Finally, the long local nightmare is over. The Devils’ losing streak mercifully – and barely – stopped at ten straight games after a wild home win over the Flyers on Tuesday where they blew 3-0 and 4-3 leads. Fortunately, the Devils counterpunched quickly with Yegor Sharangovich’s 12th goal of the season just eleven seconds after the Flyers tied it in the third period, and they went on to win 6-4 in a game that must have been more of a relief than a celebration for everyone involved. When Miles Wood was asked earlier in the week what his individual goals were for the rest of the season he answered ‘honestly, my goal’s just to win a game right now’. Not quite Jim Mora on an emotional scale, but certainly similar in terms of meaning.
As so often happens once the pressure of ending a long dry spell is over, the team relaxed on Thursday and pumped home five goals on just nineteen shots in their second straight win over the Flyers. Wonder of wonders, both games were at the Prudential Center where the Devils have only won six times all year, two of them coming this week. It was the amazing Sharangovich who got the Devils off and running on Thursday, after scoring the winner in Tuesday’s game he added two more in the first period the other night. Even more shockingly, both goals were on the power play – a sore spot for the Devils and their fans all season. Back to back games, the Devils managed to win in regulation and never fell behind. Though it was just an afterthought at this point, eliminating the Flyers from postseason contention is a nice reward for a young team that is hanging in there in a hopeless cause.
A team meeting, that was held after one of the most desultory losses of all last Thursday in Pittsburgh seemed to help matters. Again, surprisingly it was the 25-year old Wood (who’s earned more of a leadership role this season) that summed up the current state of the team well:
“We all called the team together. And I was basically saying that these last 10 games are a tryout for each player on this team. You can’t take a game for granted, and that’s exactly what I said. This is the best league in the world, we’re all here to play hockey but at the end of the day, they’re trying to find out which players they want to keep here. And I basically said this is it, this is your 10-game tryout. See what you can do in the last 10 games.”
To be fair, it was also good timing to have a meeting right before your only NHL goalie in Mackenzie Blackwood returned to the lineup last Saturday. For whatever ills the Devils had in the previous few games it’s hard to expect anyone to compete when you know the third-rate goaltending’s gonna spot the other team a field goal before the game starts. Ironically you’re seeing this in the team we played this week too, the Flyers’ goaltending has been awful all season though unlike the Devils right now, they’ve almost completely checked out on the season. I’d hardly call Blackwood great in his post-injury starts but you can certainly see the difference with both goaltending itself and the team at large merely having an NHL-caliber player in the net.
It was telling that coach Lindy Ruff played Blackwood in a back-to-back immediately after returning to the lineup, and said he would play the vast majority of games remaining in the season. Coach Ruff was clearly getting tired of substandard goaltending putting the team behind the eight-ball, not to mention desperate to finally break the losing streak. Which they should have last Sunday before finally breaking through at the Rock this week. Perhaps the only good thing about this season’s current predicament is when the team does win you can invariably point to younger guys playing well as a main reason why.
Pavel Zacha, back at home on the wing has contributed a goal and an assist in back-to-back games. Fortunately now that we have all our centers back, the staff can finally admit the obvious, that Zacha is a winger going forward and not a center where he’s just never produced the way he has on the wing this year. Wood, Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist and Mikhail Maltsev also scored goals in the Devils’ modest two-game winning streak over the Flyers as did journeyman Connor Carrick whose two-point effort on Tuesday represented his first points of the season, including this crucial goal in the third when the Devils were reeling.
Of course if there was a such thing as a ‘combined first star’ for the two wins, it would be Sharangovich – who scored three goals in the two games upping his season total to 14. He may not win the Calder trophy that’s earmarked for Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota, but if there was an award for most value from a rookie draft pick, the 2018 fifth-rounder Sharangovich would be right in the mix for that. For a guy who only had ten goals and twenty-five points in 57 AHL games last year, this season’s pro breakout in two leagues was completely unexpected and in many ways underappreciated. If you combine his NHL and KHL numbers, Sharangovich has put up 31 goals and 51 points in 82 professional games this season. Not bad for a 22-year old who wasn’t even supposed to make the team this year.
It’s also nice to have a player whose professed goal for the rest of the season is to ‘score more goals’. For too long the scale between playmakers and scorers on this team has been tilted too far toward playmakers and not enough to actual scorers. In many ways Sharangovich has given us what Kyle Palmieri was supposed to have given us this season, although he’s not quite up to the 55-point level peak K-Palm gave us, he’s certainly provided the goalscoring of previous seasons K-Palm. His breakout, Zacha’s finding himself on the wing and Bratt’s improvement has made our outlook for wingers a bit better going into next season at least. On a team where the top two centers are set, that’s not insignificant.
Of course for all the young forwards we have, we still need to beef up the defense. Although Ty Smith’s had a terrific rookie season (.5 PPG), even he’s still playing somewhat protected minutes. Damon Severson continues to be what he is, someone whose skill set is there but is very inconsistent in practice, and those were our best two defensemen available this week. Against a better team with actual NHL goaltending I’m not sure we’d have broken the losing streak yet, with PK Subban still in recovery from COVID, rotating other guys in and out of the lineup. Prospect Kevin Bahl even made his NHL debut the other night, after an uneven first full season in Binghamton. Our defensive struggles surely haven’t made Blackwood’s life any easier, as he’s arguably taken a step back this year because of the one-two punch of COVID combined with our penalty kill/overall D – particularly post-deadline.
I’m not sure what the D can really do over the final May stretch of six games to make me feel better about their prospects for next season, but if the forwards continue to play well and Blackwood doesn’t completely implode, I suppose that’s all you can ask for what’s essentially become the beginning of the 2021-22 preseason.