Four nights ago things looked as dire as they could for a team still holding a playoff spot, with the Devils on their way to losing in Philly and landing squarely on the borderline of being out of the playoffs. Since their late comeback and shootout win in the city of Brotherly Love however, the outlook’s significantly improved in five days. After three straight wins in that time, suddenly the Devils have a five-point cushion back on the playoff bubble with twenty-four games remaining. Welcome to the NHL and the 2017-18 Devils season where momentum and positioning can change on a dime.
Even now I’m loath to get completely back on the optomism train, but I’ll say this – if the Devils do find a way to beat the Canes tomorrow a playoff berth is again ours to lose. Especially with the momentum a four-game winning streak would bring going into Patrik Elias week (his number retirement is one week away, on next Saturday). Even a loss on a fourth game in six nights wouldn’t be dire but you’d love to see them rip off a few more of these games with four division matchups in five upcoming games the rest of February. Beating the Canes, Columbus and the Isles in particular would provide that much more of a stranglehold on a playoff berth.
I’m not entirely convinced we’re out of the woods simply because you can’t be a hundred percent confident in our current goaltenders. However, both Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack have done what they needed to this week – in Kinkaid’s case, playing well enough in the clutch on Tuesday and Thursday to bring home big division wins. While in Lack’s case, he threw up a spectacular game out of nowhere with 48 saves in Tampa Bay against one of the best teams in the NHL. In fact, Tampa had only five regulation losses at home all season before tonight. Although the 51 shots on net Tampa got in a track meet of a game suggest there are still very serious defensive issues, getting even competent goaltending has stopped the team bleeding this week.
Obviously Taylor Hall’s goal late against the Flyers on Tuesday changed the momentum of the week, if not of the entire season. Thankfully the secondary scorers have finally started to step up again the last two games, the way they did earlier in the season – grinder Stefan Noesen pinched in two of the team’s five goals against the Hurricanes on Thursday, with Damon Severson also scoring a big one late in the first period to tie the game at one. As usual, I had to miss out on a Thursday tilt but I did wind up seeing most of the third period, including a sweet goal by prodigy in the making Nico Hischier on a two-on-one, and Noesen’s second that helped removed the drama (for once) from a close third period game.
Tonight in Tampa the goals came from some even more unlikely places, with a Ben Lovejoy seeing-eye shot from the boards opening the scoring after just three minutes. Later on, third-year player Pavel Zacha broke through with a key shorthanded goal (just his fifth total of the season) to restore a lead the Devils wouldn’t relinquish, with Zacha finally getting some reward for improved play lately. Hischier’s second in two games was the biggest of the night though, with the Lightning having seized all the momentum up 2-1 and already having put 20+ shots on net early in the second period. Ironically it was almost an instant replay of his goal against Carolina – Hischier and Hall on a two-on-one and Hischier confidently took a shot that went in. Ironically enough, the duo got yet another two-on-one in the game, this time there was more room to pass so Nico passed but the play didn’t quite connect. Still, Hischier’s continued improvement has been a welcome sight for not only the present but the future of Devils hockey.
Also making an impact was Miles Wood – in more ways than one, arguably being lucky to be whistled for only a minor after a bad hit on Vladislav Namestnikov that could have been a major or match penalty, and may still earn the feisty winger a suspension. Showing a little bit of Claude Lemieux in his game, after annoying the Lightning with that hit and bloddying up Andrej Sustr in the ensuing roughing penalties, Wood trolled the Lightning to score a neccesary insurance goal early in the third period – his sixteenth of the season. For all the talk about Hischier and fellow teenage rookie Jesper Bratt, Wood’s development as a second-year player has been key to the Devils’ overall improvement as well.
With the Devils being the Devils, and playing a dangerous team such as Tampa they weren’t going to get out of a second straight game with a drama-free third period. Sure enough, special teams continue to be the bugaboo that bites us over and over again – both with our ineffectual power play and with taking too many dumb penalties. Finally the Lightning made us pay in decisive fashion, with a patented Steven Stamkos one-timer just eleven seconds into a power play at 5:15 of the third, cutting the Devils’ lead to one and leading to fifteen anxious minutes where I was fairly certain we were going to blow it and at best get to OT. However it was the unheralded journeyman Lack who saved the day time and again, despite one scary play late in the third where he somehow lost a loose puck that was right next to him, but somehow that play didn’t lead to disaster.
During the postgame after Tuesday’s dramatic win over the Flyers, Hall was being interviewed wearing a shirt that said Devils vs. Everybody on the front (and it turned out had Devils vs. The World on the back), reflecting in part the atitude that nobody believed in them coming into the season. Obviously nobody was believing in the team when they were losing games for six straight weeks during the winter. To a degree there probably still aren’t many believers now, at least in terms of the Devils being anything other than a one-and-done team. However this team continues to defy the odds. Despite being without their starting goalie for the forseeable future and the bad defense, despite mounting injuries up front and the sheer amount of league incompetence in terms of reffing decisions they’ve had to deal with this team continues to find ways to succeed.