Riding a three-game losing streak heading into this afternoon’s rematch with the Sabres, the Devils got even more bad news before the game when Kyle Palmieri was placed on the COVID list, joining Travis Zajac (added yesterday) and Mackenzie Blackwood (added a week ago) as suspected virus absences, to go along with the quarantining Aaron Dell, Sami Vatanen and Connor Carrick with the latter on the list due to being away from the team because of his wife expecting while the former two finally getting their visas and expected to join the team sometime in the next week. Even Nico Hischier has started skating and seems to be finally on the mend, not a moment too soon since we’re losing guys faster than they come back.
At the moment however, the starting lineup looked more like a preseason game where you’d only have a few vets at a time play and the rest kids trying to make the team. Starting in goal where Eric Comrie made his team debut after Scott Wedgewood had played the previous five games. It’s okay, I never heard of Comrie before last month either (he of the 4.07 GAA and .873 save percentage in nine career NHL starts). Heck I’ve barely heard of Mikhail Maltsev – a 4th round pick in 2016 – who made his NHL debut today, replacing Palmieri in the lineup.
Ironically it was another more ballyhooed 2016 draftee that stole the show this afternoon in Buffalo with two goals including a spectacular breakaway just twenty seconds into the game, off of a nearly ice-length feed from PK Subban. Full disclosure, I haven’t been a believer in Mike McLeod ever, starting from when he was drafted. It always seemed like his offensive touch was lacking and he never had enough other tools besides speed that could play at the NHL level. However this year McLeod’s come out with a vengeance, both in reinventing himself as a guy who can bang on the fourth line, and in maybe, just maybe finding a scoring touch. Coming into this season McLeod didn’t have a single goal in 33 NHL games and just five assists, and his AHL scoring numbers weren’t much better.
After today’s game and some other recent performances I’m starting to believe, and maybe in more than just McLeod.
Scoring his first NHL goal five days ago surely took some pressure off, and after adding an assist in yesterday’s shootout loss he – and fellow fourth-liners Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood – caused havoc all afternoon against the Sabres. Listening on the radio, Matt and Chico (can’t remember which of them said it) invoked the Crash Line of the glory days and also compared the current fourth line to the incoming snowstorm that’s going to hit the north Jersey area later on this evening. I can’t say I disagree with the latter, they’ll have to show more scoring touch over time to measure up with the Crash Line which had two guys on it that later played consistent top six minutes for the Devils. Can say, Wood and McLeod get to that level someday? Right now I’m more confident in the former than the latter, but they’re both playing well.
If you think I’m spending an inordinate amount of time on the fourth line well read on but in fact it was the de facto first line that combined for the Devils’ second goal, with just under seventeen seconds remaining in the first with a resurgent Andreas Johnsson getting his second goal in two games, albeit a flukish goal that deflected in off the winger from a rebound of a Ty Smith point shot. However, good things happen when you go to the net as Johnsson did there, and his goal also gave Smith his seventh point of the season as he continues to build on a nice rookie season.
Midway through the second period the Devils had a chance to put a firmer grip on the game but after Pavel Zacha’s painful miss of an open net you could just feel the immediate momentum shift, and BANG the Sabres roared back into the game with successive goals from Curtis Lazar and Rasmus Dahlin less than ninety seconds apart. Predictably Dahlin’s goal came on our penalty non-kill, which has been almost as brutal as the powerless play this year. Going 0-3 on the PP and 2-4 on the PK suggest there is still a lot of room for improvement on our not-so special teams after today’s game.
Perhaps the only good thing is it gave the Devils another opportunity to show their resilience and they staggered Buffalo with yet another late-period goal, this one by Wood with less than a second remaining on the clock after putting home a rebound from his own shot. If you’re familiar with US Hockey’s Miracle On Ice win over the Russians, Wood’s goal was almost a carbon copy of Mark Johnson’s game-changing goal in the final second of the first period – breakaway, shoot it on the goalie, deke him out on the rebound.
This game was always going to be one of fits and starts though, given the questionable talent level and goaltending on the ice for both teams. Our powerless play again gave it up less than four minutes into the period when Rasmus Ristolainen scored to tie it at 3, and this after Johnsson had cut short a power play of our own getting a penalty off a second faceoff violation. As Chico pointed out on the radio though, when you have a new-ish rule and a winger who’s not used to taking faceoffs, sometimes you just have to remind them to get conservative on the second faceoff.
As has been the case for most of this young season however, when one guys screws up another steps up to bail them out, or in this case three when Crash Line 2.0 scored their second goal of the night and everyone got into the act, starting with a Bastian hit that won the puck, and a Wood feed to a wide open McLeod in front for his second goal of the night. Amazing when you can double your career NHL goal total in your 42nd career game. McLeod’s second of the night stood as the game winner and Wood finally sealed a back-and-forth game with an ice-length empty netter for his second of the game as well. Four of the five goals came from our <cough> fourth line which was more or less like a second line by the end of the night.
With the win, the Devils picked up three of a possible four points in Buffalo, doing what they needed to do to try to stay afloat until the cavalry comes back. Of course in this of all seasons, will any team ever really be at full strength? It would be nice to get our starting goaltender and a top six center back at least and go from there. Vatanen’s addition would help too, although Matt Tennyson’s been a hold the fort guy on D even that’s more than can be expected from a career fringe guy. Of course it’s nice to have a staff that can actually get the most out of its younger players for a change. It’s also nice to be about 15% of the way through the season and not be out of the race yet, unlike last year.
Of course this year being what it is, and having two new COVID absences in the span of thirty-six hours puts our immediate schedule (another two-game road series, this time in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Thursday) in jeopardy. That is if you even know what the rules are on the NHL postponing games, I don’t. There have already been games postponed this year, you would think multiple cases on the same team constituting a breakout would increase the chances of a schedule delay but the NHL, like seemingly all sports leagues, seem content to play it by ear and not have a hard and fast rule on x number of new cases means y in terms of rescheduling. Which only adds even more uncertainty to what already exists not knowing whether guys are on the COVID list because of a positive test or a close contact.
eNJoy the ride seems more fitting of a moniker by the day, this season’s been a roller coaster so far.