By Steve Lichtenstein
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There is so much that is surprising about the Devils’ red-hot start to the season.
Their 8-2 mark, for one. You have to go all the way back to 1993 to see that many wins in the first 10 games of a season.
After missing the playoffs five consecutive seasons, including a dreadful 70-point campaign in 2016-17, the Devils are now winning games that their popgun offense of the past couldn’t possibly pull out.
The Devils were hardly at their best during their two home games over the weekend, but they’re heading out to western Canada with four points in their pocket after a 5-4 shootout victory over Ottawa on Friday and a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Arizona on Saturday.
“They don’t always have to be pretty and, on a back-to-back, against a really motivated team, sometimes you’re going to have nights like that, where it doesn’t really seem to click, and you really have to force things,” star left wing Taylor Hall said after the victory over the winless Coyotes. “You find ways to win games (and) you bank points for later in the year when you play well and you might not get them.”
Then there’s the sudden turbo boost to team speed. For years slowpokes in a game that has been rapidly trending otherwise, the Devils are now “probably the fastest team in the league,” according to Senators coach Guy Boucher.
It may be hard to comprehend, but the Devils have become NHL Center Ice staples, one of the league’s most exciting teams to watch.
To me, however, the most shocking aspect of this start is the fact that it has been accomplished with a by-committee approach. There isn’t an Alex Ovechkin or a Nikita Kucherov here burning out the red goal lights, carrying the team on his back. Hall leads New Jersey in scoring with 13 points, including 10 assists. But he needed a three-point night against Arizona just to break into the league’s top 10.
The Devils rank second in the NHL in goals scored per game (3.8), yet as of Saturday night their leader placed 32nd with a mere five goals.
That would be Brian Gibbons, a 29-year-old on a minimum two-way contract who had a grand total of 66 NHL games under his belt entering this season. Gibbons’ penalty shot goal in the first period against Arizona temporarily awakened New Jersey from its slumber.
Trailing Gibbons with four goals is 19-yeart-old rookie Jesper Bratt, another bottom-six forward who has astounded fans with his speed, patience, and skill. In addition to netting the tie-breaking power play snipe with 4:13 remaining on Saturday, Bratt blew up the Internet with his game-winning shootout maneuver on Friday that sent Ottawa goalie Mike Condon sliding out of the frame.
This is new in New Jersey.
In recent years, if the Devils’ top line didn’t contribute on the scoresheet, it was a lost cause. Players like Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Hall carried huge burdens. If Andy Greene wasn’t on the ice to anchor the back line, the Devils would routinely be pinned in their own zone. And if goalie Cory Schneider didn’t stand on his head, the game would more often than not end in a rout.
This iteration has already withstood the losses of Zajac (torn pectoral muscle) and center Brian Boyle (chronic myeloid leukemia) since the start of training camp. Then the Devils had to make do without Palmieri (lower-body injury from crashing into the boards in practice last week) all weekend, and Greene (birth of child) and second-line wing Marcus Johansson (lower body “tweaked” in warmups) on Saturday.
Though Schneider returned on Saturday after a week off to recover from a lower-body injury, Keith Kinkaid proved reliable in his stead. Kinkaid recorded his second victory over the annoyingly constructed Senators on Friday, his third win in four decisions overall.
In fact, the Devils’ organizational depth in net is so sound that general manager Ray Shero literally hand-delivered Scott Wedgewood to the Coyotes before Saturday’s game in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft. Wedgewood, who was stellar in a four-game stint two seasons ago but has since struggled with injuries, needed an NHL opportunity and the Devils were comfortable with top prospect MacKenzie Blackwood’s development at AHL Binghamton.
I don’t mean to imply that Shero’s rebuilding job is complete. The Devils are still too thin on defense, which is why they have allowed the sixth-most shots on goal per game (34.2) in the league. They surrendered two goals to Ottawa in the final 1:15 on Friday before prevailing in the skills competition. Make no mistake, the growing pains will continue.
But I can see that the deadwood has been mostly removed from the roster, save for defenseman Dalton Prout. Though a 10-game sample size is too small to extrapolate over a full NHL season, the beauty of the Devils’ start is the breadth of their contributors. That might make it easier to sustain.
“We’ve been able to have depth scoring,” coach John Hynes said after Saturday’s win. “We’ve had different types of players be able to make impacts in the game — whether it’s offensively or special teams, or just energy guys like Blake Coleman and Miles Wood and Jimmy Hayes and Stefan Noesen. All those contributions from guys like that have been a big difference. That’s how you find ways to win, when you don’t have to rely on three, four or five guys. It’s a team game.”
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