If you could only use one word to describe this Devils season so far, you’d have to go with thrilling. Not only is the team incredibly entertaining to watch, but seemingly every game (and certainly every win) comes down to the wire. This week alone in four games, the Devils have had two overtime wins, one shootout of doom loss and another tight one-goal win against Vancouver on Friday. In a macro sense you could say this week has been a good microcosm of the Devils’ shocking 14-5-4 start. You could even go more micro and say one play this week perfectly encapsulated all of the characteristics of this Devils team in a nutshell – spoiler alert, see YouTube clip.
Playing Vancouver at the Rock on Friday night, despite the fact the Nucks have had their own surprising start, I was still fairly confident the Devils were not losing on Hockey Fights Cancer night. Not with Brian Boyle and his family participating in the opening puck drop, getting the first of what would prove to be multiple standing ovations of the evening, in large part acknowledging his own brave fight against leukemia. After the two teams traded goals early in the second came a dazzling sequence of skill started by Nico Hischier, who drew a power play with a ridiculous fake out of whatever hapless Nuck defenseman was playing him. On said power play, Will Butcher made an even more astonishing move through the Vancouver defense and around Ben Hutton to gain a step, afterward finding an open Boyle in front with a sharp pass and Boyle did the rest – putting it home for the lead goal in a script that had to have been written by Hollywood.
Okay it wasn’t written by Hollywood, but it might as well have been. And that goal was also a perfect microcosm of everything that has defined this Devils season – the youth and skill of Butcher, the determination and heart of Boyle. Really the whole second period was an exhibition of the speed and skill GM Ray Shero’s brought to the club, led (and that is the right word) by Taylor Hall, who had a goal and two assists in the middle frame, helping the Devils out to a 3-1 lead and continuing his own resurgence into being a top player again. Would this finally prove to be an easy, stress-free win?
Of course not since nothing’s ever easy with this Devils team, and the refs were as usual more than happy to try to screw us over, missing an obvious double minor high-sticking of Miles Wood during the third period (after missing an obvious boarding of Nico in the first period, and failing to wave off an icing that was touched by one of the Vancouver players in the second period just before their first goal). Predictably it was on a power play where Vancouver scored midway through the third period to cut the deficit to one, and after dictating play most of the night the Devils fell back into their usual chickens with heads cut off defense holding a multiple-goal lead in the third period – more on that later. At least this time the Devils didn’t blow the lead and have to go to OT, with Stefan Noesen of all people having a dominant final shift with two clears and a block to help seal it.
While Hall was the obvious player of the game and Cory Schneider again made some big saves against his former team, there was only gonna be one first star on this night and Boyle getting a third and final standing ovation of the night during the post-game interview on the ice was a fitting coda to the evening.
What could the Devils possibly do for an encore in Detroit last night? How about give up the opening goal, get out to a 3-1 lead in the third period (again with Hall having a multi-point night and Boyle getting a goal, this time a masterful tip-in to tie the game midway through the first period), blow that lead but rally again to win the game in OT? Just another day in Cardiac City. Although technically the game was in Detroit in one of the dopey little quirks of the NHL schedule where both teams played in the tri-state area on Friday then flew to Detroit Saturday. Would have made just a little more sense to have them play here and save the trip on the back-to-back for both teams, but this is the NHL after all.
As if mastering the art of the tease, the Devils for the second straight night had a 3-1 lead early in the third period and the game looked over. However to tweak an old Stan Fischler phrase, it’s actually a two-goal lead that’s become the worst in hockey for us this season, and literally almost within two minutes the Wings had tied the game off a sloppy turnover from Wood and eeeh goaltending from backup Keith Kinkaid. Noticing David Booth scored two of the goals for the Wings, I couldn’t help but think didn’t the Panthers used to have a good little player with a similar name? Turns out it was that David Booth after all, back in the NHL this season after two years away at age 33.
Going into OT I was hoping John Moore – or someone – would score for us, I wasn’t in the mood for another shootout after the skills competition of doom on Wednesday gave me PTSD flashbacks to 2014. Enter the amazing Brian Gibbons…again. Gibbons made a sweet recovery from losing the puck, intercepting it back and scoring after making a goalscorers’ move in front for his eleventh goal of the season to date. Bear in mind Gibbons had six goals in 66 NHL games before this season – and 16 all year in the AHL last season. Now he’s leading the NHL Devils in goalscoring in another astounding reclamation/breakout in the mold of guys like Lee Stempniak, David Schlemko and Bobby Farnham two years ago.
Coming out of a four games in six night stretch with the holiday day jammed in there, you would hope there’d be some rest for the weary but they’re back at it tomorrow night before finally getting some time off before a road back to back in Colorado and Arizona next weekend. All are winnable games where hopefully the Devils will continue to build on this momentum and bank more points before the schedule gets tougher later in the month. At least there’s some good news on the injury front with Marcus Johansson returning to practice but ultimately this month will be about keeping as much of their cushion intact as possible till the cavalry (Johansson and Kyle Palmieri) arrive.