The headline is literal and figurative. The New Jersey Devils came back from the 0-1 deficit after the first period to ultimately beat the Calgary Flames, 4-2. The Devils did so by overcoming a sleepy first period with better efforts in the following two periods. Efforts that performed better than it looked sometimes. And the goals that put the Devils up to victory would please longtime MSG Devils color commentator and franchise legend Ken Daneyko. The Devils got the “greasy” ones. The classic “go to net and do something that looks ugly on the ice but beautiful on the board” kinds of goals.
As per the People Who Matter in the Gamethread this afternoon, the cliches and buzzwords were flying. “Front foot” seemed to be a choice for this one. It turned out that Dillon Dube’s front foot would be the difference maker. Out of the four goals the Devils would score, it was the third and ultimately the game-winning goal.
- The Devils’ first real attacking shift of the second period got some shots on net. Calgary looked to exit but Luke Hughes denied Blake Coleman’s pass. The puck ricocheted back to Jesper Bratt. He tossed it to Nico Hischier in the left circle. The captain finished it. 1-1.
- Later in the second, Bratt knocked a puck away on defense at the half-wall and John Marino was up in the zone for it. Marino passed it ahead to Ondrej Palat. The vet stretched but recovered the puck for the zone entry. Palat picked up a trailing Hischier down the middle. Hischier got a shot on net, fell, and Coleman was in a position to clear the puck. He cleared it right off Jesper Bratt’s body, which then bounced off Mackenze Weegar’s body, and trickled through Dustin Wolf. Call it Valvoline because it was a greasy goal for 2-1. Calgary challenged it for goaltender interference, lost it (!), and the resulting power play was OK with The Big Deal hitting the frame as the closest of punishing that decision.
- In the third period, Marino fired a long pass to Alexander Holtz in the neutral zone, who touched it into the Calgary end. Dustin Wolf came out of his net to play the puck. Wolf, somehow, missed Noah Hanifin. The puck went to Holtz. He fired it towards the top of the crease. Live, I thought Timo Meier got it. Upon further review, it really was off the front foot of Dillon Dube. Holtz has received credit for that bounce, 3-1. Mark it Mobil for that amount of grease.
- An empty net goal from Nico Hischier from behind his own goal line. A 200+ foot goal from a 200+ foot player. And it was the result of Ondrej Palat denying a rim-around and Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino winning their battles to get the puck loose at all for Hischier. It was a risky shot as it could have been an icing had he missed. The Captain did not. 4-2 and the People Who Matter could relax for the final parts of the game.
For all of the skill and talent and other adjectives to describe the Devils, these do not seem like great reflections of them. Two great bounces for goals plus one created off a turnover where if Luke Hughes missed the interception, then the Devils would have been in trouble? That’s hockey, though. I would also argue there is skill and talent in knowing where to go when you do not have the puck. The Bratt goal does not happen without Hischier’s rush-in, Palat finding Hischier, or Bratt following Hischier to the front of the net. The Holtz goal does not happen without Holtz following the play into the zone (good for not assuming Calgary would just collect it) and Meier driving to the net, which brought Dube with him. And Luke Hughes is good enough to force that turnover whilst Bratt and Hischier did the right things.
What is perhaps more impressive was what didn’t happen to the Devils. The slow start was punished by the end of the first period when Calgary got a clearance near the end of New Jersey’s first power play. A clearance by Coleman got behind the Devils. Palat could not recover it but Yegor Sharangovich did. He broke in for the shorthanded goal to put the Flames up early. Did that lead to more damage? Not really. Despite a couple of rough shifts and a crossbar to start the second, the Devils proceeded to own the majority of the period. They out-shot Calgary 11-5. Yes, the Flames hit iron twice but you would think the home team down 2-1 would want to get more on net. Five shots and two posts are not it. In the third period, yes, the Flames made it a one-shot game when Nazem Kadri scored high shortside off a drop pass by Rasmus Andersson. Still, even with the deficit, the Devils kept the Flames to just seven shots while putting up 12 of their own. Given how contentious the defense can get at times, this was a good one overall as a team.
What else did not happen was a meltdown from Vitek Vanecek. He got the start and immediately a lot of the People Who Matter, like me, got worried. Vanecek was wrecked in Vancouver, his rebound control was a particularly bad issue, and his stats this season have been worse than Jon Gillies. Sure, Vanecek got some help from the frame. He also got lucky that he robbed Jonathan Huberdeau early in the second period with his back. But he played a much more composed game. The rebounds were not as often or as loose. His mentality has to be stronger after going into the third period with a 2-1 lead and coming out a 4-2 winner. I agree that the Kadri goal was poor to see, as well placed of a shot that was. But it is a big step up over Vanecek’s last start, a 6-5 win where he got beaten three times in the third period to squander a 5-2 lead.
Another fine thing that did not happen were penalties. The Devils were clean in that respect. The game had its hits and physical play. But the Flames and Devils played fairly well. Nothing egregious was missed. Andersson took the lone foul for an interference penalty on Hischier as the other PP came from a coach’s challenge. Given how referees like to even things up, that the Devils stayed disciplined for most of a one-shot game in the third period was big in achieving this win.
Even the 5-on-5 on-ice numbers had positives. While the Flames led in attempts, 47-53, that the Devils were only out-attempted by 6 in a game that they led for a good part of it is a positive. That the Devils still out-shot them 25-23 and out-expected goals them 1.82-1.8 were also positives given the score situation. The Devils kept it even with a lead this afternoon, even after a poor first period. That is a step above the Devils needing Akira Schmid to goalie the Kraken to a loss.
Overall, the game looked like it could go pear-shaped at any moment. Whether it was with Vanecek in the net, a defense prone to big errors (I audibly gasped when Luke Hughes coughed it up late in a 5-on-6 situation), the bounces just going against New Jersey for a change, or all of it, I was not confident when the Devils took a 2-1 lead into the third period. That they came out of that with a 4-2 win is an achievement. The Devils swept the week. They secured a winning road trip as it ends tomorrow in Edmonton (a rested Edmonton, too). They won in a third different way in a row as well as won six of their last seven. It was a greasy win. And I appreciate it all the same. I hope you do too.
The Game Highlights: From Sportsnet, here are the highlights of this afternoon’s game.
Who I Saw That Did Quite Well: The Devils’ most productive line today was the line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Ondrej Palat. Even if one of their two goals were rather fortunate, those three hit back better on offense than the line centered by The Big Deal. While the Devils’ tilted the ice more with Hughes, Erik Haula, and Tyler Toffoli, the Hischier unit took care of a lot of business. They ended up defending more by the game’s end, but it worked out. Hischier was great in his own end and I was pleased to see him get the empty netter, even if it risked an icing had he missed. I think Hischier was a stand-out in a very good way. Again, while the Devils were out-attempted 13-21 with Hischier on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the shots were 8-8. The line did well even if their CF% was ugly today against Coleman-Huberdeau-Backlund. (Plus, they won the CF battle against Weegar and Andersson, their most common match-up) Keep them together and let them keep getting points.
I will also say that I thought John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler played much better hockey today. They have been shells of their 2022-23 selves this season. Today was more of a return to form. Yes, Marino was pinned back a lot as the Devils were out-attempted 18-26 when he was on the ice. The shots that actually got to the goalie were 7-10. Marino was also involved in the creation of that second goal; and he and Siegenthaler won the battles late that led to the game icing empty netter. In general, they had their working skates on and did a good job.
In terms of driving play, I felt Colin Miller and Luke Hughes were the best among the blueliners. The Devils’ offense really does get started by their own zone. Therefore, the defensemen are involved and these two did it quite well. I will say Luke Hughes nearly giving up the game tying goal with a turnover in his own end with a carry was harsh. But Miller made up for it with a huge block in the makeshift 3-on-1. I can respect that kind of pairing and wish to see it continue.
And, again, this was a better outing for Vanecek. The rebound control issues were not as massive. He was beaten a few times and bailed out by iron or bad accuracy. But he was also the main reason why the Devils left the first period at 0-1 instead of something far worse. Credit has to be given to the goalie for a close win like this one.
Who Could Have Done Better on New Jersey: Well, I was not a fan of Lindy Ruff’s initial lineup decisions. I can understand swapping Brendan Smith - who got a fine from the Seattle game - for Nathan Bastian. I do not understand making Dawson Mercer center a line. A line that started with Curtis Lazar and Timo Meier as Alexander Holtz was slotted next to Michael McLeod. All to have Haula play with The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. Credit to Ruff as he did correctly switch up Holtz and Lazar.
But the decision to put Mercer at center was a poor one. Sure, the line got a goal thanks to Dustin Wolf and Dillon Dube. But Mercer struggled all day long. The Flames out-attempted the Devils 8-14 with Mercer on the ice, 8-16 with Holtz on the ice, and Meier 11-13. Shots were even so the damage was limited. But for the People Who Matter who want to see more from the third-season forward and the $8.8 million salary cap winger, this did not help. I genuinely do not get what matchup Ruff and his staff wanted to find. Hughes, Hischier, Haula, and McLeod are all healthy. Let Mercer cook as a winger. That worked before. Today, not so much.
I was also not a huge fan of Kevin Bahl as I saw him get beaten quite a bit. Unlike the other defenders, the Devils were out-attempted and out-shot with Bahl on the ice: 11-23 and 4-8, respectively. Bahl did take a hard shot on a block during the game that may have impacted his performance. Still, he (and New Jersey) was dominated by the Noah Hanifin-Chris Tanev pairing. As well as shifts from Coleman, Mikael Backlund, and Huberdeau. Bahl’s lack of a leap forward has been an issue for a team already suffering from a downgrade in performances from Marino and Siegenthaler. Today, those two vets played better. Bahl, well, he has some work to do.
I was not at all a fan of Nathan Bastian’s game. He was beaten badly on Andersson’s rush up ice that led to the Kadri goal. Bastian had great on-ice numbers but from the game, that was largely driven by McLeod, Lazar, Siegenthaler, and Simon Nemec among others. Bastian just did not add much of anything to this game. Bastian was mostly “there” and that is not helpful in this league. He is the team’s 12th forward at this point and it would not shock me to see him replaced for Brendan Smith tomorrow.
Lastly, I will fault the whole team for that first period. The Devils did come back from it for a victory. Great. But they cannot keep waking up later in games than their opponents. They definitely will get punished for it tomorrow in Edmonton, Wednesday in Boston, and even could repeat it against Columbus next Saturday. You all know when the game starts; please play like it instead of hoping the goalie bails you out (Vanecek did so today) or the other team also starts sleepy (nope).
More Credit for Ruff: One thing I did like seeing today from Ruff and his staff was the use of the McLeod line. All four lines got to play throughout the game. The Devils were up by two goals in the third and the “energy” line kept getting shifts. Even Bastian got a shift after the Kadri goal. This is a good thing. The Devils have a game tomorrow in Edmonton. It is also the last game of the trip out in the Northwest of the continent. Ruff was smart to not shorten his bench and trust his players to hold onto a 2-1 lead in the third period. It was rewarded with a 3-1 lead. While that was cut down to 3-2, they got the job done. If nothing else, the Devils may not be so fatigued when they go up against a high-energy, high-scoring, and highly desperate Edmonton team tomorrow. That was good player management from Ruff.
What About Chris Tanev: Tanev played a fine game all things considered. Yes, he saw two goals on the ice. Neither play actually involved him failing to do something or not doing something better. When he took a shift in 5-on-5, the Flames out-attempted the Devils 15-10 while shots were 8-9 against Calgary. His xGA of 0.73, while not great, also better than three other Calgary defenders today (Andersson, Weegar, Hanifin). Should the Devils go for him? I was not convinced he can really do much more than what Colin Miller is already doing. But he was not bad. There is that.
What About the Division: The division snapshot is tomorrow. Check in at 11 AM ET.
One Last Thought: Here is a Fun Fact: Jesper Bratt is now just two points behind The Big Deal for the team lead in points and two points behind the top ten in the NHL in points. The Devils have two high-end producers right now and Ruff correctly keeps them on separate lines. Even if The Big Deal was held pointless tonight (not for the lack of trying and he did hit the frame), the fact the Devils have another super-productive player on another wing is a big help for the cause. It factored in today for the win.
Your Take: The Devils got their hands dirty and got the breaks by going to the net for the greasy ones in a comeback win in Calgary. I thought it was a positive game overall. What did you think of today’s win? Happy the Devils got one before taking on Edmonton tomorrow? Pleased with Vanecek getting beaten only twice today? Who were the standout Devils, good or bad, in your eyes today? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s win in the comments. Thanks to Caleb for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog on X. Thank you for reading.