Momentum is a funny thing sometimes – you just never know when it can shift in a period, a game or even a season for players and teams alike. We saw several examples of this in Tampa this afternoon for a rare Devils matinee that didn’t suck, although in November a 4 PM start barely qualifies as a matinee, even in Tampa. Still, the task looked daunting at the outset whatever the start time, with the Devils now trying to snap a three-game losing streak against the two-time champs. Things looked even more daunting when the Devils fell behind 3-1 early in the second period, then predictably botched a couple of power plays that could have gotten them closer before the end of the middle frame. You could easily see things spiraling out of control with the Devils playing only teams with a winning record the rest of the month, I was almost tempted to turn the game off and get the carving knives out after they quit in Florida and slogged their way through much of the first two periods at Amalie Arena (wish it was still the Thunderdome…at least it’s not gonna be Crypto Arena though).
Given all that, what happened in the third period is just unexplainable. To be exact…four unanswered goals to stun the champs 5-3, led by a sophomore skater who had been clueless and hopeless all year suddenly finding his game with three points (including two goals), and a still-young goalie who looked bad for the first game and a half of this trip before rallying to make a ton of key saves down the stretch – including an unfathomable two-on-zero stop.
Maybe it’s a good thing I saw very little of the first four periods or so of this Florida trip. I could have watched Thursday but never turned it on, and it was just as well after a frustrating first period where the Devils put up a supposed twenty-two shots on net (I say supposed if only cause I find it hard to believe both teams got 40+ shots in a regulation game, especially in Florida which has a history of overcounting shots but I digress), but only were able to score one goal by Dougie Hamilton. Even that fragile lead got blown to the winds after a crushing soft goal given up by Mackenzie Blackwood with seven seconds remaining in the period. Of course the result was predictable from there as the Panthers ran riot scoring three goals in the first 8:15 of the second period getting Blackwood pulled, and the Panthers’ Carter Knight had as comfortable a 45-save win as you could get in those final two periods.
With that game and the team’s previous two losses as a backdrop, I wasn’t particularly anxious to turn on this game against Tampa either, one I more or less expected to be a rout. Instead of all things, I was watching the end of the Red Bulls’ playoff game (with our broadcaster Steve Cangialosi on the play-by-play) and it only served to make me glad I’m not as emotionally invested in MLS after the way their season ended. Early on, it didn’t look like I was going to be proven wrong about the Devils game as they fell behind 3-1 early in the second period after sloughing their way through a first period being outshot 9-4.
At least one Devil who showed some signs of life – finally – was Yegor Sharangovich, who got his first goal of the season in that opening twenty minutes. After a rookie season where he was the toast of the town with 16 goals and 30 points in 54 games came a hellish sophomore slump with just three assists in thirteen games, a -2 and declining icetime, even being a healthy scratch for two games recently until Tyce Thompson’s unfortunate long-term injury got Sharangovich back in the lineup. Not that he’s been the only sophomore who’s struggled after a fine rookie season, with guys like Janne Kuokkanen and Ty Smith also feeling the varsity blues this year. Still, it was nice to see Yegor finally get off the schneid. Not that I thought we’d be seeing the start of a volcano eruption or anything.
Mount Devilsuvius still lay dormant for much of the second period, and Victor Hedman’s bad-angle goal didn’t exactly engender a lot confidence from me in Blackwood finding his game anytime this afternoon, particularly after he just got pulled in Florida two nights prior. Maybe it was fair to question Lindy Ruff sending him out for the Panther game a few nights after getting his bell rung at the Garden. It’s hard to say where things started to shift, the Devils put together some good shifts and offensive chances toward the end of the second period but it felt more like the beginning of a tease than the beginning of a potentially season-saving period.
Our third period eruption was triggered by a likely source – rookie Dawson Mercer, who just continues to impress with his sixth goal and eleventh point in the first sixteen games of his career. It’s not even just his stats but his hockey sense that continues to impress above all, as his goal came off a brilliant move where he faked a wraparound then put on the brakes at the last minute to stuff the puck in short-side against Andrei Vasilevsky.
Not that even our brilliant rookie would have been enough to lead the Devils back into the game without what turned out to be the most important moment of a nail-biting final twenty minutes, a jaw-dropping save from Blackwood on a two-on-zero breakaway. You don’t even see two on zero breakaways unless perhaps sometimes goes wrong in the three-on-three OT. Whenever I see a two on zero breakaway I think of where the Devils’ season died in 1999 against Pittsburgh in Game 7, with Martin Brodeur actually making one save on a two-on-zero before the Penguins stuffed home the rebound and drove another nail in our coffin that year. On this day, Blackwood actually did his legendary predecessor one better, when his glove save prevented a 4-2 Lightning lead that would have almost certainly ended our comeback just as it began.
Let’s just overlook for a moment the fact it was again the Smith-Damon Severson pairing causing that breakaway against and savor a ten-bell save. If you’re going to come from behind you pretty much need your goalie to be perfect and Blackwood stopped twelve of the Lightning’s thirteen shots that period. We’ll get to the other one in a moment, but back to the comeback which got another boost with yet another highlight-reel play, after PK Subban’s brilliant 150-foot pass from his own goalline to the far blueline sprung Jimmy Vesey for a breakaway goal that tied the game at three and gave Vesey his fourth goal of the year. Give PK credit too, he hasn’t lived up to his reputation in his first two years as a Devil but is playing better so far this season with nine points in sixteen games so far this season, and improved defense as well.
Now with the offense cooking, it would be yet another impressive skill goal to give us the lead, or more specifically a skill zone entry from Jesper Bratt, corralling the rebound from his own shot and finding an open Sharangovich short-side, where his heavy shot went through Vasilevsky as if it was last season when seemingly everything was finding the net. Sometimes I’m skeptical of the whole ‘once one goal comes then a bunch will come’ cliche but maybe it’s true for Yegor. He also had an assist on the Mercer goal, matching the rest of his season point total in a single game. Our three goals which turned a two-goal deficit into a lead came over the span of just eight minutes, twenty-two seconds.
It didn’t even take thirty seconds for the Devils to nearly lose the lead when Brayden Point split our top defensive pairing and Ryan Graves’ tripping penalty resulted in a penalty shot. Almost as if trying to draw out the suspense, the game was stopped for several minutes as the officials tried to determine if the puck had somehow crossed the goalline underneath Blackwood (it didn’t). I half joked maybe this delay would ice Point, but I also hoped it wouldn’t ice our goalie. Maybe neither happened, but fortunately for us Point’s shot clanged off the post…bullet dodged, for the moment. With just under five minutes remaining, a Hamilton penalty meant we had to kill off one of the best PP’s in the league without our best defenseman, and after we already gave up a PP goal in the first period to old buddy Pat Maroon scoring a Maroon-type goal, taking out the trash from a rebound in front. Fortunately our third-period PK did a better job at holding the lead and killed this one off.
Despite everything that we’d done in the third period, I was still nervous about killing off the empty net situation after seeing a couple go awry already this season. Fortunately we wouldn’t have to kill off the 6-on-5 for very long, Graves’ shot/clear looked like it was going for an icing just wide of the net but a hustling Tomas Tatar canceled out the icing and put home the rebound for his second goal of the season and the Devils’ fourth of a stunning third period. It’s too soon to say whether the Devils’ 5-3 win was a season saver or a defining moment, but there were certainly important things that came out of this game. Sharangovich was more engaged at both ends of the ice and got his just reward on the scoresheet, while giving the rest of us hope that maybe he wasn’t just a fluke or merely a product of Jack Hughes last year. Certainly Blackwood holding the fort in the final half of the game restored some confidence just when I was starting to wonder when the coach was going to start giving Jonathan Bernier more games in net.
Of course more needs to be done for the Devils to sustain their good start to the season, starting with the special teams. Granted the PK got an important kill in the third but they weren’t exactly spotless today, and the PP took an 0-for the Florida trip. Our other sophomores need to pick up our game, but Sharangovich’s afternoon gives me hope that maybe the others can come alive soon as well. And we need to get off to a better start in games, it seems as if either we start well without much to show for it or we start poorly, but either way the results have to improve so we aren’t constantly scrambling late in games. It’s hard to complain in the big picture about ten points in their last nine games against tough competition though.
Author’s note: Speaking of hot teams and putting a bow on my previous blog, Utica not only tied but surpassed the AHL record for wins to start a season with twelve, kudos to them!
Devils Three Stars:
- Mackenzie Blackwood (31 saves including a 2-on-0)
- Yegor Sharangovich (two goals, assist in 15:19 of icetime)
- Dawson Mercer (goal, +2 in 19:29 of icetime)