Despite the Devils’ 6-3-2 start my confidence in this team was – and is – exceedingly fragile. Even after their first loss to the Sabres last week, I feared the worst and it seemed as if the worst was happening with a three-game losing streak heading into tonight’s third game against the Sabres in a week span, and being stoned (again) by Linus Ullmark in the first period when he started out hot with a fifteen-save first. Of course, we caught a break in that one of those saves – a ten-bell one on Nico Hischier – injured the Sabres goalie and he didn’t return after the first period. Sabres’ franchise center Jack Eichel was also a last-minute scratch after warmups with a lower body injury.
If we couldn’t beat the Sabres without Ullmark or Eichel that would have been extremely problematic, but we were up against it after falling behind in the first period, predictably due to more PK hijinks. No not our hideous penalty kill but a PK Subban turnover behind the net that wound up on the stick of Riley Sheahan for an easy goal in front. Of course the actual team PK was no better either, giving up goals in both the second and third period as our historically bad penalty kill continues to roll along.
It’s really hard to pinpoint who to scapegoat for this unmitigated disaster, but when you’re at about 60% as a team and falling sixteen games into a season that’s not just bad, it’s historically awful. It just seems like a perfect storm of awfulness right now – having to replace key PK’ers like Blake Coleman, Andy Greene and even Kevin Rooney in a short season without much of a camp to implement the system or without practice days in-season to adjust and fine-tune things. Do we finger Lindy Ruff, whose PK’s have been bad all over the map the last several years? Assistant Alain Nasreddine, who was surprisingly kept after an outside hire (Ruff) this offseason?
Obviously the players themselves get some blame too, but what can really be done at this point? If you fire Nasreddine, how is a new coach going to implement a system in a season where you’re only playing games with few off days, and your so-called practices consist of Zoom calls and iPhone diagrams? You could try to switch around personnel but that’s already happened to an extent with most of the regulars back in the lineup, but things are only getting worse. It might have to fall on GM Tom Fitzgerald to make some roster tweaks at this point.
Fortunately the Devils showed the resilience tonight they have for much of the season and somehow overcame their awful PK, the ‘somehow’ best translated as a newly constructed line of Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha. Hischier predictably had struggled his first few games back after being on the shelf, Bratt had no goals in his first eight games and Zacha had been demoted to the fourth line as recently as a few games ago coming off the COVID break, but putting all of them together produced magic tonight. Bratt got the Devils on the board early in the second (and got off the schneid) with what can best be described as a video-game goal
After the Devils’ penalty fail put them behind again in the second period, Miles Wood tied the game early in the third period – first by earning a four-minute power play, then he got rewarded for his trouble by getting a nice rebound goal in front. It would be Hischier who put the Devils in front with a nice effort play a couple minutes later, diving to keep the puck in the zone then getting back to the net and taking advantage of good puck possession and a nice pass from Zacha to also score his first of the year. Of course the penalty fail lived down to its name once again with Sam Reinhart tying the game at 15:30. Thankfully the Bratt and Zacha combo re-ignited in OT when Bratt drew the defenders and left a drop pass for an open Zacha, who didn’t waste a golden chance to end the game and score his fifth of the season (and his third point of the game overall).
I may have to eat some crow on Zacha soon, quietly he’s had 10 goals and 26 points in his last 35 games from the end of January last year to now. I’m still not a full believer, but shockingly it’s the quiet Czech winger (seemingly now moved there from center) who leads the team in points with 12 in 15 games this season. For all the players like Damon Severson, Ty Smith and others who have had an obvious jump in their games post-coaching change last year, why can’t Zacha be another one of those guys who breaks out with this staff?
One thing’s for sure, tonight’s win couldn’t have come soon enough for the Devils’ ticket reps with sales on March home games beginning for season ticket holders today and the general public tomorrow. For a cliffs notes version of things, while prices are normal enough all things considered it’s the fact you have to buy at least two tickets with them being totally digital and non-transferable that’ll probably keep me out of the building this season. Not that I’m looking to flip tickets in this environment mind you, but it’s hard to find people willing to go to games under these circumstances. I don’t mind going by myself in a normal season – but I’m not going to go myself if I have to buy two tickets in a staid environment. Plus technically all you’re supposed to be part of the same household to use so-called block tickets but I have no earthly idea how they’d ever enforce that.
Hopefully there will be enough fans in the building next Tuesday to make themselves heard. I might have to wait till October for that, ideally this season can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things from next year on when I have already paid for season tickets, but things aren’t gonna get any easier for the moment with this schedule and our PK woes. Next up another two-game ‘series’ with the Caps, who put up a cool three PP goals on us in a single game last weekend. Hopefully it won’t be that bad at least this weekend…