Luke Hughes to make postseason debut tomorrow in critical Game Three for Devils

It’s happening. Following two lackluster losses in Carolina to fall behind the Hurricanes two games to none, the Devils will have a different lineup for tomorrow’s critical Game Three.

With Ryan Graves struggling in Games One and Two, which saw the Hurricanes storm the Devils by a combined score of 11-2, coach Lindy Ruff decided it’s time to insert Luke Hughes. The former 2021 first round pick has only played two NHL games. He debuted at the end of the regular season, scoring an exciting overtime winner for his first career goal.

The younger brother of leading scorer Jack Hughes will be under the spotlight when the best-of-seven second round series shifts to Newark. A high-scoring offensive defenseman with the kind of speed that can help the Devils’ transition against the defensive minded Hurricanes, the 19-year-old Hughes totaled 27 goals and 60 assists for 87 points in two years at Michigan.

There’s no time like the present for the ’21 fourth pick. Can he handle the pressure of what essentially is a must win game on Sunday? Ruff is willing to roll the dice. What does he have to lose? The Devils were in the same unenviable position last round following identical 5-1 losses to the Rangers. The only difference is that both came on home ice. They rallied by taking the next two on the road, eventually winning the unpredictable series in seven games.

As Devils blogger Hasan has pointed out, the Canes present a different problem. They’re a strong five-on-five team that can forecheck and play solid defensively. It won’t be easy to come back. However, they can draw on their recent experience for a rallying point. But they’ll need to defend home ice. A series doesn’t start until the home team loses. If they can take Game Three, maybe that’ll give them enough momentum to swing the series.

That’s not the only change Ruff is making. He also has adjusted his lines. With the offense struggling to get going aside from the effective fourth line of Nathan Bastian, Mike McLeod, and Miles Wood, he’s decided to drop Jack Hughes down to the third line. He’ll center Timo Meier and Dawson Mercer.

Nico Hischier will anchor Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula. The Devils captain is still without a goal in the playoffs. Although he has five assists in nine games, he must provide more offense. The same goes for Bratt, whose only goal was an empty netter in Game Seven of the first round. Aside from setting up Dougie Hamilton for a momentum turning overtime goal in Round One, he hasn’t done much.

Hamilton has only a goal and two assists so far. The former Cane needs to get going. He is the offensive leader of the blue line. Interestingly, Ruff had Luke Hughes working on the top power play unit in practice today. With the five-on-four 0 for forever against the Canes in four regular season games and the first two games of the series, something must change. It’s the aggressive Canes’ penalty kill that’s taken away from what the Devils want to do.

Carolina likes to stand up at the blue line and even cheat in the neutral zone to make breakouts tough. They are also good on face-offs. Even if they lose the defensive draws, there’s plenty of support from the other players. By making it hard for the Devils to set up, they’ve been able to get key clears down ice. The Devils have had trouble getting back into the zone to establish the remainder of the power play.

So far in the series, they’re 0-for-5. In the first period of last night’s 6-1 loss, they had a five-on-three for 23 seconds. However, neither chance they got was enough to beat Frederik Andersen. Hughes had a shot from the outside that he stopped. Meier had a deflection that was a save. Both Bratt and Meier had shots on the remainder of the five-on-four that never threatened Andersen.

With Ruff opting to move Hughes onto a new third line with Meier and Mercer, that means he’s decided to try a different player to center the second line. It’ll be light scoring Jesper Boqvist drawing the assignment. He’s expected to line up between Tomas Tatar and Erik Haula. Considering that Haula has been their most consistent forward, maybe he wants to counter Rod Brind’Amour with his own match-up line. How successful it will be who knows.

The checking of Jordan Staal and Game Two star Jesperi Kotkaniemi have been noticeable during the first two games. After Staal dominated the first game, it eas Kotkaniemi whose pair of goals early in the second period sparked the Hurricanes. When it looked like they might escape down, only two, Jack Drury sprung Staal for a breakaway goal with 2:35 left. Martin Necas’ goal with 16 seconds remaining finished any thoughts of a comeback.

With the defense having issues with the Canes’ relentless forechecking speed, it’ll have a different look for Game Three. Jonas Siegenthaler will remain teamed up with Hamilton on the top pair. With Graves out, John Marino will pair with Kevin Bahl. That leaves Luke Hughes with Damon Severson. They should provide more speed and puck possession. But neither is particularly good in their end. Ruff would be wise to use them more when there are face-offs in the offensive zone.

He also must make a decision on who gets tomorrow’s game. Akira Schmid has been pulled twice. However, Vitek Vanecek didn’t provide any relief. The question is, is the coaching staff more comfortable with Schmid.

It was Vanecek that played a big part in the Devils revival. He won 33 games and posted a 2.45 GAA with a .911 save percentage. But in five appearances in the playoffs, he’s allowed 12 goals on 61 shots. He’s the more emotional goalie. Schmid is calmer. It’s anyone’s guess what Ruff will decide.

In order for the Devils to have a chance at a comeback similar to the one they had last round, they’ll need better play out of the stars. Even if his younger brother is in, it’s up to Jack Hughes to provide more offense. He and Hischier are the leaders of the team. They must set the tone. Having savvy vets such as Palat and Haula can help. They were instrumental during the first round. However, it’s up to the young nucleus to pick it up.

It was a year ago that the Rangers were down two games headed back home. They were able to respond with emphatic wins in the next two games. That was a home series with the Canes again feeding off the crowd’s energy to take Game Five. But it was the Rangers who wound up taking the series by winning Games Six and Seven. The interesting part is that the Canes had both Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen. They are without both, along with Max Pacioretty. They’re doing it by rolling all four lines.

The first order of business for the Devils is to get Game Three. They should have a loud sellout crowd. Getting to Andersen early will be a key. They must also generate more traffic to make it harder on the veteran goalie. Similar to what they did against Igor Shesterkin in the first round.

There can’t be as many defensive breakdowns. Controlling the neutral zone is a must. Better puck management is a big key to success against the Hurricanes. We’ll see if the Devils can respond. Tomorrow’s game is at 3:30 PM. Hopefully, they remember to set their alarm clocks.


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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