NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Devils are returning from an eight-day break refreshed and as healthy as they have been in a while.
When Lindy Ruff’s struggling young team faces the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Thursday night, $63 million defenseman Dougie Hamilton is going to be back in the lineup for the first time in almost two months along with forwards Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson.
Hamilton, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason, has missed 17 games since taking a shot in the face and breaking his jaw against Washington on Jan. 2. The Devils have posted a 4-13 record in his absence, putting them next to last in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s always really hard to watch. You want to be out there through the good and the bad and going through everything with your teammates,” Hamilton said. “So it’s hard to be on the outside looking in. It’s gone by fast and slow. Just for me, I’m excited to get back and playing.”
Hamilton’s return gives the Devils’ power play its best man on the point.
“We’ve been waiting for that period of time to come where, you know, he would say, ‘I’m ready to go,’” Ruff said Wednesday after an hour-long practice “We know what he can bring and how he can help us offensively. But there’s two sides of the game, too, and you got to play well defensively when it comes to playing in both zones. So we need his help.”
Ruff plans to be flexible with Hamilton’s ice time, especially since New Jersey plays at Chicago on Friday night.
The 28-year-old Hamilton, who had seven goals and 20 assists in 30 games, said the injury has been odd because he has been able to skate and practice his skills without contact. His problem has been getting his jaw to the point where it didn’t hurt to put on a helmet — he tried four of them — with a faceguard.
It’s gotten to the point where a little extra padding on his chin makes it tolerable.
Devils captain Nico Hischier had a fractured sinus before the start of last year’s pandemic-shortened season and had to play with a shield. He said it took him a few games to feel comfortable with the new equipment.
Despite his extended absence, Hamilton’s 108 shots rank second on the club, trailing only Bratt’s 121.
Bratt, who missed the last two games before the break with an upper-body injury, leads the team with 14 goals, 29 assists and 43 points.
Johnsson, who missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, is sixth on the team with 11 goals and 15 assists.
While they are getting some players back, the Devils are still missing their top two goaltenders with Mackenzie Blackwood (heel) and Jonathan Bernier (hip) sidelined. Bernier is out for the season and Blackwell may not play again. Jon Gillies and Nico Daws are filling in.
New Jersey will start the final 32-game stretch with a 17-28-5 mark.
‘We we want to finish strong for sure,” Hischier said. “That’s our goal. I mean, we don’t try to look too much ahead. We just try to focus on the games coming up. We want to stick to our game plan. If you do that, you’re going to win games, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
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