New year brings new hope

Despite a 5-2-1 stretch heading into the new year I remained skeptical about the Devils’ ability to maintain their recent run, especially with a schedule that doesn’t get any easier heading into the long All-Star break in a little over two weeks.  Particularly facing an Islanders team that has been among the best in the league this year, and beat us all four times last year after the Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz braintrust took over on Long Island.  Even when the Islanders have had bad teams, Nassau and Brooklyn have both usually been a house of horrors for us anyway.  And oh yes, #1 overall pick Jack Hughes had to miss tonight’s game due to injury – though it didn’t prevent him from making the shootout winner two days ago in a stirring New Year’s Eve victory over the Bruins – another team that’s had its way with us in recent years.

I also had to miss tonight’s game, not due to injury but a prior commitment.  Nobody was more surprised than me when I did check the score with seconds to go in the third period when the last I’d seen of it was after the Islanders had scored in the second to take the lead and had another goal waved off due to interference.  This Devils team is showing a fight they haven’t for much of the season though (really since the 2018 playoff run), bookending goals from PK Subban and Nico Hischier late in the second period and early in the third.  Subban’s blast was something we really haven’t seen from the former Norris winner all season and he’s finally starting to look like the Subban of old as opposed to an old Subban, while Nico continues to mature before our very eyes, picking up the scoring pace after his own slow start.

Even with a third-period lead, the early-season Devils were certainly no lock to win a game like this but give credit where credit is due, a rookie coach (Alain Nasreddine) has them playing with purpose and a little more structure, while a rookie goalie (Mackenzie Blackwood) is shutting the door the way no other Devils goalie has since Keith Kinkaid’s six-week spurt in 2018.  Although other rookies like Cale Makar have been statistically more impressive, Blackwood is starting to get some consideration for the Calder trophy, as he only played 23 games this year so he’s technically eligible.  A fact that surprised both me and coach Nasreddine in his presser after the Bruins shootout win.

I would have liked to have listened to the last few seconds on the radio but as it’s very rare to catch a game on WFAN anymore, I still have to remember to turn it on my phone with the dopey internet streaming signal.  Maybe I’ll watch some of the replay tomorrow or not since I just realized the game was on NBCSN and not MSG, in any case it has been a while since the Devils have had a win like this over the Islanders.  Though not a hated rival per se, they’ve been an annoying gnat over the last several years and it’s only been exacerbated by Lou resurfacing there after being pushed out as Devils GM, then leaving the Leafs after his contract expired.  Lou’s success in both Toronto and with the Islanders has only thrown our failed rebuild into further stark light.

For one night at least, we showed we weren’t their patsies though.  And have now improved to 6-2-1 in our last nine games, starting to inspire shades of both the 2010-11 Devils’ second half run and the 2019 Jets’ second-half surge.  Really our season is starting to parallel with my Jets in a startlingly similar fashion.  Lose a horrifically epic opener at home, setting the tone for a dreadful first half then rally in the second half, too late to make a difference for this season but hopefully not too late to carry some momentum into next season.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of a good second half would be Nasreddine, who’s making a case for full-time employment and making me start to order crow from the menu.  I criticized his hire as GM Ray Shero just not wanting to admit that his own vision and system have failed, so he just changed the voice hoping to buy more time – but sometimes changing the voice can be important too.  Especially since Nas seems more patient and aware of what’s going on.  While there is a clear difference between a junktime surge and winning when it matters, we probably aren’t going to get winning when it matters the rest of this season anyway.  What we do need out of the second half is for our veterans like Subban and Travis Zajac to show they aren’t washed up while younger players continue to develop.

For now I’m glad I just have some level of excitement back.  After selling my tickets to Saturday’s game a few days ago just wanting to get rid of them and also having plans Saturday night, part of me wishes I could go now.  But as it is I’m going Tuesday during our return match against the Isles on Retro Night, and am still gunshy after only seeing two wins in my eleven home games in attendance (one of them a game against the Penguins which Blackwood stole, that didn’t feel like a win) and a myriad of blown leads.

Not to mention questions still remain…will we ever find a way to get wins from a goalie not named Blackwood? (since we still have only one win in twelve non-Blackwood starts)  What will happen closer to the trade deadline with other FA’s to be like Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Wayne Simmonds barring a miracle Blues-like surge back into the race against the odds in a brutal Eastern Conference?  Yes they’ve already traded Taylor Hall, but more and more that’s starting to look like addition by subtraction in another parallel to 2010, where another coach firing and the trading of our sulking captain (Jamie Langenbrunner) was the impetus for the second half surge.  Even the knowledgeable Trotz acknowledged as much in the pregame:

Somewhat surprisingly, Arizona’s started to struggle after acquiring Hall as well, though that’s less consequential to us other than determining the position of the first-round draft pick we eventually get from them.  It’s ironic if trading Hall did spur the team on, since the team was clearly carried by Hall in 2017-18 and struggled largely without him in 2018-19 but that combined with the coach firing has jolted a new energy in the room that hasn’t been around much lately.  For now that’s about all we can hope for.

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