TAMPA -- Nico Hischier didn't want the most exhilarating hockey experience of his first season as a member of the New Jersey Devils to come to an end.
He found it tough expressing exactly what his rookie season truly meant when he sat at his locker stall long after the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Devils with a 3-1 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Amalie Arena on Saturday.
He wanted more.
It's a moment that will probably be ingrained in his mind for at least a few more weeks, knowing his competitive verve and dedication. That's a good thing, because it's likely to drive the 19-year-old center to become an even better player now that he's survived the rigors of an 82-game regular season and gotten his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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"I hope I can do this for many more years," Hischier said. "We proved a lot of people wrong this year and that feels great but ... I have no feelings at this point. I'm just really disappointed, but I'm also so proud of my teammates and where we're at right now (as an organization)."
Hischier, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, impressed coach John Hynes with his work ethic and competitiveness, so much so that Hynes never wavered in putting the rookie center in key situations during big games.
"His ability to play both sides of the puck as one of the youngest players in the League is what surprised me most," Hynes said. "His instincts, how responsible he is with and without the puck. Yes, he's a very good dynamic offensive player, but to me when you see a guy that young has the instincts, commitment and dedication to play the way he does on the defensive side of the puck, it's pretty special."
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Hischier didn't make as much offensive impact as he would have liked during the series against the Lightning, finishing with one goal, six shots on goal and a minus-4 rating in five games. In the final game of his first NHL season, Hischier had three shot attempts blocked, two that missed the net, was credited with three hits, and went 9-for-16 on face-offs (56 percent) in 16:04 of ice time.
That came after he spent most of the regular season centering New Jersey's top line. Hischier finished in the top 10 among NHL rookies in goals (20), assists (32), points (52), and shots on goal (180) in the regular season. In a 5-4 win at the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 19, Hischier became the youngest player in franchise history (18 years, 288 days) to score a goal since defenseman Craig Wolanin in 1985 (18 years, 135 days). Eighth-year left wing Taylor Hall said Hischier played as big a part as anyone in helping him finish with NHL career highs in goals (39), assists (54) and points (93).
But Hischier knows there's still plenty of room for improvement.
"My first year is done now, but I'll never say I'm good enough," he said. "There are a lot of things I still can learn. I learned a lot of things already this year, and it wasn't just about hockey. As a person, you can't know everything, so if someone says he's perfect, it's not true."
His teammates were more than a little bit impressed.
"It was phenomenal what he did," Devils captain Andy Greene said. "You look at him as a player out there and he looked like a 24- or 25-year-old who had 500 games under his belt. He'll only get better and stronger and it's going to be fun to watch. Nico and the rest of our rookies (Will Butcher , Jesper Bratt, Blake Coleman) earned it. They were a huge part of our team and will be a huge part moving forward."
Hischier said he learned a lot from Hynes in his first season and is ready to take the next step toward what appears to be a promising future with the Devils.
"[Hynes] taught me a lot ... how to be a self-starter," Hischier said. "Those things you need to do when you have back-to-back games. There's no coach who can help you be ready the next day, so you've got to do for yourself those little details that get you ready to play your best game. Like I said, from the players to the coaching staff, this was a great year and I'm really proud of my first NHL season."
Hynes, who helped guide the Devils to their first playoff appearance since 2012, is most impressed by Hischier's passion for the game.
"We talk about guys being self-starters, meaning they love the game, enjoy practice, like the competition," Hynes said. "In Hischier's case, the season never became a grind because of how much passion he had for it. Hockey was and is the most important thing for Nico Hischier."
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