Home sweet home (at last)

Facing potentially the most critical forty-eight hours of the season the last two nights and with other playoff contenders around them refusing to go on a losing streak, the Devils responded the way they needed to after a bad California trip – with a pair of wild, gritty, gutty wins over the Penguins and Lightning on back-to-back nights.  Continuing his rags to riches story, Keith Kinkaid delivered the goods the way no Devils goalie has since a guy named Brodeur in the 2012 Conference Finals, stopping 75 of 79 pucks and winning a pair of one-goal games against arguably the two best teams in the East, if not the entire NHL.  Amazingly the Devils’ 2-1 win at the Rock over Tampa tonight gave them a season sweep of one of the teams tied for the President’s Trophy, a couple weeks after beating the other (Nashville) at the start of their massive six-game road stretch.

Going 5-2 with the six road games plus Tampa on the first game back less than 24 hours after beating the Pens in an emotional OT thriller has to go down as an unqualified success, with the caveat that because other teams around us are still winning at a scary rate the Devils really haven’t gotten in any better playoff position than they were at the start of the trip.  Yet they are in better position just for having gone through this stretch and still having a three-point lead over the Panthers (albeit with them still having two games in hand) and being in striking distance of the Flyers (two points back) and Blue Jackets (three points back, with a game in hand).  With five of their last seven at the Rock facing teams either out of the playoffs or with suspect motivation there’s really no reason the Devils can’t win any game left on their schedule.  Especially with only one back to back and very minimal travel – Montreal on that back to back and the Caps the last scheduled day of the regular season are the only road games left.

I can’t really speak to much of what happened last night in Pittsburgh as I was at a birthday dinner for a friend and only saw some of the game later on replay (plus watching the eight-nine minute condensed game clip on NHL.com) but maybe that was better for my stress level.  Just checking the score periodically I was getting annoyed in the third period when the Devils had blown a 3-1 lead and barely got into OT.  It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest dropping that game in regulation – especially after entering the third period two up – could have been a fatal blow for the season.  Instead it turned into a pulsating OT win when Nico Hischier made a great play to maintain the puck in the defensive zone, then executed a sweet stretch pass to a wide open Taylor Hall.  Doing as he’s done so many times this season Hall put the dagger in with his third OT winner of the year, and his 33rd goal in total, less than a minute into the extra period.

With the win against the Penguins in the bank, it would have been unfathomable just a month ago to assume Kinkaid would have been playing a back to back with the season on the line, but really did coach John Hynes have any other choice?  Especially after Cory Schneider’s nightmare half-game in San Jose and general ineffective play in 2018.  So Hynes did play Kinkaid tonight against Tampa, but also put in fresh legs by restoring Stefan Noesen to the lineup for the mostly ineffectual Drew Stafford, while he somewhat surprisingly put in Mirco Mueller for Ben Lovejoy.  While I was glad to see Mueller get another chance it seemed a bit odd to not only put him in cold against the Lightning but also playing on his off (right) side to boot.

In the end Mueller responded surprisingly well, playing a hair over seventeen minutes and even pinching in an assist on Nico’s first period marker, where the 19-year old cleaned up the garbage in front from a Will Butcher shot and scored on a nifty turnaround move while falling to one knee.  Momentum of play ebbed back and forth throughout the first two periods but the score still remained in favor of the Devils, who added to their lead in the second when Kyle Palmieri blew a slapper past Andrei Vasilevsky.  Hynes deployed his lineup well on this night, with five of the six defensemen playing at least 17 minutes while Will Butcher played a shade under 15 (albeit all at even strength), while every forward played at least 10:55.

Of course in the back of my mind up two I was still thinking ‘oh god, we could still blow another one’, since for us a two-goal lead is the worst in hockey, though I didn’t quite have the feeling of doom I normally might considering how well the team did play in the first two periods.  Even when the Devils finally lost the shutout early in the third period, it was after nearly killing off a full power play.  Although Tampa outshot the Devils 12-7 in the third, for the most part we were able to keep the high-danger chances to a minimum until the final moments when things always get hairy once the other team pulls the goalie.  Maddeningly the Devils blew a couple of chances to put in the empty-net dagger and Ryan McDonaugh put one off the post that looked in real time like a highlight-reel save from Kinkaid, who still made plenty of biggies.

After a final ten minutes that seemed to last forever, the Devils were finally able to bank the critical two points, made even more critical by the Panthers’ own comeback from two goals down in the third period against the pitiful Coyotes, just when a good night looked like it could get orgasmic when both the Devils and Arizona were up two in their respective third periods.  So the Panthers started their own seven game out of eight road stretch 3-1 with only a loss to the equally hot Blue Jackets.  Ironically the Jackets’ ten game winning streak finally ended tonight at the hands of the Blues, still leaving us in striking distance of them as well as the Flyers.

Despite my concerns after the California trip and the maddening efficiency with which our competitors have been winning the Devils came out of this make or break stretch in about as good a shape as could be hoped for.  If 3-3-1 seemed hopeful before the trip, I also didn’t think the Panthers would continue to be this good either so essentially both of us exceeding our ‘projection’ for the last couple of weeks worked out for the moment.  Now the schedule edge for our competition that loomed over our final fifteen games is gone.  Of course schedules are only what you make of them.  There’s no reason this Devil team can’t at least come out of their final seven games with double-digit points, and there’s no reason to expect the Panthers to win out.  Destiny will probably be back in our hands sooner or later but this team needs to respond to all of its competition down the stretch the way they get up for the Lightning and Pens (a combined 6-0 on the season).

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