By Steve Lichtenstein
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New York/New Jersey hockey fans have been treated to some transcendent performances this season.
We have Henrik Lundqvist standing on his head in net on so many nights to lift the Rangers into a current wild card slot, while the Islanders, who are only three points out of the eighth seed (with a game in hand over Pittsburgh), have been burning out the red lights thanks to the play of franchise center John Tavares and sublime rookie Mathew Barzal.
However, my vote for MVP of the region at this point in the season would go to Devils left wing Taylor Hall.
I’m only slightly biased. This site contains a record of submissions that have been highly critical of the Devils when warranted. I am also well aware that Hall is only 15th in the league in points per game, behind both Tavares and Josh Bailey of the Islanders. But this goes well beyond numbers.
Simply put, Hall has been the engine that has powered the Devils to unforeseen heights this season. No one had New Jersey hanging with the elite in the brutal Metropolitan Division after it finished in the Eastern Conference basement last season.
Yet here the Devils stand, the fourth-best team in the East at 24-12-8 (56 points), following a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory over the division-leading Capitals on Thursday at Prudential Center.
Hall saved the Devils, who blew a two-goal second-period lead and allowed the equalizer with just 3:48 remaining in regulation. The 26-year-old forward blew past Washington’ Evgeny Kuznetsov along the neutral zone right wing wall before beating goalie Braden Holtby on the ensuing breakaway 34 seconds into the extra session.
“In overtime, we’re kind of instructed to try to strike and create turnovers at the start of our shift while we’re rested,” Hall said. “I think we were about 20 seconds in, I saw (Kuznetsov) back there and he’s a forward, so I knew he would play that aggressively and I was able to chip it past him. On the breakaway, I was just trying to get it up, trying to get the goalie moving a bit, and open up that glove side.”
Hall has been stepping up in big moments all season, especially early on when the Devils were missing half their top-six forwards (Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson) due to injuries.
And he’s been doing it while playing most of the season with a pair of teenagers.
Nico Hischier may have been the top overall selection in the 2017 draft, but while he’s been effective in his 200-foot role, he hasn’t been nearly as productive as prior top choices Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Nor was he projected to be. Less was expected from Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick in 2016 out of Sweden’s B League who snuck up on folks in training camp and ended up sticking around.
Ever since head coach John Hynes put the trio together, the so-called “Kids and The Hall” line has been as dynamic as any in the NHL in terms of pure creativity.
Hall seemed energized by the configuration. At Devils Media Day, Hall noted that he didn’t care who he played with, as long as they played fast. He certainly got his wish.
Many of their line rushes have been mesmerizing. More impressively, each player has been terrific in pressuring opponents to win pucks back. And when they do, all three players possess marvelous vision and passing skills. In fact, I’ve always felt that Hall was more of a playmaker than a natural goal scorer. He has recorded at least 10 more assists than goals in every season since his sophomore season in the NHL back in 2011-12.
“It’s been awesome,” Hall said. “I think the best thing about playing with them is how they always want to make plays and sometimes it’s almost to a fault. But over the course of the year, we’ve become a line that’s been pretty good defensively. We’re not on for a whole lot of goals against and we’re able to create some pretty good chances. I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I think it has given me a little burst of energy playing with them and seeing how much fun they’re having in their first NHL year. It brings me back.”
Like Hischier, Hall also was No. 1 overall draft pick, taken by Edmonton in 2010. After six fairly productive seasons that included one All-Star appearance (but no playoff games), he was traded to New Jersey in the summer of 2016 for top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson.
The adjustment for Hall wasn’t easy, especially since he was going from a bottom-feeder in the West to another in the East.
Over this past summer, Devils general manager Ray Shero and Hynes each challenged Hall to become more of a leader this season. Hall has even been part of the rotation set up for the second alternative captain alongside Zajac.
Hynes said he has been happy with the results, especially the tutelage Hall has provided his young linemates.
“You see (Hall) now constantly talking with those two guys on the bench just about certain things they can do,” Hynes said. “So it’s nice to see the chemistry that the three of them have, but it’s also nice to see Taylor take the lead on the line and communicate with them, and help them through some tough times when they go through them, because when they’re all going, they’re certainly a deadly group to play against.”
Hall, who is on a six-game point streak (five goals, six assists), may not be as prolific a scorer as some, but he has made an impact each game he has played this season. The Devils would be miles behind the Caps and everyone else in the Metropolitan Division without him. That’s an MVP.
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