At the Prudential Center last night for the depleted Devils’ shocking win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues, I was texting a friend about the game and at one point he said, ‘they better play like this tomorrow’. My interest in this season is such that it didn’t immediately register who we were playing tomorrow. In fact I didn’t know at all, but his tone clued me in. Looking at the schedule for confirmation, I found out my inference was correct.
Yep…we’re playing the Rangers.
While I’m not following the Devils on a day-in and day-out basis these days, I’m still paying enough attention to the sport in general to know the Rangers have been surging toward a near-miracle playoff berth. Nobody expected them to make the postseason this year, least of all Derek, but I figured their days of rebuilding were over once John Davidson took over and brought in Artemi Panarin in a big splash move that harkened back to Ranger offseasons of yore.
Unlike most of their previous July 1 big splashes though, Panarin’s been worth every dime this year as his transcendent season (93 points in 66 games) has him in contention for the Hart and the Rangers on the brink of a playoff berth just two points behind a suddenly sagging Islanders team. Perhaps the Rangers’ second most important player – at least lately – has been rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin, who’s given them a Sean Burke in 1988-like spark, going 9-1 in his ten starts before a recent car accident shelved him. Fortunately for them, it looks like the rookie goalie will be back just in time for tonight’s all-important game, and a showdown with fellow rookie Mackenzie Blackwood.
Tangibly the Devils have little left to play for this season, but interim coach Alain Nasreddine has gotten more than expected out of a largely motley crew of dissapointments, castoffs and AHL lifers that still remain in the wreckage of our season-ruining October and November. Nasreddine’s gone 18-15-8 in exactly a half-season worth of games, and that’s almost entirely been after the Taylor Hall trade, and lately without Sami Vatanen (injury/trade), Andy Greene (trade) and Blake Coleman (trade). Who even knows who the GM’s going to be after April, let alone the coach? Still, Nasreddine is making a case for not just having this job but for getting an opportunity elsewhere even if the Devils don’t hire him full-time.
You need only to look at last night’s game to see how unlikely the Devils’ surge has been. In goal was Cory Schneider, demoted to the AHL for two straight seasons and speculated as a buyout candidate this offseason despite two years at $6 million remaining on his deal. Even in junktime I wasn’t expecting much from Cory at this point, but since returning from Binghamton he’s 3-0-1 in his four starts, all strong games including a shutout at Anaheim and the first star last night in the Devils’ first win against the Blues in six years(!!!). Scoring our second and third goals were defensemen Dakota Mermis and Connor Carrick – who, what? Mermis has mostly been an AHL lifer and cast off from the Coyotes while Carrick has been a journeyman fringe defenseman who seems to have found a home here for the time being, signed through next year.
Without the traded Vatanen and Greene, or the injured Will Butcher (lost for the season after thumb surgery), the Devils’ defensive group last night included the likes of Mermis and Mirco Mueller playing 20+ minutes, our journeyman third pairing of Carrick and the recently acquired Frederik Claesson playing their fourteen plus minutes, and career middle-pairing D Damon Severson logging prime #1 defenseman icetime (25+ minutes). Somehow it all worked against the defending champs, who unlike last year’s desperation winter surge to the postseason are just looking to fine-tune down the stretch this time, and get the Central Division title with the #1 seed out West for the playoffs.
Up front, our main guns have been struggling lately but Jesper Bratt’s sick first period goal and Joey Anderson’s empty-netter helped pick up the slack, not to mention every person on the D AND Cory all registering at least a point. Whether it’s young players like Bratt and Anderson who the organization wants to develop, or role players looking to earn jobs for next year such as John Hayden and Kevin Rooney – who lost what would have been a sweet goal on an incidental contact goal overturn, and potentially another on a quick whistle in the third period – most of the current lineup at least is playing as if they need to prove something, which almost invariably they do. You don’t crash out of the playoffs by December if you have a lot of sure things on your roster.
To that end, playing against teams like the Rangers fighting for a playoff spot in potential spoiler games can help both the player’s development and management in evaluating them. Coach Nasreddine even said as much when giving his reasoning for playing Cory at home last night, and Blackwood at the Garden tonight in a big showdown game.
It’s not often fans get geeked up to play spoiler, unless it’s against a rival like the Rangers. Make no mistake though, the Devils will have an impact on the East playoff race one way or another with no fewer than seven of their final fifteen games against the Rangers, Islanders, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Panthers (including two apiece against the Islanders and Hurricanes). So far this season the Devils haven’t spoiled much other than their own season since October, losing their two most recent games against the Rangers in blowout losses. And for an additional kernel of motivation, the Devils can amazingly enough get back to NHL .500 with a win tonight, however much that means considering our 12 OT/SO losses (27-28-12).
I’ll probably have the game on which is more than I can say for most of our remaining games, but how long I keep it on will probably depend on our start. If this is going to be an actual back-and-forth playoff game as you might expect in a big rivalry showdown, then I’ll probably stay into it – especially after last night’s surprisingly fun game. If it’s turning into another walkover for the Rangers, then it’ll be a quick click of the remote.