Another weekend, another matinee Devils game. So far the team’s played five times in seven weeks on either a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon. My feelings on matinees as a season ticket holder are mixed. So long as it’s 1 PM like today instead of noon like the Panthers game a few weeks back, I can at least have lunch before driving up to the Prudential Center. Plus at least unlike weeknights the drive up is typically quicker on a weekend, although I did get backed up a little bit with construction on Broad Street so I missed the pregame skate, but did still have enough time to at least walk around the arena before going to my seat for the intros.
For once I wasn’t completely dreading this game after beating two division foes this week, although still mindful of the fact we lost to Detroit not that long ago. I was still a bit perturbed over the case of the dissapearing Devil players, with Nico Hischier again missing a game after all signs seemed to point to him coming back today. Hischier remained on the injured list along with with IR’ed Sami Vatanen, Brian Boyle and Steven Santini. With all of the injuries it led to some interesting combinations, starting with Mirco Mueller playing on his offside with Egor Yakovlev going into the lineup and once again putting Jesper Bratt on a line with the unholy duo of Pavel Zacha and Marcus Johansson.
Yet it was that second line – specifically the two farmhands – that wound up having some of the best moments of the game, starting with Zacha opening the scoring for the game and potting his first of the season late in the first after a perfect cross-ice pass from Bratt even Zacha couldn’t miss, capping off a dominating first period by the guys in red. To give the Devil his due, Zacha actually looks a bit rejuvanated since coming back, in particular since he started playing with the dynamic Bratt, whose return has sparked the offense a little. I wish I could say the same for Zacha’s other winger, but as bad as NoJo was last year, he’s been that much worse this year. I would say the concussions have taken something out of him (maybe they have) but he wasn’t even doing well last year before getting hurt.
Yet, in spite of NoJo things looked good early with the Devils outshooting the Wings 20-4, though that dominance was a bit illusory since we were still giving up high quality chances, and once again goalie Keith Kinkaid’s posts proved to be better at repelling pucks than most NHL goalies. Good thing for that, cause this team’s defensemen really have a problem defending two-on-ones, specifically they don’t actually take away the pass or the shot. The book says to take away the pass but for whatever reason giving up multiple two-on-ones today brought this glaring fact into light – these defensemen just don’t seem to know how to play two-on-ones correctly. Basically all of them let the pass through or backed off to such a degree they gave up a wide-open slot attempt, and either forced Kinkaid or the post into a great save. Our loose defense on two-on-ones would finally come back to bite us at an inopportune time much later in the game.
Before then, things still looked good even if the refs were more than inclined to cut the Wings a break. In sixty-five minutes of hockey despite a lot of dominant stretches where the Devils put forty shots on Wings goalie Johnathan Bernier, somehow New Jersey failed to draw a single penalty call in their favor. How often does that happen? Usually when the shots on goal are that high that means one team’s outskating the other and eventually draws the benefit of the whistle. Not today though, of course to be fair the refs seemed inclined to call nothing period given they only gave Detroit one power play themselves. Abdicating your responsibility in officiating the game only helps the team willing to get away with more though, and that was the team in white.
It’s not even worth harping on that though, we still had our own chances to put away the game once and for all against a mediocre team who didn’t even get to Newark till late last night due to travel issues. Specifically when Blake Coleman took advantage of a Wings‘ power play with yet another shorthanded goal late in the second period. While there’ve been precious few reminders of the glory days in recent years, you could definitely see a lot of John Madden in Coleman. Perhaps #20 is actually more talented than Mad Dog. Once we killed off that penalty I had hope we could take this game home. Until Luke Glendening (who?) found an open space in the slot for a momentum-killing one-timer goal with just under two minutes remaining in the second period. Now I could sense the choke coming, especially with this team already having lost three other multi-goal leads this season and third-period leads too numerous to count.
While I missed the first several minutes of the third period walking around the arena with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while (she wanted popcorn and we had to go downstairs again after already coming back upstairs), I did get back to my section in time to see Bratt and Zacha nearly put the game away, but this time Bernier stoned Zacha in front. After surviving yet another two-on-one thanks to the friendly goalpost (after Ben Lovejoy completely abandoned Dylan Larkin to take the other guy on the play leaving the shot too wide open), finally Kinkaid was victimized by his own defenseman – the aformentioned Lovejoy who pushed Glendening into the goaltender while Michael Rasmussen’s shot went past him, as once again this team gave up a late third-period lead. It could have actually been worse as the regulation buzzer sounded with a wide open Wings player lurking in front for a pass. Two more seconds and we could have been looking at a Hurricanes playoff-type finish.
What we would get was bad enough, as the Wings dominated overtime and settled the issue on one last two-on-one that this time Damon Severson botched by getting caught in no-man’s land – not close enough to Anthony Mantha to stop the pass or to Larkin to stop the shot, ballgame over. I can’t blame Severson though, the guy played over twenty-six minutes pressed into first-pairing duty and did admirably well throughout the game. It isn’t his fault this team obviously isn’t coached well enough on the basics by John Hynes or specifically defensive coach Alain Nasreddine. It also isn’t his fault the refs missed one final Red Wing penalty – a trip of Brett Seney in the faceoff circle. In some ways it was a fitting all-around end to a hideous matinee, other than me getting to see my friend and her fiancee again. Perhaps worse than the lost point is blowing another third-period/multi-goal lead. Even with our defensive issues, we still have a goalie playing at an above average level, it shouldn’t be this bad.
At least until tomorrow assuming Cory Schneider plays the back-to-back. If he plays it’ll be a 6-2, 6-3 type of game, book it. And if Kinkaid plays his fourth game in six days in November on a travel back-to-back that’s a pretty telling sign of what they think of Cory. Same as I do at this point, evidently.