Right now it’s hard not to be apathetic about the state of the Devils as a team on the ice, and sports/society as a whole off it with the Omicron COVID variant wreaking havoc on three major sports at the same time, despite the majority of all players and coaches being vaccinated. It would take a whole separate blog that delves too far into the political or moral realm to discuss the merits of the current protocols in all the major sports at the moment and debate which teams should have games canceled/postponed and which shouldn’t. To sum up my feelings on the larger issue, it’s hard not to see us coming to a day soon where we just start allowing players to play if they’re vaccinated and asymptomatic. All the information to this point (emphasis on the latter) suggests that this new variant, while it’s more contagious could actually be milder than the original strands, and at the very least poses minimal danger to those who are vaccinated and boosted.
If we didn’t have mass cancellations and postponements across the major sports would we all be feeling as helpless right now? Probably not as much, although the skyrocketing case numbers throughout the country in general are both worrying and incredibly misleading. Sure the number of infections may be skyrocketing up, but to this point the number of hospitalizations has only increased marginally, and mostly in the unvaccinated population. To a certain level I don’t envy all these sports, we’re almost learning about this new variant on the fly and continually assessing the level of risk for everyone. There almost has to be a better way than this though. Multiple games moved this NFL weekend, teams playing with short rosters all over the NBA, no fewer than five teams having pauses already through Christmas in the NHL with others like us playing with short rosters.
Despite the team-wide outbreak last year and now complete vaccination numbers this year, the Devils have been hit with a 1-2 punch of both COVID and non-COVID illness this week. It’s almost impossible to keep track of who’s out with what. Nico Hischier, Ryan Graves, P.K. Subban and Jesper Boqvist are all on the COVID list, Mackenzie Blackwood has a neck injury and is out for tonight’s game, backup goalie Jonathan Bernier is out long-term with a serious hip condition that may well lead to surgery (so much for having the reliable 1B vet, again) and Jesper Bratt was a late pre-game scratch with non-COVID illness. Other guys have been fighting illness all week, including Blackwood himself during the whipping by the Flyers on Tuesday.
For reasons beyond my understanding, the Devils were unable to call up anyone from Utica to fill out the roster despite the fact they were able to play their own game last night, so we’re basically playing with sixteen skaters on the front end of a back-to-back, plus enforcer Mason Geertsen. With our short lineup and crappy play in general lately (not to mention the sight of the third jerseys), I have little interest in watching tonight’s game – despite the realization that we may well be headed for another shutdown – albeit what should be a more temporary one than the complete halt the world came to in March 2020. Ironically if there’s any league best positioned for a pause, it’s the NHL given the three open weeks they have in February that almost certainly will not see NHL players go to the Olympics at this point with everything going on off the ice, health wise and politically.
UPDATE: It took now-former Devils beat writer Corey Masisak to give some more context over why the Devils were unlikely to be able to make a callup from Utica
Le sigh. I can’t say I’m looking forward to going to next Thursday’s game, though the struggling Habs may be one of the few teams we can match up with at the moment – assuming the league hasn’t paused by then or they don’t become one of the individual teams that has to pause their season. I already cashed out on tomorrow’s game and the expected New Years Day beatdown against the Oilers, as much because I don’t want to be a statistic right now as because of the team’s poor play. There won’t be a huge crowd for a weeknight game against the Habs so I’m not as worried about people being on top of me that night sadly.
If on the off chance last night’s game against Vegas was my last home game of 2021 and/or for a few weeks after, at least it wasn’t the total beatdown I feared and I got to hang out and have some fun with one of my buddies and her friends who don’t go to games very often. Not that I ever really thought we had a chance to beat Vegas, although things looked interesting after Jack Hughes put home a rebound from a Dougie Hamilton shot just 1:41 into the game to give us the early lead in a five-minute period we dominated.
After that, it was all Vegas for the rest of the first and into the early part of the second when they took the lead after goals by Dylan Coghlan (on an extended power play in the first) and William Carrier in the second. I even got to witness a bizarre occurrence when after yet another failed power play in the second, the crowd let out very audible ‘Fire Recchi!’ chants. For those of you who aren’t really following the team, Mark Recchi is one of our assistants who ostensibly runs the power play, although I’ve gone from blaming him myself for the state of the power play to just feeling like he’s a scapegoat for larger organizational issues. Still, I was a bit bemused all things considered, it’s not like I have any real loyalty to Recchi or like 90% of the roster at this point.
Despite the still hopeless PP, the Devils stabilized the game a little and it wasn’t completely out of reach at 2-1 after two. That is until Vegas overran us in the first ten minutes of the third, with first Wild Bill Karlsson turning on the jets past slow as molasses Ty Smith, and beating Blackwood shortside for the first of two eh goals in a less than minute span in the third period. Nicolas Roy’s shortside floater just thirty-three seconds later caved the roof in and seemingly put the game out of reach at 4-1. Just when I’d pretty much given up all hope for the night, the PP actually came to life with Tomas Tatar scoring just over halfway through the period. Even then I wasn’t all that excited and not because I missed the goal talking with my friend Sandi (ironically, she was asking about the Chico Resch Colorado Rockies jersey on the person in front of us), I was more like ‘okay, now you guys finally decide to score on the PP?’. I didn’t even stand up to cheer that goal, but I did actually stand up a couple minutes later when Jimmy Vesey lucked into a shorthanded goal off his chest that got the Devils to within one.
Still, despite the Devils’ improved play and game effort in the third they came up short yet again and suffered one final indignity when after Vegas scored an empty-netter to make it 5-3, Hughes’ apparent goal with ten seconds left was overturned because of an offside. Then a senseless endgame fight happened as we were leaving, because Lindy Ruff decided to be a sore loser and put out Geertsen on the last shift and it just prolonged an already messy ending, in part due to a clean hit on Hughes minutes earlier. Derek in his last blog detailed – with the help of a Mike Rupp tweet – how Hughes sometimes puts himself into harm’s way allowing himself to get popped unnecessarily. It’s a fair concern, if you’re around six feet tall and 180 pounds especially you gotta keep your head up and not just be a swashbuckler going anywhere and everywhere on the ice. His recklessness is both part of what endears fans to Hughes and what tests our patience, when he does things like taking unnecessary hits or making senseless passes to nowhere. He’ll have to get better at the latter to fulfill his potential as a star and the former to stay on the ice enough to be a franchise building block.
Maybe I’ll turn on the last two periods now that I’m almost done venting here. Like I said up top, we may be having another break soon although this is not March 2020 all over again, that’s just silly media-driven fatalism. We didn’t have knowledge, a vaccine or known treatments in March 2020. Still there is a certain amount of indignance I’m feeling toward the thought of another virus-induced break in both sports and society at large. Maybe I haven’t been the most careful or introverted person in the world, but I have gotten the vaccine/booster and was as careful as I needed to be until getting the vaccine, and still have been somewhat careful and lucky enough to not get it to this point (at least as far as I know). I’m not the most outgoing person in the world either, and was more fine than most with the shutdown in the months immediately following in the start of the pandemic but at this point I almost feel like we’re all gonna get it over time anyway with how quickly this one is spreading, so at least I’ve given myself the best chance to get through it if I do, and that’s about all any of us can do at this point. That and try to encourage everyone around us to trust our doctors and not what we read on social media.