In an unusual Saturday afternoon season-opener, the Devils entertained the fans in the present and showed plenty of promise for the future in a wild 4-1 win over the Avalanche where Cory Schneider returned to pre 2016-17 form with a 40-save performance that still only merited a third star as rookies dominated the day for the red and black, earning the first and second stars of the afternoon. Surprisingly, neither rookie was named Nico.
Even though he didn’t score any points, 18-year old #1 overall Nico Hischier still dazzled offensively and defensively, showing the hockey sense beyond his years that propelled him up to the top of the draft board in June. Ironically, Hischier was overshadowed to a degree by fellow rookies Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher on this day, with 2016 sixth-round pick Bratt – still just 19 years old himself – scoring his first NHL goal on a beautiful snipe late in the second period that snatched momentum back after an unsettling few minutes (more on that later). Amazingly enough, Bratt’s already gained enough trust from the staff to play nearly five minutes on the penalty kill in his NHL debut, logging 16:49 of icetime in all situations, finishing with two points and earning the second star on the night. And Butcher, despite playing barely over twelve minutes still made his presence known, showing the potential to be the best power play QB the Devils have had since Marek Zidlicky. His three assists earned him the game’s first star against the organization who once drafted him.
Butcher facing the Avs and one-time Devil draft pick Alex Kerfoot going up against us after the offseason each signed with the other organization was one of the interesting side stories headed into this afternoon’s season opener for the Devils. While Kerfoot did get a point in his first NHL game the other night, Butcher’s three assists tonight one-upped that for a debut performance. Speaking of debut performances, five other Devils made their team debut with mixed results. PTO camp invite Jimmy Hayes did well in his first game after signing a one-year deal, scoring the second goal and registering four hits and seven SOG in 13:40 of action. Unheralded Brian Gibbons played 5:05 shorthanded among his 14:36 of icetime and did a solid job on the PK as did most of the team, killing off all six Av penalties, albeit the Avs’ lone goal came just a second or two after one of those penalties expired late in the second period. It wasn’t neccesarily the best afternoon for more heralded acquisitions Marcus Johansson or Mirco Mueller but better days should be ahead for both.
Then there was Drew Stafford, who had a solid camp but didn’t make it through his first period of the season before leaving with a lower-body injury. If rookies were the lead story for the Devils today, injuires were unfortunately 1A. Even captain Andy Greene had to miss most of the second period due to an unspecified injury, and his absence showed as the Avs had their most dominant stretch of the game during that time. With Greene in the locker room and Butcher not getting much 5-on-5 time, most of the second period the Devils were just rolling four defensemen and that seemingly caught up with some guys. Perhaps the most damaging injury however, was to Kyle Palmieri – who took a knee-on-knee hit from Av defenseman Erik Johnson late in the second period. Surprisingly, Johnson only got two minutes in the box while Palmieri was forced out of the game. Coach John Hynes had no update on either player, indicating more would be known tomorrow. Needless to say our already thin RW depth chart can’t afford to lose one or both top six wingers for an extended period of time.
Apart from the injuries, it was an otherwise satisfying afternoon on an unusually warm day for October hockey. Adam Henrique scored the season’s first goal at 4:04 off a feed from Butcher on the power play. For most of the first period and a half the Devils dominated on the shot counter and eventually extended their lead with yet another power play goal, when Hayes showed some good hand-eye coordination stuffing in the rebound from a Butcher shot that missed the net, again on the power play. However when the Avs
morphed into the Flyers started gooning it up without two of our more physical players in the lineup (Miles Wood and Dalton Prout) the team had no answer for it. Johnson’s hit on Palmieri was the nadir of what was a chippy ten-fifteen minutes that briefly turned the tide after Carl Soderberg scored to make it 2-1 and Palmieri’s injury gave the Devils a costly power play.
Thankfully the team was able to at least make the Avs pay on the scoreboard one more time, with a Taylor Hall feed finding a wide open Bratt, who sniped it past Johnathan Bernier shortside for a huge goal in the final thirty seconds of the period, restoring the Devils’ two-goal lead. In the third period the Devils looked for the kill but Bernier held the tide off with a pair of unbelievable saves on Hall and Damon Severson, the latter who was robbed with a diving post-to-post midair save that barely missed going over the line. A critical double-minor penalty on Johansson proved to be the pivotal point in the game, just not in the way I feared as the penalty happened. Somehow wave after wave of penalty killers – including the thirty seconds on a delayed penalty before the puck was finally touched – did the job keeping the Avs off the board. Guys like Gibbons, Blake Coleman and kids like Bratt, Hischier and Pavel Zacha all contributed to the team’s enormous special teams advantage.
Not only did they kill off all six penalties and score on three of four power plays, they also administered the coup de grace to the Avs shorthanded with six minutes left thanks to John Moore, who has a habit of scoring big goals. For one night at least, the Devils could feel good that their work in training camp and at the draft table over the past few summers is starting to show some tangible results.