Things are looking oh so good for the New Jersey Devils from top to bottom.
When we say top to bottom we quite literally mean top to bottom given that the New Jersey Devils appear to have both their ideal top-line and their perfect bottom-line for the foreseeable future in the wake of a back-to-back set against the Buffalo Sabres this weekend.
The Devils beat the Sabres 5-3 earlier today to split the back-to-back after dropping the first game in a Shootout on Saturday, and two big positives emerged in both contests, particularly in today’s big win which keeps New Jersey right in the mix in an ultra-competitive East Division in the opening couple of weeks of the 2020-21 NHL season.
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Firstly, Head Coach Lindy Ruff really has something in his newly-constructed top-line of Andreas Johnsson, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. The trio have meshed perfectly over the last few games and this weekend can be considered their coming out party.
Johnsson scored his first goal for the Devils on Saturday with a beautiful snipe that went top-shelf, and it was a pretty nice feed from Hughes. Bratt didn’t record a point in that first game against the Sabres but he did give this offense a different dimension by making a number of slick plays in the offensive zone thanks to his filthy mitts when he has the puck on his stick.
The trio were at it again in today’s bounce-back game and Bratt picked up his first point of the season with a primary assist on Johnsson’s second goal in as many games, and they all played big minutes in both games, particularly Hughes and Bratt who logged over 19 minutes of ice time on Saturday and 18 minutes total ice time today.
The New Jersey Devils have struck gold with their top and bottom lines
With Hughes, who has eight points (3 G, 5 A) in nine games really flourishing in his sophomore season, Johnsson finding his feet with his new team and Bratt also hitting his stride after missing Training Camp and the start of the season, this line is only going to get better and what is even more encouraging is the fact that it gives the Devils a legit elite second-line once Nico Hischier returns from injury.
Hischier’s long-awaited return should spark a resurgence in both Nikita Gusev and Kyle Palmieri who have been sluggish out of the gate this season and, should that happen and the Hughes line continues to roll, then the New Jersey Devils will be a dangerous team offensively especially with rookie defenseman Ty Smith also contributing in a big way with eight points (2 G, 6 A) in nine games.
Then, what about that fourth-line today?! After Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian combined to help Janne Kuokkanen score his first NHL goal on Saturday, McLeod centered a bottom-line with Bastian and Miles Wood on either wing and, boy, was it explosive.
I mean, in order to be successful in the NHL you need secondary scoring and contributions from all four lines and the Devils got that and a whole lot more from their fourth-line this afternoon. McLeod and Wood recorded two goals each while Bastian picked up an assist and that trio was responsible for New Jersey getting the win today.
McLeod set the tone for the game by scoring just 20 seconds into the first period and it was just what the Devils needed, and he also scored the go-ahead goal at 10:40 in the third period. Then there is Wood who, very much the whipping boy among Devils fans at points, has really elevated his game so far this season and he used his speed and his size to his advantage in today’s win.
His first goal of the day was absolutely huge as he batted a puck down with his hand before racing in, unleashing a shot and then following up his own rebound to put the puck past Carter Hutton with time expiring in the second period with what was a huge and game-changing goal. It summed up just how huge Wood has been for New Jersey a couple of weeks into 2020-21, and his empty-netter was also equally as important given that his team had already allowed the Sabres back into the game. Let’s not forget his sublime dish that set up McLeod’s second of the game, giving Miles Wood a three-point night and plenty of deserved plaudits.
Not only did they make a significant impact on the scoreboard, however, but that fourth-line also made their presence known on the forecheck, they hit hard, they made life hard for the Buffalo Sabres constantly, they used a lethal combination of speed, skill and size to their advantage and they could be a secret weapon for the Devils.
There is no doubt that Lindy Ruff needs to stick with this new-look fourth-line, and if they can produce and have a sizeable impact on games as they did today then the Devils will be in a very good spot, as they will with the talent-laden line of Andreas Johnsson, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, who look dangerous every time they take the ice together. Plus, with Nico Hischier and Travis Zajac on their way back coupled with the hopeful return to form of both Nikita Gusev and Kyle Palmieri, the New Jersey Devils could actually be a formidable force in the East Division in 2020-21 and their newly-formed top and bottom lines will play huge roles in any success they enjoy.