Hughes led Devils get litmus test against Islanders

The Devils are off to a good start in this shortened 56-game season. With second-year center Jack Hughes leading the way with six points (2-4-6) including a statement two goal, assist game in a 4-3 win over the Rangers on Martin Luther King Day, he looks much better than his rookie season. The improvement in strength and skating has been noticeable for the ’19 top pick. It could be a significant breakout year for the Devils’ top gun.

With Hughes centering a cohesive top scoring line with Kyle Palmieri and promising Russian rookie Yegor Sharangovich, it looks like the Devils could surprise some people. They definitely have more structure under proven NHL coach Lindy Ruff. Even if it got dicey late at MSG due to penalty trouble and the ice being tilted, they bent but didn’t break to improve to 2-0-1 versus the Bruins and Rangers. Five out of six points earned.

Mackenzie Blackwood is a big reason for the good start. He was up against it on Monday night. Despite facing 50 shots including 21 in the third period, Blackwood stood up to the challenge to make 47 saves in the one goal victory. He’s started all three games and posted a 1.90 goals-against-average (GAA) with a .948 save percentage. It translates to 109 of 115 shots stopped. The only even strength goal he’s allowed came in the third period versus the Rangers when Filip Chytil beat him on a rebound. The other five have come on special teams including four power play and one shorthanded. If he can continue to consistently stop the puck, then the Devils should be in a lot of games.

Another positive has been the quick start from Miles Wood. An agonizing player due to his penchant for bad penalties (two goalie interference minors), he is capable of scoring between 15 to 20 goals and being an effective top nine forward. That he’s scored three goals including the power play game-winner along with a helper, is a good sign. If any coach can get something out of him, it’s Ruff, who knows a thing or two about squeezing the most out of gritty players who play the game aggressively like Wood.

Rookie Ty Smith is off to a great start with points in his first three NHL games. He’s shown off an uncanny ability to get his good point shot through. It’s resulted in his first NHL goal, a deflection and a rebound goal from Hughes off a Sharangovich face-off win. A superb skater, Smith is proving why the Devils took him in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft. Maybe the extra year of development in juniors at Spokane was better for him.

The best aspect is they’re doing this without key top nine forwards Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt with the latter almost ready to be cleared due to the self quarantine. Hischier could miss at least a month due to his injury. Ruff hasn’t been shy about using Travis Zajac as his number two pivot while Pavel Zacha and Mike McLeod are the third and fourth centers depending on each game.

The defense is comprised of Damon Severson, Ryan Murray, P.K. Subban, Dmitry Kulikov, Smith and Matt Tennyson. They’re still waiting on veteran Sami Vatanen, who’ll likely replace Tennyson and work with Smith on the third pair. Will Butcher looks like the odd man out. That’s too bad for a player who once showed promise offensively. Maybe he’ll get moved.

New Jersey did add goalie Eric Comrie to the roster. So, they now have three goalies. Scott Wedgwood has yet to get a start. With the schedule spread out this far with two games against the Islanders over four days, there’s no reason not to stick with Blackwood. He is by far their best option.

After two days off, the Devils travel to Long Island to battle the rival Islanders, who have won two of their first three. When Semyon Varlamov starts, they have yet to permit a goal. The number one goalie indeed has two shutouts and been perfect. He is the proven vet, who’ll help guide fellow Russian countryman Ilya Sorokin in his first NHL season. A goalie match-up of Blackwood versus Varlamov is appealing. They’re both playing lights out. So, it should be interesting. Will they oppose each other in both games with the rematch not until Sunday back in Newark? We’ll see.

The one thing about the Islanders is they’re extremely detail oriented. Under Barry Trotz, they make it tough on opponents due to their patient defensive system. Coming off their first trip to the Conference Finals since ’93, they’re out to prove that run wasn’t a fluke. If they’re on their game, they’re hard to beat. It’ll be a good litmus test for the Devils.

Mat Barzal centers Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. Brock Nelson anchors the second line which will be without key setup man Josh Bailey, who’s in COVID protocol. A few hours ago, Trotz provided no update for tonight. This is what part of the lineup could look like courtesy of Arthur Staple.

It’s worth noting Leo Komarov passed through waivers unclaimed while Oliver Wahlstrom has yet to play a game this year. Casey Cizikas anchors the very effective fourth line with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. The Islanders are a four line team, whose identity is to outwork opponents and force them into mistakes.

Former Devils captain Andy Greene faces the Devils. That’ll be an intriguing storyline. He’s part of a solid defense that features Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Nick Leddy, Greene and Noah Dobson.

We’ll see how the Devils do against a good opponent.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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2 Responses to Hughes led Devils get litmus test against Islanders

  1. hasan4978 says:

    I was gonna do a preview this morning but didn’t have the time for it…just as well now that everything’s up in the air with Blackwood going to the COVID list.


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