In something that seemed inevitable for days, the NHL yesterday finally acknowledged the reality that a pause was needed for an NHL season already unbalanced by multiple team shutdowns and canceled blocks of games. Nobody thought we’d get to this point a couple weeks ago, but with the number of teams already shutting down due to a number of positive tests – while others like ours played with severely compromised rosters (more on that in a moment) – it’s the only sensible thing left to do, although due to travel there will still be two games played tonight before the mini-pause takes place. I’m not quite sure if it’s well-timed or ill-timed considering the holiday break provides even more vectors for multiplying infections. Although there’s been no official announcement yet, rumors are flying the NHL will decline to participate in the Olympics this year which is the only intelligent decision to make, all things considered – including the number of postponed games that will have to be made up after this stretch.
This decision should have been made days ago, the NHL was pretty much making it up as it went all year – starting with the Islanders – in terms of who was immediately sent to a medical timeout and who they told screw you, go play the games. Of course we were one of the latter teams. To be fair, it’s not like we had a ton of COVID cases (especially compared to last year) with just a handful of guys in protocol, and ironically all came back to practice yesterday just before the news of the team and league shutdown. However, when you couple COVID with the flu/cold season also beginning, and the natural injuries each roster will have by December then even a few COVID positives can make things dicey as it did for us. Add in the fact that the minor league team also had a number of positives and it limited the callups we could do, and that made things even worse.
Things reached a nadir this weekend when the Devils played with a 19-man roster as several key players were out and they were unable to call up a single player from Utica – until the next day when Chase DeLeo was recalled, only for DeLeo to not play at all when Jesper Bratt returned from his illness. Maybe playing with a 19-man roster doesn’t sound so bad, but then you factor in that several of the players who did play were either sick or just returning from sickbeds to the ice. Coach Lindy Ruff admitted after last Monday’s game against the Flyers that it was the first time he had to put together lines based on who had enough stamina to play a regular shift and keeping all the players who were either playing sick or returning from illness on different lines.
What made last week even more annoying was after the Devils got beaten up in Detroit on Saturday, the next day the Wings were given a pause due to their own outbreaks, while we had to play a travel back-to-back and the league turned down our initial request for cancellations due to a compromised roster and the few healthy skaters on it being taxed beyond normal limits. Finally after losing to the Penguins at the Rock on Sunday, the league acceded to GM Tom Fitzgerald’s repeated pleas to halt the Devils schedule, literally on the morning most of our COVID cases came back to practice. That said, the GM admitted in his post-pause presser that it would have been asking too much for these players to come back for a game last night after only one practice.
Also in that presser was predictable support for the head coach and putting the onus on the players to turn the season around after heading into the holidays on a six-game losing streak. It’s not really the time or place to argue with the GM on how good he thought the team looked early in the season, except to say even when the Devils were still puttering around .500 you knew they still had some issues. Issues that were not going to be fixed with Jack Hughes’ return alone, especially if Hughes continues to play like a swashbuckler who has no idea what to do on the ice. His raw numbers are iffy enough (three goals and five points with a -11 in eleven games since returning to the lineup), but you just can’t make mistakes like he did on Sunday, when a lazy cross-ice pass led to yet another shorthanded goal against, the sixth so far against the Devils this year compared to just eleven goals actually scored on the power play. I would say maybe he’s another one of the sick guys that have been discussed, except that he really hasn’t played much better than this on a consistent basis throughout most of his three years so far as a Devils.
At least we get a few day break from watching this Devils team, although when play resumes things are going to be different – and I don’t just mean increased player protocols but increased fan protocols as well.
I can’t say I’m totally surprised at this point. It’s both understandable and annoying, understandable due to the sheer rise in case numbers, but annoying due to the fact that I’ve already been to twelve games this year in a largely unmasked crowd after getting over my preseason skittishness over the lack of a real negative test/vaccine mandate for the fans. As a vaccinated + boosted person, I’m not really looking forward to having to watch games with a mask on after the New Year (I’d already sold my tickets for the NYE game, so my next home game would be on the 6th), especially to watch a team where losses are mounting about as fast as COVID cases state-wide. I also don’t envy the ushers and arena workers having to try and enforce an in-season mask mandate with a ton of yahoos in the crowd that don’t take kindly to being told what to do.
Even in bad seasons I’ve never gone out of my way to count the number of home games left the way I have just now (twenty-three, including the postponed Thursday game against the Habs). Hopefully by the end of the non-Olympic break there’ll be enough reason to lift the mask mandate by then but will the team be even worth watching then or in the meantime? That’s another story. It’ll be interesting to see just how badly ticket sales tank in the last 2/3 of the season given everything – team losing yet again, mask mandates, increased prices for marquee games – hah. Too bad both our Ranger home games are in late March/early April, they’ll no doubt be MSG South games given the Rangers’ current position in the standings and ours. Those will likely be sell and cash out games and I don’t usually do that with Ranger games but really now, how much ‘fun’ will it actually be when the game means very little and you know there’s gonna be a heavy opposition fan presence in your own building?
I just looked up when my last Ranger home game was, actually it was November of 2019 since we played them twice early in the pre-pandemic part of 2019-20 at home, and that was just before the firing of John Hynes. Not exactly a lot of fun involved in that game either, seeing as it was a 4-0 Ranger shutout. There aren’t a lot of actual must-games to go to at this point, I kind of want to go to see them play other bad teams like Arizona and Montreal just to up my chances of seeing some more home wins, since I’ve only been at one home win since the first week of November. After starting the season 4-1-1, my in-person record is 1-3-2. Forget about promos, hah…the only real giveaways are on St. Patty’s Day (a Mackenzie Blackwood bobblehead) and maybe Fan Appreciation Day, if they deign to give us more than a soda or even 20% off at the Devils Den of their overpriced by 30% merchandise for having to watch this team. There’s Travis Zajac night in mid-March but there’s a chance I might not even be able to make that game regardless…tbd.
So few actual promos, a mask mandate and a ton of losses…should make everyone run out of their chairs to want to see the Devils live in 2022!