In the season’s opening two games the Devils managed to take three of a possible four points from the defending President’s Cup winning Bruins, but those games looked like an anomaly (at least from the Boston end) given that Boston had won nine of their previous eleven games and were missing key goalscorer David Pastrnak in the opening two-game series in New Jersey. Of course Pasta was back for the teams’ third matchup in Boston while we still had two of our top three centers (Nico Hischier and Travis Zajac) out of the lineup due to COVID absences. Admittedly I didn’t have much faith in the Devils to keep up their winning form playing a better opponent than in Tuesday’s surprising return victory, and the Bruins would surely be taking us more seriously than they might have at the beginning of the season…but this team just continues to earn faith and not let anything stop them.
Instead of the 5-2 loss I was expecting, I tuned in early in the second period with the Devils already up 1-0 after a beauty of a goal from Kyle Palmieri, which really translates into a beauty of a feed from Jack Hughes, whose no-look drop pass against the grain gave K-Palm a near gimme that he didn’t waste, finally getting on the board for his first goal of the season.
And given the old adage goalscorers can be streaky, it figures K-Palm’s second wasn’t too far off either, getting another just minutes later while shorthanded when Damon Severson’s chip eluded two Bruins off the boards and got to a streaking Palmieri for another breakaway goal. Unfortunately Palm giveth and taketh away on the same penalty kill, when an ill-advised clear toward the middle got intercepted by Jake DeBrusk, who scored and then played to the crowd of empty seats with his goal celebration afterwards. Oh well…given the Devils had three minutes to kill after a double minor on PK Subban canceled out our usually ineffective power play, I’ll take a net zero on that with the lead.
Especially given what was to follow when Pavel Zacha might have had the best shift of his NHL career, spinning away from Bruin defenders twice with the puck and then finding the open spot at the side of the net for a nice feed from Andreas Johnsson to restore the Devils’ two goal lead. I haven’t been a Zacha believer in a long time but he seems to be playing with a purpose since the pause. Maybe being briefly demoted to the fourth line against the Rangers spurred him, sometimes it seems like tough love is the only thing that motivates the quiet Czech.
Truth be told however, coach Lindy Ruff is getting the best out of all of our younger players right now. After getting protected minutes early in the season, Ty Smith has played 20+ in both games since the pause, alongside Severson on the team’s top pairing with neither looking out of place. Severson’s been playing the best hockey of his career this year too, though his play has steadily improved since the in-season coaching change last year. Not much needs to be said about Mackenzie Blackwood in goal, fighting through personal doubts over his conditioning in the wake of his COVID illness with his second strong outing in three days.
After being a surprise healthy scratch for the first nine games of the season, Will Butcher finally returned to the lineup post-pause (in part due to Ryan Murray missing both with suspected food poisoning) and responded with a goal Tuesday and another assist tonight, averaging over eighteen minutes of icetime in these two games. With Sami Vatanen making his return to the lineup tonight, there’ll be healthy competition on the blueline for the first time in a long while. It seems like forever since John Moore was a top four D for multiple seasons here, now reduced to being an expensive injury fill-in for Boston.
All of our young forwards have been buying in and none have looked out of place, though it’s the Crash Line 2.0 of Miles Wood, Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian that is more asthetically pleasing and all have traveled interesting roads. Wood, while being a regular for the last few years has seldom matched the level of play he briefly flashed in 2017-18, until now. Going into the season he made a point of saying it was time to grow up and act like a veteran, and perhaps being on a line with two rookies does give him added responsibility. McLeod was a first round pick in 2016 that was largely labeled as a disappointment in his brief pro career until he quickly reinvented himself, from the talented skater who couldn’t score to a gritty, physical center that gets under people’s skin popping in the occasional goal. Bastian – who was a second rounder in the same draft as McLeod – looked like a pro in his initial debut late in 2018-19, and followed that up with a solid AHL season last year before earning a spot in the Opening Night lineup this year and not looking back.
All in all there’ll be some interesting lineup decisions for Ruff to make when (if?) we actually have a fully healthy lineup at any point. At one point saying the Devils had an interchangeable flock of forwards was looked at as an insult but how else do you describe the balance up and down the lineup? No forward played below eleven minutes tonight, no forward above eighteen and change. Who’s going to come out of the lineup? You look at a guy like Janne Kuokkanen who started the season on the fourth line, despite struggling offensively early the staff saw something in him and promoted him to a top six role for a couple of games…and he responded with a three-assist night against the Rangers and overall has six points in eleven games. Yegor Sharangovich hasn’t scored often yet but he’s made his goals count with two game-winners.
Going into the season I scoffed at the notion that whatever results happened, all that matters is the younger players play well. I scoffed because you can’t have it both ways, if the younger players don’t play well the team won’t win. If they do then you’ll almost certainly see better results than we’ve had in recent seasons. So far they’ve done the latter in spades. For a while tonight actually looked like it was going to be an easier than expected win but if there’s been one downer so far this season (besides that whole two week COVID pause), it’s been special teams. Our PP has been hopeless pretty much all season ranking in the bottom five of the league while the PK was dead last before going 1-3 tonight.
What started as an uplifting sequence – the entire team sticking up for Hughes after a predictable Brad Marchand cheap shot left the Bruins in a 5-on-3 hole early in the third period – turned into a momentum swing for the Bruins after they killed it off. It wasn’t until the Bruins’ own power play late in the game when they were able to pull the goalie and get a 6-on-4 that they were finally able to dent Blackwood though, and it was none other than Pastrnak who scored on a tip-in to set up a frantic finish in the final ten seconds…but this time Blackwood would stone the same Pastrnak to seal the two points and another surprise win over Boston.
Devils Three Stars:
- Kyle Palmieri (two goals, 17:45 TOI – we’ll overlook his one mistake)
- Pavel Zacha (highlight-reel goal – that’s enough for me to give him the #2 star)
- Damon Severson (assist, 22:54 TOI)