Earlier today, the Prudential Center could have been called the Fun Zone as the New Jersey Devils delighted a sold-out crowd in a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. The game featured loads of offense with the two teams combining for eighty shots on net, ten power plays between both teams, and five goals in total. The run of play was quick, brisk, and moving onto the next event. For anyone who suffered last season’s team, this was absolutely pleasant. For anyone who ever wished to see how the Devils would do in an offensive contest, today was positive piece of evidence. For anyone who wanted to see the younger players play well, then you were in for a treat. For anyone who just wanted the team to get off on the right foot regardless of how you think they’ll do this season, then they got exactly what they wanted.
The Rock was electric from the get-go today. The team held a red carpet event for the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils players in Championship Plaza to enter the arena at 11 AM. That event was filled with people. There were other forms of entertainment and hundreds, if not thousands, were present outside of the Prudential Center when the doors opened at 12:30 PM. By about 2:13 PM, the stands were just about full of Devils fans who were just plain excited. The Devils maintained that level of atmosphere with how they played and what they accomplished. By 4:37 PM, it was just a happy and satisfied crowd of over 16,500 people.
The first period was exactly the sort of start the Devils needed. Colorado quickly showed themselves to not handle forechecking players or pressure very well. The Devils made a point of it to swarm them over and over. As a result, they won many turnovers, the Devils owned the neutral zone for over three-quarters of the first, and the Devils put up 17 shots on Jonathan Bernier out of 26 attempts in all situations per Natural Stat Trick. There were a few games last season where the Devils put up 17 shots on net in the whole game. These 17 shots today were not all easy ones for Bernier. He had to do well to deny most of them; but he had no chance on the team’s first goal. A deflection by Adam Henrique from a right-point shot by Will Butcher. It was a power play beauty and that it was created from the former Avalanche prospect and hopeful Devil power player made it even sweeter.
The power play would go on to be a major source of production in the game. Early in the second period, Nikita Zadorov took an interference call. After some attack time, Butcher received the puck at the right point and saw Kyle Palmieri open at the center. Palmieri launched a slapshot that missed the net. But Jimmy Hayes collected the rebounding puck to chip it past Bernier to make it 2-0 early in the period. Colorado struggled to generate much until they received their first power play of the afternoon. Their first power play yielded six shots and a goal right at the end of it: a rebound put-back by Carl Soderberg. I thought this was right in the final second; but it was deemed to be just after that second ended so it was an even strength goal that really was not. No matter, the Avs started getting some bounces and playing up to New Jersey’s level in the second period, ultimately out-shooting the Devils 14-8 and out-attempting them 23-16 in the middle frame.
Why? They were losing 2-0 and later 2-1; score effects would drive them to be more offensive. The Devils’ own defensive efforts were not so strong today either as they did end up allowing 41 shots on net in the whole game. After ending the first period with 10, that’s a lot to give up. Yet, an even bigger concern was that the Devils were increasingly shorthanded in the second period. Drew Stafford left the game with a lower body injury and did not return. Andy Greene left the second period and while he did return for the third period, he was only present for four shifts as the Avs tried to come back. The biggest injury came near the end of the second period. Kyle Palmieri was chasing down a puck by heading up the right (relative to Bernier) boards. Erik Johnson was ready to greet him with a hit - and left his leg out for it. The collision appeared to be a knee-on-knee hit and Palmieri was down. After a scrum, the refs assessed just a two minute minor to Johnson for kneeing. A small punishment for a hit that took out the team’s top right winger for the day and possibly beyond. While the Palmieri incident was near the end of the period, the Devils were down to 16-17 skaters at points and that means some double-shifts were given. They did not always go well, particularly in the period of the long change.
Fortunately, the Devils converted on that power play for a bit of justice. Even sweeter was how it was set up. Butcher found Taylor Hall open in the left circle. It would have been understandable for Hall to fire a shot. He elected not to do so with Bernier ready for a shot and bodies in front. Hall slid a cross-slot pass to Jesper Bratt, the 19-year old winger who made the team after an impressive preseason. Bratt collected the pass, delayed a bit, and then picked the top left corner for PPG. It was a beautiful first NHL goal and it gave the Devils important breathing room with a 3-1 scoreline.
The third period saw a Devils team that came out and brought the offensive house to Colorado’s end of the rink. Bernier was massive at keeping the Devils from scoring four goals. He absolutely robbed Damon Severson with a diving glove save that somehow kept the puck from going into the net. He robbed Jimmy Hayes of two chances when the big man was alone in front and the goalie was sprawled out. He denied Hall chances; which was big since #9 had five third period shots. It was not until later in the third when Bernier would be beaten again. Of all places, it was on a penalty kill. Marcus Johansson was assessed a double-minor for high-sticking. What then happened was a throwback to 2011-12’s penalty kill when the Devils would shock opponents with offense. Whether it was Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, Bratt, Hall, or Zacha, the PK’ers forced loose pucks and turned it up ice to force the Avs to scramble. A four-minute power play and the best chances were by the shorthanded team. One would be the goal: Bratt led a 2-on-1 but looked back for support. John Moore was there as a trailing rusher. Bratt hit him perfectly and Moore sniped a shot past Bernier for a glorious shorty to make it 4-1. There was still another six minutes to play, but the game was essentially over at that point.
And so the atmosphere became more of a party. People were just hooting and hollering, there was an extended run of the wave in the stands, and the fans were just happy. Yeah, the Avs put up 41 shots and the injuries really stink and the penalties were not all smart, but the run of play on the ice was just so invigorating to watch. The Devils went after the Avs with speed, they piled up a lot of shots themselves, they scored pretty goals, and they won in a decisive fashion. Of course the sell-out crowd was in a celebratory mood. This win was worth celebrating. This was a great home opener.
Read on to learn more specific observations, including plenty about the team’s newest star.
The Opposition Opinion: Cat Silverman has this short recap at Mile High Hockey.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Let’s Talk Nico: I did not mention Nico Hischier until now. This is not because he was bad. No. Today was the first step to becoming a star in New Jersey. People were very excited to see Nico. When the Devils put on a video package of highlights before the game, Nico Hischier at the NHL Draft was the first image. And it was cheered. When the 2017-18 roster was announced, Nico received one of the biggest reactions from the crowd. On his first shift, Nico had his name chanted by the crowd. Needless to say, the team and the fans thought he is a big deal.
Then came the dazzling play from #13.
Hischier was noticeable on the ice for most of his shifts. He was excellent at protecting the puck. He was excellent at winning the puck. He was confident from the half-boards in a 1-3-1 power play formation. He was great in the run of play. Some of the plays were just astounding. Like taking a puck out of bodies in the corner and then going lateral to try and beat Bernier on a power play in the second period. That play led to a flurry of attack that led to applause from the crowd - even though the power play did not score! Nico was great at tracking back to keep pucks in the zone and find a teammate to pass it to than just dumping it away. Results? The rookie put up six shots on net and made ten shooting attempts on his own. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils had 17 shooting attempts and 12 against when Nico was on the ice. If that wasn’t enough, after Palmieri’s knee was hurt by Johnson, Nico was the first one to go up to Johnson. (Thankfully, he did not try to fight Johnson, I don’t think he’d fare well in that one.) The only thing Nico did not do was get a point today. But with the way he played (and yes, I understand Colorado’s defense is weak and this is only the first game), Nico will get a lot of points if he keeps this up.
Nico looked like a special player on the ice today. To me, he’s the real deal. It only took this game to show it to me.
The Butcher Show: The Devils’ power play went 3-for-4 with nine shots on net. Yes, the power play was a resounding success today. A big reason for that was the play of Butcher. Butcher had a few miscues on defense, but more often than not, the puck went in the right direction when he was out there. Butcher was excellent along the blueline on the power play. His first assist was true as his shot was deflected in. The two other assists were secondary assists - and legitimate passes. He was named the first star of the game and it is hard to argue otherwise. The Devils were hoping that the young defender would help the power play. He did that and then some. Welcome to the NHL, Butcher.
The Jimmy Hayes Experience: Jimmy Hayes earned a contract out of preseason. I thought he improved in the exhibition games and I was sort of on the fence about a contract. He proved me wrong with a big game today. The big winger put up seven shots on net including a power play goal. That is a lot of good work in under fourteen minutes of icetime. His CF% was just below breakeven and his SF% was even; both mean that he was not at all a liability out there. With Palmieri and Stafford, out Hayes’ role may have to increase. At least we know he will get in close to the crease and fire when able.
Bratt’s First Game: While this was Nico’s and Butcher’s NHL debuts, Jesper Bratt had a big one as well. Bratt was flying and giving Colorado issues on the forecheck. Due to the injuries, Bratt saw an increased role as the game went on - and he made the most of it. On the power play in the second period, he scored a beautiful goal on what would be his only shot on net in the game. Bratt received 4:47 of shorthanded ice time and he was looking to take it forward as much as he could. He was rewarded big time when he set up Moore for his shorthanded goal. Bratt made only one big error. Near the end of a PK, he took it up ice and instead of dumping the puck in the corner, he tried a pass back. Matt Duchene took it away and went up on an odd man rush that Cory Schneider easily snuffed out. But Bratt more than made up for it with his other PK shifts and the primary assist. Bratt may also see an increased role soon. He has eight games to go before his entry level contract begins. He made a great argument today to have him play beyond nine games. Winning the second star of the game will do that.
By the way, I do have a Bratt-related surprise that will be up in the near future.
The Other Debuts: Let’s run it down.
Marcus Johansson was OK. I did not like the double-minor penalty he took in the third period. I think he’ll get going soon enough.
Brian Gibbons not only started ahead of Miles Wood, but he was utilized in the penalty kill quite a lot. I liked him on the PK. He was not so good in 5-on-5 play.
Drew Stafford was looking good alongside Nico early on. But his injury kept his debut short. It is unknown as of this writing how long he may be out for or what exactly he is injured with.
Mirco Mueller started with Steve Santini on a pairing that really did not do so well in 5-on-5 play. They played a lot of defense against the likes of Tyson Barrie, Sven Andrighetto, Gabriel Landeskog, and so forth. He did not make too many critical errors and he ate up a lot of penalty killing time with Ben Lovejoy being scratched and Andy Greene being hurt for most of the second period. The run of play could have been better, but he could have been worse.
Schneider in Form: How do you get a goalie into form after a ten-day break after preseason? Well, facing a lot of shots will get the rust off. Schneider was excellent today. The majority of the attempts and shots he faced were not necessarily quality chances. But he made some key stops at given points and stopping 40 out of 41 is always a plus. He even handled the puck well today. For those hoping for a bounce-back season for Schneider, then this was a good first step.
As an aside, I thought Bernier did really well despite being beaten four times. He was not Colorado’s problem today.
Regarding Hall: Taylor Hall had a busy day. He set up Bratt’s first NHL goal. He took five shots in the third period (and sailed two he should have put on net) for a total of seven today. He drew two penalties, which both led to power play goals. The only thing that really went wrong for #9 was the run of play. Hall joined the fourth line as being deep in the red when it came to attempt and shot differential. It could have been a result of some of the different shifts just going wrong. For example, Natural Stat Trick lists the Devils facing five 5-on-5 shots against when Hall and Johansson were together - which lasted for all of 43 seconds.
Notable Non-Game Things from the Home Opener: I really liked the 35-year video package of highlights they used before the player announcements. I also really liked the promo video featuring Ken Daneyko leading to “Red Dawn,” which appears to be New Jersey’s marketing phrase for this season. I appreciate that the roster announcements included all of the staff and the scratches. Brian Boyle received a big cheer. We here at AAtJ hope to see him in uniform as soon as he is ready. Travis Zajac looked bummed he could not play; his injury would do that. Ditto Michael McLeod. Miles Wood looked glum for being scratched. I’m sure it didn’t help that the highlight video included a breakaway goal by him. He can keep his chin up, he’ll get his chance soon enough. The players were all announced in numerical order except for Andy Greene, who came out last as the captain. They surrounded the center circle instead of lining up at the blueline. It was a nice change of pace.
The scoreboard is indeed massive. It is bright. It shows game footage clearly. One problem though: the game information on it was small and there were issues keeping it up to date. The shot count was stuck at 2-0 until it just jumped up to 9-4. It was fine after then. However, the listing of players on the ice were not always up to date with who was actually out there. During power plays and penalty kills, the goaltender would fill in the last position - making it a little difficult to realize someone is down a man from it. Worst of all was that the penalty time and number were just way too small. It was stuck at the bottom of the lower ribbon. If there were two men in the box, then maybe there would not be enough room for it. Weird that anything is small on that gigantic scoreboard, but it is. Good thing about digital scoreboards is that things can change.
Suspend Him: Erik Johnson’s knee-on-knee should garner a suspension. He did stick his leg out on a collision. It could have been avoided. It injured Palmieri. A two-minute minor is not enough regardless of whether the Devils scored on the power play. It is the sort of play that the NHL Department of Player Safety should review. Mike Chambers at the Denver Post wrote after the game that Johnson might receive supplementary discipline. In the article, the defenseman claims it was unintentional. The video suggests otherwise. I hope Johnson does.
As an aside, I did appreciate the fans booing every time he touched the puck in the third period. It was deserved since he did take out Palmieri’s knee.
One Final Thought: I wrote a lot of words for this game recap. It could be summed up in three more, typed unironically: fast, attacking, supportive.
Your Take: Those are my thoughts on today’s win. The Devils will have a tough road ahead with four games in the next seven days. Before we get there, what did you think of today’s win? Who impressed you today? What did you like and dislike about the team’s performance? Who or what needs improvement before Monday’s game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.
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