New Jersey Devils or Vegas Golden Knights: Which surprise unbeaten team is for real?
New Jersey has the long-term promise; Vegas is nothing like an expansion pushover
Three games is obviously a small sample size in an 82-game season, so it's important not to get too carried away with the hype of these hot starts. But they're still hot starts, especially considering the teams enjoying them.
Are either of the two unbeaten clubs actually for real, though? Let's do a quick dissection:
New Jersey Devils
If you're looking purely at numbers, there's not a lot to nitpick about the Devils. Their plus-10 goal differential, aided by those two straight six-goal outings, is second best in the league -- barely behind only the Chicago Blackhawks, who, we'll remind you, had 10 goals in one game. Corey Schneider and the blue line, which generally garnered so-so marks after an offseason swing-and-miss for Kevin Shattenkirk, kept the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs in check and limited a surprisingly high-scoring Colorado Avalanche bunch to one goal in the opener. Rookie Nico Hischier and the offense, meanwhile, have clicked like nothing else, using youth to put up strong performances on power plays and 5-on-5 action.
New Jersey was bound for a step forward in 2017-18 and, at the very least, a show of long-term promise with Hischier in the fold alongside Taylor Hall. But Hischier and Co. aren't waiting around to deliver, and Hall hasn't even found his goal-scoring stride yet. So it's reasonable to assume the Devils will remain competitive as long as their young guns keep giving Schneider some cushion. In the big picture, even with Travis Zajac on the mend, they're going to be hard pressed to maintain their offensive efficiency, and they might very well lose their undefeated status as early as Friday. In the bigger picture, though, if Devils fans aren't anything but stoked at the promise within New Jersey's restocked core, they had better check their eyesight.
Are they for real? If "for real" means they have the pieces to build upon and the look of a core that could be serious about the playoffs in a year's time, then yes. Absolutely yes.
Vegas Golden Knights
They don't have the double-digit scoring marks of the Devils (yet), but for a team that had absolutely no regular-season experience together before the NHL's opening week, the Golden Knights haven't looked like an expansion franchise. It's debatable how impressive their back-to-back wins over the Arizona Coyotes will look down the road, but as a brand new team, Vegas isn't exactly supposed to beat anyone. Marc-Andre Fleury says otherwise. The longtime Pittsburgh Penguins goalie has been rock solid in the net, where the Golden Knights surrendered just four goals in their first three games and held the loaded Dallas Stars to a single score. Ex-Penguins and Nashville Predators winger James Neal has also been on fire with five goals to his name.
The general consensus regarding Vegas was that Fleury would give the Knights a chance on defense, which would, in turn, make them a little more competitive than most expansion teams, albeit still among the league's last-place finishers. And, truth be told, the blue-liners that are manning space in front of Fleury aren't exactly preventing a ton of opposing shots, so even "Flower" could find himself in regression sooner rather than later. There's also the fact that Neal probably won't keep up his torrid pace. Still, Vegas touts some other offensive potential (see: Jonathan Marchessault) and looks every bit like the gritty competitor its city was hoping to get. In a division where they'll have plenty of shots against lower-tier clubs like the Coyotes, they don't seem like a group that's going to be beaten down anytime soon.
Are they for real? If "for real" means a legitimate playoff contender in a powerful Pacific Division, then probably not. (Yet.) But if "for real" means they're the furthest thing from an expansion pushover with the potential to keep a good clump of teams below them in the final standings, then they are the realest in the business.
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