Jack Hughes thought he was good as a professional hockey player. A #1 draft pick in 2019, Hughes had his best life over the next four seasons, skating for the Devils and emerging as a star in the NHL.
Then he reached the postseason.
“I thought the NHL regular season was a blast,” he gleefully said. “It’s not even close to qualifying.”
Hughes and his Devils teammates were flying Monday night in Newark, NJ, coming off a 4-0 victory over the Rangers in Game 7 of their first-round series. They were shocked by their larger and more experienced neighbors and sent a message that seemed to have been delivered a year or two ahead of schedule.
The Devils, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2012, only won 27 games last season as they continue to rebuild under Tom Fitzgerald, their general manager since 2020. They’ve added top-notch selections, like Hughes and Nico Hesher, a first overall pick In 2017, he made promising deals and brought major free agents.
The team they have built is fast and skilful, and the signs are of improvement this year. Now they hope a steady rise follows over the next several seasons.
Given the ages of most of these quick young players, their burgeoning talent and tenacity, and the evidence seen on the ice in the series, it’s reasonable to assume that the league – and Rangers fans – will have to contend with these demons after 2023.
“This is the time of year we want to play for the next 10 years,” said Hughes, who also noted that Devils fans now have regional bragging rights, at least until next spring.
Game 7 on Monday ended a wild first round of the NHL playoffs, with road teams winning a record 31 out of 50 games. 14 games have gone to overtime, with the road team winning 11 of them. The best regular season team in history, the Boston Bruins, lost to the Florida Panthers, the second and final wild card in the East. The defending champion Colorado Avalanche fell to the Seattle Kraken, a second-year expansion team playing in their first season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won the first round of the playoff series for the first time since 2004, defeating the Lightning in Game 6 in Tampa, Florida, and became one of six teams to clinch their series on the road.
Of the eight remaining teams, the Carolina Hurricanes are the most recent Stanley Cup champions, all the way back in 2006. They beat the Long Islanders in overtime of Game 6 and will now host the Devils in Game 1 on Wednesday.
The Devils will likely stick with goalie Akira Schmid, their rising star, who helped turn the series back against the Rangers. After New Jersey lost their first two games at home, coach Lindy Ruff sat Vitek Fanesek in game three and gave Schmid the net. The Devils won four of their five games.
Schmid scored twice and posted a 1.38 goals-against average in the series and became the fifth rookie to earn a shutout in a Game 7, the first since Carey Price in Montreal in 2008.
“The most important thing is that Schmido, obviously, came in and played unrealistically,” Hughes said of the team’s turnaround. “It was a brick wall for us.”
Schmid could be another part of the Devils’ promising future. He will turn 23 on May 12, and has started just 14 regular season games, coming off the bench in four more games with the Devils, who signed Vanesque to a three-year contract last summer. Vanecek was excellent during the regular season, but desperation forced a transfer.
Schmid is from Bern, Switzerland, is 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds and was nicknamed Schmido the Torpedo by his classmates. He played 23 games in the minors with the AHL’s Utica Comets this season, and his goals against average is higher there (2.62) than in regular season games with New Jersey (2.13). Perhaps this is not surprising. This statistic also reflects how the team plays in general, and Schmid explained that playing in the NHL can be less chaotic for a goaltender. The structure in front of goal is usually better, and defenders are more adept at clearing rebounds and blocking tips.
“Sometimes the play is almost easy to read,” said Schmid.
While the Devils are remarkably quick, they also showed desire and toughness, especially in Game 7. Ondrej Palat’s relentless drive and desire led to a first-goal head-to-head on Monday. Balat, who won two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning, was signed in July to add playoff experience and showed his team the kind of work needed to win the playoffs.
“This team has no quit,” said Ruve. “They gave me everything they had.”
Erik Haula is another veteran who was acquired in the most recent offseason, through a trade to Boston, to increase the team’s playoff intelligence. He played 41 games with the Hurricanes in 2019-20 and played against them in the playoffs last year as a member of the Bruins, who lost in seven games.
On Monday, Hoola scored the third goal for his team, in another example of the Devils’ combination of hard work with finesse, determination and skill. Balat won the puck battle on the boards, and kicked the puck to Hughes, who made a perfect pass to Hula to loft it home.
The Devils will need more of that against the tough Hurricanes, who have the home ice advantage in the series by winning the D.C. Division by a single point over the Devils. But when they returned home to Newark for Games 3 and 4, Hola predicted the atmosphere would be better than it was in the first round.
“It will only get louder when we get the Rangers fans out of here,” he said.