Just a few notes and quotes before tonight’s Albany Devils game against the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky on Hartford, which beat Albany in the season opener in Connecticut, 4-3:
“We kind of let them off the hook in our first game of the season. It was their second. Last night was their first loss, to Portland, that was their first loss of the season. Obviously, they’re missing some guys, and you’re going to see changing lineups all throughout the year. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, and again, we keep talking about it, getting better, improve on what we need to improve on. Each game, there’s something to work on. It’s good to be back at home.”
Albany has no healthy scratches tonight. The Devils had been carrying an extra defenseman, but Eric Gelinas was recalled to New Jersey on Wednesday (and scored his first NHL goal in the first period on Thursday). The Devils also have a couple players injured as centerman Darcy Zajac and right wing Mike Sislo are both out with upper-body injuries.
Without Gelinas, who is an offensive-minded blueliner who has been a big part of the Devils’ power-play success, rookie Jon Merrill will likely carry more of that load. It’s nothing new to Merrill, though, who already has been turning in good PP shifts. Kowalsky will have to figure out who to put with Merrill on the top PP unit, though.
“That unit was pretty cohesive,” Kowalsky said. “I sampled [Brandon] Burlon there, [Stefan] Matteau there, a couple different rooks, but Burlon and [Reece] Scarlett are two guys on that other unit that may get some looks on that first unit. But Jonny, there’s no question he’s the main quarterback back there and had a heck of a goal [Wednesday]. He plays a lot of minutes, but he plays a pretty efficient game. He’s almost too calm for me, sometimes, out there, but that’s his M.O. He’s so calm under pressure, he’s so smart with the puck and he reads the forecheck so well. We’ve just got to be careful because he’s a young guy. [Wednesday] night we get into power plays and penalty kills and they get consecutive, and their pressure up-ice was pretty good. That gets taxing on guys that play both specialty teams. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t wear him down too much.”
Merrill is so calm under pressure, but Kowalsky said the next step for the rookie’s development will be cultivating a sense of urgency for those moments when it pays more dividends than serenity does.
“Sometimes we make jokes that we think he likes getting hit,” Kowalsky said. “Even when he’s got a guy right on his back, he doesn’t go any faster than he has to to get to that puck, but he finds a way to come out of the corner with it and make a play. You’ve got to be careful with that, too. I think part of his development — he’s going to realize, even though he can make those plays, you don’t have to put yourself in those situations to get hit if you don’t want to. In this league, you might get guys straying from the system and you’ve got two guys on you when you think you’ve only got one, and that’s where we ran into some problems with [Adam] Larsson like that, where he was hanging onto it a little long. The guy pressuring you doesn’t cause the problem, it’s the second guy who’s straying from the system that pops you.”
The couple of forwards who are out have opened up a lineup slot for centerman Kelly Zajac, who missed training camp with a nagging lower-body injury. He played Wednesday in a 4-1 win over Utica and set up linemate Chris McKelvie’s goal for a 3-0 lead.
“It feels good [to be back],” he said. “It’s been a long summer, and it’s been a long preseason with some injuries and whatnot with the body, but it’s good to be in the lineup, be back with the boys and getting the win.”
He has been skating with McKelvie and Cam Janssen, and he said he feels like he is operating at 100 percent.
“I feel great. I’ve put in a lot of work, a lot of therapy this summer, time spent on the body,” he said. “And my mind is in the right place; I don’t have to worry about anything right now. I can just go out and play my game.”
For more on Kelly Zajac, pick up today’s edition of The Daily Gazette and turn to page C4.
The most successful line for the Devils has been that of rookie Reid Boucher, new-comer Scott Timmins and the team’s two-time leading point scorer Joe Whitney.
Whitney is again leading the team in scoring with five goals and four assists, and he sports a plus-six rating. He has two power-play goals and three power-play assists. Timmins has three goals, five assists and a plus-five. He has two PP goals and two PP assists. Boucher has a goal and four assists with a plus-three and three PP assists. They have scored nine of the team’s 17 goals through the first six games.
Timmins has a point in every one of those games. Whitney has a point in all but one. Whitney is taking that even-keel approach to his early success, though, the approach he surely has heard coaches and veterans preaching for years and years.
“It’s only six games in, it’s nothing to get too excited about,” he said. “I remember a couple years ago, Matt Anderson told me . . . My first year, I was struggling at the beginning. Coming from the college season where you only play 30 games, so every game is really important. But he told me, ‘There’s 72 games left, so don’t get too bent out of shape. There’s plenty of time to pick it up.’ But yeah, we’re off to a good start, and we’re just going to try to keep it going and bring it every night.”
Last year, Whitney picked up his play late in the year and became a player other teams had to be aware of every night. This season, he’s wasted no time getting to that level, picking up where he left off.
“At the end of last year, I started playing well and built some confidence in myself,” he said. “I carried that over in the summer and worked hard, tried to keep that confidence up. It’s always tough at the beginning of the year to feel things out again, get hit again in training camp, play games at a high level. I’m kind of just feeling my way now, and hopefully I’ll catch stride and just keep moving forward as the season goes. Now it’s game after game after game, and when we get into the thick of the season here, you get in a rhythm and you’re playing a lot of nights. But the team’s playing well and a lot of guys are contributing. We’re just trying to keep it going.”
Although Darcy Zajac, Sislo and Gelinas are good contributors for the Devils, Whitney has no doubts the players stepping into the lineup will provide anything less than their best.
“Any lineup the coaching staff puts on the ice, everyone’s prepared and ready to go,” he said. “We have a good group in there, a lot of unselfish guys, and a lot of guys contributing, whether it’s blocking a shot or chipping a puck out or winning a big draw late in a game. All those things add up, and we need it from everyone to continue winning games.”