Veteran winger Tomas Tatar's breakaway goal was all the scoring the Devils needed to close out the home pre-season schedule with a 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins. New acquisition Goaltender Vitek Vanecek made Tatar's goal stand up by saving all 24 shots he faced on the way to the shutout victory. The Devils controlled play much of the game and were unfortunate to not walk away with a larger tally as they rang at least four shots off the iron throughout the game.
Coach Lindy Ruff put the victory in perspective, "[Y]ou take it for what it is, our structure was good, and I felt there was probably six or seven goals out there we just missed our chances."
The Devils' pre-season focus on their play away from the puck was evident as they were able to control the tempo and keep the puck in the offensive zone for much of the game.
Ruff was impressed with the play of Vanecek, "He's making the big save at the key time of the game...he showed really good composure." Vanecek followed fellow goalie Mackenzie Blackwood by earning the first star of the game. Honors that certainly never happened in back-to-back games last season when the Devils posted the 31st best save percentage in a league of 32 teams.
The play of Vanecek and Blackwood validates the sense of optimism that has permeated the team through training camp. Vanecek stopped Craig Smith on a breakaway from point blank range and saved several deflected shots without leaving dangerous rebounds.
Ruff observed, "[T]here was a couple of tip plays where he was able to track the puck and make the save, you get those saves and you have a really good chance to win." The stellar goaltending in conjunction with improved defensive structure and focus has manifested itself in a 4-1 record and a total of only six goals against in those five games.
The lone goal of the game came courtesy of a tremendous stretch pass from Defenseman Michael Vukojevic that led Tatar in alone on former Devil Keith Kinkaid. Tatar calmly deked Kinkaid and shoveled the puck into the top of the net over Kinkaid's right shoulder. The play was indicative of Tatar's play this pre-season. He flashed energy, pace, and competed along the walls to earn loose pucks.
Tatar though believes the team remains a work in progress. "I think we did a lot of good stuff today. We could definitely score more than one goal; we will go watch the video and correct it and move forward."
Tossed a line to Tuna. 🎣
💻: https://t.co/O1G6vcexJY pic.twitter.com/b46KbA81gh
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 3, 2022
Tatar's energy seemed to be contagious as it rubbed off on his line mates Dawson Mercer and Alex Holtz who also had stellar games. In his second year with the team Mercer has shown confidence in playing a more physical game along the boards and below the goal line. Holtz was unfortunate on multiple shots, but he has impressed with his play off the puck and tonight demonstrated that his success was not solely a product of playing alongside Jack Hughes and Ondrej Palat.
Holtz mustered nine shot attempts and tied for the team lead in takeaways without a single giveaway. At this point in the season almost nobody feels fully comfortable until the final cuts are made but Holtz has shown that he has improved his skating, and his work along the boards to a point where he is no longer just a shooter and that he belongs on the opening night roster.
The Devils are in the midst of a vital stretch for those still trying to make the team. If Holtz has cemented himself as part of the opening night roster it would leave at most three roster spots open with five players fighting to earn them. At the moment it seems amongst the forwards that Hughes, Holtz, Palat, Hischier, Bratt, Sharangovich, Wood, Haula, Bastian, Tatar, and Mercer are safely on the bus to Philadelphia on October 13. That likely leaves McLeod, Johnsson, Zetterlund, and Boqvist battling for the final three spots with an outside chance for Clarke, Foote, or Thompson (if healthy).
Ruff has continuously given Andreas Johnsson opportunities to demonstrate he belongs on the roster, but the veteran winger has not yet solidified his place in the team as he continues to miss chances. The failure to capitalize was most evident tonight when Johnsson passed up a breakaway opportunity to leave a drop pass with no teammate in the area.
"He's battling hard to prove that he should have an opportunity to make this team. I think inside the games he's had some struggles." With both Boqvist and Zetterlund no longer being exempt from waivers General manager Tom Fitzgerald will have a difficult decision to make in deciding if waiting for Johnsson to play to his ability is worth the risk of exposing Boqvist or Zetterlund.
What's Next For The Devils
The Devils return to the ice to face the Islanders on Thursday at UBS Arena before finishing the pre-season Saturday night in Boston.
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