Looking in the standings on this dreary Sunday afternoon and seeing a young, exciting Devils team in sole possession first place scoring nearly four goals a game…I have to pinch myself and ask is this 1999 or 2017?! Indeed we are in 2017, and the Devils after five straight seasons out of the playoffs are showing signs of coming out of the wilderness this year, continuing their winning ways with a home-and-home sweep of the Senators and Coyotes to run their record to 8-2. Both games were dramatic and entertaining, unlike the ‘boring’ Devil stereotype of past seasons that this team’s looking to end once and for all.
True the Devils did start 9-3-3 last year, and there remain serious question marks with this team – a shaky defense and questionable goaltending from Cory Schneider chief among them – but on the whole this team looks to at least have more going for it than last year’s group, which rode a hot start from Taylor Hall and the goalies to a bunch of close, low-event wins that proved to be unsustainable after Hall got hurt and Cory fell off. Of course like Hall himself said, the upcoming Western Canada road trip will be telling.
A number of newcomers (some heralded, most not) are a big part of the 2017-18 Devils story so far. I’ve already talked about almost all of them in prior blogs but it continues to be remarkable the production the Devils are getting from first-year players such as defenseman Will Butcher (eleven points in ten games), the amazing Jesper Bratt (four goals and ten points in ten games), and #1 overall pick Nico Hischier (seven points in ten games) who would actually be third in Calder voting on his own team, but has also been solid for the most part at both ends of the ice. Both Bratt and Hischier clearly earned their tickets here for the rest of the season, to the consternation of their junior teams.
It’s not just the younger newcomers that have carved out a niche on this team though. Even I’ve short-shrifted the contribution of guys like Blake Coleman and especially Brian Gibbons at times. Gibbons has been a bit of a revelation so far, leading the team in goals with five while playing a vital third-line and PK role. I’m one of the many who missed the boat on this guy when we acquired him (his point totals in limited NHL action suggested he could actually be a decent back-line player if given an opportunity), but Gibbons is turning out to be another of Ray Shero’s great bargain basement signings in the mold of David Schlemko and Lee Stempniak. Coleman on the other hand is one of the few prospect holdovers who’s also carved out a niche for himself as a back-line grinder and PK’er in the absence of guys like Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, though both look to be returning in the near future – which will cause some interesting lineup decisions. Especially after Kyle Palmieri returns from a freak injury he suffered in practice earlier this week that caused him to miss both games this weekend.
For the moment the biggest losers once the roster gets healthy and done with paternity leaves (both Schneider and captain Andy Greene welcomed a newborn into the world this weekend) are Stefan Noesen – who wasn’t even going to play last night until Marcus Johansson suffered his own freak lower body injury in warmups – and defenseman Dalton Prout, who’s the eighth wheel in a six-man D right now with five clear starters and the unimpressive Mirco Mueller basically rotating with Ben Lovejoy atm for the sixth spot. Already a numbers game victim was goaltender Scott Wedgewood, who Shero considerately traded to Arizona yesterday while they were in town for a fifth-round pick, and will at least now get an opportunity to be a backup there which he was not going to get here with Keith Kinkaid signed through next season and top goalie prospect Mackenzie Blackwood taking over the #1 role in Binghamton.
Despite the lineup machinations, the Devils managed to put the two wins on the board they needed out of this weekend before the road trip. Our games with Ottawa in particular have been ridiculous in terms of goalscoring and momentum swings. After coming from 4-2 down to steal an OT win in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, the teams’ second matchup at the Rock on Friday was even more bizarre, with the Senators jumping out to a 2-0 lead only to have the Devils score four unanswered goals. Then with the game almost in hand and less than a minute and a half remaining Ottawa scored a pair of empty-net goals to tie it up, only setting up a dramatic shootout finish with Bratt’s eye-popping move making the difference in the skills competition (if you haven’t seen it yet, look at Derek’s post below, it’s there).
After me and my friend had a weekend’s worth of entertainment Friday, I mostly just listened to the game Saturday at home since I generally will sell off one game of a back-to-back and not attend both games. Apparently the team decided to not show up either for last night’s game against a winless Coyotes team, dangerously falling behind 3-2 after two periods – despite a penalty shot goal from Gibbons! – before rallying again, with again Bratt potting a decisive winner, this time late in regulation. Hall was one of the few Devils who did show up last night scoring twice, and he seems to be healty and rejuvanated on a team with hope for the first time in his career.
Interestingly, the Devils start their Western Canada swing against another team wildly exceeding expectations in Vancouver on Wednesday, then go to Edmonton on Friday who’s been one of the bigger dissapointments so far but is always tough on us (especially up there) before finishing the Alberta swing on Sunday night against the Flames. My expectations are still modest – but like Hall said if this team’s gonna be a contender for a playoff berth they can’t punt the trip and go 0-fer. I’d probably sign up for 1-1-1 at this point but hopefully the team can start up with a win in Vancouver and get greedy after. With Boyle and Palmieri on the verge of returning and Zajac seemingly way ahead of schedule, it’ll be interesting to see how the full lineup does.