By Steve Lichtenstein
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Every time I begin to doubt the Devils, they shock me back into a state of plausibility.
Consecutive losses to the Blue Jackets and Rangers over the weekend made me wonder whether New Jersey could keep up with the upper echelon of the league. Injuries were beginning to pile up again, with Marcus Johansson (ankle bruise) joining fellow top-six wing Kyle Palmieri (broken right foot) in the press box for Tuesday’s home affair with the mighty Kings, leaders of the Pacific Division and riding an eight-game winning streak.
Of course, the Devils played their most complete game of the season, dispatching Los Angeles, 5-1. They held the Kings to just 17 shots on goal, the season low for both teams for and against.
For 30 games, New Jersey (17-9-4) has hung tough in the brutal Metropolitan Division. Palmieri, the Devils’ leading goal scorer the last two seasons, has played just 13 of them. Johansson, general manager Ray Shero’s trade target in the offseason after a 24-goal campaign for Washington in 2016-17, has played 15. Let’s not forget Mirco Mueller, who was beginning to come into his own on the Devils’ back line. He dressed for only 13 games before he fractured his clavicle and is out indefinitely.
This after the Devils recovered from having half of their projected pivotmen starting the season on the injury list. Travis Zajac missed the first 17 games following preseason pectoral surgery, and Brian Boyle sat out 10 games dealing with a chronic myeloid leukemia diagnosis.
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While the Devils have been inconsistent of late, going 8-7-4 after their torrid 9-2 start, two of their most impressive performances have come in the last week, the other being a 4-1 victory in Columbus on Dec. 5.
Left wing Taylor Hall has played like a Hart Trophy candidate, a 200-foot dynamo. He netted two goals Tuesday, the second of which was a spectacular individual effort that created a breakaway out of nothing, to push his point total to a team-leading 31.
He also didn’t finish the game. The recipient of a knee-on-knee hit from defenseman Kurtis MacDermid at the Kings’ blue line near the right-wing wall, Hall took another couple of shifts before leaving to get evaluated. Coach John Hynes said Wednesday that Hall has a right knee contusion and is day to day. He, however, won’t make the trip to Montreal for Thursday’s game against the Canadiens.
While Nico Hischier, Hall’s center, thought the hit was dirty, coach John Hynes wasn’t sure, calling it “a dangerous hit.”
In any event, the Devils can ill afford to have Hall out for an extended period. He missed eight games last November with a knee injury. The Devils went 2-4-2 in his absence, the start of their plunge into the Eastern Conference basement.
New Jersey is significantly deeper this season, with a host of NHL naïfs contributing on the scoresheet and in the details that win games.
They do not, however, have anyone like Hall. There isn’t a simple “next man up” solution like the way 19-year-old rookie Jesper Bratt has excelled on the top line filling in for Palmieri.
Here come the doubts.
ZAJAC’S ROAD BACK
After piling on Zajac in my last couple of columns, here’s a little equal time: The 32-year-old career Devil knows that he has struggled this season — his first-period goal against the Kings was just his second point in 13 games.
“I knew it would be tough (coming back),” Zajac said. “I didn’t think I would struggle as much as I have. I would say today is the closest game to what I’m capable of doing offensively, defensively, skating, being tough to play against. I’m still not there. I’m still mishandling some pucks where I wouldn’t (before).”
Hynes has juggled Zajac’s linemates throughout trying to get him jump-started, to little lasting effect. On Tuesday, Hynes had Zajac centering Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons, two aggressive pests with speed that seemed to complement Zajac’s more conservative style.
That line held the Kings’ top unit featuring 1.27-ppg center Anze Kopitar in check all night. Kopitar was limited to one shot attempt, which was blocked, and lost nine of 14 faceoffs to Zajac (including all five in the Devils’ defensive zone).
In addition to missing all of training camp and the preseason, Zajac returned much earlier than the original four-to-six-month timeline. He’s going to continue to get the benefit of the doubt because what he does well does have value. Hynes, to his credit, has cut down on Zajac’s responsibilities, excluding him from both power-play units. Zajac was averaging around 17 minutes per game after logging 19:44 in a 5-0 loss in Arizona on Dec. 2. He has since been materially cut back.
Maybe less will give the Devils more.
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