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Yukon Territories

4 Takeaways From New Jersey Devils’ 4-3 Loss to the Bruins

If it felt like watching a 2021-22 New Jersey Devils game last night, you wouldn’t be wrong in your assessment. The Devils got off to a strong start and took an early lead, but ultimately fell to a less-than-stellar display from Mackenzie Blackwood at the net. A sloppy play in front of Blackwood in the second half didn’t help, and he certainly wasn’t at fault for every Boston Bruins goal. Here are four takeaways from the 4-3 loss to the Bruins early in the NHL’s Christmas break.

Devils Need Better by Blackwood

There’s no denying that Blackwood was great in the Devils’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers just 48 hours earlier. He made 33/35 saves and stopped almost two goals above expectations. Last night, however, was practically a 180. He made just 14 stops on 18 shots and conceded 2.18 goals above expectations. Head coach Lindy Ruff would end up pulling Blackwood early in the third period, replacing him with Vitek Vanecek.

The Bruins’ first goal of the game was a deflection by Patrice Bergeron, which wasn’t Blackwood’s fault, but the Bruins’ two middle goals were problematic. Blackwood had a bad giveaway when he played the puck from behind his net on Boston’s second goal. He tried to send the puck around the boards, but he handcuffed Damon Severson. David Pastrnak eventually landed possession but didn’t put much on the shot for Blackwood to stop.

Only a few minutes later, the Bruins conquered the offensive zone from the charge. Pastrnak got the puck and pulled off a toe drag that few players in the NHL can pull off a goal. Still, Blackwood was well out of position, leaving Pastrnak with much of the blocker side open for him to shoot. Ultimately, those goals cost the Devils a game they deservedly won.

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the five-for-five win, the Devils attempted the Bruins 65-41 and controlled 57.24 percent of expected goals. They hit irons a couple of times and still managed to get three marks thanks to a late push in the third period in which they scored twice to put it 4-3. There’s no denying that they were the better team.

Ruff also criticized his goalkeeper in his post-game press conference. I wouldn’t say he was tough, but he did concede that the team needed more from Blackwood and there were a few goals he could have salvaged. To his credit, Blackwood took the blame even during his media crush. But that doesn’t change the fact that the team needs more of him to move forward.

See also: Devils’ Blackwood under pressure in exchange for injury

Latest News & Highlights

The Devils are no longer a lottery team. They’re 22-10-2 and six points on a playoff berth going into the Christmas break. If Blackwood doesn’t consistently perform well after the few days off, general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to try and shake up his goalkeeping tandem. He must either call Akira Schmid back or make a trade to stabilize the situation. Because missing the playoffs because of goalies would be unacceptable given the way the team started the season.

Tatar helped the devils get back inside

Even if the Devils lost a close game, there was a lot of good things to take away last night. One player who emerged was Tomáš Tatar, whose goal kick-started the Devils’ late rally with a 4-2 lead. The Devils controlled 76.97 percent of expected goals with him on the ice in five-for-five and outplayed the Bruins 11-3, including an 8-2 lead on dangerous chances.

Tatar isn’t a flashy player, but he does many things that make him a high-end game driver at five-on-five. That’s one of the reasons he worked well with Nico Hischier last season – plus. With Ondrej Palát about to return from groin surgery, he may find himself completing Tatar and Hischier’s unit to help the Devils overcome some of their shooting problems.

Holtz showed promise

Although Alexander Holtz is likely to fall victim to the numbers game after Palát’s return, he arguably had his best game of the season last night. He again had limited ice time (7:46 at five for five), but he still led the Devils skaters with a 92.07 expected goals percentage. He also finished that score with four shot attempts, two shots on goal and one chance on goal.

Alexander Holtz New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Alexander Holtz (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Holtz still needs to pick up some speed, but his game is making progress, even if it’s still a bit inconsistent. It would be nice to see Ruff give Holtz a chance alongside Hischier or Jack Hughes at some point, especially since the Devils have been struggling to score lately. Holtz has a high-end shot, and if he uses it with an elite playmaker like Hughes or a facilitator like Hischier, he could get the most of it.

Free Mercer

A line combo that Ruff used that I’m not a fan of is Miles Wood, Michael McLeod and Dawson Mercer. Wood and McLeod have plenty of experience playing together, but putting Mercer alongside them seems like an abuse of his best qualities. It showed in their five-a-side numbers as they had a 26.57 expected goals percentage, the only Devils line to end underwater in that stat.

Related: Devils’ Mercer quietly impresses in season two

Mercer has gone without a point in his last six games since being taken off Hughes’ wing and has just nine shots on target. After the break, Ruff needs to bring Mercer back into the top six, preferably alongside Hughes and Jesper Bratt. The Devils have a 57.16 expected goals percentage this season with Mercer and Hughes on the ice while beating teams 16-10 and controlling 63.89 percent of high-risk chances.

Sure, the trio of Erik Haula, Hughes and Bratt dominated five-for-five, but there’s probably another layer to that combination with Mercer at their side. That’s not to say Haula didn’t play well; He has. But Mercer’s chemistry with Hughes at this point is undeniable. With the team’s bottom six currently struggling to score, Haula should be moved down to strengthen their depth until Palát returns:

  • Tatar – Hischier – Yegor Sharanovich
  • Bratt-Hughes-Mercer
  • Wood – Haula – Fabian Zetterlund
  • Jesper Boqvist-McLeod-Holtz

Devil’s Quick Hits

  • You’ll notice that I placed Sharangovich in the top six above. When he gets hot, he usually gets hot. He scored his second goal in as many games last night and is now 10th in 34 competitions – a pace of 24 goals in 82 games. He finished with an 88.07 expected goals percentage in five for five, the second straight strong game he had. It might make more sense to pair him with Hughes and Mercer as they have a solid track record together. But regardless, he also needs to be in the top six when he comes out of the break.

Yegor Sharangovich New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils winger Yegor Sharangovich (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
  • Although Zetterlund has released very strong numbers alongside Tatar and Hischier, it may be time to end this experiment. He’s gone his last nine games without a point, which obviously isn’t good enough to justify playing alongside Hischier. There are points up in his game, but for now he would be better served in the bottom six alongside Wood and McLeod or Wood and Haula.
  • Nikita Okhotiuk played in his first NHL game of the 2022-23 season and had a very solid game. He finished with a 66.67 Corsi percentage and an 88.77 expected goal percentage in 14:03 in five on five. With Ryan Graves out for the time being through injury, the Devils Okhotiuk need to get up and eat for a few minutes. For one game at least, he’s shown he could be capable of it.

The Devils are off for the next four days before a rematch against the Bruins on December 28 at the Prudential Center. Have a safe and happy holiday and see you on the other side once the NHL Christmas break is over in a few days.

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