Devils de-claw Panthers at the Rock

Coming back from a moderately successful West Coast trip, the omens weren’t great for the Devils before tonight’s game. Personally, I almost forgot I was going to the game tonight – which I didn’t exactly take as a good sign either. Of course I only watched bits and pieces of the California trifecta of games. Hearing about Miles Wood’s hip surgery didn’t help my mood, although at least they finally deigned to let us know what the issue was with the physical, speedy winger. Despite the team’s 5-3-2 record heading into tonight’s game I didn’t exactly like our chances against a sizzling Florida team, who finally hit a speed bump at the Garden last night after a 10-0-1 start to their season. Particularly when I found out Dougie Hamilton was going to miss a third straight game, after word was that he’d try to go in the warmup and they’d decide then I got to the arena and looked down on the ice toward the end of warmups specifically to see if Hamilton was there. Nope, and sure enough it turned out he didn’t even skate in the warmup after all. Just as well since if his availability was still tenuous enough to hinge on a pregame skate then he probably shouldn’t be playing, especially with three more games in a brutally tough week of competition for the Devils.

To paraphrase Chris Berman or whoever he got the quote from…that’s why they play the games.

Not only did the Devils strut out of the Rock with a stunning 7-3 win, but they actually had to come from behind twice in the process! If you told me how this game would eventually wind up before puck drop, I would have been surprised but random blowouts of good teams do happen over the marathon that is the NHL schedule. That said, if you told me after the first ten minutes of the game what the result was going to be, I would have been flat-out shocked. It looked like yet another dreary start for the home side early as Mackenzie Blackwood (in his first home start of the year) gave up a terrible wraparound goal to Sam Bennett, and got no help from Ty Smith who was beaten to the puck and allowed Bennett to stuff home his own rebound from the initial attempt. At about the midway mark of the period the Panthers were outshooting us either 7-3 or 8-3 and my attention was already wandering.

Perhaps even more shocking than the end result was what actually turned the game around – SPECIAL TEAMS. Or to be more precise, the fact special teams actually turned the game around for the Devils in a positive way for a change. I didn’t even think much of it when the Devils killed off a Florida power play although not letting the game get to 2-0 early was huge. Heck, even a bad PK like the Devils can still manage to kill off around 7 of 10. When the Devils’ power play actually struck later in the period though, then you knew something was cooking. More precisely, it was the Jesper Bratt-Andreas Johnsson combo that was cooking, which has been money over the last couple of weeks in general. On this play Bratt’s initial shot eventually rebounded to Johnsson who stuffed home the rebound at 15:46, after starting the give-and-go with a nice feed to Bratt in the first place. If only all our PP’s could operate that efficiently.

At least Johnsson’s fifth goal of the season was well-timed, and the momentum fully shifted our way. Barely two minutes later the Devils cashed in further when Nico Hischier deflected a Ty Smith shot past Panthers goalie Spencer Knight. Up 2-1 and getting cheered off the ice, you would have thought the Devils could carry their momentum through at least a minute of the second period. Instead the quick-strike Panthers temporarily turned the game on its ear with back-to-back goals. First, the talented Alexander Barkov scored off a rebound from a blocked shot to tie the game after just twenty-four seconds. Then barely a minute later, Owen Tippett drifted behind the entire Devils defense and was wide open for an easy tap-in goal off a nice feed from Gustav Forsling. Down 3-2 before you could blink, all my negativity came back in droves.

Almost as if saying anything you can do, we can do too, the Devils shrugged off the two early goals and tied the game just twenty-nine seconds after the Panthers took the lead. It was again Johnsson who was at the center of a key goal, this time off a nice feed from rookie Dawson Mercer through traffic. Johnsson’s sixth goal of the year surpassed his total from the entire 2021 season, after just eleven games! I can’t remember the last time a player went from zero to hero this quickly, maybe Keith Kinkaid during his Cinderella surge in 2018? It’s one of those unlikely redemption stories that make sports the greatest reality TV out there. Where would the Devils be right now if Seattle had taken Johnsson over Nate Bastian in the expansion draft?

Ironically the absolute craziness of the first two minutes in the second period gave way to an actual mundane period after that, almost as if both coaches said okay let’s put the kibosh on this pond hockey. Of course, that still doesn’t mean the goals were about to stop for the night. In another example of a game where what can go right does go right, PK Subban gave the Devils the lead with a slapshot from yesteryear that I’m not sure has actually hit the net or gotten past a goalie since his heyday in Montreal. Still, as good as being up 4-3 felt I didn’t exactly think this was over, especially with the Panthers’ high-powered offense and our suspect late-game defense.

It was another power play that gave the Devils some breathing room early in the third, when Hischier and Mercer both caused a turnover in the defensive zone, then Hischier’s feed at the other end found Pavel Zacha with time and space to get his own rebound past Knight and extend the Devils’ lead for the first time to two goals. If I had time before going to bed I’d try to find out when the last time the Devils had two power play goals in a game was, but it feels like a while. Perhaps the most noteworthy fact about Zacha’s sixth goal of the season was that it was also Alexander Holtz’s first NHL point, off a secondary assist. It was also the rookie’s best game clearly of the three he’s played so far. Hopefully the first goal isn’t too far behind but for tonight, a point will do for Holtz.

After Nico tipped one of his shots past Knight earlier, this time Smith got one in the back of the net himself through traffic just seconds after Zacha’s goal, polishing off a three-point night and a deserved star after a shaky beginning tonight and some uneven games since coming off of IR. Even at 6-3, I wasn’t convinced it was over but the Devils did a fairly good job of holding the lead in the third and keeping their head despite some attempted Panther goonery (what would you expect from a team with Radko Gudas and Patrik Hornqvist on the ice?). Almost as if baking a cake with things you wanted to see from the team tonight, the Devils’ empty-net goal from Jimmy Vesey was the icing on the cake, since the team had struggled in the empty net situation both offensively and defensively so far this year. Yes, I was finally convinced the game was over at that point, despite the nearly four minutes remaining. Ironically the Devils’ win pushed their record to 6-3-2, which was their high water mark last year. Hopefully there’ll be a better end to this year’s story.

Before the game the Devils observed a moment of silence for long-time usher Earl Laycock, who’d become a cult figure at the Rock due to his ‘Dancing Earl’ segments on the Jumbotron. Can’t say I ever knew the man personally or even had any interaction with him but plenty did, and he was omnipresent for everyone due to the popular stoppage of play segments, which will forever be called Dancing Earl’s Dance Moves.

Devils Three Stars:

  1. Andreas Johnsson (two goals, +1 in 14:35)
  2. Nico Hischier (goal, assist in 14:51)
  3. Ty Smith (goal, two assists and a +2 in 19:31)
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