At about 3 PM today (three hours ago) I really thought I was gonna be sitting here writing a positive blog for a change. And why not, with the Devils on top of the East-leading Panthers 6-2 after a rousing two periods where Yegor Sharangovich scored a hat trick, Jack Hughes scored his 26th goal of the season (he’d be around 35 if he hadn’t missed 1/4 of the season!) and even struggling forwards Andreas Johnsson and Janne Kuokkanen found the back of the net in a forty-minute blitz that got Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky pulled after two periods. Sure, the team had just taken it on the collar in an 8-1 loss at Boston, giving up six(!) goals in an embarrassing second period, and overall on the road they’ve been a ghastly 8-24-2 throughout the season. Still, they had won three in a row at the Rock coming into this afternoon’s matinee and sported an okay 16-14-3 record at home on the season. And despite two bad goals given up in the first forty minutes it seemed as if new goalie Andrew Hammond – our seventh different starter on the season! – was well on his way to a win in his debut as a Devil.
Overall it looked like a good week for yours truly at the Rock, after Hughes scored twice in a Devils’ shootout win over Montreal on Sunday night (with me wearing my new black Hughes jersey, no less), fans and players alike at least had three off days to enjoy the win. During the middle of that stretch, the team held an autograph session for season ticket holders. Having it from 7-8:15 meant you probably weren’t going to get a ton of signatures but you still could get anyone you wanted, assuming you arrived early enough. Which was almost an issue for me given that by the time I arrived in Newark at 6:30 there were no spots left in the garage, which meant I probably was going to have to try my normal lot a few blocks away and hope they stayed open till 8:30 or so on a non game-night. If that didn’t work, then I probably was going to scrap it rather than schlep around town hoping to ‘only’ pay around $15-20 for parking. Fortunately I was able to find a newly open spot as I was making the trek down out of the garage.
I wanted to get captain Nico Hischier’s signature on my other new jersey, since I had enough reward points on my account to get one jersey but a shipping mistake gave me a points refund so I actually wound up getting two jerseys for the (free) price of one. Gone are the pre-COVID days where fans would try to snag selfies and shake players’ hands in these autograph sessions…now they’re corded off and the autographed material is passed to them and back to the fans by arena workers in masks. You could look at that two ways, not as much personal interaction other than messages of support from a few feet away, but the flip side is it helps the lines move along quicker at least. After about forty-five minutes I got my jersey signed and wished the captain well. All fans also got a complementary copy of the Hockey News magazine featuring the Devils younger players, which was nice.
Since Dawson Mercer was on the cover I figured I might as well get him to sign that since I really hadn’t brought much else to have other players sign, so I went to his area which also had Mackenzie Blackwood. I had Mercer sign the magazine and Blackwood sign my giveaway hat from the Montreal game (I’m not big on hats anyway), and that was pretty much it from that standpoint. Right before I got up to the players, I noticed a couple of team volunteers were going around asking people to play trivia, after I got through my line with no time left for other autographs I found them and wanted to take my stab at it with two options, take a current team question or a history question. I opted for the history and fortunately it was one I had a pretty good idea on – what team did Scott Gomez score his first hat trick against? Since I knew he had a famous one against the Rangers in his rookie year I guessed that and got the prize bag which included a hat, a souvenir t-shirt and a Blackwood bobblehead of all things. All in all it was a well-run event, and despite the Boston fiasco on Thursday I was still feeling good after the win last Sunday, the autograph event and a rare solid matinee performance through two periods today.
Then the rest of the game happened.
I would say I’ve gotten used to fiascoes like this as a Devils fan over the last decade, but blowing a four-goal lead in the third period and losing in OT is almost a new low for this franchise. I say almost only because it doesn’t quite compare to the Winnipeg home opener fiasco in 2019. The similarities are almost eerie though…in that game we gave up four goals in just under thirteen minutes starting in the final seconds of the second period with a 4-0 lead, on our way to a shootout loss that set the tone for the entire 2019-20 season. Today we gave up four goals in just a hair over thirteen minutes starting with Brandon Montour’s deflection at 5:34 and culminating in Alexander Barkov’s unscreened one-timer from basically the side boards at 18:36 that completed the regulation meltdown, and portended the inevitable finish 1:45 into OT with Gustav Forsling’s floater that completed Hammond’s miserable debut (and perhaps only start as a Devil, it was that bad) and a dumpster fire of a finish.
This afternoon’s meltdown (on the heels of the Thursday rout) wasn’t so much a tone-setter as the home opener in 2019 was, if anything the last two games were a fitting synopsis of everything wrong with the Devils in one snapshot. It’s too easy to start in net but you have to start there with this year’s team. You can make all the excuses you want for the goaltending this year – our top two guys got hurt, our two AHL kids should have been two years away from the NHL but were forced into service and the other three guys including Hammond were basically waiver wire fodder. Technically Hammond was acquired in a trade – the only sign of life GM Tom Fitzgerald showed during the deadline – but really a 34-year old goalie who hadn’t played an NHL game in three years before this season is basically waiver fodder, and he showed why today.
I get having your two starting goalies go down early in the season is a loss almost nobody could survive but Fitz didn’t help matters giving away Scott Wedgewood on waivers early in the season when both starters were being held together with tape and bailing wire. Obviously Wedgewood isn’t a starter in the NHL either, but clearly he would have been a better option than rolling out scrubs like Hammond or Jon Gillies and would have kept us from potentially using raw kids like Nico Daws and Akira Schmid as cannon fodder. To be fair to Daws, he actually has solid numbers at the Rock. On the road however? Yeesh
Home: 7-1, 2.34 GAA, .920 save percentage
Road: 1-8, 4.36 GAA. .866 save percentage
Not that any of the other goalies have been much better on the road, but that’s about as stark a difference as I can remember – which I’d attribute to a young goalie’s growing pains. I wouldn’t have actually minded at all if coach Lindy Ruff had shown some stones and pulled Hammond for Daws in the third period today. I know we have another game tomorrow and this game means little in the standings – really for either team, for different reasons – but come on now, you gotta make sure you hold onto a game at 6-2 in the third period with younger players still trying to learn how to win. It sure didn’t help that the skaters turtled and played a prevent for almost the entire third period but maybe if you didn’t have your goalies leaking in goals on a regular basis, they wouldn’t be treating a 6-3 lead with fifteen minutes to go as if it was a 3-2 game with two minutes left. Ruff himself should have called timeout at 6-4 to try to settle the team down and remind them not to go into a shell but the timeout came one goal too late, at 6-5.
What also would have been nice is if the team’s powerless play could have added one more goal, though somehow going 0-for on the PP a game in which you score six goals is remarkable in itself. Still, this team’s power play woes have been constant for two straight years under assistant Mark Recchi, and there’s really no excuse not to change the team’s system, coaching (or both). You could excuse last year as being a COVID/divisional play hot mess but not this year. Especially with two PPG players and a supposed PP ace on the point in Dougie Hamilton though he’s been a bit of a hot mess himself post-injury. Whatever the reason, it’s kind of embarrassing that it’s Damon Severson and not Hamilton on PP1, and more so given that it’s still not working.
Really it’s time to change the whole staff though Fitz may well die on the Lindy hill the way predecessor Ray Shero more or less went down with John Hynes. While I can’t really fault the GM for that much in these two offseasons, he’s got his work cut out for him now to make sure the team takes a next step next year and gets off the treadmill to nowhere. Coaching changes will probably (or should) be needed sooner or later. Even Fitz himself at least seemed to understand he needs to overhaul the goaltending position given some of his post-deadline comments. And they can’t sit on their laurels elsewhere either, they need another couple of top six wingers – hopefully prospect Alex Holtz fills one of those spots, a couple of depth forwards and at least another top four defenseman since I’m not sure Severson or Ryan Graves should really be long-term answers in the top four. Severson’s always been inconsistent defensively if durable, and decent offensively. Graves isn’t quite as good offensively and not much better defensively. At least one of them is probably a placeholder for Jack’s younger brother in Michigan but as the third period showed today, when you’re trying to clamp down on a lead those guys probably aren’t who you want to guide you to the promised land of a victory long-term.
Short-term though? Things still suck. And Severson was dead on about how shameful it was that nobody’s going to remember the Sharangovich hat trick, and that the player himself will think back on this game as a terrible loss. Even as annoyed as I am at this team after today’s fiasco I do recognize at least they have some pieces to build around now, unlike other bad seasons coming to a conclusion. It’s up to the organization to make sure we don’t waste any more productive years from Hughes, Nico and Jesper Bratt in the never-neverland of meaningless winter and spring games.