. Though they eventually notched an improbable come-from-behind win against the Islanders on Tuesday, that win was perhaps made more impressive because once again they had to claw their way back the entire game. Entering tonight, (per Bill Spaulding), the Flyers had not lost a game this season after scoring first—but hadn’t won after surrendering the first goal, either. Naturally, it was more important than ever to jump out to an early lead against a Tortorella-coached Flyers team before they got the chance to smother offensive chances. And before Carter Hart could out-goalie the opposition.
I’m happy to report that the Devils did just that, and it was none other than Alexander Holtz scoring a goalscorer’s goal that put them out in front. This play developed innocently enough. Colin Miller skated through the neutral zone and sent a pass to Michael McLeod, who evaded a stick-check by dropping a backhand pass to Alexander Holtz. Holtz took a few strides into the high slot and wound up for a wrister that left his stick with such velocity I barely saw it as it rocketed past Carter Hart’s glove and into the net.
We’ve talked about Holtz a lot on the blog this season. Yes, he might not always be a positive possession player. Yes, he might have some defensive lapses (though frankly he’s far from the worst offender these days). But what’s getting everyone excited is that Holtz has clearly put his offensive game together this year, and it’s NHL-caliber. We can talk about where he was picked in the draft some other day. For now, let’s all take a moment to appreciate that he’s on a 27-goal pace. If Holtz regularly becomes a 30-goal scorer for the Devils, that’s one more weapon they have available for Stanley Cup runs.
Sean Couturier took a high-sticking penalty on John Marino shortly after, and the league’s best power play went to work. The Flyers penalty killers were aggressive high in the zone and into the corners, which made it difficult for the Devils to settle the puck and get their cycle going through the first minute. Toffoli had a good slapshot. But while the power play had possessed the puck for long stretches, they weren’t able to generate any prime scoring chances.
Those looking forward to lots of five-on-five play were disappointed this period. The refs grabbed Kevin Bahl immediately after the Devils’ power play ended for high-sticking in a battle behind the net. I rewound and watched that play several times. Not only did I not see a high-stick, I didn’t even see anything close to a high-stick. Yes, Bahl’s stick comes up high at the end of the battle. But it doesn’t make contact, and as far as I could see, Foerster didn’t even jerk his head back to try to draw the penalty. I was baffled. I’m still baffled. If you saw what actually happened, please leave a comment because I did not.
Nevertheless, the penalty kill didn’t last long, as Morgan Frost tripped Marino in the Flyers’ offensive zone. Four-on-four ensued. The clock was bugged and had been since the beginning of the game, which meant that nobody could see how much time remained in penalties or on four-on-four. Thankfully, that was later rectified.
Devils fans were treated to a Nico Hischier masterclass just as four-on-four ended. Ostensibly, they were headed to the power play. In practice, the Flyers got behind the Devils’ defenders and almost had a clear two-on-one—were it not for Nico Hischier. He hustled back, drifted toward the shooter in front of Akira Schmid, and just plain body-blocked and made it impossible for them to get a shot off.
Then, some big defensive zone play led to a fast breakout stretch pass. In a blink, Hughes and Toffoli were on a two-on-one. Hughes kept the puck and rifled it off the far post for his eighth goal of the year and to give the Devils a 2-0 lead. Whenever Hughes (and Toffoli) are in that position, a goal is inevitable.
Jack can hit 50-yarders and chip shots just the same. pic.twitter.com/Kj5dSpetYH— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 1, 2023
The joy from Jack’s goal was unfortunately short-lived. Once again, an opposing player tried to murder one of the Devils’ stars. Garnet Hathaway, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Luke Hughes were all involved in a puck chase into the Devils’ zone. It should’ve been icing—and eventually the whistle did blow, but far, far too late. I don’t believe Hathaway actually meant to lay a hit on Hughes. He did, however, run right through Hughes in his attempt to beat out the icing. Hughes went flying shoulder-first into the boards and clutched his arm as he skated toward the bench. He headed down the tunnel and did not return for the remainder of the first period.
The referees assessed a major penalty to Hathaway. The war room in Toronto automatically reviewed the major penalty, eventually confirming it and leading to Hathaway’s game misconduct. John Tortorella freaked out for a couple minutes. While on-brand, I also thought that was an interesting use of oxygen. Lindy Ruff deserved to freak out more than Tortorella.
The Devils headed to a five-minute power play, but we’ve seen this exact situation play out before. They looked distracted at the idea of another injury decimating the roster. They had a few good looks—including Toffoli just barely missing the net off a hard shot near the hash marks—but ultimately they weren’t able to convert. The power play unit kept possession through most of the man advantage. The Flyers were just slightly better at clogging the middle than the Devils were at cycling the puck. Marino closed the first period off with a big one-timer off a pass from behind the net, but Hart challenged at the top of the crease and swallowed it into his chest protector.
The Devils entered the second period up 2-0.
HUGHES CAME BACK FOR THE SECOND.
Cough. Ahem. Sorry. I mean, Hughes returned to the ice for the second period.
The Devils began the period with a little time remaining on the power play. but Hart stopped them all. The Flyers killed the major penalty.
Then, on an extended defensive zone play, Hischier lost his stick and took a holding penalty. The Flyers were able to cycle the puck and get a few shots through to Schmid, but the netminder saw each shot all the way through traffic and turned aside each shot. I haven’t mentioned Schmid much until now, but after approximately 35 minutes of play, he’d made fourteen saves and preserved the lead. With ample help from Schmid, the Devils killed the penalty. Right after the penalty kill ended, Schmid made an excellent cross-crease save on Bobby Brink with his right pad. During other games, that might’ve turned into a goal. But not tonight.
Carter Hart was also excellent. Hughes manufactured a beautiful two-on-one with Colin Miller, that later included a quick Toffoli shot on the back door, but Hart stretched across to make the glove save. Schmid answered right back at the other end with a big save on a breakaway, turning the second period into a veritable goalie duel.
The Devils headed back to the penalty kill after Hischier took a hooking penalty during a Flyers scoring chance. Initially, the shorthanded unit did a good job hunting down pucks and preventing the Flyers from working the puck into the middle of the ice. Near the end of the kill, however, a shot from the point rebounded to Frost on the back door, who put it away to bring the lead down to one. With just seven minutes left in the period, the Flyers catapulted themselves ahead to 27 shots. on the night. After giving up only seven shots in the first, they surrendered 20 in the second.
New Jersey headed right back to the power play late after the Flyers scored their first goal. With Holtz drawing onto the top unit in place of Bratt, they generated three or four huge chances that might have all turned into goals—had Carter Hart not stonewalled them every time, including on a ridiculous dive. Hart always seems to show up against the Devils. Though they put up six shots on the man advantage, none resulted in goals due to the goaltender.
Luke Hughes chipped the puck out of play in the defensive zone in the last few seconds of the period, meaning they’d start the third on the penalty kill. The Devils headed off after two with a 2-1 lead.
The Devils opened the third period by killing off the remainder of Luke Hughes’ delay of game penalty. McLeod then drew a hooking penalty by keeping his feet moving and making a few nice stickhandles on a zone entry, and on the power play they once again stared down Carter Hart having a fantastic game. Though Hart made a couple nice stops, it wasn’t enough to stop Toffoli from scoring on a rebound scramble right in front. It wasn’t quite a garbage goal—a lot of skill went into creating and converting that chance—but it was a goal that came from a tough spot in front of the net. It’s great that Toffoli can snipe and he can bang in rebounds.
Obviously Toff was gonna score a goal tonight. It’s what he does. pic.twitter.com/68PXHrJq97— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 1, 2023
The Flyers came right back with a handful of chances at the other end, but Schmid made at least one diving save to keep the Devils’ lead intact. He made two more critical saves—one shot through traffic, then the rebound—that held the Flyers to just one goal halfway through the period.
Then a frustrating seeing-eye shot from Sean Walker on the point soared through traffic and past Schmid to draw the Flyers back within one goal. It was an annoying goal that Schmid never saw off an innocent play that nobody thought would end in the net. That’s the way the puck bounces, sometimes. Shortly after, the refs grabbed Hughes for a questionable hooking penalty (he did get his stick tied up around Frost’s wrists, but Frost held onto the stick) and with just over three minutes left, the Devils had the game on the line on the penalty kill. Of course, the refs missed a clear holding-the-stick penalty on Hischier, which led to several Flyers chances. The refs also deigned to call a slashing call on Brendan Smith. Konecny crosschecked Smith in the back, Smith hit Konecny with a big slash, and the refs got him for the retaliation.
Schmid made several big saves on the five-on-three and the ensuing five-on-four, but Scott Laughton eventually shot from the blue line that was deflected by Foerster to tie the game. What hurts is that Kevin Bahl had a clear opportunity to clear the puck but couldn’t. What hurts more is Smith taking a needless penalty. He definitely showed a lot of heart and toughness by responding to Konecny’s crosscheck with a two-handed swing, but I don’t think it translated positively on the scoreboard. Maybe next time.
The clock ran out, and the Devils headed to overtime for the first time since early October.
Overtime began with the Hischier-Hughes-Hughes trio, which paid dividends when Hughes and Hughes almost immediately transitioned from the defensive zone into a quick two-on-one rush the other way. Hughes (Jack) saucered a pass to Hughes (Luke), and Hughes (Luke) made no mistake on the one-timer. Carter Hart’s magic finally ran out, and the Devils defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime.
Take a bow, Luke Hughes
You already know Luke Hughes had a great game. Just how great was it? Let’s start with ice time. Ice time isn’t always a good indicator that someone is performing well—I could definitely play sixty minutes a night in the NHL, but what I’d do with those minutes is another story entirely—but in a game where Luke exited with a potential injury, playing 21:45 through four periods feels like some sort of mark of pride. Luckily, he appeared no worse for wear after Hathaway’s hit. Luke ended the night with the third-most ice time for the Devils.
He was one of six Devils with positive possession numbers in a game where they were outshot for wide swaths of play, his expected goals-for was similarly in the green (sixth again), and per Natural Stat Trick he was on the ice for nineteen Devils scoring chances. That includes, of course, his game-winning overtime goal.
With Dougie Hamilton out with an injury, Luke stepped up and played first pair minutes. The Devils gave up two or three odd-man rushes, but overall—aside from the deluge of shots—I thought this was an improvement in many regards over the defense corps’ past defensive play. Has Hamilton been so bad defensively that his subtraction from the roster is an addition to their d-zone efforts? Or should Luke take over as a first-pairing defenseman? (The answer can be both.)
This is a Luke Hughes highlight section, but I’ll take a few lines to write about Colin Miller too. Miller was quietly one of the best players on the ice tonight, ending near the top of all the major fancy stat categories and leading the team in xGA with just 0.39 through his fifteen minutes of play. Miller was never intended to serve as anything more than a depth defenseman. Performances notwithstanding, that is still likely his average ceiling. Nevertheless, Miller’s two-way game thus far should warrant a decent chunk of credit for the Devils’ recent turnaround.
Sam Laberge in his NHL debut
Sam Laberge, recently signed to a two-way deal, made his NHL debut tonight. He’s a feel-good story about a guy who left hockey for a season to help his family through a difficult time. He’s known as a rugged hard worker and, amid the injury glut, earned himself an NHL game.
Unfortunately, he only played four minutes tonight. I counted five shifts through the first two periods and none in the third, unless I missed one or two. Now, that isn’t his fault. The game became a special teams battle and it was very close through the third period, which didn’t leave Ruff many opportunities to work him into the game. I didn’t even see enough to form an opinion. All this is to say, I’m glad he got his shot in the NHL and I hope he turns into an effective depth forward in the league. Even if he never suits up for the Devils again, a good person (by all accounts) got four minutes in the NHL, making it farther than most.
Still, playing him just four minutes in a tight game tells a story. The Devils have been ravaged by injury, so I’ll forgive them for not having a great answer for the fourth man-up. But when other depth option Chris Tierney is only playing seven minutes, and putting up team-worst advanced numbers in almost every category, they may need to address their forward depth if and when they’re in the playoff hunt come trade deadline time. Especially since Nate Bastian has not been spectacular either.
Being tough doesn’t stop headshots & boarding
I know this will likely incite some argument in the comments, so I’ll try to keep this brief. I saw lots of people saying that the Devils—and Luke Hughes—were soft, and that was why they’ve been unlucky with injuries. This perhaps comes off the back of the Nikita Zadorov trade earlier today. I know a lot of fans were hoping he’d come to New Jersey.
I don’t think having a Ryan Reaves or, if you want an example of a guy that’s good at hockey, a Radko Gudas would prevent Devils players from getting headshot, getting boarded, and getting unlucky. Physicality is a part of hockey. It’s ultimately why Timo Meier instead of, say, Alex DeBrincat joined the Devils. Meier brought an aspect to the game they lacked, and having an extra edge in physicality contributes to winning hockey games.
I don’t believe it contributes to injury prevention.
Brendan Smith fought Connor Clifton, who injured Hischier earlier this year, just a few games ago. I applauded him for it. So what happened tonight? Hathaway boarded Hughes anyway. So much for a deterrent. Now, that was in some ways almost an accident—the play should’ve been blown dead (the whole reason delayed offsides exist is to prevent these exact situations) and I’m not even certain Hathaway intended to hit Hughes as hard as he did. But it still happened, and if Smith wants to have a go at Hathaway and enact vengeance, he’ll have to wait until the next time they play the Flyers.
The best revenge is the kind that Luke himself delivered tonight.
I’m happy to listen to the argument that the Devils need someone—possibly on defense—who plays a hard-nosed game. Truly, this team could use a Radko Gudas or an Erik Cernak. But not to punch people or two-hand slash the opposition after they take a crosscheck to the back. It doesn’t work as a deterrent. Physicality is only worth something if it translates to goals-for, goals-prevented, and wins.
I await my extradition to the Hague.
Akira Schmid deserved better
Akira Schmid was one of the best players on the ice tonight. There’s an alternate universe out there where the Devils surrendered the first goal of the game and Carter Hart locked them out. Hart was fantastic, especially in the second and third periods. That might’ve spelled the end. But Schmid was better.
He made a new career high in saves with 44 on 47 shots, including 14/16 on the penalty kill. Many of the shots were in high-danger scoring areas. For much of the night, I barely noticed what was happening in net because Akira was so good he made some very tough saves look easy. Routine. My eyes were free to wander elsewhere on the ice. That has not been the case in recent memory.
I’m not going to pick apart each goal or laser pointer who was at fault for what. I just would’ve liked to have seen the Devils play disciplined hockey through the final few minutes. Not just for the two points, but for Schmid. He had excellent stats tonight that should’ve been even better.
The Devils did not just receive league-average goaltending. They got a very good game from a young netminder still putting everything together. But it’s past time they give Akira Schmid as much leash as Vanecek has received in the past.
What were your thoughts on the game? Does Sam Laberge get another shot in a Devils uniform? Does Akira Schmid become the starter for a month or two? What did you like about the Devils tonight, and what didn’t you like? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.