Devils Start Second Half of Season Strong


The Devils continue to roll after the All-Star break. (Courtesy of Instagram)

In their first back week from the National Hockey League All-Star break, the New Jersey Devils stayed hot, comfortably holding onto their second place position in the Metropolitan Division standings with 73 points through 52 games. At this pace, the Devils are set to finish with 115 points this season, four more than their franchise points record from 2000-01.

The Devils opened the week at home with two wins against a couple of Pacific Northwestern adversaries in the Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken on Monday night and Thursday night, respectively. Despite having the third highest point totals across the entire league, the Devils have struggled at home this season, claiming just the 16th best home record with 15 wins and 32 points through 27 games at the Prudential Center (.593%).

New Jersey then capped off the weekend with a hard-fought 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota that saw goaltender Vitek Vanecek’s remarkable 10-game win streak come to an end.

The Devils won their fourth straight home game, all of which had gone to overtime, on Monday night against a struggling Vancouver team by a score of 5-4. New Jersey once again converted a one-timer in overtime on a 4-on-3 power play, this time coming off the stick of Jesper Bratt.

However, the Devils put themselves in a sticky situation when they went down early in the first period due to a lack of energy and awareness. They were able to come back in dramatic fashion, though, scoring four unanswered goals, three of which came in the span of just 50 seconds. New Jersey showed weakness late in the second period and throughout the third, allowing Vancouver back into the game with three unanswered of their own. Ultimately, New Jersey would restore order in overtime through Bratt’s game winner. As it would turn out for the Canucks, they allowed themselves to lose the game in just one bad minute.

Ondrej Palat and Jack Hughes each scored a pair in the victory, with Palat reestablishing himself since returning from injury in January and Hughes solidifying himself as a bonafide Hart Trophy candidate. His 67 points (35 goals, 32 assists) through 50 games is good enough for ninth among NHL skaters, and it puts him on a 110 point and 57 goal pace (through 82 games), both of which would shatter the Devils’ franchise records for points (96, Patrik Elias 2000-01) and goals (48, Brian Gionta 2005-06) in a season. Monday night was the first time Devils fans were heard chanting “MVP” at Hughes, and it was the first time since Taylor Hall in 2017-18 that Devils fans started the Hart campaign. Hughes would be just the second Devil after Hall to win the award, but he of course faces incredible competition with the consensus’ best player in the world, Connor McDavid and his whopping 97 points through 54 games.

This wasn’t just Hughes’ game to remember, though, as goaltender Vitek Vanecek picked up what was his 10th straight win, tied for the third longest goaltending winning streak in franchise history. It cannot be overstated how important Vanecek’s stability, consistency and excellency has been; Vanecek’s 22 wins so far this year are the most any Devils goaltender has had since 2017-18 when they last made the playoffs (Keith Kinkaid, 26).

Amidst Vanecek’s dominance in net, opportunities have begun to dwindle for now backup Mackenzie Blackwood, who was only just recently tipped to be New Jersey’s goaltender for the future. However, Blackwood not only was given the start against the surging Kraken but he also shined throughout the night, earning a 33-save victory, his first win since Jan. 14 against the Los Angeles Kings, and the Devils’ fifth straight at home. With trade rumors circulating around just about every team in the NHL, Blackwood’s name has been brought up as he represents a very strong depth piece at goaltender for New Jersey. He’s starting to remind people just how good a confident Mackenzie Blackwood can be.

The Devils went up against Seattle and Minnesota without their All-Star Hughes (who has been listed as week-to-week with an upper-body injury retroactive to Feb. 7) but they were able to come from behind for the win once again on Thursday. Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton was instrumental in the win with two powerplay one-timers to add to his already impressive 52 points in 52 games and six-game (now seven-game) points streak. Hamilton’s 52 points are fourth amongst active NHL defenseman and breaks his previous points record of 50 (2016-17 with the Calgary Flames).

With Blackwood starting in the second of the two home games, Lindy Ruff referred back to Vanecek ahead of their matchup on the road against Minnesota, where the Devils once again started slow and mounted a comeback, this time getting a pair of goals from forward Tomas Tatar. Secondary contributors have continued to step up in big moments throughout the year, especially with Hughes sidelined temporarily due to injury. The comeback effort was eventually curtailed by a strong third period from the Wild as they pushed the game all the way to a shootout, where Mats Zuccarrello and Frederick Gaudreau both converted to deny New Jersey of both points. Even though they ended up squandering their own comeback, it’s a very valuable point on the road against a playoff-quality team.

The Devils will remain on the road for the rest of this week (likely without Hughes) as they travel to Columbus Tuesday night for a division matchup against Johnny Gaudreau and the dead-last Blue Jackets before heading to St. Louis and Pittsburgh for a couple of games against the Blues and Penguins on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Despite their shootout loss to Minnesota on Saturday, the Devils still maintain the league’s best away record with 41 points from 25 games played on the road (.820%).