At season’s start, not much was expected of the Devils. They dropped their first four games going 0-3-1 without a blink of the eye. In a rebuilding year with fans sights set on Auston Matthews, the Devils have improved dramatically under rookie coach John Hynes.
Make it three in a row for Jersey’s team. They stunned the Senators 5-4 in a shootout to get back to 3-3-1. Lee Stempniak played the hero scoring with 32 seconds left in regulation and notching the shootout winner in Round 4 to give them a third straight win. The veteran forward who made the team out of camp on a tryout steered in a Damon Severson rebound past Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond at 19:28.
”We’re a team that’s got to fight for every inch and there’s not very high expectations for us, but in the room we believe we’re capable of a lot more than what people expect from us,” Stempniak said after beating Hammond with a beautiful backhand deke top shelf. ”I think that our mentality is just to go out and play until the final buzzer and that came through tonight.”
The Devils rallied back from a 4-2 third period deficit. In a game they once led 2-1 on goals from Travis Zajac and Jordin Tootoo, they allowed three consecutive goals to the Senators on goals from Zach Smith, Mike Hoffman and Chris Neil. Playing in his 900th career game, Neil recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick also dropping the gloves with Tootoo while setting up a goal.
But New Jersey never quit. With under six minutes left in regulation, Adam Henrique got to a Mike Cammalleri rebound and beat Hammond from a bad angle to cut the deficit to one. His team-leading fourth was also set up by Stempniak, who recorded a goal and helper along with the shootout winner following a controlled 3-on-3 derby.
Aside from playing hard for Hynes, these Devils have had early success in the new overtime format. In back-to-back wins over the Rangers and Coyotes, they got winners off the sticks of Stempniak and budding top defenseman Adam Larsson. Larsson was easily the best skater in the 3-on-3 derby making good defensive reads and creating scoring chances. He and partner Andy Greene stood out.
Unlike other teams, the Devils look like they practiced the wild and wacky new OT. Even though they lack the skill of some other teams, their players have performed well so far. Cory Schneider also has helped making big saves. He finished with 35 and turned aside three of four Ottawa shooters.
In the skill competition, Bobby Ryan gave the Sens a 1-0 lead in the first round. Jacob Josefson evened it with a nice finish top shelf after Round 2. After Schneider denied Mike Zibanejad, Cammalleri had a chance to win it but was turned aside by Hammond. Cammalleri had three assists in the hockey portion.
Following a key Schneider stop on Mark Stone, that set the stage for Stempniak who made a great move faking shot before tucking a backhand inside the crossbar for the game-winner.
The Devils have to be pleased with the early results. Especially after how it started. While other talented teams such as the Ducks and Jackets struggle to win with the weight of expectations, the Devils have already found their team identity. Even from the other side of the Hudson rivalry, it’s easy to admire.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Adam Henrique, Devils (4th of season, assist, +1 in 23:00)
2nd Star-Chris Neil, Senators (goal, assist, fight for Gordie Howe hat trick in 900th game)
1st Star-Lee Stempniak, Devils (game-tying goal at 19:28 3rd, assist, shootout winner)