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Brian Gibbons taking advantage of NHL opportunity with Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. — Two full seasons in the American Hockey League, after a taste of NHL life, would give some players a mentality that a regular spot in The Show may never come again. Not Brian Gibbons.

The New Jersey Devils forward wasn’t wondering when he’d get another NHL shot after 66 games over two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. He was thankful just for the opportunity.

“[I was] lucky to play the game still. It’s not the NHL, but it’s still a lot of fun,” Gibbons, 29, told PHT on Wednesday. “Great guys down there. It’s tough hockey, good hockey.”

The Devils are one of the early-season surprises atop the Metropolitan Division with a 11-4-2 record. It’s not just that they’re having success, they’re actually fun to watch again. The speedy Gibbons is one reason why.

The leading goal scorer for the Devils isn’t Taylor Hall or Adam Henrique or Kyle Palmieri or even last June’s No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier. Gibbons is the one currently holding that title with eight, which isn’t bad for someone whose last NHL goal before this season came on April 3, 2014.

What’s been the secret to his success? The answer is certainly not linemate Blake Coleman’s pickle juice, which Gibbons noted he stays “far away” from.

“I’ve just been trying to play the right way, really,” he said, “skate hard, work hard defensively. Obviously playing in the offensive zone as much as you can, try to get pucks behind their D and then once you’re in the O-zone try and make plays.”

Inconsistency plagued Gibbons earlier in his career, keeping him from earning a regular NHL job. His first professional coach is now his current coach — John Hynes. The two, along with Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, were in Wilkes-Barre together for parts of three seasons from 2011-2014. Gibbons moved on to the Columbus, splitting the 2014-15 season between the Blue Jackets and their affiliate in Springfield. The next year he was in Hartford, trying to impress the New York Rangers for a callup that never happened. When no contract offers came his way in the summer of 2016, he earned a spot with the Devils’ AHL team in Albany after a tryout and planted the seeds for an NHL return.

A 16-goal, 38-points campaign impressed Hynes and Devils general manager Ray Shero (who was GM in Pittsburgh when Gibbons was there) enough that he earned an invite to main camp this fall. He fit into his role on the team and won himself a job.

“He’s really bought in to what his identity is as a player. He’s fast, he’s tenacious, he’s very smart. He’s a very good penalty killer. He understands how he needs to play,” Hynes said on Wednesday. “The biggest difference was when he was in Wilkes-Barre there was lots of pockets like that and inconsistencies, but the consistency level and professionalism he has now is allowing his talent and skill set to come out. It’s nice to see a guy like that come in and earn a job, and so far he hasn’t given it up. You want those things on your team because it helps drive internal competition.”

Gibbons and Coleman had a head start on chemistry development at the NHL level after a year of playing together in Albany. The transition was seamless and each knows what to expect from the other. The trio’s success is a small snapshot of a bigger picture. The Devils are one of the league’s top teams through nearly 20 games because of balanced scoring (14 different players have recorded a goal) and Cory Schneider’s play (.935 even strength save percentage) in net. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but they’ve been able to get the job done.

“[We’re] finding different ways to win games, whether it’s getting a lead and playing with a lead or coming from behind or goalies stealing us a game or power play getting a couple goals late,” Gibbons said. “It just seems, for the most part, that when we’ve needed a big play we’ve gotten it and we’ve gotten it from different guys, which is key when you don’t have to rely on one player and can just do it as a group.”

We’ll see if Gibbons can keep up the productivity and finally establish himself as a regular NHL player. When he was down in the AHL he never viewed his time there as one big tryout, hoping to impress a GM to get called up. He was only concerned with what he could control and that was helping his team.

That perspective can be credited to age and maturity.

“I’m at a different stage in my life,” Gibbons said. “Me and my fiancee have a little one-year-old. It’s nice to be able to share it with them. She was with me when I was in Columbus but he wasn’t around. It’s nice for them to be able to share this with me and just enjoying each day.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Zucker tricks Habs; Lightning remain unstoppable

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Players of the Night: Devan Dubnyk and Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

The Wild pair were the main cogs in Minnesota’s 3-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens. Dubnyk did his job between the pipes stopping all 41 shots he faced for his 25th career shutout. Zucker, meanwhile, netted all three goals for his first career hat trick. Zucker has now scored the Wild’s last five goals.

Highlight of the Night:

Welcome back to the goal scoring column, Brian Boyle.

MISC:

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl once again teamed up to break another team’s spirits in overtime. Edmonton has now won back-to-back games for the first time this season.

Jaromir Jagr scored his first goal with the Calgary Flames and Johnny Gaudreau chipped in three points during a 6-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

Carter Hutton made 27 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped both Arizona shootout attempts during a 3-2 St. Louis Blues victory. Alex Pietrangelo scored his seventh goal of the season. The Blues have won 12 straight over the Coyotes.

• The Coyotes have not won in regulation in 18 games this season. Per the NHL, they’re one loss shy of tying the 1999 Calgary Flames’ dubious record.

• The Philadelphia Flyers got goals from Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier while Brian Elliott made 38 saves during a 3-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Giroux and Voracek each added a pair of assists.

• Chicago has not beaten the Flyers in the regular season in Philly in 14 meetings, dating back to Nov. 9, 1996.

Jakob Silfverberg scored twice 35 seconds apart early in the third period to power the Anaheim Ducks past the Vancouver Canucks 4-1. Rickard Rakell handed out three assists.

Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos scored in a span of 2:02 in the first period to power their way to a 5-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings. Kucherov and Stamkos combined for five points, with Kucherov potting his league-leading 16th goal of the season.

• Congrats to Oscar Fantenberg for scoring his first NHL goal.

• The Tampa power play is just unfair:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Edmonton 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)
Philadelphia 3, Chicago 1
Minnesota 3, Montreal 0
St. Louis 3, Arizona 2 (SO)
Calgary 6, Detroit 3
Anaheim 4, Vancouver 1
Tampa Bay 5, Los Angeles 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

Brian Boyle scores emotional first goal since cancer diagnosis (Video)

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The New Jersey Devils took a 1-0 lead over the Edmonton Oilers in the first period Thursday night, thanks to a goal from Brian Boyle.

As you can imagine, Boyle scoring his first goal since returning from a cancer diagnosis allowed him to unleash plenty of emotion during his celebration.

The goal was his first as a Devil and his first since Feb. 11 when he was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was announced in September that Boyle, 32, was diagnosed with Chronic myeloid leukemia. After going through treatment, the forward returned to the New Jersey lineup on Nov. 1. He registered his first point of the season, an assist, during Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis Blues.

“I’ve never cried after a goal before,” Boyle told MSG’s Deb Placey during the first intermission. “It’s a lot. It’s everything… These guys, my wife, my kids, they’ve been through a lot, too. My parents, my siblings, it’s a good feeling.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: McDavid leads Oilers; Rinne celebrates birthday with win

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Player of the Night: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers captain registered an assist in all three periods helping Edmonton to a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils. After starting the night tied for 30th in NHL scoring, he now sits tied for fifth. According to the NHL, McDavid has now recorded at least three points in a game 17 times since the 2015-16 season.

Highlight of the Night:

Taylor Hall came this close to scoring an own goal in his return to Edmonton:

MISC:

• During their Hockey Fights Cancer night, the Oilers invited Brian Boyle to take part in the ceremonial puck drop before their game:

• The Oilers won 44 of 66 face-offs.

Adam Larsson‘s stat line: 1 assist, 3 SOG, 13 hits, 6 blocked shots, 23:07 TOI.

• Before he almost scored in his own net, Hall tallied his first goal against his old team:

• Five different Nashville Predators scored as they held off the Anaheim Ducks during a 5-3 victory. Pekka Rinne made 35 stops and assisted on P.K. Subban‘s empty netter to help celebrate his 35th birthday.

Scott Hartnell, who scored Nashville’s opening goal, suited up for the 1,200th game of his NHL career.

John Gibson had no chance on this Roman Josi laser:

• Nifty primary assist here by Derek Grant:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Edmonton 6, New Jersey 3
Nashville 5, Anaheim 3

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Devils aim to ‘get some respect back’ around NHL

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VANCOUVER — Travis Green made an astute observation about the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday.

“They’re not the Devils of old,” said the Canucks coach, hours before his team faced the Devils at Rogers Arena.

For the past few years, the Devils have been mired at or near the bottom of the NHL in scoring, and the results have been a team out of the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference.

This season, however, the Devils are off to a good start in the East, leading the Metropolitan Division heading into Wednesday’s game in Vancouver. Not only have they been winning games, but New Jersey has been doing so with an offense that ranked third in the league with 3.80 goals-for per game, which is surely one of the bigger surprises to this point.

A transformation of the roster has helped.

It started with the acquisition of Taylor Hall in the summer of 2016 and continued with the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this spring, resulting in the first overall selection of Nico Hischier a few weeks later. They added Marcus Johansson, and Jesper Bratt — yes, 19 year old Jesper Bratt, a sixth round pick from 2016 — has enjoyed quite the beginning to his NHL career with 10 points in his first 10 games.

College free agent signing and defenseman Will Butcher was averaging just over a point per game through 10 appearances this season, with seven of his 11 assists coming from the power play.

The addition of youth to the lineup has paid off nicely. Early on against the Canucks, the Devils were aggressive, quick and confident with the puck before eventually holding on for a 2-0 victory. Cory Schneider was sensational in net making 37 saves for the shutout. The bad news, though, was that Johansson took a nasty fall into the end boards early in the first period, left the game and didn’t return due to an upper-body injury.

What Green’s comments may reflect is a change in the perception around the league for how the Devils play now and the challenge they are starting to pose.

“I don’t know if we’re trying to change the perception around the league,” said Devils coach John Hynes.

“I know we’re trying to play a certain way and we want to be an aggressive team. We want to be a team that can play with lots of pace. And I feel with the group of players we have, we’ve been able to do that. We feel within our team we have guys that are quick, they’re fast, they’re tenacious on the puck, they’re very competitive and those are things we want to have.

“And we’re scoring as a result of playing with those attributes.”

Hischier, 18, has made a seamless transition from the top pick into the NHL as a rookie. Bratt, on the other hand, was taken 162nd overall in 2016. He won’t turn 20 years old until July 30, 2018.

Fascinating tidbit about his ascension: There are still 16 players taken during the first round of that 2016 draft that still haven’t played their first NHL game, and yet Bratt is not only on the Devils roster but he’s among the team leaders in points.

Here’s a sample of his work:

“He’s got a high, high hockey intelligence,” said Hynes of Bratt. “He can think his way through the game.”

Then Hynes went through a more detailed checklist.

— Tenacious? Check.

— Fast? Check.

— Consistent? Check.

“The focus coming in for us was trying to get a team that was going to be hard to play against and get some respect back for ourselves, our team and organization,” said Hynes.

“We’re just proud of the fact that some of the younger guys on our team have come in and been very consistent. They’ve been able to play to the identity we want to play with, and good results have followed that process.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.