Game 2 – Devils 6, Capitals 0

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.

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Rangers host Sharks: Neal Pionk will sit tonight for Fredrik Claesson

In Game 4 of the new season, rookie coach David Quinn continues to juggle the lineup. With the Rangers still looking for a win, he made clear that veteran Kevin Shattenkirk will be a healthy scratch tonight versus San Jose.

To the 29-year old defenseman’s credit, he took the news well. Shattenkirk understands that Tony DeAngelo earned a spot in the lineup. He is aware that he must be better. Quinn wants to see a more confident Shattenkirk when he comes back in for Saturday. That means better decisions with the puck.

This is in no way a punishment. It’s a message to a talented player who’s returning from off-season knee surgery. Shattenkirk isn’t the only defenseman coming out of the lineup. Quinn wasn’t happy with Neal Pionk the other night in Carolina. So, he will be in the press box too while former Ottawa blueliner Fredrik Claesson gets his first start tonight.

A ex-teammate of newest Shark Erik Karlsson, Claesson even paired with the former Norris winner parts of the last two seasons. Having gone out for dinner last night with his Swedish buddy, he’s hoping Karlsson won’t score later.

It’s definitely a different time to be a Ranger fan. They’re 0-for-3 so far and could be one of the NHL’s doormats. I don’t think they’re devoid of talent. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello, Jesper Fast and Brady Skjei are all capable players. Henrik Lundqvist can’t do it by himself.

Filip Chytil and Brett Howden have shown glimpses, which should excite the fan base. Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov must do more than they have so far.

Some of the impatient fans are already frustrated. They want to know when Marc Staal will sit. He’s one of the team leaders. When he makes mistakes, it’s not due to poor effort. However, it doesn’t mean he’s immune from criticism. Even Zuccarello isn’t.

With Quinn running it his way, don’t be surprised if even the most popular playersapply are mapplyade an example of. It’s about establishing himself andapply.? applybreapplyaking the bad haapply enough pressure to get to him. Cancelbits the team fell into.

Can they beat a scary opponent like San Jose for their first victory? Only if they play up to capability and turn the page from Sunday’s debacle. The Sharks have plenty of firepower both up front and on the blueline. A defense that features Karlsson with Brent Burns along with overlooked Marc-Edouard Vlasic is intimidating. Don’t put them on the power play.

Evander Kane is up to four goals after scoring twice in a rout of the Flyers. Brooklyn’s own Kevin Labanc tallied four assists. He is a crafty, hard working player with ties to Staten Island and New Jersey where he played for the Rockets. Timo Meier is an emerging star with great hands. Logan Couture remains a complete center, who is lethal in all situations. Joe Pavelski is older, but still is a royal pain in the ass in front.

It’s too bad Joe Thornton is out with an injury. He remains one of the game’s best passing big men. The future Hall of Famer still has something left.

Martin Jones is the starting goalie. He’s off to a slow start. Cancel that. It’ll be San Jose backup Aaron Dell, who goes for a second consecutive time. He got the win in a blowout win over Philly. So, the disrespect starts in Game 4.

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In scratching Shattenkirk for Thursday, Quinn is sending a message to Rangers

In a move that should come as no surprise, it appears that new coach David Quinn will make veteran defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk a healthy scratch for Thursday’s home game against the Sharks. In an ugly 8-5 loss at Carolina on Sunday, he totaled only 7:29 of ice time with 3:22 coming on the power play. It was a eye opening realization that no player is safe from being made an example of.

These aren’t your grandfather’s Rangers anymore. Accountability is part of Quinn’s vocabulary. The country club atmosphere under the old unnamed coach is gone. We’ve already seen Quinn sit out Kevin Hayes and Pavel Buchnevich for shifts in the third period at Buffalo. He went with other players down the stretch who he felt were going in a 3-1 defeat on Saturday. Marc Staal only played 14:20 while Hayes received 12:48. Buchnevich still finished with 15:19.

Quinn hasn’t been shy about moving players around during games. He’s used rookie Brett Howden in different roles due to his uncanny ability to be around the puck. The former Lightning center prospect acquired as part of the Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller trade, makes things happen. With a goal and a primary assist on Chris Kreider’s first goal of the season the other day, he has been moved up to the third line in practice. It looks like he’ll center Kreider and Mats Zuccarello in the team’s fourth game. They’re still searching for their first win.

Rookie Filip Chytil has been dropped down to center a fourth line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Vinni Lettieri. It isn’t a punishment for the 19-year old Chytil, who’s recorded two assists thus far. It’s more of a reward for the active Howden. Maybe Chytil’s skill can aid the fourth line.

Nothing is etched in stone. For those upset over the KZB line of Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Buchnevich being broken up, it’s due to the trio not producing at five on five. Zibanejad remains without a goal while being shaky in coverage on goals against. Buchnevich has tallied twice with both goals coming a man up. One with the goalie pulled in the Rangers home opener on a redirect of a Zibanejad shot. The other on a rebound from Zuccarello and Tony DeAngelo for the team’s first power play goal on Sunday. So, Buchnevich and Zibanejad will work with Jesper Fast, who already has a goal and two assists. He’s been their best skater followed by Jimmy Vesey, who remains on a line with Hayes and Ryan Spooner.

DeAngelo made his first appearance of the season in the club’s third game. Used as a seventh defenseman initially, his play impressed Quinn enough to merit taking a regular shift over the benched Shattenkirk, who struggled with a minus-two rating. DeAngelo rewarded the coach with a strong game recording two assists in 17:34. That included a nice read on a Hayes pass at the point to move to the middle and get off a tricky shot that allowed Buchnevich to score on the power play.

Satisfied with DeAngelo, Quinn will keep him in the lineup for Thursday’s match. He’ll pair with Staal while getting Shattenkirk’s extra minutes on the power play. For the hometown kid who signed a nice deal in the summer of 2017, it’s an early wake up call with a coach he’s familiar with. To his credit, he’s handled it well.

It can’t be easy for Shattenkirk to be faced with sitting out so early. However, the proud 29-year old from New Rochelle knows he must be better when he returns. No points and a minus-four isn’t how he envisioned putting last year’s nightmarish first season on Broadway behind him. It’s worth noting he only played in two preseason games at the end due to off-season knee surgery. It could take some time.

One thing is abundantly clear. It doesn’t matter who you are. Quinn isn’t screwing around. There are other candidates (Staal, Zibanejad, Zuccarello) who could find themselves where Shattenkirk is. It may only be three games in, but this is a results oriented business. The days of getting off the hook are gone.

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A Review of Game 3: Rangers swept under by Hurricanes in wild storm

There are going to be days like this. It’s part of the process under a new coach still trying to establish himself. When I predicted that the Rangers would be more exciting to watch, this was a bit what I expected. Well, maybe not the wild storm they got struck with by the Hurricanes in a painful 8-5 loss. In falling to 0-3-0, it’s the first time they’ve started a season with three straight losses since ’98-99 during the Dark Ages.

What must be understood by already frustrated fans, who unfairly blamed to young backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev for this mess, is that there are going to be bad nights where the team struggles defensively. They reverted into old, bad habits in a nightmare third period that saw the Canes score the final four goals.

Following Chris Kreider scoring his second of the game to put the Rangers back ahead 5-4, they imploded in epic fashion. Lucas Wallmark tied it on a broken play from in front only 35 seconds later. Then, rookie Andrei Svechnikov went to work by scoring his first NHL goal on a nice redirection of a Justin Faulk point shot. The 2018 third overall pick became the first NHL player born in 2000 to score in a game. He had a good game winding up with a goal and assist to help Carolina improve to 2-0-1 under new coach Rod Brind’Amour.

It only got worse. Once Warren Foegle scored his second from in front with Ranger skaters just standing around, it was like a blur. A one goal lead quickly turned into a two goal deficit. Unlike his predecessor, David Quinn had seen enough. He actually took a timeout and was very animated on the bench talking to the players. There was still enough time to come back. It wasn’t happening. Instead, Teuvo Teravainen scored a power play goal into a vacated net to put the finishing touches on the Canes’ second straight win.

All the good things the Rangers did the first two periods didn’t matter. Even with both Kreider and Jimmy Vesey getting their first two goals, it was wasted in a depressing loss. Pavel Buchnevich scoring the team’s first power play goal from seventh defenseman Tony DeAngelo was nice, but they lost a game they should’ve won.

Too many costly mistakes. It’s very easy to pin it all on the young netminder. Georgiev didn’t have a good night. He let in an unscreened softy to Michael Ferland with 31 seconds left in the second. That tied it at four. That was the only awful goal of the seven he gave up on 39 shots. Far too many came from within 20 feet, including goals from Foegle and Jordan Martinook. There also was a total communication breakdown between Adam McQuaid and Brady Skjei that allowed Jordan Staal to fly by and beat Georgiev on a breakaway. It reminded me of the last two years, except it was Henrik Lundqvist getting victimized. Some fans have a selective memory.

There were a lot of mistakes made. Even though they scored five times and did some good things offensively, the attention to detail was atrocious. Mika Zibanejad had a night to forget. He only had three shots and lost 14 of 25 face offs while getting victimized on the first two Carolina goals. He stood around puck watching instead of picking up the open man. He hasn’t gotten off to the kind of start the Rangers need from him. One assist in garbage time doesn’t cut it. He’s the number one center. It’s time to start playing like it.

At least Kreider sprung to life. He has taken a beating so far, getting hit by a puck last night. Sporting stitches above his eye, he also took a missed high stick tonight. A play they somehow called a penalty on Skjei for. It was confusing. Maybe getting knocked around helped Kreider. More active throughout, he got on the board with his first thanks to a great centering pass from Brett Howden. Vladislav Namestnikov did some good board work to pick up his first assist. He was back in the lineup with Quinn scratching Vinni Lettieri. He opted for seven defensemen by inserting DeAngelo, who was one of the few on the blueline who played well.

Kevin Shattenkirk only played 7:29 with almost half on the power play where he received 3:22. He was on for two goals against. I have no idea if he got hurt or it was a coaching decision. I’ll try to find out more.

At one point, they were leading 2-0 after 6:02 had been played. Vesey’s first goal came off a good defensive play by Jesper Fast, who chipped the puck out to him for a two on one with Kevin Hayes. They worked a give and go with Hayes dishing across for a sweet Vesey finish. A nice reward for a player who’s been working his tail off.

But following Kreider’s goal off some more hard work, the Rangers let Carolina back in it. First, Foegle was the recipient of a Justin Williams pass from behind the net. He was able to beat Georgiev in front with Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello lost in coverage. Over five minutes later, Martinook was left alone to score from Williams and Staal.

The Rangers retook the lead in the second twice. The first time came on a well constructed play from Filip Chytil, Skjei and Vesey. Chytil worked his way into the Carolina zone and pulled up. Dropping the puck to Skjei, the defenseman skated down low and fed Vesey for a one timer past Petr Mrazek for a 3-2 lead. Following a defensive breakdown that allowed Staal to tie it, a good pinch by DeAngelo resulted in Buchnevich getting his second. Able to handle a tough pass from Hayes, DeAngelo cut to the middle and got off a tough, low shot that Buchnevich deflected into Mrazek. He was unable to control the rebound, which Buchnevich put home for a power play goal.

With things finally looking to have settled down, Georgiev made a costly boo-boo when following his reverse past teammates, he lost focus on a long Ferland wrist shot, allowing a knuckler to get past him high stick side. It was a bad read. Of course, he was crucified. But honestly, he wasn’t to blame for what happened in the final period.

It was a total debacle. Following a beautiful Kreider tally off a rush from DeAngelo and Fast, they broke down. First came total confusion on a play behind their net, which allowed Svechnikov and Martinook to combine on Wallmark’s tying marker. Then, they skated around like chickens following a Georgiev save. The Hurricanes played catch until Faulk fired a low deflectable shot which Svechnikov redirected for his first career goal.

The comedy of follies continued when they left Foegle all alone in front for a two goal deficit. Even after Quinn ripped into the team during a timeout, they didn’t respond well enough to get back in it.

All in all, a ugly loss that’ll be forgotten in a couple of days. There are sure to be some hard practices ahead of their next game. That’s not until Thursday at home against the Sharks. Gulp. Hopefully, that’ll go better.

Post Game: DeAngelo had a goal and assist in over 17 minutes in his first game. He should definitely play again. Fast registered two assists including as noted above, career point number 100. He continues to improve. The hard work is paying off. Hayes also had two helpers to bounce back from a ineffective night in Buffalo. Chytil now has two helpers in three games, and Howden has a goal and assist over the last two contests. Zuccarello had a bad game finishing without a point and going a minus-three. He looks a step slow so far. Marc Staal and Neal Pionk each were minus-two. Both must be better if this team wants to be competitive.

Tweets: Let’s just call this a new addition to game reviews. It got so ugly that I took a break from my timeline in the third. It’s only Game 3 of a rebuild. Imagine if some of these fans had to go through seven consecutive embarrassing seasons of no playoffs between ’97-98 through ’03-04. Holy cannoli.

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A Review of Game 2: At least the Rangers didn’t get shutout by Hutton

Ever since Carter Hutton played for St. Louis, he’s had our number. Originally a Nashville backup goalie before posting a NHL best .931 save percentage with the Blues last season, now he’s the starter in Buffalo. After a bad start in new captain Jack Eichel’s first game- a 4-0 shutout loss to Boston- the Sabres defeated the Rangers 3-1 for their first win behind 43 saves from E.F. Hutton. He improved to a perfect 4-0-0 versus the Rangers.

It is truly mind boggling. Hutton turns into Dominik Hasek when he faces our team. As soon as he sees Ranger colors, his eyes light up. I’m convinced that if they fired 70 shots on him, he’d stop them all. At least they don’t have to face him 82 times. I’m not a gambler, but if I was, you better believe I would’ve taken the Sabres tonight. Our past success is over.

I’m glad expectations are low because it takes the edge off. I can freely flip to more important games such as the Yankees and Red Saaahhxx. I’ll be honest. The Miami Hurricanes came back from 20 down to beat Florida State. It didn’t end till around 7:30. I was locked in and surprisingly ecstatic since they were lousy for a half before awakening to win 28-27. I don’t ask for much. That was nice to see as were the Yankees pummeling David Price into submission with blasts from Aaron Judge and star of the night, Gary Sanchez. I’m pretty sure his second home run still hasn’t landed. That was a huge win to earn a split with the next two at home.

Enough about that. I’m not going to bore you too much after the Rangers’ second consecutive loss to start the season. They’re 0-2-0 due to being unable to score goals. It’s not the defense. The effort has been there for many players. The problem is the top line has yet to get going. I know he shaved his head, but has anyone seen Chris Kreider? Hopefully, his whereabouts can be found in Raleigh at 5 PM today against Carolina. He needs to be a lot better. I’ll cut Mika Zibanejad some slack since he assisted on Pavel Buchnevich’s goal the other day, and had eight shots with another three attempts missing completely. He also won some big face offs late to give them a chance. But the comeback fell short with Eichel blocking a shot and scoring his first into an open net with seconds to spare.

It’s too early to panic. If you outshoot an opponent by a significant margin and don’t allow a goal at even strength, you’re gonna win on most nights. The Blueshirts have only allowed two goals at five on five thus far. That’s an improvement over the shenanigans we saw last year. Now, they must work on the penalty kill which allowed two Sabres power play goals. Even if a tacky call went against Kreider, followed by a complete miss of Buffalo having six skaters out for Conor Sheary’s first of two power play goals, they had enough chances against Hutton.

I’m more annoyed at the missed elbow from Patrik Berglund on Filip Chytil. How is that not a penalty? It was high and Chytil missed some shifts before returning. Hopefully, he’s okay. He still played over 17 minutes with David Quinn giving him a shift with Zibanejad and Kreider. Eventually, he returned to the third line with Ryan Spooner and Jesper Fast. Spooner had a more active game assisting on rookie Brett Howden’s first NHL goal. Howden took Chytil’s place when he was out. He was able to nudge a loose puck past Hutton to finally beat him. By that point, they trailed 2-1 with under five minutes to play. Defenseman Adam McQuaid got the primary helper with his shot rebounding out to Howden, who looked good wearing his new number 21. He also was strong on draws going 10 and 6.

Quinn shook things up by benching a ineffective Vladislav Namestnikov for Cody McLeod. McLeod didn’t play a lot, but was more noticeable, which isn’t saying much. He fought Nathan Beaulieu in the first period. I missed it. He and Vinni Lettieri didn’t see much ice in the third with the team down by two. Neither did Buchnevich or Kevin Hayes. Quinn felt that other players had it going and went with them down the stretch. That’s fine.

Basically, Buffalo held on. They iced the puck a few times and sat back. They were lucky the Rangers didn’t tie it. Hutton was a big reason why. Eichel also made a great defensive play to block a Kevin Shattenkirk shot from the point. He did what it took to get his team the win, also picking up an assist on Sheary’s second power play tally 41 seconds into the third.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes. Maybe they won’t play as well against a rested Carolina and win. Henrik Lundqvist usually plays well versus them. He’s looked good so far. Neither loss was his fault. It’s going to take some time for the players to adjust to a new system.

I like what I see from Jimmy Vesey. He continues to work hard and is earning more shifts. I know he took the blame for Buffalo’s first goal. But two other Rangers pinched up including Brady Skjei. So when Vesey didn’t get the puck deep in the Buffalo zone, the defense got caught which led to a two on one with Sheary burying one on a pass from Rasmus Ristolainen. Casey Mittlestadt had the other helper.

The defense can use another skater who can keep pucks in. I don’t see how you can play Brendan Smith and McQuaid daily. Tony DeAngelo needs to be given a shot. His camp was better. Shattenkirk and Skjei are the only two good skaters they have in the current top six. Marc Staal does as well as he can. Neal Pionk is decent and plays both power play and penalty kill. But if DeAngelo came in, he could play the point on the second power play unit, spelling Pionk, who plays a lot. Staal only played over 14 minutes. He was managed.

It’s a work in progress. It’s hard to get upset when they give a good effort like Saturday. The result wasn’t there. The offense has to get going. Quinn won’t hesitate to try new combinations. I’m sure Namestnikov will be back in for McLeod later. Hopefully, he wakes up.

So must the KZB Line. They’re being counted on to lead the way. I’m sure after the Giants play an ugly game at Carolina, I’ll be in a mood for hockey.

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Opening Day – Devils 5, Oilers 2

After five and a half months with no meaningful Devils games, hockey has officially returned today with the Devils’ overseas showdown against the Oilers kicking off at least another 82-game campaign through the beginning of April (and hopefully more after that!).  Instead of doing more or less boilerplate recaps this year – which quite honestly you can get almost anywhere in this day and age – I’m going to try more of a personal stream of consciousness type of summary for each game and see how it goes.  Not a livecap perse, although today I might be writing during the pregame and commercials since I’ll be home, but instead of dryly going through what happened, I’ll more or less try to add my own thoughts and observations while it was happening.  Granted, there are some games I may not be able to do right away or do much on, being that I go to about 25-30 Devil games a year and quite honestly the West Coast weeknight games are usually not a high priority for me to stay up for.  Maybe there are some cases where I won’t have much to say about a particular game and decide to do two at once when the schedule gets tighter.  As I said, this is experimental and perhaps something I go away from in a week or two.  While I do want to document a Devils season that is the most anticipated since 2012 I was getting tired of the same old routine and honestly didn’t want to do 82 different recaps otherwise.

Hopefully I haven’t lost most of you during that long disclaimer (or won’t during this blog, since it may well be the longest blog of the season) and I’ll just get on with my gameday thoughts.  In that vein, this morning I felt like the proverbial romanticized baseball fan who worships Opening Day in that sport, with how much I want the season to get underway.  I’ve spent some time watching video clips of the Devils’ media day interviews last month because I hadn’t seen them before, and because there’s really no other ‘season preview’ I can watch.  MSG aired a half-hour season preview a couple of weeks ago, I heard the NHL XM one a while back but overall hockey coverage is still woefully lacking in the tri-state area.  Especially when most of the local media and coverage is wrapped up in Yanks-Sawx, which granted I’m paying attention to as well despite being a Mets fan but honestly even if there weren’t any MLB playoffs around here too many people still don’t give a hoot about hockey.  Horrible Nets and Knicks teams in recent years still get more ink than competitive tri-state area NHL teams during the winters here.

One of the ironic things about having the team overseas is sometimes you wake up to news the way you used to, when news was only broken via newspapers, TV and radio before Twitter and the internet in general started to give second-by-second coverage.  So yesterday morning I woke up with an unwelcome surprise hearing that our young Swedish winger Jesper Bratt broke his jaw with a freak puck bounce off a crossbar, and will be out at least 2-3 weeks including missing his homecoming today (sadface).  Of our three Swedes – Bratt, backup goalie Eddie Lack and forward Marcus Johansson – only Johansson will get to play this afternoon.  Almost immediately after Bratt’s injury the Devils moved to sign Drew Stafford, who was traveling with the team on a PTO and I was like whatever…I figured this would happen sooner or later with the first forward injury anyway.  Better Stafford be the on-call guy than some young forward who can develop more in the minors, but that logic escapes a lot of fans who think you should have youth everywhere.

In terms of MSG’s own coverage there isn’t really a lot of other stuff besides the broadcast itself to discuss…to wit, for every ‘Beginnings’ episode that has a Devils player (and coincidentally ex-Ranger) like Brian Boyle or recently departed John Moore, there are like twenty that feature Ranger players.  They don’t even have the Hockey Night in NY show they used to do on Saturday nights anymore, with commentators from all three teams chiming in on the issues of the week.  Still, the broadcast itself is actually above-average in a lot of respects.  Though new commentators Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko aren’t as beloved as our old P-by-P team of Doc Emrick and Chico Resch, Cangi has gradually earned everyone’s respect and had a lot of fine calls in his own right during the Devils’ stretch run drive last year.  And Dano is well, Dano…nobody can hate on Mr. Devil.

Of course if you still want to listen to Chico, he and fellow long-time MSG/Devils employee Matt Loughlin do the radio – for whatever the heck Internet radio station they’re on this year <checks> Entercom on Radio.com <scratches head>.  The days of just tuning into WFAN are sadly long-over with, even if we were pre-empted to an overflow channel too often in the WFAN days.  I do want to watch the telecast today, both because of the different locale (Gothenburg, Sweden!) and to see the difference this year with a new studio host in Erika Wachter, replacing long-time MSG employee Deb Placey who moved onto work for the NHL Network.  I’m not going to get into the eye candy stuff too much even though it doesn’t hurt to have a hot blonde who’s a Jersey native doing the studio hosting, but she also seems to know her stuff based on what I have observed from the preseason telecasts and she definitely knows sports in general being a multi-sport varsity athlete.

Finally getting to the pregame now, too bad Erika and team analyst Bryce Salvador are both stuck back in the studio and not actually in Sweden with the rest of the crew.  She did point out during the opening segment it was Johansson’s birthday – so that makes it a really big day for him, not only to play at home but on his birthday too.  Hopefully he has a good one today, this team needs Johansson to have a better (and healthier) season than he did last year, when his 14 points in 29 games were dissapointing considering the 50+ point seasons he put up in Washington.  Overall, the pregame was more or less a microwave-style preview of the season, after the usual studio info and interview clips of the first segment Erika and Bryce spent the next two segments looking at the goalies/defense and forwards, respectively.  FWIW, Bryce – the former ex-Devil captain himself – is also a very good analyst and worth the watch just to see him break down what happens during the higlights and discussing the team in general.  For all the crap the broadcast gets from time to time the personnel there is fairly solid.

After the pregame, came the intros – somewhat surprisingly announced by Kevin Clark (the Devils’ PA announcer), who apparently got to fly overseas because of it being a ‘Devils home game’.  MSG did their level best not to make it sound like we were getting a lot of applause in the intros though, even hometown boy Johansson got seemingly tepid applause though I attribute that to MSG’s (intentionally?) horrible AV system, which also seemed to be a step behind the play all game.  Having Cangi raise his voice an octave for the goal call on Kyle Palmeri’s first minute goal a split second before the video actually showed that he scored was a bit…weird.  Of course at that moment who cared, we scored and had a great first two shifts, looked like all was going to be well.  However, some sloppy passing, bad penalties and one-sided reffing turned the first period into a high tide/low tide type period, with Connor McJesus making captain Andy Greene look silly when he sped around behind the net on the Oilers’ first power play, then hit trailer Milan Lucic for an easy goal that tied the game.

Admittedly our first two penalties were legit calls, but clearly (as usual) a high standard only applied to one team early as the refs missed Adam Larsson’s roughing a couple seconds before Stefan Noesen took a retaliatory penalty, then Palmieri got called on a highly questionable cross-check later in the period.  Larsson was also involved in another chintzy call against us in the second period when his exaggerated reaction after Brian Boyle touched his ankle led to Boyle going to the box.  Despite being outpenaltied by three in the first, the Devils still outshot the Oilers 9-7 in the first period but Oiler goalie Cam Talbot came up big early after the initial goal.

Fortunately, turnabout proved fair play in the second period as after the Devils finally got on their PP, they scored just as quickly as the Oilers did on their initial PP with Palm getting his second of the afternoon seconds into the man advantage.  For most of the second, the Devils rolled all over the Oilers with Wood’s speed leading to a third goal, as he skated more than half the rink to win a loose puck, then found Zajac trailing the play to double the lead in the play of the game.

Other than a squirrely pinch by Damon Severson that nearly led to a 2-on-0 towards the end of a Devils PP and an almost costly misplay by Kinkaid playing the puck in the final minute, the second was near-spotless and the Devils’ PK didn’t even allow a shot in their subsequent three kills after Lucic’s goal.

As far as the lineup went, there was nothing really contreversial despite Bratt’s last-minute injury.  Palmieri stays with bromance buddies Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, Johansson started with Pavel Zacha and Noesen on the second line while Miles Wood, Travis Zajac and John Quenneville made up a new and feisty third line, and waiver acquisition Jean-Sebastian Dea drew in with Blake Coleman and Masterton winner Boyle on the fourth line.  Defensively the pairings were more interesting with Mirco Mueller taking Greene’s spot on the first pairing next to Sami Vatanen, while Greene and Severson made up the second pairing.  Ben Lovejoy got the start next to Will Butcher on the third pairing over Steven Santini, who struggled mightily in the preseason.  Finally, Kinkaid started in goal over the still-rehabbing Cory Schneider.

After dominating the second the Devils continued to press for the kill shot in the third, which came due to a new but deadly pairing – Wood and Zajac, with Wood forcing a turnover and Zajac showing unusually deft hands around the net to get his second of the game and make the score 4-1.  Perhaps the only moments of consternation in the entire third period came when Oilers coach Todd McLellan put star winger Leon Draisaitl with McDavid and the duo combined for a 3-on-2 goal to pull Edmonton back within two.  However, the team clamped down and held the lead without much drama, and a glorious finish with Noesen’s 185-footer finding the empty net in the final moments to end a convincing 5-2 win that gives us fans a few days to savor being 1-0 and look forward to the home opener against the defending Stanley Cup champs on Thursday.

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A review of Game 1: Rangers lose 3-2 to Nashville

It was an emotional night at MSG. New coach David Quinn finally got a taste of what the NHL is all about. Even though his team didn’t win, they gave a good effort in a tough 3-2 home loss to Nashville in the season opener.

Better days are ahead for the new look Rangers. They can learn from their mistakes, which were too many in Quinn’s estimation. They gave up more breakaways than in preseason against one of the league’s best. The Predators are very good and will be hungry all year. They were a good test for this early.

First and foremost, following the always over the top team introduction, MSG paid tribute to Garden icon John Amirante. In a touching gesture, they introduced his entire family onto the ice including his wife and grandchildren. Amirante was the team’s national anthem singer for nearly four decades. He was a part of the organization. Like a family member who’s beloved. When they did the right thing showing one of his beautiful renditions of the anthem on the video board, along with photos of all the Rangers through the years he performed for, it really got to me. In speaking with my father and brother, who attended the game with our friend, they echoed my sentiments.

When you get chills and almost lose it, reduced to tears as I was watching it on TV, it says a lot about what Amirante meant to the fans. I’ll never forget him or that poignant moment he belted out the powerful words to the Star Spangled Banner before Game 7 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver. The same feeling I had 20 years later in our section prior to Game 6 of the Conference Final versus Montreal, and Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against Los Angeles.

I guess it’s easy to get emotional thinking about how many great memories Amirante gave us. I’m so glad the Rangers did it the right way. That’s how it had to be on Thursday night. I hope they do more nights like it with Johnny on the big board. The way the Yankees still do it with Robert Merrill.

The game was surprisingly good. Facing the Predators in your opener when you’re in a rebuild with not much pressure is not an easy task. Just compare what they have up front and especially on defense. It’s scary. They won the President’s Trophy last season. The big four of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are all back. No Ranger blueliner remotely compares to that fearsome quartet. The same way none of our forwards are on the level of goal scorer Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.

At this point, Pekka Rinne has more left than Henrik Lundqvist, who had to contend with several breakdowns that allowed dangerous scoring chances. He was awfully good in turning away open Predators. I hope he’s not under siege all season, or it’ll be a long year. He was spectacular in finishing with 30 saves, including some sparklers that ignited the crowd. The glove save on Craig Smith on a Nashville power play was letter perfect. Rinne made some big saves too, stopping 34 of 36 shots to earn the win. He was under pressure late, but got the job done. His best work came in crunch time when he got a pad across to stone Mats Zuccarello, and was forced into one more difficult save before the buzzer on a long Kevin Shattenkirk offering with Zuccarello and goal scorer Jesper Fast parked in front. That’s all you can ask for down one at the end.

It’s a credit to how hard the Blueshirts played. Sure. They made their share of mistakes. That’s gonna happen. The key will be to correct them as Quinn alluded to in the postgame. He felt they could’ve been more aggressive throughout, but noted that they got better as the game went on. Something positive to build on for Saturday at Buffalo.

Goaltending was the story in the first period. Both Lundqvist and Rinne were sharp from the outset. While Rinne had to make key stops on the cohesive second unit of Kevin Hayes, Zuccarello and Jimmy Vesey, who played perhaps his finest game as a Ranger, Lundqvist had to deal with clean breakaways on point-blank chances. He showed poise making tremendous saves, which earned the familiar, “Hen-rik! Hen-rik,” chants.

Early in the second, Forsberg got loose and sniped a laser past Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead. On the play, defenseman Neal Pionk got caught pinching, leading to a quick Nashville transition. Forsberg took advantage of fourth liner Vinni Lettieri, who tried to cover for Pionk. On a confusing switch, Forsberg got too much room and rifled home his first of the season from Kyle Turris and Smith at 3:54.

The Preds were leading in shots 22-15 due to their aggressiveness in the neutral zone. Their D makes it tough on opponents. They are great at keeping pucks in. But the Rangers didn’t break. They picked up the intensity. Some of which was on display during scrums. Subban was challenged a couple of times following a big hit on Vladislav Namestnikov in the first. Marc Staal went at him and so did Brendan Smith, who was oddly paired with Kevin Shattenkirk throughout. I don’t see that tandem lasting long. Shattenkirk still struggles in his end, and Smith isn’t the fastest skater.

On a night the top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich were kept in check by a stingy Nashville defense, it was the play of the Hayes line that stood out. The trio of Hayes, Zuccarello and Vesey combined for nine shots and 11 attempts. In particular, Vesey had the best chances, narrowly missing on a breakaway off a great Zuccarello feed. Rinne got a piece of it. Vesey was also set up earlier on a neat passing play with Rinne shutting down his backhand stuff try in tight. He also nearly set up Zuccarello, and was denied again on a Buchnevich pass.

For most of the first part of the game, Filip Chytil’s line had been quiet. But on a night where Fast was introduced as one of five alternate captains, some hustle by the player’s player paid off during a good shift. He kept a play alive in the corner, passing down low to Chytil behind the net. With two checkers on him, the promising 19-year old made a nice backhand pass in front for an easy Fast one-timer in front for his first goal. How many people had Jesper in the pool for first Rangers goal? I took Buchnevich on the power play from Shattenkirk and Zibanejad. He did strike late to make things interesting.

A key missed call for a high stick on Kevin Fiala cost the Rangers. Even after the two refs and two linesmen got together, they decided it wasn’t a penalty. Much to the chagrin of the Rangers bench, it proved pivotal. Off the next face off, Colton Sissons beat rookie Brett Howden cleanly back to Ekholm, who quickly fed an open Subban for a one-timer through traffic that beat a screened Lundqvist for a Predators’ 2-1 lead with 16:32 remaining in the third period. If Shattenkirk didn’t look to go for a block, Lundqvist probably has the shot. But he couldn’t see it, causing frustration afterwards.

The Rangers didn’t have a single power play until there were six minutes left. They didn’t make the most of it. Both Kreider and Zibanejad were too quiet. Each needs better games tomorrow. Buchnevich was more noticeable, eventually getting rewarded on a nifty deflection goal off a Zibanejad shot that cut the deficit to 3-2 with 35 seconds left. That followed a Sissons empty netter in which he turned around and fired the puck down into the open net for a 3-1 Nashville lead.

At least the Rangers didn’t quit. Prior to the goal, which came during a four on four with Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker, the Rangers were called for a bench minor that negated a second power play which Zuccarello drew on Subban with 1:30 to go. I thought it was Fast unless my eyes deceived me. It was. Fast was on and drove the net where Subban pulled him down. Zuccarello came on as the seventh skater with it a six on five, which ultimately cost the team. The scorekeeper made a mistake.

Good job by Buchnevich getting in front for his redirection of Zibanejad’s shot that made it interesting. That the Blueshirts were able to get a final desperation shot from Shattenkirk, which forced Rinne into a tough save, was encouraging. There was no quit. Exactly what we want to see.

As with any first game, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I expect better performances from Zibanejad and Kreider. Hopefully, Vesey continues to play well and finally gets one to go. He can use it for his confidence. There’s not much to complain about.

Fans need to be patient and have a fresh perspective with this group. So, if you’re upset that Cody McLeod is likely replacing an ineffective Vladislav Namestnikov tomorrow, please try to remember that this is a different coach. I have full confidence in how Quinn will use Cody. Namestnikov has to be better, or he’ll be in the doghouse. He’s on the fourth line for a reason. Ice time will be earned under this coach.

Final thoughts. Clean up the mistakes. Don’t make it easy on the Sabres with sloppy turnovers that can feed their transition led by new captain Jack Eichel. He plays with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhardt.

The Rangers also will get their first look at Casey Mittlestadt. The American center they passed on in 2017 for Lias Andersson with the seventh overall pick. He’s centering the third line. Beware of Ranger killer Carter “E.F.” Hutton. He’s the new Buffalo starter.

THREE NYR STARS:

1st 🌟 Henrik Lundqvist 30 saves

2nd 🌟 Jesper Fast 1st goal

3rd 🌟 Jimmy Vesey 4 shots

Unsung Hero: Adam McQuaid

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Rangers Preview: Patience a virtue in Quinn’s first year

The word rebuild hasn’t been common in this part of town. Until last trade deadline, it was unfamiliar to Henrik Lundqvist. When he first entered the league as a fresh faced 23-year old championship winning goalie of Frolunda back home in Sweden, expectations were much lower in 2005-06. However, Jaromir Jagr had other ideas, leading the Rangers to its first postseason since ’97. Lundqvist was instrumental changing a losing culture to a winning one.

It’s hard to believe all this time later, here we are with a now aging Lundqvist set to begin Year 15 as the unquestioned emotional leader of a team without the weight of expectations. Nobody expects the 2018-19 New York Rangers to make the playoffs. Gone is an era that saw some memorable hockey player at the World’s Most Famous Arena. They’re starting over with new coach David Quinn, who makes the quantum leap from Boston University to the NHL. A no nonsense man, who is hands on unlike the previous coach, ice time will be earned on Broadway.

What should be expected? A team that competes harder than the past outfits did recently. Players who will have each other’s backs, bringing emotion and energy back to the Blueshirts. They may not contend, but pride will be restored over the 82-game schedule that begins tomorrow night at MSG when they host one of the NHL’s best teams, the Nashville Predators.

There won’t be the same buzz around a younger team built around KZB Line members Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. However, there’s more anticipation to see what these Rangers are. How will 19-year old center Filip Chytil do under Quinn in his first full season? How much of a leap forward can Buchnevich and key defenseman Brady Skjei make in a better structured system where they won’t have to look behind them after every mistake? How soon should Lias Andersson expect to get the call from Hartford after getting beat out in camp by Brett Howden?

All these questions won’t be answered right away. There are more questions concerning potential unrestricted free agent forwards Kevin Hayes and fan favorite Mats Zuccarello. Will both go? For now, they’re Rangers who’ll play for contracts. Both are key players who’ll lead along with Kreider, Zibanejad, Lundqvist, Marc Staal and a much healthier Kevin Shattenkirk, who’ll look to put a frustrating first year behind him.

So, how does the 23-man roster look before the drop of the puck on Thursday? Let’s find out!

FORWARDS

As I referenced, much will depend on the cohesive trio of Buchnevich, Kreider and Zibanejad. A line constructed by former bench boss Alain Vigneault. If only he had shown more trust in the talented Buchnevich, who is poised for a breakout season in his third year. That could set him up for a nice payday next summer. A superb skater with good playmaking capabilities, he will be looked upon for more consistent production on the number one line. Having posted a career best 43 points last season, he should be between 55-60. He needs to shoot more and has during preseason. Particularly on the power play, where he’s a big option in the right circle. Noted more for passing, it’s okay for the Russian to be a little selfish. That way penalty killers can’t shadow Zibanejad on the off wing for his deadly one-timer. Combined with Shattenkirk running it and Kreider as the net front presence, the Rangers should see improvement on the man-advantage.

The top unit will include the slick skating Chytil, who is dangerous in transition. The 2017 first round pick has the wheels, hands and arsenal to become a future star. There is a lot of excitement over the physically gifted Czech, who can undress opponents. Don’t forget he’s only 19. It’s important for fans to be patient. He isn’t a finished product. Like Buchnevich, Chytil still needs work defensively with puck decisions for both emphasized. Imagine them on the same line. It could happen one day. If Zibanejad isn’t the team’s leading scorer, I can’t see why. Possessing a lethal shot that can beat goalies along with tremendous acceleration, thirty goals and 70 points is within reach. He can get half his production on the power play where he and Buchnevich should do damage.

This must be the bust out year for Kreider, who’s been given more responsibility with one of five alternates along with a penalty killing role. Given his speed, why not. He should be able to play in all situations. If healthy, it’s time for Kreider to put up or shut up. The imposing left wing with great speed combined with power and skill, should finally hit 30 goals and be around 60 points. He can’t take nights off anymore. He’s far too important to the team’s success.

Although he won’t have an ‘A’ on his jersey, Hayes has proven himself to be the team’s most complete center. He made tremendous strides in a checking role last year. Able to take the tough assignments while being defensively responsible and winning key draws, he doubles as their best penalty killer. A shorthanded threat, Hayes can make the smart defensive read and transition the other way. He and sidekick Jesper Fast are hard workers, who bring a lot to the table. Don’t forget Hayes will also be on the second power play where he’ll work with Zuccarello, Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Vesey and Neal Pionk. He’ll work with Vesey and Zuccarello on the second line. Fast will start with Chytil and Spooner on the third line. Vesey showed improvement towards the end of preseason, earning a top nine spot over Vladislav Namestnikov. A talented player who can be polarizing due to his penchant for ill advised penalties. He’s the wildcard. The former Bolt is capable of contributing, but must earn his keep. For now, he’ll start on the fourth line with Howden and Vinni Lettieri, who earned a roster spot with a great camp. Look for Quinn to plug the versatile Lettieri, who brings energy. Cody McLeod is the extra forward following a surprisingly good exhibition. Figure him to be inserted for rivalry games.

DEFENSEMEN

To start off, things are a lot different compared to last year. Gone is mainstay Ryan McDonagh. It’s now Skjei’s job to fill those big skates. He’ll get help from veteran Marc Staal, who’ll wear the ‘A’ every night. He bounced back with a solid ’17-18. On a better team, he would be on the third pair. However, Staal’s minutes will be managed primarily at even strength and on the penalty kill. He still plays with that necessary edge, and is a locker room leader. Having him paired with Pionk is fine. The second-year defenseman is a solid skater, who reminds me a little of Dan Girardi. An overachiever who will play key minutes in different situations, including power play and penalty kill.

While Skjei will work with Shattenkirk, that leaves Brendan Smith with Adam McQuaid on the third pair. Smith reported to camp in better shape. He definitely reclaimed his spot in the top six. He’s most effective when he keeps it simple and takes the body. If he stays within himself, he should be okay. As for McQuaid, we know who he is and what he brings. A tough right D who’ll lay the body and stick up for teammates, the ex-Bruin should become a fan favorite. He knows what it takes having won a Stanley Cup. I don’t view him as a top six guy at this point.

My hope is that following a better preseason, Tony DeAngelo will gain the trust of the new staff. He’s a much better skater, who can also play on the second power play. I’m hopeful he’ll get an opportunity and make the most of it. This is his last chance. I think he knows it. If this truly is a rebuild, DeAngelo will overtake McQuaid as a regular and be part of the team. Fredrik Claesson is your basic defensive D who blocks shots. He isn’t a strong enough skater to be anymore than a depth defenseman.

GOALIES

At 36, Lundqvist will once again be in net for the season opener. He’s gone through a lot the past couple of seasons due to injuries and the team’s careless style of play. That is why we often saw highs and lows. He was brilliant for a long stretch last year, but couldn’t maintain it. The team in front of him wasn’t good enough and often left him out to dry. That can’t happen this time. This is as loyal a player as I can think of. He loves it here so much that he turned down Jim Dolan’s ask if he were open to a trade. It would be easy for him to bail like others have in similar situations. But that’s not Henrik. There’s a reason the franchise leader in almost every goaltender category is so universally loved and respected. At times, I’ve been hard on him. As long as he understands what they’re doing and doesn’t insult teammates after goals, we’re good. He can’t do that.

How many starts should he get? Somewhere between 50-55. Alexandar Georgiev proved he could be a capable back up. The real test will come in his second year with Quinn making those tough decisions.

COACH

I like what I see so far from Quinn. He really is intense reminding me of your classic coaches from the Northeast. Don’t forget he’s from Rhode Island with the Boston roots instilled. I take him at his word. He has the team doing harder drills during practice, which could help conditioning. He means what he says. How will he handle his first year in the NHL? It’s much different from college. We won’t know until they face some adversity. That along with how he manages the young players will determine if he’s successful.

PREDICTION

No playoffs. But a entertaining team that will have some fresh faces. The over/under is 77.5. I wouldn’t touch it. I see them anywhere from 73-80 points.

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Devils season preview

With the 2018-19 NHL season less than twenty-four hours away, it’s finally time to get back into hockey mode, especially for those of us who had their baseball season end months ago (albeit I did win a big fantasy league title), and football season already come to a virtual end in September.  Of course, Devil fans have a slightly longer wait with their season opening on Saturday afternoon in Sweden against the Edmonton Oilers.  At least it’s not as long as the wait to get back in the playoffs was, that took six whole years.  As the Devils themselves are keenly aware, most of the experts don’t think New Jersey will be back in the postseason as this quote from Taylor Hall shows:

Much as I don’t want to admit it, there are valid reasons to believe in the Devils falling back this year.  Other than Hall himself, there are few sure things on this Devils team.  Will the young forwards take a step up and give Hart winner Hall some much-needed support in the scoring department?  Can the young D become a more stablizing force?  And will Cory Schneider bounce back from two subpar and injury-plagued seasons to provide the Devils with the same top-shelf goaltending they got from understudy Keith Kinkaid down the stretch?  Not to mention how will the rest of the Eastern Conference shake out with teams like Florida (who we narrowly beat out for a spot last year) improving on paper more than we did in the offseason.

Sure, this wasn’t a Black July 1 the way some have been in the past but make no mistake, despite having a ton of cap space GM Ray Shero was more than content to sit back and replace outgoing players like Patrick Maroon and John Moore from within.  Unlike in prior offseasons, there wasn’t even a big trade to dissect although as Shero proved last year with the Adam Henrique-Sami Vatanen trade, he’s fully capable of making big in-season moves as well.  Until then, the 2018-19 roster will begin the season almost entirely with players either on the 2017-18 Devils, or from the farm system.  In fact, among the twenty-two players who were on the active roster for the team’s exhibition game in Switzerland, only recent waiver claim Jean-Sebastian Dea from the Penguins was not in the organization last year.

Arguably the biggest addition of the offseason was first-round draft pick Ty Smith, who impressed mightily in his first camp at eighteen years old but was the victim of a numbers game being sent back to juniors after the next-to-last preseason game in Winnipeg.  Although the final roster isn’t set in stone yet (and a couple of extra players are still allowed through the first game because it’s overseas), coach John Hynes had to cull the numbers before the team’s trip halfway around the world from Winnipeg to Switzerland, then Sweden.  There aren’t really any surprises among them, though former first-round pick John Quenneville had a strong early camp, he’s tailed off as of late and his hold on a third-line spot is tenuous at best.

So basically the question for the 2018-19 Devils is, can practically the same group up their game and take another step forward this season?  Answering that question starts in net with the aformentioned duo of Schneider and Kinkaid.  Though Cory’s returned to practice it still looks like he’ll miss at least Opening Day this weekend, and likely a few other games in October.  Thankfully the early schedule isn’t taxing on a goalie with no back-to-backs in the first month, so Kinkaid will probably get every start until Cory’s ready to return.  Who will play isn’t the question as much as how they will play.  Until Kinkaid’s season-making run from mid-February on last year, Keith was a streaky backup at best who was having a poor 2017-18 till he found another gear and stunningly helped lead the team into the playoffs, while Cory struggled through a hip injury he finally got surgery on in the offseason.  Whether Cory can return and find the form of a couple years ago now that he’s ostensibly healthy will be a big piece in the puzzle to piece together in terms of going back to the playoffs.

Certainly an improved defense would help both goalies.  In 2017-18 the defense could best be described as average at best.  Adding Vatanen early in the season helped stablize things, as he was the most valuable defenseman on the team, stepping into a first-pairing role alongside captain Andy Greene and eating up minutes on both the penalty kill and power play as well.  Vatanen’s importance was underscored in the last two playoff games when the team’s play fell off a cliff after he was taken out by Nikita Kucherov.  Still, they’ll need more than a decent first pairing including a solid but slowing down 35-year old defenseman to hold the fort down on the blueline.  Sophomore Will Butcher was a revelation offensively last year, but can he handle more minutes and up his game defensively this year?  Will mercurial Damon Severson ever find consistency defensively and take a step forward offensively?  Questions also surround young defensemen Mirco Mueller, who missed a lot of time with a broken collarbone but provided solid defense at times – though not a lot of offense.  You could only hope to say the same for Steven Santini, who got top-pairing assignments early on but eventually fell out of favor and was banished to the AHL.  Santini and vet Ben Lovejoy will compete for third-pairing icetime this year.

Almost as many questions remain offensively behind Hall – who’s role in leading the team to the postseason has already been canonized.  However, there are more reasons to believe in the young forwards beginning with last year’s #1 overall Nico Hischier – who began his NHL career with a solid 60-point season as an eighteen-year old.  Even better days should be ahead for the quiet, humble Swiss native who enjoyed a personal homecoming in the team’s final preseason game playing against his former club team.  With Hall, Hischier and vet goalscorer Kyle Palmieri heading one of the best first lines in the league, the main questions lie with the team’s middle two lines. Currently penciled into the second line are Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt – all of whom have something to prove.

For the 20-year old Bratt, it’s whether he can maintain his stamina through the entire 82-game schedule.  Bratt was a revelation early in the season – giving the team unexpected production from a 6th round pick – but by the end he struggled to make an impact or find icetime.  Clearly he has the skill to make a bigger impact in his second season.  With Johansson the question is twofold…both can he stay healthy and will he provide the same level of production he did previously for the Capitals before being traded here last offseason?  Even accounting for his various concussions last year, Johansson didn’t really make much of an impact at all when he was in the lineup.  Being able to avoid spending time on IR will be the first step toward unlocking his talent.  Zacha (or Severson) might be the biggest enigma of them all, yes he’ll still be 21 years old for much of the 2018-19 season but his production last year only marginally improved from his rookie season in 2016-17.  Yes, he started doing more of the ‘little things’ right in the second half last year, but if you’re going to be a top six forward eventually production will have to follow.  And with the team’s question marks at center, Zacha is being counted on to fill that second-line role.

Our third and fourth lines are currently still under construction…will the third line be a checking unit with scrappy Texans Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen again flanking grizzled vet Travis Zajac?  Or will it have a more offensive component with Miles Wood – the recent recipient of a nice four-year contract – and fellow young gun Quenneville flanking Zajac?  Wood’s speed and talent is undeniable, and his scoring with limited icetime last year hints at potentially bigger things to come.  Surely the team was taking a calculated gamble he’d hit his potential by signing him for four years at $2.75 million per, but that deal might look like a bargain as soon as this year.  Quenneville took a more serious approach to camp this year, losing weight and earning enough notice to have an inside track on winning an open slot on RW.

Masterton winner Brian Boyle will head the fourth line with grit and the occasional big goal, thankfully he’s having a far less eventful camp than he did last year when leukemia derailed the start of his season, fortunately no more than that though.  Either Wood or Coleman will slot in on his left side with Noesen or possibly Dea – a young AHL foward who had 50 points in 70 games last year – slotting in on the right.  While it was often said Hall had little secondary support last year, the fourth and even third lines were above average for a lot of last season, that trend will have to continue.

Coachingwise, while John Hynes has won me and a lot of doubting Devil fans over, there still remains the question of how having two new coaches on the staff (Rick Kowalsky and Mike Grier replacing Geoff Ward and Ryane Clowe) will affect things.  Especially with the power play, which although it wasn’t pretty at times still finished in the top ten under Ward but will now be run by ex-Binghamton coach Kowalsky.  Special teams was a big factor last year with both the PP and PK finishing in the top ten, although the PK was made to look silly by Tampa’s big guns in the postseason last year.  Still, most of the key personnel will be back on the ice so it’ll hopefully just be a matter of how quickly the staff can adjust to the players and vice-versa.

I could offer a detailed prediction but really it won’t be any different than most who don’t have an anti-Devil agenda.  It wouldn’t be a homer prediction either.  Somewhat boringly, I see something of a rerun of last year with us fighting the Panthers and Blue Jackets for the two wild-card spots although both of those teams have their own questions – with the Panthers it’s the age and miles on starting goalie Roberto Luongo as well as a shaky defense, while with the Blue Jackets it’s general team chemistry after multiple key players have been rumored to be in trade talks or demanding trades in the offseason.  Of course with the NHL being the NHL there’ll always be surprises, just ask Vegas fans.  If any team that missed the playoffs were to make a big leap forward it might be the Islanders, if only for the respect I have for Barry Trotz and his ability to implement a system with a team.  He’ll have to do it with that group, with their offense being defanged after losing John Tavares in free agency while the defense was one of the worst in recent memory last year, and also lost Calvin DeHaan in free agency.

In the end I’d probably pick mostly chalk with the Panthers making it over the Blue Jackets this year and everyone else staying as is.  The top of the East – especially the top three Atlantic teams – are just too good to go far away from chalk, not to mention having the Cup champs in Washington and perennial Cup contender Pittsburgh heading the Metro.  In the case of the Flyers, they’re probably too talented to let even their annual goaltending merry-go-round sink them, at least in the regular season.  While I’d describe myself as cautiously optomistic with the Devils, another good start will be key just like it was last year.  Despite the early travel, after returning from Sweden the team won’t leave the tri-state area again until the 31st of October.  Yes, they’ll play some tough teams at home but they need to have a good showing before the doubts start creeping in before a tough November slate.

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Preseason Game 4: Lettieri’s OT winner gives Rangers exciting win over Devils

For a preseason game, the Devils and Rangers put on quite a show last night. In the second meeting before the season, it was once again the Blueshirts that prevailed in overtime. Last week, Neal Pionk was the hero in Newark. On Monday night, Vinni Lettieri was the hero at MSG, giving the Garden hosts an exciting 4-3 victory over the Devils.

There was a pretty good crowd for preseason too. You had some energy in the building. Similar to last week against the Flyers. It’s early but you can feel a more palpable excitement surrounding this year’s rebuilding team. Maybe it’s the fact there’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Reggie Hammond David Quinn. I couldn’t help but make a classic reference from Another 48 Hours.

Most exhibition games are just that. But you couldn’t tell by how hard both Hudson rivals competed for almost 64 minutes before a winner was determined. Each team dressed a fair amount of regulars with a few fresh faces mixed in. It made for a compelling game. One that didn’t lack in intensity and emotions. They ran high on a few occasions, which is a refreshing change for our side of the rivalry. The turn the other cheek, vanilla era is gone. Believe you me, we are all happier about this development.

Even if it means Cody McLeod will play in some rivalry games, which is how he should be used. Truth be told, he hasn’t been bad so far. He’s even been in on some goals, including the Peter Holland shot that was officially changed to McLeod’s on Saturday. When he isn’t busy finishing checks or battling Devils defenseman Eric Gryba in a fight he won to avenge Boo Nieves, he was involved in another goal from the fourth line.

Following a scoreless first period that saw actual backchecking and defense than we were accustomed to the past season, McLeod was in on the game’s first goal scored by Steven Fogarty. The 25-year old out of Note Dame has had a good camp, which is why he’s still around fighting for a roster spot. I’d love to see him stick, but it looks like Lettieri has a leg up in the competition. With both Jimmy Vesey and Vladislav Namestnikov blocking spots, there isn’t much room. If either weren’t guaranteed roster spots based on the contracts they signed, they’d be in deep trouble. Neither have distinguished themselves. The final two games are tomorrow at home against the Islanders and Thursday at the Flyers.

The second certainly was busier. There was more offense from both sides. The teams combined for three goals and 19 shots. Following Fogarty nudging a McLeod rebound by Devils starter Eddie Lack, the Devs picked it up. They were getting out played till that point. Eight of the first nine shots in the period were in favor of the Rangers. However, that changed quickly thanks to more aggression from New Jersey. Eventually, it resulted in a tying goal from Kyle Palmieri.

One-third of the Devils lethal top line, Palmieri took a centering pass from Taylor Hall and rifled a shot top shelf past Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist to tie the score. Pavel Buchnevich made a poor choice, making a bad drop pass to Marc Staal, who had Hall pressuring him. Not surprisingly, Hall came out with the puck and made the perfect set up for Palmieri. That’s the kind of brilliant play you expect from the Devils Hart winner. His line with super sophomore Nico Hischier and Palmieri will be a handful for anyone to handle. They combined for all three goals with both Hischier and Hall picking low glove, far side on reliever Marek Marzanec in the third.

Lundqvist wanted more work. So, he stayed in for the entire second. He was sharper throughout in his second appearance, finishing with 14 saves. He was particularly strong down low and more square to the shooter. His rebound control also was an improvement.

The Rangers responded with a goal from another new face. This time, it was 2016 fifth round pick Tim Gettinger, who had a shot come right back to him off Gryba. His follow up beat Lack for a one goal lead. Pionk made the play by intercepting a pass in the neutral zone. He then passed for the big man, Gettinger, who did the rest. Listed at 6-6, 220, the 20-year old is an interesting prospect. He had a good year with Sault Ste. Marie. We’ll see how he progresses.

In the third, a beautiful power play goal from Chris Kreider scored off a rush and excellent pass from Mika Zibanejad made it 3-1 on the power play. Tony DeAngelo started it from behind his own net with a pass leading Zibanejad, who flew into the Devils zone and found Kreider alone for a great one-timer that Lack had no chance on. For a third string goalie, he played quite well, stopping 33 of 36 shots. That included some superb saves down low including a big one on a redirect attempt late in regulation.

The Devils rallied thanks to that wonderful top line. First, Hischier took a Palmieri drop pass in transition and whistled a wrist shot far side and between the arm of Mazanec to cut it to 3-2. Sami Vatanen got it started following a Brendan Smith turnover in the Devils zone. Hischier looks poised for a big second year.

Then, Hall flew off the bench on a line change to score from the identical spot that Hischier scored. It was well executed. No Ranger ever saw Hall, who had too much time to unleash a bomb from Palmieri and Hischier, tying it up. Buchnevich was the closest player, but it was too late. Chalk it up to a great play by the opponent. That is a lot of skill from those three players. I think the cohesive trio could each go for 70 or more points.

Even late with strong checking from Zibanejad, Fast. Kreider, Brady Skjei and Pionk, that line came out with the puck to set up a Vatanen shot that was blocked.

Fittingly, the game went to overtime. By that time, we had gone downstairs to catch the action. MSG security let my brother and his friend sit down and watch up close. I decided to watch from the steps on the big screen.

There were no less than four times the Devils should’ve ended it. Hall was in alone and Mazanec got a piece of it to keep it out. You had Hischier in two-on-one and a goalpost was hit. Devils first round pick Ty Smith just missed. So chaotic and frenetic was the three-on-three that everyone who stayed enjoyed the fast paced action.

Eventually, it was Kevin Hayes, who patiently outwaited Vatanen with a series of fakes, who somehow passed down low for a Lettieri deflection inside the crossbar and out, that made the winning play. I think everyone thought he would pass across to Pionk. Even though it looked like the shot was open,it wasn’t. The play confused the ref behind the net. He actually waved it off. But one replay was enough proof on the big board to leave. Here’s how it looked:

Quite an ending for a preseason rematch. It didn’t feel like it. Not with the two scraps including McLeod getting the decision over Gryba, who got the better of Matt Beleskey in the early going. Beleskey was injured and didn’t return. Considering the direction the roster is headed, he isn’t making it anyway. Neither is the still concussed Nieves. Poor guy.

I’d like to see the hard working Fogarty on the roster, but with Quinn giving Lettieri over 20 minutes of ice-time in an expanded role, it looks like the final two forwards will be Lettieri and the enforcer, McLeod. Look for the final 23-man roster to include eight defensemen, including Fredrik Claesson, who was up and down yesterday. Former Bruin Adam McQuaid will be the seventh D behind Smith and DeAngelo, who has had a much better camp. He looks like he belongs. Let’s hope it continues.

Other Devils regulars who played included Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, Stefan Noessen, Jesper Bratt, Andy Greene and Mirco Mueller. John Quenneville remains with the club in a close competition for a spot. Nick Lappin was placed on waivers. Mikey McLeod, Joey Anderson and Marian Students were sent down to AHL affiliate Binghamton.

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