Newark — Even head coach Lindy Ruff couldn’t deny Vitek Vanecek’s inadequate performance on Thursday. It’s too bad, too. Injecting Jack Hughes back into the New Jersey Devils lineup seemingly took effect right away and it was wasted by bad goaltending.
From the get-go, the Devils looked like their former selves maintaining puck possession, pressuring offensively, and using their speed to their advantage.
The timing for Jack’s return couldn’t have come at a better time.
Yegor Sharangovich made his return to the Prudential Center for the first time as a member of the Calgary Flames and received a heartfelt ovation from Devils fans. However, it was seemingly the Noah Hanifin show with 18 scouts from 15 different teams present at the Prudential Center Thursday night.
Let’s dive into the Devils’ 5-3 loss to the Flames.
In the last five minutes of the first period, Jesper Bratt fed Ondrej Palat who didn’t miss on an odd-man rush for a 1-0 lead. Before the opening frame could expire, however, Mikael Backlund tied the game heading into the first intermission. The Devils couldn’t hold onto their lead in the second period, however, as Connor Zary poked in a loose puck in the crease to give the Flames a 2-1 lead. The Flames took a two-goal lead on the stick of Kevin Rooney to start the third. However, Nico Hischier, Andrei Kuzmenjko, and Palat (his second) traded goals in the third to make it a one-goal game through the first 18 minutes of the third. Down a goal, Lindy Ruff pulled his goaltender for the extra skater, but Andrew Mangiapane hit the empty net to seal the deal for Calgary.
Vitek Vanecek turned in 24 saves on 28 shots in the loss.
Best Start This Season?
It’s a rhetorical question. The Devils’ first period on Thursday night was undoubtedly their best start of the year.
The Jack Hughes return took little to no time to take effect on the lineup as New Jersey looked as poised and confident as they have all season in the opening frame.
The Devils looked like their 2022-23 selves, possessing the puck for the majority of the period, applying consistent puck pressure, winning their puck battles, and pouring on the offensive pressure against Calgary goaltender Jacob Markstrom.
Although the first period ended in a tie, the Devils certainly haven’t looked like the team we saw in the first period for most of, if not all of 2023-24. The Devils typically play from behind this season. However, in game No. 49, the Devils scored the opening goal of the game for the 14th time this season.
The Devils were lucky to make it out of the second period behind by just a goal.
That’s not to say New Jersey didn’t play well. They kept pace with the Flames trading chances all throughout the middle frame. However, by the end of the second period, goaltending was the difference.
The Devils pressured Markstrom for seven scoring chances, five of them coming in high-danger areas. However, the 34-year-old goaltender was equal to the task of keeping the Devils off the board.
Vanecek couldn’t say the same, however. A low-danger shot by Nazem Kadri trickled by the Devils’ goaltender and lingered in the blue paint. Zary found the loose puck and pushed it past the Devils’ goal line to give the Flames their first lead.
Zary scored in the first four minutes of the second period. For the remaining 16 minutes, the Flames hit four posts, a bit of luck for the Devils to keep the game close, but a bad look for Vanecek who played quite well in the two contests prior to Thursday.
Both Zary’s goal and Mikael Backlund’s goal beat Vanecek from low-danger areas of the ice.
Connor Zary puts the Flames up by one!
📽️: Sportsnet | NHL pic.twitter.com/KMmEA1PoDB
— Robert Munnich (@RingOfFireCGY) February 9, 2024
Then came the third period and Vanecek allowed two low-danger goals to Rooney and Kuzmenko. Rooney’s goal had a literal 1% chance of being scored per MoneyPuck.
Vanecek was solid in his previous five starts, however, he was quite unreliable in a high-stakes game on Thursday against the Flames.
“I thought he had a tough night, tough night in goal,” Ruff explained. “You look at what he faced early on, he didn’t face a lot. It was a tough night for him.”
Vanecek finished with a -1.11 goals saved above expected.
First Line Supremacy
According to Ruff, “We need some players to be better.”
He most definitely was not speaking of Ondrej Palat, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt. The first-line trio had a dominant game off the back of Bratt’s three helpers, two goals from Palat, and a goal and assist each from Hischier, although Nico scored short-handed. Regardless, it was a forced turnover by Bratt in the Devils’ end. The point stands, they were great all night.
The Hischier line received the tough matchups. Despite facing the Flames’ toughest deployment, the Devils’ first line found a way to out-chance their opponent 8-1, converting on those chances twice.
The Devils’ first line played a game worthy of a win.
Perhaps the Flames can just leave Markstrom in New Jersey?
Hughes’ Return a Mixed Bag
In Hughes’ first game back, it was a mixed bag of results. Jack didn’t find the scoresheet, but his presence in the lineup seemingly boosted everyone else from the start.
His line didn’t play too shabby either. Hughes, Tyler Toffoli, and Alexander Holtz created a bunch of scoring chances and were on the positive side of an 8-6 scoring chance differential.
However, Ruff mixed up the lines halfway through the second period and Hughes ended up as a minus-3. In 20:24, he registered just three shots.
Ruff explained after the game that there were things he did and didn’t like in Jack’s return to the lineup.
“I thought Jack had a good couple of (defensive) zone plays,” Ruff explained. “As a centerman, he has to be more responsible on two of the goals. He’s just coming back in, he really didn’t practice with us. Maybe that hurt him. I thought his energy was good, but some of his responsibilities he was a little off on.”