The last two games were frustrating ones as a New Jersey Devils fan. After coming off of a big win against Carolina, which many took to mean that the Devils are not a team that is a year away, but a team that is ready to win right now, the Devils then proceed to lose twice to Tampa at home, a playoff team indeed, but one that some think don’t have the firepower they used to when they were Cup winners. So if they are not beating this team even once, at home, that clearly isn’t ideal.
Of course, there are deeper factors that go into that. In both of the Tampa games this week, the Devils deserved to win according to MoneyPuck’s Deserve-to-win-o’meter. Even the 1-4 shellacking on Tuesday, but definitely on Thursday, where they were the clearly better team in terms of on-ice numbers, especially in the third period where that Tampa goal was so far against the run of play to be oh-so frustrating. And the team’s expected goal differential for the entire season continues to rise consistently, as it has been since they came back from the All-Star break, now sitting at +34.082, a fantastic number through 68 games.
But one of the main positives that should be taken away from those games, and moving forward, is how the captain of this team, Nico Hischier, is leading by example on the ice and playing strong. Thursday was the shining beacon of this truth. In a game where the Devils had 5.09 expected goals versus Tampa’s 2.85, Nico alone was responsible for 1.22 of those expected goals, the biggest number in the game by far. The next highest Devil was his linemate, Tomas Tatar, who was at 0.75, almost a half goal lower. His line was responsible for 1.615 expected goals for versus only 0.479 expected goals against, which is a huge differential and shows just how massive of a game that line played, but Nico especially with his personal xG score.
However, it goes beyond that. On Tuesday, a poor game that led to a 1-4 defeat, Nico still lifted his team. He had 0.31 expected goals, second on the team behind only Jesper Boqvist, and he still pulled a positive expected goals for percentage of 50.22% despite his line being underwater with 0.159 on-ice xGF to 0.233 on-ice xGA. It obviously wasn’t the performance that he had on Thursday, but as a whole the Devils played worse on Tuesday and really did deserve to lose that game in my opinion despite what the Deserve-to-win-o’meter says. That he still put up the second highest expected goals on the team shows he was generating strong attempts.
And remember, this all occurs for Nico despite not getting the same starting opportunities that Jack Hughes’ line gets. Jack has an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 65.52% this season, leading the team. He gets the most sheltered starts, with Lindy Ruff putting him in the offensive zone as often as he possibly can in order to score goals. And it works, I have no issues with this whatsoever. Timo Meier has benefitted from this since he came over, as he sits at 62.07% through 7 games with the team so far, and his game tying goal on Thursday got the Devils a point, so again no complaints there.
Nico, however, does not get this same benefit. Lindy Ruff expects him to not only produce offensively but also to play defense. Nico has an offensive zone faceoff percentage of only 46.15%. Of all Devils this year with at least 100 5v5 minutes, that ranks him 18th on the team, just behind Nikita Okhotiuk and just ahead of John Marino. So, he is getting similar zone faceoff starts to a couple of defensive defensemen, which should tell you all you need to know about what is expected of him. Play defense, get this team out of jams, and push the puck up ice. But oh yeah, you aren’t simply a defensive defenseman but the captain of this team and a skilled playmaker, so also generate points once you get into the offensive zone. And he does just that. Impressive.
To me, seeing the captain continue to put up strong performances, even in a couple of tough losses, is important. In the playoffs, it is going to take strong leadership to get this team through even one successful best-of-7 series, never mind possibly winning more than 1. Lindy Ruff has plenty of playoff experience to do that, but there will need to be leaders in the locker room as well from the players. This is a young group without a ton of playoff experience. Nico really doesn’t have that experience either, but he is the captain of this team, the leader, and he will need to continue to lead by example on the ice when things get tough starting in round 1. If he is doing it now in a playoff atmosphere at the Rock in March against a tough, playoff contender in Tampa, it makes me believe he will continue to do that once the playoffs actually do begin. That gives this team a legitimate chance, even if the two losses from this week make you feel uneasy.