After a 2-8 stretch doomed the Devils to an almost certain postseason miss, the rest of the 2015-16 season became about two things…finding signs for future hope and finishing the present on a good note and feeling better about the team again, as opposed to last year when they finished with one win in their last eleven games and looked like a clown show in the home finale against the Rangers. This year’s team has done a bit better in the stretch drive to this point, winning five of their last seven including two out of three on a tough West Coast trip. Not that it’s made the playoff pipedream any more likely, as the Devils are still six points behind a surging Flyers team for the second wild card with one fewer game to play. Still there have been reasons to like what we’ve seen – or for the most part not seen in my case, between the West Coast games and Thursday night games that I haven’t been able to watch the last two weeks the only win I’ve seen was when me and friends were in attendance as the team finally ended the Columbus curse in Scott Wedgewood’s NHL debut.
Who?! That’s about the reaction I had when I started hearing the rumors that Wedgewood was going to make his NHL debut last Sunday against the Blue Jackets. My next question was…why not? After all the Devils had been 0-4 with a string of embarassing losses to the last-place Jackets this season, and since Keith Kinkaid had a couple of very good games at the start of the West Coast trip the goaltending has been for the most part noncompetitive this season without Cory Schneider. Kinkaid gave up six goals in a 7-1 loss at Anaheim, four goals in an unusually offensive 7-4 win against the Wild, then he and Yann Danis combined to give up six goals in their latest disaster against the Jackets, losing 6-3 in Columbus last Saturday. Given the fact Wedgewood’s been good for Albany (when healthy) and other than the WC trip Kinkaid for the most part has not been good, I was all for management’s decision to give him his first NHL start last Sunday. Not that I had any right to expect anything from the 23-year old 2010 3rd-round pick who hadn’t even put up good numbers in the AHL before this season, but I was at least hopeful we’d get better goaltending than we’d gotten in the last week.
Not only did Wedgewood beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 with a strong 28-save performance to finally give the Devils their first victory in five games against a terrible Columbus team, but he went one better last night with a 39-save shutout in Pittsburgh last night as the Devils won 3-0. While Wedgewood evokes images of Sean Burke circa 1988, the last two games also showed other reasons why the team and its fans can actually feel hopeful. Less than five minutes into the Sunday game, Kyle Palmeri’s takeaway led to Reid Boucher firing home a snipe from the left side for the Devils’ first goal of the game and the winger’s seventh of the season. If New Jersey’s scoring is going to improve from dead last next year, Boucher will be one of the reasons why. Though he only has seven goals and seventeen points in thirty-two games, he has been playing on the third line most of his time here, which makes it fairly respectable production in his first real look in a scoring role at the NHL level (I’m not really counting the thirty-four games he senselessly played on the fourth line the last two seasons).
Another reason why the scoring should improve next year is trade deadline relevation Devante Smith-Pelly (pictured above). Initially dismissed by many as a fourth-line plug who’d had limited production in 195 NHL games before getting to the Devils, Smith-Pelly has shown that there may well be a lot more in the future for the 23-year old RW. While I was one of the few that remembered Smith-Pelly’s 2013-14 season where he showed flashes of being a breakout star (and had a big season in the AHL with 27 goals), even I didn’t expect seven goals and eleven points in ten games since arriving in New Jersey. Smith-Pelly’s joined the likes of defenseman David Schlemko and since-traded Lee Stempniak as excellent bargain bin acquisitions – and yes former first-rounder Stefan Matteau qualified as a bargain bin price for Smith-Pelly, even given Matteau’s age it seemed obvious he wasn’t in new management’s plans and with reason given the former first-rounder’s lack of production at any level of hockey. Smith-Pelly on the other hand could well be part of the solution going forward, especially with the fact he’s only 23 and playing a position of need. Not only has he been scoring goals, but they’ve all seemingly been big goals including his game-winner on Sunday against the Blue Jackets in the third period after the Devils had been mostly outplayed in the first two and fortunate Wedgewood played well enough to keep them in the game. Along with scoring a tie-breaking goal in the last minute of regulation at Nashville – his first game with the team, breaking a scoreless tie in a shutout win at San Jose and scoring two goals in the team’s biggest goal-scoring barrage of the season against the Wild last week, Smith-Pelly’s impact has been felt while playing 15+ minutes on a scoring line consistently for the first time in his career.
Although it’s been discussed before, another guy you could put in the bargain bin acquisition category is leading scorer Kyle Palmieri, acquired for a second and a third-round pick from Anaheim. At the time of the trade, Ducks GM Bob Murray essentially said he dealt Palmieri because he feared he’d score twenty goals and thus the team wouldn’t be able to afford him under the salary cap. While that may have been true in Anaheim, Palmieri’s developed even to another level here approaching thirty goals on the season also being in a top six role for the first time after escaping a stacked Ducks lineup. A Jersey native, Palmeiri’s fast become one of the fans’ favorites and with good reason, scoring two more goals last night to push his team-leading total to 29 for the season. With eight games to go, it’s certainly possible for Palmieri to break the 30 barrier, and he’s certainly shown that his breakout is no fluke putting up a team-leading 52 points. As an added bonus, Palmieri’s been one of the few Devils to play all 74 games thus far, with defensive stalwarts Andy Greene and Adam Larsson as well as fourth-liner Stephen Gionta being the only other 2015-16 ironmen to play every game. In the case of Greene and Larsson it’s been doubly impressive, given they both average 22+ minutes of tough icetime defensively every night.
With eight games to go in the season the main things to watch are continued improvement from the young players – including what’s now become a backup goalie competition for next year between Kinkaid and Wedgewood (both are waiver-eligible next year), and ideally ending this season on a note that at least offers hope for next year. I’ll of course be at tonight’s game against the Caps, in a suite with ice cream and desserts with my friend. Now I’m kind of glad that I left my season ticket rewards for this point in the season – I have access to another suite, catered with food for Fan Appreciation night on my birthday – since in a lost season it still gives you reason to look forward to going. Tonight and Fan Appreciation night might be the only two games left I go to this season in fact although I could change my mind and go to one of the other Tuesday games. Maybe I should be more wistful over the end of hockey season but I’m getting used to meaningless March games, not to mention I’m looking forward to baseball this year which is a rarity.