By Steve Lichtenstein
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I guess I shouldn’t have been too worried about Taylor Hall.
Pointless through two games and a period of the Devils’ home opener on Tuesday against Anaheim, Hall might have been feeling somewhat snakebit in his new jersey. The 24-year-old star left wing was obtained from Edmonton over the summer for top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson in a trade that sent shockwaves through the NHL.
Hall was playing well and generating scoring chances, but the puck wasn’t cooperating. He seemed to be squeezing his stick a little in the first period on Tuesday, making a poor pass while on a semi-breakaway and then later he was hesitant with a loose puck in front that begged to be put away.
Could whatever was making the Devils’ attack so anemic in recent years (New Jersey has ranked no better than 27th in the league in goals during the last four seasons, including a dead-last 202 goals scored last season) be infecting the gifted Hall?
There was no need to panic. To the delight of a festive sold-out crowd at Prudential Center, Hall delivered a pair of power play goals in the second period to lift New Jersey to its first victory of the season, 2-1 over the Ducks.
“We want to keep it simple on our power play,” Hall said while describing his goals. “If we have shooting lanes we’ve got to take shots and sure enough a rebound popped out right to me. And on the second one, it was a great shot by (defenseman Damon Severson) … it was the perfect type to tip it in.”
Even before his tallies, Hall had been as advertised — a bundle of energy who can burn even the league’s top defensemen with his straight-ahead speed and quickness to the puck.
“It was nice to see him get rewarded for his efforts,” said second-year Devils coach John Hynes, who received a nice ovation from the crowd during pregame introductions. “The thing that has been great about Taylor is he plays the game the right way. What I mean by that is he competes in all areas. He’s hard on the puck. He checks when he doesn’t have it. He’s not timid in confrontations. He’s responsible in his defensive zone and he brings energy to your team.”
Hynes added, “Even though he didn’t score some goals against Florida and Tampa, just the energy and passion that he plays with is evident to your team. And it’s easy to coach a guy like that because he’s just a reliable guy every shift. The thing we’re most proud of right now is not that he scored two goals but just the work ethic and buy-in that he’s had since he’s gotten here has been fantastic.”
Hall has been so effective as a two-way player, he was switched off Adam Henrique’s line after the first game and placed with Travis Zajac, a much more defensive-minded center. My initial reaction was to wonder why Hynes would figuratively tie his best player’s hands behind his back by using him to check against opponents’ top lines.
Hynes explained why I was misguided.
“Travis is a strong player. He’s good on faceoffs, which allows you to be able to start a lot of times with possession of the puck,” Hynes said. “I think when you look at Zajac’s track record with very good players (Jamie Langenbrunner, Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk), these guys have had career years when they played with him. A guy like Kyle Palmieri played with Travis last year and had a career year. He allows offensive players to sometimes be able to take chances and play their game a little bit more because he is so responsible.”
Hall’s take on Zajac was no different.
“(Zajac) is a responsible player, no doubt,” Hall said. “But I think that his offensive skills are a bit underrated. He’s a guy that sees the ice well. Being a left winger playing with a right-handed center is always a lot of fun. It wasn’t a lot of five-on-five time (against Anaheim), but I thought when we got out there we got out of our zone pretty quickly and had some good looks.”
For a few shifts, Hall was centered by 19-year-old rookie Pavel Zacha, a very creative playmaker who set up Hall for a golden opportunity to get a hat trick during the third period. Hall’s shot to the right of Ducks goalie John Gibson, however, was stopped.
We can file this under “Things that will never happen,” but I believe that Hall would be even more dynamic playing with the Devils’ 2015 first-round draft pick.
One reason why it has such long odds: “I still don’t know if I have a job here,” said Zacha, who was smiling when asked about his near-term future past the league-mandated nine-game deadline for a return to junior hockey.
Of course he belongs in the big leagues. Against the bruising Ducks, Zacha was dominant at times playing with Beau Bennett and Devante Smith-Pelly on his wings.
“That line was probably our most productive line five-on-five as far as scoring chances and territory,” Hynes said.
This territorial advantage is happening with more frequency across all lines, which is unusual in these parts.
Outside of a poor effort in an opening night overtime loss in Florida, the Devils have been ramping up their speed game in a bid to create more offense. They poured 34 shots on Tampa Bay’s net in a 3-2 defeat and had significantly more Grade A scoring opportunities than mighty Anaheim on Tuesday.
The Devils have only netted five goals in their three games, which is below last season’s paltry rate, but that could be because they opened up against two division champions and an Eastern Conference finalist from a year ago.
New Jersey will always be known as a team that prioritizes defense, but Hynes explained why there’s no comparison with last season’s turtle-ish style.
“We’ve defended well, but we’ve defended differently,” Hynes said. “We’ve defended well in a different part of the ice, which is in the offensive side of the ice, and that’s something that we want to continue to build into our identity. We want to be able to play well without the puck, but one of the reasons we’ve done well defensively this year is that we’ve been able to spend more time on the offensive side of the red line.”
All this new offensive potential is a wish come true for Devils goaltender Cory Schneider, who stopped 23 of 24 shots on Tuesday to gain the win. Schneider, the Devils’ sole representative at last season’s All Star game, said it’s nice to have a sniper of Hall’s caliber on his side for a change.
“We’re not sitting here expecting (Hall) to go out and score all the goals each game,” Schneider said. “We knew it was going to come for him — it was just a matter of time. We all knew he can make plays himself and shoot the puck, but I thought these were both good goal-scorer goals. I think it shows his versatility and how many different ways he can be effective.”
And now that he’s finally broken through as a Devil, Hall can ease his grip on his stick and shoot for more.
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