Devils, Golden Knights off to surprising strong starts
After finishing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference last season, the New Jersey Devils have been among the NHL’s surprise teams.
The Devils have been atop the Metropolitan Division for most of the opening weeks and are 6-2-0 for their best start since beginning with the same record 15 years ago.
“Our team’s played extremely hard,” coach John Hynes said. “I thought we’d come out of training camp ready to play.”
New Jersey, seeking its first playoff appearance since losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, has been doing it with a balanced effort. Six players have three goals each, and four others have two apiece. Taylor Hall and rookie Will Butcher lead the way with nine points each, and Kyle Palmieri and Nico Hischier — the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft — both have seven.
“So many positive things over the last couple of weeks,” Hynes said.
Following an opening stretch in which they played eight games in 14 nights — capped by a shutout loss at home to San Jose last Friday — the Devils are on a bit of a break and don’t play again until hosting Ottawa this Friday. After going into their rest first in the division, they’ve been passed by two-time defending champion Pittsburgh.
Palmieri doesn’t want his team to dwell on its strong start and knows there’s room for improvement with a long season still ahead.
“It’s been a good start for our group,” he said. “But time to put it to bed. We have an opportunity ... a week to work on some things and tighten some things up.”
One of those things the Devils have been focusing on during their break is cutting down on penalties. New Jersey is fourth in the league in total penalties (47) and penalty minutes per game (15:00).
The time off is helping players get healthier, too. Starting goalie Cory Schneider left after the second period of the Devils’ comeback win at Ottawa last Thursday with a lower-body injury but has been skating on his own this week. Palmieri (lower body injury) has been resting and veteran Brian Boyle has begun practicing with the team after his cancer diagnosis last month.
VEGAS ROLLING HIGH
The expansion Golden Knights are also one of the big stories as the first team in NHL history to win seven of the first eight games in its inaugural season.
“It feels really good,” forward Reilly Smith said. “Obviously it’s still really early, but we definitely like that record right now and hopefully we can build on it.”
The Golden Knights have also had some scoring balance with 14 players getting goals. James Neal leads with six, Oscar Lindberg has three, and Smith, David Perron, Alex Tuch, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Tomas Nosek have two each.
“If we win, it’s going to be coming from everybody,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “For us to play well and have a chance we have to get balanced scoring from everybody.”
To keep its sizzling start going, Vegas will have to do with goalies that were supposed to be spending the season in the AHL — Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace. After starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who led Pittsburgh to two Stanley Cup championships, suffered a concussion on Oct. 13, backup Malcolm Subban went down with a lower-body injury in the third period of the Knights’ win against St. Louis on Saturday night. Fleury is close to returning to practice, according to Gallant, but Subban is expected to miss four weeks.
Dansk came on and led the Knights to an overtime win over the Blues in his NHL debut, and then beat Chicago in his first start Tuesday night. Lagace has not appeared in a game yet.
“We’re definitely being tested right now, with the goalie situation alone,” Smith said. “Every goalie that’s stepped in here so far for us has done a great job. We just have to keep on trying to help them out.”
ON THE DOWNSIDE
The New York Rangers reached the Eastern Conference semifinals last April, beating the Atlantic Division champion Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Right now they’re at the bottom of the conference standings with two wins each.
New York, with its fewest points after 10 games since also starting 2-6-2 in the 1962-63 season, has given up 15 goals in the first period and allowed the first goal six times.
“It’s been going on way longer than we wanted it to,” forward Rick Nash said of the Rangers’ struggles. “It’s tough right now. You could say all the clichés you want. We have to stick together and keep it simple.”
LEADERS (through Tuesday)
Goals: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 11; Assists: Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), 17; Points: Stamkos, 20; Time on ice: Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo), 27:39; Goals-against average: Michal Neuvirth (Philadelphia), 1.36; Save percentage: Neuvirth, .957.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Derek Stepan and the winless Arizona Coyotes visit the struggling Rangers on Thursday night in Stepan’s return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since being dealt by New York in the offseason.
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