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Depth Forwards Step Up in New Jersey Devils’ 4-2 Victory Over Chicago Blackhawks

Dawson Mercer finally found the scoresheet and Vitek Vanecek put forth a quality effort in win at Chicago

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Chicago Blackhawks David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils entered the 2023-24 season as one of the favorites to take home the Stanley Cup. Arguably the biggest reason for those lofty expectations is the twin franchise centers, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, the Devils could send over the boards night in and night out. But Hischier did not join the team on this current road trip because of the headshot he took from the Buffalo Sabres’ Connor Clifton, and Hughes was injured in New Jersey’s last game, a loss to the St. Louis Blues. So without the heart and soul of the Devils forward group, New Jersey had to rely on its depth as they visited the Chicago Blackhawks. It was close to the very end, but that depth stepped up in a 4-2 win over the Blackhawks on Sunday night.

Dawson Mercer, one of those players who will be asked to move up the depth chart in the absence of Hischier and Hughes, finally found the scoresheet thanks to a pretty power play goal in the first period. Mercer’s struggles to begin this season have been well documented at this point, and his goal must have provided a tidal wave of catharsis for the young man. He also showed well in the run of play tonight, and while he didn’t dominate his minutes as far as puck possession goes, it was still a strong effort in that regard for Mercer.

Michael McLeod, another center that must now shoulder more of the load until Hischier and Hughes return, played well in the top-6. His advanced numbers were positive, and he was rewarded for his efforts tonight with an empty-net goal in the dying seconds of the game.

Max Willman might not be asked to fill in at center on one of the top two lines, but he’s the player New Jersey called up once it was clear Hughes would miss some time. Willman provided a ton of energy, hounding everybody in a Blackhawks sweater all night long, whether that be on the forecheck, in a board battle, or trying to fight his way toward the net. He didn’t just provide intangibles though, as he scored New Jersey’s second goal of the evening thanks to Kevin Korchinski a marvelous defensive effort where he sprung himself for a partial breakaway and buried a nice shot past Arvid Soderblom. When he went out there for a shift at 5-on-5, lots of good things happened for the Devils, as his 77.46% Expected Goals For percentage (according to Natural Stat Trick) can attest to. And he also drew a penalty thanks to relentless forechecking, and when you play for a team that has scored almost at will on the power play, drawing penalties is a huge contribution.

Curtis Lazar will be playing a more prominent role for New Jersey for a while, and he responded with a lovely tip-in goal for the Devils’ third marker of the night. What’s funny is that during the postgame show, Lazar admitted during an interview that he was actually trying to make a pass to the backdoor to Chris Tierney on the play, and the puck just happened to redirect in. Whether he meant to find the back of the net or not, Lazar’s goal was a huge contribution, as was his team-leading 85.98 xGF% at 5-on-5 tonight.

As you can imagine in the team’s first game after the Hughes injury, it wasn’t an entirely smooth ride to the final horn. New Jersey gave up the first goal again, which they have done in every single game this year against teams not named the Minnesota Wild. They had more than their fair share of failed zone clearances. The passing wasn’t as crisp as you might like, with plenty of fumbled pucks and errant passing attempts. And once again, the Devils had to grind out an empty-net situation in the closing minutes of the contest.

But the positives outweighed the negatives tonight. After about 10 minutes of game time, New Jersey really settled in and eventually started dominating possession. Against a weak Blackhawks team playing the second half of a back-to-back, you would hope the Devils would control play, even without Hughes and Hischier. And sure enough, that’s what ended up happening, with Jersey’s team outshooting Chicago 40-34 and ending the game with a 62.44 xGF% at 5-on-5 according to NST. And even when the skaters faltered, Vitek Vanecek (more on him below) was there to provide solid goaltending this evening.

Overall, tonight’s victory over Chicago was a solid first look at a post-Hughes/Hischier world for the Devils. Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, and Tyler Toffoli, arguably the three most important forwards still healthy enough to play, combined for a whopping zero points. Despite that, New Jersey left Chicago with a win because their depth forwards stepped up. That depth will be leaned on for a while, and we can only hope they continue to provide strong contributions until the Devils’ star centers return to action.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play-by-Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Second City Hockey

Vi-tek! (clap clap) Vi-tek! (clap clap)

It was a strong effort from Vanecek in net tonight. According to Natural Stat Trick, The Vitek allowed his two goals on 2.37 expected goals. Not all-world stuff by any means, but above average goaltending is something this team sorely needs more of, so this was a welcome sight.

You know what else was a welcome sight? This:

Save of the year so far, and a save that provides a jolt of energy to any team. Allowing a tying goal with about a minute left in the first period would’ve been incredibly demoralizing, so Vanecek pulling a rabbit out of his hat here was huge.

The Devils don’t need Vanecek to perform miracles every night, but if he can start stacking performances like this, it would go a long way in assuring both the Devils organization and fanbase that they have their man in net after all.

All Eyes on Bedard

You probably didn’t know this because the NHL did not really market him all that much, but the Blackhawks drafted a player named Connor Bedard with the first overall pick of this past entry draft. Since no one has really been talking about him, allow me to give you a brief rundown on Bedard: He’s quite good.

Bedard was the most highly touted prospect to enter the league since at least Jack Hughes, and maybe even Connor McDavid. So how did he do against the Devils tonight? Well it did look like New Jersey made a conscious effort to neutralize him every time he took a shift, which makes sense. Bedard might already be the most dangerous weapon Chicago has at their disposal, so focusing most of the attention on him will probably pay off over the course of a game.

Well sure enough, that extra attention to Bedard paid off, as the phenom did not find the scoresheet, and at 5-on-5 he was buried in the run of play to the tune of a 34.29% Corsi For percentage and a 27.44% Expected Goals For percentage.

On the ice, the Blackhawks won’t be a good team for a while, and off the ice, the organization’s disgraceful handling of the Kyle Beach saga continues to hang over them like a storm cloud. But a player like Bedard provides hope to this moribund franchise, which is all you could ask for from your number one overall pick. This kid is the real deal, and the next time New Jersey sees him he might go off for a big night. But for tonight at least, the Devils contained the budding star.

Postgame Coverage

You can hear some thoughts from a few Devils players in the link below:

In Ruff’s postgame presser, he touched on the contributions from up and down his lineup, as well as the team’s ability to close out games when clinging to a one-goal lead this season. He seemed relatively pleased with the effort he saw from his troops this evening, so if I had to guess, I would say we see minimal changes to the lineup next time out. Then again, betting against Lindy Ruff making lineup changes can be very risky.

A Brief Word on Holtz

On a fourth line with Chris Tierney and Nate Bastian, Alexander Holtz did not come out looking good according to the fancy stats at NST. The winger sported a 36.08% xGF% at 5-on-5 tonight, the fourth-worst mark on the team.

However I thought he played better than the advanced stats would indicate tonight. Perhaps my eye test needs some recalibration, but I felt as though Holtz created some quality looks for both himself and his teammates, and I felt his effort on forechecks and board battles was fine. I’m certainly not going to argue that Holtz dominated play, but I didn’t think he was a problem out there. He did get a couple shifts late in the game, which is indicative of Ruff putting a little more trust in him. Perhaps you have a different opinion, but I thought this was another step in the right direction for Holtz.

Next Time Out

The Devils conclude their four-game road trip on Tuesday, when they visit the Colorado Avalanche. Stock up on coffee, because puck drop is slated for 10:00pm ET that night. It will also be a national broadcast, with TNT airing the game.

Your Take

What were your overall thoughts on this game? Do you think the Devils have enough depth to weather the injuries to Hischier and Hughes? What did you make of Connor Bedard? Are there any changes you’d like to see for next game? As always, thanks for reading!