Despite my angst over the Devils’ early season struggles, their OT loss points had kept them barely afloat, but they still needed a big road trip to get back on level ground and on Saturday afternoon I didn’t really see how that was possible. How could I, considering our eleven wins in forty-one road games last year and three straight road blowouts to start this year? However, after two straight close, unlikely wins in Carolina and Winnipeg perhaps this team is finally starting to show signs of why they ‘won the offseason’.
My attention was split the last two games, while I did have last night’s game on I was doing other things as well so it was in the background. Saturday’s win in Carolina I just couldn’t bring myself to watch much of (other than the final several minutes) after the ghastly end to our long homestand last Friday. However, one lineup adjustment in Carolina did actually go a long way when coach John Hynes scratched ‘grit’ forward John Hayden and moved Wayne Simmonds down to the fourth line. Suddenly the fourth line which the staff loves to play in momentum-changing situations became at least semi-viable. Also showing the urgency of the team’s situation, Hynes started Mackenzie Blackwood on a road back-to-back and the second-year player responsed with a solid 24-save performance in the Devils 5-3 win.
In a recent blog I said at least one of the goalies had to step up and play better and Blackwood has done that in his last three games, playing well enough to salvage a point out of an otherwise subpar team effort against the Flyers, following that up with two straight big wins on the road including a scintillating 33-save performance against the Jets where he only allowed one goal, and none in the shootout. Yet somehow, the homeristic Canadian media failed to even give him a star for his performance last night. Well bleep them. Where that leaves fellow goalie Cory Schneider, for the moment is on the bench. Will Cory play either game in Vancouver or Calgary this weekend? Probably not considering the team’s still in somewhat of a desperation mode, but it would be nice to see him get in there with a better team effort than was on display earlier this season.
It’s not as if the goalie has been the only one stepping up however. After a substandard beginning to his season, P.K. Subban finally has started resembling the defenseman we thought we were getting from Nashville. His masterful deflection early in the third period against Carolina held up for the game-winner. Subban also spoke for many after the game when he admitted the team was tired of being in positions to win games and not getting it done. In Carolina they did get it done, holding on in a tense third period. Also upping his game in Carolina was Nico Hischier, who recently came off of injury but incredibly hadn’t scored a goal in his last 24 games going back to late February. Hischier not only scored in Carolina, but also in Winnipeg, the team’s only regulation goal. Maybe now the floodgates are open for the talented third-year player.
As Derek reiterated in his previous blog, #1 overall Jack Hughes has had a solid start to his rookie season seemingly getting better almost every game. His PP goal in Carolina toward the end of the first period tying the game at two was huge. After Jesper Bratt got taken out brutally after a cheap shot by Teuvo Teravainen in Carolina, Hynes had to make lineup changes for the game in Winnipeg. He played Jesper Boqvist for the second straight game and finally brought Nikita Gusev out of witness protection to restore him to the lineup. Both would contribute in a big way last night, though it took a while. Boqvist did draw a critical late OT penalty that could have been a penalty shot but alas was just another failed power play, but both he and Gusev scored in the shootout as coach Hynes finally changed a shootout rotation that wasn’t working.
With the Alberta part of this road trip looming the team needs to maintain its level of play over the last two games. Amazingly they’re 4-1-2 in their last seven games despite all their early-season issues. Maybe not so coincidentally that’s also the timeline since assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald came down to the bench after our 0-4-2 start. Last night’s win in particular felt like it could signal a reset to the start of the season, especially considering it was against the Jets that the Devils’ opening nightmares began at the Rock. Whatever the reason, just keep the good times rolling and Taylor Hall won’t have to worry about boos next Wednesday after all when you return home.