First, for the good news…the Devils are still five points up on a playoff spot with a game in hand as we move from 2022 to 2023. And though yesterday’s shootout loss to the Hurricanes wasn’t ideal (especially as it extended our home losing streak to seven in a row), at least three points out of the two weekend games were a slight improvement over recent results. Ultimately though, this weekend was still more frustrating than encouraging – starting with Wednesday’s loss to the Bruins in the second of a rare home mini-series.
Whereas in the pre-Christmas game at least the Devils’ offense managed a third-period surge, in the second meeting with the Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark kept the door slammed shut throughout, aside from one Nico Hischier goal in the third period that finally woke up a post-holiday sellout crowd that was generally tense and frustrated. Small wonder, given the team’s lack of finish in a game the Devils dominated the opening thirty minutes before failing to score, then proceeding to give up a goal that sapped the energy from both the team and the crowd in the middle of the second period. Admittedly, even the Hischier goal didn’t get me as fired up as a spectacular save by Vitek Vanecek a few minutes later, one so proposterous I couldn’t help but think ‘okay, we’re gonna win this game now’:
Of course, the Devils did not win the game as a Patrice Bergeron tip-in goal that went off of Vanecek and the post before going in with under five minutes remaining led to an eventual 3-1 defeat – with of course Pavel Zacha sealing the win on an empty-netter. It was alarming in the sense that we couldn’t even win a game after we get the momentum back on both sides of the ice and get the crowd energized?! Not to mention that it was the Devils’ sixth straight home defeat (all regulation losses). What’s puzzling about the Devils’ home woes is that they did start 10-3-1 at the Rock before this recent skid.
Whereas the road has been sweet for the Devils all year, as they improved to 13-2-1 away from the Prudential Center with a wild 4-2 win over the Penguins Friday in which the main takeaway on the ice was the Devils’ special teams (and Vanecek) stepping up, killing off nine Penguin power plays and even scoring shorthanded. It’s a cliche but it’s true, your best players need to be your best players and that was the case on Friday night with Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton and Nico getting all four goals, Hughes’s empty-netter sealing a game that was marred by two inexperienced referees getting whistle-happy to the tune of fifteen power plays. It’s somehow telling in a weird way that it was the Penguins getting a bench minor for abuse of officials after Hughes’ second period goal that got the Devils on the board, and the Penguins were the ones that would get NINE power play attempts in the game.
However it occured, a win is a win and one that was still very much needed after losing eight of nine with seemingly every other team in the Metro on a winning streak at the same time, or at least enough teams to somehow put what seemed to be a sure playoff berth in serious jeopardy. Following up our win in Pittsburgh with two points at home against Carolina wouldn’t be easy, and somewhat controversially coach Lindy Ruff started Mackenzie Blackwood on New Year’s Day over Vanecek, after he had turned in two good performances last week following Blackwood’s stinker in the first Bruins game before Christmas. Giving Blackwood chance after chance wouldn’t annoy me so much if there wasn’t a clear double standard between both goalies – i.e. Vanecek getting benched for two games in a row after winning three straight earlier in the season while Blackwood got to play out his winning streak.
In spite of my misgivings, Blackwood responded with a mostly solid game yesterday (sans a scary puck handling snafu on goal number two), and one that was needed since for a rare time the Devils didn’t dominate the CORSI battle – getting outshot 47-28 by the Metro leaders – who also had the benefit of Derek Stepan turning back the clock to his Ranger days with two goals. Unfortunately for the Canes, Antti Raanta couldn’t turn back the clock similarly, as a few soft goals helped keep us in the match. Maybe it was some form of payback for Ullmark’s stoning us time and again against the Bruins. Again though, it was the Devils’ key players getting the goals with Jesper Bratt contributing a pair to go along with Jack and Nico each lighting the lamp once themselves.
Still, the Devils couldn’t clamp down a game they had a late lead in, thanks in part to a weird sequence caused by a nonexistent embelishment call on Jonas Siegenthaler – probably more stupid game management since the refs didn’t want to give a late power play in a tie game – that eventually led to the Devils having to kill off a five-on-three, and being unsuccessful at the penalty kill this time. Blackwood actually made a bunch of stellar saves in the third period and overtime to preserve the tie, but in the Devils’ first shootout of the season they looked every bit like a team who hadn’t had a shootout in months with Tomas Tatar, Bratt and Hughes all failing to score in the skills competition as the game was finally lost.
I can’t say Sunday’s game (especially being outplayed for the most part) is any kind of a sign that our freefall is over, but at least we managed points in consecutive games for the first time in a month. The next step is to actually build off it and get points off of both Detroit and a battered Blues team before the next Hudson showdown with the Rangers on Saturday afternoon. At least the cavalry seems to be arriving – apart from John Marino who’s still week-to-week to return – with Ondrej Palat returning to practice, not to mention Ryan Graves’ surprise return to the lineup yesterday after a scary-looking injury in Florida a few games back. Palat, in particular would be a sight for sore eyes, maybe with another legit top six wing in the lineup then coach Ruff will finally unstaple the ineffective Erik Haula from the Hughes line.
However it comes, just go and get a result on Wednesday and break the home schneid Thursday, let’s turn our three points into the start of a turnaround.