Against an Eastern Conference bottom feeder on Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils needed a very late goal and an overtime tally to collect two points. Against an Eastern Conference bottom feeder this evening, the Devils needed no such heroics. Tonight, New Jersey coasted to a decisive, dominant 6-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. Nico Daws made his first start at the NHL level since the 2021-22 season and put up a stellar performance, and Jesper Bratt led the charge with a four point night with a goal and a trio of assists.
It was quite the return to the big leagues for Daws, who underwent hip surgery in the offseason and just recently returned to action with AHL Utica. The 23-year-old stopped 25 of the 27 shots he faced this evening, and according to Natural Stat Trick, he saved 0.56 goals above expected. Not a huge number, but being in the black is something we are not used to seeing from Devils netminders this season. Considering Daws stopped Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris on breakaway attempts tonight, plus another big time save on Dominik Kubalik who was left all alone on the backdoor for a grade-A chance in the first period, this feels like one of those outings where the advanced stats don’t capture just how good Daws played. And if Jacob Bernard-Docker’s shot from the half wall late in the third period didn’t take a fortuitous carom off of Brendan Smith in front, Daws’ numbers would have looked even better.
This was an excellent season debut for Daws, who claims that he feels better than ever after his hip surgery, giving him more flexibility and comfort during play. He certainly looked comfortable tonight, and while one game is obviously not enough to conclude that the Devils’ goaltending woes are solved, this is a step in the right direction for sure.
In front of the crease, the stars came to play for New Jersey. Jesper Bratt led the offense with a goal and three assists, both Jack and Luke Hughes collected a goal and two assists each, and Nico Hischier registered a pretty assist immediately following a penalty kill (more on the goal Hischier assisted on, as well as the penalty kill, later on). It was particularly good to see Hischier get on the scoresheet, as the captain had gone three games without a point and had only a single assist in his last five games entering tonight. He still hasn’t scored a goal since December 16th against Columbus, so it would be nice to see him snap that cold streak soon.
The other goal scorers for the Devils tonight were Dawson Mercer, Tyler Toffoli, and...Brendan Smith??? Yes the much-maligned defenseman was the one responsible for getting Hischier on the board with an assist. Immediately after he left the penalty box (sigh), Smith got behind the defense and Hischier found him for a breakaway chance.
As you heard Bill Spaulding say in the clip above, that was Smith’s first goal as a Devil. And what a first goal it was! I feel bad saying it, but I really didn’t think Smith had a particularly strong game tonight. His brutal turnover led to the first Ottawa goal of the game, he was only able to get behind the defense on his goal because he took a penalty in the first place, and he was mostly pinned back in his own zone this evening. But at least for tonight, despite those shortcomings, Smith gave us one of the most memorable goals of the season so far. A tip of the cap to Smith for that.
It was also just generally nice to see this team get out to a big lead and just salt away the game the way they did tonight. The Devils play so many close games that I had almost forgotten what a comfortable win looks like. The third period was a pretty mundane 20 minutes, with the most noteworthy thing aside from the two goals being Artem Zub going in on a 1-on-4, Kevin Bahl stepping up on him as he took a shot, and a Senator (I couldn’t see who and I can’t find a replay anywhere) attempting to rush Bahl well after the whistle because I guess he was angry Bahl had the nerve to body check an opponent in a game of hockey. By the way, I said “attempting” because Michael McLeod tossed him down to the ice like he was a little kid before he even reached Bahl, which was pretty embarrassing for this mystery Senator (if you know who this was, please help me out in the comments!). I remember Tkachuk and the Senators taking loads of cheap shots at Hischier in multiple games last season, so for a Senator to get upset at Bahl is pretty rich. I guess that’s what happens when frustration at being the worst team in the Eastern Conference sets in.
For as frustrating of a season as this has been so far, this Devils team is still a high quality squad, and tonight was a perfect example of what happens when a very good team meets a pretty lousy team. Ottawa entered this game dead last in the Eastern Conference in points, and it showed. The Sens committed numerous turnovers, blew coverages, failed to execute on plays, and generally looked completely outclassed tonight. This is what the Devils are capable of, and if they continue to string efforts like this together, it will make the early season struggles look like a mere speed bump on the way to another stellar season.
The Game Highlights: Here they are. Enjoy.
Special Teams Were Special Tonight
The Devils’ special teams were a point of emphasis both on the MSG pregame show and during the game broadcast itself. According to Bryce Salvador and the MSG crew, after scoring at a 36.4% clip through the first 23 games of the season, over the last 10 games New Jersey’s power play had converted only two of their last 26 opportunities (7.7%). Well the Devils doubled that output tonight alone, going 2/4 on the man advantage. Big success in one game does not mean the power play is fixed, but this was a promising effort this evening.
Meanwhile, the penalty kill had experienced the opposite fate. The first 23 games of the campaign had seen the Devils kill penalties at a meager 75.0% rate. But over the last 10, New Jersey’s kill was humming to the tune of an 88.5% success rate. Unlike the power play where trends reversed this evening, the Devils continued on their torrid path with the penalty kill, going a perfect 4/4 on shorthanded situations.
It was nice to see the power play be a strength for the first time in a while, and given the talent New Jersey has at its disposal, there is no reason this power play should struggle for long stretches of time. And the penalty kill continuing to click is an encouraging trend as well. Getting top notch special teams would go a long way toward helping the Devils rise out of the wild card race and into a comfortable playoff spot. Speaking of which...
Back Where They Belong
Entering the holiday break, the Devils were on the outside looking in regarding the playoff picture if you looked at total points. But sorting by points percentage actually put the Devils in the top-8 in the Eastern Conference when taking games in hand into account. But after their win tonight, plus a Washington Capitals regulation loss to the New York Islanders, the Devils can now say they are in a playoff position based off total points.
Carolina holds down the first wild card spot with 42 points in 36 games played (.583 pts%), and the Devils are next at 40 points in 34 games played (.588 pts%). The Capitals are right behind the Devils with 39 points, but they have a game in hand on New Jersey. After that are the Tampa Bay Lightning who also have 39 points, but New Jersey actually has two games in hand on them.
So needless to say, it’s a bit of a quagmire at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race right now. But the Devils are in pretty good shape despite that mess, with more points than every team except Carolina (who New Jersey has two games in hand on), and a better points percentage than everyone except Washington (who the Devils have one more point than). Regardless of the various tiebreaker scenarios, it just feels good to see the Devils in a playoff position again. Obviously they need to continue to play well to stay there, but if they keep playing like they did tonight that shouldn’t be a problem.
Guess Who’s Back. Back Again.
Dawson Mercer had some well documented struggles early in the season. The third year forward went the first 10 games of the season without a point, and only had four points through his first 18 contests. Aside from the lack of production, Mercer was drowning in the run of play on most nights, as he just did not look like himself.
Fast forward to tonight, and after his gorgeous goal against the Sens, Mercer is now up to 18 points in 34 games. That’s a points per game rate of 0.52, which would put him on pace for somewhere in the low to mid-40’s in points this season. That would be a step back from last season when he put up 27 goals and 56 points, but would be similar to his rookie season in which he reached 42 total points. And given how Mercer is capable of going on ridiculous scoring benders like we saw late last season, I wouldn’t be so sure that Mercer won’t reach or eclipse his point production from a season ago.
Mercer has been producing at a much higher rate, as well putting up better possession numbers. He’s still not at the high level he was at in 2022-23, but he’s trending up for sure. Mercer finding his game again would do wonders for this team’s forward depth.
Time To Figure It Out
Tonight’s game was the first half of a back-to-back, which means they have to suit up for a puck drop less than 24 hours from now. New Jersey is 1-5-1 in the second half of back-to-backs this season, and considering they literally lead the league in back-to-backs in 2023-24, this is a trend that simply cannot continue if the Devils want to play beyond the regular season.
It won’t be easy, as the next game will be in Boston against the Bruins, but enough excuses. The Devils have dropped enough games in regulation in the second half of back-to-backs to this point, including against the lowly the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. I want at least a point against Boston, I will not be satisfied with yet another regulation loss. Enough is enough, time to figure out back-to-backs. The season depends on it.
One more thing the Devils need to figure out: How to stop taking Too Many Men penalties. They took another one tonight, and at this point I just don’t know what else to say about it. I can’t find the stats for this, but I have to imagine New Jersey is in the top five in the NHL in Too Many Men penalties taken. It’s amazing how this keeps happening, and Lindy Ruff and the Devils need to learn how to make a change properly. Now.
Bahl Reaches The Century Mark
Tonight was Kevin Bahl’s 100th career NHL game. It was fitting that it took place in Ottawa, as that was where he played his junior hockey with the Ottawa 67’s. He apparently had a lot of friends and family in the stands tonight. Congratulations to the young man, hopefully there are many more successful NHL games to come for Bahl.
Next Time Out
The Devils will turn right around and take on the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Saturday night. As discussed already, New Jersey really needs to start figuring out back-to-backs, though getting points on the road against a tough Bruins team is a tough ask. Puck drop is slated for 7:00pm.
The Devils took care of business against a far inferior opponent tonight, and were rewarded with not just a dominating win, but a playoff spot as well! What did you make of tonight’s contest? Who impressed you the most? What do you want to see changed, if anything, for the next game against the Bruins? As always, thanks for reading!