After 41 games, the Devils are firmly in the playoff picture and contending for a division title. Things are looking up for New Jersey as the playoffs rapidly approach.
What a change from last season. The season is halfway over and the Devils are second in the division and on pace for 110 points, which would be a franchise record. The Devils have won three of the last four games and have points in five of their last six games. Last Night, New Jersey went to Carolina and came back from a two goal deficit to beat the division leading Hurricanes in regulation.
One of the biggest issues the Devils have had in recent weeks has been their lack of depth scoring. They had been relying far too much on Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier to produce the vast majority of the offense. However, that changed last night when Jesper Boqvist had two points (1G 1A) and Dawson Mercer had three points (2G 1A) to lead the Devils back from what looked like certain defeat. Dawson Mercer’s first goal was a great individual effort by him. He took the puck behind the net and quickly made a move to the front to jam the puck past Kochetkov and into the net. He didn’t hold the puck looking to make a pass for a perfect shot, he just used his quickness to get the puck to the net as soon as possible, surprised the goalie, and it paid off. Then just 18 seconds later, Jesper Boqvist took a pass from Mercer below the circles in the offensive zone and made a quick move to the net to slide the puck past Kochetkov. It was great to see and honestly a little frustrating that Boqvist can’t make plays like that more often. He’s been a passenger on this team lately, not really creating anything himself and the Devils need more production out of him. Hopefully this is the start of him turning it around.
Dawson Mercer wasn’t just satisfied with a goal and assist last night, he wanted more and he got more. Mid way through a tie game on the road against the top team in the division, Dawson Mercer out classed every Hurricane player on the ice. He raced through the neutral zone, picked up the puck, split the defenders, made a beautiful backhand to forehand move to keep the puck away from Carolina defenseman Dylan Coghlan and slide it past Kochetkov to give the Devils a 4-3 lead. Mercer now has 25 points on the season, putting him on pace for 50 points. If he can find a little more consistency and avoid the extended streaks without a goal that he’s been prone to have, he can be one of the Devils most valuable pieces in a playoff run. Mercer plays well in all three zones of the ice, can play either center or wing, and can be a dangerous scorer at times. Mercer is only 21 years old and in just his second NHL season so I believe that he will continue to develop into a reliable and consistent top six forward in the very near future.
The Devils biggest issue by far last season was goaltending. When Tom Fitzgerald acquired Vitek Vanecek at the draft, many people, myself included, doubted that it would be enough to fix the Devils issues in net. However, Fitzgeald now looks like a genius because Vanecek has been a godsend for the Devils this year. He has taken a firm hold of the number one job and is playing absolutely fantastic. The Devils offense is averaging about 3.5 goals scored per game this year so all they really need from Vanecek is to hold the opposition to three goals or less to win on most nights and he does that. His goals against average and save percentage are both light years ahead of what any of the Devils seven goals were able to do last year. Having strong goaltending can give the team more confidence in front of them. The Devils skaters dont have to feel pressure to play perfect defensive hockey because they know they have a solid goalie back there to bail them out of at least some of their mistakes. This was not at ll the case last year with Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond in net. The Devils are in a tight race for first place in the division halfway through the season due in large part to the reliable goaltending of Vitek Vanecek.
What a difference a year makes. At he halfway point last year, the Devils were in 7th place in the division and already looking forward to the offseason. This years at the halfway point, we can realistically start talking about the Devils being buyers at the deadline to try and load up for a playoff run. Let’s also not forget that the Devils are still one of the five youngest teams in the NHL with our top 2 centers locked up for the next 5 years. The present and future are both very bright for the New Jersey Devils. You can follow me on Twitter at PatBoooooth.