One of the stories not being covered is the play of Yegor Sharangovich. The 22-year old Devils rookie forward has been playing well of late. At the moment, it’s the play of the STK Line that’s sparked some improvement.
It was on display in the Devils 4-3 win at the fading Flyers to give them their fourth victory over the last five. The line featuring the budding Sharangovich with fellow rookie Janne Kuokkanen and veteran center Travis Zajac combined for six points (2-4-6) and a plus-three to highlight the club’s 12th win in their 30th game.
In holding off a late Flyers’ push thanks to ace goalie Mackenzie Blackwood making 30 saves on 33 shots with none bigger than holding his near goalpost on a good short side attempt from James van Riemsdyk with under a minute left, the Devils pulled within six points of fifth place Philadelphia. With 26 games remaining, they trail the COVID stricken Bruins by eight points for fourth place in the unpredictable East Division. The Rangers are four up on them for sixth and have two games versus the Flyers later this week.
With only nine wins in regulation and not enough consistent offense, the playoffs are a reach. Even the odds are against the Hudson rival Rangers making it due to Boston still having seven games remaining against the woeful Sabres. A lot of crazy stuff would have to happen to alter the top four that features the Islanders, Capitals, Penguins and Bruins, who remain idle with just 28 games played. With regulation wins the number one tiebreaker, it’s highly unlikely that the Devils aren’t sellers at the NHL Trade Deadline.
That could mean proven finisher Kyle Palmieri goes to a contender. Both the Bruins and Islanders should be interested. Boston lacking secondary scoring and the Isles needing a replacement for captain Anders Lee. Plus there’s the Lou Lamoriello factor. Connect the dots. Palmieri, who scored what amounted to a big go-ahead goal with 5.8 seconds left in the first period, could wind up elsewhere. He’s up at the conclusion of the season. Even though it hasn’t been a good year for him, Palmieri can still bring valuable assets back.
Facing a struggling rival that’s imploded recently, the Devils took advantage of some lackadaisical defense to win on the road for the eighth time in 13 games. Remarkably, they’re 8-3-2 away from The Prudential Center. If they played better at home, who knows. For whatever reason, coach Lindy Ruff’s team plays its best hockey on the road.
In a first period mostly controlled by the New Jersey side of the I-95 Turnpike Rivalry, the Devils started out well. Checking center Mike McLeod started the scoring at 9:52 when he took a good pass from rookie Ty Smith and broke in behind the Flyers defense to beat Carter Hart. It was a nice finish with McLeod able to go upstairs for his fourth from Smith and Andreas Johnsson. The goal broke an 16-game drought. His last pair came at Buffalo on 1/31.
With not much happening for the Flyers, they got a boost from Smith who interfered with Jakub Voracek. On the ensuing power play, a Voracek shot rebounded to Joel Farabee, who had three whacks at it before the puck squeaked by Blackwood to tie the game at 12:43. They used only 50 seconds to convert on the man-advantage.
But in a period where the Devils were the better attacking team, Mikhail Maltsev was able to draw a holding minor on an incensed Travis Sanheim with 1:26 left. He and Flyers bench boss Alain Vigneault might not have agreed with the call, but it was the right one.
With time winding down in the first, Kevin Hayes tried to glove down a loose puck and move it to a teammate. However, two Flyers penalty killers fumbled it allowing a pressuring Kuokkanen to steal the puck. He passed it to Jesper Bratt, who quickly dished across for a Palmieri one-timer that found its destination past a stunned Hart at 19:54. His sixth goal was a big one. It gave the Devils momentum.
Following some power failures on consecutive chances early in the second period, some more good work from Kuokkanen and Zajac on the forecheck resulted in a beautiful goal by Sharangovich to make it 3-1 at about the halfway point. On the scoring play, they applied strong pressure on defenseman Philippe Myers, who coughed up the puck along the boards. That allowed Kuokkanen (2 assists) and Zajac (goal and assist) to combine to set up Sharangovich for his seventh in the slot. A perfect one-timer that gave him his third goal in six. He’s been getting chances almost every game.
While the Devils played well offensively, Blackwood did his part making some key stops to keep them ahead by two. It was another Flyers defensive breakdown late in the period that lead to a huge insurance marker from Zajac.
On some more poor defending by the Flyers, the Devils out-hustled them to get the all important fourth goal. It was a forechecking Sharangovich who started a nice play to Smith, whose centering pass was tipped in by an open Zajac at 19:36. It was the 35-year old veteran’s fourth. He doesn’t get many goals anymore, but nobody can question Zajac’s effort. With a goal and helper, he very quietly has 14 points (4-10-14) in what could be his final season in New Jersey. A very good Devil who’s played all 1,016 games with one franchise after going number 20 in the ’04 NHL Draft, the two-way pivot needs two more goals for 200. He’s posted a respectable 544 points (198-346-544). He’s a good leader for the kids to follow.
The third period was predictably more quiet for the Devils. With that dreaded “three-goal lead,” as the legendary Stan Fischler would always say during telecasts, they sat back a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t by design. Sometimes, it just happens.
They still got seven shots on Hart, who held his team in from further embarrassment. This is after all a team that’s allowed an inordinate amount of goals during a very bad stretch that saw them give up a nine spot to their next opponent as well as six to the Islanders in another lopsided loss before playing them on even terms in a 2-1 overtime loss on Monday night.
With all of the play at even strength, it didn’t look like the Flyers had any intentions of a comeback. During the first half of the period, the Devils did a solid job protecting the house. However, Sean Couturier made things interesting when he scored the first of two with 8:23 left to cut it to 4-2. On a quick hitter, Travis Konecny was able to make a good centering feed down low for a Couturier tip in.
After getting scored on, New Jersey responded with a couple of good offensive shifts. They then defended well in front of Blackwood to keep the lead at two. It looked like it would stay that way.
However, the Flyers wouldn’t go away easily. With Vigneault lifting Hart for an extra attacker with 2:42 left in regulation, Philadelphia started to apply the pressure during a six-on-five. Following an icing, they used their timeout where veteran assistant coach Michel Therrien drew up a play.
On it, Couturier was able to beat Zajac with help from Konecny. On a quick Claude Giroux one-timer that Blackwood kicked out, a good recovery from Van Riemsdyk allowed Voracek to find Couturier open for a one-timer that gave him his second goal of the period with 62 seconds remaining.
Just like that, the Devils’ lead was down to one with enough time for the Flyers to force extras. However, it wasn’t to be. On a last ditch effort, the Flyers created an opportunity off a rebound. Blackwood held his near goalpost to deny a Van Riemsdyk bid. That clutch stop clinched the victory.
Following a big clear, the Flyers tried to fire down. Hoping for a player to direct the puck in, it missed connection leading to an icing with a few seconds to spare. With the face-off back in their end, the Devils were able to kill the remaining time to earn the win.
They deserved to come out on top. They were the better team overall and out-worked the Flyers for most of the game. Philadelphia didn’t do enough to get back on track. Instead, they lost for the third time in a row and fourth over five. In the four defeats, they’ve allowed 21 goals with the 9-0 drubbing at the hands of the Rangers on Saint Patty’s Day their version of the Philadelphia Massacre.
For the Devils, it was a good win. They have played better hockey. Even with Jack Hughes struggling to put up points, they’re getting good production from Kuokkanen, Sharangovich and Zajac. It helps that Blackwood has returned and won his two starts after Scott Wedgewood spelled him. He’s been sharp by stopping 65 of 69 shots. Exactly what they need from their starting goalie.
Next up for the Devils are the Caps tonight and Friday in DC. With the Bruins also scheduled for two in Boston if they’re ready by Sunday, and then the Caps visiting Newark for a two-game series on April 2-4, these six games will be a big test. It could determine what GM Tom Fitzgerald decides to do at the trade deadline on April 12.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Ty Smith, Devils (2 🍎, +3 in 19:17)
2nd 🌟 Travis Zajac, Devils (goal plus 🍎, 2 SOG, +1 in 16:18)
1st 🌟 Yegor Sharangovich, Devils (7th goal plus 🍎, 4 SOG, +1 in 16:05)