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NHL

Epiphany For The Devils

John Marino and Jack Hughes after a goal
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Despite four straight seasons without a postseason appearance, and an entire decade with just one lonely playoff win, these New Jersey Devils aren’t going to get away with another lackluster year. As they’ve added more and more talent through both the draft and free agency, only to be plagued by bad luck and underachievement, 2022–23 feels like a year in which the pressure is on to put it all together and at least show something better than the seventh- and eighth-place divisional finishes of years prior.

That longing for improvement became painfully tangible in the team’s home opener, just two weeks ago, when their second 5-2 defeat in as many games prompted “Fire Lindy” chants, which targeted the team’s third-year coach Lindy Ruff. That loss to the Red Wings felt like even more of a failure because, after their first defeat against the Flyers, eighth-year Devils winger Miles Wood let off some steam and amped up the stakes of their early-season affairs.

Those comments looked bad in the cold light of an 0-2 record, but ever since losing that “must-win” game the Devils have been playing up to their potential, not just winning but dominating the flow of play as they’ve shot to the top of the Metropolitan with a 6-3-0 mark. Against Anaheim, in what I guess was a double-or-nothing must-win game, the Devils absorbed the shock of an early 2-0 deficit, doubled up their opponents’ shots, and came back to win 4-2. They handily beat the Islanders while outshooting them 43-17. They took down the Sharks in similar fashion before suffering a goaltending breakdown against the Caps—it happens—then came back to get revenge against the Red Wings in a dominant 6-2 win. On Friday night, hosting the Avalanche, it was 21-year-old centerpiece Jack Hughes who shot through traffic on a third-period power play to score the game’s only goal as New Jersey outdueled the reigning champs.

And in their follow-up on Sunday afternoon against Columbus, the team enjoyed an easygoing prelude to Devil’s Night when they egged and T.P.’d the Blue Jackets to the tune of a 7-1 final score. As the crowd booed newly uniformed Jackets star Johnny Gaudreau, who many believed would sign with the Devils this offseason, the home team refused to coast, ripping CBJ apart with a whopping 53 shots on goal. And after that regretful quote that already feels like it came from another season entirely, Miles Wood delivered some neat hustle long after the outcome was decided and gave the game its final score.

“This win shows character,” said Nico Hischier, the Devils’ 23-year-old captain. “We beat a great team and then put it behind us … We came out to play today. It was an all-around fun game, every line played well.”

Even though the typical Devils injury curse has already come for their biggest signing of the summer, Ondrej Palat, this team’s early success looks as real as possible for its sample size. The Devils are leading the NHL in shots per game with 39.3, and they’re also best by a wide margin with only 21.7 allowed per game. The goaltending hasn’t necessarily been reassuring, as both newcomer Vitek Vanecek and 2015 second-round pick Mackenzie Blackwood have each had spotty starts while 2021 signee Jonathan Bernier works his way back from serious injury. But Vanecek has put up back-to-back strong outings, and the defense, bolstered by a trade for John Marino from Pittsburgh, is doing everything it can to protect the net while suffocating the opposition on the penalty kill. Meanwhile the offense, though there’s room for improvement when it comes to finishing, is riding high on performances from the team’s young core. Their pair of former first-overall picks, Hughes and Hischier, are prominent producers, and diamond-in-the-rough Jesper Bratt has built on last year’s breakout with at least a point in every single game.

The recent history of failure in New Jersey means that getting excited about the Devils is a pretty high-risk endeavor, and the team’s lackluster attendance so far this year (their average home game is 31st in the league, ahead of just the Coyotes) points to how fans won’t be won over with just a week or two of impressive performances. New Jersey still has a long way to go to really prove that they belong in the postseason, and nobody will remember this intriguing start if everything falls apart again over the winter. But these are clearly not flukey results. They have outplayed the rest of the NHL, night after night for two solid weeks, and the aspects of the game that are more difficult to control are poised to swing in their favor. Just as the rest of the league was starting to wonder if this wannabe dynasty was ever going to shift out of first gear, the scariest hockey team in the world is the Devils. Happy Halloween.

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