– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEWARK, N.J. — Oddly enough, the belief that the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils might have a memorable season germinated towards the end of last season’s campaign – one which many in the organization would soon want to forget.
Six games in, and that belief just continues to grow with each passing win. Kyle Palmieri scored the only goal in the shootout as the Devils maintained their hot start to the season with a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the equally hot Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey’s best start to a season since 2008-09. New Jersey now has won five out of its first six contests, arguably the biggest surprise in the early portion of the young NHL season. Many fans and pundits are now just catching on to the young, speedy and gritty group coach John Hynes and the Devils’ management have assembled, but, as the Devils were mired in one of their worst seasons since they arrived in the Garden State in 1982 last season, Hynes had his eyes already season to what lay ahead for 2017-18, and that the biggest adjustment that had to be made, more than personnel, was the team’s attitude.
“I think it’s just the belief and the culture,” said Hynes in the postgame press conference, describing what has changed to begin this season. “The Xs and Os are the Xs and Os, but I think it’s something that started at the end of last year. Last year was unacceptable to everyone that was here and everyone that’s returning. So I think that there was a mindset from all of the returning people – staff, players, everyone. I think there was a lot of hard work that went into the summer, individually for players, coaching staff, management.”
Some of that hard work went into new personnel, with the most notable addition being the selection of Swiss center Nico Hischier as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. While he has yet to tally his first NHL goal, the first-line center was instrumental in the victory, assisting on the first and final goals of regulation, with the latter coming on the power play with 4:08 remaining to tie the score at four.
Both of Hischier’s assists were converted into goals by another offseason addition, Drew Stafford, who spent the past three seasons with the Winnipeg Jets.
“I think the additions to our team through the draft, through trades, through free agency, have really aided the culture we want on and off the ice,” said Hynes. “You have to credit the players at the end of the day. They’ve come to work basically every day here, and we haven’t had a bad practice. Guys are on time for meetings, they’re ready to play and they’re playing for each other.”
That sense of camaraderie came to the fore after Tampa Bay entered the third period up by a goal at 4-3. The Lightning applied pressure for most of that period and were able to draw two penalties on the Devils, providing them a chance to put the game away with a man-up goal. New Jersey, who came into the contest ranked 22nd in killing penalties, were able to kill off those two chances for the Lightning. The Devils then took advantage of their only power play chance in the third after Tampa Bay defenseman Andrej Sustr was called for a tripping penalty. Early in the power play, Hischier fired a pass into the top of the crease where a cutting Stafford scored off a rebound of his own shot, beating goalkeeper Peter Budaj to level the contest.
In the shootout, Kyle Palmieri, who scored a power play goal in the first period, provided the only goal after beating Budaj on the backhand. Cory Schneider stopped all three shots for the Devils in the shootout.
New Jersey won despite the fact the historically hot start of Tampa Bay winger Nikika Kucherov continued, as he scored on a slap shot at 14:02 in the second period to tie the game at three. Last night in Detroit, Kucherov became only the third player in the past 30 seasons to start a season scoring a goal in each of his team’s first six games, joining Keith Tkachuk in 2008-09, Mario Lemieux in 1992-93 and Kucherov’s boss, Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman, who accomplished the feat as a player for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1988-89 season.
Just 3:21 after Kucherov’s eighth goal of the season, Steven Stamkos put the Lightning in front as winger Yanni Gourde forced a turnover from Devils defenseman Damon Severson behind the net before feeding the puck out in front to the Lightning captain for his second goal of the season.
The first period between these two high-flying teams was even more frenetic than what most might have anticipated, with 26 shots and five goals combined between the two teams. Palmieri got the Devils on the board just 2:45 into the game after the puck on his slap shot squeezed through the pads of Budaj and trickled behind Tampa’s No. 2 keeper and into the net. The Lightning responded with two goals in 4:48, the first coming from Vladislav Namestnikov and the second coming on the power play from Ondrej Palat after some slick tic-tac-toe passing around the perimeter.
New Jersey closed the period the stronger of the two, with Palmieri scoring on the power play and Brian Gibbons jamming one home form inside the crease to give New Jersey the lead back with 52 seconds remaining in the first. Those goals came 2:49 apart.
New Jersey ended the first period outshooting Tampa Bay 15-11.