Happy 2024! I hope everyone enjoyed a safe and fun New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. One thing that would help us all enjoy the beginning of the year a little bit more would be a New Jersey Devils win over the Washington Capitals this evening, and sure enough Jersey’s team delivered with a big 6-3 victory. Nico Hischier (happy 25th birthday tomorrow!), Dawson Mercer, and Michael McLeod each produced a pair of goals, with Hischier adding an assist to his ledger as well.
Nico Daws got the start in net, and while his final line doesn’t look pretty with a save percentage of .885%, he made a few enormous saves on breakaways and one-on-ones in front to keep New Jersey in the game. The Devils were pretty stout defensively in the first and third periods, but they began the second period by allowing a breakaway to Connor McMichael (who scored a power play goal in the first period tonight), and went on to allow a few A+ chances to the Caps in the middle frame. But Daws was there with some critical saves, which is something New Jersey has been sorely lacking this season. So while the final numbers don’t look good, and yes Daws should’ve had at least one of the two power play goals he allowed this evening, Daws came up clutch multiple times. Credit to him for finding the big saves when the Devils needed them most.
Oh, and he also collected his first career point! Daws was credited with the secondary assist on Hischier’s opening goal. One Nico taking care of the other, you love to see it.
Aside from Daws and the two-goal scorers, Alexander Holtz also stood out to me tonight, which is especially noteworthy considering his distinct lack of ice time the past couple of games. Skating on a line with McLeod and Curtis Lazar, Holtz assisted on both of McLeod’s tallies this evening. He had a great rush up the ice and made a good chip pass to McLeod in the final minute of the first period to set up McLeod’s first goal, and on the second one Holtz won a board battle, then provided some gritty work on a scramble in front of the net to get the puck to McLeod who finished the play off.
I’m no scouting expert, but from what I can tell Holtz does not have an effort problem this season. He loses a lot of physical battles due to his lack of size, but not every battle as evidenced by his game tonight, and his motor is always running. He’s not the fastest or the strongest, but he’s been a willing participant in every backcheck and board battle this season. We all know he has a wicked shot but seeing him grind out points like he did tonight is encouraging. He has a ways to go to become a truly impactful player, but he appears on the right path to me.
Overall, this was a strong 60-minute effort from New Jersey this evening, something we have seen only sparingly this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils won the 5-on-5 Expected Goals For% battle in each period tonight, and finished with an overall xGF% of 66.21% at 5-on-5. The fact that it came against a division rival who just so happened to be directly in front of them in the playoff race makes it so much better. With this regulation win, the Devils climb to 42 points in 36 games, exactly tied with Washington. But the Devils hold the tiebreaker over the Capitals thanks to their 16 regulation wins to Washington’s 12, so as of tonight New Jersey is back in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, one point back of the Philadelphia Flyers but with one game in hand. Obviously there is a ton of season left to go, but it always feels good to end a night in playoff position. Especially considering how uneven this campaign has been for the Devils. If they keep putting up performances like tonight, they won’t have to worry about their grip on a playoff spot being so vulnerable for much longer.
The Game Highlights: Courtesy of NHL.com. Enjoy.
It has been a star-crossed season for Timo Meier. The Swiss winger got off to a relatively slow start, then got injured and missed a few weeks, then was clearly playing hurt and struggled, then found his stride, and now he’s injured again with what head coach Lindy Ruff is calling a “medium-body injury”.
I’ll allow Amanda Stein to play translator here:
It’s both good news and bad news that this latest ailment is not related to his previous injury. Getting injury updates from this organization can be like pulling teeth sometimes, so I’m not expecting any concrete details any time soon. We can only hope Meier heals up fully as soon as he can.
Meanwhile, Ondrej Palat was a late scratch for tonight’s game. The news doesn’t look all that encouraging for him either:
Ondrej Palat will likely be out the next few games says #NJDevils Lindy Ruff.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) January 4, 2024
Palat did not finish practice on Tuesday and was unable to play today.
Like Meier, we also aren’t getting a lot of specific info on Palat’s injury as well. Palat wasn’t exactly filling the scoresheet every night, and he probably hasn’t been worth his cap hit on the ice, but he’s put in some solid work to help push play forward this season. While not the most impactful injury, Palat’s absence stings, and much like Meier, we can only hope he returns soon.
So with Meier and Palat now out, the Devils had to make a move to replenish their active roster. They chose to call up a prospect who Devils fans have been anxious to see in action for a long time now:
A third round pick in 2019, Graeme Clarke has shown a lot of potential in junior hockey as well as the AHL. Prior to this call-up, Clarke had registered 11 goals and 21 points in 27 games with the Utica Comets this season.
Clarke did not get into game action this evening, but we may see him very soon. It would certainly be a well-earned and long-awaited debut for Clarke.
Four Point Game
I don’t know about you, but I for one and sick and tired of watching the Devils lose to the Capitals. For many seasons now, New Jersey always seems to come up small against Washington, and that includes two regulation losses to them earlier this season. Couple that with the Caps and Devils being neck-and-neck for wild card positioning entering tonight, and I really needed to see a Devils’ win tonight. Thankfully, they delivered.
Getting wins like these are crucial if New Jersey wants to get their 2023-24 season properly on track. A regulation victory not only gives the Devils two points, it also deprives Washington of two points on the other side. It’s stating the obvious, but these division games are going to be huge going forward, especially against teams duking it out in the messy wild card picture like the Capitals, Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes. Every little bit counts.
Even without his two goals, Dawson Mercer’s night would have been noteworthy, as this evening’s game was Mercer’s 200th career NHL game. Mercer has not missed a game since the very beginning of his NHL career in 2021-22, and he now reaches 200 consecutive games played. Congrats to the young man, and here’s to continued good health and success for the MercDawg.
One Last Complaint
As mentioned, overall it was a very good night for the Devils. One thing really bothered me though, and while it didn’t end up mattering in the end, it looked like it could be a huge moment in the game.
Late in the first period, the Devils put together a good couple of shifts that pinned Washington back in their own zone for a while and forced the Capitals to commit two icings in quick succession. With tired Capitals out on the ice following some extended offensive zone time, the second icing would have been a perfect opportunity to put either the Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier lines out there to try to capitalize (no pun intended) on some tired Washington skaters. Instead, Ruff sent his fourth line of Chris Tierney, Brendan Smith, and Nate Bastian out.
After the ensuing faceoff, the Caps were able to immediately clear the zone and establish possession in the Devils’ end, and it culminated with Bastian getting tagged for a roughing penalty. McMichael made the penalty hurt with his power play goal late in the period that, at the time, cut the Devils’ lead to 2-1.
I really, really, really disagree with the decision to send the fourth line out following the second icing. New Jersey had all the momentum in the world, and with tired Capitals stuck on the ice, throwing Hughes or Hischier at them could have really put a dagger in this game in the waning minutes of the first. Instead we got about the worst-case scenario with the fourth line getting beat in the offensive zone, getting beat in the defensive zone, then committing a penalty that got punished with a power play goal. Even throwing out the McMichael goal and not being results-oriented, this was still a terrible decision in my eyes. Please Lindy, attack with your best players when the other team is on the ropes. It didn’t cost your team tonight, but a decision like that might end up costing your team a game down the road.
Next Time Out
New Jersey is back in action on Friday when they play host to Connor Bedard and the Chicago Blackhawks. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00pm.
It was a very good night for the New Jersey Devils. What did you make of this evening’s game? Who impressed you the most? Did anything disappoint you this evening? What are you expecting during the next game against the Blackhawks? As always, thanks for reading!