The Devils kicked off this week hosting an incredible event at Prudential Center on Monday night. The 'Sweep the Deck' Gala was a night of curling and casino to benefit the Devils Care Foundation.
The first-ever Devils Sweep the Deck event was an incredible success, attended by all Devils players and executives who were able to mix and mingle with guests and try their hand at curling as well.
I had the chance to ask around, and it sounds like Travis Zajac was the stand-out curler, but he came into the event with an unfair advantage of having played on a rec team in college.
So, for those without experience, Will Butcher's name came up quite often. I asked him about it, he told me he had pretty bad form the first couple of tries, but once he got the hang of it he was pretty proud of his abilities.
But, I will say one of my favorite moments was when I caught Nikita Gusev curling. First of all, no one looked like they were having more fun, and I'm pretty sure I caught him cheating a couple of times (!!!) pushing the rock down the lane with his broom.
But he's Goose, so we let it slide!
It's taken a bit of time, but Miles Wood seems to have found his stride over the last couple of weeks. The 24-year-old completed a two-goal night against the Philadelphia Flyers to bring his season total to 10 goals, with plenty of real estate left in the season.
In 63 games in 2018-19, Wood had a 10-goal output. He's reached that mark in his first 53 games this season.
I asked Devils interim head coach Alain Nasreddine about Wood, how he's playing and what improvements he's seen in his game lately. Nasreddine pointed to Wood no longer being a newcomer to the NHL, in his fourth full season, other teams now know plenty about the speedy forward.
"He's known around the league now," Nasreddine said. "I remember his first year he would get one or two breakaways a game early because teams didn't know him. So now they're aware of him. He still managed to create offense with his speed but for him there's one area where he's got to go: it's to that net-front."
"With the speed he's got, he's able to beat d-men and go back for pucks," added Nasreddine. "That's what we expect from him, sometimes when Miles gets in trouble, he's trying to do too much with the puck. His game should be very simple: get the puck behind the [defense], get it back and usually he gets it back first."
We were treated to a heck of a goaltender performance from Mackenzie Blackwood on Thursday night in Philadelphia. The young netminder turned away an outstanding 46 shots from the Flyers for his second shutout of the season. Sure, you don't want to see your team give up 46 shots to your opponent, but when you have a goaltending performance like that of Blackwood's everyone is happy in the end. Blackwood's performance put him in the Devils record books, just behind Martin Brodeur for most saves in a shutout in franchise history.
Mackenzie was just four shots short of tying the record: 51 by Brodeur in 2010.
Mackenzie brushed it off as no big deal, but he did earn his first NHL assist in the game against the Flyers. When I asked him post-game about it, of course he was excited to have recorded a first point, but he made a point to recognize he touched the puck behind his net to stop the puck on the power play and Damon Severson did the rest of the work streaking up the ice and completing the play with a goal.
When asked if he got the puck from the play: "Well, I got *a* puck." He's not convinced it was the one from the play, but either way… we can all pretend.
He did it again two nights later, a second consecutive shutout, this time making 37 saves against the L.A. Kings. And though he has played just 62 NHL games in his career, it marked the second time he has registered two consecutive shutouts. The last time was in his fifth and sixth NHL game, against Carolina on December 29th, 2017 and the following game against Vancouver on December 31st.
In his first shutout streak, he went 135:26 without letting in a goal. This time around, he's sitting at 135:03, just 23 seconds off his career-high.
Prior to leaving for Philadelphia last week, I was standing in the Devils locker room talking with Matt Loughlin, Jack Hughes, and Travis Zajac. Someone brought up Devils records and Zajac approaching 1000 NHL games played (he sits at 976). Jack asked him if he would ever sit out game 1000 if it were on the road, so that he could play 1000 at home. Travis was quick to say no, if he can play, he'd play. I think most players would have the same thought pattern, but this was absolutely no surprise coming from Zajac, who really doesn't ever like to make anything about himself. I see him cringe when he knows I'm about to ask him a question about a milestone he's about to hit or has hit. It's just not who Travis is. Talking about himself, you can tell makes him feel uncomfortable.
Against Philly, Travis assisted on the opening goal 13 seconds into the game by Blake Coleman, an assist that put Zajac into a tie with Kirk Muller for sixth place on the Devils all-time assists list with 335.
His next target is Scott Stevens and his 337 assists.
There's a name down in Binghamton we might want to start familiarizing ourselves with: Nick Merkley, who arrived in the Devils organization through the Taylor Hall trade, has fully adapted to live on the Binghamton roster. He's played 20 games for Binghamton since the trade and has recorded 18 points, with seven goals and 11 assists.
Now that Joey Anderson has been with the NHL club for a few days, I had a chance to chat with him about his experience starting the year in Binghamton. Anderson started out by saying "it stunk", a natural response from a player who had a taste of the NHL the year prior. Anderson took the whole thing in stride and has since passed on his advice to another young player that has found himself in Binghamton after time in the NHL.
It's a situation that prospect Jesper Boqvist has found himself in, sent down to Binghamton during the Bye-Week and All-Star Break, Anderson shared some advice with Boqvist on his arrival in the AHL.
"Obviously he wants to be here [in NJ], but I think he's excited to play some of those key roles and getting the puck on his stick in all situations," Anderson told me. "I just told him, from my perspective what I've gone through, just, you know don't be worried about making mistakes, you're going to get the puck, they're not going to move you around. You're going to get your touches. So don't worry about if you're turning one over, just go get it back and keep your head up and keep trying things. Don't be discouraged by a couple plays that don't go your way. It's a tough league, and he'll find success down there, he's skilled enough and smart enough and he works his tail off, it won't be long until he's back."
The Devils have been without Nico Hischier this week, dealing with an injury since the game against Dallas on February 1st. In his absence, Jack Hughes has been elevated to the top line center role with Jesper Bratt and Kyle Palmieri on his wings. It's not an easy role for an 18-year-old to jump into in his first NHL season, but Jack has been adapting to the new role.
Against Montreal, Jack had one of his best performances in the face-off dot, with a team-leading 57 percent win rate with eight wins and six losses (Kyle Palmieri was 100 percent but only took one faceoff).
Jack has had two assists in the three games he's filled in for Hischier, which ended a run of six games without a point to bring his total to 19 points.
Where coach Nasreddine saw Hughes take a step in the role was against the L.A. Kings, his third game on the top line, where he earned an assist and managed the puck well.
"Tonight, I liked him a lot." Nasreddine said after the game against the L.A. Kings. "I thought he was quick on pucks, used his speed, battled in the hard areas. I thought that was a good game for him. When I notice him like that, around the puck more and carrying the puck, the puck is on his stick quite a bit."
Devils are tied for third in the NHL with nine shorthanded goals. Dating back to December 8, the Devils lead the NHL with eight shorthanded markers. The Devils also have the best net PK% in the NHL since that time at 93.7% (goals against minus shorthanded goals for divided by total opportunities).
Only Anaheim (10) and Ottawa (12) have more shorthanded goals this season.
On Saturday night when the Devils hosted the L.A. Kings, the game marked the 500th NHL game played at Prudential Center. The official opening of the Prudential Center took place on October 25, 2007, with a series of Bon Jovi concerts. The first hockey game played at the arena was two nights later on October 27, 2007, when the Devils hosted the Ottawa Senators. Former Devil Brian Gionta was the first Devil to score in the arena, in the 4-1 loss to the Senators.
The first regular-season win for the Devils at Prudential Center was October 31, 2007, in a 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, a game where Jay Pandolfo recorded a hattrick.
By complete coincidence, a Devils/Senators matchup also closed the Continental Airlines Arena, before the move to Newark.