Late night games for the East Coast like the one the New Jersey Devils played against the Vancouver Canucks are a challenge. Late starts locally mean even later endings locally. Which is not good if you are the sort of person to write a recap after the game is concluded. To, you know, recap what happened and discuss the major and minor points of observation. In the interest of compromise, I shall give you what I saw live and then update this to give you a more complete recap later in the morning.
Ahead of the game, X was complete with media types either lamenting that the Hughes Bowl was on NHL Network (I see you, ESPN employee Greg Wyshynski, complaining on X instead of your superiors who didn’t pick this game) or that the Hughes-es did not start this game (hello, Jeff Marek, always looking for an angle instead of the hockey). To be fair, for a game getting this much love on social media for three Hughes brothers, it is a disappointment that MSG chose not to send Bill Spaulding and Ken Daneyko to Vancouver.
After a few minutes of icings, the Devils got to truly attack first. No, Ian Cole, a puck hitting the outside of the frame from distance does not count. An early drive by Jesper Bratt is denied. Later on the same shift, Bratt struck gold. He led an odd man rush and beat Thatcher Demko clean for the early score. The Devils are 4-1-0 when scoring first per the MSG broadcast from America. A stat both comforting (winning!) and concerning (only six times this season?!). Vancouver did get some legitimate hope with a crash at the net but Vitek Vanecek kept it out.
Ah, Vanecek. Lindy Ruff chose not to start him against San Jose. That blew up in his face. So he gets the start against a high-scoring Vancouver team. But the early minutes are fine.
Then the Devils get a test. Colin Miller was given two minutes in the box for tripping Dakota Joshua. The kill goes south quickly. Michael McLeod had to go stick-less. Vancouver owned the puck. J.T. Miller scored an equalizer in front of the net by putting the puck around Vanecek’s right pad. Why Miller was in front of John Marino in front of the net, I could not tell you. Ask Ryan McGill in case Marino does not. I’m sure the assistant coach in charge of the defense and penalty kill has a thought about that. It’s 1-1 all the same.
A response came quickly. A lead pass to The Big Deal got away from him. Jack stepped back as Tyler Myers looked to get in for the puck. A little hit from Tyler Toffoli freed up the puck for The Big Deal. The scorer called it a giveaway for Myers, but I will credit the Devil here. Anyway, Jack Hughes looked to the middle, saw Erik Haula - his first game back in some time - wide open in front. Haula beat Demko clean to make it 2-1. And so the first point in the Hughes Night in Canada went to the middle brother - The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. All good - for a little bit.
Erik Haula took a two-minute high-sticking penalty. He got the newest Canuck, Nikita Zadorov high. I wince given the previous PK lasted all of 28 seconds. Good news: This kill lasted longer than that. Better news: they did kill it! Not as great news: The kill required Colin Miller to clear a puck from the crease after Brock Boeser nearly botched a put-back in front and Nico Hischier to block Andrei Kuzmenko from an empty net. But a kill is a kill. Vanecek has been forced to make some moves and stops after the second PK. Like many of the People Who Matter, I am not entirely confident in Vanecek even if he did make the stop on Vancouver ace forward Elias Pettersson. I do not know if Vanecek himself is confident. His rebound control certainly is not. But we play on.
The Devils’ first period appears to be carried in the run of play by Jesper Bratt. I mean, his line of Nico Hischier with Ondrej Palat. But Bratt has been super in this first period. Pushing forward with the puck, moving off the puck to be an option, and looking for others. He attempted an audacious pass through a maze of legs to find Simon Nemec open for a what would have been a backdoor tap-in. Bratt almost got it. Alas.
No matter, The Big Deal was able to make the Canucks suffer some more. An icing led to an Erik Haula faceoff with Teddy Blueger. Haula was thrown out. The Big Deal called for Kevin Bahl and John Marino to switch sides. It worked. Hughes won the draw cleanly back to Bahl. Bahl surveyed and made a pass to Hughes in front. Hughes beat Demko clean to make it 3-1.
It looked like a rout was going to happen. About two shifts later, the Devils score again. The fourth line, otherwise anonymous, in this first period, got on the board. Curtis Lazar took an otherwise harmless shot. The puck hit off Nathan Bastian in front. Michael McLeod reached and put home the puck past Demko’s right skate to make it 4-1. A late goal to really put the screws to the Canucks. Great, right? Well, not so fast. Vancouver would get a response within the final minute of the period. Specifically, a Blueger shot tipped on net by Connor Garland led to a rebound in front by Vanecek. Garland was in front with Miller. No one had Dakota Joshua - I’m wondering, where was Luke Hughes on the play? - and Joshua swept up the loose puck and put it in to make it 4-2. An otherwise fine first period with a bitter ending. Seriously, a goal allowed with 20 seconds left? I would like to think head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff had the same feeling.
The major lessons of the first period for the Devils were broadcast-cliche. Devils need to be better in front of their own net. First, they need to be there. Second, they need to not let Canucks get behind them. Third, they need to be more aware of rebounds because Vanecek is absolutely giving them up. Fourth, stay out of the box as that would mean fewer men to be on the ice to be in front (or not really in front, in Marino’s case). Both goals against featured Canucks outnumbering the Devils around the crease so unless Vanecek swallowed up the first shot - and he’s not - goals abound. Do those four things and the game may get easier to handle. Note that they are all related too.
But there were plenty of positives in that first period. Thatcher Demko looked absolutely rough in the first period. Bratt, Haula, and The Big Deal made him look silly. The McLeod goal was more or less a bad bounce just knocked in by effort, grit, and other fourth-line-friendly terms you can think of. The first three, woof. In general, shots being even at 9-9 with an edge in attempts (15-13) and chances (9-5) in 5-on-5 play is really good given the lead the Devils built up. 4-2 is not as comfortable as 4-1, but it is better than sitting at 2-1 or worse. Even if the Canucks switch out Demko for Casey DeSmith, that will not make the Canucks’ super-loose defensive zone play any better. Or make Bratt and The Big Deal look any less threatening.
I hope to not regret writing this: I think the Devils can build or even maintain this lead towards a win. Let future me write that happened at a more reasonable hour. That is a risk on a night where the Islanders botched a 4-2 lead to lose 5-4 in overtime to San Jose, but I also need sleep to function.
The risk was real, not that past me would have guessed that from how it went down.
The second period was probably the ideal period for New Jersey. What does a struggling goaltender need other than a period where he is not beaten for goals? The Devils did well to keep Vancouver to 7 shots. Outside of a post hit by J.T. Miller during a John Marino interference penalty, Vanecek stopped them all. Even better: the Devils increased their lead. And late in the period too. After 8 shots on Demko - who surprisingly remained in the net - the Devils got a power play within the final minute. Joshua tripped up Luke Hughes. The Big Deal put a shot on net for #9 of the period. He got the rebound, saw the traffic in front, tossed a pass back to his younger brother, and Luke Hughes let it rip. Through the traffic, Luke Hughes got a PPG with 34 seconds left in the period. The Devils’ Hughes were up 2-0 in goals and the Devils entered the third period up 5-2. A very good period from what it looked like on the surface. (Aside: I was surprised Demko played the whole game.)
The third period, well, it flirted hard with disaster. The cliche “dreaded three goal lead” is a thing in a hockey because a team can chip away at such a lead and it is hard for the leading team to stop a team with little to lose. The Devils took another penalty early in the third to risk this lead; Haula tripped up Miller. Two shots and two blocks later, the Devils escaped the kill. Fine. After five more minutes of perfectly OK hockey, the Canucks got a goal. J.T. Miller won a puck from Jonas Siegenthaler’s play in the corner. He found Brock Boeser streaking to the net well ahead of Nathan Bastian, the weakside player. It was a good pass and a better backhand finish as he lifted it over the down Vanecek. 5-3.
Then everything seemed a bit fine. Shots were saved. The Devils kept the Canucks honest. The Devils ultimately out-attempted and out-shot Vancouver in 5-on-5 play in the third period, which is usually a good mark for A) a leading team and B) a leading team on a road. Kept a high-scoring team honest. That is, until the Canucks made it a one-shot game almost seven minutes after Boeser’s goal. Vanecek froze a puck for a defensive zone faceoff. Nico Hischier even won the draw too. But the puck squirted away from Jesper Bratt and right to Quinn Hughes. The eldest Hughes on the ice controlled the puck, looked for a move, and saw a bit of space from the right point past Bratt. He fired a wrist shot and Sam Lafferty tipped the shot into the net in front of John Marino and Vanecek. Marino was at least in the right position on him. But these goals are kind of bad breaks and, even so, only raised the tension among the People Who Matter still up watching the game. 5-4 with six minutes left to play.
The hope that the lead would be preserved was doused with another Quinn Hughes created situation. As Timo Meier denied a shot by Quinn Hughes high in the zone, J.T. Miller went to the net and got behind Kevin Bahl. Meanwhile, Nils Hoglander got lost on the weakside away from Dawson Mercer. Quinn recovered the blocked puck, went down the right boards, and drew John Marino. Quinn saw J.T. behind Bahl and fired it towards his teammate. Vanecek denied J.T. Miller’s one-touch attempt. The rebound went to the goalie’s left and right to the open Hoglander to slam in the rebound. 5-5 and the People Who Matter were surely beside themselves. Why can’t Vanecek not give up a rebound (impossible on this play, but still)? Why can’t Vanecek make a tough save (even though he did)? Where was the coverage (the correct question)? 5-5 all the same.
Rationalizations were surely abound. After all, is it a bad thing to seemingly go to overtime against a Pacific Division opponent in their building? Then again, it is a bad thing to blow a three-goal lead despite doing the work to keep Vancouver honest on defense. It is also a bad thing to see Vanecek get lit up, still be a rebound machine, and suffer from the Devils being out-done in front of their own net on four of these five goals. Of course, some of the People Who Matter would get the vapors if you were to suggest that improving the defensive play would be better than getting a better goaltender - something Tom Fitzgerald has yet to do. Of course, that led to another thought: What if Vanecek gets beat again? What if the Devils fully blow this lead and leave Vancouver with nothing?
The game pretty much opened with Jesper Bratt showcasing how good he was. It would ultimately end with Jesper Bratt within the final minute of the game. Bahl kept in a puck at the right point and went D-to-D with Marino. Marino passed the puck down to Ondrej Palat. Palat found Bahl in the center point and about ten feet in from from the blueline. Bahl took a shot. Nico Hischier deflected it on net and Demko stopped it with his left pad. No one, and I mean no one, had Jesper Bratt in front of the net. Two Canucks went to Hischier and Filip Hronek was behind Bratt. The rebound came out right to Bratt and he finished it. 6-5 with 34 seconds left for the Devils. The Devils conceded one (1) shot since Hoglander’s goal and Vanecek stopped Lafferty’s re-direction. The Devils survived and won the game, 6-5.
This win was great and not for the reasons you would expect. Going to Vancouver and slamming six past Thatcher Demko is a good thing. New Jersey had the Hughes-premacy with a three-point night from The Big Deal and Luke Hughes scoring a PPG that turned out to be really important insurance. Quinn was no slouch in over 26 minutes of ice time, seven attempts, four on net, and two assists in the Canuck’s comeback bid. The Devils were better in 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick, they eventually did kill three penalties, and they scored on one of their two power plays. The Devils needed a win after an embarrassing loss to San Jose and they got it.
But that there was a comeback bid at all sours the victory. Few had confidence in Vitek Vanecek starting this game. Few have it after this one given his struggles with rebounds. Those lamenting the defensive play of the Devils were given further reason to lament with netfront defending being the bane of the Devils’ performance. Whether it was being out-manned in front or weakside players being, well, weak on their side, the Devils nearly blew the game with those. My contention is that the Devils are not doing enough to help their goaltenders. Should the Devils get a better goalie? Sure. I am not opposed to that, but Future Goaltender to Be Acquired is not going to make the saves you would want if, say, John Marino or Kevin Bahl are not on the right side of his man or if the winger responsible for the otherside of the Devils’ swarming defense is going to get beat or lose his man. The Devils won but did so in a way that would not make you think things are necessarily getting better.
Fortunately (or not, depending on your view), the Devils did get the win. And my final takeaway is that the Canucks fans can (and should?) sympathize with these laments. For all of the lamenting one can do about the Devils’ performance around the net and in the crease with Vanecek, Vancouver can do the same. No one, and I mean no one, had Erik Haula in front of the net when The Big Deal set him up for a first period score. No one, and I mean no one, picked up The Big Deal after he won a faceoff and passed it back to Bahl. When Jack Hughes got the pass back from Bahl, the Canucks were cooked. While McLeod was certainly covered on what would be an errant bounce off Bastian, he outworked his man to score at Demko’s crease. The game winner saw an otherwise good Filip Hronek look out of sorts watch Bratt slam in yet another rebound from Demko. These were plays that could and did happen to New Jersey. I think Canucks fans are gnashing their teeth the same way we have been. And that is with an otherwise better goaltender in Demko. I think there is something to learn there. That said, I would not bank on that happening again on a regular basis. I do not think we can expect the opponent to suffer the same way the Devils do and did game after game. But it did happen tonight and I, for one, will absolutely take it when it happens.
Now, the next step is to keep winning. Unfortunately (or not), Vanecek will likely start in Seattle. Lindy Ruff sticks with goalies who win games regardless of how they perform. Can the Devils be better in front of their own net? Can Vanecek soften his own rebounds? Can the Devils win another scoring race if it comes to that? Will those who lament Bratt not showing up be quiet because he absolutely did in his two goals in this game? For now, we can at least appreciate the two points, The Big Deal being the biggest of the Hughes trio for the evening, and the Devils starting off this trip with a win.
The Game Highlights: Goals, this game had them. Check them all out here from Sportsnet.
Are You Serious, Lindy Ruff?: After the game, James Nichols got this quote from the head coach of the winning team:
"I thought (Vanecek) was good. Made a lot of big saves." - Lindy Ruff#NJDevils— James Nichols (@JamesNicholsNHL) December 6, 2023
I know he is defending his confidence-deprived goaltender. Still, there is fine line between defending a player and stretching the truth. Saying this after he given up five goals on 33 shots is a real stretch. Maybe Ruff was being tongue-in-cheek? Whatever. The win was earned by an offense that repeatedly punished a rather poor Vancouver effort in their own end of the rink.
The Hughes Statlines: The Big Deal was indeed big. Jack Hughes: 18:32, a goal, two assists (both primary, both set up Haula and Luke directly), six shots on net out of seven attempts, and a 5-on-5 on-ice differential of 16-8 (shots: 14-4, xG: 1.09-0.52). The Canucks had little answer for #86. Out of the three brothers, he was the best.
Quinn Hughes was the second best, just like his team in this game. He played a ton both at 5-on-5 (21:09) and overall (26:41). He took seven shooting attempts too, getting four on net. It would have been eight but Sam Lafferty tipped in a shot as one of Quinn’s two important assists. In 5-on-5 play, the Canucks were even in attempts when #43 took a shift: 18-18 with shots being slightly behind (11-12), and expected goals slightly ahead (1.23-1.13).
Luke Hughes, well, he played the least of the three. Even Simon Nemec played more - about three minutes more - than the Devils’ #43. Luke also had seven shot attempts, although only one got through to the net. Five were stuffed and one missed. The one that got through was a power play goal that made it 5-2 just before the end of the second period. That made up for the late first period goal he saw Dakota Joshua score. In the run of play, the Devils out-attempted Vancouver 15-10 when Luke took a shift; but shots were also slightly behind (7-9) as were expected goals (0.76 - 1.03).
Tonight, it was Jack > Quinn > Luke in terms of performances. For any lamenting about hyping this game so much about the Hughes brothers, you cannot say it was not warranted. All three had a hand, good and bad, in this game. More importantly, the Devils won so the younger Hughes brothers will have the bragging rights. At least until January 6 when the rematch will happen (and in the second half of a back to back, come on, schedule makers).
The Out of Town Scoreboard: The Devils did get a little help in the division. Yes, the People Who Matter need to pay attention to this. You may think it is early December but with 59 games left, the Devils really need to get points and help from others to move up. The latter is why it is so hard to catch up in this league. That said, they got some help:
- Columbus botched a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles to lose 4-3 in OT. While the Blue Jackets were two points behind the Devils before the puck dropped in Vancouver, the Devils also have a bunch of games (now 4) in hand on them. Now that lead over the bottom is four. That is how the season has gone, you cannot totally ignore eighth place.
- Ottawa smacked down Our Hated Rivals, 6-2. That is a plus for the whole division that would rather not want to see them lead the division. No, not Ottawa. They are not leading anything. It will take more losses by the Blueshirts to do that as they are ahead of Carolina by 8 points. Still, shout out Ottawa for doing the thing.
- The Islanders botched a 4-2 lead over San Jose to lose 5-4 in OT. Not helpful in that they got a point. Helpful in that they had an embarrassing loss to the Sharks and not the two points they should have received. Still, the Devils gained a point on them.
With the Devils’ win, the Devils take a temporary lead over Pittsburgh by a tiebreaker with one fewer game played with the Pens. They also move a point behind the Caps, two behind the Isles, three behind the Flyers, and four behind Carolina. This win was progress. Why the focus on this outside of the snapshot? Because of how the Devils’ season has been going. Every night matters when a team expected to be a playoff team is outside of the playoff picture. Expect to see this until the Devils get to where we want them to be. Or, worse, the Devils fall further back and it does not matter.
Your Take: Now it is your turn. Did you stay up for the whole thing live? What did you see that I clearly missed from the game? Are you pleased with the result? How big What do you want the Devils to improve upon before playing Seattle on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thanks to Jackson for the preview and thank you to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and/or on X with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading and I assure you, this is an exception and not the rule.