- The Devils played Minnesota last night in the first half of the back-to-back. For one of the first times this season, they jumped to an early lead in the first period and didn’t look back, winning 5-3 off the strength of Jesper Bratt’s four-point game.
- In a tragic turn of events, Jack Hughes fell hard into the boards during the first period after a trip from the backchecking Justin Faulk, injuring the NHL’s points leader and sapping the Devils of any excitement they might’ve mustered for the second half of their back-to-back.
- Without Hughes, the Devils seemed to lose any motivation they might’ve had to outwork the St. Louis Blues, and they fell 4-1.
Though the Devils seemed to come out of the gate strong with a few opportunities in the offensive zone, Luke Hughes took an early interference penalty and sent the Devils to the penalty kill. Akira Schmid made one solid stop off a shot from the right circle, and the aggressive penalty killers cleared the puck several times and broke up another pass, cutting any momentum the Blues could’ve manufactured from their man-advantage.
Schmid seemed sharp early in the game. He made a big save during that penalty kill and another moments after the penalty expired. They weren’t sprawling highlight reel saves, but the Devils just need a goalie to make the saves they’re expected to make. He had another save that popped up on him and required some juggling. That could’ve turned bad—an own-goal at that stage could’ve swung momentum in the Blues’ favor—but he managed to corral the puck into his glove.
By the halfway mark of the first period, it felt like the Devils were still trying to find their legs. They weren’t playing poorly, but after the game last night, they hadn’t found their rhythm just yet.
Then Jack Hughes danced through a pair of defenders and drove the net—and ended up crashing into the boards. It looked at first like Binnington—a notorious hothead with a bone to pick with the Devils—but ultimately I think Faulk’s stick blade caught the toe of Jack’s skate, putting him off balance. I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. No matter who was responsible and whether it was an accident or not, I think every Devils fan was as breathless as Hughes at that moment. After a few moments spent on the ice, Hughes headed to the bench and returned to the ice just a minute later for his next shift. But he only played 59 seconds before skating off and heading down the tunnel. He wouldn’t return for the rest of the first period.
Bratt drew a high-sticking penalty on that same shift, and the Devils headed to the power play for the first time on the night. Their power play, usually so lethal, looked sluggish and gave up a shorthanded opportunity that Schmid had to stand strong to keep the score tied 0-0. Then Jordan Kyrou drove the outside of Brendan Smith, darted in on goal—and Schmid stonewalled him again. Smith took a delay of game penalty for knocking the net over immediately after. The Blues registered two shots on their power play: both good opportunities that again forced Schmid to keep his cool.
The Devils ended the first period tied 0-0 but down in shots 11-7 and down a man in Jack Hughes. This could’ve easily been a 2-0 game—for St. Louis—were it not for Akira Schmid. Schmid entered tonight 3-1 but with an abysmal .863 SV% and 4.07 GAA. That might not tell the whole story of those games, but it’s clear that New Jersey needs better from their goaltenders. They got better from Schmid through the first twenty.
Jack Hughes did not start the second period.
Neither, apparently, did the Devils. Once again, Akira Schmid bailed them out and kept the game tied in the first few minutes, including a very smart pokecheck that stopped a scoring chance before it ever developed. But the barrage never stopped and eventually St. Louis broke through. Jake Neighbors scored his second of the year on a pass into the slow that Marino couldn’t break up and Bahl wasn’t in position to defend, leaving Neighbors all alone on Schmid right in the slot. It’s hard to fault Schmid on this one. He’d bailed his team out so many times by this point, the Blues were due for a goal.
The Blues scored another just a minute later. Schmid made the first stop, but the rebound—and three Devils—sat right in the crease. Kevin Hayes swiped at the puck and sent it top-right for his first as a St. Louis Blue. 2-0 Blues. Siegenthaler and Smith were benched after this goal, deservedly so.
Bratt deked Binnington into next month on the next shift, but the Devils bad luck continued, and the puck rolled off his stick before he could put it into the empty net. Palat had a similarly great opportunity but just couldn’t beat Binnington and the Blues backcheckers.
At this point, Devils commentator Bill Spaulding mentioned that the Devils might have been feeling just as shellshocked at losing Jack Hughes as the fans. Boy, I hope that wasn’t the case. However, I think Spaulding was onto something there. They seemed stunned. They seemed disinterested. They seemed to think Hughes was there to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. But he wasn’t.
Dawson Mercer had a golden opportunity mere feet in front of the net. But the bad luck continued for Mercer and the visiting team, and he rifled the puck over the net. Mercer threw his head back and uttered an expletive. Same, Dawson. Same.
Imagine my relief when Curtis Lazar, of all people, was the Devil who stepped up to score their first goal of the game. It was a broken play and a garbage goal, but it’s all the same on the scoreboard. Holtz fanned on a one-timer attempt, the puck fluttered to the back door, and Lazar shoveled it home to pull the Devils within one. 2-1 Blues.
The Lazar Leap™️ cuts the deficit in half. pic.twitter.com/n0oQq3GU5t— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 4, 2023
Lazar had another moment shortly after that turned into a scoring chance, turned aside by Binnington. The momentum shifted here. For the first time, the Devils felt alive. They traded chances with the Blues for the final two minutes: Toffoli and Meier were stonewalled by Binnington, and it looked like John Marino got a piece of the puck in the Devils zone to deny a scoring chance.
They ended the second period down by one: 2-1 Blues.
The Devils broadcast began the third period with an injury update on Hughes: an upper-body injury that would preclude him from returning.
Siegenthaler and Smith were unceremoniously un-benched with the start of the third. Being the second half of back-to-back games, I guess you can’t play four defensemen the rest of the night. Smith stood up Sammy Blais in the first few minutes, and Hamilton rang a slapshot off the post to generate a little momentum the Devils’ way. Smith coughed up a hilarious turnover then drew a tripping call—and an embellishment on himself—about halfway into the period. Since this removed a decent scorer—Pavel Buchnevich—from the Blues side of the ice, and Smith from the Devils, this was a rare double-win for the much-maligned defender.
Without Hughes and Hischier, Bratt lined up with McLeod on the ensuing four-on-four, and Haula played alongside Palat. More open ice usually favors the Devils, and it did while Bratt was on the ice. When he wasn’t, the Blues tilted the ice and notched another couple scoring chances. Brandon Saad also narrowly avoided scoring on a wide-open cage.
Bastian got his own chance in the slot, but instead decided to clear the puck instead. At this point, I’m going to start assuming that the Devils are psionically linked to Jack Hughes, and his absence has shattered the mind-meld that enables their offensive abilities. Tyler Toffoli almost scored moments later, but a frustratingly good save by Binnington maintained the Blues’ lead.
With Schmid pulled for the extra attacker, an errant dump-in without forecheckers in the zone fed Kevin Hayes up the ice, who scored his second of the night from long range and ended the Devils’ very long Friday night. Robert Thomas got another empty-netter in the final few seconds, but it was nothing more than window dressing.
The Blues won 4-1.
Curtis Lazar Played His Heart Out
Lazar scored the only goal of the night, and along with a handful of others looked like one of the few who cared. The advanced stats tell a different story: the Devils were systematically out-possessed and out-chanced when Lazar was on the ice. I also don’t care. Not tonight. Tonight, I’ll take effort and working hard since everything else was apparently too much to ask for. He was rewarded for his efforts with his first goal of the season, and the Devils’ sole contribution on the positive end of the scoresheet.
Hey, sometimes your stars won’t find the net even though they’re playing lights out, and sometimes you need your depth players to pitch in and carry the load. But you’re in trouble if the only goal you’re getting is from your energy fourth-liner.
Curtis Lazar on losing Jack Hughes:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 4, 2023
"I'm not going to lie, we were a little dejected when it happened. Again, you've got to turn the page when you realize he's not coming back and it's alright, next man up."#NJDevils
I kept waiting for someone to step up and take this game over when it became clear that Hughes wasn’t returning. I’ll forgive Bratt, Toffoli, even Meier (to a lesser extent) for not potting a few goals. They all had their chances. They just didn’t go in. But the opportunity was there for someone else. Mercer, Palat, Holtz, Hamilton, even Nate Bastian, who made one of the more baffling puck decisions tonight. But the only guy other than the usual suspects who stepped up in that way was Curtis Lazar.
Palat adds a lot to the Devils. He also makes a pile of money for a long time. I’d hoped to see a goal from him after the Hughes injury. The Devils certainly need him to be more than the three assists in ten games winger he’s been so far.
Give Akira the Net (for November)
Schmid looked sharp tonight. Tonight is all the more tragic because they wasted a very good goalie performance in a season that’s seen too few of those. I’m not proposing they make Schmid the de facto starter, and I’m not asking for them to take the net from Vanecek punitively. But I’d like to see what Schmid can do when he’s called upon night in and night out. There are very good starting goalies in this league that would make trash backups. They need the nightly reps to get into their rhythm. I’d like to see if that’s the case for Akira Schmid.
What the Devils need without Hischier and Hughes
In true Devils fashion, updates about the status of Jack Hughes and his injury were not forthcoming during the broadcast. Per usual, the only information available was that Hughes will be evaluated tomorrow. No doubt. I don’t expect anything else from the Devils or any NHL team, but the obfuscation around injuries is always frustrating—especially for fans who may have bought tickets to games well in advance and won’t know if their favorite player will play.
Lindy Ruff says Jack Hughes will be evaluated tomorrow "and we'll see where we're at."#NJDevils— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 4, 2023
Let’s take a moment to hope that one of Hughes or Hischier—and hopefully, by God, both—are back soon. Here it is: a moment of silence.
Have you taken your moment yet? I’ll wait.
Okay—with that out of the way, here’s everything the Devils need if they’re going to weather one game or twenty (please, no more than that) without their star centers:
- Good goaltending. Not average goaltending. Certainly not mediocre goaltending. Good goaltending. They got good goaltending from Akira Schmid tonight and lost. Now they need that sort of performance every night.
- Dawson Mercer to find his game. Mercer has played better the last two or three games, but he hasn’t found the net. He’s gripping the stick too tight. He’s getting some bad luck. He’s been cursed for a thousand years. Well, he’s the next man up now, and they need him to become a legitimate second-line center. Not one of the worst-performing players on the roster (second only to Brendan Smith) in expected goals-for percentage.
- A trade, maybe. That’s if both centers are out long-term and the Devils don’t right the ship with the manpower they have. It depends on how long the Devils expect Hischier and Hughes to remain out concurrently. Seeing as how it’s the Devils, we’ll likely not know what their injuries are or when they’re returning until the moment they step on the ice for the first game back—or if they expect the injuries will keep them out long-term. Mercer might be able to perform spot duty as a second-line center. Erik Haula might play fine as the first-line center for a short time, if Bratt continues his hot streak. But they’ll need even more from their wingers to make up for a newfound weakness down the middle.
- The Devils need their wingers to drive play. Jesper Bratt drives play. Tyler Toffoli has played the role of finisher, but tonight I thought he proved that he could create chances himself. Meier didn’t score, but he was close, and he’s improved game over game. Those three—plus one of Alex Holtz or Ondrej Palat—need to manufacture the lion’s share of scoring chances. They can’t all be finishers, now.
What changes should the Devils make if Jack Hughes is out long-term? How tired are you of reading about Dawson Mercer needing to find his game? Did the game ruin your Friday night? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.