Photo Credit: David Siegrist

Road trip coming at just the right time for Devils

Road Warriors

When the Devils walked off the plane around 2:30 a.m. Saturday, November 26th, returning home after defeating the Buffalo Sabres they sat in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They were poised to finish out a record-setting 13 win month of November.  The Devils looked poise to  continue their frenetic pace as seven of their next 10 games would be at home with the road games being at the Rangers and Flyers.  The Devils won two of the three road games taking five of six possible total points.

Despite a raucous home atmosphere, they failed to capitalize on the seven home games, winning only two (Chicago and Washington) and getting a point in a third (Nashville). A road trip could be just what the Devils need to get back on track. While the back to back games against Carolina and Florida won't allow for the extended FIFA tournament that happened earlier in the year, the players indicated that they look forward to the trip and a chance to continue to grow as a team. The Devils will be looking to begin a new road winning streak after snapping an 11-game streak that was one short of the NHL record and set a team record.

After the loss to the Panthers, a clearly agitated Brendan Smith talked about the phases a team goes through in a season and how this time of year the level of play begins to increase across the league.

"I don't know if we have upped our game, we've kinda lulled there, but we have to up our game and it is going to get harder," Smith said.

The best news for the Devils seems to be their play on the road, while the Devils are experiencing a five-game winless streak, the team enters Tuesday’s contest with an 11-1-1 record in road games. The one regulation loss on the road marks the fewest in the NHL so far this season.

Tough Enough

At the conclusion of a disappointing 2021-22 season, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald stepped to the podium and described his vision of a team that would have more grit and be tougher to play against. Many viewed the Devils as not being a heavy enough team to compete with the bigger teams in the league last season.  The Devils tried to assemble a grittier team in the offseason by signing, Ondrej Palat, and Brendan Smith, and trading for Erik Haula.

These additions, as well as the return of a healthy Miles Wood made the Devils a more formidable opponent no longer needing to rely on the cliche of a goon to protect their young stars. Twice this season opponents have targeted captain Nico Hischier. First, the Senators Austin Watson took liberties against the captain with a wicked cross-check to the back of a vulnerable Hischier. The Florida Panthers went after Hischier after their own captain, Alexander Barkov, got injured.

While it may have been clear to those watching the broadcast, the players and coaches were not initially aware of why the Panthers were seemingly targeting Hischier.

After practice, Wood told reporters, "As players, we had no idea what transpired during the game...Even Hischier had no idea what happened, because it was a quick draw, the play was done and then we went to the room. We had no idea Barkov was down."

The first indication of an issue was when a scrum ensued at center ice prior to the beginning of the second period. Wood shared that the team took care of it, "internally" and that what transpired was not seen by those off the ice as there was considerable chirping back and forth.

He agreed that there could have been a more physical response, "should we have bumped a little more, yeah, I think we had ten or so hits. I've been at fault a few times this year for not stepping in and hitting people, and I've been called out. It's part of my game and as a team we gotta step up more in that department."

The team has the necessary pieces in the room to play a tougher style to blend with the speed game. Ruff indicated as much in his post-practice comments as he described that he was disappointed with the team's failure to match the physicality of the Panthers after playing "heavy" against the physical Flyers just two days prior.

"We were so emotionally engaged in the Philly game," Ruff said. "They were  hard and they were heavy and I thought we answered the bell just being physical back. I thought we had times (against Florida) to finish checks and get into people, make it really hard on them, send a message right back, and I said to them after the game I didn't think we were heavy enough in that category."

Despite his team's failure to match the physicality of the Panthers, Ruff has previously praised his team for standing up for each other, most recently when Michael McLeod challenged Alexander Romanov of the Islanders after a devastating hit that knocked Wood out of the game.  While no longer dressing a player like Mason Geertsen as a deterrent, the team certainly has enough players who are willing to police the ice and protect the team's young stars.

Brendan Smith has consistently been one of the players who has aggressively challenged opponents he deems threats to his teammates. "I think there were a lot of hacks and cross checks after the whistle (On Hischier and Mercer specifically) I didn't really like it so I stepped right in there," Smith said.

Many Devils fans have clamored for Smith to be replaced in the lineup by Kevin Bahl but according to Ruff, Smith's leadership and toughness is vital to the team.

Blackwood Returns

On Monday, the Devils officially recalled goalie Mackenzie Blackwood from his two-game conditioning stint in Utica of the AHL. Blackwood will return to become part of the goaltending tandem with Vitek Vanecek and is expected to play on the upcoming two-game road trip either against Carolina or Florida.

"The reports (from the Utica games) are he knocked some rust off in the first game and played really well in the second game," Ruff said about Blackwood's AHL stint. "It’s great to get him a couple of games and get him back here playing."

The decisions to be made on how to deploy the goaltenders will be crucial in an upcoming stretch that includes two games with Carolina and two with Boston in an 11-day stretch. Blackwood, a RFA at the end of the season, is also trying to reestablish himself as a franchise goaltender after battling through several injuries over the past few seasons. Ruff remains optimistic that Blackwood can help,

"We thought from day one he was going to be a big part of our success and he's back and he's healthy," Ruff said about Blackwood.

In a corresponding move, the Devils sent goalie Akira Schmid back to Utica.  Schmid impressed many with his play for the Devils filling in for Blackwood. Schmid's stellar play (.930 save %) have caused some to speculate that the Devils should carry all three goaltenders or look to move Blackwood, however neither seems to be the best option at the moment. Schmid is a waivers exempt and can continue to stay sharp and ready by playing in the AHL. Ruff was impressed with Schmid's contribution to the team and praised his growth by showing for the first time that he can be successful at the NHL level.

The Devils have hit a scoring lull as Hischier and Jesper Bratt have not kept up the torrid pace from the start of the season and the secondary scoring has also diminished.  Finding ways to add "dirty" goals and getting good opportunities in the high slot remains a priority for the Devils who certainly have the firepower to outscore teams. Thus far the team is 19-2-2 when scoring three-or-more goals in a contest this season. They face off against Carolina on Tuesday, December 20th at 7:00 in Raleigh in a battle for sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.