Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils
Photo Credit: Bobby O'Hara

Hughes Boys Shine in Record Breaking Devils Win


The mantra around the Devils from the minute they walked off the ice last April was they wanted to be playing meaningful games at the end of the 22-23 season.  Even Jack Hughes is surprised at how far the Devils have come.

“If you asked me at the start of the year where we would be I probably wouldn’t have guessed this. I was just hoping that we would play meaningful hockey games down the stretch.”

Mission accomplished as they enter their 82nd game in Washington on Thursday. While a playoff berth is secure, and home-ice advantage in the first round is guaranteed, there are still significant stakes in game 82.

Currently, the Carolina Hurricanes sit atop the Metro Division one point ahead of the Devils, each with one game remaining.  The Devils currently hold the tie-breaker should the teams both end the season with an equal number of points.  Heading into Thursday the Devils have the favorable matchup advantage taking on struggling Washington while Carolina is matched up against a surging Florida Panthers team who likely awaits the Metro Division winner in the first round. 

Most have been gearing up for a potential Hudson River Rivalry in the first round, however, that is currently in doubt. With the Rangers locked into the third seed, there is still a significant chance that the Devils overtake the Hurricanes and set up a first round matchup with a Florida team that has been a difficult opponent all season long.

The players and coaches will inevitably say that you have to go through everyone to get to the Cup but the style of play of the Devils appears to be better suited to take on the Rangers or Penguins rather than the Panthers or Islanders. One thing is for certain, this team has demonstrated resilience throughout the season, responding to every setback and relishing whichever challenge the playoffs will present. 



The win over Buffalo in game 81 should not be overlooked, especially the way the Devils won, by controlling the game throughout from puck drop to the Hughes empty netter. Buffalo had it’s season on the line and was coming off a hard-fought, shootout victory over the Rangers in MSG on Monday night.  They also entered the game having recently dismantled the Devils in Buffalo.

“That Buffalo team is impressive, they will threaten everybody,” cautioned Ruff. “You look at their size, their skill, they have a couple of those top defensemen who played incredible.” 

Ruff implored the team to learn from its mistakes in Buffalo and not allow odd man rushes.

“You have to understand why we lost, we gave them those opportunities in Buffalo," Ruff said. "We tightened that up but they still created their own opportunities.”

The Devils response to the challenge was made more impressive by the integration of Luke Hughes which upset the normal defensive pairings as the Devils reverted to a 11/7 lineup. 

The hallmark of this team has been it’s resilience and ability to continue to improve as the stakes grew.

“You gotta give the guys in that dressing room a lot of credit,” said Ruff post-game. “They believe in what we are trying to do and they hold each other accountable.”

Ruff preached from very early on that this team needed to get comfortable being uncomfortable and they have shown a knack for finding ways to be successful even when it appears the tide has turned on them. The 22-23 Devils lead the NHL in comeback wins (25, also a franchise record) and multi-goal comeback wins (eight) which should serve notice they they are never out of a game as the postseason begins. 



Few superlatives remain that accurately describe the transcendence of Jack Hughes this season. The previously much maligned 2019 first overall draft pick is, at 21 years old, considered an ascending, elite player and was feted with chants of “MVP, MVP…” as he exited the Prudential Center ice.  Hughes punctuated a dream season with an empty net goal to take sole possession of first place for most points in a season by a New Jersey Devil (97)  


Throughout the game it did not look promising as Hughes’s attempts on goal missed the mark and later Nico Hischier was robbed by Devon Levi on a shot that would have garned Jack an assist should it have found the back of the net. With just 2:32 left on the clock, and with the game firmly in the Devils control, Hughes took the ice for what would be his final shift, his last chance to break the record on home ice.

Forty-seven seconds later he would get that opportunity, in large part, due to the tireless work of Jesper Bratt who sprinted down the ice to cancel an icing then found Hughes streaking through the zone towards the empty net. Hughes did not miss and the celebration was on. 

After the game an affable Jack Hughes shared that he was, “really excited, not just for me but for the team. I play with so many really great players and the boys were really excited for me, it just shows how much team success we’ve had this year.”

The reactions of the players on the ice, both at the time of the goal and immediately after the game when the scoreboard flashed the 97 graphic shows that the feeling is certainly mutual. 




The Vitek has rebounded after a mini-slump to again provide the Devils with strong starts. It has seemed as the games have gotten bigger so has Vanecek’s play. Vanecek’s play this season has seen him rise to the first goalie not named Martin Brodeur in several franchise records. He now is the only goalie, other than Martin Brodeur, to have recorded 33 wins, as well as three assists on the season (Brodeur’s record is four, accomplished several times).

He continued his stellar play earning the second star against the Sabres. In that game, he saved nearly two goals above expected and made 36 total saves. Ruff characterized it as, “an A plus performance.” Other than the disastrous Winnepeg game where nobody on the team played well, Vanecek has had a save percentage over .912 every game since March 27, with four of five topping out over .940. 

He is noticeably corralling and directing his rebounds and has come up with some significant saves at crucial times. It will be interesting to see if he has played his last regular season game this year or will have an opportunity to end the season against the team that traded him away almost ten months ago.  Ruff indicated Tuesday night that the staff was still discussing how to deploy their goalies against Washington with the potential for four days off following the game. 



Upon his return to New Jersey for training camp Tomas Tatar immediately made clear that he was unhappy with the way he performed last season and said he spent his summer preparing to turn his fortunes around.  Whatever he did over the summer certainly worked as Tatar has been the unsung hero all along this season. 

Against the Sabres, he potted his 19th and 20th goals, marking the sixth time in his career that he has achieved a 20-goal season.  Tatar also currently sits as the top forward in the NHL in +/- with an overall +41, a 63 point improvement over his -22 a year ago.


Tatar has emerged as a leader in the dressing room and can often be seen joking with the younger players. He has been described as frustratingly good at everything he does from the pregame two-touch soccer matches to locker room ping pong matches.

Tatar deflected praise about scoring his 20th goal saying, “It’s a nice achievement, I’ve done it before. My sole goal this year was to be in the playoffs and be in a position that I think a lot of the guys were brought in here for.”  



That Luke Hughes was set to make his debut was not lost on anyone related to the Devils franchise. Less than a week after leaving the ice in Tampa for the Michigan Wolverines, Hughes took the ice in a Devils Jersey and was inserted into the starting lineup, much to the delight of the sold out crowd

Ruff recognized how special the moment was for the Hughes family, and started Luke alongside his brother Jack. “You only get one chance to have your first game and to have it with your brother is extra special.” Ruff commented after the game. 


Hughes took a total of 13 shifts seeing just over 11 minutes of ice time in his debut. He ended the game without a shot on goal but did have two blocks and never looked out of place with the pace of the game. He also posted a hit and a takeaway. Reflecting after the game, Luke said, “It was a dream come true, it was really special, it was pretty fun to play out there.” 

Jack Hughes indicated that there is much to come from Luke in the future, “  Everyone knows how special a player he will be when we are competing for cups in the next couple of years.”

Luke returned the favor saying about Jack, “I’m super happy for him, he’s had a hell of a year and he totally deserves (the points record). 

The Devils will close out the regular season in Washington on Thursday with a chance to pass Carolina for first place in the Metro Division.