As the saying goes, it was a fun ride while it lasted! Finally, the Devils’ insane winning streak ended at thirteen straight games after what can only be termed a frustrating 2-1 loss to a Leafs team that was undermanned on defense but rode a solid performance from Matt Murray, some puckluck and some help from the black and white stripes to get over the finish line – much to the (ahem) consternation of the second straight sellout crowd of the week.
Before getting into the controversy and ugliness last night, the most important thing is giving credit to this team for tying a franchise record with the thirteen straight wins. I’m glad this team got its deserved sendoff from the home crowd when tying the record Monday with a 5-2 win over the Oilers. You could tell from before puck drop that night (and yesterday) that something different was in the air, and not just because we sold out weekday games against non-Ranger teams in November. My commute on Monday was one of the longest I’ve ever had to the Prudential Center – like an hour and fifteen minutes for a drive that generally takes 35-40 minutes because of all the traffic around Newark – but it was more than worth it to see the Devils smash the Oilers, while new goalie Vitek Vanecek in the postgame showed viscerally how welcome he’s felt in New Jersey, thanks to some stellar play over the first quarter of the season.
Shockingly the commute wasn’t anywhere near that bad last night – perhaps because of the upcoming holiday (not to mention the renewed excitement around the team), most of the crowd was already in the arena by puck drop. At least this time I was also able to cheer the team in pregame intros, and not rush to my seat right after the national anthem. After a quiet first few minutes on the ice, the crowd roared when Nathan Bastian’s apparent goal gave the Devils an early lead…but in what proved to be a harbinger, the goal was dubiously waved off due to goaltender interference, which basically consisted of a skate tap between Bastian and Murray outside the crease where Murray wasn’t even complaining about interference afterward! To add insult to injury, the Devils’ challenge was denied and they had to kill a power play off on top of the first controversial decision of the night.
At least the Leafs didn’t score on that power play, but their explosive offense put the Devils behind the eight ball early when a nice individual play by Mitch Marner to win the puck away from Devils defensemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton gave him enough time to find a streaking John Tavares in front of the net for the Leafs’ first goal at 11:41. A couple minutes later, an unfortunate bounce left the puck in no-mans land between Vanecek and Leafs winger Pontus Holmberg. In hindsight, Vanecek had enough time to play the puck but in the heat of game action those decisions aren’t always the easiest ones to make, but leaving the puck for a wide open Holmberg proved costly as he scored his first NHL goal to put the Leafs up two at 14:03 of the first.
Early in the second period came the Devils’ second disallowed goal, when Tomas Tatar’s tip into an empty net was ruled out because of ‘incidental contact’ – which more or less consisted of Tatar trying to skate inside Murray after a poor clearing attempt by the latter – with the goaltender grazing him and performing a theatrical flop. Despite the no-goals and Dawson Mercer hitting a post earlier in the first period, the Devils’ offense was still shut down early by the Leafs’ fill-in defensive unit, getting only eight shots on net almost halfway through the game when a Tavares penalty seemingly turned the tide. Granted, the Devils didn’t score on the ensuing power play but they peppered Murray with several scoring chances and it was a shooting gallery from then on.
Still, no goal would come until the third period though when Erik Haula attempted to kick the puck toward Bastian, and it hit off a Leafs defender and went past Murray. Another goal, another discussion, another wave-off job by the refs and confirmation of an illegal kicking motion after a review (ahem) in Toronto. I mean it would be nice to have one uniform rule over what an illegal kicking motion is, since the definition seems to change every single year. If that goal is going to be disallowed where the puck wasn’t actually kicked towards the net, then you could theoretically disallow a goal that gets kicked from center ice into the defensive zone and then hits off a stick for an own goal. At a certain point, so-called safety concerns have to be overridden by common sense.
Of course, it figures it was Chris Rooney who was the head ref for this game, since this guy has been involved in multiple incidents all going against us – starting with the controversial Steve Bernier boarding call in Game 6 of the 2012 Finals, going through to when he ejected then-coach Pete DeBoer for calling him out after another one-sided officiating game a year or two later in one of the season’s final games. It seems like every time there’s something unusual in the air going against us, this guy’s somehow involved and that was the case again last night. Things reached a boiling point last night after disallowed goal #3 and…well, it wasn’t pretty.
As annoying as everything on the ice was, I can’t say it excuses the crowd’s behavior. Throwing innocuous projectiles like caps or rally towels is one thing but throwing half-filled beers, I mean come on now…at best you’re just causing a delay of the game and making the arena staff work unnecessarily to clear the ice. At worst you might hit someone with a plastic can or the beer itself, not to mention there could have theoretically been a delay of game assessed to the crowd. Of course, I’m sure the refs last night saw trying to enforce a delay of game for that would not have been a good idea for their own safety.
Still, you could feel the anger building from the first goal on, it was the perfect storm for things to get ugly given the fact of a sellout holiday crowd, a big game and every big call going against the home team. However you want to debate the merits of each disallowed goal – and they’re all shown here – it’s pretty rare when three of those go against the home team (or any team) in the same game.
Also throw in the fact that the game was already delayed for several minutes earlier in the third period after Murray gratuitously shoved the net off its moorings – for no other reason than to slow our attack down after we were buzzing the first few minutes of the period. Some call it a veteran move, I call it lame gamesmanship. At the very least goalies should be fined when they do that, it would also be nice to have an off-ice official inform the refs on the ice that it should be a delay of game to stop that kind of nonsense from happening.
Still, in spite of all the adversity throughout the night and two third-period delays, you figured this Devils team would at least make a run at it to try and keep the winning streak alive. Sure enough, they finally scored one even the refs could find no fault in when a Hamilton deflection made it legally past Murray with 5:08 to go in the game, pulling the Devils to within one. For the final few minutes in a one-goal game the crowd was on its feet cheering and chanting, trying to will in the tying goal. It was the most intense regular season crowd (by a country mile) I’ve ever experienced personally and a fun atmosphere overall – the ugliness and frustration aside – but despite all that and playing with the net empty for about half that time, the tying goal would never come and the fans at the end alternated between those of us who stayed to clap the team off the ice and those who stayed to throw even more beers at the end of the game.
All things considered, perhaps the most fitting response to the craziness came from now not-so-embattled coach Lindy Ruff:
Now that the streak is over comes the next test for a young team, how they manage to sustain a high level of play without the adrenaline of going for a team record. There isn’t much time to rest and recharge after the holiday with a back-to-back against the Sabres and Capitals on the docket for this weekend. Brendan Smith alluded to guarding against a letdown in the postgame clip at the top, but this is where both having a veteran coach and more of a veteran presence in the locker room this year should help. When you bring in guys used to winning, eventually that’s going to rub off and it has in spades so far this year.