Many times in hockey all of us (fans) will complain about coaching decisions and perhaps at times give coaches too much credit/blame on such things as – who plays, who sits, who’s on what line, does the system fit the players, are the players giving effort? – but in the end it’s near impossible to discern the impact most of a coach’s individual moves have on the team. Ultimately all NHL coaches are judged on overall results but by the same token it’s very, very rare where you can clearly pinpoint one move in one game and say that coach won – or lost – his team the game.
Yesterday was one of those rarities – John Hynes clearly won last night’s game for the Devils.
How? By forcing the team to show accountability after a horrible first period at Madison Square Garden, where goaltender Keith Kinkaid was the only reason the Devils were still even in a game (let alone tied) they were outshot 14-2 in the first period and were putting out another dud effort after an underwhelming 5-2 home loss to the Caps last night I mercifully missed. Hynes sat three of the main culprits – forwards Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Hayes and Pavel Zacha – for two shifts to begin the second period, then when they returned to the ice almost immediately the Rangers had a quality scoring chance within about 10-15 seconds. After that, none were to be seen the rest of the game anywhere but the bench. For almost forty minutes the Devils played with just nine forwards, something almost unheard of at the NHL level. This wasn’t even out of the Jacques Lemaire/Pat Burns playbook, this was more like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers playing with four instead of five to make a point.
And I loved every minute of it. Would have loved it even if the team did not respond the way they eventually did because it’s more proof there’s going to be accountability this year, which was too often lacking last season and it showed in the team’s heartless play for much of 2016-17. However the effect was undeniable – the team did start to pick up its play almost immediately after the benchings. Finally behind 1-0 early in the second period, the Devils’ effort level turned around 180 degrees and their three lines attacked play the way they did early in the season. Even Chico Resch on the radio had observed that through the first three games the players were playing like a team but in the four periods since (Friday night’s game and the first period last night) they were playing more individually. That improved as well, as our nine-forward group played some of the best hockey of the season for about the next thirty minutes or so.
Each of the three lines eventually contributed on the scoresheet, with Adam Henrique tying the game midway through the second after the immortal Brian Gibbons continued his ‘where the (heck) did this come from?!’ offensive binge – first by making a good play to keep the puck in the zone, then finding an open Henrique through traffic. Gibbons and fellow fourth-liner Blake Coleman weren’t even supposed to be in the lineup this season, but injuries to Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle have given both a chance and they’ve responded with surprisingly effective play. Another bottom sixer promoted after the mass benchings last night was Miles Wood, and he scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period tipping in a shot from plodder defenseman Ben Lovejoy of all people.
Now up 2-1 you wondered whether Hynes would let the three forwards out of doghouse to start the third, but once it was obvious they were done for the night, I was just hoping we could put the game away before our nine forwards started to tire. Drew Stafford gave the team much-needed breathing room early in the third period, dekeing out Ondrej Pavelec to score after a brilliant feed from Will Butcher and giving the Devils a 3-1 lead. Another game, another power play point and two assists total for Butcher, who now has an incredible eight through five games as a rookie. Ultimately the effect of playing nine forwards did start to show late as the Rangers continued to press but somehow the Devils kept them off the scoresheet until the final minute, avoiding disaster earlier when three or four of the penalty killers were stuck on the ice through most of a Ranger power play and for about thirty seconds after an icing, thanks to the NHL’s new mandate you’re not allowed to use a timeout after an icing.
In the end it proved to be the best of both worlds for the Devils last night – big comeback win against a rival, and a lesson learned in searing fashion.