By Max Herman
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Well the Devils are finally in the win column. It took less than a minute in overtime for Ilya Kovalchuk to score his first goal of the season, breaking a scoreless tie and giving New Jersey a 1-0 victory in Buffalo. All is well in Devil-land for at least one day. But I don’t think anyone is ready to make the argument that it’s all peaches from here on out for this team.
The Devils have been playing with a short bench while they tip-toe around the salary cap to begin the season, but whether or not that has been a factor it hasn’t been the start that any Devil fan had hoped for. If you ask the players and coaches, they will swear up and down that not playing with a full deck isn’t the reason for the 1-2-1 start to the year. But personally, I don’t see how it’s possible that it isn’t playing any role whatsoever.
I’m not going to play the fatigue angle here, and quite frankly I don’t think anyone should. There isn’t a single guy on the Devils’ roster that is even in the top 50 in the league in ice time per game, so if the players are too tired, then it should be the team’s conditioning that comes into question, not its finances.
But what the lack of personnel does do is force head coach John MacLean into having to frequently mix and match his lines, making it hard for the team to maintain chemistry on either end of the ice. And even though the lack of scoring on a team that was supposed to be the best offensive unit the Devils franchise has ever seen does make you worry, the Devils had played alarmingly bad defense in their first three games before a solid effort in Buffalo on Wednesday.
I’d like to think that the win over the Sabres will serve as a springboard going forward, but I have my reservations. The Devils caught Buffalo at a good time. Lindy Ruff’s crew is dealing with their own sluggish start to the season, most notably losing their first three home games for the first time in Ruff’s tenure with the team. Now maybe it’s not fair to nitpick after a win over a team with Ryan Miller in net, but to only score one goal considering how many quality scoring chances the Devils had has to leave them feeling a bit frustrated. But you take the win and move on.
Now having said this, it should be noted that while it is OK to express concern, this bad first week should not be blown out of proportion. Let’s not let three losses cause us to put the coach on the hot seat or regret signing Ilya Kovalchuk. If it’s perspective you’re looking for, consider this: the last 4 times the Devils have had a losing record after their first four games, they have gone on to finish the season with at least 95 points each time. So take three deep breaths or count backwards from ten. Do whatever you gotta do, but just relax and let things play themselves out for now.
We learned Wednesday that Brian Rolston’s injury is more severe than originally indicated, as he will be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a sports hernia. On one hand it’s unfortunate, because by all accounts Rolston had been playing very well in training camp and seemed to be carrying it over into the regular season. But the silver lining is that the severity of the injury allowed the Devils to place him and his $5M price tag on the Long Term Injured Reserve list. This gives the Devils significantly more cap cushion to help fill out their roster. However, that silver lining could become more of a dull gray when you consider that the Devils would have to trim whatever extra salary they add on once Rolston is placed back on the active roster.
Max’s Three Stars of the Week:
Now it’s time to introduce a new feature that I’ll be incorporating into the column this season. I’ll choose the three Devils’ players that I felt made the biggest impact in the week before. With most of the team struggling out of the gate, this should be one of the easier weeks to single out the top performers.
Third Star: C Jason Arnott
Jason wasted little time in making a good second first impression with the Devils in his first week back with the club. He is the only player on the team to score two goals, including the team’s only tally on the power play thus far. He has provided desperately needed size and also has a long reach. Production from his line with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner on the wings will be crucial to the success of the team.
Second Star: C Travis Zajac
You might say it’s easy to forget about a guy like Zajac considering he’s the center in between Zach Parise and Kovalchuk. But the way Travis consistently gets his name onto the score sheet proves that he shouldn’t be an afterthought when sizing up the Devils’ top line. Zajac had a goal and two assists in the first four games and also led the team with a +2 rating. Impressive, considering the Devils have been outscored 14-7 so far.
First Star: D Matt Taormina
I can’t say enough how impressed I’ve been with this rookie’s play in the first week of the season. MacLean got a chance to coach Taormina in Lowell and clearly has a lot of faith in the kid. He’s 5th in the NHL among rookies in ice time per game, and has seen significant minutes both on the power play and in the 3rd period when the games have been on the line. Taormina has rewarded MacLean with solid all-around play, an even plus-minus rating, and also got the assist on Kovalchuk’s overtime winner in Buffalo after winning a battle for a loose puck in the offensive zone. It was his first NHL point in what was as close to a must-win game as a team can have in October.
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