Well, the NHL is finally back in the Metro area tonight after a number of games around the league last night, as all three locals return to the ice tonight with the Devils taking on the Bruins at the Rock while the Isles take on the Rangers at the Garden. In any other season, having all three teams open the season in Newark and Manhattan respectively would have NJ Transit buzzing with fans going to the games. Hopefully there’ll be nights like that again in 2022 and beyond.
Over these last ten months everyone has moments of clarity when it dawns on them they’re going to miss something that’s become part of their routine. For me, one of those moments was realizing that tonight will be the first home opener I haven’t attended since 2005. Ironically that’s the home opener that’s most seared into my head from a positive standpoint, in large part because it was the season opener after the long, dark lockout of 2004 thus it was our first game in eighteen months – and also because of who was involved since we were playing the Penguins when Sidney Crosby played his first NHL game. It was also the debut for highly touted Zach Parise for us, and round one went to the Devils 5-1 as the crowd had fun chanting ‘Zach is better!’ after our prized rookie had a goal and an assist in the big win.
I was actually looking through YouTube to see if somehow there were highlights of that game but I could only find the pregame intro which – given the circumstances and the fact Doc Emrick is narrating the first couple of minutes is worth the watch anyway – other than tonight that was our longest break between games for a very different reason.
Looking through the various seasons to see just what we did on our home openers you realize a lot of these games – even classics like our 7-6 shootout win over the Leafs the following year or our 6-0 demolition of the Capitals just a couple seasons ago – generally fade into the background, partly due to what happens the rest of the year. It takes something either really good or really bad to be memorable after a long season when you go to nearly thirty games a year and the team has 82 games overall. In that vein I’m not even going to discuss 2010 or last year, which both fall into the category of cataclysmic openers which had ramifications long after the game.
Our Rock opener in 2007 wasn’t great on the ice either as we lost 4-1 to Ottawa, but definitely memorable since it took us waiting through a nine-game road trip get us to that much anticipated night. I can’t say I miss much about the Meadowlands even though I did see a Stanley Cup win there in 2003, the fact I was only a season ticket holder a couple seasons there versus every season at the Rock probably contributes to that place feeling more like home to me. Not to mention the ease of walking around the building and driving in and out of it compared to East Rutherford, where you were elbow to elbow at times going around the concourse at the CAA, and frequently it took fifteen minutes or more just to exit the complex, while where I park just outside of the Rock it’s a straight shoot out to the highway.
Another opener that stands out from a more positive standpoint is 2017 where our 4-1 win over Colorado was a showcase for a lot of our rookies – Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher. That win, and the young blood contributing to it kicked off an emotional 9-2 start during our surprising playoff season. Home openers generally are more memorable when they are the actual season opener but that isn’t always the case every year, as in the aforementioned Rock home opener example.
Tonight would have been very memorable to be at in person given it’s our first game in ten months, I suppose that’ll just make it more so in another nine months when we’re presumably able to attend next season’s opener. Maybe we’ll be able to attend games later in the season, who knows – I pretty well doubt it. I’ve already given a season preview in the last blog, not so much a prediction though you could probably glean it from its tone, I pretty much agree with Derek’s division predictions though. Now that we’re at Opening Night I wanted to strike a more positive tone before the season starts though. Especially since I tried to watch the team’s final scrimmage, my attention wavered with the on-ice stuff after the first period but listening to our current radio guys Matt Loughlin and Chico Resch do their thing was a kick. God knows the last time I listened to them do a full game.
Yes there are a lot of reasons to be apprehensive about this season for Devils fans but here I wanted to focus on the positives. The ten things I’m looking most forward to with hockey’s return, not entirely in order of preference but more the order that I think about them:
1. Watching my actual team play live again for the first time in ten months, nothing more needs to be added here.
2. Our improving social media content – which on some level makes me annoyed we couldn’t have this level of coverage when the team was actually good, but listening to the podcasts every week and watching some of the online stuff including a few of the daily ‘camp recaps’ is actually a more entertaining season preview than most years just watching one or two preseason games. Supposedly there’ll be a postgame show online every night now, while I’ll probably default to watching the TV one more it’ll be a nice follow-up viewing the next day or so for certain games.
3. No matter how pessimistic you are there’s always that ‘everyone is 0-0’ anticipation and what happens if we win a game or two to start a shortened season? Yes I know it can be illusory – just look at 2018 for an example where we started the season in a dominant fashion, then crashed and burned after the first four games. Still if there’s ever a season where we could use even some illusory optimism the first few games, it’s this one.
4. Even though it’ll be different watching games this year without a crowd in the sport I’m most used to crowd interaction (since I only go to a handful of Met games a year and a Jet game once in a blue moon), seeing the TV crew again will be nice and no doubt help with the transition. Although Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko aren’t prime Doc and Chico they both have their own place in the fabric of Devils lore. Cangi’s been covering the team in some capacity since I’ve started watching while Dano’s been playing or broadcasting pretty much every season since then and before.
5. Our off-ice crew is also worth watching. Erika Wachter simp jokes aside, it’ll be nice to see her host the pregame and interview players of the game after wins again. Even if this year it’ll look a little different than the traditional post-ice interview. And as much as I like Cangi and Dano, Bryce Salvador is a better analyst on and offline. He could actually coach if he wanted to, I’m selfishly glad he doesn’t want to for the time being.
6. Even though I don’t listen to the radio as much I’m definitely going to make the effort to listen to a few this year. Matt, like Steve is a longtime employee who’s covered the team since I’ve started watching so he’s definitely one of us. Of course Chico is a national treasure, a point I was reminded of listening to the scrimmage broadcast. And he isn’t gonna be around forever, as much as he’s omnipresent throughout all eras of Devils history – we’ve already dodged one attempted retirement, so we might have to be extra attentive to enjoy him while he’s still around.
7. If there’s one beacon of hope on the ice right now, it’s goalie Mackenzie Blackwood who’s the unquestioned starter now in his second full season with the team. Whatever problems the team had on the ice, Blackwood kept the team competitive in most games last year after a slow start for him and everyone else. Just 24 years old, there’s reason to hope his best days are still in front of him.
8. My biggest hope off the ice is the new coaching staff, led by Lindy Ruff. Initially cool on his hiring, I quickly warmed up and it wasn’t a hard sell since I always liked the guy when he was in Buffalo anyway, and he’s generally kept his teams competitive while getting the most out of his younger players in both Buffalo and Dallas. If there’s ever a season where you need a steady pro to guide a turbulent ship it’s this one, with all the challenges this season will present on and off the ice.
9. You always want to see all the new acquisitions and rookies going into a season, of which we have plenty. Among the vet acquisitions (not counting the welcome return of Sami Vatanen) are Ryan Murray, Dimitry Kulikov and Andreas Johnsson while rookies and younger players looking to make a name for themselves include camp stand out Yegor Sharangovich and the much-anticipated debut of defenseman Ty Smith. Nathan Bastian, Jesper Boqvist and 2020 trade deadline acquisition Janne Kuokkanen are also younger players looking to keep full-time spots this year.
10. If we’re gonna go anywhere long-term, we’ll need our #1’s to step up. Although Nico Hischier’s season debut will have to wait eventually he’ll hit the ice for his fourth season, hopefully he’ll be able to make the jump from good to great in the near future. For our other #1 in Jack Hughes, it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with some much-needed extra muscle on his frame after the long layoff. Him making the jump to a solid regular would be a welcome addition after a rookie campaign where his production and consistency was lacking.