Newark — The New Jersey Devils might be crowned the “Comeback Kings” by season’s end.
On the sticks of Luke Hughes and Timo Meier, the Devils secured two points tonight in their 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
If you’re a fan of conspiracy theories, then Nico Daws backing up Vitek Vanecek on Wednesday is perfect for those in tinfoil hats. The Devils recalled the German goaltender ahead of their tilt with the Jackets on Wednesday night. Head coach Lindy Ruff dressed him in favor of Akira Schmid despite the latter collecting a win in New Jersey’s previous tilt with Columbus at Nationwide Arena.
But enough about the backup goaltender. The Devils won a thriller in overtime as Damon Severson returned to The Rock for the first time since departing via trade this summer. He and the Blue Jackets certainly looked like they were going to come away with two points. That was until the final five minutes of the third period.
Let’s dive into New Jersey’s 4-3 overtime victory over Columbus.
Despite a plethora of early pressure from the Devils to open the first period, the Blue Jackets scored first on the stick of Jake Bean. The Devils’ script this year has them surrendering early leads, however, it also has them answering back pretty often. That’s exactly what they did when Ondrej Palat received a pass on the rush and found twine to tie the game. Midway through the second period, Columbus hemmed New Jersey in their own end. Unable to clear the puck from danger, Justin Danforth gave the Jackets a 2-1 lead. The first three-quarters of the final frame went scoreless.
With the clocking running down, Dawson Mercer tied the game at two, however, Columbus quickly regained the lead on a goal by Yegor Chinakhov. In the final minute and a half of the third period with New Jersey’s net empty, Luke went end-to-end and tied the game at three and sent it to overtime. Kent Johnson turned the puck over in the offensive end and sprung Meier for a breakaway in overtime. He beat Elvis Merzlikins to secure the extra point for New Jersey.
Vanecek made 26 saves on 29 shots. Merzlikins stopped 31 pucks on 35 shots.
If nothing else, the Devils are a resilient bunch.
For much of this game, New Jersey didn’t own a lead until they won the game. They answered goals by the Blue Jackets three times on the sticks of Palat, Mercer, and Hughes. Of the three, the most impressive came in the final minute and a half when Luke went coast-to-coast, sending the game to overtime.
LUKE HUGHES COAST-TO-COAST! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/R784hU0TNj
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The Devils rookie defenseman didn’t have it in his mind to score on the sequence. Instead, it kind of just developed that way.
“I just tried to get the speed going and see what happens,” Luke explained. “I tried to make the right play.”
24 & Counting
Despite a strong start to the opening frame for New Jersey, the Devils can’t seemingly dig their way out of giving up early leads.
Brendan Gaunce received a pass from Alexander Texier in the slot and put a solid shot on Vanecek. The Devils goaltender made the initial save, however, he couldn’t control the rebound kicking the rubber out to Bean at the right circle who scored on the follow-up shot.
— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights & News (@HockeyDaily365) December 28, 2023
New Jersey’s defensive effort on the shift was problematic two-fold. Four Devils skaters on one side of the ice left just Nathan Bastian to defend against the rebound chance on Vanecek’s left side. Additionally, all five New Jersey skaters were caught puck-watching, including Bastian, which allowed Bean to slide behind the defense and into scoring position.
The goaltending is to blame for the sequence, too. If Vanecek isn’t going to control the rebound from the initial shot, the follow-up chance was certainly saveable. It’s not like he was asked to go post to post as he made the initial save at the center of his crease.
It’s the 24th time in 33 games the Devils have allowed the first goal to the opposition.
Regardless, the Devils played well in the first period despite the blunder that led to Columbus’ goal. They led the 5-on-5 scoring chance differential 10-5 by the end of the first period, accruing a 61.54 CF% and 75.41 xGF%, according to Natural Stat Trick. If only they could figure out how to score first.
Lazy Power Play Continues to Falter
We knew the Devils’ power play wasn’t going to continue to cash in the way it did earlier this season. However, the regression the New Jersey man advantage is going through is mighty concerning.
The Devils drew three penalties against the Blue Jackets. When New Jersey was swarming at 5-on-5, they essentially were goalied by Merzlikins through the first 50 minutes of play. It seemed like a power play was just what they needed to pile on the momentum they built.
However, once they were finally on the man advantage, the Devils struggled to enter the offensive zone, couldn’t maintain puck possession, and barely put pucks on net through the first two-man advantages. The first two power plays generated just one shot each.
The personnel on the Jack Hughes unit looked lost through the first two chances. Too often, they attempted to pass pucks while crossing over the blue line to gain zone entry and it was broken up by Columbus’ defense.
The third and final power play was better, but it still couldn’t get the job done.
New Jersey created five scoring chances during 5-on-4 play and gave up one to the Blue Jackets penalty killers. There’s too much talent on the Devils for their power play to be faltering the way it is.
Ruff indicated following the victory that it might be time to switch up some personnel on the power play units as it’s been too stale.
Positive Vanecek Performance
Vanecek has been playing better in between the pipes lately and this was a performance that deserved a win. The 27-year-old netminder was bailed out by a post or two. But, they say you have to be good to be lucky and lucky to be good.
Vanecek made 18 saves on 21 shots at even strength. However, it was his work on the penalty kill that was most impressive.
The Devils goaltender was one of the main reasons why the Blue Jackets went 0/3 on the power play. Vanecek made a perfect seven saves on seven shots working on the penalty kill.
While short a man, Vanecek made 1.29 goals saved above expected.
Vanecek took a shot up high that seemingly knocked the wind out of him. However, he stayed in the game and fought through the 60-plus minute affair and secured the victory for New Jersey.
“(Vitek) played really good tonight,” Luke Hughes stated. “He’s a big part of our team. We need him to keep playing well. He gave me a but of scare when he went down there for a second. I’m glad he’s okay.”
Through his last five games, Vanecek quietly has put together a 3-1-1 record with a .904 SV% and 2.58 GAA. They’ll need more of this from the Czech netminder to work their way back into playoff position which is certainly in reach.
- Timo Meier’s overtime goal was New Jersey’s 12th comeback win of the season.
- Meier now has four goals in his last three games.
- Jack Hughes collected one assist despite putting eight shots on net.