|Devils, Avalanche off to fast starts|
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League, each ending droughts by reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Neither team is going to sneak up on anyone this season, yet both are off to strong starts heading into their first meeting of 2018-19 on Thursday night at Prudential Center.
The Devils (4-0-0) are the only NHL team not to have lost a game so far. The Avalanche (3-1-2) are playing well despite losing two straight.
"It's a challenge playing these guys," Devils center Brian Boyle said. "They're a lot like us -- young, fast, hungry. It should be a good game."
New Jersey is outscoring the opposition by a dominating 17-4 through four games. Goalie Keith Kinkaid already has two shutouts, including Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Dallas Stars, and he owns a sparkling .961 save percentage to go along with a 1.00 goals-against average.
"He's just taken that net and owned every part of it," Devils defenseman Will Butcher told the team's website. "He's taken a huge step in his game."
Kinkaid is not alone, though, in the Devils' early-season success. Kyle Palmieri scored the opening goal in all four games this season, and has seven through four games. Jean-Sebastien Dea has three goals in four games.
Eight players have three points or more, including four defensemen. The team has killed off 13 of 14 penalties and is perfect the last 13 times short-handed.
"It's fun to come to the rink right now," Palmieri said. "The team's in a good mood, and we're happy with the way we're playing. We're beating some really good teams, so, hopefully, we just keep that going."
New Jersey is rolling even though reigning Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall is without a goal through four games -- though he does have four assists. Certainly, the Avalanche and their top player, Nathan MacKinnon, will be aware of Hall on the ice.
Last year, MacKinnon was runner-up to Hall for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. Both players scored 39 goals, and MacKinnon had 97 points to Hall's 93.
MacKinnon picked up this year where he left off. He has seven goals already and established a franchise record with goals in each of the first six games of the season after scoring in the second period of Tuesday's 3-2 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
"I'd like to get a few more assists actually, but it's been nice, the puck is going in for me," MacKinnon told the Avalanche website.
Mackinnon's linemate, Mikko Rantanen, also has at least one point in each game so far. Rantanen's eight assists and nine points both are team highs.
"You need to have chemistry to be successful, and Mikko and I have lots of chemistry," MacKinnon said. "He's a big guy, slows the game down, and I like to speed it up. We complement each other really well."
The Avalanche might receive a boost Thursday as it appears Sven Andrighetto will play in his first game of the season. He suffered a leg injury during the preseason but practiced fully on Wednesday.
"He is going to be available for us (Thursday)," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. "I think he looks quick, he is in really good shape. He has done a lot of hard work since he's been out and I'm excited to have a guy like him available again, adds some skill and some speed to our lineup."
Semyon Varlamov, who was sensational in making 41 saves against the Rangers, will get the night off Thursday and Philipp Grubauer makes his second start of the season in goal.
Last season, the Devils won both games with the Avalanche, outscoring them by a combined 6-2. Butcher had three assists in the season series against the team that originally drafted him.