At 48 games into the season, the New Jersey Devils have reached their CBA mandated bye week, prior to the All-Star game. That means we have to go the next several days without Devils hockey, with the closest thing being Kyle Palmieri’s first foray into the All-Star game. On the bright side, at least we won’t have to watch the team lose all week.
Okay, that might have sounded pessimistic and cynical, but with the team so far out of a playoff spot, they need a pair of binoculars to even see who’s in the second wild card, us Devils fans need to laugh at our pain.
Call this season what you want, but the Devils did have quite a few shining moments over the first half of 2018-19. While we wait for Palmieri to throw on his Metropolitan Division sweater, let’s take a walk down memory lane at the five best moments of the Devils season so far.
No. 5: Come Back Win Versus Vegas
After their surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in their first season of existence, many deemed the Golden Knights’ early success a fluke. When they began the season at the bottom of the Pacific Division standings, it appeared their critics were right and that the second-year franchise was finally exhibiting some expansion growing pains. Well, they were wrong, yet again. After a few weeks of at hovering about .500, the Golden Knights began playing stronger hockey and found themselves back in a playoff spot. Apparently, those first few weeks of the season were nothing more than a Stanley Cup hangover, and who knows how to cure a hangover better than Vegas?
By the time of their first meeting of the season on December 14. The Golden Knights were an elite NHL team once again, while the Devils had fallen far from their 4-0-0 start. Thus, it was no surprise to anyone that at not one, but two, points in the game, New Jersey found themselves at a three-goal deficit.
What happened next was a surprise to everyone. The Devils erased their three-goal deficit to force overtime and win 5-4. Nico Hischier, who’s been in the league the same amount of time the Golden Knights have been around, scored the game-winner in overtime against Marc Andre Fleury.
No. 4: Opening Game in Sweden
Being a Devils fan means you watch the NHL seemingly give away all the nice things to other teams in the league. Winter Classics, Outdoor Games, and marquee matchups rarely see the Devils even so much as included in the conversation for possible participants. That seemed to change this year when it was announced that the Devils would open their season with a European vacation.
First off, there was a preseason game against Nico Hischier’s old club, SC Bern in Switzerland, where the Devils earned themselves an overtime win. It was a homecoming for Hischier, being the highest drafted Swiss-born player in NHL history. Next was the season-opening regular season game against the Edmonton Oilers at the Scandanavium in Sweden, once again ending in a Devils’ victory.
Both games were sellouts and enormous successes for the NHL Global Series. The only critique of the Devils’ involvement was the expense of a home game, as the Devils counted as the home team in the regular-season matchup. Other than that, watching their team skate off with two wins in front of an enthusiastic international crowd was a sight for Devils fans to be proud of, even if it’s one that weren’t used to.
No. 3: Home Opener Versus Washington
While on paper the Devil’s “official” home opener might have been in Europe, the first game at Prudential Center was an October 11th matchup versus the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.
Home openers are always more exciting than average games. After a long offseason away, sellout crowds come to welcome their team home, and the anticipation is rivaled only by the playoffs. If the home team can win, it always makes it just a little better. But this year’s home opener was nothing like the home openers of past. Not only did the Devils win, they shutout the defending Stanley Cup champions by a score of 6-0.
Yes, Washington started their backup goalie in lieu of Braden Holtby, but that did nothing to bring down the excitement of Devils fans in attendance. They were treated to a nonstop game of action that they’ve been waiting for.
No. 2: Mackenzie Blackwood
Yes, the home opener was great. Yes, the beginning of the season win streak was great. But things changed real quick, and not for the better.
After that 4-0-0 start, the Devils started racking up losses to the point that by mid-November, some analysts declared the season a loss for Jersey. A playoff spot a season ago couldn’t erase the fact this team still had a lot of rebuilding to do, but what went wrong? Not all, but a significant amount of the blame in the team’s step back from success was sub-par goaltending. The miracle run by Keith Kinkaid that lead New Jersey to its first playoff spot in six years was long gone. And after some very early season success, he once again fell to a below average goalie. Then there was Cory Schneider, who after offseason surgery, is still looking for his first regular-season win since 2017.
Enter Mackenzie Blackwood, who entered his NHL debut in a 7-2 Devils loss in late December. Immediately after, he assumed the starter’s role and started earning wins and two consecutive shutouts to start his young career. Not only was he a vast improvement to the Devil’s prior goaltending situation, but he was a spark plug for the rest of the team, who had their first winning streak in over a month when he took over the starters role.
Blackwood still has a long way to go. In fact, some Devils fans may have been too enthusiastic and over exaggerated by his early success. The signs of promise that Blackwood has shown for this team that most called dead and buried is a reason for optimism between the Devils’ pipes in years to come.
No. 1: Brian Boyle’s On The Road Hat trick
Last season, the hockey world was brought together in support for Brian Boyle. Just before the season started, the Devils’ winger announced he was fighting cancer, at the same time announcing he would keep playing throughout his treatments. After a few weeks out of the lineup due to his treatments, Boyle came back to the Devils and scored his first goal of the season in front of a home crowd on the Devil’s Hockey Fights Cancer Night. Ask anyone who was there and they’ll tell you that they weren’t crying, someone was just chopping onions in the seat next to them.
Boyle was awarded the Masterson Trophy, exemplifying the qualities of perseverance like never before, while also announcing thankfully that his cancer was in remission. As if one dramatic, tear-inducing Hockey Fights Cancer Night memory wasn’t enough, Boyle added one more to his career this season.
In a moment not even Hollywood could have scripted better, on a Nov. 5 road game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boyle recorded his first career hat trick on the Penguin’s Hockey Fights Cancer Night. The NHL’s ultimate feel-good story came full circle in a way only rivaled by hockey legend John Scott’s participation in the All-Star Game a few years before. The Penguins home crowd might not have liked the 5-1 loss that night, but they surely respected Boyle’s achievement. Brian Boyle proved that, although he may not be Connor McDavid, he’s still got a lot of hockey left in his tank.