Newark — Jack Hughes knows the New Jersey Devils can be better.
The Devils dropped Saturday’s Hudson River Rivalry matchup to the New York Rangers 5-3 in regulation. The Blueshirts seized the opportunity despite trailing in the third period, scoring two goals and an empty netter on the sticks of Artemi Panarin, Jimmy Vesey, and Blake Wheeler.
The Devils held a 3-2 lead with just about 10 minutes of play left. However, defensive breakdowns late in the contest led to a pointless night against the Devils’ biggest rival. As a result, New Jersey are losers in four out of their last five contests.
“I think we like we’re good hockey team,” Hughes explained following his return from injury. “We’re in a rough stretch of hockey right now, including (Saturday night).”
“That’s a game really good teams win. We’re not there right now. That’s something that we’re gonna have to get back to because we’ve done it before and we just got to sharpen up. (From) our top guys all the way to the bottom. We just got to just sharpen up.”
The Devils aren’t surprising anyone this season. They’re not off to the same start they were last season which propelled them to 112 points.
Injuries have certainly hampered New Jersey, however, something just doesn’t look quite right. They’re still dominating the puck at 5-on-5 and scoring at will on the man advantage, yet they can’t keep the puck out of their own net.
Last season, Vitek Vanecek accrued 33 wins and Akira Schmid provided the proper backup and at times took over the fluid starting role. The goaltending, although inconsistent, wasn’t a major issue. It’s certainly an issue this season, however, that wasn’t the difference on Saturday. Instead, it was the team in front of him.
This summer, the Devils’ blue line received a major makeover. Damon Severson was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan Graves signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now, Kevin Bahl is playing an elevated role, and Luke Hughes is an everyday NHLer. Colin Miller also joined New Jersey after the Devils acquired the defenseman from the Dallas Stars.
Although the Devils’ blue line might not be weaker than last season by personnel, there seems to be something that’s not clicking. Time and time again, head coach Lindy Ruff has drilled his blue liners on closing gaps and not allowing the opposition to skate through them in high-danger areas. That was absent in the third period against the Rangers.
It’s not like the Devils haven’t received Ruff’s message before. Jesper Bratt, who agrees with Hughes’ assessment of the Devils’ current state, points out New Jersey was able to lock down a 60-minute effort in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
“I agree (with Jack),” Bratt said. “I mean last game against Pittsburgh, we were in the exact same situation. We were playing against a team that won a lot of games in a row. Last time, we found a way to play a really solid road game and come out of it winning. Tonight we did the opposite.”
The stat sheet will tell you that the Devils out-hit the Rangers 29-23. However, if the NHL recorded a stat labeled “meaningful hits,” the Devils certainly would have trailed in the category. Jacob Trouba and Vincent Trocheck were physical menaces all night in their revenge game from the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps they wore out New Jersey.
Both of New York’s tying and game-winning goals were certainly avoidable. Panarin took advantage of the Devils’ lost faceoff draw, scooping the puck up in the dot and sniping it past Vanecek to knot the game at three in the third period. Later, Vesey walked through the Devils’ defense and scored on his own rebound with a nifty backhander. Both goals could have been avoided had someone taken the body to either Blueshirt.
“I think the difference was they (made their own fortune),” Ruff explained. “We didn’t execute on that one face-off (when Panarin scored). The inside guys on the ice didn’t execute. There’s no way he should get a shot from there.”
The physical battle translated to goals for the Rangers. Their ability to grind the Devils down opened the door for opportunity later in the game with a mixture of defensive lapses on New Jersey’s end. Speaking up as more of a leader this season, Hughes called out the Devils’ effort again, this time in regard to their physicality.
“They played physical and we didn’t match that,” Hughes explained. “It’s something we’re gonna have to be, not more emotionally involved because we were, but we just gotta be physical in our own way.”