Jack Hughes thought he had it pretty good as a professional hockey player. The No. 1 draft pick in 2019, Hughes was living his best life over the ensuing four seasons, skating for the Devils and emerging as a superstar in the N.H.L.
Then he got to the postseason.
“I used to think the regular season in the N.H.L. was a blast,” he said, beaming. “It doesn’t even come close to the playoffs.”
Hughes and his Devils teammates were soaring Monday night in Newark, N.J., after their 4-0 win over the Rangers in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. They bumped off their physically larger and more experienced neighbors and sent a message that seems to have been delivered a year or two ahead of schedule.
The Devils, who had not won a playoff series since 2012, won only 27 games last season as they continued to rebuild under Tom Fitzgerald, their general manager since 2020. They had added top-end draft picks, like Hughes and Nico Hischier, the first overall pick in 2017, made promising trades and brought in key free agents.
The team they built is sizzling fast and skillful, and signs pointed to improvement this year. Now they hope it will be followed by a steady climb across the next several seasons.
Considering the ages of most of these speedy young players, the blossoming talent and cohesion, and the evidence seen on the ice in the series, it is reasonable to assume the league — and Rangers fans — will have to contend with these Devils well beyond 2023.
“This is the time of the year we want to be playing in for the next 10 years,” said Hughes, who also noted that Devils fans now own regional bragging rights, at least until next spring.
Monday’s Game 7 ended a wild first round of the N.H.L. playoffs, in which road teams won a record 31 of the 50 games. Fourteen games went to overtime, with the road team winning 11 of those. The best regular-season team in history, the Boston Bruins, lost to the Florida Panthers, the second and final wild card in the East. The defending champion Colorado Avalanche fell to the Seattle Kraken, a second-year expansion team that is playing in its first postseason.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won a first-round playoff series for the first time since 2004, beating the Lightning in Game 6 in Tampa, Fla., and became one of six teams to clinch their series on the road.
Of the eight remaining teams, the Carolina Hurricanes are the most recent Stanley Cup champion, all the way back in 2006. They beat the Islanders on Long Island in overtime of Game 6 and will now host the Devils for Game 1 on Wednesday.
The Devils are likely to stick with goalie Akira Schmid, their rookie sensation, who helped reverse the series against the Rangers. After New Jersey lost the first two games at home, Coach Lindy Ruff sat Vitek Vanecek for Game 3 and gave Schmid the net. The Devils won four of the next five games.
Schmid posted two shutouts and a 1.38 goals against average in the series and became the fifth rookie to earn a shutout in a Game 7, the first since Montreal’s Carey Price in 2008.
“The biggest thing was that Schmido, obviously, came in and played unreal,” Hughes said of the team’s turnaround. “He was a brick wall for us.”
Schmid may be another part of the Devils’ promising future. He will turn 23 on May 12, and started only 14 regular-season games, coming off the bench in four others for the Devils, who had signed Vanecek to a three-year contract last summer. Vanecek was excellent during the regular season, but desperation forced a move.
Schmid is from Bern, Switzerland, is 6-foot-5, 205 pounds and teammates nicknamed him Schmido the Torpedo. He played 23 games in the minors for the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets this season, and his goals against average was higher there (2.62) than it was in his regular-season games with New Jersey (2.13). Maybe that is not surprising. That statistic also reflects the play of the team in general, and Schmid explained that playing in the N.H.L. can be less chaotic for a goalie. The structure in front of goal is usually better, and defenders are more adept at clearing away rebounds and preventing tip-ins.
“It almost makes it easier to read the play sometimes,” Schmid said.
While the Devils are noticeably speedy, they also displayed desire and toughness, especially in Game 7. Ondrej Palat’s relentless forechecking and unremitting desire led directly to the first goal Monday. Palat, who won two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning, was signed in July to add playoff experience and he demonstrated to his team the kind of work required to win in the playoffs.
“This team has no quit,” Ruff said. “They give me everything they have.”
Erik Haula is another veteran acquired last off-season, through a trade with Boston, to augment the team’s playoff savvy. He played 41 games for the Hurricanes in 2019-20 and played against them in the playoffs last year as a member of the Bruins, who lost in seven games.
On Monday, Haula scored his team’s third goal in another example of the Devils’ blend of hard work with finesse and determination with skill. Palat won a puck battle on the boards, kicked the puck up to Hughes, who feathered a perfect pass for Haula to slap home.
The Devils will need more of that against the tough Hurricanes, who have the home-ice advantage in the series through winning the Metropolitan Division by one point over the Devils. But when they get home to Newark for Games 3 and 4, Haula predicted the atmosphere will be even better than it was in the first round.
“It’s only going to get louder when we get those Rangers fans out of here,” he said.