Avalanche, Devils aim to alter fortunes at other's expense
The New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche combined for only 118 points last season, or the same amount of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
On Saturday afternoon at the Prudential Center, the Devils host the Avalanche (1-0-0) as both teams seek to distance themselves from last season.
Colorado already took a step in that direction, defeating the New York Rangers, 4-2, on Thursday night. After finishing last in the league with 22 wins and 48 points in 2016-17, the Avalanche skated into Madison Square Garden and never trailed en-route to a season-opening road victory.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who had hip and groin surgeries that limited him to just 24 appearances last year, turned in a stellar performance Thursday with 37 saves. He stopped all 14 shots in third period when the Rangers turned up the heat while chasing a one-goal deficit.
"I liked a lot of the things we did, but I think our puck decisions cost us a lot of scoring chances against, but (Varlamov) was outstanding," Colorado coach Jared Bednar told reporters after the win. "That's what we are hoping he can be, but we don't want to get into a game where we are relying on him like that every night."
After allowing a league-high 276 goals last season, while scoring a league-low 166, it is clear Colorado needs to be far better at both ends of the rink while icing largely the same lineup this year. On Thursday, the Avalanche complemented Varlamov's sharp play with an opportunistic offense.
Ironically, Matt Duchene, the subject of trade rumors for much of the past year, scored Colorado's first goal of the season Thursday. He later added an assist on Gabriel Landeskog's empty-net goal.
Though he wouldn't discuss still being on the Avalanche roster Thursday, Duchene said, "Last year is still lingering in our minds. At the same time, we want to kind of spit it out. We're anxious to do what we can do."
Similar sentiments are shared by the Devils, who finished last in the Eastern Conference with 28 wins and 70 points. They, too, are eager to start anew.
Unlike the Avalanche, New Jersey made quite a few changes to its roster during the offseason.
The Devils acquired 24-goal scorer Marcus Johansson from the Capitals to help bolster an attack that scored a conference-low 183 goals in 2016-17. They also signed free agent forwards Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes and Brian Boyle, though Boyle is on the injured list while being treated for chronic myeloid leukemia.
New Jersey infused some youth to its defense corps by acquiring 22-year-old Mirco Mueller from San Jose and signing college free agent Will Butcher, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner. In an interesting twist, Butcher will face the team that drafted him, the Avalanche, in his NHL debut Saturday, while winger Alex Kerfoot, a college free agent who signed with Colorado this summer, will skate on a line with Duchene against the team that drafted him.
The most exciting new addition in New Jersey, though, is Nico Hischier, whom the Devils selected first overall in June's draft. The Swiss-born center had a solid preseason, scoring a goal in his first outing and finishing the exhibition games with a team-high four goals and seven points.
"It is a dream come true," Hischier told reporters about making the opening-night roster. "As a young player, you dream about this moment to play your first game. Finally, it comes up and I am really excited, really happy."
With veteran center Travis Zajac starting the season on injured reserve, Hischier will see plenty of time in a top-six role as well as on the power play. Pavel Zacha, another former first-rounder who is entering his second NHL season, will also be handled a more prominent role this season, while much more is expected from veterans Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique.
Goaltender Cory Schneider is another veteran looking to bounce back this year after his goals-against average climbed to 2.82 a year ago.
"It's a new year, a new mindset, nothing from last year has carried over at all," Schneider said after practice Friday. "I think there's an excitement with this group. Coming off last year, we've had a good infusion of youth, enthusiasm and focus. It's a fresh start for everybody."
Updated October 6, 2017