Normally a second home game of the season can be a sleepy affair, especially when it’s between interconference teams (and ones that have never met before last night at that). Last night’s 4-2 win over the Kraken was anything but sleepy, due in large part to physical play and erratic refereeing – but at least it was entertaining for me and the nearly 14,000 in attendance and another nail-biting Devils win, and a necessary one at that with the Caps coming up on Thursday followed by the shockingly hot Sabres on Saturday.
It might prove to be a costly win though, as the first period rough stuff culminated in Jeremy Lauzon driving Jack Hughes into the boards near the end of the opening frame, costing the Devils their franchise center for the remainder of the night at least. Hughes is reportedly day to day with further testing due on a likely shoulder injury this afternoon. Was it dirty? I still haven’t seen a replay where it didn’t look that way tbh, but coach Lindy Ruff tried to tamp down the temperature after the game by saying it there wasn’t much wrong with the hit. Certainly the refs didn’t think so either, but all night the refs seemed inclined to let physical play go even when it veered on dirty, while calling every ticky-tack obstruction foul known to man (particularly ours). Arguably the refs missed a far worse boarding call minutes earlier in the first period by Seattle, but at least that one didn’t injure a key player.
Obviously with the Kraken having been blown out in Philly the night before, the staff seemingly sensed this kind of thing could happen and dressed enforcer Mason Geertsen for his first NHL contest. Michael McLeod’s fight with Brandon Tanev 2:27 into the game was a harbinger of things to come. Geertsen’s inevitable fight with Lauzon in the second period – which the refs didn’t actually let become a real fight – took both players off the ice for much of the second period but things didn’t calm down for a while in a game that had a combined 76 PIM’s in it.
Maybe the refs wouldn’t have had to call half as much of the other stuff they did if they nipped the rough stuff in the bud during the first period, or even if they let Geertsen and Lauzon have a real fight in the second. To be fair at least, when it came to physical play the refs let go a possible boarding penalty from Jonas Siegenthaler late in the second period as well, only calling Seattle’s Ryan Donato for an instigator penalty after the teams’ third fight of the evening. Then again what can you expect from a league that employs a former goon as its head of public safety?
And yes, everyone was glad Geertsen did what he did responding to the Hughes hit, god knows the Devils have had too little of that pushback in recent years, and are going to need pushback to deal with continued targeting of key franchise players like Hughes. Still, people that are stuck in the ’80’s think goons are some kind of deterrent, clearly they’re not – particularly when the refs act like three blind mice once the rough stuff starts. This isn’t the ’80’s Oilers where Marty McSorley could give Wayne Gretzky free reign to score nine thousand goals, the game is officiated differently now (though you wouldn’t know it by a couple of the things that were let go last night) and the instigator penalty cut out a lot of the Slapshot-esque bench-clearing brawls of the past.
Not to mention having a um, specialist hinders you on the ice at a certain point. Without Hughes for the last two periods and with Geertsen playing only 3:07 total, the Devils basically had ten forwards for much of the night. Rolling three lines (for the most part) is fine when you have three days off before the game and another day off after, but it would be tricky to do on a back-to-back or a fourth game in six nights situation. Goons at this point basically just provide empty emotional calories for the team, rather than actually helping tangibly on the ice. Which isn’t totally insignificant in a long 82-game season, but gives you limited value certain nights.
The shame of it is, all the unpenalized rough stuff and Hughes’ injury kind of overshadowed what was a good game, or at least became one. We looked ready to run Seattle out of the building in the first with two early goals, including Dawson Mercer’s first NHL goal. As happy as I was for Mercer getting the goal (and eventually the game’s first star), really the play was all about the passing – Ryan Graves’ terrific outlet pass and Tomas Tatar’s seeing-eye feed off the ensuing 2-on-1 gave Mercer the far easier part of the goal, and he wouldn’t waste his chance at glory. Mercer’s goal also added to a nice piece of symmetry among the young Devils:
Less than two minutes later Damon Severson doubled the Devils’ lead in his return to the lineup, being johnny on the spot when a Hughes point shot came loose in front of the crease for Severson to poke home the rebound. While the Devils clearly grabbed control of the game, they could not put it away with Jesper Bratt wasting a wide-open chance minutes later to make it 3-0. At the other end Jonathan Bernier was holding down the fort when things did break down, stopping Jordan Eberle on a breakaway in the first period among his 27 saves on the night. With coach Ruff admitting before the game it was becoming increasingly unlikely that Mackenzie Blackwood will play on this homestand after an apparent re-aggravation of an offseason hip issue, might a hot start give Bernier an inroad to taking the job from under Blackwood’s nose? Stranger things have happened, but at the very least Blackwood’s gotta be available first before it’s even an issue.
Penalties that weren’t called were the bane of the Devils’ existence in the first but the penalties that were called hurt more in the second period, with back to back penalties against McLeod and Yegor Sharangovich resulting in the Devils needing to kill nearly four minutes of the Kraken power play. Shockingly they did kill the penalties off but couldn’t get the puck out of the zone while still running around seconds after the penalty ended, and Riley Sheahan scored a quasi-power play goal not actually on the power play. With the game now up for grabs, the Devils didn’t take long to restore their two goal lead after Jimmy Vesey finished off a nice tic-tac-toe play started by Andreas Johnsson and Colton White for his first goal as a Devil, scoring less than five minutes after Sheahan’s goal. Thankfully the Devils were able to maintain their two-goal lead after Alex Wennberg’s apparent goal shortly thereafter was overturned on review, following a successful offside challenge from the Devils. Perhaps some karmic retribution after Nico Hischier’s apparent goal at the end of the first period had to be overturned because the puck hadn’t quite crossed the line at 0.0 yet.
I was shocked the officials actually gave us a power play late in the second after Siegenthaler’s edgy play earlier referenced, but perhaps the instigator being called on that sequence finally quelled the rough stuff in the third. Or maybe it was just the game situation with the Devils trying to sit on a two-goal lead. Not surprisingly the refs decided to insert themselves one more time, after ‘letting the boys play’ for much of the third period they called back to back minors seconds apart against Severson and Pavel Zacha as if they wanted to try to get Seattle back in the game. Not so surprisingly our 5-on-3 gave up a goal to Jared McCann, though it came after nearly a minute of holding out. A tough break to be sure, but it’s still not gonna help the early PK stats.
At least unlike the opener, there was no empty-net goal to break the home fans’ hearts, instead it was Zacha getting redemption by putting one into the empty net to finish the game off and giving the Devils their necessary 2-0 start. I admit if the media wanted to give Mercer the first star to make the fans feel good, it worked for me. I’m not sure he necessarily deserved it only playing twelve minutes and not really being the key to his own goal but so be it, hopefully it’s the first of many more to come (both goals and first stars), but quite honestly I had a hard time coming up with three stars for this game. Guess you could call this one winning by committee. Coach Ruff may have had the best answer of all as to who deserved the first star of the night:
So the coach decrees, so it is
Devils three stars:
- Our video review team: A successfully overturned goal
- Ryan Graves: 2 assists and a +3 in 22:27
- Jonathan Bernier: 27 saves
Lindy Ruff is a real quality person. Very likable.