Before the Devils’ recent four-game trip to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Minnesota, winger Taylor Hall referred to it as ‘make or break’. Such an assertion seemed laughable to this fan and blogger with the Devils’ season already having gone up in smoke after a winless three-game homestand capped off a 4-11-2 stretch that buried the team in last place of the entire Eastern Conference. Particularly with the Devils’ road woes on the season with just six wins in twenty-three games, and our recent trips to Western Canada had all been nightmares. A funny thing happened on the way to the slaughterhouse though, as after the Devils suffered a laughable OT loss after a hideous line change in Edmonton, suddenly the team found something and ripped off a three-game winning streak to arguably put the team back on life support after last rites had been administered.
If you could have gotten odds on the Devils putting together a trip without a regulation loss and put money on it, you’d be a seriously rich man right about now. Especially this Devils team, which had been an embarassment for over a month in every way possible from effort to execution to coaching to goaltending. What might be more remarkable is suddenly the playoff pipedream can be indulged again with New Jersey a mere three points out of the last wild card spot thanks to a freefalling Flyers team and a mediocre Metro. After careening into the basement the Devils shockingly got back over NHL .500 last night with a wild 4-3 win over a Minnesota team that had been dominant at home all season. Granted in this NHL where everyone this side of Arizona and Colorado is either over, at or just under .500, being one game over is not all that impressive. What does give every fan some hope is the home-heavy schedule remaining…twelve of the next sixteen games at home and only one more road trip that’s as much as three games long the rest of the season.
Granted this team hasn’t exactly been stellar at home lately either, which is part of the reason why I’m not invoking the ‘I thought I was out but they pulled me back in’ Godfather line just yet. They’ve still been outscored 18-4 their last four home games that I’ve attended, it’s going to take a little more for me to believe again. And obviously there’s a lot more work for the team to do to dig itself out of the hole it’s created the last several weeks. Unfortunately I won’t be going to the home return Friday against the Habs either, due to a scheduling conflict. Hopefully the team will get a hero’s welcome home and at least start off on the right foot with the fans, many of whom seemed to finally be at the end of their patience by the end of our embarassing homestand a week and a half ago.
Things got so bad that I literally no-showed for a game for the first time ever several days back. When I say no-show, I don’t mean I was mildly sick or a bad weather forecast kept me home, I mean I just flat had no interest in going to a Monday night home game against the Panthers with the team showing no heart (and more importantly none of my other friends were going to be there either, so I would have been sitting myself watching that mess which turned out to be another desultory 3-0 loss). I would have liked to have given the team a shot at redemption Friday but made plans with a friend for dinner before either of us realized there was a game on Friday. I suppose that’s part of the apathy that set in at that point, normally I’m pretty up on when a game’s being played.
So what’s changed? Granted I’ve watched only on and off due to general apathy, late gametimes and a stomach bug that ruined my weekend (and lost me a few pounds) but the number one thing that seems to have changed have been some of the more recent additions to the team. Defensively things had to change, but with John Moore and captain Andy Greene on the shelf I didn’t think they’d wind up changing for the better. Fortunately their absence has given an opportunity to rookie Steven Santini, more minutes for Jon Merrill and even a shot for AHL lifer Karl Stollery. Santini’s brought a physical edge lacking on the blueline since the offseason trade of Adam Larsson, while Stollery’s come out of obscurity to give the team solid third-pairing and power play minutes. Merrill has been perhaps the most important revelation though, while I expected Santini to do well eventually I had been through expecting anything of Merrill, who’d been an injury-plagued bust since a decent rookie campaign three years ago. However he’s finally blossoming into a solid top four d-man who’s playing 20+ minutes a night and even contributing offensively to an extent.
Up front there’ve been fewer changes but Blake Coleman has added a spark from Albany since being recalled to take the injured Vernon Fiddler‘s spot in the lineup. More importantly, some of our key players are starting to come alive again, like Kyle Palmieri, whose snipe in the third period last night against Devan Dubnyk gave him his tenth goal of the season and answered what seemed to be a back-breaking Wild goal to tie the game again. Hall himself roared to life in Western Canada, scoring back-to-back game-winning goals in Calgary and Vancouver, both in tense 2-1 wins. While I’ve been down on coach John Hynes this season, he made a gutsy decision benching Hall after a second-period turnover last night put the Devils down by two in Minnesota. Hall returned in the third period and responded, assisting on an Adam Henrique goal that tied the game at two. Also coming alive is Cory Schneider, who aside from a horrid goal early in Edmonton has largely returned to form of the previous few seasons in the last couple weeks. Even understudy Keith Kinkaid once again pitched in with a strong effort at Calgary.
In a way it’s fitting the team returns home to face Montreal on Friday, for it was against the Habs that the team’s season first went up in smoke in a 5-2 loss where goalie Carey Price and teammate Jeff Petry combined to gang-bang Palmieri in the crease in early December, and there was little response from the team or the league which should have suspended Price for using his blocker as a weapon and should have suspended Petry for being a third man in. That game started our 0-6-1 death spiral where they were outscored 30-9 in those seven games. It would be nice if this Devils team showed its revival out West wasn’t completely illusory and stood up to the Habs in front of what’ll surely be a rabid (if split) crowd.