Manhattan, N.Y. — The New Jersey Devils hopped on the train to Manhattan to visit the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Via the split-squad games Monday night, the Devils are coming off two quick preseason wins. A new group of skaters took on the Rangers Thursday night.
New Jersey got off to a fast start, outshooting their opposition 8-0 in the first seven and a half minutes of the game. The Rangers fought back at the halfway mark, forcing goaltender Akira Schmid to make some strong saves to keep the game tied at null. In the closing moments of the first period, Simon Nemec threaded a needle to Tyler Toffoli who beat Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin five hole.
The Rangers turned the tide in the second period outshooting the Devils 15-9. Schmid exited the game so Erik Kallgren could get some preseason reps. However, the first shot he saw at 9:47 of the second period beat Kallgren and the Rangers tied the game on the stick of Erik Gustafsson.
The remainder of the second period went scoreless. However, the Devils quickly opened the third. Louis Domingue relieved Shesterkin after two periods of play. 26 seconds into the final frame, Kevin Bahl dished a puck to Jesper Bratt 2on1 and the Swedish forward beat Domingue over his shoulder.
Kallgren settled down in the third period and finished the game strong making 19 saves on 21 shots. Michael McLeod hit the empty net to make it 3-1. Brennan Othman scored late to bring it within 3-2 but New Jersey held on for the win.
Graeme Clarke’s Defense Could Use Some Work
Graeme Clarke is one of the Devils’ prospects looking to claim a roster spot following the preseason. The 22-year-old forward had an impressive breakout season with the Utica Comets in the 2022-23 season. The former third-round draft pick in 2019 scored 25 goals and 33 assists for 58 points. He led the Comets in all three categories.
In this summer’s Prospect Challenge, Clarke looked like one of the Devils’ more robust prospects, scoring a handful of goals and controlling the play while on the ice.
He’s come into camp determined to prove there’s a spot for him on the NHL roster. However, Thursday night indicated that his defensive game could use some polishing.
The NHL isn’t a developmental league. Clarke is a gifted offensive player who knows how to fill the net and create offense. However, a couple of defensive mishaps in the Devils’ end on Thursday almost cost New Jersey a couple of goals. In one instance, a loose puck in front of Schmid almost found the back of the net after Clarke tried, yet failed to clear the zone. Later, Clarke attempted a cross-ice pass from the wall in the Devils’ end. The puck was intercepted, however, Schmid bailed Clarke out again.
“I think they have to understand that when the pressure is on, you got to protect pucks,” Head Coach Lindy Ruff explained. “If you expose them, or you don’t keep the body between you and the opposition, bad things can happen. A lot of it is winning wall battles. It’s a lot different than playing in the American League and they came down the walls hard. They pressured the puck real hard. You’ve got to make good decisions. It’s a good lesson, it was a good game to play in for a lot of the young guys.”
Clarke had his moments offensively but it was pretty apparent on Thursday that he still needs work in the defensive zone. He’ll be better suited to work on that in Utica.
Strong Performance by Akira Schmid
The Devils’ hot start had Schmid watching all alone from the opposite end of the ice for a while. However, the Rangers eventually pushed back and ended the first period with eight shots.
New Jersey’s youth turned a number of pucks over in their own end. Although a part of that youth, Schmid bailed his teammates out making a number of strong saves to keep the Blueshirts off the board.
The tides changed in the second period as it was all Rangers to start. Kevin Bahl took an interference penalty while the Rangers were pressuring in the offensive zone. Despite being outshot 10-1 just under 12 minutes into the second frame, Schmid stopped all pucks in his direction. His most impressive save came against Alex Belzile on a breakaway chance. Schmid stuck with the Rangers prospect and made a nice pad save.
His lone blemish wasn’t even really his fault. A turnover in the offensive end by Nemec turned into an odd-man rush the other way. They didn’t score, but the Rangers hit the post.
Erik Kallgren entered the game halfway through the second period. Schmid ended his night making a perfect 21 saves on 21 shots.
Ruff was adamant that New Jersey is going to need both of their goaltenders all season. Schmid’s strong outing is a good omen heading into October.
Kevin Bahl and John Marino Have Impressive First Showing
The Devils’ shutdown defensive pairing last season was Ryan Graves and John Marino. This season, it’s expected that Bahl will fill the shoes Graves left via free agency for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bahl has been mightily impressive since the opening of training camp. He’s shown an improved quickness on his feet and in his decision-making. He hasn’t been afraid to step up in the play as the fourth man on the offensive. He’s even had the confidence to carry the puck and carry it well. Defensively, he’s been tough to get around and his stick-on-stick defense has been quite good. As for his physicality, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman has utilized his large frame to separate pucks from bodies while ensuring to keep himself in position. It’s been an impressive preseason for the 23-year-old.
As for Marino, he’s carried over what he provided last season and then some. He’s logging the most minutes among Devils skaters while matching up against the opposition’s best players and keeping them off the score sheet. It does look like the 26-year-old has a little more confidence carrying the puck, however. The Devils aren’t starving for it, but maybe there’s a little more than the 18 points he provided last season.
On Thursday night, Ruff put the duo of Bahl and Marino together for the first time in the preseason. They were one of the few Devils players on the positive side of the advanced analytics, leading New Jersey in both Corsi-for and expected-goals percentage.
On their first outing together, Ruff said, “I thought they were solid. I think Kevin had a real good game and I thought Johnny, again, is defending against the top lines and did a nice job for us tonight.”
It was just their first outing in a preseason game, but the duo of Bahl and Marino should seamlessly transition in Graves’ departure. There’s even the likelihood that Bahl makes them better.
- Luke Hughes looked fine in his first (ever) preseason contest. For the most part, he went unnoticed in a good way as it appears he’s still finding his legs. He did pull out a nice move or two in the offensive zone.
- Bratt and Jack Hughes each have four points in two preseason games so far.
- Toffoli-Hughes-Bratt are creating lots of offense. They’ll be fun to watch all season.
- Tyce Thompson has had a strong preseason. He’s been forechecking pretty well and providing opportunities on offense. He’s a bubble roster candidate at this point.