When the two sides of the Hudson rivalry collide tonight in Newark, they will be taking opposite paths. For while the
Wolf Pack Rangers play out the string with three games left, Taylor Hall is leading the Devils to more big games as they chase the playoffs. It could happen later if they beat the Rangers on home ice and the Predators defeat the Panthers in regulation.
Given how well he’s played, Hall is intent on finishing it off now. He continues to score clutch goals like the one he did against Montreal for a shorthanded game-winner in a hard fought Devils 2-1 victory. One that wouldn’t have been possible without Keith Kinkaid. The other part of the story which makes these Devils a great Hollywood script.
To hear most experts tell it, they weren’t supposed to be here. After their good start, they were supposed to fall off. There were moments when it looked possible. But the brilliant play of emerging Hart front runner Hall and the surprising play of Kinkaid wouldn’t allow them to fade.
It’s more than that though. These Devils are scrappy and resilient with no quit in them. While Hall does the heavy lifting with 37 goals and 89 points entering tonight and Kinkaid makes the timely saves, there have been unsung heroes such as checkers Stefan Noessen and Blake Coleman. Their hustle and heart have paid off with each scoring double digits in goals along with inspiration Brian Boyle. Brian Gibbons has contributed similar. Don’t think for a second him finally returning didn’t help this final push that has New Jersey 5-0-1 in the last six knocking on the door.
The Jersey Rocket as colorful Chico Resch likes to call him on the radio, Kyle Palmieri has been scoring big goals too. Even in a injury riddled season, he has 24 which ranks second behind Hall on the club. Without Palmieri heating up, who’s to say the Devils are here? Hall can’t do it by himself. He and improving rookie Nico Hischier have become a dynamic duo. Hischier, who plays both ends and is a puck hawk with terrific hands around the net, has developed into the player they thought they had taking him number one overall in last year’s NHL Draft. How about that nifty redirect goal to tie Montreal the other night in the third before Hall’s latest heroics?
Without Devils GM Ray Shero wisely trading former playoff hero Adam Henrique to Anaheim for defenseman Sami Vatanen, they’re not in this position either. He realized the need to improve the back end and made the move which has worked out quite well for both sides. The Ducks getting good production out of Henrique including a huge third period goal in a overtime win over Colorado. The Devils getting steady play and production from Vatanen, who is their best defenseman.
Coach John Hynes hasn’t pushed many wrong buttons. Although I don’t agree with sitting out Jesper Bratt that much for vet Drew Stafford, he’s gotten the results in his third year behind the bench. He made the tough decision to ride Kinkaid down the stretch over starter Cory Schneider, who hasn’t been right since returning from a groin injury. It’s gotta be hard on Schneider watching but all Kinkaid does is win and you can’t tell me that doesn’t make sense. If he was truly 100 percent, my guess is Schneider would’ve gotten back in.
Though he isn’t what he once was, Travis Zajac remains a team leader who takes the tough assignments daily. Who didn’t love him mocking Sidney Crosby in a emotional game the Devils lost to the Pens in overtime on what else but a Crosby great hand eye coordination with a baseball bat swing on Opening Day? Sure. He got the last laugh. But Zajac gave him nothing during regulation at five-on-five while dishing it out. His diligent checking and penalty killing could come in handy if the Devils are in their first postseason since 2012.
Michael Grabner hasn’t lit the world on fire. Since coming over from the Rangers, he has only two goals and three assists. He could still be a factor in a seven-game series. His game breaking speed and shorthanded play make him a threat.
Will Butcher is finishing better with his offense coming back from the blue line. He sure makes things happen on the power play and on the attack with his skating and passing. He’s another young player Jersey fans can get excited about.
Pavel Zacha remains a good question. At times, he shows promise. It’s about finding consistency for the high former first round pick who’s still learning.
Even little used Mirco Mueller has suddenly found a place in Hynes’ lineup making key defensive plays on the penalty kill. It’s been a great year so far for Jersey’s Team. They still have a little work left to achieve their first dream.