I was really tempted to do an instant recap for once after Tuesday’s wild rally against the Golden Knights, but given that the ESPN+ mandated start time of 7:30 ensured I got home closer to 11 on a weeknight, I passed. So instead, this will be a distant recap of a Devils sweep in their mini-homestand of two games – although that outcome could easily have gone the other way, which would have left me shaking my head given the team’s long home losing streak in December and early January coupled with their dominance on the road. However, this team just continues to show their resilience in every way possible…from the road record to all of the dramatic comebacks and late wins this season, punctuated by back-to-back OT winners at the Rock by Dougie Hamilton the last two games.
There isn’t much to say about the big picture at this point, the Devils have long since allayed any fears of crashing below the playoff bubble, building their lead on the last playoff spot back up to thirteen points, with thirty-five games left in the regular season. Right now it’s about maintaining the stars’ performance, improving the depth and augmenting for the playoffs, which alone is a triumph for this year’s team. Even in 2018, when the Devils were dragged to the postseason by Taylor Hall heroics and Keith Kinkaid’s career half-season with a dramatic late-season surge, you knew that there was really no shot of a deep playoff run, and two mid-level trades for Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon were more about just trying to get the team to the playoffs and ideally take the next step after that. At least the first part of that was successful (i.e. making the playoffs) but it’s taken another five years – and a lot of hockey played in the wilderness – before we can even think about taking a step beyond just making the postseason.
Before looking ahead though, we look back. First, to Sunday afternoon against the Penguins which you knew would be an electric atmosphere as the team got a well-deserved hero’s welcome back to the Rock after a nearly spotless road trip. Clearly, a sellout crowd was expected for a Sunday afternoon game against a division rival.
What probably wasn’t expected (at least for some of the people coming in) were the really long lines at both towers to get in. If you’ve ever been to the Rock you know there are two main entrances with the first tower being next to the big team store and the other one being next to the practice rink and having the Martin Brodeur statue outside of it. There’s also a lesser known third entrance – which isn’t a tower – hidden right next to the big parking garage just off of Broad Street, that’s the one I usually go in and it tends to be far less crowded than either tower even on days like Sunday. I got in like a half hour before the 2 PM start time and just shook my head when I saw fifteen minutes later from above how long the line was to get in the main tower.
While getting in wasn’t a concern for me, the inevitable first day letdown after a long road trip was. You wouldn’t know it by the electric start though, when Jack Hughes’ goal in the first minute of the game kept the crowd rocking early. That lead wouldn’t last too long unfortunately as Sidney Crosby’s seeing-eye shot tied the game at 6:25. There really wasn’t much else in terms of highlights in regulation though, other than (as usual) a few spectacular Vitek Vanecek saves which helped the Devils survive a heavy-legged game after an illusory two-day break following their final game of the road trip in Seattle on Thursday.
Illusory after you factor in a late night Thursday game followed by a cross-country trip and an early Sunday afternoon game, that makes it a bit less of a layover than the 2.5 days says it is on the surface. Plus, it needs to be said the Penguins are playing for their playoff lives – as they’re a lot closer to the bubble than we are at the moment. Facing teams more desperate than us in the latter part of the season is a first-world problem we’re going to have to deal with, in this next phase of learning how to win as a franchise. Fortunately, they passed that test Sunday never letting the game get away from them despite obvious fatigue. Getting to OT was the first step, but given the fact the team only had one home win in their last six weeks, another win (at least) was necessary in this two-game mini-homestand.
Overtime proved to be very eventful after an astonishingly brazen attempt by Marcus Petterson to cheat his way into a two on one, jumping on the ice when the nearest skater was fifty feet away to turn a one-on-one into a faux two-on-one, which he appeared to score on and I was ready to walk out in a huff knowing he was a bit early and expecting another non-call in favor of the league’s golden child. Fortunately the refs did see this obvious too many men penalty (you really would have been willfully ignorant not to) and made the correct call, giving the Devils a power play. Which turned into the latest episode of what we call Doing The Dougie
The head bob makes it an insta-classic celebration and a deserved response on a legal 4-on-3 power play, after the Penguins tried to sneak in an illegal 4-on-3 to steal an OT point. On my way out of the arena I ran into my friends Nael and Katie, who admitted they were also stuck in the lines getting in and missed the Hughes goal (probably didn’t help that they literally made a last minute decision to come to the game about a half hour before it started). I told them about the alternate entrance for future reference, but I also park in a lot on Halsey Street that’s nearer to the back entrance than most of the main parking areas people who aren’t as familiar with the area look for near the Rock. At least they managed to find street parking and not pay for that, and it was worth the wait for them to finally see a goal in OT.
As if two straight OT wins at home wasn’t enough drama, the Devils went for three in a row against Vegas on Tuesday night. Against a Vegas team that should have been ripe for the picking given it was their fourth game in six nights, with injuries on its blueline and in net, again the offense struggled with Ondrej Palat’s ricochet goal less then four minutes into the game being the only shot that beat Logan Thompson for more than fifty-eight minutes.
For most of the night it looked as if a frustrating loss was on the docket from Erik Haula passing up an open net with a 1-0 lead in the second period (coupled with the team giving up two goals shortly thereafter) to Lindy Ruff coaching as if it were the late ’90’s, line matching the Miles Wood line as if it was the second coming of Holik, McKay and Arnott while using Haula as if he’s John Madden. Haula can be a useful player in the right role despite his paltry four goals on the season, but being stapled to Hughes ain’t it, unless the idea is we just aren’t even going to try to find another scoring winger for Hughes and let him be a one-man show, which has worked in the regular season at least.
And as much as I like Wood, Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod as hockey players in their proper role, they aren’t the second coming of the Crash Line. Especially with Wood mired in a dreadful one goal in over thirty game drought, and Bastian recently coming off of IR. Seeing that line come on the ice for shift after shift in the third period I really started to think maybe THIS is why we struggle at home compared to the road, because it’s easier for an old-school coach to try to match lines with personnel that really doesn’t dictate matching lines. You need to run your star players out there, especially trailing. And when they aren’t on the ice then at least put guys out who have a prayer of scoring goals more than once every couple of weeks.
Ironically when it came down to the bolts and nuts of a 6-on-5 at the end of regulation, it was the stars who saved the day again. Specifically the guy who’s been Mr. Clutch all week:
Have to admit, as agnostic as I am about exclusively streamed games for the Devils (especially since they give us later start times), the call by Wischusen was superb here, particularly foreshadowing it seconds before the goal. More justice was done in the OT after the refs – who hadn’t called a penalty on Vegas all night – finally took the whistle out of their pocket long enough to give us a deserved OT power play. In a severe case of deja vu, it was Hamilton to put the finishing touches on yet another OT 4-on-3 winner, but this goal was ninety percent about THAT ASSIST from Hughes, while being double-teamed and flat on the ice he still manages to get the puck to an open Hamilton on the blue line.
One of the familiar voices commenting in that clip was none other than P.K. Subban, part of ESPN+’s studio and admiring former teammate of Jack Hughes. Considering most of the media looks at the Devils with a combination of either disdain or ambivalence, having a popular player like PK pump our tires is somewhat adorable (for lack of a better word), even if he clearly is going to be biased toward an organization he played with just several months ago. Particularly toward his buddy Jack:
It seems kind of a shame that PK’s career ended in relative obscurity here last April after three straight seasons of missing the playoffs and declining play from a personal standpoint, but by the same token I figured it was a possibility when his contract ran out. By this juncture in his career he’d probably make as much money broadcasting as he would playing, so it was just a matter of whether he wanted to go through the grind another eight months as a depth defenseman to try and win a Cup or start a (hopefully) lucrative post-career in media.
As far as what’s ahead for the team, currently they have just two more games before a nine-day layoff due to the All-Star break and a bye week (that’s still a thing? NHL, if you’re going to rip off an NFL invention at least try and call it another name), and with only Jack going to Florida for the skills games it’ll be some well-deserved attention for a guy who’ll get Hart votes this year and well-deserved time off for everyone else. Knock on wood by the time the break ends, we should have a full lineup again although our last major injury concern – defenseman John Marino – is still in a non-contact shirt due to what was confirmed as a shoulder injury by Matt Loughlin on last night’s YouTube postgame.
Incidentally now that the Devils are off terrestrial radio, the YouTube postgame has become a nice thing to listen to on the drive home from games when there’s a happy recap involved. Sure I could try and hunt down the internet feed for Matt and Chico on the radio but you actually get more with the YouTube show imo – a full recap, a few different media interviews and some Matt and Chico time after they’re done with their radio duties anyway.
I don’t know if I’m even going to bother recapping the last two games before the break, unless something major happens like an injury or a trade. I’m not even watching right now as I missed the first half of the game, and am just now finishing a blog I started this morning. More likely I’ll have a blog at some point during the break looking back as a whole on the first half of the season, and looking forward at what’s to come.
Jack Hughes makes it impossible not to talk about him. Scoring almost every game. Clutch goals. Wins the comeback win over a good Stars team in overtime. What a fantastic player. He deserves those MVP votes.