Two of the brightest surprises in the NHL this season have been the New Jersey Devils and the Vegas Golden Knights. Each team missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, but each is in a strong position to get there this season.
The Devils (30-12-4) are second in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes. The Golden Knights (29-17-2) are first in the Pacific Division, one point ahead of the Seattle Kraken.
They face off at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN+, HULU, SN NOW). The Devils are 7-1-2 in their past 10 games. The Golden Knights are 1-4-0 in their past five.
There is no question each team has taken big strides this season, but which is built to make a deep run once it gets to the playoffs?
That’s the question before NHL.com writers Nicholas J. Cotsonika and Tom Gulitti in this installment of State Your Case.
Cotsonika: I’m going with the Golden Knights. Of course, health is a concern. It’s what derailed them last season, when they missed the playoffs for the first time since joining the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18, and it’s what could derail them again. I worry especially about forward Mark Stone, the captain, who has missed five games with an upper-body injury and is week to week. Is it a coincidence Vegas is 1-4-0 in that stretch? That said, forward Brett Howden (27) and defensemen Shea Theodore (19) and Zach Whitecloud (18) each appear close to returning after missing a significant number of games, and we’ve seen what this team can do when healthy. Vegas started this season 13-2-0. At that point, it had the best record in the NHL.
Gulitti: I think the Golden Knights have the potential to make a run in the playoffs too, especially when they’re healthy, like Nick said, but I’m picking the Devils in this debate. New Jersey has come of age this season and has been one of the best teams in the NHL with young players such as Jack Hughes, 21, Dawson Mercer, 21, Jesper Bratt, 24, and captain Nico Hischier, 24, leading the way. With an NHL career-high 30 goals and 58 points in 46 games, Hughes is on pace for 53 goals and 103 points, which would break the Devils records of 48 goals (Brian Gionta in 2005-06) and 96 points (Patrik Elias in 2000-01). It will be exciting to see what Hughes can do in his first trip to the postseason, but the Devils also have a good balance with experienced players like Ondrej Palat, who won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 and 2021, Tomas Tatar, who played for the Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Dougie Hamilton and Brendan Smith.
Cotsonika: You’re right. It will be exciting to see what Hughes can do in his first trip to the playoffs. But the same goes for Jack Eichel. Yeah, I know he hasn’t been great lately, with one assist in his past five games. He also missed 13 games with a lower-body injury between Dec. 3 and Jan. 5, but he has 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 35 games this season and can be the bona fide No. 1 center they have lacked in the past. As far as experienced players, the Golden Knights have more than the Devils, from Stanley Cup champions (Phil Kessel, Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez) to those who have made multiple deep runs in Vegas (Theodore, William Carrier, William Karlsson, Brayden McNabb, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith). This seems to be a good place to point out that Vegas went to the Cup Final in 2018, the Western Conference Final in 2020 and the Stanley Cup Semifinals in 2021, while the Devils haven’t won a playoff series since 2012.
Gulitti: Experience is definitely the question mark for the Devils, and the jump to playing in the playoffs for the first time is significant. But as I noted above, New Jersey has players who have been through the long grind before and they can provide guidance for the younger players. It should be noted neither the Devils (Vitek Vanecek) nor the Golden Knights (Logan Thompson) have much playoff experience in net. Vanecek. who started three playoff games for the Washington Capitals over the past two seasons (and was injured early in the first one), is the only goalie on either team who has played in an NHL postseason game. For the younger Devils, there will be a lot of learning on the fly and possibly some growing pains in the playoffs, but their maturation over the course of this season will help. After going 21-4-1 in their first 26 games, they went through a 1-7-1 lull in their next nine that threatened to derail their season. The Devils have rebounded to go 8-1-2 since then and have gotten stronger by fighting through that adversity.