Devils feast on the Flyers to close holiday weekend

It’s only been a few days since my last blog but there’s been a bit of Devils news since then. First and foremost, after coach Lindy Ruff called Jack Hughes’ imminent return from a shoulder injury close last week, he modified it to ‘very close’ a few days later. So seemingly our top center’s return is days, not weeks away at this point – and also not a moment too soon after the Devils lost five of six heading into last night’s weird 7 PM Sunday start against the Flyers. Also making a different kind of return was Nathan Bastian, claimed off of waivers from Seattle just before Thanksgiving. Although he only had three goals and ten points in 41 games last year, the affable fourth-line banger remains popular inside and outside the locker room, and the celebration of his return after getting taken in the expansion draft this summer is one of the few things I’ve seen universal agreement on by Devils fans in recent years.

On the negative side, another thing Devil coaches, players and fans were pretty much in agreement on was the fact that Friday’s 4-2 loss in Nashville just wasn’t a good enough effort by any standard. Really the scoreline flattered us considering that our second goal came in junktime the last few seconds of the game. If it wasn’t for the Devils having lost four of five already before the Nashville game, I would have been a little more willing to excuse that lack of effort given that a day-after-Thanksgiving road trip to Nashville for a 6 PM start isn’t exactly ideal. Still, when you’re slumping you have a little bit less margin for eating schedule losses without a fight. Coach Ruff certainly wasn’t happy after Friday’s game:

Given that backdrop, Sunday night’s showdown with the Flyers was key and not just because they’re a division rival in a similar position in the standings. I said in my last blog I wasn’t going to this game but that was before I wound up making plans for Tuesday night, so I went to the game last night after all – though I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it through the first period. Maybe it was the weird start time with a weeknight-type crowd, the team’s recent poor run of results or having already invested time listening/watching to the Jets football game earlier in the day. More likely it was some combination of all three that led to me feeling a bit blase early, having NHL games on the same day in a market with an NFL team isn’t ideal for fans of teams in both sports (even in a season where the locals are both out of it, you still find reasons to watch 1 of 16 games) but sometimes unavoidable.

Still, a 7 PM start on a Sunday? My friend Rudy (who sits in a section almost directly on the other side of the arena from me) seemed surprised by the weeknight-looking crowd, I wasn’t really, particularly with how problematic it was for me to finally sell my extra seat. Especially with people going back home after a holiday weekend. Even going through the motions a bit myself, it was hard not to get juiced for the early start the Devils got off to when the unflappable Dougie Hamilton got the home side on the board at 5:07 of the first, and just moments after ringing a shot off the crossbar! Hamilton’s deflection of a Andreas Johnsson feed had some special meaning for the Devils’ best player:

I haven’t known that many people who’ve had to deal with cancer myself other than my arena friend Kristi who usually sits in the lower bowl, but hasn’t been coming to games this season (she’s had other health issues related to all of the chemo and other treatments she’s had for her previous cancer). I do think of someone like her last night and hope things are getting a little better at least. I’m sure we’ve all either known someone firsthand or secondhand if we haven’t had to deal with cancer itself, so it’s always good when the NHL or any league does what it can to raise awareness and help charity. I actually kind of wish the NHL would let players wear some of the specialized equipment they wear during practice in a game. God knows we have to deal with thirteen games in our new black jerseys, we could afford to have one with the purple cancer jerseys, and different masks for goalies like Mackenzie Blackwood’s custom-made that got shown on the jumbotron but was only worn during the pregame skate.

Back to the game, Hamilton’s goal really was the only highlight for the Devils in the first as the Flyers took a little control of the game back the rest of the period, and again made a monkey out of our clown-show power play after Scott Laughton’s shorthanded goal tied the game. For the entire month of November the powerless play is 4-37 (10.8%) and has given up three shorthanded goals. So basically our PP is a net of plus one for the entire month. If this were the NFL, Mark Recchi’s seat would be getting hotter by the day. I guess we’ll see if the PP improves with Hughes back, it almost has to improve from those numbers but will it improve enough to get out of ‘among the worst 3-5 in the NHL’ territory? Somehow I doubt it.

I got more into the game from the second period on though, helped in no small part by Johnsson’s early goal that put the Devils back in front, and once again moments after missing a golden opportunity when Nico Hischier sprung him for a breakaway and Johnsson got stopped, then put the rebound over the net. Fortunately, new best friend Jesper Bratt found Johnsson in front after keeping the puck in the zone, and Johnsson beat Martin Jones high to give the Devils back the lead at 1:47. This time the Devils maintained territorial control for much of the middle frame, but couldn’t quite put the hammer down and the score remained 2-1 after two.

After the second period I wound up going to the other side of the arena to see Rudy and his sister Tiffany and sat with them for most of the third period, it was only the second time I’d seen him and the first time I’d seen her since the pandemic since I didn’t go to games last year, and for one reason or another (some of my lower-bowl seats, and them not being there for most of the games I was in the upper level) I hadn’t gotten to see them much yet this season. Fortunately, it wound up being a good period to hang out with friends – although it got off to another bumpy start in part due to a referee who didn’t really make an attempt to avoid a Pavel Zacha clearance that wound up right on the stick of Laughton in front, and he fed Joel Farabee on a bang-bang play to tie the game and had the coach steaming, he referenced the ref not getting out of the way two different times during his postgame presser. Honestly I didn’t even realize it was as bad as it was until I saw the replay now, that actually looked intentional it was so bad.

Despite the game being 2-2 and the Devils failing on another couple of power plays during the third (one that looked competent, one that didn’t), they finally started getting the breaks their play in the last two periods deserved. A Flyer turnover led to another piece of Johnsson and Bratt magic on a two-on-one, this time Bratt scoring to give the Devils back the lead at 11:57. Then a couple minutes later came a bit of feel-good magic, when a pretty Hamilton feed found Bastian alone in front for a nice welcome home goal in his second game since coming back to the Devils.

After an early goalie pull brought on a 6-on-5, Johnsson’s empty-net attempt had eyes and found its mark from nearly 200 feet away for the clinching goal, making the game 5-2 and giving Johnsson an amazing two goal, two assist night. Despite the powerless play and some early frustration, the team got an all-important two points and got one game closer to Hughes’ return with a full-ish lineup, or at least as full as the lineup will get without Miles Wood.

Devils Three Stars:

  1. Andreas Johnsson (two goals, two assists, +5)
  2. Jesper Bratt (goal, two assists, +4)
  3. Dougie Hamilton (goal, assist, +2 and team-leading 10 SOG)
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