Photo Credit: Dave Janosz

What a Difference a Week Makes for the Devils

The Devils left the Prudential Center last Saturday night reeling. Defensive lapses, goaltending errors, and a failure to finish myriad chances resulted in opening the season with back-to-back losses to teams they expected to beat. The crowd expressed its displeasure by serenading the team with boos as it left the ice and chanting "Fire Lindy" in full throated frustration as the second half of the game wore on.

There was a palpable sense of dread encircling the team with the fear that even with all the offseason moves and optimism throughout the team, it's fanbase, and the national media that this unit would produce the same disastrous results as last season. Most concerning was the fact that the Devils had seemingly dominated at times but only scored half of its expected goals while giving up double its expected goals against.

Despite stellar preseason efforts by goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek, each had begun the regular season surrendering four and five goals respectively, several of which they both acknowledged should have been stopped.

One period into Tuesday's game against the Anaheim Ducks the story seemed to be repeating itself, the Devils had surrendered two early goals, both to Devils menace Jakob Silfverberg, and after doubling their opponent's shots on goal the Devils had nothing to show for it and entered the dressing room being booed amid calls for their coach's job. It is unclear what transpired in that locker room during the first intermission, however, the team that emerged for the second period emerged as Superman does from a phone booth, still looking like the man who entered but formidable and meaning business.

"It was a wakeup call for us. Not much was said, everybody knew what to do. We were prepared for this game." Captain Nico Hischier told reporters after the game.

It was the moment in the early season where the team, facing adversity, would either demonstrate its mental toughness or succumb to the ghosts of the past few years.

Coach Lindy Ruff then shortened his bench and chose to roll three lines instead of four and only using Alex Holtz, Mike McLeod, and Nathan Bastian in special-teams or very specific situations.  Ruff's reliance on his veteran top nine paid immediate dividends. After killing off an early penalty to Brendan Smith, the Devils cut the deficit in half with a goal from newcomer Ondrej Palat.

Ruff's new three-line approach seemed to be a catalyst for the Devils who immediately ratcheted up the intensity and drew life from an energized crowd. The tide appeared to turn when another newcomer, Smith hit Ducks forward Max Comtois along the boards which immediately lead to Comtois instigating a fight that was finished by Smith.

The fight seemed to invigorate the team, signified by Jack Hughes making his way to the penalty box to personally show support to Smith for his efforts.  Less than a minute later, Captain Nico Hischier deposited a rebound into the back of the net for his first goal of the season knotting the game at two.  The Devils dominated the rest of the period and left the ice to rousing cheers from the Prudential Center crowd.

"We got the crowd back on our side and the Rock was popping," Hischier described.

Carrying the energy into the third period, the Devils needed only 33 seconds to take the lead over the tiring Ducks as winger Jesper Bratt's cross ice, backhanded pass, found Dougie Hamilton sliding towards the back post. Hamilton wasted no time firing the puck into the empty side of the net then hoisting the diminutive Bratt in the air to celebrate taking the lead.

Lead by a strong, organized, defensive structure the Devils never looked back adding an insurance goal by Dawson Mercer to end the scoring. Blackwood shut out the Ducks for the final 47 minutes of the game making every stop that was needed of him despite long stretches without work.

"Overall, as the game went on, we got better, it was important and the guys did a good job," Blackwood said after the game describing the team's response to going down 2-0 early.

The team then set out for Brooklyn to face the Islanders who in years past had been a tough matchup for the Devils due to their size and stingy defense. Ruff didn't make many changes again sending Blackwood to the net and primarily playing three forward lines, keeping the top nine intact from the Ducks game. The only roster move was scratching Alex Holtz in favor of a seventh defenseman, Kevin Bahl. The Devils rewarded Ruff with perhaps the teams most complete game of the Ruff era. The Devils dominated the game from puck drop to the final horn defeating the Islanders 4-1 to draw even on the season.

The first period was marked by a stretch where the Islanders failed to register even a shot on goal for the first 16:53 of the game. The Devils ended the period with a 13-3 shot advantage, but the game remained tied 0-0.

Ruff was exuberant after the game, "To come out like we did in the first period, that may have been one of the best first periods we've ever played."

Unlike in prior games where the failure to score would come back to haunt the team, the Devils utilized their speed and continued the attack in the second period which almost immediately paid dividends as Jack Hughes opened the scoring after an incredible stretch pass by Damon Severson walked him in alone on goaltender Ilya Sorokin. Hughes has started the season with tough luck (scoring only one goal on 19 shots so far) but was able to stickhandle and slide the puck through the five hole to give the Devils the lead.

Ten minutes later the Devils would double the lead after a forecheck by Hischier lead to a turnover. He then passed to an open Jesper Bratt who bumped the puck to Palat in the slot who buried the puck past Sorokin.

Down two goals the Islanders pressed to cut the deficit, firing nine shots at Blackwood in the period.  Blackwood remained sharp even as the Devils controlled the puck for large periods of time in the Isles zone.  When needed, Blackwood came through stoning several open Islanders to preserve the lead and allow the Devils to close out the game.  Blackwood looks healthy again and has demonstrated increased mobility going post to post to shut down seemingly open nets.

The Devils would add another goal by Palat from Bratt on the rush and an empty net goal off of a flip of the puck by Hischier that traveled nearly 130 feet ending the game at 4-1.  After the game the talk focused on the Devils' forwards' tenacity in the forecheck and back check and the team's ability to shut down any opportunities for the Isles while countering with the signature team speed.

"They [the forwards] did a great job; reloading, supporting each other, getting open, cutbacks, lots of speed, they did a great job, it's fun to watch," observed Blackwood.

Islanders star center Mat Barzal said, the Devils speed caused the Islanders many problems throughout the game calling them the fastest team they had played.

Devils' winger Jesper Bratt agreed, "I think it [speed] was the biggest part of our success, we played with great speed, we were tracking, staying on pucks, and we made it really hard for them."

Bratt has epitomized the emphasis on speed using his to lead the team with seven points in the first four games having three multi-point games already to start the season.

What a difference a week makes. The Devils now bursting with confidence and results justifying the belief in their skill head into a stretch where they will face the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals at home in the next three days. San Jose is coming off its first victory of the season last night against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Devils will look to get over .500 and continue the momentum built on the last two performances.

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