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Game Preview #38: New Jersey Devils vs. Vancouver Canucks

In a Hughes Bowl rematch, the Devils host the Canucks on the dreaded second half of a back-to-back

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (21-14-2) vs. Vancouver Canucks (24-11-3)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN

Last Devils Game

In a raucous game last night, the Devils hosted the lowly Chicago Blackhawks and came away with a 4-2 win. Simon Nemec and Alexander Holtz each had a goal and an assist, with the other big story being Jack Hughes leaving the game late due to injury.

Last Canucks Game

Back on Thursday, the Canucks visited the St. Louis Blues, losing by a final score of 2-1. Conor Garland scored 1:57 into the game, but that turned out to be all the offense Vancouver could muster that night.

Last Devils-Canucks Game

It happened almost exactly one month ago on December 5th, and it was a wild one. New Jersey scored four first period goals, entered the third period leading 5-2, then proceeded to allow three unanswered tallies to blow their three-goal lead late in the final frame. But a Jesper Bratt goal with 34 seconds remaining lifted the Devils to a crazy 6-5 victory. It was one of the more frustrating wins of the season, but it was a win nonetheless.

Old School Hockey, For Better And Worse

...But mostly for worse. Last night’s tilt was a penalty-filled, injury-riddled, knock down drag out affair. It reminded me of the game against the Anaheim Ducks back in December, in which the Devils lost 5-1 primarily because they let a far inferior team sucker them into a chippy game. Anaheim has very little actual skill on their team, and instead choose to roster scummy players like Radko Gudas and Ross Johnston. The Ducks laid cheap shot after cheap shot after cheap shot on the Devils that night, and New Jersey decided to sink to the Ducks’ pathetic level and play chippy hockey. Anaheim was happy to take advantage.

That’s what it felt like the Blackhawks tried to do, though to be fair to Chicago, they only started upping the dirtiness after Brendan Smith took out wunderkind Connor Bedard.

I can certainly understand the Blackhawks wanting to protect their one shining light on an otherwise dark roster. That being said, after they exacted their pound of flesh, they just kept on going. Connor Murphy, one of the absolute worst players in the league, threw a cheap shot at Nico Hischier. Former Devil Brett Seney was running around trying to throw plenty of dirty hits himself. Chicago clearly couldn’t compete with New Jersey based on skill, so they tried to goon it up.

Thankfully it didn’t work, as unlike against Anaheim, New Jersey for the most part kept their heads and persevered for the win. Ideally it wouldn’t be nearly as close as it was last night against an embarrassingly bad team like Chicago, but at least they skated away with the two points.

Fingers Crossed

Late in the third period, Jack Hughes left the ice clutching his arm. After the game Lindy Ruff had this very detailed and insightful update:

So we can only wait and see if Hughes will be well enough to lace up the skates tonight. Given his older brother will be on the other side of the ice, I would imagine he’ll be extra motivated to fight through whatever sort of injury he’s dealing with.

Time To Figure It Out

In case you need a reminder, though I’m sure you don’t, tonight is the second half of a back-to-back and the Devils have been absolutely dreadful in the second half of back-to-backs this season. How bad? 1-6-1 bad.

Out of a possible 16 points, the Devils have managed to collect a meager three of those 16 in these scenarios. New Jersey is actually exactly halfway through their back-to-backs this season, as they play 16 total in 2023-24. That means that right now, the Devils are on pace to record six out of a possible 32 points in games that are the second half of back-to-backs this season. I don’t think I need to tell you that that is completely unacceptable.

Yes Vancouver is a terrific team this season, but enough is enough. Figure out how to win these games. The Devils cannot afford to throw anymore games away, and they certainly can’t afford to flush close to 32 points down the toilet this season. Getting at least one point would be alright, but they really need to get two this evening.

But there is good news though. For those of you already writing off tonight as a loss since it comes as the latter game of a back-to-back, I have this to offer you...

Utter Dominance

In recent years, there have been a few teams that just seem to have the Devils’ number. Some that come to mind are the Washington Capitals (6-3 victory earlier this week notwithstanding), Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, and Winnipeg Jets. The Devils seem to have finally figured out Columbus, but have gone 1-2-0 against Washington this season, and have already lost to the Blues and Jets. Year after year it seems the Devils lose to the Capitals, Blues, and Jets. It would be nice if the shoe was on the other foot for a change and there was a team out there that New Jersey always seems to win against.

Enter Vancouver.

The Devils have won an astonishing 14 of the last 15 games between these two teams. The last time Vancouver beat New Jersey was March 15th, 2022, and before that their last win against the Devils was November 25th, 2014! That was a 2-0 win for Vancouver that day. The goal scorers for the Canucks? Alexandre Burrows and Shawn Matthias. I obviously can’t give you Devils goal scorers for that game, but finding their way onto the box score via penalties taken were Jacob Josefson and Seth Helgeson.

Since the 2015-16 season, there have been twice as many U.S. presidential elections than Canucks wins over the Devils. If I’m going all the way back to the legendary Jacob Josefson and Seth Helgeson era, you know we’re in rarified air. The point is, New Jersey has absolutely dominated the recent head-to-head series against Vancouver, and unless me pointing all this out now serves as some kind of quasi-broadcaster jinx or something, I would expect to see another win for the Devils tonight just based on historical precedent and sheer vibes.

How Has It Been Going In Vancouver Since The Last Matchup?

Pretty good! The Canucks entered the December 5th game against the Devils near the top of the league standings, and they remain there now. After falling to New Jersey, the Canucks went on to win six of their next seven, and have gone 8-2-2 overall.

Vancouver currently sits atop the Pacific Division with 51 points, two points clear of second place Vegas but with one game in hand on the Golden Knights. Things have been going swimmingly for the Canucks so far, and that loss to the Devils was a mere speedbump as they continued to run roughshod over the rest of the league.

The Stars Remain The Stars

Vancouver, first and foremost, is a team led by their stars. That’s not to say they are totally devoid of depth, but the Canucks live and die by how their handful of stars perform. So far so good on that front, as Vancouver’s quartet of leaders have been up to the task.

It starts with J.T. Miller, who is enjoying another productive season with 16 goals and 50(!) points through 38 games. Miller has never reached 100 points in a season (though he came agonizingly close two seasons ago with 99 points), but he’s well on his way to smash through that barrier this year.

Elsewhere, Quinn Hughes is second on the team with 46 points in 28 games, a remarkable number for a defenseman. Elias Pettersson is right on his heels with 45 points, and Brock Boeser is up to 39 points, including a team-leading 24 goals.

After that there’s a bit of a dropoff to Filip Hronek and his 29 points. Certainly not bad, but also not on the same level as the Canucks’ core four. This should be the first, second, and third item on Lindy Ruff’s gameplan for this evening. If he can find a way to stop the Canucks’ big guns, The Devils should be able to win a matchup against the Canucks’ depth players.

To that end, here’s how the Canucks lined up in their last game against the Blues:

Those top two lines are scary, but that bottom six is perfectly beatable.

Your Take

What do you make of tonight’s game? Who on the Canucks will you be keeping an eye on? Who on the Devils do you want to see step up the most? As always, thanks for reading!