By Steve Lichtenstein
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Following Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Tampa Bay, Devils coach John Hynes told the assembled media that he wasn’t concerned about his club’s winless record in their first five games away from home.
For Sunday’s back-to-back at Carolina, Hynes shook up his forward call sheet, inserting regular healthy scratches Jacob Josefson and Reid Boucher into the lineup.
To make room, Hynes benched Devante Smith-Pelly and Sergey Kalinin, though he did note in his pregame news conference that he had multiple candidates to choose from.
One of those players was probably left wing Mike Cammalleri, who was held without a goal and had just three assists through the Devils’ first 10 games. This despite given ample ice time on the top scoring lines and on power plays.
Proving that sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make, Hynes was rewarded for giving Cammalleri one more chance. Cammalleri scored the first three goals of the game in a quintessential New Jersey 4-1 victory over the Hurricanes.
Cammalleri was New Jersey’s leading scorer last season before a hand/wrist injury in January shut him down, ending his season with 14 goals, 24 assists and 38 points in just 42 games. His return this year was expected to boost the Devils’ attack as they evolved into a faster-paced style.
It just didn’t happen out of the gate.
Cammalleri’s timing was off on his patented one-timers from one knee, and he rarely showed any burst to the puck in the offensive zone.
Fortunately, Cammalleri the sniper showed up in Carolina. In the second period, he one-timed a nifty cross-slot pass from center Travis Zajac past goalie Eddie Lack and then took a Josefson feed off the rush before beating Lack from the right faceoff circle.
He topped it off 8:30 into the third period with another nasty wrist shot, this one from the left circle, for the Devils’ first hat trick in nearly two years (last accomplished by Jaromir Jagr on Jan. 3, 2015, versus the Flyers).
It was also the first time a Devil buried three goals in a game on the road since Zach Parise’s hat trick at Washington on March 2, 2012.
With 14 of the Devils’ next 19 games away from Prudential Center following the Hurricanes’ home-and-home return visit on Tuesday, it was crucial for New Jersey to re-establish its template for playing road games.
It wasn’t just the timely goals provided by Cammalleri or the capable goaltending of backup Keith Kinkaid that stood out in Carolina, it’s all the little things that the Devils usually do so well that had been inconsistent during their 0-3-2 road start. Everything from faceoffs to clearing pucks out of the defensive zone to stringing passes together was much improved Sunday.
The Devils’ penalty-killing unit, which had been under siege while surrendering three goals in seven shorthanded situations during New Jersey’s prior two-game trip in Florida, was perfect on four Carolina power play opportunities.
The Devils built a lead and, unlike in previous road games in Tampa and Boston, preserved it through disciplined defensive zone coverage. Kyle Palmieri, another one of Hynes’ underachieving wingers, had a tremendous defensive game.
Granted, one game against the bottom-feeding Hurricanes isn’t necessarily a turning point. The NHL is absolutely brimming with talent these days — the Devils have yet to face the Capitals, Penguins or Rangers, all Metropolitan Division contenders playing at a very high level right now — and there is still much to fix.
New Jersey’s power play continued to be anemic on the road — after two half-hearted efforts on Sunday, the Devils are now ranked 22nd in the league with an 11.1 percent conversion rate. Here’s a novel idea: Instead of throwing a potpourri of players out on the ice in a mixed-bag approach that has shown little chemistry, how about keeping the lines together on power play units? The Devils have not gotten the bang for having Palmieri as a fourth forward, so why not move him down lower and play Damon Severson and Johann Auvitu together on the points?
Also, the play of the older Devils defensemen continues to be a concern. Ben Lovejoy routinely gets caught when pinching in the offensive zone, and he lacks the requisite catch-up speed. Kyle Quincey was left in the dust by winger Nikita Kucherov on the Lightning’s final goal Saturday. Though the Devils called up Vojtech Mozik (and Steve Santini earlier in the season) from Albany, all six defensemen have dressed for every game.
Still, the Devils, with a record of 5-3-3, are right where they should be — battling for a wild-card seed. And thankful they can finally ditch their label as road kill.
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