Devils’ jekyll and hyde nature leaves them stuck in limbo

If there was a more perfect prism to view the last month of Devils hockey, these last two games provided it. Considering the Devils are 14-2-1 on the road and 10-10-2 at home with eight straight losses at the Rock, maybe we shouldn’t have expected any different than what the team gave us this week – which was a dominant 5-1 win in Detroit on Wednesday followed by more frustration against a banged-up Blues team last night in a 4-3 defeat. I’m at a loss to even begin to explain the Devils’ sudden bipolar nature where they turn into the Hulk on the road and mild-mannered Bruce Banner at home.

Since the Detroit game was first, let’s start with the good news of the week, our nearly drama-free win on Wednesday. Granted, the Devils were outshot by the Wings and scoreless after the first period but as we’ve seen on multiple occasions this year (and would again the following day), shots mean very little if you don’t convert them. Almost everything found the back of the net in the last two periods of the game in Detroit though, starting with power play goals by Dougie Hamilton and Nico Hischier – both off of Hamilton point shots – the latter being a tip-in by the captain, prompting a bow and arrow celebration from one exuberant Devils fan in the building.

Hischier had a two-point night on his birthday despite a hand injury suffered in the previous game against Carolina which limited his usage on faceoffs to power play only. In the third period the Devils tacked on with finally some of the secondary scorers chipping in, led by a newly constructed fourth line of Michael McLeod, Alex Holtz and Miles Wood which combined for the first two goals in the third. All three combined on the first goal, with a Holtz pass to Wood on a two-on-one being stopped by Ville Husso, but the Detroit goaltender was out of position when Holtz was able to corral the rebound and feed McLeod with an open net waiting. Holtz got a deserved reward for arguably his best game of the season seconds after another power play ended when a nice entry from Damon Severson and feed from Wood led to Holtz having time and space to score his third goal of the season. For good measure, Jack Hughes added his 22nd goal of the season to make it 5-0, a nearly spotless game only spoiled by Vitek Vanecek losing a shutout with two minutes remaining when Detroit got one power play goal of their own.

At least Vanecek had another strong game with 32 saves including key stops early before the Devils’ power play got the offensive show rolling. Unfortunately with a back-to-back at home the next night it was unlikely Vanecek would play both ends of it, especially given his career high in games played (AHL and NHL) is 42 last year, and he’s already played 25 games this year in just under half a season so barring injury he should set a career high. The days of Marty playing 70+ are long over with, not just with the Devils but in the NHL in general. Instead of Mackenzie Blackwood against the Blues however, we got the return of Akira Schmid when Blackwood took a shot off his hand in practice and was scratched from an almost certain start last night. While Schmid earned a lot of respect for his play during his first callup, he hadn’t been nearly as stout since returning to the AHL and was now being called back up to play on short notice.

With a third-string goalie playing in less than ideal circumstances, the Devils needed to step things up against the Blues. They tried, but as has been the case often this season got frustrated by another highlight-reel goaltending performance, this one from Jordan Binnington who partied like it was a playoff run (since that’s the only time he usually plays well). Having a 3.21 GAA and .894 save percentage didn’t suggest we would see playoff Binnington appear at the Rock last night, but appear he did. Unfortunately, the early-season Schmid did not appear with him. Despite outshooting the Blues 39-19 last night, and having the shot edge in every period it proved to be yet another frustrating defeat.

Not all the goals against were on Schmid, certainly our ‘top pairing’ of Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler (a combined -5 last night) need to be better, and coach Lindy Ruff even called out Hamilton by name in the postgame, as well as rookie Fabian Zetterlund who was a healthy scratch.

Still, when you basically allow three quality chances against in the first two periods you’d like to see more than one save on them, especially when the other goalie makes approximately eight saves out of ten quality chances against him. Actually, the worst goal on Schmid was probably the Blues’ go-ahead goal in the third when Brandon Saad beat him through the legs. It’s hard to be critical of a rookie who shouldn’t have been playing this many games in the first place, and I feel like we’re in the movie Groundhog Day after I was saying the same thing about Nico Daws last year when he fell off after initially playing well as a rookie callup.

Of course just as much blame for last night lies with the offense who did just enough to lose, with newly-minted All-Star Hughes being the entire offense in the first two periods with two more goals, but nobody else could convert – whether it was Tomas Tatar getting robbed by the glove on the doorstep or McLeod flubbing an empty-net chance after a nice feed by Erik Haula, or Dawson Mercer failing to even register a shot on net after getting a short-handed breakaway in the third period, a play that was described harshly by the coach.

Hard for me to entirely agree with Lindy here, given the Blues already tied the game, and the fact it was hardly the only frustrating miss on the evening. What was doubly annoying is the fact the Devils had two wins and an OT loss in their previous three games, seemingly coming out of a month-long malaise – and also had the long-awaited return of Ondrej Palat to the lineup last night, to boot. Of course they won both those games away from the Prudential Center, while they haven’t sent the home fans happy since beating the Blackhawks on December 6, exactly a month ago today. And if they don’t beat the streaking Rangers (eleven wins in fourteen games) tomorrow, they won’t get another chance to end the home losing streak for another two weeks. I wanted to call tomorrow’s game a must-win but given the bubble cushion is still seven points at the moment, I’ll stop short of that and say it’s imperative we’re not sitting on a nine-game home losing streak for another two weeks before a long road trip awaits.

Given the fact the rest of the division is still streaking, a split against two non-playoff teams didn’t ultimately do us much good this week. Sure, the margin to the playoff bubble is still seven (with the Penguins having a game in hand) but I’m not sure we can rely on the Devils being a .900 team on the road all year, especially with a five-game trip coming up starting with a Carolina pitstop before a four-game West Coast swing. If you think the Devils are the 2011 New York Giants reincarnate where they can just win every game on the road all year well vaya con dios, you can’t rely on those type of historical anomalies long-term, especially in a long 82-game season compared to a sixteen-game one.

Of course, it would be nice if Vanecek got more of the home starts at this point given that he’s only started three of the eight losses, and didn’t even get a decision in the Islander loss while the other two games he was the victim of insane goaltending (or lousy finishing by us) against the Flyers and Carter Hart, and the Bruins with Linus Ullmark. He’ll almost certainly start tomorrow’s game, which should help but they’re more than capable of getting frustrated by Igor Shesterkin, assuming he’s in net as well. Or Jaroslav Halak, or anyone else the Rangers put in net. In a rivalry, frequently the records don’t matter – and in this case, the record’s pretty well even after the Devils were lapping the field fifteen games ago – all that matters is getting more goals than the other team. You wouldn’t think the Devils had scored sixteen goals in the last four games given all the hand-wringing over the offense, but other than the Detroit game there hasn’t been enough secondary scoring, and for all the chances they got last night you gotta get more than three with the third one being a Nico goal on a 5-on-3 after we fell behind by two.

There have been too many games like last night in general where the advanced stats zealots pound their chest and say the Devils ‘dominated’…well that ain’t gonna help when you fail to win, especially when the home crowd continually leaves the arena annoyed. If you want the crowd not to tense up and get even more negative, take it to the Rangers tomorrow. Fans are looking for a reason to cheer, give us that.

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