- After tough losses to Vancouver and Tampa Bay, the Devils headed to Florida after a couple days off to try and rebound against the Atlantic Division’s second-best team.
- For once, they jumped out to a hot start, securing a two-goal lead after the first period off the strength of Alexander Holtz, Michael McLeod, and Jesper Bratt’s offensive talents.
- Though the Panthers pressured throughout the second and third periods, Nico Daws stood tall and helped earn the Devils a 4-1 victory.
- Essential Links: The NHL.com Boxscore | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The Game Thread | The Game Preview, by Chris | The Game Highlights via NHL.com
The Devils, at least, appeared to have a jump in their step to start the game. Holtz’s line with Tierney and Lazar seemed like they were cooking something, though I wasn’t expecting their goal to come quite in the way that it did. After gaining the zone with speed, Holtz wheeled around the right faceoff circle, spun, and shot a quick snap shot that deflected off a Panthers defender and past Bobrovsky, giving them the early lead for once.
The Panthers pressured after the goal, forcing Daws to make a handful of saves in the Devils’ zone. John Marino made a baffling turnover in his own zone that luckily did not result in a scoring chance, but it was a narrow miss. It’s in the comments of practically every article, so forgive me for repeating it here: Marino has been very bad this season, especially lately. As much as I’ve been for keeping Siegenthaler and Marino on the chance that they return to their own form, my belief in that has certainly waned recently. If there’s a salary-for-salary move at the trade deadline, I wouldn’t hate seeing one of them moved.
The Panthers, as always, were playing their game through the first period: fast in transition and on the forecheck, pressuring the Devils’ breakout. It didn’t give the much-maligned defenders many opportunities to think or plan a play behind the net, as the Panthers often floated two forecheckers into the zone to force mistakes. Despite a few failed breakouts, though, it didn’t result in any Grade-A chances through the first half of the period.
Holtz had a slap shot from the slot that Bobrovsky swallowed with his chest protector. Color me shocked that the best line through eleven minutes was Holtz, Tierney, and Lazar. By the end of the period, Bratt’s line would outpace Holtz’s in offensive chances and overall impact, but I’ll give that third line credit for providing the early spark. Sacha Barkov followed up Holtz’s one-timer with one of his own that Daws stopped. Everyone saw that shot coming: as soon as the fourth skater wandered over to join the swarm defense in the corner, Barkov was wide open when the puck trickled out to him. They began parking a forward in the high slot from here on out.
Then the Devils scored again: McLeod capitalized on a bouncing puck left on the doorstep, chipping the puck through Bobrovsky to put the Devils ahead 2-0. Bratt created the goal by driving the net hard, and McLeod came in for the follow-up chance. The puck bounced off Bratt’s skate or his stick and through the goalie, ensuring they had a 2-0 lead in the first period for the first time in I don’t know how long. There was a brief moment when it looked like Paul Maurice would challenge the goal for interference, as Bobrovsky’s stick got tangled with Bratt when he was forced into the crease. But there wasn’t enough interference or it wasn’t conclusive enough for them to commit to the challenge.
This Bratt guy. Pretty good at the goals. pic.twitter.com/akVRp45nTo— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 13, 2024
In the final minutes of the period, Dawson Mercer blocked a stinger from the point and went down the tunnel because no Devils game is complete if one of our players doesn’t break a shin or a kneecap or a skull on ice. Of note, that play wouldn’t have happened if Marino had successfully cleared the puck.
With just a minute to go, it looked like the Devils were going to head to the intermission with a well-deserved 2-0 lead against a very good team. But the Panthers’ forecheck, which had buzzed around the Devils’ defensive zone all night, finally came up big. Luke Hughes was unable to make a clean breakout pass, fumbling it and leaving the puck for the Panthers’ to make a big play. Carter Verhaege fed Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the back door, and Ekman-Larsson—was stonewalled by the blocker of Nico Daws. It was a period-saving block. It could have been a game-saving block. And the Devils went to the second period with the 2-0 lead.
Mercer returned for the second period. Bill Spaulding did his best to jinx it by noting that Mercer has yet to miss a game in his three-season NHL career. I wanted to point out a small smart play by Daws here: the Panthers entered the zone and Matt Tkachuk had the puck behind the net in a dangerous position. Daws found himself caught a little too far outside the net, but instead of making a big positional move and allowing Tkachuk to bank the puck off his body, he kept the aggressive angle. When Tkachuk tried to make a saucer pass to the front of the net, Daws blocked it, preventing the play from materializing. Daws does lots of things well, but he thinks the game better than Vanecek and Schmid.
The Devils went back the other way and scored on yet another relatively innocent play. Hischier stayed strong on the puck and forced the zone entry. When the play slipped away from him off Brandon Montour’s poke check, Haula collected the puck and took a quick shot. It skidded beneath Bobrovsky’s pad, giving them the 3-0 lead before five minutes had passed in the second. Hischier didn’t notch the assist, be he deserved one.
It’s Haula’s goal. We swear. pic.twitter.com/J07WEefmc1— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 14, 2024
Daws made several terrific saves to keep their lead intact through the first half of the period. Hischier’s line struggled up to this point in the second, getting pinned back in the zone and failing to break out more than once. The Devils’ fourth line of AHLers (and Nate Bastian) worked their way into a scoring chance in the Panthers’ zone. They didn’t have the greatest advanced numbers in the first period, but they were skating hard and pressuring some of the Panthers’ key lines in the second, which took some heat off.
Daws came up big again to stonewall Verhaege, then Colin Miller chopped Sam Bennett’s stick out of his hands and went to the box. They headed to the penalty kill for the first time on the night. Daws made another blocker save, but eventually the Panthers broke through. They’d spent too much of the penalty in their own zone, and due to the long change Brendan Smith was caught in their own zone for the entire penalty. Tkachuk got the puck to Sam Reinhart on the back door and Reinhart made no mistake. Big Kevin Bahl was caught fishing on this goal. He stood lost in front of the crease and reached for a puck he wasn’t going to get instead of taking Reinhart, who’d scored before Bahl even realized he was open.
Unfortunately, they only had 23 seconds left in the period until they were home free, but it was only a matter of time before the Panthers struck. They headed to the third period up 3-1.
At the start of the third, Tierney made a good diving play to clear the puck from the front of the net. Tierney is often rightfully lambasted on this blog, but he’d found some chemistry with Holtz and Lazar and had had a very solid game up to this point.
The Panthers began to take over in the second, but the Devils weathered the storm. But in the third period, it was all Panthers. Holtz had a great opportunity on the rush but rifled the puck wide. Then Nate Bastian drew a penalty through some hard work in the offensive zone on the forecheck, sending the Devils to the power play for the first time on the night.
Florida’s forechecking was just as effective—if not more so—on the penalty kill as five-on-five, meaning that the Devils really struggled to transition through the neutral zone and struggled to set up. Their power play resulted in very little by way of offensive opportunities. They went to a second power play minutes after the first, which didn’t result in anything more than the last one. At least they both killed time. By this point, the Panthers were solidly outshooting the Devils 31-21.
The referees evened it up with a makeup call on Bahl, meaning the Devils would have to kill a penalty in the final five minutes of the game. Montour dashed into the zone behind the defense early in the penalty kill and took a shot off the post; the Devils dodged a bullet there. Reinhart also barely missed on his short-side scoring chance. Brendan Smith finished off the penalty kill with a pair of hits and a clear.
Daws came up with one final beauty: flashing the glove during a scramble in front that led to a Grade-A scoring chance out of the slot. Daws went to the empty net; I was so disappointed when it didn’t make it. After some scrappiness around the Panthers’ empty net, Tierney won out and got the puck to Marino, who secured the goal.
The Devils won 4-1 against the Florida Panthers; Nico Daws made 36/37 saves, including all 31 even-strength shots.
Capitalizing on second offensive chances and low-hanging fruit
The Devils have struggled against hard forechecking teams in the past. Their defense has already struggled mightily this season—which includes the breakout—and with so many injuries to the defending corps already, the Panthers could’ve been poised to strike big against the inexperienced Devils back end. Now, they certainly had their moments. The Hischier line and the Marino-Hughes pairing often failed to execute clean breakouts, which led to more than one scoring chance. (The difference here was the goaltending, mostly, but we’re saving that for another section.) However, they outlasted the Panthers’ forecheck and then burned them for floating two skaters high.
The Devils picked apart the Panthers in their own zone by following up on scoring chances and taking opportunities as they came. This was not a game where their skaters forced plays that weren’t there. They made small, correct decisions in the moment and capitalized on weak goaltending (for once, instead of getting burned by it) and missed defensive assignments by the Panthers. They were pressured on the forecheck, but when the Devils escaped and entered the Panthers’ zone, the home defenders weren’t agile or supported enough to prevent the free-flowing Devils forwards from scoring.
They weathered the storm in the second and were mostly outplayed in the third—but that’s the leeway you earn when you score first and score often. It wasn’t a perfect game. Far from it. But the Devils realized the value of starting on time and scoring first tonight.
Something that’s been off about their offense this year is the lack of second chances. A goalie will make a save and nobody’s there to follow up. A defenseman will whiff on a pass through the slot—but a forward isn’t near enough to reach.
That was not the story tonight. Though none of the goals were rebounds, they all followed a similar theme: the Devils stuck on the puck in the corners, leading to Holtz wheeling and sniping a quick goal; Bratt lost the puck on his initial attack, but the second chance by McLeod careened off Bratt himself to score; Hischier had to defer to Haula when three Panthers swarmed him, and Haula shot; and even the Marino empty-netter came from numerous attempts in the offensive zone.
They were free-flowing. They were opportunistic. They took advantage of the Panthers’ miscues where they occurred and it was enough to score four times. You can see evidence of that in the heat map. Whereas the Panthers’ opportunities came from the same 3-4 areas, the Devils’ attacked where they could:
That, combined with some luck and good goaltending, was the difference tonight.
With so many injuries hampering the team, the Devils played more depth players than usual. Well, those depth players came up big. Not strictly on the scoresheet, though McLeod (does he even count as depth at this point?) and Lazar did notch points. But they showed up in a way that wore the Panthers out and enabled the Devils’ scorers to go to work.
Despite 2⁄3 of the line being AHLers (or 3/3 if you’re feeling ungenerous), Willman-Bowers-Bastian were reasonably effective tonight. They didn’t contribute much by way of scoring opportunities, but the line wasn’t cratered by the Panthers, they hemmed in the opposition into their own zone two or three times, and they worked hard.
Tierney-Lazar-Holtz formed the best line of the night. They scored a goal, outshot and out-chanced their opponents, and hounded the puck wherever it lay. Tierney in particular made a few smart plays I hadn’t seen from him to this point.
Brendan Smith was also quite good. Though his pairing was bombarded on a shots-front, he was effective on the PK and also scraped together the fourth-best xGF% on the team, per Natural Stat Trick.
Credit to Seven7Devils for coining the term ^
According to MoneyPuck’s Deserve To Win O’Meter, the Devils only come out on top about 24.8% of the time based on the events of the game. Now, these should always be taken with a grain of salt. I do think the Devils had their moments where they were quite good, and the bad wasn’t as bad as it’s been in the past. However, I think we’re all in agreement that—had other organizational goaltenders started this game—it most likely would’ve fallen on that 75% side. Daws was a big part of the 25%.
Also per MoneyPuck, Daws saved 2.1 goals above expected, including both high-danger shots against him. His crown jewel came perhaps in the first period, but this save was equally as important in the dying minutes of the game:
If that goes in (or the one at the end of the first), the Panthers rally. They fight back with momentum on their side. And maybe they tie up the game. The Devils were not always particularly clean on defense tonight, but the goaltending made up for it. He also went for the goalie goal, which shows the level of confidence he was operating on.
It’s ironic for Devils fans, but we’ve forgotten what good goaltending can do.
- As noted in the game thread, Hischier’s line struggled tonight. They got caught in their own zone often and failed several breakout attempts. I prefer Mercer at the wing instead of center; that thought process likely drove the decision-making with the lines, but outside the Haula goal, it was a rough night for this group.
- Nate Bastian did well. He hasn’t always done well this year, but he drew a penalty singlehandedly and crashed and banged his way to a solid night.
Well it wasn’t a perfect game but it was also a darn good win. Let’s hope they can build off the momentum from here. What did you think of how the Devils’ played tonight? Is it time to jettison Marino into the sun? Can they ride Daws into the sunset and put off acquiring an additional goalie, or do they still need to play it safe and not rely on the 23-year-old too much? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.