Even for a weekend afternoon, 12 PM is still an ungodly early time to start an NHL game. Of course, when you’re trying to cater to every part of your fanbase including overseas fans (re: new Swiss fans jumping on the bandwagon because of Nico Hischier) sometimes concessions have to be made. Sure there’s not really that much of a difference between 12 and 1 PM – especially when you wake up a bit earlier – but it kind of does change lunch plans at least, either you’re eating at the arena just before the game or have a bigger breakfast then opt for an early lunch after. My and my friend chose the latter, maybe in a prior season I’d have chosen the former but generally there’s really very little reason for me to eat the overpriced food at the arena without having a food and beverage credit this year that I’ve had in past seasons as part of my season tickets.
Speaking of overseas fans, ironically enough we ran into a few Czech fans who wanted us to take their picture – right when we’d finished taking our own – in front of the Patrik Elias puck display from last year’s retirement ceremony hidden upstairs just behind one of the escalators. Elias himself was in the building yesterday, and I believe even taking pictures with some fans beforehand, but everyone got to see a glimpse of him and his lovely daughter on the jumbotron during the game.
So after an unusually quick drive into Newark (a marked change from my other trek up there so far this year!) and walking around the arena a few times, we settled in for the game. For most of the first period it looked like the typical flat Devils matinee effort as they were a step behind the Panthers in the first period, as evidenced by most of the penalty calls going against us which were just stupid, unneccesary penalties to take – typical of our last few games. I emphasize most, because the last call of the first period was a phantom Miles Wood ‘trip’ which was almost as bad as the Taylor Hall phantom trip in the last game that the officials surprisingly overruled themselves on – a rarity in itself! While we weren’t that fortunate in the first period with Wood’s call yesterday, at least some good PK work and goaltending from Keith Kinkaid kept the Panthers off the board despite a hideous shot total for most of the period, I believe it was 12-2 at one point.
Fortunately the Devils found their game in the last few minutes of the period and got rewarded with a goal from Kyle Palmieri although (as would be the theme of the afternoon) even this was followed with drama as contact with the goaltender got challenged by the Panthers but ultimately the call was correctly upheld – Panthers goalie James Reimer DID initiate contact with Palmieri outside the crease after all! – and the Devils took a 1-0 lead into intermission. Our first line continued its dominance into the second period as all three linemates got points on Hall’s early second-period goal, setup with some good board work from Hischier to get the puck over to Palmieri, who had a nice cross-ice pass to Hall on the resulting two-on-one in front. After Hall won last year’s Hart trophy, Palmieri may actually be staking his own October claim to a run at the award with eight goals and thirteen points in the season’s first eight games.
Of course it’s too early to seriously handicap the 2018-19 Hart race, although yesterday’s giveaway at the arena was a nice Hall poster commemorating that award win from last year. And thankfully it was also a poster that was wrapped up in plastic given yesterday’s damp weather throughout the day. Through the second period the Devils looked to wrap up a win over the Panthers as neatly as the poster was, and nearly did so. Blake Coleman’s tip of a Mirco Mueller shot later in the period upped the lead to three and was a novelty on top of it, a goal from a non-first-liner! Perhaps if the Devils had converted on back-to-back Panther penalties later in the period to make it 4-0 the third period could have had a whole different feel than it did. Or if Coleman and Hall could have scored on their respective breakaways in the third period.
To be fair, we probably were fortunate to still have just that 3-0 lead with less than six minutes left in the third period when no fewer than three Panther shots glanced off the post and crossbar in the game, and in general they had more and better chances to score throughout the afternoon. Still, with so little time left even I was caught up in thinking ‘okay we finally got ’em now’. As college football icon Lee Corso would say…not so fast, my friend! Somehow, the red sea parted in front of the net for Mike Matheson and he deked everyone out for a goal to get the Panthers back in the game at 3-1 and spoil the shutout. From there it turned into a typical 2018-19 Devils third-period hope and pray session as the Panthers threw the kitchen sink at us, nearly scoring on their next couple of shifts then pulling the goalie for an extra skater with nearly three minutes left trying to get closer. Somehow the prevent defense held until fifteen seconds were left, and I again had thought ‘well now we got this surely’ before Mike Hoffman’s tip made it 3-2 and caused a couple of anxious faceoffs after. Clearly I’m not even allowed to think we have a game in the bag. Even just dumping their last attempt in and getting it on net made me nervous at that point, but finally the horn sounded not a moment too soon.
As I remarked to one of my other friends afterward that game was a perfect metaphor of the 2017-18 playoff chase where we held the lead throughout but the Panthers made a mad, late surge that nearly spoiled the party. Even denying them the loser point could turn out to be big later on, as we found out last year when the entire season came down to one point in the end. October points matter too, especially when October’s coming to an end with the first game of an upcoming seven-game road trip in Tampa on Tuesday night. Despite Tampa’s abnormal blowout loss against Arizona yesterday, and losing top defenseman Victor Hedman to injury they’re still largely the same formidable unit that bounced us out of the playoffs in five games last year and are off to a 7-2-1 start this season.
Might that game be a season debut for Cory Schneider, who’s now played three rehab games and is nearly all the way back from injury? Our goalie question is a secondary question right now given how well Keith’s played for the most part, but about to take center-stage as the team goes forward when they need to see what Cory can put together post-hip surgery.