Not-so-coincidentally before last night, the Devils’ last win over the Chicago Blackhawks was during the 2011-12 season, which was also the last season the Devils made the playoffs. Few expected that to change last night despite an uneven start for the champs and improved play by coach John Hynes’s Devils. Admittedly I was as cynical as anyone that the Devils could keep up their late October play once the schedule got tougher, since I was expecting a loss I was sort of glad a friend wanted to buy my tickets off me last night (even if it was to take one of her friends who was a Hawks fan). Still suffering from sports hangover after a brutal last Sunday with my Mets and Jets I wasn’t even sure I was going to watch the game last night.
Thankfully I did turn it on, though I was barely paying attention at first when strange things began to happen, starting with a great individual effort from Lee Stempniak stealing the puck from Hawks defenseman Nicklas Hjalmarsson and beating goaltender Corey Crawford down low 3:48 into the game (highlight above) for the first of what would be a series of early Devils goals. Most of the highlights of the first period came in the final two and a half minutes of the period though. Kyle Palmeri scored his fourth goal as a Devil at 17:48 when he fired a one-timer into the net off a Travis Zajac faceoff win. Moments later, sensing an off night for his team Hawks captain Johnathan Toews got into a scrap with Adam Henrique. Though Toews won the fight on points, it was the Devils who landed the next blow that counted – on the scorebard. Just twenty-six seconds after Palmeri scored and moments after the fight, the Devils got their third tally of the period when Zajac followed up a rebound from his own shot beating Crawford for his sixth(!) goal of the season with assists from Stempniak and Damon Severson. After a 27-point campaign last year, Zajac seems determined to up his game although his first-period goal was the first he’d scored at even strength this season, with four coming on the power play and one shorthanded.
Even the obligatory first intermission goalie change from Crawford to Scott Darling didn’t change the momentum last night, as Mike Cammalleri scored the Devils’ fourth goal at 7:28 of the second period after a pretty feed from Severson. Palmeri also got an assist, completing a balanced night where four Devils had multiple points and he could well have had another goal later in the period when Sergey Kalinin drove to the net, was stopped on his initial shot but Palmeri put in the rebound – except that the refs waved off the goal due to incidential contact after Kalinin was pushed into Darling by defenseman Trevor Daley. Of course the refs didn’t reverse their own judgement call when Hynes used his first challenge of the season, losing his timeout when he lost the challenge but it was certainly a worthwhile gamble since 5-0 would really have ended the game as a contest, not to mention you’re sort of banking you won’t need a timeout at 4-0 anyway.
All night in the back of my mind I was waiting for the inevitable Hawks run but it never really came even though Patrick Kane got the champs on the board at 18:42 of the second and immediately the Hawks started buzzing, earning a power play that mostly carried over to the third. Fortunately some yeoman defensive work from the Devils in the third sealed the win, not only killing two conventional power plays but also having to deal with a full six and a half minutes of the Hawks playing 6-on-5 after coach Joel Quenneville pulled Darling for an extra skater three goals down. Though the Hawks prevented us from getting more than one serious chance at the empty net, and it seemed like maintained possession in our zone constantly during those final minutes they were only able to cash in once, when Tanner Kero scored off a rebound at 18:34. You could look at those final minutes one of two ways, either having only one offensive-zone shot at the empty net in six and a half minutes (which was blocked off by a defenseman) was bad or the fact they were mostly able to limit the dangerous chances during such a long period against a championship team was good. After outshooting the Hawks 21-15 in the first two periods the Devils got outshot 14-5 in the third period, little surprise given the nearly ten minutes with a man advantage the Hawks had, but the Devils showed resolve and never really allowed drama to creep into the final moments.
Even off-ice news was good last night as the team announced its first sellout of the year. I guess a Friday night game against the champs is a pretty good draw. Of course the most important thing for Devil fans isn’t neccesarily who they’re playing (though last night was certainly a positive in so many ways) but seeing the team continue to play well and actually being somewhat enjoyable to watch again, and it’s fun for the players as well:
“I think the coaching staff has created an atmosphere around here that, whether we win or lose, it’s all about coming to the rink to get better and enjoy the game,” Zajac said. “I think that’s been positive to have them create that kind of atmosphere. The players, coaches, everyone, wants to be around to have fun and work hard doing it.”
Although I’m sure coach Hynes was pleased at the win as well, he wasn’t losing sight of the big picture:
“It’s a good win and we liked the way we played, but we weren’t perfect,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “The two points are really important and the fact we won a hockey game is really important. We beat a very good team, but we have another game on Sunday too. It’s good to enjoy it and we want to take the good things that happened [Friday] and build on those, but we have to find a way to be better going into Sunday’s game (at home against the Vancouver Canucks).”