It is the evening of March 12, 2023. The New Jersey Devils just finished their 66th game of the season. They have earned their 93rd and 94th points of the 2022-23 NHL regular season after winning their 44th game of the season. They are now tied with the Carolina Hurricanes, whom they defeated by a 3-0 score this evening in Newark, New Jersey, for first place in the Metropolitan in terms of points. Carolina technically owns first place by way of having one fewer game played than the Devils. A game in hand that will not be used up until the final week in March. Regardless, the Devils are tied with Carolina in points (96), regulation wins (32), and have a lead of three more regulation and overtime winners (42 to 39) than the Hurricanes. Today was an important game for the fate of first place in the Metropolitan Division. The New Jersey Devils won it to make first place possible for themselves to take with 16 games left to play this season.
The game was important. How the Devils won was just as important. Key players stepped up big time for this big result.
Several of the People Who Matter have noted that Vitek Vanecek’s save percentage has been real bad in recent weeks. I would attribute that to some really bad moments of non-coverage hanging Vanecek out to dry, but a low 80% save percentage still stinks regardless. Vanecek was arguably the most important player on the ice this evening. He was locked in from the first moment. A couple of 2-on-1s by Carolina? He went post-to-post for the easy stop. A couple of disguised shots from scoring chance locations? Sprawled out or squared up; Vanecek made the save. Vanecek’s best was arguably New Jersey’s worst moment of the whole night. A play that found Sebastian Aho - the really good one, not his defenseman name-sake on the Isles - wide open in front of Vanecek. Vanecek stoned his point blank shot with a point blank glove save. Vanecek ended up facing 71 shooting attempts, 32 shots on net, 25 attempts from scoring chance locations, and 6 high-danger chances. He stopped all of them for his first shutout since December 6, 2022 against Chicago. The only fault: he was not named the first star of the game.
Jesper Bratt has been held pointless in his previous four games. He was moved away from Jack Hughes and replaced by Jesper Boqvist, of all players, for a couple of those games. Sure, Bratt would have a few shots here and there in those four games, but he hardly made an impact. Grumbling increased among the People Who Matter. Shouldn’t someone in a contract year, someone who wants a lot of money, not disappear so much? Bratt was re-united with Hughes and Timo Meier and the line produced. Bratt scored his first goal after a zone entry with Hughes where The Big Deal found Bratt getting past Brett Pesce. Bratt took the pass, found Pytor Kochetkov’s five-hole, and slid the puck in to make it 2-0. Bratt’s first goal and point since the Las Vegas game. In the second period, Bratt finished a scramble in front after Kochetkov lost a puck outside of the crease and Brady Skjei fell into the goalie instead of clearing the puck. A gift of a second goal to make it 3-0. Bratt would go on to take three other shots and clearly show that he could be back.
The Big Deal had a hand in all three goals tonight. As noted with Bratt’s goals, Hughes played in Bratt for the first. It was Hughes’ forecheck that led to Kochetkov’s fumble. He went for one jam attempt, Skjei blocked it, and Bratt cleaned it up. Those were his assists. Hughes opened the scoring this evening with the thing has been consistently doing during his six-game goal drought: stealing pucks and making defenders look a bit silly. He stripped Calvin de Haan of the puck on a forecheck; curled to ensure Shayne Gostisbehere would not recover for de Haan; and fired a shot that squirted through Kochetkov’s legs. Hughes’ goal was his first since the Philadelphia beating on February 25 and his first point since an assist on Timo Meier’s goal at Arizona on March 5. Just as there were grumblings about Bratt, there was a lot more outcry about the team’s best player not making an impact. That he must still be hurting from his injury. That something must be wrong since he was not getting on the scoresheet. One goal, two assists, four shots, and a lot of work in all three zones answered the critics clearly: Jack Hughes is still The Big Deal.
As much as those three were the standouts for the win, this 3-0 result was very much a team effort. Both teams played last night and dug in deep for what would be a high-tempo game. Carolina constantly forechecked with two players and sought to create chaos to take advantage of New Jersey’s tendency to lose players without the puck by focusing too much on who does have it. While that did come up a few times - see Vanecek’s robbery of Aho - the Devils really did a good job handling the pressure. Sure, they spent long stretches of the third period without a shot on net and iced it more times than I would have liked. But they were already up 3-0 so it was not like the Devils were under pressure to attack Carolina. Even with that lead, the Devils managed were only out-chanced by one (21-22) and out-high-danger chanced the Canes 11-6 in 5-on-5 play. Throw in non-5-on-5 situations and the numbers favored the Devils even more in both categories. The Devils gave up plenty of quantity (71 attempts, 32 shots on net) but protected their house well and supported Vanecek such that he did not have to face a deluge of rebounds, scrambles, and super-long shifts in their own end. It was not perfect, but the Devils did not panic or make consistent errors when Carolina tilted the ice. It speaks to everyone’s focus and attention that they only made so many mistakes. Again: the Devils conceded 71 attempts to one of the most, if not the most dominant 5-on-5 team in the NHL and just six high-danger attempts. The Devils’ defensive coverage over the last two months has warranted a lot of questions and complaints from some of the People Who Matter, such as myself. Tonight, it was far better and it played a big role in terms of how the Devils won this game. Vanecek’s excellence made it a shutout.
All together, the Devils put together one of their stronger performances in spite of some of the stats for one of their biggest wins of the season. I would put this one up there with the 1-0 win over Colorado in October, the beatings of Philly and Columbus, the 4-1 win in Long Island back in October, the penaltyfest in Pittsburgh on December 30, and the comeback win in Edmonton. I am sure I am forgetting a few at the moment. There is still a lot of hockey to be played. Both Carolina and New Jersey will have tough schedules ahead. But first place in the Metropolitan Division is now possible for the Devils to take. That is something remarkable, especially this late into this season.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights from tonight’s game.
The Opposition Opinion: Alec Sawyer has this recap up at Canes Country, noting how this was a critical game for them with respect to the division too.
So About Those Three Stars: Per the Game Summary, Tonight’s Attending Media went Hughes, Bratt, and Vanecek. I would have flipped it to Vanecek, Hughes, and Bratt. I do not think this game goes the way it does without Vanecek being in such great form. Even if Carolina’s 32 shots yielded just 2.69 xGF per Natural Stat Trick, this is hockey and a shot from anywhere could yield an unfortunate deflection, bounce, rebound, or just find its way through traffic. Carolina’s game plan seemed to be just to fire away and hope for the best. Vanecek getting them all means to me that he was the most important in ruining Carolina’s plan.
By the way: New Jersey’s 23 shots yielded 3.61 xGF. Getting to dangerous areas for shots will always lead to a higher expected goal value - and it is what “eye testers” want to see too as goals are more likely to happen there anyway.
Bad News: Dawson Mercer did not get a point tonight. His point-streak ended at 12 games with his points last night in Montreal. I am sure he is not at all broken up by it.
Incidentally, while three out of the four lines were beaten in the run of play because Carolina just does that regularly, the unit of Hughes, Bratt, and Meier were the most dangerous and, of course, provided the most goals. After their awesome night in Montreal, Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer just did not create all that much. Carolina’s swarming defense in their own end and in the neutral zone kept them quiet. That’s more than OK. Good and great teams accept that not every night is going to be good for everyone and so others stepping up in their place is encouraged. Which is what happened this evening. I would keep the units as they are see how it goes against Tampa Bay before switching anything up unless Lindy Ruff really wants Curtis Lazar or Yegor Sharangovich to get into a game soon.
Curtis Lazar Exists: He took warmups! He is officially with the Devils. When he will get into a game, I do not know. The BMW line was actually Statistically Good, relative to the other three lines. The unit was not out-attempted; it was 7-7 in 5-on-5 play. It was not dominant but their play was effective. Outside of one horrid turnover from Wood in the defensive zone, they were fairly good in their matchup against the Canes. That means to me that I do not think we will see Lazar in for any of them on Tuesday.
Defensive Praise: While their on-ice numbers were not great across the board because Carolina just fired, fired, and fired away since being down at least two scores for 50 minutes, I really liked how the Devils defensemen played as a whole. I thought John Marino and Ryan Graves made some smart interventions and reads. Damon Severson was a lot calmer and did not have a Catrastrophic Moment. Kevin Bahl stepped in for Brendan Smith and did a decent job. From their play within their own zone, Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton were excellent. They were the only defenders to not fall below 40% CF% as they cleaned up a lot of loose pucks from missed shots and stops from Vanecek. They did well upon entries. They supported each other against the Canes forecheck. I think the blueline deserves some recognition. Yes, they conceded 32 shots but they ensured that Carolina did not set up around the crease for free too much (Aho moment aside) and that the Hurricanes’ forecheck would not lead to their doom.
This also includes the penalty kill. Carolina may have missed Andrei Svechnikov for this one, but the penalty killers were generally good at making the clearances count. I was not a fan of some of the calls taken. The too many men on the ice call was dumb. Meier slashing a stick out of Pesce’s hand was dumb. Discipline is an issue for #96 so far as a Devil. But the Devils’ penalty killers took care of business, which also helped Carolina not score a goal tonight.
Congratulations: Erik Haula played in his 600th game tonight. He was acknowledged with a video during the game and waved from the bench after being applauded for it. That was nice.
One Last Thought: Carolina scored zero goals all weekend. They also only scored one goal in their 1-0 win (duh) against Philly last Thursday. It would not be a bad thing if Carolina is entering a slump right about now. The signs are there. Hope Winnipeg, Toronto, and (sigh) Philly help make it a reality this week while the Devils get intimately familiar with Tampa Bay.
As for the Devils: They have now won three straight. I think they could be heating up. We shall see against the Lightning.
Your Take: The Devils won 3-0 in a big win over Carolina. First place is possible. Do you now think the Devils can do it? Who impressed you the most in this game? What would you like the Devils to have done differently based on this evening’s performance? Can the Devils keep this going against Tampa Bay? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Elliott for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.