In what was certainly a first in franchise history, the Devils had their second home opener on two different continents last night – of course this one was at their more familiar home rink in Newark, NJ. This was also a different home opener for yours truly because it’s the first one I’ve missed since the team moved to the Prudential Center in 2007. It’s barely worth getting into why – suffice it to say, my friend who’s also been to every other home opener with me had already demurred with it being on a weeknight, and I also had a rec league dodgeball game I was compelled to show up for (a friendly grudge match against some other former teammates), especially since my team barely had enough for a full roster with me.
Since my own game didn’t start till 8:45 (bleh) I did at least have time to watch the pregame and the first period live. Though annoyed at the pet peeve I had to miss both the first two home games this year – a football Sunday afternoon with the Jets playing was not exactly optimum for my first Newark trek of the season either – it’s still early in a long season and I’ve been to many other home openers and games more meaningful than that, both in the Prudential Center and at the Devils’ former home in the Meadowlands. Honestly the salient details of most home openers, even wins have faded with time. Not to mention two of my most memorable home openers at the Rock were dubious ones, a 4-1 loss to Ottawa in the first game at the Prudential Center and a meltdown against the Dallas Stars in 2010 that proved a harbinger for bad times to come that season.
More recently the Devils had won 4-1 against Colorado in last year’s season opener in Newark, and I certainly remembered the feeling in the building that night and watching the team play a dynamic all-around game against an Avalanche unit headed for its own surprising playoff appearance. Yet the details are a bit fuzzy on that game too, guess when you go to 25-30 games a year you no longer remember little things. I remembered Will Butcher getting three assists during a spectacular first game in the NHL, but couldn’t for the life of me remember any of the goalscorers. I only bring this up since while watching the replay of the final two periods later on, the MSG trivia question was who scored the game-winning goal in that game? Looking it up now and seeing it was actually the immortal Jimmy Hayes, I might not have gotten that one after fifteen guesses. Interestingly none of the goalscorers that night (Hayes, Adam Henrique, John Moore or Jesper Bratt) were on the Opening Night roster this year though in Bratt’s case he will at least play games for the team this year, eventually.
If you’d asked me before last night whether the Devils would top that game against the defending Stanley Cup champs I’d have said no. If I was a betting man I’d have put a good chunk of change on that. Sure, the Caps were playing on the road for a second game in two nights with a backup goalie in Pheonix Copley that may or may not belong in the NHL. Still, their Stanley Cup high had extended into the start of this season scoring eighteen goals in their first three games, beating up on the Bruins and Vegas in a Finals rematch and only losing a point against rival Pittsburgh when the Penguins put up seven of their own in an OT score-a-thon. Not to mention the Caps have had our number in recent years, going 13-0-2 against us since December 2014. Granted, one of the Devil wins was Taylor Hall’s marvelous OT winner in January that arguably started his run toward the Hart Trophy.
While I certainly didn’t see 6-love coming last night, from what I did watch in the first period live I was encouraged. New Jersey jumped on the Caps from the first minute and dominated play, really they were unlucky not to be up by more than 2-0. Poor Pavel Zacha alone missed a half-dozen glorious chances to score, most of them during that first period. On the other hand, if Zacha’s still struggling to figure out how to put an offensive imprint on the game, Kyle Palmieri already knows – since he was the only one to break the lock on Copley’s net in the first period with two goals. The first was a ‘goalscorer’s goal’, a term that I’m using half-sarcastically and half-honestly because it was a result of Palm crashing the net and having a loose puck redirect off his skate. Sure he didn’t actually score the goal in the classic manner off the stick but it does seem those kinds of goals find guys who know how to score more than ones that don’t, especially when it represents doing the dirty work in front to earn that break. His second goal later in the period was more skill than will as the Devils executed a quick, impressive power play leading to a sharp Palmieri wrister that gave the team a 2-0 lead and K-Palm his fourth goal in four periods this season.
Having to stop watching at that point, I was feeling pretty good but still not 100% confident in ultimate victory. As it turned out, the Devils were just getting started. Checking the score before my match I saw it got to 3-0 and was giddy. I didn’t see it again till after both my game and the Devils were finished and I was jaw-drop surprised to see 6-love. Was that a hockey game or a Serena Williams tennis set? Being that it’s impossible for me to sleep for any more than 4-5 hours at most after doing physical activity that late at night (btw my team lost but gave it a heck of an effort in a near-miss comeback), I did at least get to watch the final two periods on tape between last night and this morning. Honestly it could have been 10-0 for as much as the Devils dominated. Goalie Keith Kinkaid had a couple of hair-raising moments in the second period and some fine saves but ultimately last night was total team dominance with contributions from every line. Marcus Johansson got on the board against his former team in the second period, while bottom sixers Blake Coleman, Jean-Sebastian Dea and Brian Boyle all scored in the third period to turn a win into a shocking rout.
In a larger sense 2-0 means very little yet it’s the way they’ve gotten to 2-0 that might portend bigger things to come, especially with a continuation of the grit and effort they showed last year as a foundation for success. None of the eleven goals in the team’s first two games have come from Hall or super soph Nico Hischier, which shows they’re getting more secondary scoring than they were last year. Zacha, while not actually getting on the scoresheet is at least showing signs of life early this year – and in the meantime others are chipping in all around him. Defensively it seems like the Mirco Mueller-Sami Vatanen first pairing is a legitimate thing now after two straight games where they managed to help keep in check the Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin lines at even strength (McDavid did have a hand in both Oilers goals, but neither was with Mueller on the ice and only one of them – a PP goal – with Vat on the ice). Kinkaid’s been strong in his two games and will create a very interesting goalie dilemma once Cory Schneider’s healthy enough to play, most likely later this month.