On Wednesday night, the Devils faced off with the Panthers for the second time over five days. Unlike the 4-2 home defeat they suffered this past Saturday, the Devs rallied in the third period for a 4-2 victory at Florida.
That wasn’t the story of the rematch. It was during the first period of the game in Newark that Nico Hischier injured Aleksander Barkov during a face-off. The play in question was on a draw where he accidentally made contact with Barkov’s knee. The star center left the game and hasn’t returned to the lineup since.
If you look at the replay enough, there’s no intent. It’s during a battle for a face-off. The injury to Barkov was unfortunate. The contact is incidental. Of course, his teammates didn’t see it that way. Although nothing over the top materialized, they targeted Hischier for the remainder of the game.
With the teams facing each other once again last night, you knew things could get out of hand. Unlike the Panthers who boast some tough players including star power forward Matthew Tkachuk, the Devils aren’t fully equipped to get into a physical game. Their lack of grit has been exploited during the recent six-game losing streak.
They came in not scoring as much and allowing more goals against. For two periods, the Devils only got one shot past Sergei Bobrovsky. Jesper Bratt ended a six-game drought by scoring on the power play to even the score in the first period. It was an important goal after another poor start that saw five Devils skaters watch Eric Staal rebound a loose puck past Mackenzie Blackwood before five minutes expired.
Interestingly enough, there also was a fight prior to Bratt’s tying goal. After being high-sticked by Anton Lundell, Erik Haula didn’t take kindly to it. He went after Lundell. The two unlikely combatants squared off in what amounted to a wrestling match. It definitely was odd. But maybe provided a spark. Bratt converted his 11th from Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton five seconds later on the man-advantage.
For much of the first two periods, the offensive minded Cats controlled most of the action. They generated quite a few high danger scoring chances. With the Devils losing Ryan Graves early to a lower-body injury and playing without key defenseman John Marino, they gave the Panthers too much space. This led to some point blank opportunities for the home side.
Blackwood had just returned the other night. He replaced starter Vitek Vanecek during a 4-1 loss at Carolina. Making his first start since Nov. 3, he was up to the challenge. The injury prone 26-year old netminder made 34 saves on 36 shots. That included some gigantic ones including a key denial on a Sam Reinhart break-in. Without his strong goaltending, the Devils don’t come back.
They fell behind by a goal when Eetu Luostarinen took a nice Sam Bennett feed and beat Blackwood blocker side with 3:48 left in the second period. As previously mentioned, it could’ve been worse. Blackwood made 13 of 14 stops. In fact, 24 of his 34 saves came through two periods.
In the third, it was the Devils that took the game from the Panthers. Following a gigantic save by Blackwood on Ryan Lomberg, Bratt evened matters with his second of the game less than three minutes in on a Dougie Hamilton pass. He was able to find the short side on Bobrovsky.
Yegor Sharangovich put them ahead with under 10 minutes remaining when he neatly deflected home a Jonas Siegenthaler point shot. It was the first goal for the streaky goal scorer in 10 games. His last two came on Nov. 28 in a win over the Rangers.
As the game reached the final minute and a half, the Panthers pulled Bobrovsky for an extra attacker. Unable to find the equalizer, they turned their attention to Hischier.
Following some nice hustle from Tomas Tatar who sealed the win into an open net, Tkachuk went after Hischier. It got nasty as the stronger Tkachuk bullied Hischier, who had his back turned. A no-no in that situation.
After Tkachuk rag dolled Hischier, he was escorted off the ice for roughing and a misconduct. It was thuggish behavior by a star player who has a checkered past with Calgary. He will push the envelope and get away with stuff. It came off as bitter. There were also matching misconduct penalties on Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour and Damon Severson.
The Panthers have pulled this act before with the Lightning. The former two-time champs knew how to handle it. By getting the better of them in the playoffs. It’s bush league. What would you expect from a bunch of sore losers?
Vigilante justice isn’t always warranted. Hischier is a clean player. What happened with Barkov was unlucky. Hopefully, he can return soon for the Panthers. The third and final meeting isn’t until March 18 at Florida.
By then, who knows if it’ll even still be an issue. However, it might make sense for the Devils to toughen up their roster. The win yesterday was much needed. With back-to-back home games against the number one overall Bruins with the first one tomorrow before the holiday break, they definitely had to get a win. Especially in a Metro that’s heating up with the Hurricanes, Penguins and Rangers playing better. The Islanders and Capitals aren’t far behind.
The Devils are currently tied in points with the Canes. Each have 46. But the Devs have played one more game. It’ll be two games at hand after tonight with Carolina visiting Pittsburgh. They haven’t faced any adversity until now. With a tougher schedule to end the calendar year, we’ll see how they hold up.