At the moment, there’s positive news on the early returns for the Devils’ rather long-awaited season.
At the five-game benchmark, which most certainly is a benchmark in a condensed, uncertain-to-finish 56-contest season, you have, at least, a base comprehension of what this year’s club is trying to be all about. And Sunday’s 2-0 defeat over the Islanders was another shining example of it.
Jack Hughes found the back of the net for the third time in three games before Pavel Zacha answered with his first on the year to set the to set the tone early. Ty Smith, owner of a primary and secondary assist on the night, increased his point-streak to five–as many games as the 20-year-old defender has played in his pro career.
Scott Wedgewood, making his second-straight start after Thursday’s 4-1 drubbing on Long Island, responded superbly with a 28-save shutout performance, earning his first NHL win since 2018.
The Devils, who through each of its four prior games, showed lapses in discipline culminating in special-teams capitalizing, were noticeably clean and efficient on Sunday, surrendering just two opportunities. It was a strong bounce-back over a geographic rival that connected twice on the power play on Thursday and were largely unchallenged by N.J. shooters. It’s a positive development to say the least–that the team is passing some of its early and most concerning tests.
“I really felt that our structure we didn’t pay any attention to detail in that previous game,” Lindy Ruff said in contrasting the back-to-back showings with New York. “We went through that, we talked about how hard we’re going to have to work to win and doing the right things at certain times–that’s the great thing about playing a team back-to-back, you get to make adjustments.
“We talked about, we win the game tonight, we’ve had a real good five-game segment. That puts us at the .700 percentage and you go 3-1-1 and we’ve got some key players out, but we’ve talked about no excuses, we play man-to-man, we play hard for each other and take it one game at a time. I thought our answer to the way we played on the Island was excellent.”
Last season, the club failed to respond from three-plus goal defeats on nine occasions, effectively sinking their morale and position in the standings which ultimately left them without hockey for 10 months. Sunday’s showing was an early indicator that there’s resiliency in this year’s group. Even prior to Thursday, it’s been called upon as the team has had to quickly adjust to circumstances–a retiring goaltender, the absence of Nico Hischier due to injury and Jesper Bratt to contractual uncertainty and now, quarantine and clearance to play.
More recently, it’s been in net, where starter, Mackenzie Blackwood has been sidelined since Thursday on the league’s COVID protocol list. But, facing a difficult task, the netminder too responded.
“Personally, it’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time,” Wedgewood said. “I felt like I’ve traveled the world before coming back here to get back in the net in the National Hockey League. It’s definitely nice to get a win two games in.
“I’ve been doing a lot of things over a lot of years to try and take everything off the table and put my best foot forward. I think now, it’s the best shape I’ve been in, the best spot mentally, I’m very comfortable in New Jersey–it all feels like home, I think that plays into it. I’ve kind of waited for a break the last couple of years.”
It remains to be seen how much longer Wedgewood will have the starter’s net to himself. The Devils have a busy week ahead with four games in six days beginning on Tuesday hosting the Flyers. But Sunday showed he can still hang around an NHL crease. A welcomed bit of news for a team that’s had to quickly adjust to its goaltending depth–a growing depth at that.
What also remains to be seen is the availability of Hischier and Bratt, both of which missed training camp and might not be ready to jump into game-action immediately, especially given the long pause. Their absence hasn’t been felt as much as anticipated, which makes the early returns on the year all the more inspiring.
But sustaining this success is a much easier ask with the two in the lineup.