The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Boston Bruins
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TNT, MSGSN, MAX
- The Devils return to the Prudential Center after a successful road trip in which they went 3-1, securing six out of a possible eight points. Despite their recent string of victories, however, they’re still playing catch-up in the standings and need to keep on the pressure.
- Just as the Devils’ key contributors, sans Dougie Hamilton, are returning to the lineup, several important Bruins are out: Derek Forbort, Charlie McAvoy, and former Devil Pavel Zacha will not play tonight. Milan Lucic remains away from the team indefinitely following domestic abuse charges.
- The Devils face the league’s best goaltending tandem in Jeremy Swayman (.932 SV%) and Linus Ullmark (.917 SV%). They cannot register under twenty shots on either of those goaltenders. They need to work the puck into prime scoring areas, shoot often, and shoot hard.
The State of the Devils
As Chris outlined in his excellent synopsis of the four-game road trip, the Devils have worked their way out of the basement and back into contention in large part due to the return of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and others who have missed isolated games because of injury. As of December 12, they still trail Washington, Philadelphia, Carolina, the Islanders, and the Rangers in the division standings with games in hand everyone but the Capitals.
As John has pointed out many times already this season, it’s tough to make up ground in this league, especially as the season passes the 1⁄4 mark. Still, there’s no reason not to begin feeling optimistic. While the goaltending still needs work and the Hamilton injury subtracts a lot of offensive talent from the blueline, the Devils have played better, more structured hockey, found the back of the net at even strength more often, and have won games without Jack Hughes dragging the team to victory with multipoint efforts.
In Hamilton’s absence, Simon Nemec joined the team on their road trip and played quite well. In five games, Nemec scored his first NHL goal and first NHL assist and has largely strung together a series of reasonable performances that were not without their defensive warts. As Chris mentioned in his article, Nemec performed quite well with Luke Hughes in limited game action but struggled with Jonas Siegenthaler as a pair. Nevertheless, the emergence of Nemec as a legitimate top-6 defenseman will only give Tom Fitzgerald additional options as he tries to shore up one or several positions in the lineup ahead of the trade deadline.
In their day-before practice, here’s what the Devils’ lines looked like per Amanda Stein:
Notably, Siegenthaler - Nemec remains a pairing and Erik Haula draws back into full-time duty after his injury. Stein also noted that “Curtis Lazar left practice with a team trainer after a penalty kill drill,” so we’ll see if he actually plays tonight or if Christ Tierney, who took his place on the penalty kill in practice, draws in at forward. Smith, who took line rushes as the extra d-man alongside Tierney, may serve as an option on the fourth line should Lazar remain out.
The State of the Bruins
Like the Devils before them, the Bruins have suffered a few key injuries, including to their blueline stalwart Charlie McAvoy. Unlike the Devils, however, the Bruins goaltending has only built on their excellent season last year and are just as good as they’ve ever been. Former Devil Pavel Zacha will also not participate in the game tonight, as he and Derek Forbort remain out alongside McAvoy with injuries. Per The Athletic Boston reporter Fluto Shinzawa, here are the Bruins’ lines from their day-before practice:
Prax lines:— Fluto Shinzawa (@FlutoShinzawa) December 12, 2023
A lot of people expected the Bruins to take a big step back this season. After all, they lost David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron to retirement. Losing their top two centers would be enough to cripple most teams. It certainly crippled the Devils when Hischier and Hughes weren’t in the lineup. Yet the Bruins appear no worse for wear, in large part because of the elite performances of David Pastrnak, their top-tier goaltending, and depth contributions throughout their lineup.
Despite whatever is said on Twitter, I think most Devils fans happily make the Haula-for-Zacha trade again with the benefit of hindsight, even though Zacha has become a serviceable middle-six center beside David Pastrnak. His 19 points in 26 games rank fourth on the team. His absence will further test the Bruins’ center depth, as Morgan Geekie earns a promotion into the top-six. Per Bruins team reporter Eric Russo, coach Jim Montgomery likes Geekie alongside DeBrusk and Pastrnak as a physical presence that can distribute the puck to his skilled linemates. “He’s a big horse that can occupy the middle of the ice, drive the net,” Montgomery said to Russo. “He wins battles against two people because of his strength and his tenacity on pucks.”
Those eyeing Charlie Coyle on that second line shouldn’t flinch. The Marchand - Coyle - Frederic line has actually been excellent for the Bruins, with Marchand and Coyle both in their top four scorers and Frederic (with 12 points in 26 games) as the line’s facilitator.
Those disappointed that Zacha won’t be playing have another former Devil to look toward: Jesper Boqvist earned himself a recall from the Bruins’ AHL affiliate and made the trip to New Jersey. Though in practice it looked like he was the odd-man out and served as the extra forward, Montgomery’s comments lead me to believe that Boqvist will play in some capacity against the Devils. His recall was due in part to how well he was playing in AHL Providence, according to Montgomery, and “also it’s New Jersey, and that’s where he played [to start his career]. I always find that guys dig in and want to show the other team why they could have kept them.]” Though Montgomery wouldn’t comment on whether or not Boqvist would draw into the lineup instead Oskar Steen, I’m inclined to believe they’ll give him an opportunity. Montgomery would also not commit to which goaltender he’d start against the Devils, though—as Swayman and Ullmark are both excellent—I’m not sure it matters for the Devils.
I’ll update this article should any further lineup news become public the day-of.
How do the Devils need to play to get out on the right foot against the Bruins? Do you think the subtractions of McAvoy and Zacha will sufficiently weaken the Bruins and give the Devils an easier night, or will the Eastern Conference’s top team look just as fierce as ever? Would you make the Zacha - Haula trade again? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.