Tell me if you have heard this story before. The New Jersey Devils blow a multi-goal lead on home ice to send a game they were well on their way to winning to overtime. To make matters worse, it happened yet again in a home opener (this time, against the Chicago Blackhawks). It happened in front of a sellout crowd and a fanbase that is hoping that this will be the year where things are finally different. It happened in front of fans that hope this is the year that the Devils put it all together, live up to their potential, and play meaningful games late in the season for a change. It’s a narrative that has become all too familiar in recent seasons for the Devils.
Not this time. Jack Hughes would see that things were different this time.
In overtime, Hughes took the feed from Ryan Graves at center ice, entered the zone, juked a defenseman out of his skates, faked left, moved right, and slid a backhander past an out of position Kevin Lankinen for the game winning goal. Hughes flipped his stick over the boards and into the crowd and was mobbed by his teammates in what has become the defining moment of his young career. If Hughes is going to have that breakout season that many believe he is capable of, this was the type of moment that can be a springboard for that kind of success.
It was a night of firsts for the Devils that was capped off by the 2019 first overall pick, but it wasn’t the only first for New Jersey. Dawson Mercer picked up his first NHL point assisting on an Andreas Johnsson goal. Tomas Tatar had his first point as a Devil on that same goal. The numbers don’t reflect it, but Jonathan Bernier played well in his first start for the Devils. Of all of the firsts though, none are bigger than Dougie Hamilton. The $63 million dollar man played his first game for the Devils and made his presence known immediately, scoring the fastest goal to open a Devils season in franchise history.
WE JUST LEARNED HOW TO DOUGIE! pic.twitter.com/nqSezWRx4g— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 15, 2021
The Devils penalty kill was tested early, with Hamilton going to the box for slashing Brandon Hagel. The penalty kill wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly effective. Chicago generated some Grade A scoring chances on the power play, but the Devils got several clears, Jonathan Bernier made a couple saves, and Andreas Johnsson was sprung for a breakaway opportunity as the Blackhawks power play expired. Unfortunately, Johnsson steered the shot wide and the Devils couldn’t add to their lead.
The run of play shifted towards the Blackhawks over the next few minutes, but the Devils picked up the pace later in the first. Hughes took a give-and-go and tried to create some space, but was unable to put the puck past Lankinen. Dawson Mercer had an opportunity on the wing, but was kept to the outside by Riley Stillman for a low-danger shot on goal. Janne Kuokkanen went to the penalty box in the closing seconds of the first for a high stick, but the Devils finished the first period with a 56.52% CF% advantage and a 68.88 xGF%. The eye test suggested that the Devils were the better team in the first period, and the advanced stats seemed to back that up.
Chicago made the Devils pay for the Kuokkanen penalty early in the second period. Alex Debrincat made Bernier move laterally from one end of the crease to the other, passing the puck to Patrick Kane. Kane showed great patience and sent the puck cross-ice past an out of position Ryan Graves back to Debrincat, who ripped the puck past Bernier for the backdoor equalizer.
The Devils failed to score on their first power play of the season moments later, registering two shots on goal. They also avoided disaster with a bad turnover to Debrincat late in the man advantage, but Chicago failed to take advantage as Bernier turned him away.
Late in the second, Hughes won a puck battle along the boards behind Lankinen’s net. The puck bounced around before landing back on Hughes’s stick, who made a nice spinaround move and flicked the puck past Lankinen for the 2-1 lead. It was a heck of an individual effort by “The Big Deal” to give the Devils the advantage going into the second intermission.
Mr. Steal Yo Puck and Put it in Yo Net strikes again! pic.twitter.com/cPVx9ZK8w9— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 16, 2021
Chicago went on an early power play in the third as Jesper Bratt went to the box for sticking up for Nico Hischier after Jonathan Toews took him down along the boards, although Hischier was already falling down. It was a weak call. Fortunately, the Devils did a good job on the kill and denied Chicago any legitimate scoring chances.
The Devils added to their lead at the 6:34 mark of the third. Tomas Tatar connected on a long pass to Johnsson as he was entering the offensive zone. Johnsson tried a backhander that sailed too high, but Tatar retrieved the puck and fed the puck to Dawson Mercer for the shot. Lankinen made the initial save, but with the puck loose in the crease, Johnsson, who played brilliantly in this game (more on that in a little bit), was in the right place at the right time to put the puck in the back of the net for the 3-1 lead. It was a much needed goal for Johnsson, who struggled mightily in his first season in New Jersey, as well as the first NHL point for Mercer.
The Devils would continue their good run of play as Nico Hischier hit the post moments later and the fourth line of Vesey-McLeod-Studenic did what they did all night and tilt the ice in their favor.
Unfortunately for the Devils, it was a home opener and nothing can ever be easy. Mercer spun around and caught Tyler Johnson with a high stick for a double minor with 7:09 to go. Chicago sensed their opportunity to go for it and pulled the goaltender at various points in the power play. Kirby Dach pulled Chicago within one with a power play goal. Kane’s shot hit Johnson high and Dach was in a perfect position to score with 3:53 to go. Moments later, the Blackhawks pulled Lankinen for the extra skater again. The Devils got pinned back and Dominik Kubalik tied the game with :26 remaining in regulation. For a moment there, the feeling of “Whoo boy, here we go again” was back and the sense that another gut-wrenching Devils loss was imminent.
Not this time. Not on Jack’s watch.
The Opposition Opinion: Dave Melton is not too pleased from a Chicago perspective at Second City Hockey
Johnsson’s best game as a Devil?
Lindy Ruff said in his postgame press conference that he believed Andreas Johnsson played his best game as a Devil. It’s tough to argue otherwise. Johnsson led all Devils skaters with a 76.92 CF% and an xGF% of 80.65. He, along with linemates Dawson Mercer and Tomas Tatar, controlled the pace of play when they were on the ice. It is not outlandish to suggest on a night where Jack Hughes might have arrived as an NHL superstar, that the best forward for the Devils was the much-maligned Johnsson.
Obviously, we need to see a lot more from Johnsson going forward, but this was a promising performance from a player who struggled mightily last season.
Fourth line plays well
For as well as the Johnsson-Mercer-Tatar line played, the Vesey-McLeod-Studenic line played just as well on 5v5, if not better. McLeod in particular generated several scoring chances and was one of seven Devils skaters with 3 shots on goal. Ruff leaned on this line with numerous defensive zone starts, and they delivered. It’s one game, I get it, but it is promising that the Devils can get that kind of play from their fourth line and tilt the ice in their favor.
Surprisingly, the line of Kuokkanen-Hughes-Sharangovich struggled at 5v5, with all of those players under 30% in CF%. But I doubt few people will remember or care since Jack Hughes scored twice, including the game winner, and put his stamp on this game.
Devils have a legitimate top pairing on defense
With Ty Smith and Damon Severson out with injuries, the Devils leaned heavily on their top pairing of Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton. They did not disappoint in their Devils debuts.
Hamilton played just under 26 minutes, posted a CF of 75%, and scored seconds into his Devils debut. He was worth every penny of the $9M AAV that Tom Fitzgerald committed to him this offseason. Graves was not too far off of the pace with a 74.07 CF% in just under 25 minutes of play and picking up an assist on the Hughes GWG.
Ideally, Smith and Severson will be back sooner rather than later and the Devils won’t need to rely as much on their new top pairing, but it is nice to know the Devils have a legitimate top pair nonetheless.
Bernier sharp in Devils debut
Jonathan Bernier played well in his Devils debut. I know the stats say his save percentage was .889%. I don’t care. I watched the game. He made a lot of big saves at various points throughout the game and gave the Devils a chance. Two of the goals allowed were on Chicago power plays and the third one was in the closing the seconds when the Devils couldn’t clear the puck with an extra skater on the ice for the road team. I’m not sure that I would necessarily blame Bernier for giving up any of these goals.
I expect Bernier to give the Devils a chance to win most nights he’s on the ice and he did that tonight.
Jimmy Hayes, Forever Our Teammate
The Devils and Blackhawks honored the late Jimmy Hayes prior to tonight’s game. Devils players wore #10 sweaters with ‘Broadway’ on the back during warmups, while Chicago wore #39 jerseys with ‘Hayesy’ on the back to honor him. The Devils also wore a Jimmy #10 clover logo decal on the back of their helmets during the game.
During a TV timeout, the Devils showed a Hayes tribute video on the jumbotron.
Oh yeah, we missed this. pic.twitter.com/203ndUWUhY— Prudential Center (@PruCenter) October 15, 2021
Same, Prudential Center social media manager. Same.
For the first time in two years, the Devils hosted a sell-out crowd at Prudential Center, and on this night, they sent the fans home happy with a win. I mentioned in the comments of the game preview that I didn’t care how the Devils got it done, just that they found a way to win the game. I’m pleased to write that they indeed found a way to win the game.
What did you think of the Devils performance tonight? Are you in agreement with me that this is the beginning of something special for Jack Hughes? Can the Devils build on this momentum going forward and achieve their goal of playing meaningful games later in the season? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.