Coming off a epic Game Three highlighted by MVP candidate Taylor Hall’s three points in a huge 5-2 victory before a raucous environment at The Prudential Center, the Devils suffered a devastating loss in Game Four to the Lightning on Wednesday in Newark. They fought hard and had plenty of chances but ultimately couldn’t beat Andrei Vasilevskiy when it mattered most in a 3-1 home defeat.
They now find themselves in the unenviable position of trailing the top seeded Lightning three games to one with Game Five today in Tampa. The game is on NBC at 3 PM. For some perplexing reason, the NHL partner scheduled two games at the same time. On the other channel, the Caps will take on the Blue Jackets. The second straight week NBC did this. Why I have no idea.
A feel good story this season, these scrappy Devils who have more than proven they can play with the Bolts, will face playoff elimination in enemy territory. We’re about to find out again if they have the heart and resolve to keep it alive for one more home game. If they can extend the series, anything’s possible.
Right now, it’s going to be a uphill battle. Especially without top defenseman Sami Vatanen, who will not be available due to a controversial hit from Tampa top scorer Nikita Kucherov. There was no penalty on the play. I’ve seen the replay enough times and heard different vantage points. There’s no question Kucherov caught Vatanen in a vulnerable position with the puck in the vicinity. He was turning when Kucherov leveled him with a shoulder hit to upper chest that contacted the head.
Obviously, there’s a lot of variables here. The whole debate on big hits where head contact is made is one of big discussion. Should every hit be viewed the same way? In my humble opinion, absolutely not. Each must be judged carefully and differently. Let’s take a look at the hit in question which didn’t lead to any supplemental discipline:
As former Devils legend and Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens noted on NHL Network, Kucherov caught a turning Vatanen with a shoulder to chest hit knocking him down. You can see that the full extension also caught his jaw and side of the head.
Was it dirty? I don’t believe so. I would say it was borderline. Not all hits are. Some have compared it to the Drew Doughty hit on William Carrier which drew a one game suspension. He was penalized on the play. At the time, I didn’t agree with the one game suspension and still don’t. Both hits are similar. So, I’ll leave that where it is. Why did Doughty get a game and Kucherov nothing? The NHL Department of Player Safety can be very sketchy. How do they determine if there should be supplemental discipline? They didn’t even fine Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman for his spear to Devils rookie Nico Hischier’s crown jewels. Hedman later apologized to Hischier for the dirty play.
It’s almost as if everything has been put under a magnifying glass when it comes to hitting. Open ice hits happen due to the speed of the game. The league is working on eliminating head shots. It’s not a easy job for former pugilist George Parros. It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge of league discipline. It remains a thankless position that will leave teams and fans scratching their heads.
Since we’re being objective, let’s take a look at Stevens’ Herculean hit that destroyed Eric Lindros from 2000 in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final won by the Devils:
I haven changed my mind on that one either. Lindros had his head down while stick handling through the middle of the ice. Stevens lowered the boom with a wicked shoulder that KO’d Lindros for over a year. When he came back as a Ranger, he was still a point-per-game player until he got his bell rung in a ugly loss at San Jose in late December 2001 when I was moving to Bristol, Connecticut to work for ESPN. Number 88 was never the same afterwards.
One thing that has been brought up by BONY’s own Hasan is intent to injure. He felt strongly that Kucherov was trying to hurt Vatanen, who likely has a concussion. It’s hard to say. Hockey is a full contact sport. So, there are gonna continue to be huge collisions that can cause serious injury. Would any Devils fan who loved Stevens agree that his open ice hits were among the most vicious in the dead puck era? Just ask Ron Francis. A well respected tough in your face, old school defenseman, Stevens put a hurting on prone opponents. He never left his feet on any big hit. They were always clean even if you disagreed. Was he trying to injure players? I can’t definitively answer that. It was a totally different game.
Did Kucherov leave his feet to deliver the blow to Vatanen? It was minimal at best. I wouldn’t say he launched himself. Could it have been a charging minor? Possibly. It wasn’t interference because of where the puck was. Something former Devil turned MSG analyst Ken Daneyko confirmed after looking at a couple of replays. I don’t think it warranted more than a two minute penalty.
Unsuspecting players can get crushed. That’s where the huge debate rages on. When it’s a shoulder or elbow directly to the head, that’s as bad as it gets. If it’s a hit from behind in which the player doesn’t let up such as Toronto’s Nazem Kadri, who’ll be back finally for Game Five tonight in Boston after serving a three game suspension, that’s dangerous.
Hitting has always been part of the game. We saw plenty of it from the Golden Knights in their sweep of the Kings. When even the skilled Lightning are using physicality against the Devils, it explains why the playoffs are way different from the regular season. In order to be successful, you have to have a aggressive mindset. Players are taught to finish checks.
The speed of the game doesn’t help. It’s why there are so many more incidents. Players are bigger and faster. Whether you agree with Hasan’s strong post which is understandable or mine, hitting isn’t going away. Not unless they turn it into the No Hitting League.
I like hitting. The Rangers the last couple of years under recently fired coach Alain Vigneault were a dull, unemotional vanilla team that fans didn’t like. I’m not advocating for the soon to be extinct enforcer or one dimensional fourth liner. Just a tougher team where the skill guys don’t back down.
I don’t have the answer to the league issue. What I do know is the Devils must respond in Game Five today. If that means ratcheting up the intensity, I’m all for it. If they’re to win and save the season, they’ll have to remain disciplined and poised. That means avoiding bad penalties and being the aggressor.
To quote Apollo Creed played by Carl Weathers in Rocky III while training Rocky played by Sylvester Stallone for a championship rematch with Mr. T’s Clubber Lang:
“There is no tomorrow!”
So, it’s up to Cory Schneider, Taylor Hall, Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Will Butcher and the rest of the Devils to put Game Four behind. They’ll have to be at their best to get the win. We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge.