The New Jersey Devils came out of the gate with an inconsistent effort. The top six lines sated on their first shifts like they were trying to conserve energy and be conservative — though Jesper Bratt did break free for a chance, turned aside by Soderblom. But then the McLeod line came flying — first with a two-on-one for McLeod and Lazar. McLeod took the shot at the five hole and missed his target, and Soderblom’s pad knocked the puck past Curtis Lazar. Alex Holtz then had a chance in the circle, but his shot was denied. Chris Tierney later had a partial two-on-one with Brendan Smith, but the back pressure from Alex Vlasic prevented Tierney from shooting, and Smith knocked the pass wide of net as he stretched to redirect the pass.
After Vitek Vanecek was tested a few times by Nick Foligno and company, as Foligno nearly beat Jonas Siegenthaler to a loose puck in no-man’s land, but Siegenthaler got back to prevent a breakway, forcing the Blackhawks to work passes for their shots. A few minutes later, Colin Miller drew a slashing penalty, which may have hurt his wrist or hand. The Devils did a great job of controlling the puck despite pressure on the power play, as the first unit got a couple of good shots after Nico Hischier rang the post early. The second unit had an immediate redirection chance off their draw with 46 seconds to work with, but Soderblom stopped it.
With 9:50 to play in the period, Kevin Bahl tripped Brett Seney behind the Devils’ net. The Chicago Blackhawks went to the power play for the first time of the game. The Devils had an early rush where Haula just missed Mercer for a chance on Soderblom. Then, there was mayhem when Brendan Smith stepped up on Connor Bedard on a zone entry, and Kurashev and the Blackhawks went after Smith.
Brendan Smith with a huge hit on Bedard and Kurashev stepped right in pic.twitter.com/dIn3mAwuP9— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) January 6, 2024
With that, play went to four-on-four for 1:22, which would be followed by 38 seconds of Devils power play. Soderblom made a couple of good stops on Jesper Bratt at four-on-four, and an offsides was called 19 seconds before the Devils went to the power play. On their shot power play, Nico Hischier was hit by Connor Murphy after making a pass to Jack Hughes and took a long time to get to the Devils bench. It was an extremely late hit, uncalled.
Connor Murphy lays a hit on Nico Hischier a few minutes after Brendan Smith took a run at Connor Bedard.— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) January 6, 2024
Hischier didn't take a shift the rest of the first period but he’s back for the second period. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/m6OpxVHZC3
Jonas Siegenthaler took a high sticking call with 6:40 to play. The penalty kill did well against the Blackhawks’ first unit, which was missing both Bedard and Foligno. However, Nico Hischier went down the tunnel rather than taking his shift, and the penalty kill got rougher as time went on. Vitek let a weak one in under his glove, from above the facoeff circle, with just over 15 seconds left to kill. 1-0, Blackhawks.
The referees gave the Devils another penalty when Colin Miller was called for roughing, not long after Michael McLeod was hit from behind during a board scrum. Vitek made an early stop but couldn’t track the rebound in the crease as the Blackhawks crashed, and Dawson Mercer had to bail him out. Nathan Bastian just missed a shot off a feed from Michael McLeod. Chris Tierney pushed the puck out at the end of the kill, keeping the Blackhawks at one.
Thankfully, Nico Hischier returned for the second period. Unfortunately, Connor Bedard was announced to be out for the game. Vitek Vanecek nearly let up a goal when a rebound was poked through him — but John Marino cleared the puck away before Lukas Reichel got on it. After Jack Hughes appeared to take a high hit from Nick Foligno, they finally called Jacob Megna for interfering with Toffoli in front of the net.
The Devils’ power play did not look great here, and tensions finally came to a head at the end of the two minutes. Nathan Bastian was going to be called for boarding Ryan Donato, and Alex Vlasic came for him. They fought and went to the box, and Dawson Mercer dove on Donato to keep him out of the fight. Penalties were called evenly out of this, as Vlasic’s instigator penalty cancelled out the power play, with Mercer and Donato getting roughing calls.
Brendan Smith and Nick Foligno dropped the gloves right off the draw. This was a marathon match, and Smith came back from looking rough early to just about outlasting Foligno. After play resumed, Kevin Bahl lit up Brett Seney, delivering a standing hip check. Entwistle whiffed on a head shot on McLeod. Lazar finished Tinordi into the boards. Then more fights broke out when Jack Hughes threw a big hit on Seney in the offensive zone. Seney was tagged for crosschecking Hughes.
Hischier set up Bratt for a one-timer. Soderblom made the save. Katchouk took the puck away from Jack Hughes and was alone for a shot on Vanecek. Vitek got it with the glove. The second unit came out for the last 50 seconds, joined by McLeod in Bastian’s absence. Erik Haula had a wide open lane to McLeod from behind the net, but missed the pass.
After the power play, the McLeod line was out for a lengthy offensive zone shift, aided by perfect neutral zone coverage and some timely blueline exit denials. Simon Nemec made one such play and kept the puck in the zone under pressure, moving it on his backhand to Alex Holtz. Despite being right-handed, Holtz was able to drive across the zone and drop the puck back for Nemec, who came in cutting towards the net. Soderblom, with traffic in front, could only sprawl across as Nemec set up Holtz’s game-tying shot! 1-1.
Everything about this goal. pic.twitter.com/kqOazvGz03— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 6, 2024
Colin Miller took another penalty for holding Boris Katchouk. Brendan Smith cleared the puck off the draw. Kevin Korchinski got through the Devils and made a move on Vanecek, but lost the puck as he had the open net to shoot on. On the other end, Mercer could not connect a pass to Haula, and later Bratt had the same issue on a rush with Hischier. The Blackhawks lost possession late with some bad passes, and the penalty was killed with one last clear from Nico. With 3:21 left in the period, the Devils went to the power play as Jack Hughes was spun around entering the offensive zone.
On the power play, Jack skated in circles through what seemed like each penalty killer to set up Bratt for a one-timer, but Soderblom made the save. Bratt tried to slam it home from the goal line later, and it was kicked out. Luke Hughes fell down after his one-timer was blocked late in the power play, forcing Jack to backcheck on Donato to knock the puck. But Vitek would let in a Katchouk wrist shot from distance after Toffoli gave the puck away. 2-1, Blackhawks. Of course, Nathan Bastian had to take a retaliatory penalty on Connor Murphy when Murphy laid a hit on him after Bastian dumped the puck in before the period ended.
The Devils’ penalty kill made for a positive start to the period, as they did not allow Chicago to get any real run in the offensive zone. The Devils iced the puck after Bastian came out of the box as Brendan Smith missed the stretch pass. They later iced it again as Chicago was preventing transition passes, as the Hughes line had a tough shift after Toffoli couldn’t reel in a pass on his stick, which led to a hard shot from Reichel that nearly led to a rebound goal.
Luke Hughes had another bad giveaway when he left a puck in the offensive zone for someone else to pick up — but nobody was there. A Donato-led two-on-one was averted by Vanecek. Rushing the other way not even a minute later, Tierney set up Simon Nemec entering the zone — and Nemec hit the far-side of the net! 2-2, tie game, with over 14 minutes to play!
Welcome to the Simon Snipeshow Era. pic.twitter.com/3xUj2xwxEz— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 6, 2024
Jesper Bratt drew a hooking call from Connor Murphy with 10:29 to play. Bratt then had the one-timer off the passing play from Jack and Luke Hughes. Play was stopped for awhile as Soderblom had to fix his equipment. Dickinson forced Luke Hughes back into the neutral zone after the draw, and it took a few tries for the Devils to get offensive zone possession again. Nico Hischier deflected a Bratt shot off Soderblom’s shoulder, and Toffoli’s high stick hit the puck, giving the Blackhawks a breather in the neutral zone. The Devils iced the puck after the power play expired.
The McLeod line came through on the neutral zone draw. McLeod and Holtz moved the puck up the ice in tight space at the blueline, and McLeod snuck a pass out to Lazar. Lazar mishandled the puck but was able to collect and throw it towards the front of the net, and McLeod directed it home! 3-2, with just over eight minutes to play!
After spinning down and hitting his arm on the ice, Jack Hughes went down the tunnel, shaking his hand. Chris Tierney took his spot in the top six. Mackenzie Entwistle got away with a clear-as-day crosscheck on Jesper Bratt. Importantly, the Devils were holding the Blackhawks at bay, and Vitek was not being tested all too much.
Soderblom came off the ice with 1:50 to play. Chris Tierney and Jesper Bratt could not win the puck at the Devils’ offensive blueline, and the Devils iced the puck. Tierney lost the draw, and Vitek Vanecek made a big stop on Kurashev driving the net. Reichel missed the net high, and Alex Vlasic missed the net wide — which was followed by Jesper Bratt collecting the loose puck and moving it up to Tyler Toffoli, who sealed the game from center ice! The Devils won 4-2.
The Line Between Playing Physically and Dangerously
Connor Bedard, Nick Foligno, and Jack Hughes all left tonight’s game with injuries. Bedard left after the big hit from Brendan Smith. Foligno left after a couple of fights and several hits. Hughes is the only one whose injury was totally unclear in origin — he left after spinning to the ice and trying to balance with his left arm. The only thing I can say is that Jarred Tinordi drove him into the boards on one of their power plays. Jack, facing away from the boards, hit his back and left arm into the boards with quite a bit of force. Maybe it was already bothering him — I don’t know.
What I do know is that the referees, yet again, let a few too many things go tonight. I understand the Blackhawks wanting to stand up for Bedard. But when Nico Hischier got hit a good second or so after the puck was away, leaving him in a heap, the Devils didn’t jump on Connor Murphy. Bedard got hit cleanly with the puck and the Devils were forced to defend themselves for the hit. But unlike what the code dictates, the Blackhawks didn’t stop when Smith engaged Foligno after the hit. And they didn’t stop after Smith obliged Foligno for a fight. To me, it looked like there were multiple whiffs from the Blackhawks, where they were trying to hit Devils in the head. Aside from the Brett Seney penalty, the referees were not penalizing Chicago for taking liberties or attempting to do so.
And really, the most dangerous, dirty play of the night was Connor Murphy’s hit of Hischier. It was a good one, two seconds late and took Hischier off guard. It should have been an interference penalty. It might not have looked like a match penalty hit, but it put Hischier into a bad position with his head by the boards and was significantly after Hischier sent the puck away.
For the most part, the Devils did a good job of meeting the physicality and not being excessive in response. Nathan Bastian, however, went over the line twice. Was his boarding particularly bad? No — refs let much, much worse boarding plays go all the time — but it wasn’t really a necessary hit on the power play, when he could have made a play on the puck to get possession. Bastian’s later retaliatory penalty was cringeworthy.
But I’m not against the physical play. I think Kevin Bahl really elevates his game when teams start getting physical — his positioning becomes sharper and he stunned guys repeatedly tonight. When Bahl’s job is to be the bully in such a manner — like when he laid the reverse hip check on Seney, or when he stood up Entwistle in the neutral zone — it seems like he does better than when he’s trying to be a positional, stick-focused defenseman. It throws the opposition off quickly, and he is quick enough on the back end not to get out of position. Lazar, McLeod, and even Jack Hughes showed what good physicality looks like on the forward side. Lazar finishing his checks, McLeod causing turnovers with physicality, and Jack protecting himself with a bit of a reverse hit were all good examples of asserting themselves.
Nemec and Holtz
You do have to score to win, though, and both of Nemec and Holtz came through big tonight. Nemec’s hold at the blueline was a thing of beauty — Bryce Salvador said there was ice in his veins to make such a play. But Holtz having the trust to work it back up high to get open for the one-timer? It was perfection. When I wondered how it looked like they had so much chemistry already, I had to remind myself they played much of last season together in Utica.
“We showed them we are not just skilled guys, we can play a physical game. We knew we could win this game.”— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 6, 2024
Nemo and the team recap the win.
Nemec ⤵️#NJDevils | @Genucel pic.twitter.com/iBwx3aBW9F
Nemec said after the game that he is still trying to get the offense going at this level. I appreciate the concern, but he is up to 7 points in 16 games played. He is already producing like a veteran defenseman at 19 years old, playing over 20 minutes a night and more than holding his own. Hopefully, Lindy Ruff starts giving Holtz the same type of respect with his ice time. With how they’ve been impacting the game on both ends and their compete level, I often feel more comfortable watching Nemec and Holtz than a lot of the more experienced players on the team.
Other Positive Notes
I don’t think there are a lot of fans who haven’t noticed the uptick in Michael McLeod’s game. The Blackhawks couldn’t create much against him, with McLeod only having 0.16 xGA at even strength on six shots. But he was bringing it from the first shift to the last, and he was rewarded with the game-winning goal. If not for McLeod, I don’t think the Devils would have the persistence down the lineup to win these sorts of games.
Prior to the injury, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt were producing a lot of shots on goal. Bratt set his career high with 9. It might not have led to a goal, but the more he creates chances like this, the more they’ll score. I think Tyler Toffoli was too slow for them at even strength tonight, though he came up big with the empty net goal to bring things to a halt in the third period. I will admit that I was pulling for Tierney to get the empty net, as he played a good game in very limited ice time. When the Devils tied the game at 2-2, Tierney had the primary assist on the tying goal and was on the ice for both their goals despite only having 2:22 of ice time by that point of the game (he also almost created a Brendan Smith goal in the first, and probably should have drawn a call there). I have had my problems with Tierney lately, but he was actually an unlikely contributor tonight.
Chicago is not a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, but the defense did a great job tonight, with just 1.57 expected goals for Chicago. Vitek, at least, came up big when he needed to in the third period, despite the soft goals he allowed. If he wasn’t so quick out of the crease to play the puck, it might have been a different game, as he averted a breakaway and helped the Devils get possession on dumps a couple times in the third. Vitek is now 14-7-1 on the season. I’ll take it.
What did you think of the win? What about Jack’s injury? Do you think they’ll be able to get back in check for tomorrow? Leave your thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments below, and thanks for reading.