Finally, our long state nightmare is over…the Devils’ home losing streak ends at eight after a roller-coaster 4-3 come-from-behind win in OT over the Rangers this afternoon. I was tempted to just let Derek do the game recap and I’m sure he probably will add some thoughts later, after what was a brutal (from his standpoint) loss…but this game was so wacky – not to mention meaningful – it deserves a double recap here.
I suppose you wouldn’t expect anything less when these two teams play, especially when they’re on a more even playing field this year than they’ve been most of the last decade – though as I said in a prior blog a lot of times you can pretty much throw the records out when these two teams play anyway. Both games at the Garden earlier this year were also roller-coaster rides, with the Devils winning the first meeting after falling behind by two barely three minutes into that one, while the Rangers came from two down in the second game after scoring a pair of goals seven seconds apart.
While I’m sure both teams wanted to win this matinee special, tangibly this game was probably bigger for the Devils than the Rangers, given the fact we’re about to go on a two-week road trip and have been slumping lately (albeit with a couple of road wins mixed in), while they’ve been playing well the last few weeks for the most part. In fact, a Ranger win would have put them in front of us in the standings for the first time since mid-October, before our thirteen-game heater.
Given all that, the game could hardly have started worse for the Devils – or the fans in attendance – when Vitek Vanecek allowed a shockingly poor goal by one-time Devil Jimmy Vesey, after Vesey deked his way around ex-Ranger Brendan Smith to get to the left side of the ice before beating Vanecek short-side. I somehow had the feeling the Rangers would score first, but this soon on this type of a goal? And to Vesey of all people, a guy who basically was just roster filler for a season here and looked to be on his way out of the league after last year before being revitalized back in Ranger blue?!
If the early deficit was predictable, so too was how the rest of the period turned out with frustration piled upon frustration. It was bad enough the Devils managed to outshoot the Rangers by more than double (19-9) in the first period without finding their way to a single goal, but they even failed to score on an eighty-seven second long 5-on-3. I don’t want to hear that the conversion rate for 5-on-3’s is ‘only’ thirty percent, how many of them were nearly a minute and a half long?! That whole period felt like one big sick joke.
A sick joke that continued into the second period as the Devils continued to pepper Igor Shesterkin with little to no success in the middle frame, and still fell further behind after what seemed like an innocuous play at first when Barclay Goodrow’s long pass wound up being tape to tape onto Adam Fox’s stick and Fox’s nice drop pass set up Julien Gauthier for what turned out to be a nice deke and hand-eye play in front to score the Rangers’ second. At the arena it looked like just a dribbler that found its way through Vanecek but it was actually a deke where Gauthier almost lost the puck but regained it in front to put it home for his sixth goal of the season. At this point I was rolling my eyes wondering when, exactly were we going to start turning our chances into goals?
When in doubt, there’s at least almost always Jack Hughes to count on – and the Devils’ star brought our portion of the crowd back to life again midway through the second period – with assistance from whoever it was that turned the puck over right onto Hughes’ stick, and he split the D for what turned out to be a mini-breakaway goal, his 25th of the season.
I joked to a friend the Rangers were probably going to quadruple-team Hughes going forward. Finally at least we had some hope back, although I still didn’t have much hope that anyone not named Hughes was scoring. And what little momentum we got from that goal died again less than four minutes later when Chris Kreider put home a rebound from a K’Andre Miller shot, restoring the Rangers’ two goal lead. All told, the Devils somehow managed only one goal on thirty-three shots in the first two periods. Give Shesterkin all the credit in the world, but you could have told me Jaroslav Halak was in net and I’d believe you given our propensity to be shut down by just about ‘anyone’ at home lately.
As far as the crowd goes, I actually figured there would be more Devil fans than there were given the team’s overall position in the standings, in comparison to past years where it was predictable that we’d inevitably cash out on games which had little tangible meaning for us anyway. It was still uncomfortably close to 50-50 on a decent – for January – Saturday afternoon though, although to be fair Devils fans did represent nicely in at least the first game at the Garden just after our long winning streak had ended. Still, part of me wondered if there was a few more Ranger fans in the building would it feel enough like a road game to get the best out of this team?
I didn’t exactly have the crazy first two games in mind as the third period slogged on to what seemed like an inevitable conclusion several minutes in, after all the Devils had been playing much better a few weeks ago during those games…actually the second game at the Garden (the come-from-ahead OT loss) had pretty much started our December malaise. At least Vanecek had started to redeem himself from the horrible-looking opening goal as the Rangers started to put more pucks on net late in the second and in the third period, fortunately good Vitek returned and kept us within shouting distance until finally came a breakthrough, and on a power play no less. This time, it was Jesper Bratt whose one-time slapper off a Nico Hischier feed dinged the camera in the net and came out, but clearly a goal which pulled the Devils within one at 8:28.
Whereas I still felt a bit meh about our chances after we pulled to within 2-1, this one felt like the start of a rally. Sure enough, the pressure finally resulted in another break when a Ryan Graves point shot deflected off Dawson Mercer and right onto the stick of Hughes with an open net waiting. Not only did Hughes cash in to tie the game, but then immediately tugged on the NJ logo to celebrate with the crowd.
Asked about the jersey tug and the crowd after the game, Hughes said he was representing the state with the logo pull and referred to the crowd just making a lot of noise and going nuts after his tying goal without fully realizing what it was about. I’m sure he was more or less referring to when the dual chants started, with the ‘Let’s Go Rangers!’ from the visiting fans followed by ‘Let’s Go Devils!’ several times in a row which was both hilarious and annoying. But hey this is an actual rivalry, and not a faux rivalry dependent on either individual players or teams happening to meet in the playoffs a couple of times.
Inexorably the game went to OT, and ironically the Devils outscored the Rangers 2-0 in the only period they were outshot in during the game, though they narrowly avoided disaster when Damon Severson’s dangerous pass through his own crease just missed deflecting off the skates of an unsuspecting Vanecek. In another situation maybe you’d be happy with just getting a point out of a game you were trailing 3-1 in, but a moral victory wasn’t going to be enough today. They needed an actual win with the home losing streak still needing to be dealt with, not to mention having to fend off teams in the standings. Early on it looked bad as the Rangers got a breakaway – at this point I forget who it was and who got blown by on the play – but Vanecek stood tall one more time and gave us a chance to win.
Finally, maybe even deservedly they did get that all-important W after a great individual play from of all people Severson, who was nearly the goat a few minutes earlier but left the Rock a hero after both stripping Alexis Lafreniere to start a two-on-one the other way, then converting on the two-on-one for an emotional OT winner.
After all my kvetching over our home losing streak was it…actually worth the wait to end it this way? Assuming it starts us going in the right direction again, I’d say yes. Of course playing in Carolina the next game (and the first of a long road trip) after this kind of an emotional win doesn’t do us any favors. That’s next week’s problem though, at least we have a couple of days to savor finally getting off the schnied at home in a fun, albeit stressful afternoon at the Rock. But would you want it any other way in a rivalry?
I feel like the Devils deserved it more. But blowing a 3-1 lead is bad. Especially with Goodrow getting a primary assist on Hughes’ 25th. He also lost the draw to Mercer on the tying Hughes tally. Weird game. Vanecek made the saves to keep them in. Special Teams proved a difference along with some lack of finish from our top guns.