NEWARK, N.J. — First overall pick Jack Hughes was promoted to first-line duty for the New Jersey Devils with Nico Hischier sitting out Friday’s preseason bout with the New York Rangers.
Hughes was joined by fellow No. 1 pick Taylor Hall, who played his first NHL game since Dec. 23, on the wing. Hall missed the majority of the 2018-19 season with a knee injury.
Just 34 seconds in, Hughes scored after a Rangers miscue turned into a breakaway for the rookie, with the assist credited to Hall. Sliding the puck between Henrik Lundqvist’s pads on the first shot of the contest, Hughes scored his third goal in his first four shots at the Prudential Center.
“That’s kind of the perfect way how you want to start a game I guess,” Hughes said of the opening minute. “It’s pretty good to get on the board early and score there.”
On the first Devils’ power play of the evening, it was Hall’s opportunity with Hughes repaying him with an assist of his own.
Hall made his return to the goal column 11:55 in his first period of action following a 271-day absence. Gathering the pass from Hughes and sniping the puck bar-down on Lundqvist’s glove side, Hall gave the Devils a 2-0 lead.
“MVP of the league two years ago, just a really high skill, smart player,” Hughes said about playing with Hall. “So I mean it was a lot of fun to play with him and Palm (Kyle Palmieri) tonight. Don’t know if we’re going to play much together, but it was a lot of fun tonight.”
Blake Coleman’s goal late in the first period took the Devils into intermission with a dominating 3-0 lead. The rest of the way was a lot of back and forth and chippy play, with three Rangers dropping gloves while Devils looked on with their gloves securely fastened. The game would end a 4-2 Devils victory with much of the excitement coming on the first few shifts.
Prior to lineups solidifying and Hall’s status becoming clear, he wasn’t sure he would be able to play on a line with Hughes in the preseason.
“I really didn’t think I’d get a chance to play with him in the exhibition season,” Hall said after morning skate, “So to be on the ice with him for the last two practices, see his skill level first-hand, wearing a Devils jersey, it’s going to be fun to play with him.”
In a Hall-to-Hughes-to-Hall sequence during a 5-on-3 power play early in the third, it was clear that the two were clicking.
“I think Jack’s line tonight with Taylor and Kyle played well. You could see that there was some chemistry,” head coach John Hynes said following the game. “I think at this point, right now, you’re looking to see ‘is there chemistry’ and I think there was chemistry, so that’s a good sign. Whether it’s Nico in there or Jack in there.”
With the quick start, Hall recognizes there are still lessons to be learned when playing a 60-minute game, even in the preseason.
“It was good, little sore right now but that’s to be expected after your first game back, there’s a lot of new things involved and the game is a lot longer than practices,” Hall said, reflecting on his performance. “Overall it was a pretty good first game for me and I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
The Devils got over 10 minutes on the power play with Hughes, Hall, Palmieri, Wayne Simmonds and P.K. Subban working together as the first line. Going 1-for-7, there is still room for improvement but reps are valuable in preseason play.
“It’s hard not to when you’ve been gone that much time,” the winger said about his knee injury. “I think even if you miss a game for a bruise you’re still thinking about it when you’re on the bench. That’s nice when you’re in a game and you can just kind of forget and just go play. That was there at times but as you play more games that’s what you want to feel.”
On the subject of Hughes, the 18-year-old center received praise from his linemate as well as opposing goaltender Lundqvist.
“He’s a stud,” Hall said. “He played probably about as well as he could have. He had the puck a lot seemed like whenever he had the puck he had it with speed and with a lot of timing.”
“You can see he’s a smart player,” Lundqvist noted. “If you’re picked first overall, you have qualities that stands out from the most players. He’s not a big guy but the league is a different league now. It’s more about balance and see the ice and making plays under pressure, so the size factor is not as important as it used to be. Definitely a good player.”
It’s a small sample size for the rookie but another strong outing at home had the fans making noise every time he touched the puck. Excitement is sure to follow him when the games start to count heading into the regular season.
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