Devils star Nico Hischier put his two-way prowess on full display in Toronto

Nico Hischier is blossoming into a two-way star right before our eyes. (Getty)
Nico Hischier is blossoming into a two-way star right before our eyes. (Getty)

TORONTO — Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and the New Jersey Devils entered Scotiabank Arena on a 10-game heater, commanding the NHL’s full attention as the defining story of the moment. If you had any reservations or trepidations about the upstart Metropolitan contender, think again.

New Jersey defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2, the winning streak is now at 11 games and you can count the Devils’ relative youth or inexperience against them at your own peril.

Auston Matthews opened the scoring for the Maple Leafs, fending off three defenders to convert on the power play during the first period. Jesper Bratt countered 24 seconds later, while Hischier added to the Devils’ lead during the second period.

William Nylander forced overtime with just over two minutes remaining in the third period. However, it was all for naught as Yegor Sharangovich pounced on a Hughes rebound and tucked it away for the overtime winner 57 seconds into the extra frame.

Here are three takeaways from Thursday’s thriller.

Nico Hischier continues his Selke campaign by outduelling John Tavares

Devils forward Nico Hischier has been an absolute menace at both ends of the rink. He’s been on the ice for 16 goals to just four against at 5-on-5 and he will punish you in the blink of an eye if you make a mistake. Hischier has been a leading Selke candidate throughout the year so far and Devils head coach Lindy Ruff addressed his captain’s awards prospectus Thursday morning.

“I actually think he should be a candidate this year. If he can stay healthy, his two-way game is right up with a (Patrice) Bergeron and the likes of those types of players,” Ruff told reporters.

In some circles, mentioning Hischier in the same tier as Bergeron is blasphemous. But he was the best player on the ice Thursday, clamping down Maple Leafs captain John Tavares exclusively through the first two periods, before Ruff elected to use Hischier a bit more liberally. And there is no margin of error with Hischier on the ice, as the Maple Leafs learned cruelly.

Hischier punished the Maple Leafs in transition, a constant theme of the night, even if Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game he thought his team slowed the Devils down considerably. During the second period, Maple Leafs defenseman Jordie Benn skated aimlessly into traffic and got picked off by Tomas Tatar, sending Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund off to the races.

New Jersey’s blazing team speed has been a tremendous point of emphasis. Devils defenseman Ryan Graves likened it to his time with the Colorado Avalanche, while Keefe noted that the Devils can roll four lines, an endless rotation of supercars.

“They're deep, they're fast, they're skilled. They're long on defense,” Keefe said of the Devils. “And they're getting good goaltending. If you look at the way their lines are set up now, their top four scorers at 5-on-5 are on four different lines. Miles Wood leads the team in 5-on-5 goals and he's playing on their fourth line. So they have a lot of big things happening offensively.”

New Jersey’s speed and balance have been certainly instrumental to the winning streak, but its offensive prowess starts with Hughes and Hischier. Hischier, Tatar and Zetterlund flummoxed the Maple Leafs throughout the contest, finishing with an 83.78 share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick. New Jersey ran its forecheck to perfection, sending its F1 and F2 forwards deep while the third forward would float out towards center like clockwork. It paid dividends.

Hischier almost scored the goal of the year as well, dangling through a cabal of Toronto skaters who could only pray that he missed. Hischier couldn’t pull it off, losing his nerve at the end, but it further highlighted another excellent performance in what’s been the best season of his career to date.

I asked Hischier what the funnest part of the winning streak was prior to Thursday’s game.

“Winning is fun. It's fun to show up at the rink, it's fun to work on your game, it's fun to get better, even if you're doing well already. It's definitely a different mood in the locker room than losing, obviously."

Matt Murray gave the Maple Leafs a chance to win in his 1st home start

Matt Murray left Thursday’s morning skate prematurely but there was no reason for concern. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed Murray would be the starter, and he gave his team a chance to get the win during his first home start with the club.

New Jersey is playing at an unmatched level right now and Murray did everything he could to keep them off the scoresheet. He got the best of Jack Hughes several times, notably on a sprawling save in the second period that deflected the puck over the netting. Hughes, to his credit, wasn’t particularly rattled as he was able to burn Maple Leafs defenders constantly throughout the contest. Keeping Hughes off the scoresheet when he’s on a torrid run like this is almost a victory in its own right.

Almost.

“I was a bit late getting across the net, so I just had to toss something over there and hope for the best,” Murray said post-game of his monstrous save on Hughes.

Murray made 30 saves and he deserved much better, although his counterpart Vitek Vanecek was equally up to the task when called upon. Keefe, along with the rest of the Maple Leafs made available post-game, praised Murray for his performance, crediting him for getting the Maple Leafs a single point.

“They showed why they’re on such a tear right now. It’s a great team that's playing incredibly well. They don't give you a whole lot, and they make your job tough. They were all over us, all over the ice,” Murray said of the Devils.

Murray, for now at least, is Toronto’s unquestioned starter, and though he couldn’t extinguish the Devils on Thursday, he’ll have plenty more chances as the team gears up for the upstart Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.

Jack Hughes caused havoc for the Maple Leafs with his speed and creativity

Jack Hughes is perhaps the coolest player alive, and though it took until overtime for him to get onto the scoresheet, he gave the Maple Leafs fits with his blazing speed and offensive zone creativity all night long.

Hughes is playing like a superstar and though Toronto largely did a good job of trying to clog up the neutral zone, it didn’t work at all against him.

The 21-year-old spent most of the evening on a line with Erik Haula and Jesper Bratt, burning the Maple Leafs throughout the evening. If you thought the Hischier line posted some gaudy numbers, you’re going to love this: Hughes’s line outshot their opponents 6-0 at 5-on-5, while posting an absurd 96.3 percent share of the expected goals. It was an absolute clinic, and their tendencies to play in hyperspeed worked, particularly on Bratt’s opening goal, which completely flushed any momentum gained by the Maple Leafs on Matthews’ marker. Bratt gets the goal here, but Hughes could’ve just easily tapped it home, sitting wide-open at the open cage.

Not a bad feed from Haula, either.

“They're determined on both sides of it. Hughes is actually playing more on the wing these days than he is playing in the middle. Almost taking on a load there defensively and faceoffs and such,” Keefe said Thursday morning of Hughes and Hischier.

“Both guys are really feeling it offensively. It's more than that as we talked about. They've got four lines that are really contributing and maintain a high pace all the way through it. (Michael) McLeod and (Miles) Wood are on the fourth line for this team and they're two of the quickest skaters you'll find in the league.”

We’ve already gone through Murray’s larcenous save on Hughes in the second period, but the 2019 first overall pick simply wouldn’t be denied, especially when it mattered most. Hughes picked off a careless pass from Tavares, forced a rebound on his initial shot and crashed the net before Sharangovich swooped the rebound home for New Jersey’s 11th consecutive win.

There are elements of New Jersey’s win streak that haven’t fit into this notebook: such as Dougie Hamilton and John Marino being strong candidates in the Norris Trophy race, and how the Devils being able to roll four lines that can outskate opponents is a massive luxury. But in the end, the Devils were once again led by Hughes and Hischier, a dynamic duo as good as any so far this season.

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