I was really debating going to yesterday’s game with the free tickets I got via a team e-mail. I’d already traded in my normal tickets for buyback credit towards next season’s invoice but clearly a Monday night game between two teams going nowhere didn’t have a lot of advance sales so the Devils offered up comps as if it was a preseason game. I did actually get tickets in my same section and row but with nobody to go with and the only people I knew that were there possibly sitting in the club section, I really didn’t feel like flying solo for a meaningless weeknight game. Especially after getting my token 2019 attendance win before the offseason on Saturday.
While I was home, I didn’t really watch much of last night’s odd 3-1 win. It was odd both in that the team was vastly outplayed by a cold, lousy Sabres team, and also in that you would have thought for all the world Cory Schneider was headed for yet another implosion after allowing a center-ice trickler to get through him in the first period. Instead, showing a resilience he hasn’t always had as a Devil, Cory rebounded with a stunning 45-save game that earned him a hard-fought win, a first star and the team’s yellow helmet given out for players’ player of the game. From clod to god all in one night, even if you’re not Cory’s biggest fan it’s certainly another feel-good moment for the embattled goalie down the stretch. Even if his on-ice interview with Erika Wachter began on a cringeworthy note, where he sheepishly joked, ‘are those mock cheers, or real ones?’.
Obviously if you follow Cory, you know he’s always the first to call himself out for a bad game or goal allowed, so he certainly wasn’t blaming the crowd for what I’m sure was some…vocal pushback after his facepalm worthy start to the game. If anything his problem (like mine in a lot of cases) is that he’s too worried about letting everyone down at times. Perhaps the lack of meaning in last night’s game made it easier to bounce back from Sam Reinhart’s dribbler that tied the game after Blake Coleman’s early marker got the Devils off to a good start. At first I was incredulous when I heard the reports that Cory was playing well after that. Almost for his sake alone I was rooting for the win once a resurgent Pavel Zacha gave the Devils back the lead early in the third, but of course with only a handful of games left to deal with, the lotto watching has begun in earnest in this corner.
After a great start Buffalo’s been so bad they might even drop below us if they keep sinking. Few teams have mastered the art of the late-season tank like the Sabres. Not that things have been so great for me or Derek down the stretch either. Looking at the Rangers’ recent run of results one thing struck me – other than their weekend OT win over the Leafs, their only wins in the last five weeks have been over us. Twice. Our recent two-game winning streak has been the abberation of late after a 2-9-1 stretch seemingly locked us into the bottom four. Of course, having a bunch of guys return to the lineup probably helped over the last couple games as well. Even if Sami Vatanen was out of the lineup again last night – this time due to ‘illness’ – and the team was largely outplayed by a Sabres team that hadn’t won on the road in weeks. Ironically a phantom goalie interference call on what would have been a tying goal for Buffalo in the third period also (cough) helped the Devils’ cause last night.
Just figures that’s when we get our makeup call on a contreversially disallowed goal last December against these same Sabres! Of course as a fan I’m supposed to dwell on the positives even when the positives mean very little in the grand scheme. One positive that can have some far-reaching impact into next year has been the recent surge of Zacha in his first three games off of IR with four points. I have seen this script before though, with Zacha frequently spasming out a couple of games of good play after going back into the lineup then going back into his usual invisible self. If you want to take his first ten games of the season out of the mix pre-demotion, he has 12 goals and 21 points in 46 games which is mildly encouraging but hardly something where I’d bank on the kid being a top six weapon next year. He’s going to have to consistently earn his way back up into the mix.
That’s always the danger of grading off of meaningless games, you never know when some of these late-season surges are just mirages. Zacha and Cory are two of the key faces of that, whether you can bank on their improvement down the stretch as a sign of things to come or not. For now the only concern for most fans is what kind of lotto odds the team will have two weeks from today, when the drawing for the top three picks is held. Perhaps the most important game for determining that is our next one, at Detroit on Friday since the Wings are only one point behind us with a game in hand. I don’t want to get into full reverse order standings here but barring a full collapse by a team like the Rangers or Sabres, it’s likely we’ll finish no better than fourth from the bottom. Of course I can’t fully root against the team with Mackenzie Blackwood presumably in net on Friday. If we’ve had a true encouraging sign in the second half of this lost season it’s been Blackwood showing he’s got the tools to be the man in the very near future in net.
Of course players and coaches never really try to lose themselves. Even if some of our ‘injuries’ have been a bit suspect the last few weeks, those decisions are made off the ice in a lot of cases. Players and coaches need to continually do well to try to ensure their own job security though. I just wish there was this type of urgency earlier in the year when it could have actually mattered.