As the Devils (0-1-1) prepare for their home opener tomorrow night against the Ducks (0-2-1), I’ll spend a few minutes looking back at their first two games of the season in Florida before looking ahead to the home opener tomorrow night. Against two playoff teams it wasn’t much surprise the Devils struggled, especially since the Florida two-game swing hasn’t been kind to us in recent years. While the point at Sunrise Thursday in a 2-1 OT loss was fine, losing in regulation to Tampa on Saturday after blowing a 2-0 lead put a damper on the trip and the Devils only came home with one of a possible four points. While the Devils only lost both games by a single goal and at times played well against two teams that both made the playoffs last season, there were other times where reality hit that despite all the offseason maneuvering there was still work to be done.
For the opener Thursday there were a couple of lineup surprises, specifically the scratching of Reid Boucher, while rookies Miles Wood and Blake Speers not only made the roster but also the starting lineup for the first two games and possibly tomorrow night as well. While Boucher seems to have fallen out of favor during camp (and honestly he’s not a guy GM Ray Shero drafted so it’s not terribly surprising he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt), the staff evidently liked what they saw from Wood and Speers enough to have them open the season here instead of in the AHL and juniors, respectively. Far be it for me to tell the staff how to develop their players but personally, I wouldn’t have either guy up here and both guys have barely averaged ten minutes played in the first two games with few highlights, although Speers did good work on the penalty kill in Tampa Bay really that’s not what you want your 19-year old skill forward doing up here when he could be working on his offense at a lower level.
As someone who saw kids get rushed under the previous administration the last few years, I don’t want to see the same thing happen to Wood and Speers. Wood only has a handful of professional games and Speers none before this season. At least they’re playing however. Defenseman Steve Santini has oddly been a healthy scratch two games in a row going on three. Santini only has a few games’ worth of professional experience as well and it makes more sense to me to have him playing in the AHL rather than sitting here, but at least with him I can rationalize the early scratches as a way to keep his games played/minutes down in his first professional season. Our reconfigured defense gave up thirty-four shots in each of the first two games, but growing pains were to be expected from a defensive core that has no fewer than three newcomers besides Santini – FA signings Yohann Auvitu, Kyle Quincey and Ben Lovejoy. At least Auvitu added some much needed offense by contributing to the first goal of the season, a slapshot late in the first period against the Panthers that was tipped home by another recent acquisition – P.A. Parenteau – tying the game at 1. That’s where the game stayed until overtime when the Panthers’ Michael Matheson trucked Damon Severson behind the Devils’ net setting up the game-winning goal by Aleksander Barkov in front.
Much was made of the trade for Taylor Hall and other improvements made to the offense this offseason – including bringing in Parenteau and promoting Pavel Zacha to full-time duty at center, but that too is a work in progress as the Devils have only scored three goals in the first two games of the season. Ironically all of the goals so far have come off deflections, and two came within the opening five minutes at Tampa as Kyle Palmieri deflected a John Moore shot past Andrei Vasilevsky and then Travis Zajac’s slapshot (nearly fanned on) was deflected past Vasilevsky by his own defenseman Anton Stralman. Still, the first two games of this season looked a lot like games of previous seasons with Cory Schneider holding the fort against a siege, until the fort finally caved in during the second period at Tampa when Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn scored to tie the game, Killorn’s goal in particular was a floater that went through the five-hole, a shocking goal considering some of the saves Cory had made earlier in the game. Valtteri Fillpula‘s deflection goal in the third period ensured the Devils would leave Tampa without a point.
It’s hard to find positives out of the first two games considering the lack of offense and chances given up. One positive is Moore, who so far has looked like the defenseman from the first half of last season rather than the second half. Perhaps having a vet partner in Ben Lovejoy‘s helped, even though Lovejoy himself hasn’t gotten off to the best start. Another plus has been workman like center Vernon Fiddler, who’s done yeoman work on the penalty kill in the first two games. Auvitu’s shown the offensive flair he has during camp and played over seventeen minutes in the first two games without being on for a goal against.
Still, the Devils need a better performance tomorrow night in front of their home fans to carry over some of the offseason optomism and avoid getting this season off the rails early like my Jets have. Then again, their opponents are just as desperate, given that the Ducks are winless in the first three though a killer schedule – on the road against Dallas, Pittsburgh and the Isles in the first three legs of a five-game trip before their own home opener Sunday night. Coach John Hynes is considering lineup changes for tomorrow, including slotting in Boucher for the first time and Zacha out of the lineup after a poor game in Tampa.
While it’s too bad Zacha gets scratched for the home opener, it’s game #3 of a long-season. I’m not going to complain about a 19-year old getting scratched one game for a learning experience. It would be nice to have a better third-line option than Jacob Josefson but for some reason (despite getting scratched himself on Saturday night) he keeps getting chances in the top nine. Josefson will return to the lineup in place of Wood, sitting for the first time in three games. Hynes explained the benefits of rotating players in and out of the lineup:
“Right now we have everyone healthy so it’s important to keep guys involved, have guys with game experience so whether you hit the injury bug or we want to keep the environment competitive, we can continue to get the best out of all our players,” Hynes added. It also gives us a chance that when sometimes young guys struggle and may need a break or a game off, it gives us the ability to continue to develop players in the NHL and sometimes that’s not playing every night.”
Another forward waiting to break into the lineup is Sergey Kalinin who’s been ostensibly ill for a week, although the organization hiding an injury wouldn’t shock me either given they were just as cloak and dagger as Lou Lamoriello ever was with injuries last year. No word yet on whether or when Santini will get to play. Whoever’s in the lineup tomorrow night, it’d be nice to score more goals – especially against a team that’s given up ten themselves in their first three games. New Jersey follows up tomorrow’s game against the Ducks with a trip to Boston on Thursday, then returning to the Prudential Center against the Wild on Saturday. Very few games are easy in this NHL but if you want to make the playoffs, you gotta win a couple of games against teams like those we’re playing this week (arguably all borderline playoff teams, or in the Ducks’ case a talented team that’s struggling with a new coach).