NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils got a boost from an unexpected source during the first game of a back-to-back set Thursday night. On Friday, the Ottawa Senators will hope the return of a familiar face can generate momentum as they begin their own stretch of two games in as many nights.
Center Matt Duchene is expected to play for the first time in more than two weeks Friday night, when the Senators visit the Devils at Prudential Center.
The Senators haven't played since Monday, when they edged the visiting Nashville Predators 4-3 in overtime. The Devils lost Thursday night, when they fell to the host Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1.
Duchene has missed the last seven games due to a groin injury he suffered against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4. The Senators (15-16-4) went 3-3-1 without Duchene, who has cemented himself as one of Ottawa's top offensive threats since he was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 5, 2017. Duchene ranked fourth on the team in points (49) last season despite his late arrival and is third this year (34 points) even after missing most of this month.
"It's gigantic for us," Senators head coach Guy Boucher told reporters following practice Thursday. "We know he's a big part of this team -- one of the pillars, for sure. He's a point-per-game player. If you count all the games that there's a one-goal difference, that's a lot of games."
A lack of success in one-goal games has undone the Devils (11-15-7), who are last in the 16-team Eastern Conference. With Thursday's loss, New Jersey has now lost 10 of its 13 one-goal games (3-3-7).
Despite the loss, the Devils got some unexpected help from a rookie goaltender. MacKenzie Blackwood made his first NHL start in that game and was saddled with the tough-luck loss after stopping 36 shots. Alas, one of the two shots that got past Blackwood was a second-period penalty shot by Cam Atkinson that ended up as the game-winning goal.
Although Blackwood did not get the win, his surprisingly good performance may pay dividends.
"The fact that he can come in and play the way he did is big for our team," Devils head coach John Hynes told reporters afterward. "It's always one of those things where it's (important to make) a first impression. And tonight was a great first impression. I think he earned the trust of his teammates and that's important for a goalie."
Number one goalie Keith Kinkaid will likely return to net for the Devils Friday, when he'll be opposed by Senators starter Craig Anderson.
Kinkaid last played Tuesday, when he took the loss after allowing five goals on 21 shots before being pulled following the second period of the Devils' 7-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anderson earned the win Sunday, when he recorded 31 saves against the Predators.
Kinkaid is 2-2-0 in five career appearances against the Senators. Anderson is 11-3-2 in 16 games against the Devils.