Devilish Duo of Tomas Tatar & Dawson Mercer Will Be X-Factors in Playoffs

New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (91): Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (91): Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

The New Jersey Devils are going to the playoffs. No, they haven’t officially clinched a spot in the NHL’s Stanley Cup tournament, but they are well on their way to doing so as they sit with the league’s third-best record through 58 games. It’s been a long time coming, and these final 24 games will determine if they will butt heads with their Hudson River rivals in the opening round or if they will catch and surpass the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metropolitan Division.

When the postseason starts, everything will be amplified, including the opponent trying to neutralize New Jersey’s top players – Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt. That means others must step up and meet the moment to become a hero. If you look at the Devs’ past Cup runs, yes, their top players played a huge role in the successes – but their depth players also scored key goals in big moments. That will be needed again as this edition of the franchise looks to start another dynasty.

“We know we’re a really good hockey team,” said Hughes, “we have a good squad.”

Aside from the aforementioned trio and defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the next highest scorers on the team this season are Dawson Mercer and Tomas Tatar. They’ve both had clutch moments this season with either a winning goal, a game-tying goal, or a goal or pass that started a comeback.

“He’s hot,” Tatar said with a grin of Mercer after his first career NHL overtime goal. “I feel like everything he’s touching is going in, which is great for our team.”

At some point in late April, they will be needed to make a big play in a tight game that could swing the momentum of a series in their favor. If, and that’s a big if, the Devils can escape from the first round the sky is the limit. I truly believe that. The first round is always the most intense, and this young group might just believe in themselves even more – a scary thought – if they find a way to win the franchise’s first series in nearly a decade.

“We can outwork and outplay any team when we are playing our game,” said Bratt. “It’s extremely tough, especially inside our division. But I don’t think we’ve played any team that really outplayed us or is miles ahead of us. We can play with any team and win any game.”

New Jersey Devils
Jesper Bratt #63 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

“It’s going to get tighter and tighter. I don’t know the stat off the top of my head, but almost every single game we’ve been playing is going to overtime,” Bratt said after a recent home overtime triumph. “It’s tough games that go down to the last seconds. These games matter, and they are games that I haven’t been playing in the previous years here, and they’re games that I really enjoy playing in.”

The Devils have habitually fallen behind early in games and rallying to win in some dramatic way. Their 21 come-from-behind victories this season is the most in the NHL; the next closest team has 16. They’ve shown the ability to self-correct and overcome their mental flaws repeatedly. They have seven multi-goal comebacks this season, the second most in the NHL and the second most in franchise history. New Jersey’s nine wins in overtime are the most in the NHL at this time.

“This game was a good test (for the playoffs) for sure,” said Tatar, who’s played in 40 playoff games in his career, after an overtime win over Los Angeles. “This is a good teaching point for us and how to be better. We talked between periods about what we need to do to be successful, and we were able to do it.”

New Jersey Devils, Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

In that game against the Kings, the Devils fell behind 0-2 before tying the game 2-2 in the third period and then had to rally to tie it again in the final two minutes. That all set the stage for Mercer to be the hero on this particular night, the eighth different player on the roster to net a game-winning goal in overtime; Hamilton has two.

“Everyone here has taken steps (of growth), and that goes through the whole lineup. Especially the core guys, we’ve matured and taken bigger steps,” Bratt told us, “we’re trying to be difference makers and leaders every shift in every game that we are on the ice. It’s an exciting time, and we’re looking forward to what is coming up ahead of us.”

What’s ahead of them currently is the pursuit of a playoff spot and then surviving that first round. “We’re never out of games, we have a talented group in here, and we’re a team that plays with speed,” said Mercer, following his heroics. “We can create constant pressure.”

“I’ve had a lot of time on a line with Tuna last year and this year,” said Mercer of his current linemate. “I think me, him, and Nico play that 200-foot game; we read off of each other and know what we’re doing (out there). We talk, we communicate, we trust each other and that is a big reason why we have that great chemistry going right now.”

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The whole team has really gelled and found their roles within it. No one knows if additions will be made or subtractions to make additions will be made, but Mercer and Tatar will be here come (they aren’t being traded) in late April, and they will be the x-factors that make a large impact if the Devils are to advance past the opening round.