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NEWARK, N.J. – The Nico Hischier era in New Jersey began Saturday with a game in which the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft had only the third-most notable debut among Devils rookies in a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.
Jesper Bratt, the Devils’ sixth-round pick in 2016, had a goal and an assist, while Will Butcher, a free-agent signee out of the University of Denver, tallied three assists. That’s not to say it wasn’t a memorable day for Hischier, as the 18-year-old from Switzerland was plenty impressive as he registered six shots on goal in 15:44 of ice time.
“He’s well aware of expectations,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “He has an innate ability to be able to concentrate on what matters most, which is his preparation for his performance, and I think he really focuses. One of the things it really seems like with him is he’s focused on the team more than himself. It seems like that deflects some of the pressure that feels like could be put on him from outside the locker room.”
Hischier came over the boards for his first action 38 seconds into the game, and Devils fans showered him with chants of “Nico! Nico!” The shift lasted 25 seconds until there was a stoppage, and was uneventful, but with it, Hischier was officially an NHL player.
“I was too much focused, so I didn’t hear that,” Hischier said. “It’s exciting, and I’m really happy to play this game here, in front of these fans. … It was really special, and the fans made it special. It was just a great game, and I’m really happy that we got the win.”
Hischier looked dangerous on the Devils’ second power play of the game, setting up along the half-boards on the right side. On one play, he got the puck as it popped free from a corner scrum, zagged his way toward the net for his first bona fide scoring chance, and forced Jonathan Bernier to make a close-range save. He then scooped up the loose puck and retained possession on the other side.
Later in the shift, Hischier spotted Drew Stafford open in the slot and fired a laser pass at the veteran winger, just missing the connection as the puck skittered through after a deflection. He was dangerous on the power play all day with the extra space afforded, and so were the Devils as a team, as they went 3-for-4 with the man advantage.
“I think I had some chances to score my first goal,” Hischier said. “But what’s even more important is, we got the win, and that’s what makes me happy.”
When Erik Johnson put a knee-to-knee hit on Kyle Palmieri with 2:16 left in the second period, earning a two-minute penalty and forcing Palmieri to the locker room with an injury, it was Hischier who was first on the scene to confront the Colorado defenseman, who was coincidentally a No. 1 pick himself back in 2006.
At 6-1 and 175 pounds, Hischier is hardly the enforcer type, but he got a couple of shoves in before the cavalry arrived from both sides.
“That’s huge,” Devils center Adam Henrique said. “That’s something we’ve talked about, guys jumping in and stepping up for their guy when they’re unable to defend themselves. It was great to see him get over there and not shy away at all. Obviously, drafting him first overall, that’s not what everyone expected, but that’s awesome to see.”
With 14:45 left in the third period, Hischier came blazing into the offensive zone, took a cross-ice pass from Marcus Johansson, and fired a slap shot from the left circle that made the crowd gasp. Bernier, in the midst of an outstanding third-period performance that was highlighted by his Save of the Year candidate to rob Damon Severson, got enough of the shot to deflect it wide.
Hischier didn’t find the back of the net Saturday, but the goals are sure to come, and his ability to avoid even the appearance of nerves while launching 10 shot attempts proved the Devils knew what they were doing when they picked him first overall.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)