Just a week ago at the All-Star break things looked bleak for the Devils, with the team in a death spiral of losing combined with some key injuries, it seemed as if this season was going to go the way of the last two where early promise gave way to late-season collapse. Perhaps Brian Boyle’s All-Star weekend helped overall team morale, or maybe the team just needed this break at the right time (unlike the couple of other long ones they’ve had this season). Whatever happened last weekend, this week the Devils looked more like the pre-holidays version of the team that opened eyes around the league and picked up three big wins, each more crucial than the last.
First, the Devils scratched out a win in Buffalo on Tuesday with Taylor Hall making a triumphant return to the lineup, scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal in the second period of a 3-1 game that wasn’t settled till Kyle Palmieri’s empty-netter in the final moments. Then came Thursday’s home tilt with the Flyers, a team that owned us in the first two matchups of the season. Due to a scheduling conflict I couldn’t attend or even watch the game, but knew I was missing something really juicy when I saw that Travis Zajac of all people beat down Radko Gudas in one of the few fights of the veteran centerman’s career. Later I found out Gudas had taken a careless if not outright cheap shot, jumping up and hitting Palmieri in the head. Of course not only did Gudas not get suspended or even a major penalty for the hit on Palms, but it was Zajac who got the extra penalty for instigating a fight after Gudas left the box. Just par for the course this season, especially when Wayne Simmonds scored to tie the game and the Flyers took the lead in the second period.
Still trailing in the third, the Devils rallied for perhaps their biggest win of the season, starting when Damon Severson scored to tie the game with nine minutes left. Then with less than ninety seconds remaining in regulation, Blake Coleman’s pass went around defenseman Ivan Provorov and right to a falling Nico Hischier – who managed to deflect the puck through backup goaltender Alex Lyon – giving the Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and a win that showed they weren’t going to back down. Yet, even after this win I was still wary. For one, it was non-confirmation bias since I hadn’t been able to see the Flyer game and went back and forth between the Sabres game and the State of the Union nonsense on Tuesday, but more importantly the Devils had two-game spasm of a winning streak against the Isles and Caps a couple weeks ago before getting blown out of the water in Philly and resuming their losing ways. Facing a hot Pittsburgh team (even one without key winger Patric Hornqvist) tonight didn’t seem to be an optimum time for our first matchup of the season after the Pens had sleptwalked through the first half of the season they’ve been playing like the two-time champs more recently.
Before getting to the game tonight, I got to take advantage of a season ticket perk last night and attend a ‘meet the young Devils’ fan event at the Prudential Center where basically half the team including all of the star rookies (like Nico and Jesper Bratt) made the rounds for two hours between picture lines and mock pressers with Matt Loughlin. Honestly the pressers and hearing the players answer fan questions – and some from Matt – while interacting with each other appealed to me more than waiting in photo lines for long stretches – and hopefully I’ll get other chances at photos down the road anyway -so I just sat through the four different half-hour mini pressers. You do get to see a hint of the different personality of the players between Miles Wood giving Severson the needle about his footwear or Severson and Bratt busting on Nico for his ‘varied’ taste in locker room music, not to mention Coleman despite being a rookie himself coming off like the older big brother to the teenage rookies…after all, Coleman IS 26 and barely qualifies as a young Devil. Some fan questions were awkward and Nico had a charming flub when asked who he would dream of facing in the Stanley Cup Finals he said the Rangers – obviously a current impossibility under the playoff format – but most did a good job and the fan events are always a nice add-on for season ticket holders.
Ironically that was my first good trip to the Prudential Center since the losing started just after Christmas but getting a win out of tonight was infinitely more important for everyone involved. Right from the hop the Devils came out as if still energized from the Flyer game and skated downhill for much of the night. If not for some inspired goaltending from rookie Casey DeSmith (who I never heard of until tonight) the game could well have been 5 or 6-0 after two periods but it took two dominant periods just to get a two-goal lead, both with the newly minted checking like of Coleman-Zajac and Stefan Noesen in the middle of the offensive action with Zajac and Coleman each getting a goal and an assist in a three-minute span while Noesen assisted on both goals as well. While the Devils were dominating and outshooting the Pens 29-10 after 40 minutes I’d seen too many multi-goal leads blown to relax.
Sure enough things started to get tense again when Evgeni Malkin did Evgeni Malkin things dancing through defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Mirco Mueller before going around Keith Kinkaid for a typically spectactular goal to make it 2-1 and send the visions of blown leads past dancing in my head again. Then out of nowhere it was Zajac, continuing his unlikely breakout with a tip-in of a Severson shot that restored the Devils’ two goal lead midway through the third. Consider that Zajac had seven points in just thirty-three games this season before tonight returning from injury and looked washed up, certainly offensively. Perhaps the fight with Gudas gave him a little extra adrenaline carryover. Certainly it inspired his peers.
Ah yes Crosby…the only times I wound up noticing 87 at all are when he uncharacteristically missed an open net late in the second period, and on the game’s most contreversial play in the third when Kinkaid caught a stick up high and while struggling to get back to his feat got conked again on the head – from a Crosby shot that went into the net. However, for once we finally caught a break on the whistle when the refs correctly ruled goalie interference and this time even the dreaded video review couldn’t change that.
Perhaps it was fitting after our cycle of death started with the bad offside review against the Sabres that one finally going our way helped put the memories of our January losing behind us. Also tonight’s game was uplifting in that two players that struggled for much of the season in Zajac and goalie Kinkaid (despite his good record) led the way in a big win that bumped us back into second place and restored a little more of the playoff cushion that got lost in January. One other meaningful component of the win was that the Devils went 0-for-5 against the Pens last year. Not that it meant anything considering this year’s team is clearly much different but it’s definitely nice to show the big boys we can play with them too.
With 31 games left in the regular season the Devils are back in reasonably good position, five points up on a playoff spot with still a game or two in hand but now’s not the time to take a break, especially with a potential trap game coming up against Ottawa on Tuesday. While the Sens have had a dissapointing season they’re still capable of playing us well and did in two barnburner games earlier this year. While goalie Cory Schneider still seems a ways away from returning at least Kinkaid’s improved play has quelled the urgency of finding a solution at the goaltender position. In fact, coach John Hynes challenged all of his goalies to play better after the last poor game against Nashville before the break. Keith, like the rest of the Devils have risen to the challenge so far since the break.