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Devils face Capitals in home opener

If the New Jersey Devils wish to again consider themselves a serious playoff contender this season, there is no better test early on than to skate against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

That is precisely what the Devils (1-0-0) will do Thursday night when they play their home opener at Prudential Center against the Washington Capitals (2-0-1).

The Devils earned their first playoff berth in six seasons a year ago, finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference, before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. They started 2018-19 on the right foot last Saturday, skating to a 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers as part of the NHL's Global Series in Gothenburg, Sweden.

"I think we grew as a team, really got that brotherhood together, going all over Europe, it really brought everyone closer together," Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid said of the team's week-long trip to Switzerland and Sweden. "And I think it showed out there. All the hard work really added up."

Veteran forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac both scored twice in the win, while Miles Wood added a pair of assists and Kinkaid stopped 17 of 19 shots.

Now, after some long travel home, one practice and a couple days off, the Devils host a division rival that won hockey's ultimate prize last spring.

"You have your home opener, against the defending Stanley Cup champs, so we're expecting our guys to be ready to go, our fans and building to be excited," said Devils coach John Hynes.

Kinkaid, who won a career-high 26 games last season while filling in for injured No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider, will start against the Capitals. Schneider remains sidelined following offseason hip surgery and is getting closer to a return to action.

With Washington playing on back-to-back nights, 26-year-old backup Pheonix Copley will make his Capitals debut between the pipes Thursday. It will be only his second career NHL game -- and third appearance overall.

In his only other NHL start, Copley allowed five goals on 29 shots for the St. Louis Blues in a loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 21, 2017. Last year with Hershey in the AHL, Copley was 15-17-6 with a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage.

"My mindset is to get better every game, give the team a chance to win every time they give me an opportunity to play," Copley told the team's web site.

The Capitals are coming off a 5-2 home-ice victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in a Stanley Cup rematch Wednesday night. Washington already has 18 goals through the season's first three games.

Alex Ovechkin scored a pair against the Golden Knights, giving him four goals on the season. His 611 career goals move Ovechkin past Bobby Hull for 17th place on the NHL's all-time list.

Ovechkin's teammate T.J. Oshie also netted his fourth goal; and both players have scored goals in all three games, so far.

The No. 1 Caps star on Wednesday, though, was Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had four points with a goal and three assists.

"He's my favorite player to watch play in the NHL," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom told NBCSN. "He's just dancing out there."

The Devils beat the Capitals only once at the Prudential Center the past four seasons; and last year Washington won three of four games overall with New Jersey's only win being an overtime victory on home ice.