The 39th season of Devils hockey in New Jersey finally kicked off tonight after a nine day wait. It resulted in two points for the home team as the Devils defeated the visiting Chicago Blackhawks in overtime, 4-3.
To begin with, some roster news as Tyce Thompson came off of the Injured Reserve list today and was assigned to the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League.
Mackenzie Blackwood (recovering from a heel injury), Ty Smith (lower body), Damon Severson (lower body) and Miles Wood (lower body) all remain on Injured Reserve. Severson could be back as quickly as Tuesday versus the Seattle Kraken.
It had been 584 days since a full house of fans last witnessed the Devils play. In the ensuing two years or so, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of a season, kept fans out of the building and then restricted the amount of fans that could be in the building.
The Devils wore special jerseys for warmups with “Broadway 10” on the back and the Blackhawks likewise wore ones with “Haysey 39” on the back. Those were nicknames for – and the numbers worn by – Jimmy Hayes. Hayes tragically passed away this past offseason and had spent time playing for both franchises. It was a fitting tribute for a man who was beloved in both locker rooms.
The Devils were kicking off a five-game homestand to begin the season for the first time since 2018-19. Those five games tied a franchise record for longest homestand to begin a season.
In net, the Devils started Jonathan Bernier – one of seven players making his Devils debut tonight, including Dawson Mercer, who was making his NHL debut as well. Bernier stopped 24 of the 27 Hawks shots he saw for an .889 save percentage. Of those 27 shots, he got 18-of-19 at even strength, five of seven power play shots and Chicago’s lone shorthanded shot. Chicago was 2-for-5 on the power play.
The Blackhawks, who have already played a game this season, went to Kevin Lankinen for his first start of the year. He turned aside 25 of the Devils’ 29 shots for an .862 save percentage. He got 21-of-25 at even strength, all three Devils power play shots and their single shorthanded shot. The Devils finished the night 0-for-2 on the man advantage.
With the in-division only games last season, this was the first time the Devils and Blackhawks had played each other since December of 2019, almost two years.
Of note was that linesman Jonathan Deschamps was making his NHL debut tonight.
And the Devils wasted no time in getting things kicked off. Just 17 seconds into the new season, Dougie Hamilton, the highly touted big-time free agent the Devils landed this off-season, made his presence felt. Pavel Zacha created a turnover just inside the Chicago blueline and found Hamilton trailing. Hamilton skated to the slot and snapped off a wrister, beating Lankinen to make it 1-0 Devils. That goal was not only the fastest goal to start a season by a Devil in franchise history (besting Zach Parise, who scored 26 seconds into the 2006-07 season, but also the fastest goal in NHL history by a defenseman making his debut for a new team.
It would remain 1-0 until 51 seconds into the second period. Here, with Janne Kuokkanen going into the box for high sticking at the end of the first period, Alex DeBrincat passed to Tyler Johnson at the far side of the Devils’ net. Johnson passed back to DeBrincat through the slot, where it was tipped by Patrick Kane back to DeBrincat, who got it at the side of the net and laid it in to tie the game up at one.
However, before the end of the second, Jack Hughes would score his first of two on the night to give the Devils back the lead. It came at 17:58 when Hughes cut in on the forecheck and stole the puck from Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy. He attempted to center the puck, but it came back to him, he then grabbed it and skated towards the middle, spinning around and whipping it past Lankinen to score. Yegor Sharangovich had the primary assist on the goal and Kuokkanen had the secondary.
The Devils built on their lead 6:34 into third when Andreas Johnsson scored. Mercer threw the puck towards the net from up high. Johnsson beat Murphy to the puck, which had hit Lankinen in the back of the leg. It came to Johnsson and he put it behind Lankinen to make it 3-1 Devils. Mercer, with the primary assist, had his first NHL point. Congratulations to him on this achievement. Tomas Tatar had the secondary assist – his first point as a Devil.
From there, things got a little bit dicey for the Devils as Chicago began to mount a comeback.
At the 12:49 mark, Mercer took a double minor for high-sticking Tyler Johnson as Johnson was cutting through neutral zone. It was a freak play and one of those where Mercer just needed to be in control of his stick.
With the Devils down a man, Chicago pulled Lankinen for the 6-on-4 advantage. The Devils did a good job of killing the penalty and it was quite a gamble for the Blackhawks to pull the goalie with the Devils on the penalty kill and so much time remaining.
At 16:07, the gamble paid off. Kane went D-to-D with Johnson, who fired off a one-timer. Bernier fought off the initial shot, but it came right to Kirby Dach at the side of the Devils’ net. He put it in to make it 3-2 Devils.
The Hawks would pull Lankinen again with about two minutes to go in regulation. This too would pay off for them as, with 25 seconds left, Seth Jones threw it towards net. It was grabbed in the slot by Brandon Hagel, who passed down low to Dominik Kubalik at the side of the net. He scored to tie the game at three apiece with less than a minute to go.
With that, time expired and both teams had earned a point. It was a bit disappointing for the Devils, but something that they will need to go through on their way towards improving and learning how to win.
And speaking of winning.
Just 57 seconds into the OT period, the Devils recoved the puck in their own end, with Ryan Graves getting it to Hughes and then jumping up with him in a 2-on-1.
Jack decided to use Graves as a decoy, waiting for the Chicago defenseman to go down to his belly, leaving his feet when it was not totally necessary. Hughes simply skated around him, got Lankinen to commit to one side and then cut back, depositing the puck in the open side of the net.
He celebrated by happily throwing his stick into the crowd as the Devils had the 4-3 victory on opening night.
The Devils outshot Chicago 29-27, winning 48-percent of the game’s total faceoffs. Nico Hischier led the centers with a 60-percent personal winning percentage. The Devils also outhit the Blackhawks, 17-15, had double the amount of blocked shots at 14 to the Hawks’ seven, but had 18 giveaways to Chicago’s nine.
The top defensive pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves led the team in ice time – Hamilton with 25:54 of total ice time and Graves with 24:55. Sharangovich led the forwards with 18:50 of TOI. Jack Hughes, Kuokkanen and Hamilton led in power play time with 2:25. Graves led in time killing penalties with 5:55 as the Devils spent a good deal of time in the box.
Hughes led in points with his two goals on the night. Shots on goal was led by Johnsson, Hischier, Michael McLeod, Zacha, Hughes and Hamilton with three each. Hits wee led by Hamilton and Christian Jaros with three each. Blocks were led by PK Subban with four while Subban also led in giveaways with five. Hughes led in takeaways with a whopping six, with Jimmy Vesey coming in second with three.
So, with this great win and two points under their belts, the Devils will next welcome the Seattle Kraken to town in the first meeting between the teams on Tuesday.
Players and coaches interviewed tonight talked about how the fans really showed up for this game and made the atmosphere special. Hopefully, fans can do the same on Tuesday for the second of five home games to kick off the season and the first time we will welcome Seattle to Newark.
See you then!