There's a pretty strong argument to be made that Jack Hughes was the greatest breakout star of the 2022-23 season.
He entered the year with a career-high of 56 points and a variety of injury problems in his rearview mirror —but at the age of 21 he set the New Jersey Devils points record, establishing himself as a franchise player and worthy first-overall pick.
Early in his team's first playoff appearance since 2017-18, Hughes' production didn't reflect the star turn he'd taken during the regular season.
In his first nine postseason games, the centre managed five points with a -4 rating. He ranked second among playoff skaters with 38 shots, but didn't have much to show for them.
His possession metrics in the first round were solid, but worse than his teammates who carried the play against the New York Rangers. Against the Carolina Hurricanes, he couldn't get much going initially — much like the rest of the Devils, who got outscored 11-2 in the first two games of the second round.
On Sunday, New Jersey was on the brink of a near-insurmountable deficit, in desperate need of a jolt, and Hughes provided it.
The whole Devils squad came alive in an 8-4 win, but Hughes was that catalyst with a two goals and two assists. The four-point game was his second in 253 contests at the NHL level, coming at the perfect time for New Jersey.
While it was far too early in Hughes' career for him to be branded as a player who shrinks in the limelight, it must have been a relief to Devils fans to see their 43-goal scorer come through in the clutch.
Not only did he do so on the scoresheet, he showed a dose of toughness, too, getting surprising physical with Hurricanes' top centre Sebastian Aho.
Jack Hughes scores the takedown on Sebastian Aho pic.twitter.com/iJgTPlmhPj
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) May 7, 2023
If the Devils are going to come back and topple the Hurricanes, they'll need more of what Hughes gave them on Sunday.
Carolina is a superior team when it comes to controlling the game, playing disciplined hockey, and protecting its own net — as silly as that might seem to say coming after a game where the Hurricanes conceded eight goals.
What Carolina lacks are players like Hughes, game breakers capable of molding a contest to their will at a moments notice. True stars.
Although there's a case to be made for depth over top-heavy roster construction, the Hurricanes inability to win it all in recent years is probably best explained by the fact the team is wanting for blue-chip talent. There's not a lot else missing with this group.
Over the course of the regular season, Hughes consistently proved that he was one of the most dangerous players in the NHL. On Sunday, he showed that there's nothing about playoff hockey that makes him any less dynamic. There was no reason to doubt he could do it in the postseason, but believing is easier when there's some proof of concept.
The Devils still have a long road to toppling a tough Hurricanes team, but that journey will be a lot easier if Hughes can keep the momentum rolling after his Game 3 breakout.