I hadn’t heard this call of Jack Hughes’ first NHL goal till now since I was at the game. Have to admit it was some call by Cangi…that’s #1 for #1! Well Hughes does wear #86 but everyone knows what he meant, being that Hughes was picked #1 overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. In a weird coincidence Hughes’ first goal came two years to the day of fellow Devils #1 overall pick Nico Hischier scoring his first NHL goal. Fortunately in both cases the team won the game, though it certainly wasn’t easy today against Vancouver in a matinee.
Ironically if it wasn’t for the special circumstances surrounding the game – Hughes’ first being the only goal of the game, and playing against his brother Quinn (a defenseman on the Canucks) – it would have been Mackenzie Blackwood getting a deserved first star and post-game ice interview with Erika Wachter for a 25-save shutout. After a second straight win following six losses to begin the season, I doubt anyone cares about who gets the credit or the military jacket the team’s passing out for their unsung hero of the game – although certainly Blackwood’s strong peformances the last two games pretty much ensures it’s his net for the near future at least.
It’s nice to be able to recap positives for a change…really the last few days feels like a reset on the season given everything that’s gone on. With the aformentioned six-game losing streak bringing things to DEFCON 2 in Newark, assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald came down to the bench earlier this week, ostensibly at the request of coach John Hynes but few really believe that cover story, or that there wasn’t more to it given the staff has come under fire for the team’s poor start. However, I doubt the coaches were the only people in the organization put on notice by GM Ray Shero.
Certainly having the assistant GM behind the bench puts everyone on probation – coaches and players alike. Although things certainly aren’t perfect, clearly the last two games have been an improvement in all areas. Particularly in this team’s play with a third-period lead which had been nothing short of craptacular before the last two games. I couldn’t see Thursday’s game, but judging by the shot total and result obviously they played much better in the third period there, and today for the most part they managed to keep the third period low event until the final ninety seconds when three icings and a couple of saves that stopped play drew out the suspense.
Of course it remains to be seen whether the problems that have plagued this team throughout the first two weeks of the season will fix themselves long-term or whether things just look better because we’re in the ‘everyone’s on their best behavior because the assistant principal’s in the classroom’ part of the semester. Tactically there does seem like a little more structure and certainly the power play actually looked like an NHL power play this afternoon, especially on Hughes’ goal. Even the penalty kill – which had mostly been awful this season – came up huge today on several straight Canuck power plays in the middle of the game.
Can’t complain about the defense other than whatever the heck Damon Severson’s first five minutes were – when he committed a penalty, should have been called for a second on his next shift, and then gave up a breakaway recklessly wandering out to nowhere. Honestly if the defense wasn’t already down one top six guy in Will Butcher it might have been benchable. Maybe someone said something to him on the bench because he clamped down after that and cut out the crazy stuff. Obviously the return of captain Andy Greene from IR helped offset the loss of Butcher on the blueline and helped stabilize the penalty kill.
Offensively the Devils are running in danger of being a two-line team, and that’s if everyone was healthy. Hischier missed his second straight game with a bruised rib but still contributed to the good feeling around the team in recent days by signing a seven-year extension. Not that he was going anywhere in the next few years regardless, but it’s still nice to get that long-term commitment locked up and in a cap league you always want to know cost certainty and not play it year-to-year with arbitration and load up on bridge deals. He should be back by Friday, which astonishingly is the Devils’ only game in the next ten days. I’d call it a Ranger-like streak since they’ve had a similar early vacation. In a lot of ways it’s great timing for it though, given the addition to the staff and polishing up of the team’s game that it needs, plus they can at least sit on two wins in a row and feel better about themselves than they did at 0-4-2.
My biggest concern from today’s game is the dissapearing line of Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt. Offensively they’re both skilled wingers but defensively have been so bad (particularly Gusev) that the staff obviously can’t trust them in tight games late, which we’ve had a lot of. Their icetime has sunk to the level of fourth-liners but the team is going to need more from both sooner or later. As good of a player as Blake Coleman is and as good of a guy as Wayne Simmonds is (see below) they really should be third-liners, not second-liners. Simmonds hasn’t gotten his offense going yet in his first couple weeks as a Devil, eventually they will need more scoring than just the top line plus Nico.
At least the team is still together as evidenced by the melee that ensued late in the second period when a wayward Alex Edler elbow sent Coleman flying (threatening to knock out even more teeth after he’s already had some dental work this season), then Mirco Mueller jumped in and wound up in a tussle with Brandon Sutter earning a plexiglass fist-bump from Simmonds after the fact.
It’ll take more than ‘the brotherhood’ (another staff saying) to keep this team pulling in the right direction though. Especially when they resume facing teams that aren’t rebuilding themselves. Obviously the Devils are going to have to pound on teams like the Rangers and Canucks to get out of a hole, but eventually they’re also going to have to up their play to beat the big boys. It’ll be a long wait till Friday for the next game but at least the cloud surrounding this team has gone away for the moment. We’re almost at winning streak territory.
They got the win today…now to get one on Friday and make it a winning streak.