Road warrior Devils are back on the beam with four straight wins

After last Saturday’s dramatic comeback win over the Rangers, I hoped that it could be a spark towards ending a month-long malaise. So far, so good on that end as the Devils have won the first three games on a five-game road trip (and scoring sixteen goals in the process!), continuing their utter dominance on all games outside of the tri-state area this season. Not that it was easy on the first leg of the trip in Carolina either, in fact that win on Tuesday required another dramatic multi-goal comeback as the Canes – looking to stop their own mini-skid of three straight losses – dominated for most of the first forty minutes in Raleigh. Maybe if this were another Devils team, going down 3-1 and giving up two shorthanded goals (including one with under three minutes remaining in the second period) would have been it for the night.

Not this team, and not this year though.

After the Devils’ top players had been carrying the scoring load the previous few games, some of the depth guys finally started to step up in Raleigh – specifically a created on the fly line of Dawson Mercer, Jesper Boqvist and Michael McLeod that managed to score two goals on the same shift in the final seconds of the second period. First, Mercer got the Devils to within one after a nice individual effort deking out Jordan Martinook at the blueline to gain zone entry, then after faking a wraparound went back in front of the net to stuff the puck in under Pyotr Kochetkov’s pads. Full credit also to Damon Severson for the nice tape-to-tape pass that found Mercer just outside of the blueline before he did the rest. Before the newly created line finished their shift, they managed to tie the game off a nice give-and-go entry between Mercer and Boqvist, with the latter also deking out the Canes goalie in front and beating him five-hole.

Even though that stunning sequence only tied the game, it more or less decided the outcome as the Devils dominated the third period, only allowing four Carolina shots after being outshot 24-15 in the first two periods. Fittingly, it was the Mercer line that scored the game-winner, with Dawson getting his second of the night after Boqvist sprung him for a mini-breakaway and this time Mercer beat the goalie off a deke left-side to give the Devils a lead they wouldn’t relinquish at 8:53 of the third period. A final-minute goal credited to Nico Hischier after he was interfered with on an empty net settled the issue and gave the Devils their 5-3 margin of victory.

After beating both of the other top teams in the Metro with dramatic rallies, Friday’s game in Anaheim against a wretched Ducks team was far more routine with Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes each scoring a brace (two goals) in a 6-2 romp, which was never in doubt after three first-period goals. At least old buddy Adam Henrique managed one of the Ducks’ two goals, but hopefully for his sake he’s able to find his way onto a playoff team sooner rather than later. Maybe even ours if things broke right.

Henrique is not only a class act in general (and was doubly such during some of our dark ages), but also represents one of the only links remaining to better times for New Jersey before this season, given his 2012 playoff heroics. Like us, he only has managed to make the playoffs for one quick first-round exit since then…ironically in the same year we made the playoffs, when he was traded in-season. In an odd way being on ESPN – excuse me, ESPN PLUS – and having a wider audience see this new-look Devils team was also a bit like old times. If you wanted to encapsulate the Devils’ fall and rise in under ten minutes, this nice piece by Emily Kaplan before one of our ESPN+ games summed it up pretty well:

I can’t help but chuckle now at the Lindy Ruff booing turned to apologies story arc, of course it wasn’t so funny until after our ‘heater’ made it an arc rather than just the inevitable last act of a failed coaching stint. More than anyone though, a hockey lifer like Lindy – who started his coaching career in Buffalo during the middle of our apex as a franchise – would understand the frustration coming off a decade of mostly losing that had engulfed the fanbase. At least he, and this team have been the ones to do something about it.

Also deserving of notice has been the goaltending, starting of course with Vitek Vanecek who rebounded from a poor beginning against the Rangers to shut the door down and lead the Devils to a pair of comeback wins against our two biggest challengers for Metro supremacy, along with the business-like win in Anaheim. Finally, the Devils are treating him like the #1 goalie his play has merited him as all year long. Last night on the rear end of a back-to-back, it was Mackenzie Blackwood’s turn to step up and step up he did stopping 35 of 37 Kings shots in a deceptively easy 5-2 win.

Our team must give the analytics geeks headaches. After a bunch of games during our December malaise where the ‘deserve to win-meter’ was heavily weighted toward us, two of the three wins on our road trip was the inverse where we were arguably outplayed (or at least outshot), yet won. At least you could make the argument we were due for some good luck perhaps. Still, the Devils only allowed two power play goals in LA while outscoring them 5-0 in all other situations – three 5-on-5 goals, one power play of their own and an empty-netter from Bratt late.

Like Carolina, our depth guys stepped up again in LA with Tomas Tatar’s first-period power play goal canceling out one by Kevin Fiala and our secondary scoring proved decisive in the second period when goals fell out of the sky. First, Erik Haula(!) scored on a two-on-one to give the Devils their first lead early in the second. After another power play goal from future HOF’er Anze Kopitar tied it again, rookie defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk’s first NHL goal regained the momentum for the road team less than a minute later at 7:40 of the middle frame, and this time they wouldn’t relinquish the lead.

Barely three minutes later, Ryan Graves added the Devils’ fourth of the night and his fourth of the season – adding to his NHL-leading(!) +30 total in the process. While I’m a bit of a plus-minus skeptic myself, maybe there’s something to be said about the fact Graves led the NHL in 2018-19 in that stat with Colorado and is doing so again now with us. Even that stat isn’t as remarkable as the Devils’ road record of 17-2-1 though – and with two of the three losses at the Garden and Philly to boot, so they barely even qualify as road ‘trips’. As it is, winning seventeen of twenty games is an NHL record to start the season and gave us a nice cushion to lean on during our home-ice struggles throughout December.

With another eminently winnable game in San Jose on Monday, the Devils have a legitimate chance to actually sweep the California position of the trip, if not the entire road trip though Thursday’s trip finale against a surprisingly stout Seattle Kraken team will be a test even for our road warriors. I mean if you had Vegas and Seattle being 1-2 in an NHL division five years ago in your crystal ball, then you really do have a working crystal ball. At least with a re-widening of the gap between us and the playoff bubble we can enjoy that challenge and not bite our nails worrying about what’s gaining on us.

First things first though…finish the California part of the trip in style on Monday!

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