Many times Opening Night can be misleading or just a one-off in a long season. There have been a few times where the Devils’ opener portended things to come – 2009 and 2019 when they blew huge leads in craptacular fashion certainly served to foreshadow disasterous starts that got both coaches fired by midseason. Conversely in 2017, the Devils’ young guns sent a message to the league in a convincing win over the Avs and that wound up foreshadowing a surprising playoff year. Of course, in most other years Opening Night really is just one game – for example the Devils started 0-3-1 in their first Stanley Cup year of 1995, and suffered a desultory 3-0 season-opening loss at the Rock to the Flyers before their last season of May and June hockey (2011-12).
Hopefully last night, we’ll at least look back at the opener as a statement made by one individual player…Jack Hughes who scored two huge goals, including a gorgeous OT winner that saved the Devils’ bacon after blowing a late 3-1 lead against the Blackhawks in the final minutes of the third. Make no mistake about it, the Devils are gonna need their meal tickets – Hughes, recent free agent acquisition Dougie Hamilton and fellow #1 overall pick Nico Hischier to lead the way out of the wilderness for this franchise. So far so good last night with two of them scoring three of our four goals, Nico was within a couple of inches of scoring off the post in the third, but hopefully many better days are ahead for him.
Before recapping the dramatic finish, let’s start at the beginning, or rather before it. There was a lot of anticipation for last night’s game, being the first one with unlimited fan attendance at the Prudential Center since the pandemic started last Spring. As much as I was looking forward to be back and glad to be back for my first home game in over nineteen months, I was also a bit annoyed the Devils were one of the few teams in the NHL without any kind of COVID policy or restrictions until a couple of days ago. The half-baked policy they rolled out at the last minute is an insult to our intelligence tbh, ostensibly you can enter the arena without a mask if you produce proof of vaccination and with a mask if you don’t, plus you’re only supposed to take off your mask for food and drink once you’re in the arena. Let’s face it though, you can’t really enforce a mask policy with over 15,000 people in the arena – everyone’s basically on their honor once they enter the building. Just adding in having to produce proof of vaccination ‘or a negative test in the last 48 hours’ would do so much more, and is actually enforceable unlike what basically amounts to a toothless mask request, but god forbid we annoy the chuds in our crowd such as the one a few rows in front of me that wore an ‘everything woke turns to ****’ shirt last night.
All that aside, it was nice to be back and enjoy the better elements of the crowd. Even if I didn’t miss the bumper to bumper foot traffic during intermissions and walking out after ‘sellout’ games. Sure, last night was called a sellout and it was closer than I thought it was going to be a few days ago, but I’m always skeptical of that when pockets of the upper corners had plenty of room in them. Those were about the only suspect areas though, it was definitely a solid turnout and a bit of a celebration all around. If the Devils made one mistake in the pregame, it was during their montage of a post-pandemic world when the governor’s voice was the first to be heard, and got met with sound boos. Pretty much any governor pre or post-pandemic would get booed, but especially with the current political climate that’s just something that potentially invites backlash all over the place. You don’t even need an excuse for that among certain people, like the yahoos that chanted ‘**** (our current president)’ on the way out of the arena after the game. Without getting into it much, that’s a rare bothsides issue that’s actually bothsides, but presumably most of the ones last night are people that don’t want politics mixed with muh sports, and yet they go and do it themselves.
That said, it was still a nice montage that fit the moment:
In a sense, last night felt a little like coming back after the 2004-05 lockout, although slightly different since there was no hockey at all in that eighteen month interim. We had hockey last year, albeit from a distance for all but a small portion of the people who chose to go to games last year with limited attendance. I obviously wasn’t going to do that, especially before being able to get the vaccine itself. I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I could have been last night, in part because most of the time when you’re stuck in a crowd indoors it’s only for a couple minutes at most, you’re almost never in front of the same person except actually at your seat, which could have been an issue last night. Especially with the motormouth season ticket holder behind me who I noticed was at least wearing some kind of face covering for the moment. And fortunately for me and the guy next to me (who immediately commented that the guy in back of us was an *******), he left our section after the first period anyway. At least having an aisle seat I’m not stuck in the middle of a row, so there’s that.
Given what I’ve already said about the crowd last night, it should be of no surprise that Mackenzie Blackwood got cheered unconditionally, just as every other player did during the pregame intros. I didn’t want to see him get booed last night in spite of my annoyance over a certain issue that will hopefully be rectified soon, but I was tempted to go all Baez/Lindor New York Mets-style and give him the thumbs down but I didn’t want to needlessly incite any of the clowns in back of me so I didn’t. Ironically Blackwood missed the game for non-COVID reasons with his heel still giving him issues after offseason surgery, so Jonathan Bernier got the start. Also missing last night were Damon Severson, Ty Smith and Miles Wood though hopefully at least one or two of them will be back by the time the Devils next play on Tuesday. Perhaps this has been the only season where I don’t mind the Devils’ habit of having spaced out games early, entirely due to the walking wounded.
Also in the pregame warmups, the Devils and Blackhawks wore special Jimmy Hayes-centric jerseys with the number he wore for each team on them. I was glad they left the actual montage of a tribute to the first stoppage in play since it would have been a bit awkward to put that and/or a moment of silence in the middle of getting the crowd revved up for their first home game in many months. Especially so when they showed his family in the crowd after the montage. How could you not just have a lump in your throat after that? Talk about bittersweet, the family gets to see the tribute and the crowd to their credit chanted his name after it, but I can’t imagine having to be at a hockey game months after an unspeakable tragedy like that given Hayes (and his brother Kevin) have both been long-time NHL players.
I’ve managed to go this far without commenting much on the actual game itself, which got off to a rousing start just seventeen seconds in when Hamilton scored on his first shot as a Devil. Talk about a grand entrance. It was a bit of an illusion though, as the Devils’ rink rust (not having played at all in nine days due to a late start to the regular season plus the final cancelled preseason tilt) started to show and play slowed down for much of the first two periods. One bad habit from last season that carried over to Opening Night this year was a terrible PK that went just 2-4 last night and were lucky to kill off the first one with Hamilton in the box in the opening period. Our luck ran out after Janne Kuokkanen’s penalty late in the first gave the Blackhawks fresh ice for their second-period power play, which Alex DeBrincat promply converted after a couple of cross-ice passes made it through the crease unimpeded by our top defensive pairing of Hamilton and Ryan Graves. Do we even try to coach the PK anymore?
It was mostly dull stuff in the second period until Hughes’ first moment of individual brilliance on the night, or perhaps brilliance with a slice of luck mixed in as his turnaround shot found the screen in front by Yegor Sharangovich and made it to the back of the net to give the Devils back the lead at 17:58. Hughes’ first goal seemed to spur the Devils on as they picked up their play late in the second and early in the third, where an unlikely hero gave them some insurance. Or really two unlikely heroes – Dawson Mercer (playing his first NHL game) put a hard wrister on net that got loose in the crease, and Andreas Johnsson actually made a nice play to go around Connor Murphy on the inside to poke the puck in. For Johnsson it was redemption after he missed the net on a shorthanded breakaway in the first period. After his awful season last year I bitterly joked – with a tinge of truth – that I would have been just as confident in Colin White or Anton Volchenkov on the breakaway than Johnsson…for you younger fans, White and Volchenkov were lead-footed stay-at-home defensemen not at all likely to score on a breakaway. Hopefully more moments like his goal in the third will show up the doubters like me.
Johnsson’s goal gave the Devils a cushion they seemed likely to maintain until geting a tough break on a double minor high sticking call on Mercer, where he wasn’t even looking at the player and on first glance his stick seemed barely waist-high but if the officials want to call that and let an obvious boarding penalty go at the end of regulation then that’s the game we gotta play. Shockingly, we killed off the first part of the double minor without incident but when the Blackhawks pulled their goalie to make it a 6-on-4 the PK predictably caved in, though Michael McLeod came oh so close to putting in an empty-netter that would have ended the game as a contest. Of course instead of the game being 4-1, it was 3-2 after Kirby Dach scored with just under four minutes remaining. And also of course the game would come down to another empty-net extra-man situation in the final moments. I wasn’t even that fatalistic, somewhat nervous but I thought we’d get the job done – and of course we didn’t. Dominik Kubalik’s goal with just twenty-six seconds remaining in regulation led to my first outburst of the season (well, if you want to call a one-word curse and kicking my own seat an outburst) and I had visions of the 2009 and 2019 blown lead openers dancing in my head.
Fortunately the 3-on-3 OT – and against a non-conference foe at that – provided a chance for instant redemption and it came with one of the best individual efforts you’ll see all year. Open ice helps but still, Jack skated circles around both defensemen and Blackhawks goalie Kevin Lankinen while Graves stood at the side of the net as basically a spectator with a bird’s eye view for both Hughes’ brilliant goal and his awesome celebration, tossing his stick into the stands. Finally hockey has its own version of a bat flip celebration although I suspect it’ll be met with the same stuffiness from the suits and traditionalists that the bat flip is by the baseball traditionalists.
This was definitely a glass half-full/half empty type of game. You don’t like giving up the 3-1 lead late or surrendering two PK goals, but you do like outscoring the Blackhawks 3-0 in five-on-five action and the fact that two of your go-to players scored three of the four goals. Bernier was solid in his debut and for the most part the Devils’ D held up against a decent offense despite missing an entire middle pairing’s worth of starters. I can’t say I have much faith in our special teams right now but at least there are other things to potentially build on for the moment until and if they ever get straightened out. At least the Devils managed to win a home game, which they didn’t do a lot of last year.
Devils Three Stars:
- Jack Hughes – 2 goals, a +1 and one spectacular celebration
- Dougie Hamilton – goal and a +3 in 25:54 of icetime
- Yegor Sharangovich – assist, a +2 and a screen in front of Hughes’ first goal