Going into tonight it’s been a glass half-full and half-empty start for the Devils. Good, obviously to be 2-1-1 and have 19-year old Jack Hughes producing at a franchise center level. Of course, the bad being Mackenzie Blackwood’s absence for at least a second straight game due to being placed on the COVID list. There’s no official word yet on Blackwood’s status, but backup goalie Scott Wedgewood may have spilled the beans in the postgame when he referred to Blackwood needing to take care of his health. So odds are he did flunk a COVID test, unless I suppose he’s got a non-COVID illness and has to quarantine out of caution. At least so far nobody else has had to be placed on the list, but as has been the case the last year everyone’s day to day, particularly when it comes to that.
With preseason backup Corey Crawford now retired and presumptive backup Aaron Dell still in visa limbo, it fell to Wedgewood to man the crease for a second straight showdown against the Islanders. Suffice it to say, after the result a couple nights ago I wasn’t much of a believer in a revival tonight. However, if this team is proving one thing it’s that they’re far more resilient than they’ve been the last couple years. To put it mildly, a 2-0 shutout for the career journeyman in the rematch at the Rock was a pleasant surprise to me. Maybe this year under Lindy Ruff one and two-game losing streaks won’t turn into five and six gamers that easily. Coaching matters.
I did see the latter half of the game, but missed the two first-period goals which turned out to be the only ones of the night – and in what might have been the biggest shocker of all, one of them was even A POWER PLAY GOAL! Yes our power play has been so bad I channeled Sam Rosen for that one. If you were to pick a guy to end our power play drought though, Hughes would be near or at the top of the list right now with the level he’s playing at. A big part of my preseason pessimism had to do with the fact I wasn’t expecting much from our #1 overall franchise centers out of the block with Nico shelved entirely while Hughes looked like he had a long way to go just to be an NHL player last year. He certainly used the long pause well though, it’s been night and day to watch him last year and then see his growth this season.
Hughes’s third goal of the season (seven points in five games total) came with just three minutes remaining in the first period, but there was still time for the home team to tack on another crucial goal exactly two minutes later – doubly crucial because of who combined for the goal. Our second/third line with Pavel Zacha and Nikita Gusev had so far been invisibad but Gusev showed flashes of his late season form from last year when he deked out a defender at the point and got a shot on net, then Zacha put home the rebound for his first goal of the season while Gusev got his first point. Meanwhile, rookie defenseman Ty Smith assisted on both goals, giving him an unreal six points in his first five NHL games.
Even against a low-scoring Islanders team, I didn’t think two would be enough all things considered – but the journeyman goalie with twenty-two career starts kept their more seasoned rivals at bay, with the help of a rebuilt defense. I probably haven’t said enough about the D through the first few games, particularly all the new additions which have stabilized the back end arguably more than it’s been at any point since the Islanders’ GM was still our GM. I could be catty and say Tom Fitzgerald’s done more for the D in one offseason than previous GM Ray Shero did in five, but I’d rather give the players and coaching credit tonight. Specifically new acquisitions Ryan Murray (trade) and Dmitry Kulikov (FA signing), who’ve both consistently played 20+ minutes a night including the bulk of shorthanded time, and added much-needed complements on the left side of our D to top four RD’s PK Subban and Damon Severson.
It was the big four who coach Ruff leaned on to help Wedgewood secure his third NHL shutout after a 28-save performance. Smith has also added some offensive punch though he and partner Matt Tennyson didn’t see much icetime in the final two periods as the game became a defensive struggle. You’ve also got to give the coach himself credit too, for having this team ready to play. In part, he changed the lines up with an odd promotion of Janne Kuokkanen to the second line while deservedly bumping an ineffective Andreas Johnsson down to the fourth line. He also scratched Jesper Boqvist in favor of Nick Merkley. Seemingly everything the coach did worked tonight and Wedgewood got a deserved first star with the on-ice interview with Erika Wachter.
Going forward it seems like Wedgewood will have a few games to gain a foothold on the backup job. Maybe he’s this season’s version of what Keith Kinkaid was in 2018, or Scott Clemmensen in 2009. You gotta feel good for a kid who was a third round pick of the Devils a decade ago, and got off to a good start in 2016 when he started four games (including a shutout in his second start, ironically) but two years later in Arizona things didn’t go so well and he hasn’t played in the NHL since, until this week. Although I actually kind of do feel bad for Dell by the same token. Through no fault of his own he may well have lost a golden opportunity to reestablish himself as an NHL backup, after being let go by both the Sharks and Maple Leafs. Of course neither would likely be playing if Crawford hadn’t peaced out before the season.
We just need to keep eNJoying the ride I guess.