Banged-up Devils rebound with gritty week

I admit it, after the team sloughed their way through two horrible division losses against the Blue Jackets and the Rangers last weekend I was getting a bit concerned the Devils’ good start was going to get buried in the avalanche of a tougher schedule starting this month and reality was setting in.  While I was glad coach John Hynes deservedly called out the team after last Saturday’s dreadful 5-2 loss at the Garden, I was so annoyed after the back-to-back no-shows that I basically took Tuesday ‘off’ and didn’t attend or even watch the first two periods of the Kings game.

Just my luck it somehow turned out to be one of the best games of the season, against a hot Kings team that had won eight in a row with forwards Marcus Johansson (LBI after a shot block) and Kyle Palmieri (LBI) already on the shelf, the team’s hodgepodge group of fowards somehow rose up for a dominant 5-1 win.  Unfortunately Taylor Hall also joined the walking wounded after a borderline dirty knee-on-knee collision in the third period of that game and missed the next two games.  I could only watch part of Thursday’s game, but both from what I saw the team played well enough to win but…Carey Price.  That and a horrible mistake in OT when Sami Vatanen double-teamed a guy along the boards without taking away the pass, leaving Tomas Plekanec wide open in front for the game-winning goal.

Three points in two games was certainly a good start to the week but playing Dallas on a travel back-to-back with three top six forwards still on the shelf was always going to be tough.  Coach Hynes acknowledged as much, playing Cory Schneider on a back-to-back for the first time all season last night, something that was mildly contreversial when he did not do it last weekend with a no travel back-to-back.  Of course in the category of sometimes the coach knows more than the fans after all, Hynes disclosed Cory was dealing with a minor injury last weekend and that was a reason he didn’t play the back-to-back then.  Could be a cover story or could be plausible but either way Cory was in there last night and as things worked out it was a good thing he was, in what turned out to be one of the most contentious (and longest) games of the season – where the Devils were dominated for long stretches early but still managed to come out with a critical 5-2 win.

Not only did the team have to overcome adversity last night, but the fans had to overcome a mild yet ill-timed snowstorm which made for a really, really slow commute to the Rock.  How slow?  Even during rush hour on a normal Friday it takes me an hour tops to get from Morristown to the lot a few blocks away from the Prudential Center that I park at for $7.  Rush hour on the Friday right before the last pre-holiday weekend in the middle of a mini-storm?  Well, last night I left at 5:40…did not even park at the lot till 7:10.  An hour and a half all told as traffic was basically at a walking pace from the time I got onto the highway just outside of Chatham.  I was so annoyed by the time I got to Broad Street I somehow missed my turn to go to the lot despite the snail’s pace, and instead of wasting another 15 minutes trying to find the right road back I took a u-turn (likely illegal) at a busy intersection, sighed when I saw a cop car with lights blaring coming up beside me, then relieved when I saw it was going elsewhere.  Perhaps that near-miss was a harbinger that this commute would be worth it after all.

Getting to the arena late is pretty rare for me as it is, the only other time me I can remember getting there late was quasi-intentional late in a lost season a couple years back, where I wanted to make reservations at a restaurant and just check out the surrounding area for potential parking lots for a friend’s birthday dinner later that week.  I also cut it close for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals of all times, when I figured I’d take advantage of the late start and multi-task but wound up rushing in just in time for the intro to start – couldn’t have planned that timing any better if I tried!  Enough digressing though, onto the game/night recap itself.

Of course being late I missed the Devils’ first goal from Steven Santini, so it was already 1-0 by the time I walked into the building.  Figured I’d at least go to the bathroom while there was no foot traffic since I was already late anyway – which turned out to be a good decision, given how crowded the concourse was during the first intermission from people just getting in and people who rushed in during the period and didn’t have a chance to eat or go to the john yet.  Getting out of there I heard the groan and usual score when the opposition scores a goal so figured it was tied, and it was.  I finally got to my seat just in time for play to resume after the first stoppage of the period with the shots 5-2, but from the time Dallas scored they really dominated play till deep into the second period.  Despite the territorial advantage they didn’t score off a suddenly hot Cory and surprisingly, it was the Devils themselves that scored toward the end of the period when Blake Coleman scored the way he plays – a gritty, hustle goal in the paint to give the Devils a 2-1 lead.  He’s really shutting me up on the whole ‘yeah he’s a great grinder but is a net negative offensively’ line I’ve said about him for most of the season, as his offensive game is starting to improve as well.

In fact, the Devils could have easily had a 3-1 lead going into the locker room, but a beautiful feed from Drew Stafford and slick wrister from Pavel Zacha got nullified when a review showed Zacha’s shot only crossed the goal line milliseconds after the clock expired.  I was alternately pumped over the Coleman goal and shaking my head over the near-miss for poor Zacha (who’d also hit a post earlier in the period, the part I didn’t see till this morning when I decided to watch some of the replay), but at least he’s finally starting to play better now – ever since his turnover that led to a crucial goal against in the second period against the Rangers seemed to be rock bottom.  Unfortunately the Stars continued to dominate early in the second period and finally tied the game when Alexander Radulov turned on the turbo jets past Will Butcher and snuck a shot through Cory’s five-hole.

Soon after that, John Klingberg got called for cross-checking Brian Boyle – in what little did we know turned out to be a critical moment of the game – but I’ll elaborate in a moment.  That penalty combined with a Stephen Johns high-sticking double minor (which potentially knocked out some of Miles Wood’s teeth) led to nearly six straight minutes of power play time for the Devils.  However, the power kill looked on its way to an epic failure, being so impotent at just getting the puck into and keeping it into the offensive zone that the boos started raining down after the first two penalties expired.  It took nearly the entire six minutes for the Devils to FINALLY get a goal when Boyle knocked a rebound from a Zacha shot home, in front of Klingberg no less.  Boyle’s reaction after the play?  Let’s just say it went viral and according to lip-readers is….unsuitable for a family blog.  For now I’ll just post a link to said reaction:

Supposedly Boyle was mad at Klingberg suggesting Boyle embelished on his earlier penalty.  After Boyle’s ‘colorful’ trash-talk in return, a scrum ensued with matching minors and Boyle himself getting a ten-minute misconduct, something Boyle called himself out on after the game once the adrenaline wore off.

Gross could have also added it was universally loved by the fans too.  Even the ones like me who didn’t know what Boyle said till later on, just for the fight and fire it showed.  Boyle got a standing ovation when he left the box midway through the third period, to the tune of ‘How You Like Me Now’…if it was intentional, that was pure genius from the audio department.  From that point on, it became such a contentious game I thought I was watching a Flyers matchup with scrums after just about every whistle (though somehow no actual fight).  It would be Boyle who got the last laugh in the end, with two goals and an assist, finishing off the feisty 5-2 win with a late empty-netter.  In another inspired audio moment, Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye started playing during the final stoppage with just several seconds left.  Then there was one more stoppage after Antoine Roussel started one final sore loser scrum for good measure.

All in all a fun night, though obviously a long night between the travel and the game itself, which didn’t end till 9:50 – without an OT/SO.  At least the travel home was smooth – barely 35 minutes compared to my 90-minute ride up!  More uplifting from a team standpoint is the news potentially all the walking wounded could be back as soon as Monday, which will create some interesting lineup decisions.  Nick Lappin’s one-game callup will likely end to make room for the injured returnees but at least he goes back to Binghamton with a goal and a third star in his game, and solidified his status as one of the top AHL options in case of another injury.  Likely two of Jimmy Hayes, Stefan Noesen (who’s played fairly well recently) and Stafford (who played well last night) will also make way for the returnees.  Despite being at home it isn’t an easy rest of the homestand with the Ducks, Rangers and Blackhawks all on tap next week but the return of both injured players and the team’s early season resilience and fight are encouraging signs going forward.

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