NEWARK, NJ — The New Jersey Devils return from an eight-day hiatus refreshed and as healthy as they have been in a while.
When Lindy Ruff’s struggling young team takes on the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, $63 million defenseman Dougie Hamilton will be back in the lineup for the first time in nearly two months along with forwards Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson. .
Hamilton, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, has missed 17 games since being shot in the face and breaking his jaw against Washington on Jan. 2. The Devils went 4-13 in his absence, putting them second to last in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s always very difficult to watch. You want to be out there through the good and the bad and through it all with your teammates,” Hamilton said. “So it’s hard to be outside and look inside. It happened quickly and slowly. Just for me, I’m excited to come back and play.
Hamilton’s return gives the Devils power play its best man on the point.
“We were waiting for that period of time where, you know, he would say, ‘I’m ready to go,'” Ruff said Wednesday after an hour of practice. “We know what he can bring and how he can help us offensively. But there are also both sides of the game, and you have to play well defensively when it comes to playing in both areas. So we need of his help.
Ruff plans to be flexible with Hamilton’s ice time, especially since New Jersey plays Friday night in Chicago.
Hamilton, 28, who has seven goals and 20 assists in 30 games, said the injury was odd because he was able to skate and practice his skills without contact. His problem was getting his jaw to the point where it didn’t hurt to put on a helmet – he tried four – with a face mask.
It’s gotten to the point where a little extra padding on his chin makes it tolerable.
Devils captain Nico Hischier fractured his 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 at the club, behind 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 has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, is sixth on the team with 11 goals and 15 assists.
While 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 replacing.
New Jersey will enter the final 32-game streak with a 17-28-5 record.
“We want to finish strong for sure,” said Hischier. “That’s our goal. I mean, we’re not trying to look too far ahead. We’re just trying to focus on the upcoming matches. 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.