Formidable Devils a Force to be Reckoned With

The Devils may not possess all the goods when it comes to being a Stanley Cup contender, but after five games, the Garden Staters cannot be ruled out as a mere pretender either.

Not by a long shot or a slap shot.

As they move on to a Tuesday night meeting with the Lightning at Prudential Center, the Devils certainly appear to be on a mission of gaining respect, being reliable and, most of all, winning hockey games.

Having beaten the Rangers, 3-2, on Saturday night at The Garden, John Hynes‘ skaters continue to display gumption, goal-scoring and green rookies who are playing as confidently as veterans.

What’s more their Long Island-born backup goalie, Keith Kinkaid — on one victory alone — proved that GM Ray Shero was wise to retain him in favor of other prospects.

“He saved us in the first period,” said Hynes, “kept the score nothing-nothing.”

[Watch Thursday’s Devils-Senators Game on MSG+ and Download Free on MSG GO]

The Rangers outshot New Jersey, 14-3, over the first 20 minutes and seemed so top-heavy in command that New York seemed en route to a rout.

Sure enough, Rick Nash put the Blueshirts ahead early in the second period. But the visitors had regained their skating legs and confidence by then.

This was translated into the tying goal by Adam Henrique midway through the middle frame. Miles Wood put the Devs ahead, 2-1, at 16:41 of the second on a deflection of defenseman Ben Lovejoy‘s Hail Mary-drive from the right point.

Without regular top centers Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, Henrique has become the main man at the pivot while working with such starry youngsters as Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt.

“The kids all have been awesome,” said Henrique. “Since Day One of camp, they’ve all bought in and are all smart players who see the ice well. They’re a big reason why we’ve gotten off to a good start and will have success this year.”

Henrique — like others in the winners’ room — paid tribute to Kinkaid, who played the best game of his young life as an NHL goalie. Key was his surviving the Rangers’ blitz in the first minute of the game and first period overall.

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“I always want to see the puck early and often,” Kinkaid explained. “In the first minute, the Rangers already had four shots. It could have been a whole different game there.

“For me, the first period was a little draining but, thankfully, the second wasn’t as hard. We re-evaluated after the first and really took it to them.”

But it was the wizardry play of rookie Butcher who crafted the Devils’ third — and winning — goal on a power play one minute into the final period.

Will’s feather pass to Drew Stafford enabled the forward to burst in the clear to beat Ondrej Pavelec with a backhander in close.

Butcher currently leads NHL rookies with eight points; all on assists. For Stafford, it was his first goal as a Devil.

“After the first period,” Stafford recalled, “we knew we had to be better; starting with myself. Every one lifted each other up and were able to get back to competing — working. It was as simple as that.”

[Watch: Get to Know New Devil Drew Stafford]

While the season is far too young to realistically appraise a team, the Newark sextet (4-1) has given the naysayers pause to change their minds. Particularly impressive is the fact that Hynes-men played three out of five games on the road.

Rested after losing against Washington Friday and boosted by Kinkaid’s strong effort, Cory Schneider appears to have regained the winning goaltending form that was missing in the homestretch last spring.

All things considered, Hynes has a formidable one-two punch in goal proven by the fact that Kinkaid’s first-period heroics were the talk of New Jersey’s clubhouse.

“Keith gave us a chance to win from the beginning,” Stafford said. “The Rangers were desperate, came out and out-shot us. We eventually rewarded him by finally playing the way we did.”

Arguably Kinkaid’s best save was on a Nash breakaway in the third period. Keith was screened by Kevin Shattenkirk‘s goal at 19:03 with Pavelec on the bench for an extra skater. But the Devils smothered any further Rangers opportunities.

New Jersey’s defense has blended experience and youth. Captain Andy Greene is being relied upon to lift his game a notch. Greene led both teams in minutes played with 25:44.

“Without Travis and Brian we’re winning on resilience and not going through what we did last year,” said Greene. “We have a better feeling coming into this year. It’s nice to be rewarded for the way we’re playing.”

The backline find could very well be Free Agent Catch Of The Year, defenseman Butcher. While he remains in the physically “smallish” category, the question will be whether he can maintain his efficiency over a full season.

Another feather in  Shero’s cap has to be the acquisition of right wing Marcus Johansson, the ex-Washington ace. He figures to give Taylor Hall and Henrique much-needed support.

Hynes decision to push his skaters into a more up-tempo style impressed critics as the Devs peeled off other victories over Colorado, Buffalo and Toronto.

Even Maple Leafs tough-talking coach Mike Babcock raved about the Garden Staters after his club was beaten at home, 6-3.

“The Devils skated us into the ground,” said Babcock. “And they won all the stick battles.”

That Hynes is icing a younger, faster team has been apparent. Rookie — Top Draft pick — Nico Hischier has fit in snugly at center with a so-far-so-good appraisal.

More surprising has been previously unknown Bratt, a Swedish 19-year-old left wing who didn’t even make The Hockey News Devils depth chart or even its Top 10 Prospects list.

After the club’s first five games, Bratt has totaled three goals and three assists for six points, mostly working on a line with Johansson and Pavel Zacha.

“Jesper,” noted Hynes, “has been our biggest surprise.”

It’s possible that the critics-be-darned Devils will maintain their positive equilibrium based on their determination, dedication and direction.

Or, as Babcock noted after losing to the Jerseyites: “Life is so simple — if you do good things then good things will happen.”

So far, so good for the Hynesmen; good enough for eight out of a possible 10 points.

Imagine if Zajac and Boyle were in the lineup!

[Watch Thursday’s Devils-Senators Game on MSG+ and Download Free on MSG GO]