Six…wins…in a row. The last time this franchise won six in a row Martin Brodeur was still in net for most of those games and Zach Parise(!) was our captain. That’s right…the end of the 2011-12 season was the last time the Devils had won six in a row before these last two weeks. In that season, the Devils’ hot finish portended a fun playoff spring that finally ended in LA after a five-minute major boarding penalty called on Steve Bernier and the resulting three goals from it took them out of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals almost before it started, and derailed what could have potentially been a historical comeback. If this Devils team comes anywhere close to that kind of spring, it’ll be an astonishing season indeed.
At the very least, it looks like this team may have some staying power and be playing meaningful games in April for the first time since 2017-18 when Taylor Hall’s transcendent season led the way to the franchise’s only playoff berth since 2012. Of course it’s still too early to book playoff tickets, but winning three in a row in Western Canada (and nine out of ten overall) is impressive no matter what point in the season it comes.
Even just winning games is one thing, it’s how they’re winning that’s opening eyes. A business-like dismantling of a bad Vancouver team was followed by a wacky game in Edmonton where the Devils fell behind 3-1 after two periods and lost goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood for a still-undetermined length of time to a lower body injury in the middle of the second, just before the Oilers’ third goal came on a power play. It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected at this point…whatever you may think of Blackwood as a person or as a goalie you just cannot count on him to post. It’s unfortunate for both him and the team, but this is now likely the second straight season he’ll be on the shelf with a long-term injury and he’s never started more than 43 games in any pro season. I’ll get back to the long-term outlook on the goaltending later.
It did look as if the winning streak would finally end Thursday when they got behind against the high-powered Oilers but Miles Wood’s second goal of the night early in the third kept the Devils in the game, long enough for an astonishing turn of events that started with just 3:15 remaining, when Ryan Graves took a drop pass from Tomas Tatar, deked out two Oilers and somehow beat Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner five-hole with a weak shot. They all count the same on the scoreboard right? This one even more so cause it tied the game, though it wouldn’t be tied for long…seven seconds to be exact.
It was an astonishing skill goal, with John Marino’s outlet pass off of Nico Hischier’s faceoff win finding Jesper Bratt in stride. Bratt not only scored what proved to be the game-winner, but set a franchise record for most games with a point to start the season. New Jersey also set a bit of an odd NHL record with the quickest amount of time to go from trailing to leading a game in the final four minutes of regulation. I’m not gonna say what I thought the record could have been beforehand (cough 2009 Game 7 cough).
As if the Edmonton game wasn’t thrilling enough, then you had the Devils nearly falling victim to the reverse in Calgary, jumping out to a quick 3-1 lead after an impressive first period with all the goals coming from somewhat unlikely sources (Nathan Bastian and Fabian Zetterlund with just their second of the year each, Wood with a surprising fifth of the year). However, Darryl Sutter teams usually don’t get blown out of the barn and true to form they mucked their way back into the game, tying it at three early in the third. It would stay tied going into OT, the team’s first of the season. That – and an Elias Lindholm interference penalty – only served to set up more heroics from first star of the night Zetterlund:
Perhaps even more puzzling to me than the ghosting of prospect Alexander Holtz when the team was struggling to score is why Zetterlund spent some early-season games in the scratch box after an impressive finish to last year. It’s even more baffling to me now that Zetterlund has shown his late-season play might not have been a fluke, as the rookie 2017 3rd rounder has five goals and eleven points in twenty-one career NHL games to this point. Not bad for a back six player with at least middle six upside, who can add some physicality our forward group desperately needs.
I can’t say there’s too much else to criticize the coaching on at this point, though I was surprised Blackwood started the first two games of the trip after Vitek Vanecek was working on a three-game winning streak. Guess there won’t be much question who’s starting the bulk of the games going forward, especially with Vanecek’s winning streak up to five now after a solid relief appearance in Edmonton and doing just enough in Calgary to give the team a chance to win. Which is really all you can ask from just about any goalie that isn’t Andrei Vasilevsky or the reigning Vezina winner across town haha. Especially with the Devils’ team playing as well as it has territorially and defensively for the most part this season.
As well as Vanecek’s played so far, right now his best ability is his availability given that Blackwood will likely be on the shelf for some time and Jonathan Bernier still hasn’t even gone out on rehab after major hip surgery last year. And who knows what he’ll be when he finally does come back after a year or so on the shelf on the wrong side of thirty? Fortunately there aren’t any back to backs until after Thanksgiving so the Devils can ride Vanecek for a bit if they need to, provided nothing happens to him. All bets are off with one more injury at the goaltending position though.
At least for the moment we don’t have to cross that bridge until we come to it. Right now it’s just a clear sky of sunshine and rainbows, one we haven’t seen above Newark since the Hall and Keith Kinkaid-led playoff surge in 2018.