A good news, bad news kind of weekend for the Devils

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way – it was a lost weekend for the Devils on the ice as they went pointless in both games, losing 3-2 to a desperate Sabres team on Saturday and 4-3 to a talented Caps team this afternoon. I don’t want to waste my time recapping losses so I’ll keep this part of the blog as brief as possible. Against the Sabres, the Devils got hit with an early right hand getting dominated in the first period and going down by three goals before finally finding their legs in the third period with a suddenly hot Kyle Palmieri getting his third goal in two games, and PK Subban finding the back of the net on a power play that’s at least starting to look like an NHL man advantage now after being lost in the woods for most of the season. It wasn’t enough though, as a furious rally came up short in Buffalo.

Against the Caps our issues can be summed up in three words – horrible penalty kill. When you combine the worst PK in the league with no practice time going up against the Caps’ talented unit, the result of three power play goals allowed was somehow predictable. Still it was a bit of a letdown all the same after the Devils jumped out to a much better start in DC, taking an early 2-0 lead after Andreas Johnsson scored a power play goal of his own in the first period for his third of the season, then Jack Hughes scored his fourth early in the second period but by then the Caps had started to impose their respective talent and experience advantages and changed the tide of the game.

After T.J. Oshie got the Caps on the board with their first PP goal midway through the second period, John Carlson tied the game midway through the third against backup goalie Aaron Dell, making his Devils debut at long last after visa and COVID delays, respectively. Dell played credibly, which the Devils are going to need going forward with a schedule that includes a weekend back-to-back and four games pretty much every six or seven days now. Unfortunately credible wasn’t enough against the Caps’ PP, which was humming at peak efficiency against our hapless PK. Oshie scored his second of the game to give the Caps the lead, and Alex Ovechkin put the nail in the coffin late in the third when the Devils unfathomably left the great 8 alone at the side of the net for a layup off an Oshie pass. Both goals came, of course with the man advantage.

I can’t say I spent a lot of time really watching either game although I did listen a lot to Matt and Chico on the radio, which is always fun even in a loss. I started out watching on TV yesterday and wanted to see the return of Steve Cangialosi (who came off the COVID list himself) but once the Devils laid an egg in that first period I went out and listened periodically on the radio network after that. I wasn’t going to deal with the national telecast of Pierre and John Forslund today so I listened mostly to the final two periods on the radio instead. Maybe I’d have been better off just going on total blackout since the roof caved in soon after.

I’d rather dwell on the positive from this weekend, of which there was plenty to report. First off, the Devils actually have a fully healthy lineup for the first time all season – after just a few days ago having an unfathomable nineteen players on the COVID list, the team’s finally all clear without any players in protocol. One of the longest stays on the list was by Travis Zajac but fortunately everything seems good with him and his family at the moment, and Zajac returned to the lineup this weekend – playing his 1000th NHL game in Washington. Maybe he didn’t get the on-ice ceremony such an accomplishment merited but you could do worse for a tribute than this video from family and friends:

To give you an idea of how rare this accomplishment is, Zajac’s only the 351st player in the 100+ years of the NHL to get to 1000 games. Fewer still have done it all with one team, although the Devils have three players who have – Patrik Elias, Ken Daneyko and Zajac. Plus Martin Brodeur who also hit 1000 only with the Devils, but didn’t quite finish his career here. Ironically, GM Tom Fitzgerald was also one of the 350 who have played 1000 games in the league, though not all with the same team. With Zajac on the last year of his contract there is a chance he might move on after the season, or the team could move on from him but hopefully we’ll get to a point where at least some fans will be able to show Zajac some more well-deserved appreciation at the Rock this year. Supposedly governor Murphy has a COVID announcement related to sports on one of the WFAN talk shows Monday morning, ostensibly this will be about fans coming back to the building.

Even Zajac wasn’t the headline off-ice celebration of the weekend though. Included in the return of everyone to the lineup was Nico Hischier’s season debut after a fractured tibia and a COVID stay of his own. Fortunately healthwise everything seems okay, or at least okay as it’s going to be considering Nico had to play a back-to-back in his first action for eleven months after coming off the IR and COVID lists. With Nico’s return came the announcement he would be named the 12th captain in team history, and at just 20 years old on the first year of a seven-year extension it should be a more lengthy tenure than many of our more recent captains.

I admit to being somewhat pleasantly surprised, if only because I wasn’t really thinking or caring in terms of who would be the captain at this point. Maybe it should have occurred to me since Nico hadn’t played they were holding the C for him, but I did kind of figure that it was going to be more of a wait and see with a new staff regardless. There was a couple of different ways you could have gone with the C – Palmieri or Zajac as a placeholder for a Nico or a Hughes down the road but it would have been tough to give it to another guy on a one-year deal after what happened with Zach Parise a few years back. Since then the Devils had given the C to older defensemen – Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene – but appointing Nico definitely signals the dawn of a new day around here.

To his credit, Fitzgerald let Palmieri and Zajac know the decision with Nico beforehand out of respect, and presumably both vets gave their support. Nico himself only found out from the GM the morning of the Sabres game. What a whirlwind of emotions he must have had – returning to the ice for the first time in eleven months after two months of rehab and quarantine, and coming back to the news you’re captain after just three seasons in the NHL. The Devils did a good job on their Nico video as well, with Sal narrating it.

Ironically it was another former Devil (Kevin Weekes) who first broke the news of Nico being named captain on Twitter. Weekes has broken other Devil-related news before, like Lindy Ruff being named coach over the summer. It’s probably not a stretch to see where he gets info from considering his buddy Marty is in our front office now. I was so juiced up over everyone coming back and Nico being the C, I kind of assumed the team would have that same emotion and we’d roll over the Sabres. Perhaps the emotion of everything this week had the opposite effect though, watching the game felt like a letdown compared to the emotion of the off-ice news, maybe playing it felt the same for the players – especially after big, unexpected wins on Monday and Thursday and a rapid-fire schedule not allowing time for any sort of regrouping.

At least the Devils will get another – two! – cracks at both the Sabres and Caps this week with a home-and-home against Buffalo on Tuesday and Thursday, followed by a home back-to-back against the Caps over the weekend to close out February. Our 5-on-5 play has been solid for the most part with a few hiccups, our PP has slowly improved but if one thing is going to be paramount this week it’s finding a way to fix the PK without any real practice time on the schedule. Even Buffalo for all their problems does have a top PP that we have to worry about, never mind how the Caps just abused us so things won’t get any easier for our PK, and our goalies by extension this week.

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