Although the Devils and Rangers have already played twice at the Garden this season with a split, last night’s wild shootout win at the Rock felt more meaningful somehow. In fact, you could argue it was the biggest game the Devils have played since 2012. Hyperbole perhaps, but I’m still recovering from last night’s game emotionally – I might need the entire holiday to do so. As a fan, rivalry games feel that much bigger when it’s at home and you’re part of the action, albeit in an anciliary way. Even if the result was ultimately achieved in a skills competition last night, it was a just result after a game the Devils dominated from pillar to post other than the 3-on-3 OT and one fateful five-minute stretch in the first period that put us behind the eight-ball.
In a way it was fitting during a week that saw the return of Adam Henrique to the Rock with the Ducks earn a mid-game standing ovation and chants (and Henrique’s signature moment coming against the Rangers) that both games were ultimately decided by former players. On Monday against the Ducks, it was Stefan Noesen sticking the knife in his former team with the final two goals in a 5-3 win, after the team roared back from a late second period 3-1 deficit. Last night, it wasn’t just one but two former Rangers who put another stamp on this great rivalry. Starting with John Moore, who opened the scoring midway through the first period after an absolutely dominant first ten minutes by the Devils amidst a particularly jaw-dropping sequence that started with a Taylor Hall hit on Mats Zuccarello that gained possession in the offensive zone and ended with a sweet Nico Hischier feed to Moore, who made a well-timed pinch and beat Henrik Lundqvist up high to send the building rocking.
Yet, despite what would wind up being a 48-28 shot advantage (including an unreal 38-18 in the first two periods) it was a frustrating game for most of the night. After Moore’s goal, the Devils turned the off switch for a few minutes and gave up two quick goals – first on a netmouth scramble in front that seemingly lasted forever where Jimmy Vesey finally poked the puck underneath Cory Schnieder, then even more annoyingly just two minutes later Nick Holden scored off a weak rebound, not only giving the Rangers the lead but completing the shift in momentum. I’ve seen this game so many times and at that point I thought we were headed for a sure and frustrating loss.
From then on it was all Devils in terms of momentum for the rest of the first period and through the second but between Lundqvist goaltending, some hilariously poor finishing and a disallowed goal after a phantom penalty on Kyle Palmieri, the Devils still couldn’t make a dent in the scoreboard. Ironically enough, while the disallowed goal was maddening – in an odd way it even jacked up the fans that much more if that was possible. The sense of injustice was keyed up in the crowd to a boiling point where I couldn’t even hear what the ref had called on Palmieri, the booing was so loud it drowned out the ref with a mic on.
Yet it was just after this sequence where the Devils finally tied the game, showing the mental toughness that’s characterized our season – instead of crumbling with the back-to-back body blows of a disallowed goal and a penalty on top of it, the Devils bucked up and got that goal back shorthanded when Steven Santini sprung Blake Coleman (a.k.a. Madden junior) on a two-on-one and he beat Lundqvist to the same spot Moore did, up high glove side to tie the game. At that point I yelled something to the effect of ‘TAKE THAT ONE OFF THE BOARD REFS!’ with maybe a choice word or two thrown in. Of course with the way last night went there was still more adversity to come, as a Hall penalty canceled out a potentially roof-raising power play at the end of the period.
Instead of us taking the lead back it was the Rangers who took the lead early in the third period when Kevin Hayes banked in a puck off Damon Severson (who had a rough night with a -3), giving the Rangers back the lead again. I had that bad feeling back, especially knowing the Devils couldn’t possibly dominate the third the way they had the first two periods and there was some market correction coming in terms of play. Maybe so, but after a horrible first period where I was ranting to the sky on him, Schnieder straightened out the rest of the night keeping the team in the game with some key saves. Still it looked like it would be a frustrating end as the minutes sped off the clock early in the third period.
Earlier I referred to two former Rangers who put a stamp on the rivalry last night, welp after Moore’s first period goal, it was a now white hot Brian Boyle who scored the biggest of the night with just eight minutes left in the game on a power play. It wasn’t just that Boyle scored that pumped me up but HOW he scored – firing a turnaround backhand in the slot, ironically also beating Lundqvist high gloveside with a skill goal that if I didn’t know better I’d swear was from Mario Lemieux, not Brian Boyle.
After that goal, there was no escaping that this game was headed for extra time. Which indeed it was. Once play shifted to three-on-three the Rangers got the better of play during that five-minute period but a couple of big saves from Cory, a hustling backcheck from Moore and a shot from Hayes that just whistled wide ensured the skills competition, despite also having to kill off a power play for the final minute of OT. Not that I felt much better about our chances in the shootout. Though I did accurately predict to my friend the shootout lineup, albeit a slight variation on the order (Hall-Stafford-Palmieri) with one caveat, that I’d have been tempted to throw in Boyle because of how hot he’s been lately.
Maybe somewhere John Hynes heard me, because after Palmieri and Mika Zibanejad traded goals and the Devils made it to the sudden death rounds of the shootout, Boyle WAS the next shooter. And I ‘called it’…Boyle did beat Lundqvist, this time through the five-hole with a deceptively quick shot after lumbering up the ice at 33 RPM speed. If there was any hockey justice at all that would stand up as the winner, and indeed it was with one final irony I didn’t even notice at the time – Kevin Shattenkirk was the last shooter for the Rangers. He could easily have been a Devil this offseason but instead chose to sign with his boyhood team, and after a poor game overall he got stopped at the end of the shootout to seal yet another wild and wacky game for the Devils. Once again, Boyle was first star and once again got the postgame interview on the ice with Deb Placey, in what’s becoming deja vu.
Yes, the Devils have one more game before the holiday break. It’ll be a challenge for coach Hynes to get his team geared up to play the Blackhawks after what’s been a series of emotionally draining games, each one more than the last. Of course it helps the game will be at home but still when even fans like me are feeling like they won’t be able to get into the game on Saturday – and I’m kind of glad I’m taking a home game off anyway after attending three rousing wins in six days – the players and coaches need to be doubly on guard for it. That’s tomorrow’s problem though. At least the team can look forward to a healthy lineup (sans Mirco Mueller) for Christmas, assuming Jesper Bratt isn’t out long-term with a foot injury or nobody else gets hurt tomorrow.
Good health is just one of the many things to be thankful for as a Devil fan over the holidays.