The New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers were selected as part of the NHL Global Series to have their 2018-19 regular season schedules begin in Gothenburg, Sweden. As far as matchups go, it worked out nicely for the NHL. The Devils, led by the 2017-18 NHL MVP and Superstar Taylor Hall, would take on the Oilers, led by 2017-18 Art Ross winner and Lindsey Trophy winner Connor McDavid. The game worked out even better for the Devils. Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac each put up a brace as New Jersey decisively defeated Edmonton, 5-2, to begin their season. The Devils will fly back to Newark with a ‘W’ in their pocket.
The key word here is ‘decisive.’ While the game was tied 1-1 after the first period, the Devils were better in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey in the first frame. The Devils stepped it up with an awesome second period where the Devils scored two more quick goals and constantly pressured Edmonton. Even without a third goal in the second period, the Oilers were not getting much attack time at all. Outside of a Keith Kinkaid mistake near the end of the period, the Oilers had no real good look at the net to pull within one. While the Oilers settled things down in the third period, the Devils made them pay for another error to go up 4-1. OK, so the Oilers rushed up and tried to get a lifeline late. The Devils kept putting in work, they handled the Oilers down the stretch well, and a long empty-net attempt by Stefan Noesen went off the post and in to seal the deal. Outside for a couple stretches, the Devils were clearly the better team on the ice in Gothenburg. The score accurately reflects that.
For the Devils fan, this game should excite you. Sure, the first line made their mark with Palmieri scoring two goals and squaring up against McDavid’s unit. Palmieri was free on the right sideboards after collecting a rimmed puck by Damon Severson. He skated towards the middle, and torched Cam Talbot with a shot 58 seconds into the game. In the second period, Palmieri unleashed another blazer past Kris Russell and Talbot to quickly convert New Jersey’s first power play of the season. The unit of Hall, Nico Hischier, and Palmieri never stopped trying for another score; they combined for nine of New Jersey’s 27 shots today. They did well, but that is expected. Palmieri’s goals were off great releases, but we know he’s got a great release. What further impressed me and should get you further hyped was how well the second and third lines played today.
Even with Jesper Bratt out with a fractured jaw, the second line feasted on Darnell Nurse and Matthew Benning. Noesen took Bratt’s spot in the lineup; bad retalitation penalty aside in the first period, he fit in well. He also got the ENG. Marcus Johansson did not get a point today, but he put in a great performance. The Devils were an astounding 9-0 in shot attempts and 6-0 in shots on net in 5-on-5 situations when Johansson went up against Nurse-Benning.
The third line of Miles Wood, John Quenneville, and Zajac was also very effective. All three were deep in the green in terms of attempt and shot differential. Their forechecking turned out to be the difference maker. They made the Oilers pay for two of their errors. Shortly after Palmieri’s PPG, Talbot went out of his net to play a dumped-in puck. Only he left it behind his net and didn’t try to pass it to anyone. As he scrambled to get back in the crease, Wood swooped in to take the puck and hit Zajac with a pass as the center crashed towards the net. That made it 3-1. In the third period, Wood forces a turnover from Benning and the puck gets free to Zajac in front of the net. Zajac dekes and slides a backhander through Talbot’s legs to make it 4-1. Two goals from Zajac is always big. I enjoyed seeing him finish both plays correctly. And to see Wood set both up was also appreciated. But all three players on that line handled their business well today.
That the Devils’ forward depth out-performed Edmonton was crucial because Edmonton beyond McDavid’s line was just not getting the job done. Sure, Milan Lucic scored a power play goal today but that was almost all due to McDavid . Other than that, he was a body on the ice today. Sure, Leon Draisaitl can be a threat and he scored on a 3-on-2 rush led by McDavid in the third to give the Oilers some faint hope of life in the game. Other than that, he was a non-factor today. Edmonton’s fourth line? HA! What line? And with the continued pressure, especially in the second period, even some otherwise solid defenders in Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom were in over their heads at time. This may be simplistic, but with a team like Edmonton, one has to expect McDavid to do some damage. The key is to do even more when he is not on the ice. The Devils did that in terms of possession, attack time, and goals. Job done.
It remains to be seen whether these other two lines will do well against deeper, more talented teams. We will find out in the team’s upcoming homestand. But it is evidence that the Devils may not have to always, always, always rely on Hall-Hischier-Palmieri for offense. That is also indicative of how much of a “team win” this was. The overall performance was very good from New Jersey. It is always good to start off the regular season with a win. It is even better that it came off a performance that deserved a big win. There’s more to praise about the Devils, so let’s get into it with the first recap of the 2018-19 Devils regular season.
The Opposition Opinion: From the Copper & Blue, Jeff Chapman has this recap from the opposition’s point of view.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are highlights from today’s big Devils win:
The Defensive Work: What should not go unnoticed by this game is that the Devils held the Oilers to just 19 shots today. Natural Stat Trick has Edmonton credited for 16 scoring chances (this includes missed shots, by the way) and 2 high danger scoring chances in this game. [By comparison, the Devils had 27 shots, 27 scoring chances, and 10 high danger chances.] Those numbers are for all situations in today’s game, so that includes the Oilers having the benefit of four power plays. Plus, the Devils built up a lead early in the second period; that generally leads the losing team to attack more. Sure, when McDavid had the puck on his stick, things got iffy at times. McDavid is truly one of the best in the world. If I have a criticism for how the Devils defended him, then it is that they got caught up looking at him instead of looking at who McDavid could possibly make a pass to. That is how Lucic got his one-timer goal in the first period and how the Oilers had two other Grade A chances that Keith Kinkaid got a stop on.
Even so, despite McDavid doing his things at points, he did not go off for the whole game. The Devils were the home team today so they got the last change. Per Natural Stat Trick’s game stats, John Hynes decided to match up McDavid’s line with Mirco Mueller and Sami Vatanen. And it actually worked to a degree. McDavid was a +2 in attempt differential (12-10) and a -2 in shot differential (6-8) against Mueller-Vatanen with no goals scored. On paper, McDavid against Mueller would be a head scratcher. In practice, it went well. As a result of this decision, Mueller-Vatanen led the defensive pairings in ice time. This led to fewer minutes and sometimes easier situations for the others. Andy Greene and Damon Severson did well. The third pairing of Will Butcher and Ben Lovejoy was extremely good as they supported the Devils’ depth eating the collective lunches of the Oilers’ depth. Keith Kinkaid did have to make a handful of difficult saves, but he was not hung out to dry save for Lucic’s power play goal. And all three pairings chipped in on offense to keep attacks going and maintain control if the puck did get out to re-start a breakout. In 5-on-5 today, the Devils defense did a good job against a team with one legit contender Best Player in the World at forward.
The penalty kill did concede a PPG. McDavid flew down the left wing, circled around, saw no one was on or looking at Lucic, pass, shot, score. That’s the goal. The Devils, unfortunately, took three more penalties after the Lovejoy holding call that led to that goal against. Fortunately, the PK shut down the Oilers. Edmonton did not register a single shot on net in their other three power plays. Six minutes, no shots. That’s quite good. What’s more is that the PK accomplished this with Palmieri (who was a regular penalty killer last season) and Brian Boyle (who was a penalty killer today) in the box for the third and fourth kills. Others stepped into the role, even if it was for a shift or two, and the Devils got it done. After the quick conversion on the first kill, the PK performed well for the other three.
Overall, I am pleased with the defense’s performance.
Kinkaid Solid Except for that One Thing...: Kinkaid played a solid game in net. I do not think he can be faulted on either goal. Both were one timers coming to his left off feeds from other directions. They were good finishes on good chances. They happen. While the Devils supported him well with goals, offense, and limiting Edmonton’s opportunities, Kinkaid did make a number of good stops. He handled traffic well. He did make some huge kick saves on other McDavid-created one-timers in the game. He held on the puck well when the shot forced him to take an awkward-looking stance (e.g. squeezing the arm against the body).
The only issue Kinkaid was that he had a mindless error near the end of the second period. Similar to Talbot’s error, it was with playing a dumped-in puck. Unlike Talbot, Kinkaid did try to clear the puck - only to go right to an Oiler. The Devils’ defense scrambled to deny the shot as Kinkaid recovered. That was a fortunate escape; imagine if Edmonton put that in the net and the Devils enter the second intermission only up 3-2 instead of 3-1? Despite the near-Hedberging, that did not happen and Kinkaid had a strong first start of the season.
Physical on the Body, but Not the Puck: Edmonton was particularly aggressive on the body today. I don’t know what they’ve taught him, but Larsson was notably handsy and stick-y and checking-y. In one instance, he was hitting Noesen with a couple of lumber shots to his lumbar. This caused Noesen to slash his stick out of his hands in anger - and take a slashing call for it. Nurse and Benning were trying to throw their weight around. The line of Zach Kassian, Kyle Brodziak, and Tobias Reider were trying to body up Devils. Yet, the Devils held up well under the physical nature at times. Various Devils displayed a lot of strength in maintaining puck possession and supported each other well when the puck did get loose or knocked astray to keep an attack going. After a three-penalty first period, the Devils were not really goaded into anything by further checks and other displays of strength. It was another reason why I was impressed with how the Devils performed. They stuck to business and kept going at the Oilers with the puck, forcing them to get an arm or a shoulder or a stick in a physical way. It is a good mentality to keep going forward.
But the Penalties...: The calls the Devils took were not really good ones to take. Lovejoy’s hold on Ryan Strome led to McDavid & Lucic punishing them for it. That hold did not need to happen; the Devils were trying to make a zone exit at the time, if I recall correctly. Noesen’s stick slash of Larsson was on offense and out of frustration. I sympathize with the frustration but the retaliation foul tends to be called and Noesen was caught. Palmieri took a roughing minor for knocking Evan Bouchard into another Oiler from behind. Maybe that was iffy, but there was no need to do that - especially on offense. It was not like Palmieri was going for the puck at the time. Lastly, Boyle hooked Larsson in the neutral zone as Larsson tried to break the puck out. It was totally unneeded. Again, the PK did a very good job on last three calls. But those last three calls did not have to happen. Given the next opponent, the Devils want to be careful about the unnecessary fouls in the opposition’s half of the rink.
Debut of Dea: Jean-Sebastian Dea made his regular season debut with the Devils. Dea (pronounced “Dee”) was OK. He was the best part of a fourth line with Blake Coleman and Boyle from a run of play perspective. He had a legitimate scoring chance when a wraparound attempt by Pavel Zacha went awry and Talbot was confused. Dea was able to get a handle on the puck (I think it hit Dea?) and have a free shot. Talbot was (correctly) up against the post so he was able to deny him, but for a guy who did not get even ten minutes today, an opportunity was good. He even saw a little PK time. I think with Bratt out, Dea has the inside track to stay in the lineup. I’m fine with it.
Power Playing: That first goal by Palmieri was great. Hischier forced that faceoff win and got the puck to Will Butcher. Butcher sent it across and Palmieri made the right decision to shoot the puck - and boy did he shoot it well. The second advantage was not as productive. There were some issues in gaining Edmonton’s zone. The drop passes did not really fool or force the Oilers to be in an uncomfortable spot. At the end, the Oilers nearly found Nurse on a breakaway coming out of the box - but they thankfully missed the pass. The second advantage did not get a shot on net. But 1-for-2 is not so bad. For what it’s worth, Wood was on the second unit in place of Bratt and the second unit did have Vatanen and Severson. We’ll see if that lasts.
Tradition: It is early for the Weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot. So tomorrow’s post will follow a tradition on this site: a breakdown of the team’s first goal of the season. It may be a short one, but it was a great goal by Palmieri and we can learn more with a closer look.
The Next One: The home opener on Thursday will be a tougher test. Washington is not a one-line team and they scored 13 goals in their first two games. Still, today’s win gets the Devils on the board in the Metropolitan Division standings and keeps pace with some of the other teams. Again, starting off the season with a ‘W’ is always a good thing.
One Last Thought: Empty net goals always make me smile.
Your Take: The Devils beat the Oilers 5-2 and did so in a decisive fashion. I am excited by the victory and how the Devils obtained it. I want to know what you think. What is your reaction to today’s win? Who was the best Devil in your opinion? What was the key to the victory? Which of the five goals was your favorite? What should the Devils learn from this game before their next game against Washington? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.