The Good, Bad and Ugly for improving Devils

Yesterday afternoon, the Devils took on Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in DC. They won their third in a row thanks to overtime heroics from captain Nico Hischier. His second goal of the game gave the Devils a 4-3 OT win.

The good was the continued emergence of former top pick Jack Hughes. It was his smart defensive play and good pass that allowed Hischier to get the winner. For the third straight game, Hughes recorded at least two points with a pair of assists. During the team’s three-game winning streak, he’s caught fire by tallying seven points (3-4-7) with a plus-five rating.

At age 20, Hughes is starting to figure it out. Even though he missed significant time due to a shoulder separation, he’s now at a point-per-game in his third season. The seven point outburst over the three wins since they returned shows what he’s capable of. Hughes has eight goals and eight assists for 16 points in 16 games.

We’re seeing the superb skating and elite skill he has. It was his great move and finish past Mike Smith during an overtime home win over Edmonton that ended 2021 on a bright note. He used Connor McDavid as a screen by shooting through him to fool Smith. That capped off a two-goal, one assist game. One in which he was the hero in an exciting New Year’s Eve game against McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The improvement of Hughes is a great development for the Devils. It’s his team. He is the best player they have who’ll lead the franchise for years to come. Hopefully, for suffering fans like Blogger Hasan, out of obscurity and back to relevance in the Metropolitan Division.

Another encouraging sign is the two-goal game from Hischier on Sunday. Also a former top pick, the 22-year old captain hasn’t been known for scoring consistently. Injuries have held him back. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year of ’17-18, he scored a career high 20 goals and tallied 32 assists for 52 points while playing all 82 games under former coach John Hynes.

That was the last time the Devils sniffed the playoffs. It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. They were carried by surprising Hart winner Taylor Hall. Hischier centered the top line which also included Kyle Palmieri. Even more shocking is that it was the play of current Rangers’ third string goalie Keith Kinkaid that helped that team qualify for the postseason. It was a best case scenario.

Since then, Hischier hasn’t played a full season. After going 17-30-47 in 69 contests in ’18-19, he had 36 points in 58 games during the COVID-19 shortened ’19-20 season. He hardly established himself due to more setbacks last year. Hischier went 6-5-11 in only 21 games.

Now in Year Five, he’s finally healthy enough to contribute. With Hughes doing the heavy lifting by centering the current first line that features the emerging Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich, Hischier is playing with Pavel Zacha and at the moment Jesper Boqvist. He’s on a current five-game point streak.

The six points (2-4-6) date back to 12/8 and 12/10 before Hischier extended the streak when he returned after Christmas. Even in another pandemic interrupted season, he’s quietly up to 20 points (6-14-20) over 28 games. A good overall player who is over 53 percent on face-offs that plays both power play and penalty kill, he’s an important player. If he was more durable, the Devils could have a good 1-2 punch at center.

With rookie Dawson Mercer on the third line having a good first season with nine goals and 10 helpers for 19 points, the Devils are strong at the center position. Checking pivot Mike McLeod plays on the fourth line. But it’s the promise of the top three that should be cause for optimism in Newark. Especially with Hughes. All three centers are 22 or younger.

Surrounding them with good finishers will make a big difference. Alexander Holtz was participating in the U20 World Junior Championships for Sweden before a few positive cases shut down the marquee prospect tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer. It was poorly handled by organizers. Let’s leave it at that. Holtz has 10 points (6-4-10) in 11 games with AHL Utica. The 19-year old former ’20 first round pick could become a fixture with the big club in the future.

With the team having won three straight to brighten moods for the New Year after struggles, they have to feel better about themselves. It helps to have Hughes and Hischier leading the way. Something that should be the norm moving forward. That’s the Good.

The bad would be Dougie Hamilton leaving the game after taking a puck to the face. He didn’t return for the third period. The big scoring defenseman was taken to the hospital for evaluation. Here is the latest from MSG Devils reporter Amanda Stein.

Also bad was Mackenzie Blackwood totally butchering a loose puck in front which he turned over for the tying Caps goal. They rallied from a 3-1 third period deficit to get a point before Hughes’ fantastic play for the Hischier winner.

The ugly continues to be a disturbing trend for veteran defenseman P.K. Subban. On a Nic Dowd goal, he was caught in an interesting position with his leg against Garnet Hathaway.

It’s dangerously close to a slew foot. Something that has become far too common for Subban. There have been three previous incidents including one in the preseason against Ryan Reaves. There also was the unfortunate play in the corner that ended the season for Sammy Blais.

Not once has the Department Of NHL Player Safety stepped in to suspend him. If you’re a repeat offender involving a dangerous play frowned upon, it shouldn’t matter what your position is in the league. Subban has definitely skated by only receiving a $5,000 fine.

If he continues to do this, it’ll have serious consequences. Perhaps someone will take matters into their own hands. Let’s hope not.

The Devils next game is Tuesday night in Boston. A win would pull them within one game of NHL .500. They’ll enter play with a record of 13-15-5 with 31 points in 33 games. Undoubtedly, they would prefer to keep things moving in the right direction.

We’ll see how they do this week. After the Bruins, they got the Blue Jackets at home on Thursday. It’s a home-and-home series concluding this Saturday in Columbus.

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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