It took 31 NHL games, but he realized that dream Friday night by scoring with 2:26 remaining in overtime to give the Devils a 2-1 victory against the Edmonton Oilers at Prudential Center.
"You always dream about that kind of stuff when you're a little kid but I think after 20 games that had gone by," Merrill said. "When I hadn't scored, those dreams kind of went away a little bit. To get that first one feels really good. It's a huge win for the team and that's most important."
Merrill took a pass from Michael Ryder in the left circle and blasted a shot that beat goalie Ilya Bryzgalov on the long side. Ryder had barely missed breaking a 1-1 tie midway through the third period when his wrist shot beat Bryzgalov (22 saves) but hit the crossbar.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer felt Merrill, the game's first star, was one of his team's better defenders against the Oilers. He earned 20:49 of ice time and scored on his only shot of the game to become the first player in team history to score his first career goal in overtime.
"We rewarded him for the game he played; he might have been our best defenseman through 60 minutes," DeBoer said. "He was rewarded for his play out there. When you talk to the people in Albany, they rave about him on the power play; he's got some offensive instincts. He's got that ability."
DeBoer defended Merrill when asked if his young defenseman prefers to play a "safe" game.
"He's here because he's playing smart and he's picking his spots; he's not playing it safe," he said. "He's a smart defenseman that is picking his spots when to move the puck and join the rush. That's what being an NHL defenseman is; it's not all about going end to end."
Devils goalie Cory Schneider made 19 saves and was sharp in his fifth straight start. He turned aside all eight shots he faced in the third period when Edmonton had some sustained pressure. DeBoer said that Schneider (11-10-9), who is 6-2-4 with a 1.47 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in his past 14 games, would against start Saturday against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.
"Cory was great again; he made big saves at key times for us," forward Adam Henrique said. "In the last few games, you feel for him because he played great but you gave up a goal late and that certainly wasn't his fault. He stands on his head and did it again."
New Jersey has played in four consecutive games decided in overtime for the first time in franchise history; the Devils beat the Dallas Stars before losing to the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche prior to beating the Oilers. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to have four straight games decided in OT was the Atlanta Thrashers from March 5-12, 2011.
The Devils (24-21-13) begin the Olympic break following their game with the Capitals on Saturday. The Oilers (20-33-7), who went 2-1-1 on a four-game Eastern Conference road swing, had their two-game winning streak snapped. They are off until they begin a five-game homestand by hosting the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 27.
In an effort to generate more offense, DeBoer had Andrei Loktionov centering Dainius Zubrus and Jaromir Jagr to open the game. Jagr's usual center, Travis Zajac, was between Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner. The Devils entered the game 26th in the NHL with a 2.33 goals per game average, but had averaged just 1.83 goals in their past six games.
Loktionov, who earned just one shift in the third period, rewarded his coach when he scored his fourth of the season 11:01 into the game to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead. The advantage lasted all of 29 seconds before Edmonton's leading scorer, Taylor Hall, finished off a nice passing play to get the Oilers even.
Bryzgalov was kept busy for much of the second period, turning aside 10 shots. His best save came off the stick of Ryane Clowe, who broke in 1-one-1 down the slot and drove a shot that Bryzgalov got with his right pad at 14:41. Less than a minute later, he denied Dainius Zubrus from 14 feet with another chest save.
The Oilers came to Newark after a 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers on Thursday, and coach Dallas Eakins was pleased with what he saw from his team in the second half of a back-to-back.
"For playing a game the night before, I thought we played well and were patient," Eakins said. "We responded right away after they scored and didn't throw caution to the wind or get upset. I'm encouraged by our play the last couple of games."
"We're more happy with our style of play of late," he said. "We're winning more battles than we were earlier in the year. We'll win a lot more games than lose playing that way."
The teams exchanged goals in the first period when the Devils held an 8-5 advantage in shots.
Loktionov scored his first goal in 16 games by beating Bryzgalov with a quick wrist shot from right circle after taking a cross-ice feed from Bryce Salvador. Jagr had the second assist, the 1,039th of his NHL career. He is one behind Marcel Dionne for ninth on the all-time list.
"It was a grind," DeBoer said of the victory. "For being off [three straight days], we weren't very sharp. The [Oilers] have speed and can make you look bad. I thought Cory [Schneider] was excellent."
The Oilers tied it when Hall fired home a wrist shot from the left circle after collecting a feed from Nail Yakupov. Schneider was unable to get his right pad across in time to prevent 20th of the season.
Schneider made a big save 50 seconds into the game when he got his left pad down to stop defenseman Justin Schultz, who had slipped back door and collected a pass at the right post. Sam Gagner hit the left post 2 1/2 minutes later. Schneider also robbed Andrew Ference on an uncontested one-timer from the slot midway through the period.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL