Devils’ skating and skill make the difference in OT win over the Blues

After losses to Columbus and the Rangers on the road, the Devils were looking to get back on the beam this afternoon against the Blues in a normally dreaded matinee game. While the Devils had beaten up on the Blues in St. Louis less than a month ago, they lost five of seven since then. Yet I was confident enough in the Devils to bother to get tickets for this game after I’d shockingly been able to sell all of my pairs for this week of home games, albeit at lower prices than I paid for them but something was better than nothing. I did want to go today though, in part because the mask mandate had finally been lifted from buildings in Newark, and partly because of the early Spring weather outdoors. Plus let’s face it, even a .500 month with some goalscoring qualifies as progress for the team.

While I normally pay zero attention to the Devils season ticket holder’s swap ticket option, I actually decided to use that last night. Given I had a pair of freebees for the Montreal game later this month, I was able to trade my normal pair for that game to get tickets today, nominally of equal value in the same price tier. It had been weeks since I’d been at a home game, to be honest I can’t even say with 100% certainty, but I think it was the Arizona fiasco in mid-January that was my last before today. As such today was the first time in weeks I’d watched the Devils fairly intently from start to finish, not counting games like the Blackhawks pond hockey extravaganza which I was only half listening to the game while it was on in the background.

It almost seemed like a lot of other people came out of the woodwork to go to the arena like me today, with an announced attendance just a hair under 15,000. Normally a full-ish crowd ready to roll on a matinee is followed by a flat performance but the first two periods this afternoon were anything but, as the Devils made the Blues look like they were skating in mud. While we weren’t able to translate that into many goals, the two we did score in the first two periods were both goals of high skill. Even though the scoreboard says that Ty Smith – returning to the lineup after a long-overdue week of healthy scratches – and Dawson Mercer scored in the first and second period, respectively, those goals were created by (who else?) Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes’ speed, playmaking ability and puck skill.

Starting in goal for the fourth straight game was rookie Nico Daws, who despite two straight losses coming into this game has pretty much gained a foothold on the starting job for the moment. Especially with the latest reports on Mackenzie Blackwood being not promising in terms of thinking he could return this season. While I can’t really blame Lindy Ruff for leaning heavily on Daws after Jon Gillies’ last start in Chicago (and really his play the full season), I also don’t want to see us ask too much of the rookie. Four games in a week is a lot for a first-year player, especially one who had a long injury hiatus himself this season but so far the rookie’s been up to the challenge – or at least as much as you could expect considering he’s 2020 draft pick being pushed into service as a 21-year old rookie Daws’ two straight wins since coming back up to the NHL in late February is getting him some run, including a road back-to-back in Columbus, and the rivalry game against the Rangers on Friday night.

Throughout two periods, you got everything you could have wanted out of this game other than maybe a power play goal, which could have sealed it. Ironically the first couple of power plays actually looked pretty good – and I may well have jinxed it by texting my buddy this does not look like our 2021 power play – but after that, we saw shades of the early-season ineptness and a shoddy power play early in the third period was sandwiched in between two Blues goals, the first was one Daws would probably like back, an unscreened shot from Torey Krug that slithered through him. I didn’t even see the goal live as I was still getting back from the concession lines. Go figure, I was able to walk around both concourses (upper level and lower level) AND go to the restroom in the first intermission, but the second intermission wasn’t long enough for me to be able to get through a concession line several sections away. That’s one of the few things I don’t miss about sellout crowds.

Of course I’d prefer sellout crowds of almost all Devils fans. I was stunned at the noise after the Blues scored, especially not really noticing or thinking to notice crowd composition during the game. And the Let’s Go Blues! chant after they tied the game was a bit annoying. No offense, but I would expect a visiting fan presence if it was another local team (the two NY teams, the two PA teams or even Boston), or another fanbase with national/international appeal like Detroit or Toronto. But the Blues?! Even on a weekend with the Devils having a similar record to last year – 19-30-7 in 2021 compared to 19-31-5 going into today’s game, the 56th of the season – I was not expecting that. Needless to say I was annoyed to no end after the Blues tied the game, and even as the Devils stabilized it again midway through the third period I was still expecting the roof to fall in. Especially after the Blues got a late power play in the third, but fortunately the team just escaped danger when one of the defenseman (without seeing a replay I think it was Jonas Siegenthaler) saved a sure goal by swiping it off the line with his stick.

As much momentum as the Devils got with that late kill, they lost it again when they got one final chance on the power play in the final two minutes of regulation, but another failure completed our regression back to early-season form with the man advantage. Well almost back to early-season form since we didn’t actually give up a shorthanded goal. Fortunately the 3-on-3 OT has been better for us this year than special teams, and this time it was Dougie Hamilton who showed his skill by deking out Ville Husso after Pavel Zacha was able to spring the defenseman for a mini-break in the offensive zone. Perhaps apart from scoring seventeen seconds into the season, it was surely Hamilton’s most memorable goal as a Devil so far in just his sixth game back from a broken jaw, and for once sending me and another near-sellout crowd home happy, well the non-Blues fans anyway.

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