Devils Gameday Preview: Ottawa Senators – 02/07/22

The All-Star Game is behind us, and it’s back to business for the New Jersey Devils. They reported to the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House at Prudential Center for practice yesterday afternoon before jumping on a plane for Ottawa. The break came at the perfect time for head coach Lindy Ruff’s team, who were on a six-game losing streak, including a 7-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in front of their fans right before the break.

Tonight marks the second meeting between the two teams. Their first matchup was on Dec. 6, a shootout loss for New Jersey. Damon Severson and Nathan Bastian got on the board, and four defensemen earned a point. Tomas Tatar was the only Devil to score in the shootout, as Anton Forsberg stopped Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson. Here’s a look at the storylines ahead of today’s game.

2 Storylines: Ottawa Senators (14-22-4)

Connor Brown Set to Make His Return

The Ottawa Senators will have an important forward back in the lineup tonight. Connor Brown is expected to return after missing 10 games with a broken jaw suffered in Calgary when Thomas Chabot hit him in the face with a puck in the pregame warmup. Head coach D. J. Smith met with the media yesterday and spoke of the advantages of getting Brown back.

Related: Ottawa Senators’ Top 3 Players Through Midway Point of 2021-21

“Well it’s huge to get a guy back who can play in all situations,” said Smith. “Connor is one of our leading point-getters, but also a guy who can play everywhere, on any line at the end of periods. It’s going to help us tremendously.”

Connor Brown Ottawa Senators
Connor Brown, Ottawa Senators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In 26 games this season, the Toronto native has 19 points (5 goals, 14 assists) ranked seventh on the team. He has been averaging 19:58 of ice time, the most among forwards, including time on the power play and penalty kill.

Senators Look To Find Consistency

Like the Devils, the Senators have had trouble finding consistency this season. They are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games and have not put three wins together since early December when that third victory came against New Jersey. Losing Drake Batherson has been tough as he leads the team with 34 points in 31 games. Tonight Matt Murray will be starting in net; he has a 4-6-2 record this season with a 2.85 goals-against average. Ottawa is three points behind the Devils in the standings but have five games in hand, making this an important contest coming off the break.

2 Storylines: New Jersey Devils (15-25-5)

Hughes & Hamilton Did Not Make the Trip

Defenseman Dougie Hamilton traveled with the team ahead of the All-Star Game and practiced in a no-contact jersey. However, last night, Amanda Stein reported that Hamilton will not join the team on this road trip because he is still not cleared for contact. It’s a small step back after he seemed to be inching closer to a return, and fans will have to show a little more patience.

Jack Hughes is coming off his All-Star debut as the youngest player to be selected. He participated in the Adidas NHL Breakaway Challenge with a little help from Brekken Scoppetto, son of Devils equipment manager Chris “Frosty” Scoppetto. Hughes returned to the ice for practice yesterday but was quickly pulled due to a positive COVID-19 test result.

“We know the gig now. When a trainer comes to you during practice is not a good sign,” assistant coach Alain Nasreddine said after practice. “Losing your best player is never good. It’s part of the game right now. We’ll have to deal with it, and unfortunately, he won’t be here next game.” 

Hughes has been one of the Devils’ best players this season, with 27 points in 28 games (12 goals, 15 assists). However, it’s unclear how the lines will look tonight since his absence could reunite the Johnsson-Dawson Mercer-Bratt line.

The Time Is Now

The Devils’ last game before the break was an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After the game, both Nico Hischier and Severson met with the media and expressed frustration saying there were no positives that could be taken from the game. They are playing their 46th game of the season tonight, and they need to get back on track.

Goaltending became a huge storyline in the first half of the season, and the team is still without Mackenzie Blackwood, who remains on injured reserve. The Devils sent Akira Schmid to Utica and recalled Nico Daws, who traveled with the team along with Jon Gillies. Daws started two games in October in his NHL debut before heading back to Utica.

Jon Gillies New Jersey Devils
Jon Gillies, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils are missing two big pieces but need to fight through adversity and figure out a way to start winning games. The club needs to play the way they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes ahead of the break. They have shown they can compete with the best teams in the league, but like tonight’s opponent, finding consistency has been a problem for New Jersey all season.

Players to Watch

New Jersey Devils: Dawson Mercer

Without Hughes, Mercer will have a chance to play a bigger role tonight. He has impressed all season, and during an interview with Mike Morreale, Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald admitted that he has exceeded all expectations. The Newfoundland native has been one of the bright spots, and tonight I expect him to play a big game.

Ottawa Senators: Brady Tkachuk 

The Senators’ captain also participated in the All-Star Game and is always a player to watch, with 30 points in 37 games. He does everything right, and with so many injuries plaguing his team, expect him to step up in all situations. The Devils’ defense should be prepared to chase him all over the ice tonight.

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