Photo Credit: Mark Fischgrund

Devils have the playoff goods

The Devils have played 46 games this season after a 2-1 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon at Prudential Center.

By the time an NHL team reaches that mark of many games played, you should have a good idea of what type of team that team is.

The verdict is in: The Devils are a playoff team.

There can be no arguments about it. All they do is win. They are never out of a game. This is a young team that exudes confidence with its emboldening offensive firepower. This is a young team that doesn’t know any better, and that’s a good thing from a confidence standpoint. Most importantly, they’ve got a reliable goaltender in Vitek Vanacek, a revelation in his first season with the Devils.

We all knew they would improve at some point. They accumulated so much young talent and drafted high over the years. They could only go nowhere but up. But no one knew they would be this good, not even Devils head coach Lindy Ruff, who was a strong odds-on favorite to be the first NHL head coach to be fired this season.

They are 30-12-4 this season, an improvement from last year’s 27-win campaign. They are two points behind the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. They are in the top three in their division, which would give them an automatic spot for the playoffs.

The Devils' turnaround begins with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. Hughes has matured to become an MVP candidate. One can make a case that he should be the MVP with the tremendous next step that he’s shown this season by scoring 30 goals (good for seventh in league-leading scorers) and dishing out 28 assists. He seems to have a knack for showing up when the Devils need it. He is a YouTube highlight reel. He could become the first 50-goal scorer for the franchise.

Hughes’ big moment this season came on Jan. 7 when he scored the game-tying goal in the third period with the Devils trailing 3-2. That goal was massive as it set the tone for a much-needed 4-3 overtime victory by Damon Severson. Remember the Devils went through a struggling period after starting the season at 21-4-1. His goal brought the Devils back on track by winning six of the next seven.

His 2022-2023 Devils' moment began when he scored a power-play goal in the third period that resulted in a Devils’ 1-0 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center. That was his third goal of the season. That moment may have had the Devils believe that they can beat anyone. In a big spot, he came through in a big game at home.

Another big moment came on Nov. 28 when Hughes’ goal broke a 2-2 tie in the second period, giving the Devils a 5-3 victory over the Rangers, representing a 10-1 start to the season.

Hughes may be the best offensive player this franchise has ever had when you look at his playmaking ability and natural scoring skill. The game comes so easily for him. This is a fourth-year player that figured it out. He could be what Steve Stamkos meant for the Tampa Bay Lightning. A player that brought respectability back to a franchise and a player that could be someone that scores important playoff goals in franchise history one day.

Hughes has made such an impact on the Devils that we forget about what Hischier has done. He’s matched his career-high 21 goals from last season already. He is on pace to score 40 goals for the season. Hischier is also a player that has figured the game out.

The Hughes-Hischier duo not only provides a reason to watch the Devils for a long time but also gives the Devils a chance to win a multitude of Stanley Cups one day. The best chance to hoist the Stanley Cup is building around superstars, and the Devils are fortunate to have this duo.

The Devils acquired Vanacek from the Washington Capitals to compete with Mackenzie Blackwood for the goaltending job this offseason. This did not make news in the hockey world, but he has made an impact on the Devils to the point where he has become their starting goaltender outright. He has provided a stablizing force by making saves and shutting down teams in the third period. After Sunday's win, he has a career-high seven-game winning streak.

If Hughes is the hero, then Vanacek is the unsung hero.

This Devils team has this special tangible that stands out. They are resilient. They are going to be a tough out come playoff time. This is a team that is never out of a game. We saw that in their comeback win against the Rangers this month. We saw that against the Edmonton Oilers out at Edmonton in November. We saw that against the San Jose Sharks last week at San Jose. Despite the loss on Thursday against the Seattle Kraken to finish the West Coast trip, they rallied a couple of times to tie the game on their way to a 4-3 overtime loss. This was good enough to get at least a point.

Here’s an eye-popping stat: the Devils are 14-5-3 on the road. It’s hard to win road games as it is, so for them to have that type of road record is impressive. It shows right there this team doesn’t know any better. They just go out and play. This can also serve them well come playoff time where road wins are a must to win.

Yes, this team has come a long way from head coach Lindy Ruff being the odds-on favorite for being fired to being the favorite to win the Jack Adams Award.

We know what the Devils are now.

Now, we get to know how good they can really be in the postseason this spring.