As of this writing, the leading scorer for the New Jersey Devils in their series against Our Hated Rivals is Erik Haula. Not The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, who has three goals. Not Nico Hischier, who has been a dominant force at 5-on-5 with a mindboggling on-ice xGF% of 71.75% (5th highest in the NHL) and has three assists. Not Dougie Hamilton, the hero of Game 3 with his OT winner to go with his two assists. Not Jesper Bratt, who has been as almost dominant as Hischier in the run of play in 5-on-5 and has three assists. Haula has the most: two goals, three assists for five points. Yes, Erik Haula.
What is more: Erik Haula is surging. Yes, surging. Haula is hot right now. Yes, Erik Haula. This is remarkable to anyone who remembers him from earlier or most of this regular season. I wanted to call this a resurgence. Except he has not really surged at all this season. Let us go back and recall his season from a scoring perspective.
The Season of Not Much Scoring for the Most Part
Way back on November 11, I wrote about Erik Haula being stuck at zero goals for the season. In spite of largely playing with The Big Deal, Jack Hughes (who put up 99 points this season); the Devils being on a heater and scoring loads of goals; and having some absolutely glorious chances to put a puck in the net not finished, Haula was beyond snakebit. I wrote the post to highlight how he was still contributing even with an exceptional knack for not-scoring. Haula would finally score a power play goal on November 19 in a 5-1 beating of Ottawa. It took 18 games for Haula to score a goal. It was a relief that he did. Would he get going and get more?
Absolutely not. Haula kept not-scoring. Some nights, he was not shooting all that much. Others, he would miss on opportunities that seemed harder to miss than to score on. It would take 12 more games for Haula to get his second of the season. He scored and even had an assist in what was a 2-4 loss to Florida amid a slump for the Devils. Did Haula then feel better about his game to keep shooting and maybe generate more points? Nope. While he had a nice run of five assists in a six game period, he would go goal-less for another 11 games. He would get his third of the season in the Devils’ 43rd game of the season, a 5-2 win in Los Angeles. Haula would not have to go double digits to score again, but the point remained: he was having a rotten time with his shot. Whether it was poor luck, a poor decision in that one moment, or both, it stuck out on a high-scoring team that this veteran was not finishing. Haula was solid in the run of play, on the PK, and taking draws but ultimately a forward has to finish some actual shots to maximize his worth.
Haula would chip in a bit more frequently in the second half of the season, but it was still sporadic. Goal #4 in Seattle on January 19 was followed up with Goal #5 in St. Louis on February 16, an eight-game drought. Another seven game goalless streak followed before Haula’s most productive game of the regular season; a brace with an assist on March 7 in a 3-4 loss to Toronto. He even followed that up with a goal in a win in Washington in the next game. Great! Haula is warming up, right? No. He put up zeroes for G’s and A’s for another nine games after that goal in D.C. Only after that sixth streak of nothing in the net this season did Haula get going. It was a bad night for the Devils on March 27 as they lost 1-5 in Long Island, but Haula got the lone goal and it would be the start - finally - of something resembling an actual tear on the scoresheet.
Haula followed that game up with goals in each of the next two games - including the first one against Our Hated Rivals on March 30 - went pointless for two games and then put up a goal against Columbus on April 6 and provided a brace in Washington in the season ender. That is five goals (and seven points) in Haula’s last seven games of the season. And it has not actually stopped in the playoffs.
The Current Surge into the “Second Season”
While team form going into the playoffs may not matter much, it definitely did not in this series when Our Hated Rivals creamed the Devils in Game 1 and 2. But Haula gave the Devils an early lead and their first power play goal of the series when he banged in a loose puck past Igor Shesterkin. While Game 2 went South and Haula, along with 17 others in Devils jerseys that night, own that big loss; Haula could at least claim he kept his own run going and got a goal on the board.
In Game 4, Haula was the one to swing a stick to deny an OHR member of the puck in the neutral zone in a 5-on-6 situation. That puck went to Jesper Bratt, who missed the empty net, but Ondrej Palat put in the rebound off the endboards to ice that game. Haula’s first assist of the postseason and reflective of the kind of game Haula has provided even when not scoring a whole lot. Can he win a puck in the neutral zone? Can he knock it loose to deny the opposition a play and maybe create one for New Jersey? Can he do a lot of the non-glamourous things? Yes, yes, and yes. In this case, it did lead to a critical win in Manhattan.
Last night’s Game 5 was his peak performance of the season. Both in terms of points and how he did in the run of play.
Live, I thought the time ran out on Patrick Kane’s foul on The Big Deal, but Haula did indeed score another power play goal to punish the great Blackhawk. With a second left in a penalty in the second period, Damon Severson rode the blueline, played the puck down to Dawson Mercer in the slot, and Haula tipped the shot low on net. The puck squirted through Igor Shesterkin. Despite his desperate dive back, the puck went over the line to make it 2-0. A huge goal to give the Devils some breathing room.
Later in that period, the Devils were killing a somewhat dubious penalty. After a big scrum around the Devils’ net about 12 minutes into the second and a fight between Barclay Goodrow and Kevin Bahl, the refs decided Damon Severson was guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct. I think a lot of guys could have been called that if Severson did. Nonetheless, Haula and Dawson Mercer would make the best of it. Mercer’s pressure on Adam Fox at the point led the defender to fling a quick pass to Artemi Panarin. Breadman was Stale so the puck bounced off of him, allowing Haula to take it away and fly up ice. He led the charge up ice with Mercer in a 2-on-1. (Panarin’s backchecking effort was also Stale.) Haula calmly sent a saucer pass over Fox’s stick to an open Mercer. Mercer hammered a one timer past Shesterkin, sent the Rock into rapturous cheers, and put the Devils up 3-0. Again, a play representative of Haula’s role this season. He can kill penalties and be mindful enough to take a rush opportunity if it presented itself. It did and it buried Our Hated Rivals further. Making Panarin look like a chump is a cherry on that particular sundae.
The second goal in his brace was a little more anticlimactic. In a 4-on-4 situation, caused by matching minors between Jonas Siegenthaler and Ryan Lindgren, Our Hated Rivals had an offensive zone faceoff. Gerard Gallant, down three and seeing his team generate just two shots all game, decided to pull Shesterkin for an extra skater. Hischier won the faceoff back to Ryan Graves, who played it back to Hischier, who played it across to Haula. Haula risked an icing if he missed but he did not miss. Haula launched a perfect long shot from the defensive slot to the middle of the empty net. His second goal locked up a victory at 4-0.
I am going into detail about these playoff points to emphasize that Haula has been doing quite a few of these things all season long. But, for one reason or another, it has yet to yield consistent production. Haula has been with Hughes and away from Hughes. He has been in the top six and then in the bottom six and sometimes switches in the middle of games. He has been on a secondary power play unit, which was laughable given his penchant for not lighting the lamp, and now he has the two of the three power play goals the Devils have scored in this series. That is a remarkable coincidence.
What is not a coincidence is that Haula is hot. Let me put it all together. In his last 12 games with the Devils, he has eight goals and four assists with 33 shots on net. That is a point-per-game average with over two-and-a-half shots per game. That is a run of production we would praise for just about any player. That is a shooting rate of someone who is involved in the offense. That is by a guy that few expected to be much of a scorer and even fewer expected to be this snakebitten this season. A surprise? Yes. A surge? Also, yes.
The Run of Play, or High-Event Haula in the Postseason
What is also a surprise in the playoffs is how high-event the game has been when Haula has been on the ice in 5-on-5. Check out the stats at Natural Stat Trick. The CF/60 and CA/60 rates when Haula takes a shift combine for 122.36, which is the fifth highest on the Devils and third amongst forwards. Timo Meier has the highest at 182.02 combined with a 64.08 CF% in New Jersey’s favor. That speaks to those who point out how much good the Devils have done when Meier is out there. On the other hand, when Haula is on the ice, the attempts are only slightly in New Jersey’s favor at 50.77%. The expected goals model has been similar in its evenness and how high it was when Erik Haula has been on the ice. While Meier, Hischier, and Bratt dominate, Haula’s on-ice xGF of 3.12 is a little less than the opponent’s 3.14. What does that mean? Again, it means a lot has happened when he’s out there. Based on the points and his team leading 2.54 expected goals in all situations, we can now say that Haula has been responsible for the good results for New Jersey when he is out there. (And thanks to Akira Schmid, the bad results have faded away.) He may not be winning his matchups outright like the captain or Meier or how it was when Haula took a shift during the regular season, but the team is not drowning when he is out there. He is adding points, and so he has added value. Crucially so in Game 5.
By the way: Haula on the PK, statistically, could be better in this series. Especially in comparison with Michael McLeod. Then again, Haula has been drawing the first power play unit of Our Hated Rivals. I mean, he got Kreider’ed a bunch of times. No one’s numbers would look great after those first two games. They rally do not with an on-ice rate of ~115 CA/60 and a round 10 xGA/60. But the last few games have been better by all on the penalty kill; and creating the shorthanded goal in Game 5 was a big, big boost.
Why It is Great and It is Happening
There is a larger, more romantic point to this point. It is not uncommon for uncommon players to emerge as significant contributors in the playoffs and/or an important game in all sports. Defensive defenseman Bryce Salvador throwing up four goals and 14 points in the Cup run in 2012 is a great example of one. Another would be Grant Marshall. He went from a heinous 25-game goalless streak from January 28, 2003 as a Blue Jacket to April 6, 2003 for what would be his one and only goal as a Devil in the season. He would score three big goals in the series win over Tampa Bay and setting up Jeff Friesen’s Eastern Conference Finals game winner in Ottawa. The hero of Game 4 in this series? Jonas Siegenthaler, who registered his first ever playoff assist and playoff goal in the 3-1 win. You get the idea.
At a minimum, Haula can claim a similar title for Game 5. Or at least share it with Akira Schmid for being the first Devils goalie to put up a shutout in the playoffs since Martin Brodeur’s 24th in Game 4 against Florida in 2012. But given Haula’s run of production going into the playoffs and how offense - albeit at both ends - happens when he has been on the ice, it is very possible that Haula could provide even more. Maybe he finds the scoresheet again in Game 6. Maybe he keeps it going. Maybe he is the one to break the seeming lack of notable Finns - drafted or otherwise - in this franchise. Or maybe this post dooms the surge.
At least there was one, though. Earlier in the season, I and the People Who Matter would cringe at Haula shooting and missing gimmies. Now, I and the People Who Matter are ready to accept Haula as a provider. A successful playoff run often needs contributions up and down the lineup and Haula has absolutely provided so far. At this point, I am pleased with the current surge of one (1) Erik Haula. I am sure his agent is as well. May it continue as the Devils seek to eliminate Our Hated Rivals.
And given what Haula has done, it is worth wondering which other Devils who could stand to surge a little more. Or re-surge, depending on who does it. My hope is the one who Haula assisted tonight: Dawson Mercer. Unlike Haula, not a lot has happened when Mercer has been on the ice in 5-on-5; but it has been far more favorable for the Devils. We know Mercer has that DAWG in him. We know he got a big goal tonight. Just a hope as it could help propel the Devils further in this postseason.
In the meantime, Erik Haula is considerbly hotter at firing the puck than he has been for the majority of this season. He arguably had his best game as a Devil in Game 5 and it is amid this current surge. What is your take on Haula at the moment? Has this changed your opinion of the player? Are you happy to see him not just botch looks at half-empty nets? Can Haula keep it going? Who do you think will be the next to heat up among the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Haula in the comments. Thank you for reading.