This Devils team sure does know a thing or two about winning streaks, doesn’t it? After the end of a thirteen-game heater (thanks to Jack Hughes’ quote it’ll be a while before I stop thinking about a Devils winning streak as a heater) last Wednesday, the Devils merely responded after Thanksgiving with another three straight wins in four nights – qualifying it as a winning streak according to the Gospel of Lou Brown – including a back-and-forth game with the Rangers tonight at the Garden that lived up to the billing and then some. Despite early adversity falling behind 2-0 barely three minutes into the game, and late adversity with a parade to the penalty box making things tenser than they needed to be, the Devils once again did enough to win. Everything still feels so surreal, I’m pinching myself…this team is really 19-4, in first place IN THE ENTIRE NHL?!
Ironically when there hasn’t been much to say about the losing the previous few years because of how constant it is, I don’t really feel the need to recap every game now that the winning is becoming just as constant. Truth be told, I had a tougher time getting over the adrenaline rush of last week than the team itself did. To their credit, they’ve kept up their not too high and not too low mindset – winning 3-1 in Buffalo on Friday behind Akira Schmid (33 saves, now 4-0 overall). Then they stuck it to one of their biggest nemesis the last few years at the Rock on Saturday, beating the Caps 5-1 with Vitek Vanecek coming up aces in his first game against his former team, yet ‘somehow’ not getting the first star in a game where he made 37 stops.
In this case, the somehow was Hughes’ first NHL hat trick earning him the first star on Saturday. If beating a Caps team who hadn’t lost a regulation game to the Devils since February 2020 (a.k.a before most of us knew what COVID was) was satisfying to the organization, they sure didn’t rest on their laurels today. Of course, it’s pretty well impossible to take any game with the Rangers for granted. Especially since this had all the makings of a rivalry game where the slumping team uses the energy to get out of its malaise against a streaking team. Early on, it looked to be going exactly that way when Artemi Panarin got the fans in blue rocking with a goal off a two-on-one just eighty seconds in, giving the Rangers the lead. Then less than two minutes later came a rare mistake by Vanecek this season, fumbling a shot in the crease that led to a Mika Zibanejad rebound goal at 3:01, doubling the Blueshirt edge.
Momentum started to turn with a beaut of a goal from Tomas Tatar at 7:33, beating Igor Shesterkin by roofing a high backhand short-side. Probably a surprisingly weak goal from the reigning Vezina winner on the one hand, but a heck of a shot on the other. You decide:
Less than six minutes later, the game was tied after Yegor Sharangovich was johnny on the spot, putting away a juicy turnover in front of the Ranger net to tie the game and give Sharangovich his seventh goal of the season. At first I thought it was a nice pass by Jesper Boqvist out of the corner, but the goal was officially unassisted so clearly it was off a turnover. Early in the second period the white-hot Devils maintained their momentum and took the lead off a lovely skill play, with a home run pass from Dawson Mercer finding Hughes for a breakaway, and he scored his twelfth goal of the season (five of them in this recent three-game winning streak).
Thankfully the Devils’ scoring binge wasn’t quite over yet, as a Miles Wood shot deflected off Michael McLeod in front for the team’s fourth goal, at 9:40 of the second period. Despite failing to really put the final hammer down on a power play late in the second, things still looked good at that point. Our power play did everything but score…but a too many men on the ice penalty late in the period proved a harbinger for what was to come. Though the Devils killed off that power play early in the third, there were three more to come when Mercer, Ryan Graves and Tatar took penalties in short order (all within less than seven minutes). Mercer’s penalty was the most egregious since it came while the Devils were on the power play, in the offensive zone but Tatar’s is the one that proved costlier when Vincent Trocheck finally cashed in for the Rangers, inevitably pulling them to within one and leading to a tense finish. Vanecek shut the door from there however, and an empty-netter from Sharangovich finally sealed the deal at a surprisingly divided Garden fan-wise.
I can’t rightly say just how pronounced the Devil fan presence was compared to when I was there for us clinching a first round sweep in 2006, but however big the contingent was, it came through on TV. To the point where there were actually noticeable Igor serenades in the second period
As unbelievable as the team’s play has been, the fan support the last week has been just about as eye-opening. I swear, even when the team was consistently good I’ve never seen THIS kind of excitement level from the fanbase – at least not pre-April. To sell out three straight November games (two of them weekday against Canadian teams), then to invade the Garden as if it was Game 4 of the 2006 first round in the span of eight days?! It shows both how much this fanbase is starved for a winner, and perhaps how much the fanbase has grown in spite of the losing the previous several years.
It tempts you to look ahead over what’s to come, but there’s plenty of time to enjoy the ride before the spring angst begins.