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Game Preview #35: New Jersey Devils at Boston Bruins

Well well well. Well. After a December that saw the Devils beat some good teams—including the Bruins—and lose to some of the worst in the NHL, they face Boston coming off the back of a dominant 6-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators in which the Hughes brothers each scored three points.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Boston Bruins

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: NESN, MSGSN

Key Takeaways

  • The Devils have had an up-and-down December, defeating good teams like the Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks and losing to very bad teams like the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.
  • Despite the inconsistencies, they’ve rounded out the final weeks of December with three straight wins, culminating in a dominant 6-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators yesterday night.
  • Though they remain fifth in the Metropolitan Division, the Devils claimed the second wild card playoff position last night with 40 points. They’ve been far from perfect, but another victory over the Bruins would help cement them as a team that can hang for the rest of the season.

The last time the Devils played the Bruins . . .

. . . they overpowered the Bruins in a dominant overtime to secure a 2-1 win. As the comments and the gamethread indicate, that victory was far from perfect. They allowed the first goal (who would’a thunk?) and largely got outplayed through the first period before fighting back in the second and third, which resulted in an overtime that saw the Devils skate circles around the Bruins’ three-man units.

Notably, Vitek Vanecek played well that game. That’s important because he likely gets the start tonight. Since Nico Daws played against the Senators last night (and looked very good in net), expect Vanecek to get the start against Boston. Though Daws played great yesterday, we’ve all seen what happens when you start a goalie in both games of a back-to-back, especially considering that Daws has only recently returned from hip surgery that kept him from the ice for six months.

A key difference from then and now is the re-emergence of Timo Meier. In that December 13 recap, I wrote briefly about my frustration with Meier. Against Boston, he controlled the run of play and contributed numerous scoring chances to the scorecard. But he didn’t score—which is ultimately what he’s paid to do. Thankfully, good habits led to good results, and Meier has scored four goals in his last five games.

Of course, the Devils played yesterday, which means they’re entering the dreaded second half of the back-to-back, something they’ve become well-acquainted with this season. They played effectively at every end of the ice and were rewarded with a 6-2 victory. But the Devils have been historically terrible in the second part of back-to-backs. I’ll leave Jackson’s quote from yesterday’s summary here:

“The Devils have dropped enough games in regulation in the second half of back-to-backs to this point, including against the lowly 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.

They could close out 2023 with a bang. Four wins in four games, one coming against a true contender, would afford them a little breathing room entering 2024.

Rare stumbles from the Boston Bruins

I won’t go so far as to say that the Devils delivered Boston a blow they won’t recover from, but that 2-1 defeat at New Jersey’s hands began a string of inconsistency that saw the Bruins go 2-4 through the final weeks of December, including two losses to the mediocre (if surging) Minnesota Wild. Three of those games went to overtime or the shootout; two resulted in losses.

Since December 13, the Bruins have returned many of their formerly injured players to their active roster. That includes Pavel Zacha and Charlie McAvoy. Derek Forbort is still on injured reserve, Milan Lucic is away from the team indefinitely, and Matt Grzelcyk is day-to-day with an injury but is practicing full-contact with the team.

The Bruins haven’t played since December 27, when they drubbed the Sabres 4-1. They practiced yesterday with the following lines, per Fluto Shinzawa:

Notably, Morgan Geekie retains the center position on the top line as Zacha moves to the left wing. With Grzelcyk taking line rushes on the extra fourth pairing, I don’t expect he’ll return against the Devils. Georgii Merkulov, billed as a “well-rounded 200-foot game” kind of player by Jim McBride of the Boston Globe, will make his NHL debut against the Devils on their third line. The 23-year-old led the Providence Bruins last season in scoring with 55 points. In McBride’s article, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said this of Merkulov:

“The reason he got called up is because of his 200-foot game, not because he’s scoring a lot, because on our team we have guys that are paid a lot of money to score goals, right? And he’s got to come and support that and be part of what we’re trying to build as a team.

Merkulov credited Jesper Boqvist with helping him build his game in AHL Providence. While it seems like Montgomery is counting on Merkulov to play responsible, defensive hockey to better enable players like Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak to go score, Merkulov does have a scoring touch of his own. He’s registered 14 goals and 30 points in 31 AHL games this season.

Though the Bruins have struggled since losing to the Devils in early December, I wouldn’t count on them being easy marks tonight. They’ve returned several of their injured players to the roster, still have stellar goaltending whether its Swayman or Ullmark in the net, and pushed several of their recent losses to overtime or a shootout. Had the coin flipped another way in any of those contests, their recent ‘struggles’ hardly seem as such. They’re also rested. The Devils are not.

If New Jersey wins this game, I’ll expect to feel rightfully impressed. If they lose, however, my interpretation will entirely rely on the manner of their loss moreso than past games. I want the Devils to fight and stay with the Bruins through the entire game, no matter how tired they are. If they do that, I’ll be happy at the end of the day. (Probably.)

Your Thoughts

Will Vitek repeat his earlier performance, or will the Bruins out-goalie and out-work the Devils? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.