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FanFirst Friday: Time for a Run Edition?

Jack Hughes is returning; the team is as healthy as it’s been since game one of the year and they’ve given themselves a tall task. Is it possible?

Colorado Avalanche v New Jersey Devils
Not sure if Vitek can take the Devils on an extended run, but if he was ever going to, now is the time.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

“It gets late early out there.” Twas a famous New Jersey Devils fan Yogi Berra saying. Well, it isn’t all that early any more. But the New Jersey Devils finally have something close to resembling a full roster on the ice since Jack Hughes is expected to return to the lineup on Thursday night against the Calgary Flames. Sure, Dougie Hamilton is likely out until April (possibly those theoretical playoffs) and Jonas Siegenthaler is still out with a broken foot, so 13 of the starting defense at the beginning of the season and arguably the top pairing, is still out.

That being said, Simon Nemec has been a revelation on defense, often being the Devils best defenseman since he was called up. Luke Hughes has seemingly taken huge strides forward in his defensive game the last four or five, including multiple highlights on Tuesday against the mighty Colorado Avalanche. He defended two Nathan MacKinnon rushes where Nate had ridiculous speed and blew through almost every other Devil on the ice AND he also bodied Mikko Rantanen, whose nickname is Moose because he’s such a large and powerful individual. It’s almost like Luke had a light go on with regards to how to properly defend against elite players. That being said, he didn’t see Lehkonen on the 3-2 goal coming behind the Devils net and it led to a tie game eventually. He will learn.

Santeri Hatakka has been quite the find as well. He was a part of that monstrous Timo Meier deal and honestly, he’s also been quite the steadying presence back in the Devils zone, always making the smart and simple play and getting the puck out quickly. It’s been a pleasant surprise even if there were rumblings he could possibly make the team out of training camp.

So now Devils fans wait and see if the team can pull itself together and make a run. They still struggle to stop a lot of high danger chances and the goaltending, while it’s been a bit better of late, is still the same Vitek Vanecek he was before everyone started getting injured. The third Colorado goal made me worry that the Devils were right back to what they’d been before the All Star break too. Vitek waving at a shot as it went by him, glove side (if I’m the opposition, I’m shooting glove side on Vanecek every single shot).

To be honest, I’m like most fans and it’s why I’ve always called this weekly column FanFirst Friday. I get overly optimistic when I probably shouldn’t and I also feel like the world is ending when I probably shouldn’t. It’s called fanaticism for a reason. There isn’t much rationality involved. I mean the team was never playing particularly well or consistently this year, even when Jack Hughes was in the lineup. They failed repeatedly to capture the essence of what made them so stellar during the regular season last year. But irrational thought makes me believe that now that the rough starts are over and Nosek is healthy, Jack is back, Toffoli isn’t sick, Vitek has strung together a few decent games, perhaps it’s time to believe again. Or as the internet commonly memes, “I’m ready to be hurt again.”

As long as Jack is close to 100 percent, he should help the power play immensely. He was largely the reason the Devils power play was flying out of the gates this year. But it looks listless and lost without the Jack movement, zone entries and unpredictability (will he shoot or pass or open up a lane for someone else to do something by his mere presence?). He’s 22 and has evolved into a PP magician. His 5 on 5 play this year hasn’t been exactly like last year, but I feel like it will emerge. Again, perhaps irrational thought, but if there’s one player in red and black I believe in, it’s Jack Jack.

If there’s one good thing to come of all the players trickling back in, it’s that Lindy Ruff is no longer going to have excuses to hide behind (I guess you can still point to Dougie, Siegs and poor goaltending because there’s always excuses to hide behind), but this roster should be able to cobble together wins. The team currently has a 24 percent chance or so of making the playoffs. That means more than 34 of the time, they will miss in simulations. The odds are firmly stacked against them. Though I feel like Han right now. The season decisions probably come down to the next two weeks prior to the trade deadline. Either you’re firmly going to put yourself into the conversation or the Devils will be looking at a long offseason blaming injuries and bad luck.

Also, I’m writing this prior to the Calgary game on Thursday so if they flame out (pun intended), just ignore this column and all these words and fire up Tankathon.com. Thanks and I’ll see you next week...either in a great mood or talking about what Fitz should be able to get for Tyler Toffoli in a deal.