It all still feels so surreal…I’m really about to write a blog on a Devils team with a nine-game winning streak and twelve out of thirteen overall?! The same Devils who’ve finished last or next to last for seven of the last eight seasons and missed the playoffs nine out of the last ten? If I didn’t know better I’d swear it was the late ’90’s last night with how the Devils managed to put the clamps on Arizona from midway in the second period on after getting the lead back at 3-2. If it wasn’t for the ‘Schmiiiiid’ chants young Akira Schmid was getting from the crowd last night every time he so much as touched the puck, I might have forgotten who was in net the last thirty minutes of the game.
Of course to be fair it isn’t entirely the same old Devils…pretty much all of Tom Fitzgerald’s additions to the lineup have been making a positive contribution in some form or other (including a few draft picks), many of whom I’ve commented on in previous blogs but after last night’s game I’ll start with a guy I haven’t really given a lot of praise to over his year plus until now – Tomas Tatar. He was signed as essentially a veteran stopgap last offseason to a two-year deal, and had a poor season statistically last year with fifteen goals, thirty points and a -22 in 76 games. I never really flogged him as much as some other guys cause you could always tell he was trying, being as physical as you could expect a guy listed at 5’10 173 to be, competing in the dirty areas of the ice, etc…but it looked like he was washed up last year and would probably be finishing out his career overseas by this offseason.
Ignoring talk he could be a cap casualty or bypassed for younger players, Tatar had a strong preseason and has carried it over into the regular season with eleven points in his first fifteen games (and a +11), with a deserved first star last night after contributing points on the team’s two goals in the first period – including a high-skill team goal to open the scoring – a play started by some impressive work by Nico Hischier in the defensive zone to break up a scoring chance, then get back into the offensive zone quickly to start this electrifying play:
Tatar also had a primary assist on Jack Hughes’ nasty wrist shot goal later in the period to regain the lead after the Devils’ PK lost it, for the first of two times last night. Special teams was the only downer early against the Coyotes as the PP took a while to get going, while the PK gave up the only two goals Schmid allowed yesterday. It was going to take more than a couple of unfortunate goals to quiet the sellout(!) crowd last night though, especially given the eight-game winning streak the team came into the game with. If the early-season angst the first couple of home games represented a fan base on edge tired of losing, the…apologetic mood the crowd was in last night represented a fan base appreciative of any sustained level of success at all.
I’m referring of course, to the chant upstairs that happened a couple of times last night. Less than a month after booing coach Lindy Ruff during introductions and chanting for his firing in at least two different games, the winning streak sufficiently chastened at least some in the crowd:
Classy as he was when he was the target of derision, I’m not surprised the coach took the high road last night as well when told of the chant.
Downstairs in the clubs for one of my upgrade games, I couldn’t even hear the chant properly so I’m not surprised Lindy didn’t hear it well either. If I’d known what it was the first time before going onto Twitter to find out after the fact, I would have probably joined in. And I’m not one of the ones who was booing the coach or chanting for his firing but make no mistake, after two poor seasons and a bad start to the third I did think the time had come for a parting of the ways, I made no bones about that here. As someone who’s always been a fan of Lindy Ruff personally I’ve seldom been more glad to be wrong. While yes I’m sure the newly minted assistant staff has a lot to do with how structured the team has been this season, it’s not like Lindy didn’t have a certain amount of success as a coach before coming here.
Admittedly I wasn’t crazy about the second chant last night, especially coming early in the third period…it seemed a bit self-serving to do it again, plus at some point you’d at least rather they have waited until the win was locked up before doing it at the end, but that’s probably nitpicky. Especially since I had no real fear that the team would louse up the third period, other than when they went on the PK again with five minutes to go, still up two after a pair of second-period goals put New Jersey back on top. Fortunately that PK only lasted thirty seconds before a Coyotes penalty canceled that out and pretty much ended their chances of winning, given the eighteen shots we allowed last night, nine total in the last two periods of the game.
You have to give a tip of the cap to everyone for how well the defense has played as a whole though, even with some PK hiccups. While the Devils’ goalie woes last season were well-documented and having Vitek Vanecek leave Thursday’s game against Ottawa (and missing tonight for ‘precautionary reasons’) just before Mackenzie Blackwood was also officially placed on IR wasn’t exactly ideal, I was kinda anxious to see how this new and improved team structure would be able to protect a kid goalie this year. So far the early returns on that front are promising…just look at Schmid’s record last year and this year:
Last year: 6 GP, 0-4, 4.83 GAA and .833 save percentage
This year: 2 GP, 2-0, 1.63 GAA and .920 save percentage
His two wins this year included a critical relief outing on Thursday in the Devils’ topsy-turvy OT winner against Ottawa that extended the streak to eight. Not as if Schmid came in with much margin for error given that it was already a 3-3 game in the middle of the third period either, but he made seven saves including three on the power play to give the team a chance to win, which Nico did with one of his many big goals on the season thus far:
Make no mistake, there’s an excitement level at the Rock again. Even I’m starting to see home wins live again, hah. A catty reference to the fact I had to miss three home wins last month due to circumstances beyond my control and another due to bad timing, but I was at the games Tuesday (a sloggish win over the Flames but critical nonetheless) and last night – you could practically sense the good vibes growing with every win. You literally can’t ask for more from this team than you’ve gotten since that ill-fated home opener against Detroit almost a month ago. The last time the Devils went on a 12 of 13 type streak was probably the insane 15-game winning streak in 2006 to close the regular season by stealing a division title, right on through their first-round sweep of the hated Rangers.
While I’m certainly not exactly counting my playoff tickets before I get to use them, I have to admit in a season of astonishing things I never expected to see us in ‘first’ place, clear of every team by five points either.
As the song says, let the good times roll!