Despite the fact I was going to my first home game in a few weeks last night, I was not really looking forward to it, partly for reasons discussed in my last blog so I won’t rehash it too much here. Leaving all that aside for the moment, there was also the fact that Columbus has been a pain in the neck team for us historically – evidenced by the fact we’d only won one of our last eleven games against the Jackets dating back to late 2017, and that one came in a shootout. Despite Nico Hischier dragging his sprained ankle into the lineup, we still had absences to deal with – starting with lead defenseman Dougie Hamilton – out with a broken jaw last night and for the next few weeks, as if that wasn’t enough he was put on the COVID list this afternoon along with forwards Pavel Zacha and Yegor Sharangovich.
At this point it’s hardly worth keeping a running tally of who’s in and who’s out on a nightly basis, it’s like trying to stick a fork in jello. Fortunately, Nico’s return off a one-game absence ensured we had our top three centers in the lineup at once, which has been a rarity this season. Also returning last night was coach Lindy Ruff, taken off the COVID list after a short stay. Thankfully all seems to be well physically with our 61-year old coach, who was even helping the staff from a sequestered room at the Prudential Center during the first of his three games away from the bench.
Of course after the first period, Lindy might have been wondering if he should go back into seclusion as the Devils had their worst period since the holiday break. Things actually looked good after fifty-one seconds when Jesper Bratt made a pretty feed through traffic to find a wide open Tomas Tatar, and the Slovakian winger took advantage of time and space to score in his first game off the COVID list. After that, it was all Columbus in a period where they outshot us 18-5. It looked for all the world as if it was going to be another long game for goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood as well, after leaving a juicy rebound for Max Domi to pounce on, and Domi tied the game at 4:54.
Shockingly Blackwood might have found a second wind in that first period last night after a series of games where he played tired, but obviously no relief is coming since the Devils clearly aren’t interested in playing another goalie at this point. Be that as it may, the goaltender had his best period in weeks with several key saves during the Blue Jacket surge, including a couple of point-blank stops on Patrik Laine, and a diving save on Oliver Bjorkstrand in the final moments of the period to keep the game tied. Even though Columbus had tied the game, it seemed as if that period still took something out of them and they lost a step afterward.
Still, the game dragged on into the third period tied at one before a Devils power play changed the momentum…shockingly in a positive way. Not so shockingly our dynamic duo was in the middle of things again, as Jack Hughes first gained the zone by passing it to himself off the boards, then streaked behind the net to find a wide-open Bratt in front for what would prove to be the winning goal. I guess turnabout is fair play since Bratt pretty much created the Tatar goal earlier, now Hughes did the same for him at 1:16 of the third period. Each continues to look like they’re in the middle of a breakout season, with Bratt already up to 32 points in 34 games, including 8 in his last five. While Bratt may be hot, Hughes has been downright sizzling since the break with eleven points in his last five games including last night. No Devils player – even Taylor Hall in his MVP season – had a five-game stretch of that many points since Zach Parise nearly fifteen years ago.
After getting assists on the first two goals, it would be the Devils’ budding star who sealed the game with an empty-netter after a rare workmanlike third period by the team without much drama. Hughes, Bratt and Blackwood may deserve the accolades with the most predictable three stars all season, but let’s not forget the top four on D when throwing around praise for last night and the team’s recent stretch of four wins in five games. Damon Severson and Jonas Siegenthaler each had 26+ minutes last night while PK Subban and Ryan Graves played merely 22+, and all were a big reason the Devils went 5-5 on the penalty kill last night. Amazing what merely competent special teams and a legit breakout from Hughes and Bratt can accomplish, compared to what this team was doing before the break.
I’m not sure we’ll be able to sweep Columbus in the home back-to-back tomorow, after all they are still a pain in the neck until proven otherwise, even after some high-profile defections in recent seasons. Still, it was nice to see only my second home win in person since early November. Not that my home record’s all that bad overall (6-4-3), but going 4-1 in the first month of the season kind of colors my view of the hockey I saw since then for the most part, till last night at least. And it was my first game watching them in the black jerseys. Even though I’d seen them on TV a couple of times, I still had the eerie feeling that I was watching another team out there with a completely new jersey than any of us are used to. Not that it’s all that bad, after the initial sticker shock and with the full kit on the ice as opposed to just the jersey itself in the initial rollout, I have to admit they could have done a lot worse.
I can’t say I’ll be running to buy one anytime soon although I may use some reward points on a jersey for the hell of it. I don’t even know when my next home game will be at this point though. Probably watching last night in a mask contributed to the eerie feeling I had at times last night. Predictably, the mask mandate wasn’t exactly enforced from what I could see. For everyone that legitimately had their mask off to eat or drink there probably were 2-3 people who didn’t care once they got in the building. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised given it’s more or less similar non-enforcement at your local bar or restaurant after the minute you enter. I did keep mine on for the whole game, because I figured with my luck I’d be the one tapped on the shoulder by some usher to put it back on. Fortunately the guy behind me kept his mask on too, if he hadn’t I probably would have moved at some point since god knows there were available seats all over.
It was the longest I’d kept a mask on at once and while I was glad it didn’t really bother me as much as it could have, I’m not really in a rush to do it again either, nor am I in a rush to take any more chances with the Omicron variant than I already have. Even with the team playing a little better I’d rather wait till mandates are a bit more relaxed (not to mention the spread itself going down) before going back more frequently. As I said I mostly went to the game to get my longsleeve giveaway shirt, which wasn’t anything to write home about, but it’s at least well-timed with the weather finally getting colder. If there’s one good thing about the sparse crowds this season, it’s the fact I’m able to find more free parking on the street just outside the lot I normally park in. At least the team made it worth my trip last night. Between the mandates, virus and winter weather we’ll see when my next one is.