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Game Preview #8: New Jersey Devils vs. Minnesota Wild

The Devils have scraped together a respectable 4-2-1 record through seven games, but one can’t help but feel like they’ve stumbled out of the gate. With Nico Hischier out, someone other than Jack Hughes needs to step up and help lead the Devils to victory.

Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Minnesota Wild

The Time: 5:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: BSN, BSWIX, MSGSN

Key Takeaways

  • The Devils have dominated stretches of play—anywhere between ten to fifteen minutes at a time—but have yet to put together an entire game of solid structure, offensive pressure, and team defense.
  • The Wild are, yet again, another middling team the Devils should be able to beat. Minnesota has suffered several key injuries that will make it an uphill battle for the visitors.
  • I don’t know how many more times I have to write this: the Devils have to start on time tonight or risk losing to one more team they are comfortably more talented than.

How are the Minnesota Wild playing so far?

The Devils last played the Wild on March 21, 2023, when Matt Boldy beat Vitek Vanecek with a single second left in overtime to secure a 2-1 win.

The Wild have lost four of their last five games, including bad losses to the ostensibly bad Blue Jackets and Flyers (how bad each of those teams actually are this season is yet to be determined), and a close loss in the shootout to the Washington Capitals.

Minnesota entered the season with playoff aspirations, and perhaps have even deluded themselves into thinking themselves as contenders. (Hey, anything could happen.) They haven’t yet found their footing, however, in part because of several injuries to their key players. Captain Jared Spurgeon, Boldy, Alex Goligoski, and Freddy Gaudreau all remain missing from the Wild’s lineup after suffering injuries earlier this season. All of them, with the possible exception of Gaudreau, are week-to-week on the injured reserve list. Boldy was supposed to travel with the team on Wednesday but was held back and will not travel to New Jersey for their home-and-home series against the Devils.

It appears that the Wild’s biggest issue so far is in net—despite all the injury trouble. Filip Gustavsson, a goalie I generally think is pretty underrated, has an atrocious 4.36 GAA and .885 SV% through five games, with the aging Marc-Andre Fleury posting a 2.96 GAA and .895 SV% in three games.

The rest of the team, meanwhile, have been scoring in bunches. Mats Zuccarello, Joel Eriksson Ek, Kirill Kaprizov, and Ryan Hartman are all point-per-game players, with Marcus Johansson and several others just below that mark.

It’s good news that Minnesota’s goalies are struggling so far. The Devils have struggled just as much keeping the puck out of their own net; this is the kind of team they can pick apart in net.

It’s bad news that the Wild’s top six are clicking, if inconsistently. Whether it’s the goaltending, the team defense, the individual defensemen, or something more structural (or all of the above), the Devils have not been able to keep the puck out of their net any better than the Wild . . . and their jobs are not going to get any easier with Nico Hischier out of the lineup.

Growing Pains Made Worse

Nico Hischier will not play tonight. Buffalo’s Connor Clifton was suspended two games for the check to the head he delivered to New Jersey’s captain and Selke runner-up, which will serve as little consolation for the Devils who are now down one of their two star centers. Erik Haula has done very well on the third line, most often playing center, but it’s a significant drop-off in talent and skill. Hischier only has two goals in seven games, but he seemed like he was hitting his stride when Clifton’s illegal hit cut short any momentum he was building.

The other option to move into the top six is Dawson Mercer. Mercer has massively struggled this season, but maybe greater responsibility with better talent alongside him is just what he needs to get going. In light of Haula’s near-hat trick performance, I’d prefer to see him on the second line, but there’s no telling how Lindy Ruff will mish-mash the lines. We’ll see. . . .

Per usual, the Devils have made no announcement on the nature of Hischier’s injury beyond Haula’s cagey “hope he recovers soon” remark, which could mean literally anything from “I hope that neck strain works itself out by next week” to “I hope that concussion doesn’t keep him out forty games.” I don’t think the latter is likely, but we’ll just have to wait for more information.

And with the Devils, getting information on injuries is harder than getting Brendan Smith to score a goal.

Expect Chris Tierney to draw into the lineup in Hischier’s absence. As for who ends up eating those second line minutes, it’ll likely end up as some combination of Haula and Mercer.

Your Thoughts

What do the Devils need to keep the puck out of their own net? Should Haula lock down the second line center position in Hischier’s absence, or should the Devils give Mercer a look—and hope it revitalizes his flagging performance? Let us know in the comments below.