If anything could make fans of the New Jersey Devils feel better after learning Jack Hughes is week-to-week, it’s certainly collecting two points.
Thankfully, New Jersey was able to do just that rolling into Chicago on Sunday to take on Connor Bedard and the Blackhawks. Let’s dive into New Jersey’s 4-2 victory over Chicago.
Devils Quick Wrap
New Jersey found themselves down 1-0 early when former Devil Taylor Hall scored first for the Blackhawks. However, the Devils and the NHL’s best power play went to work and Dawson Mercer scored his first goal of the season. After receiving the recall from the Utica Comets, Max Willman capitalized on a turnover, beating Arvid Soderblom on a breakaway. The second period went scoreless, but the Devils quickly added an insurance marker in the third thanks to Curtis Lazar. Ryan Donato cut New Jersey’s lead midway through the third period, however, Michael McLeod hit the empty net to secure the Devils’ victory. Vitek Vanecek made 32 saves on 34 shots. Soderblom turned in 36 saves on 39 shots.
Dawg Got his Bone
As a result of losing their top two centers, head coach Lindy Ruff turned to Dawson Mercer to fill the first-line center role.
Through 10 games in the regular season, Mercer had yet to secure a single point. It came as a bit of a surprise considering his breakout 2022-23 season. However, on Sunday night in Chicago, Mercer finally broke through.
The Devils went to the power play in the first period down 1-0. Mercer, part of the second unit that featured Dougie Hamilton, Alexander Holtz, Erik Haula, and Nathan Bastian, received a pass at the Blackhawks goal line from Haula and with little pressure, made a power move to the net. Mercer rifled the puck over the far shoulder of Soderblom, beating the Blackhawks netminder’s glove side.
Dawg’s been hungry. pic.twitter.com/6PhrCMIi7k
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 6, 2023
Decision-making has been what’s hindered the third-year pro, keeping him off the scoresheet for 10 straight games. This time, there was no hesitation from Mercer as he saw his opportunity and ran with it. More of that from Mercer will be necessary under the current circumstances in New Jersey.
Where There’s a Will(man), There’s a Way
Who needs Jack when you have Willman?
No, but in all seriousness, there was no better time for Willman to score his first goal as a Devil. The 28-year-old fringe NHLer has been impressive in his tenure with New Jersey thus far. He forced the Devils’ hand during the preseason to offer him a contract, he’s been a top contributor with the Comets, and in the first period in his first game with New Jersey, he gave the Devils their first lead to help swing momentum New Jersey’s way.
Where there’s a Will(man), there’s a way. pic.twitter.com/uRUXT0E8VS
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 6, 2023
The best part about Willman’s goal was how he chose the simplest route. Kevin Korchinski fumbled the puck at New Jersey’s blue line. Willman, with speed, picked the puck up and went straight for Chicago’s goal, depositing it five-hole on Soderblom with no extra fanciness in order to put the puck in the net.
Willman was incredibly effective all night. After he chipped in a goal, he forechecked well, defended, won puck battles, and even drew a penalty.
It’s like everyone’s fifth-grade math teacher would say.
K.I.S.S — Keep it simple, stupid!
Big Bucks Stepped Up
When the Devils needed them the most, those who make the big bucks in New Jersey stepped up.
The Devils are fortunate to be able to ice elite talent such as Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt in the absence of Hughes and Hischier. As two of the Devils’ highest-paid forwards, Meier and Bratt drove play all night. According to Natural Stat Trick, each was well on the positive side of the chance share 18-9 and 21-16 respectively.
Throw Ondrej Palat in that mix as well. The 32-year-old veteran forward was part of the Devils’ top line creating chances all night. As a $6 million per year player, Palat is expected to make an impact every night. He certainly did on Sunday creating 19 chances for while on the ice for just seven chances against.
The trio of Palat, Mercer, and Meier had an excellent game at 5-on-5, driving the vast majority of play, accruing a 76.19 CF%.
There was one blip on the radar for the trio, losing a puck battle in their own end that Donato cashed in on. However, if the trio continues to play like that, they’ll be incredibly effective night in and night out.
Vanecek Continues Strong Play
The Devils might not have come away with two points had it not been for Vanecek. The Devils goaltender made a handful of really big saves all night, including one on Tyler Johnson that will certainly receive save of the year votes.
Vitek Vanecek with a diving save
— Everything Hockey (@EHClothing) November 6, 2023
Vanecek ended the night by making 32 saves on 34 shots. Chicago easily could have scored three or four more times had it not been for a couple of big saves by the Devils’ netminder. Vanecek ended the night with a 0.44 goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck.
Now more than ever, New Jersey needs strong goaltending. The good news is Vanecek and Akira Schmid each turned in impressive performances in back-to-back games.