Marcus Johansson skates with the puck while being pursued by Alex Ovechkin during the second period at Prudential Center.

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Lichtenstein: Devils Use Internal Growth To Get Off To Another Hot Start

Steve Lichtenstein
October 12, 2018 - 1:12 pm

Devils coach John Hynes takes exception to those (like me) who have asserted that his club didn’t do much to improve in the offseason.

While it’s true that general manager Ray Shero had a relatively quiet summer when it came to the free agent and trade markets, Hynes wants you to know that the Devils are counting on other ways to elevate their game over last season.

Hynes used the return to health of wing Marcus Johansson as an example.

“To have a healthy Marcus Johansson, who’s a big part of our team, and comes back healthy, had a great summer of training—he clearly understands how we want to play,” Hynes said following New Jersey’s 6-0 rout on Thursday of defending Stanley Cup champion Washington in their Prudential Center opener (Saturday’s 5-2 victory over Edmonton in Sweden was technically a Devils home game).  “He’s all in as a player.”

Johansson, who was traded from the Caps prior to last season but was limited to just 29 games due to concussions before returning for the playoffs, scored his first goal since December 29 against his old mates.

To refresh, scoring balance was expected to be a huge question mark for the Devils entering this season.  They were too reliant on the Taylor Hall/Nico Hischier/Kyle Palmieri trio last year.  Hynes knew he had to receive better production from the bottom nine, even though only one member (right wing Jean-Sebastien Dea) is new to the organization.

“One of the things we have to be as a team is have four lines that can play,” Hynes said.  “The thing that’s really helped us the last two games is that we’ve had lots of contributions from four lines.  If we can continue that, then we’re going to continue to be a hard team to play against.”

If this were a year ago and I told you that the Devils would score 11 goals in their first two games of the season, you could have easily assumed that Hall racked up multiple points in each contest.

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You would have been wrong.  The reigning Hart Trophy winner was held to just one assist, far below his 38 percent scoring participation rate from last season.

“I don’t care—I’d love to get on the scoreboard, but we’re scoring as a team,” Hall said.  “Every line seems to be chipping in.”

For one game, at least, that even included the Devils’ fourth line.  Dea, Blake Coleman, and Brian Boyle all netted third period goals Thursday to put away the Caps.  

Coleman seems to be rejuvenated by his return to center from left wing, having switched with the veteran Boyle.

“I think it allows me to get to my speed a little bit,” the pickle juice-loving Coleman said.  “I feel like down low in the D-zone is one of my strengths.  I got three guys on my line that can play center, which is a centerman’s dream, really, as far as helping out down low.  I like how we turned it on in the third after a slow start.”

An inflatable pickle in the lower bowl of the stands watched how every Devils' line seemed to dominate the Caps, who appeared gassed from being on a back-to-back.  The Devils came in waves and never let up.  Pavel Zacha, Johansson’s center, had four or five glorious scoring opportunities that were denied by Pheonix Copley, Washington’s backup goalie who hails from the North Pole (Alaska).

“It’s great to see Pav have those type of opportunities,” Hynes said.  “I think when you look at his game tonight, he got them because he was tenacious on the puck, he moved his feet—particularly early in the game, he had a shot-first mentality.  The puck didn’t go in for him tonight, but I think if he continues to play the way he that played tonight, the pucks should start to go in for him.”

More impressively, Zacha owned the faceoff circle, winning 13 of 15 draws.  Considering Hynes mostly matched Zacha against the Caps’ top unit featuring All-Stars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, securing puck possession was imperative in keeping them off the scoresheet..

In Sweden, the Devils received two goals apiece from third line center Travis Zajac, who was neatly set up both times by left wing Miles Wood, and Palmieri, who added another pair against the Caps to become the first in Devils franchise history to notch two goals in each of the team’s opening two games.

The Devils’ fast start this season has a similar feel to that of a year ago.  New Jersey utterly blitzed opponents with their speed, scoring at least four goals in seven of their first 11 contests in going 9-2.

One big difference, however: this time, Hall is more decoy than focal point. 

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