June 7, 2023

The New Jersey Devils felt an all too familiar feeling as the final buzzer went off at Prudential Center on Dec. 17. It was one of frustration and doubt as they dropped their fifth consecutive contest losing to the Florida Panthers by a final score of 4-2.

After the game, media members walked into the Devils’ locker room and were met by empty stalls. Most of the players had cleared out except for veteran defenseman Brendan Smith who spoke with the small group of writers and reporters. One of the questions involved the Panthers’ game plan of going after captain Nico Hischier in the final 40 minutes of the game.

Panthers Target Hischier After Barkov’s Injury

In the waning seconds of the first period, Nico Hischier and Aleksander Barkov met for one final faceoff. While fighting for the puck the Devils’ captain made contact with Barkov’s knee, which resulted in the Panthers’ forward missing the final two periods of the game.

Before the puck was dropped for the second period, the two teams stepped onto the ice and multiple players from the Panthers tried to take a run at Hischier. A crowd formed and the referees had to break up the group of players that included Hischier, Aaron Ekblad, Ryan Graves, and Nick Cousins.

Related: Devils Getting Solid Leadership From Nico Hischier

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For the next 40 minutes the Panthers focused on Hischier every time he jumped over the boards onto the ice. It was apparent to anyone who watched the 23-year-old captain that he had a target on his back. After the game Hischier spoke to the media and addressed the play.

“That was a huge draw. I take pride in my draws and obviously I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said. “I didn’t even see it until the second period. I definitely hit his knee but it was not something I wanted to do or a dirty play.”

There were 2.1 seconds left in the opening period when the faceoff took place in the Devils’ zone. Considering the number of late goals New Jersey has given up recently it’s no surprise to see Hischier desperate to win the puck back and avoid his team giving up a quick goal off the draw as time expired.

Post Game Reaction to the Play

When Smith was asked about the extra attention his captain received, he said he had no problem with the play at the end of the first period.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with the faceoff. I mean that’s the first battle of the play to win that draw,” said Smith. “Obviously Nico is [one of] our best players and they are going to try and get under his skin.”

After the game head coach Lindy Ruff was asked about how he thought Hischier handled the situation, and he had the same response as most Devils fans.

Lindy Ruff New Jersey Devils
Lindy Ruff, New Jersey Devils (Kristy Flannery / The Hockey Writers)

“I look at the team. You know, I thought we could have had a bigger response as a team,” said Ruff. “I thought Nico handled it pretty well, but I thought our response as a team could have been bigger than that.”

When asked why he thought that response was missing from his team, Ruff continued to say that he didn’t know if guys realized what was going on. He admitted that he didn’t even realize something happened during that final faceoff and he was trying to figure it out himself.

Is Lack of Reaction a Concern for the Devils?

Back on Nov. 19, the Devils earned a victory over the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. In the first period Senators forward Auston Watson skated over to Hischier, who did not have the puck, and cross-checked him near his ribs. The Devils’ center was visibly in pain and missed some of the game because of the incident. Smith was the one player who tried to engage Watson, who was not interested.

There have been moments this season when fans saw teammates stand up for each other, like when Michael McLeod immediately went after Alexander Romanov after a clean hit on Miles Wood on Dec. 9. There is a time and place for a player to step up and defend their teammates. At one point or another fans have heard Ken Daneyko talk about it not being the time and that players need to keep their emotions under control. There is a difference between taking reckless penalties that can negatively impact the final score of the game, and sending a message that certain behavior will not be tolerated.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On Saturday night (Dec. 17) the Panthers made it their mission to send a message to Hischier that they were not happy with what happened in the faceoff circle. The Devils did not send a similar message that they would not tolerate their opponents taking a run at their captain. It could very well be that the team did not know what was going on, as Ruff stated during his press conference, but New Jersey’s lack of response in addition to dropping five straight games is not sitting well with the fanbase.

The Devils will be back on the ice on Dec. 19 for practice and will travel south to take on the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 20. The team will look to turn things around and improve upon their December record of 2-4-2.

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