One of the reasons hockey is such an exciting game is that momentum can take just seconds to swing wildly from one bench to the other. Sometimes a single sequence can tell the entire story of a game. Such was the case last night in what turned out to be a rare laugher in the Devils’ favor, although it could have been a far different story if Ottawa had scored on this goalmouth scramble in the second period to cut the Devils’ lead to 3-2. Instead Sami Vatanen made one of the best saves you’ll see all year – goalie or non-goalie – while Nico Hischier and Steven Santini also kept their poise despite losing their feet in the crease they didn’t close their hands on the puck or fall on it, which would have been a penalty shot.
Saving that goal was remarkable enough, but within several seconds Kyle Palmieri had cleared the puck out of the zone and fed Taylor Hall to finish a gorgeous two-on-one and give the Devils a 4-1 lead. A literal two-goal swing in the matter of fifteen seconds is the very definition of momentum shift and enough to turn a close game into a borderline rout. Truthfully we owed the Sens one after they embarassed us 7-3 up in Ottawa earlier this year during our road trip of doom. At least that score is even and other than the Toronto fiasco on Tuesday this team continues to at least be competitive on home ice.
For once I’m actually considering the TV replay appointment viewing, or at least the first two periods. God knows we haven’t had enough games this year as a Devils fan to enjoy (despite my in-arena record still being a respectable 5-2-1). I’m not sorry I missed it though, my friend’s birthday gathering at an uptown bar was fun especially considering I’m not a bar person in general and I saw a few people I hadn’t in a couple months. I’ll have more than enough home games still to get angst over the next few weeks until the All-Star break – at least I assume that’s the next to last week in January anyway, could just be our ‘bye week’ assuming that is also on the docket at some point. Don’t really care enough about the All-Star game or the bye week to look it up.
If any Devils actually deserved to be in the All-Star game it’s the two guys who finished the above two-on-one. Though not quite as dominant as he was in his Hart-clinching second half last year, Hall still has 37 points in 32 games (including four last night) and is arguably the most impactful offensive player the franchise has ever had. Underrated sidekick Palmieri has 18 goals and 34 points in 33 games, continuing his own breakout season after being a solid 55-60 point 25-30 goal scorer his first few years as a Devil, he might just be getting to another level this year as one of the few bright spots still on the team during this dreary first half.
With this season being what it has been so far, even last night didn’t come without its letdowns as before the game Marcus Johansson got put on IR – again – with upper-body injury just as he was finally starting to put things together as a Devil for the first time. While there’s no evidence of the dreaded C word just yet it’s not like Johansson hasn’t had other injuries too. Unfortunately his worst ability is availability, and that’s ultimately a big reason why the Devils will likely move on from MarJo after the trade deadline assuming he gets dealt as a rental. When we did trade for him from Washington it was with the idea that he would be a long-term solution but it hasn’t worked out that way.
Still you have to look for the bright spots, especially from guys who you hope are part of the long-term solution. One of them finally got taken out of witness protection as the coaching staff followed my wishes and Santini’s played the last two games. While I don’t like that Mirco Mueller has taken Santini’s place in witness protection if forced to choose only one between Santini, Mueller and Egor Yakovlev, I’d rather Santini be in the lineup both because of his physical element and because he just comes off more poised than the other two and he by all accounts had a strong game last night with a +2 in fifteen minutes. Another younger guy who really hasn’t been showing much in Pavel Zacha showed some signs of life early with a shorthanded goal in the first period. Still doesn’t have a single assist on the season but hey, a Brandon Pirri-type season from a few years back would be an improvement offensively for Zacha at this point.
While his overall 2.96 GAA and .903 save percentage aren’t pretty (and likely going to cost him in free agency this offseason), Keith Kinkaid’s done about as much as can be expected given he’s really not an everyday starter and playing in front of a leaky defense on a nightly basis. Maybe against the odds, young Mackenzie Blackwood can finally give Kinkaid enough rest to not wear out although it’s a fair question to wonder at what point continuing to develop as a starter in the AHL trumps getting backup games in the NHL. At this point it’s a moot point since Cory Schneider is not going to be back anytime soon. I assume coach John Hynes will stick with Kinkaid through tomorrow’s matinee and not play Blackwood twice in a row against the division rival Blue Jackets, but it’s no coincidence the team is playing a little better – whatever happened Tuesday notwithstanding – now that the goaltending isn’t a nightly issue.