NEWARK, N.J. — After finishing in last place in the Eastern Conference a year ago, the New Jersey Devils spent the summer making wholesale changes to their roster, with an eye toward getting younger, faster and more skilled.
So far, so good, as the Devils skated to a 4-1 season-opening victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday afternoon at the Prudential Center with eight new players in the lineup.
The Devils, who had the 22nd-ranked power play last season, scored three times with the man advantage Saturday, with rookie defenseman Will Butcher assisting on all three goals in his NHL debut.
Butcher was one of three Devils playing his first professional game, joining 18-year-old Nico Hischier, the top overall pick in the draft, and 19-year-old winger Jesper Bratt, who had a goal and an assist.
Adam Henrique, Jimmy Hayes and John Moore also scored for the Devils, while Kyle Palmieri had two assists before leaving the game late in the second period after a knee-on-knee collision with Colorado’s Erik Johnson.
“All those guys in their first game played great, I thought,” said Henrique. “We rolled everyone all game because we ran into a couple of injuries, and I thought guys did a great job stepping in and filling those roles when needed. It was big. We’re excited to see what we can put on the ice this season.”
Henrique deflected a Butcher shot past Colorado goalie Jonathan Bernier just 4:04 into the game to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead. Hayes made it 2-0 in his first Devils appearance, converting a rebound of a Palmieri power-play slap shot off the back boards at 2:52 of the second.
Carl Soderberg scored a power-play goal for the Avalanche (1-1-0) 10 minutes later to make it 2-1. However, the Devils’ power play responded in kind, Bratt burying a slick cross-ice feed by Taylor Hall with just 27.9 seconds to play in the second.
“It was pretty emotional,” Bratt said of his first NHL goal. “It was a great moment to see the puck in the net. And to win in my first game, it’s just a great experience.”
Bratt then assisted on Moore’s shorthanded goal with six minutes remaining in the third period that put the game away.
“They played hard,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said of the Devils. “They are a quick team and they are going to be more dangerous this year. As for us, we have to find a way to be better through our lineup.”
New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider was sharp, finishing with 40 saves, including a clutch pad stop midway through the third on Matt Duchene’s 2-on-1 opportunity.
Across the ice, Bernier allowed four goals, but was his team’s best player, making a series of impressive saves. He twice robbed Hall on wide-open looks and ended up making 35 saves.
“He gave us a chance to win,” said Bernier’s teammate, Nathan MacKinnon. “It’s up to us to play better in front of him.”
The sold-out crowd serenaded Hischier with chants of “Nico! Nico!” when he took the first shift of his NHL career less than a minute into the game. The talented Swiss-born center showed poise and a creative flair, generating several excellent scoring chances over his 15:44 worth of ice time, even though he was held off the scoresheet.
“I had goose bumps everywhere,” admitted Hischier, who was third on the team with six shots on goal. “It was special and I will remember that a long time.”
Hischier also drew raves from his teammates, aggressively going after Johnson following the hit on Palmieri.
“It shows the identity of our team, we have a brotherhood and we stick up for each other,” said Butcher. “Whether it’s a guy like him or a different role player, it doesn’t matter. We stick up for each other.”
For his part, Johnson said after the game that the hit on Palmieri was accidental and unfortunate.
“I hope he is OK, first and foremost,” stated Johnson. “I just went to hit him and never changed my course. I don’t think I stuck out my knee or anything like that. I just went to finish my check and caught him in the wrong spot.”
NOTES: The Devils finished the game with 16 skaters after RW Drew Stafford (lower body) and LW Kyle Palmieri (lower body) were injured. Devils D Andy Greene (undisclosed) also missed a portion of the second period, but returned to start the third. ... The Devils scratched D Ben Lovejoy, D Dalton Prout and LW Miles Wood, while the Avalanche scratched D Mark Barberio, D Andrei Mironov and LW Matt Nieto. ... The Avalanche have allowed six goals in their first two games, five on the power play.