On the heels of the team’s first win of the 2015-16 season against their cross-river rival the New York Rangers, fans of the New Jersey Devils breathed a small sigh of relief. After getting a point in Friday’s matchup but falling to the San Jose Sharks in a shootout, finally claiming a victory hopefully signals that the team is getting on the right track. It may not have been a perfect game but a win is a win and the Devils needed it, not only for the standings but for the team’s overall morale as well. While there are still issues to fix, the fact that certain players are rising to the challenge and helping to carry New Jersey through these first games of the season is a promising sign.
Finding a franchise goalie is no easy task and there are several teams in the NHL that can attest to that. For the better part of two decades, Devils fans have been fortunate and somewhat spoiled by the team’s goaltending. From the legendary Martin Brodeur to now Cory Schneider who has placed himself into the elite goaltending category, the blue crease has always been secure. Coming into the season, there was never any doubt that Schneider would need to be a rock in the net for the Devils and thus far he has lived up to that billing. After opening this year with a .945 save percentage and a 1.62 GAA, Schneider has helped keep New Jersey in every game that he has played this season.
After allowing two early goals against both San Jose and New York, Schneider battled back and with the exception of the shootout, did not allow another regulation or overtime goal. He saw every puck that came his way and did not look like he ever panicked or seemed uncomfortable in the net. Schneider stood on his head during several offensive flurries from both the Sharks and Rangers. He yet again provided a calming presence on the ice.
Head coach John Hynes has already shown that he is not scared to go to backup goalie Keith Kinkaid, which will help keep Schneider rested and fresh. He will be relied heavily upon, especially over the next several weeks while the team tries to find the consistency needed to win and continue to improve their play. Nevertheless, regardless of the mistakes or inconsistencies, coming into games the Devils will seemingly always have a chance to win as long as Schneider is on the ice.
While his jersey looks a little different, defenseman Andy Greene’s game has not changed. Entering the season, Greene was the odds on favorite to receive the coveted “C” and it was very deserved. He is a quintessential Devil. While the Devils hope that he can contribute offensively like he did two seasons ago, that is not his most important role. He is a rock on the blue line.
Greene is only human, which means the veteran will still make mistakes. But even when he is not helping the team get on the scoreboard or necessarily making the big play, he is doing all of the little things right, which in itself makes a large contribution to the final result. Even though his overall stat line is currently minus-2, that is not necessarily a clear depiction of his play. One could argue that it emphasizes how often he is on the ice and typically against the opposition’s top talent. After logging over 27 minutes of ice time against the Nashville Predators, Greene’s role will not be diminishing anytime soon. However, even with the heavy workload, he has not shown signs of fatigue.
The game against the Rangers highlighted Greene’s skillset perfectly as a dual threat. Not only did he singlehandedly save the game in overtime by getting a quick stick on the puck before it crossed the goal line, he set up forward Kyle Palmieri for a golden opportunity early in the overtime to win the game but Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist robbed Palmieri. He then bounced right back and made the outlet pass to Henrique for him to set up Lee Stempniak for the game winner. There is no question that when the game is on the line, Greene will be out on the ice.
The expectations for Henrique this season are high. He is a key offensive factor and must be an impact player for the Devils if the team is going to have any kind of success this year. Since his rookie debut, Henrique has earned a clutch reputation. He is a player that fans look to when the team needs a boost and he is providing just that. With three goals in five games, Henrique is rising to the challenge. He has been one of New Jersey’s most noticeable and reliable players.
From scoring the game tying goals against both the Sharks and Rangers to his shootout goal and his perfect pass to Stempniak for the overtime winner last Sunday, the newly appointed alternate captain’s positive contributions are being seen all over the ice. Henrique seems to be embracing the responsibilities that come along with having a letter sewn onto his jersey and Hynes is showing that Henrique will be one of his go-to guys. It is not realistic to think that Henrique will score every game. But even though it is only the beginning of the season, his strong start is signaling that he should be the force that New Jersey needs him to be.
Honorable Mentions: Lee Stempniak, Damon Severson, and Mike Cammalleri
Stempniak has had his ups and downs since signing with the Devils after impressing the team during his preseason tryout. However, he by far had his best game yet as a Devil against his former team at Madison Square Garden last weekend. Scoring New Jersey’s first game winning goal of the season automatically places him on this list and beating the Rangers instantly makes him a popular player with the fans.
Forward Mike Cammalleri is tied with Henrique as the team’s overall point leader. While he has only hit the back of the net once that will change and fans should not worry about his goal scoring ability. He has assisted on several goals this season and the line combination of Henrique, Cammalleri, and Stempniak appears promising for the Devils. It has not been a perfect start for any New Jersey player and Cammalleri is not an exception. But even when he has an off night, his hustle is still there and has been for the Devils to start the season.
Defenseman Damon Severson may not seem like he has been a stand out player for New Jersey through the first five games but one aspect landed him on this list. The 21-year-old defenseman had a rough opening night and found himself scratched against the Washington Capitals as a result. Nevertheless, while he landed on the inactive list, he has since rebounded, which says more about a player’s skillset and ability than being scratched does. Severson will make more mistakes throughout the season and as he develops into the defenseman the Devils believe he can be. Every game is a learning opportunity for him and it seems like he has learned his first big lesson of the year.
Greene, Henrique, and Schneider are the foundation and core of the franchise moving forward. While it has only been five games, players warming to the task early in the season is typically a good sign of things to come and there are many fans in New Jersey hoping for just that.