Devils sweep home stand, run their Rock winning streak to five

At the Rock these last couple months, it’s been both the best of times and the worst of times. Right now it’s clearly the best of times for the Devils on the ice as a tight 2-1 win over the Kraken last night, coupled with a wild 5-4 OT decision over the Canucks on Monday ran the Devils’ record to 10-1-1 in their last twelve games, including five in a row at home. Though the team’s still struggling at times, they’ve been carried by performances from their best players and by goaltending – last night being another example of both as Dougie Hamilton’s two power play goals and Mackenzie Blackwood’s 33 saves carried the Devils across the finish line in regulation, despite missing the clear team MVP in Jack Hughes.

For Hughes, a mysterious upper-body injury that now has him on the shelf week-to-week is an unfortunate coda to All-Star weekend, and his triumphant return from Florida’s celebrity classic on Monday with two goals and the assist on Jesper Bratt’s OT winner against the Canucks. There was no indication of any issue then, but perhaps the issue cropped up after the game…or before it. Though I watched exactly zero of the skills competition or the 3-on-3 games on All-Star weekend, every Devils fan saw the clip of Brady Thachuk’s weird half horse-collar on Hughes during his game on Sunday:

Granted it’s a slight tug on the neck which you could almost dismiss as playful, but in that situation it was more or less a horse collar. Are we playing All-Star games as a competitive fixture or not? If not (which it clearly isn’t, when you go to 3-on-3 and faux division formats where everyone needs to be represented), then sorry dude you’re not Pete Rose and this isn’t 1970. Turn off the hurt and obstruct genes for one frigging weekend. Could I really expect anything more from a Thachuk though, considering brother Matt’s role in the Panthers-Devils shenanigans from earlier this year including a clear cheap shot on Nico Hischier?

Even if Hughes got injured in that play or on All-Star weekend, I’m not about to say ban all our players from going to the All-Star game. Hockey’s an 82-game season, guys are gonna get hurt. If you’re gonna get hurt in an exhibition from a guy being a punk, you can just as easily be hurt on one of 82 other nights from someone doing far worse. Besides, it’s not as if we couldn’t use positive publicity and nobody’s delivered more than that than Hughes, which his heroics on Monday only served to underscore and led to a heartfelt…if slightly optimistic chant

Maybe if the NHL was in a year without a transcendent talent, Hughes’s 35 goals and 67 points in 50 games would have him in the driver seat to pick up the Hart Trophy (Taylor Hall ‘only’ had 94 points in his Hart season, after all)…but as Jack himself acknowledged after the game, hard to see anyone besides Connor McDavid winning it this year. I mean really, 41 goals and 94 points in 52 games are basically Gretzky and Lemieux in the live puck era type of numbers. Still, 50 goals and 100 points were both real possibilities for Hughes, and nobody in franchise history has crossed either barrier in a single season.

Unfortunately, the mysterious upper-body injury which went from a maintenance day to out for weeks will put a cramp in both milestone chases. At least the Devils have enough of a cushion over the bubble it shouldn’t hinder our playoff march too much, although clearly running down Carolina for the division lead and avoiding likely Armageddon in the first round just got a bit harder. Though I normally avoid the whole seeding and matchup talk till March, it’s hard not to see the likelihood of Devils-Rangers is over fifty percent at this point. With as well as the Hurricanes are playing are we really going to run them down while compensating for Hughes being on the shelf? Are the Rangers going to run them down from ten points in the rear, even after getting Tarasenko? Conversely we’re double digits up on the playoff bubble while it’s unlikely the Rangers get run down by the Caps or Pens either, now that they’ve started fortifying their roster for a playoff push.

Of course that worry, if you want to call it that is two months in the future still. Plenty of hockey to be played between now and then, not to mention deadline moves to be made. With Tarasenko and Bo Horvat both off the board – and both going to local teams, no less – even more attention is on the Sharks’ Timo Meier (and his 65 goals between last season and the start of this year), whose weird contract situation complicates a potential trade. Though he’s not technically a UFA next year, his arb number will be in the $10 million range due to contractual technicalities, so for all intents and purposes any team acquiring him will want to agree to a new contract within days of the trade, a la the Isles with Horvat. To ramp up the stakes even more, the two teams most linked with the Swiss winger are us…and the Hurricanes.

Though the trade deadline isn’t for another three weeks, as evidenced by the big trades that have already taken place a lot of teams typically want to finish their business before deadline day, leaving all the talking heads on their trade special shows to debate which middle six forwards and stay-at-home defensemen could be gamechangers. In the case of the Sharks, it also behooves them to trade Timo sooner – if nothing else but to soft tank their way into more lotto balls. While under normal circumstances, Devil fans would just be happy to make the playoffs for a second time in the last decade, the likely opponent being the Rangers raises the stakes. Fans are already feeling the anticipation, with a group in the lower bowl chanting ‘WE WANT TIMO!’ during the national anthem last night, as inappropriate as that was I couldn’t help but snicker when I realized what it was.

As far as the actual games this week, it seems like no matter what happens the Devils are destined to take just about every game down to the wire and make you bite your nails. Even Monday – which should have been a laugher when the Devils went up 4-1 – became a struggle after three unanswered goals from the lowly Canucks tied the game, and the Devils were actually fortunate to avoid a regulation loss. Of course that was before getting Vancouver right where they wanted them in OT, with another 4-on-3 power play and another decisive late goal, this time from Jesper Bratt.

I didn’t attend that game even though I was supposed to, because of car issues that only got temporarily rectified yesterday. Enough for me to try going to the game when my other plans fell through, so instead of going Monday and not going Thursday which was the initial plan, it wound up being the other way around. At least the result was the same for the Devils, although with both Hughes and defenseman Brendan Smith out, as well as Vitek Vanecek and his ten-game winning streak giving way to Blackwood to keep him in game form after the long break, it had the feel of an English soccer team throwing out their B unit in a cup game.

Early on it felt like the loss of Hughes would be too much to overcome against a solid Seattle team though Blackwood kept the team in the game in the first period, and eventually the team straightened out enough defensively to make it more of a back-and-forth game, which was surprisingly 0-0 more than halfway through the second between Blackwood and Phillip Grubauer (both of whom had poor overall stats this season). Of all people, it was ex-Devil Adam Larsson who broke the deadlock at 14:05 of the second period, with a seeing-eye shot that beat Blackwood for the only goal he’d allow on the night.

Despite a mostly dreadful game from everyone else other than the fourth line up to that point, the Devils responded with the best shift of the night from the erstatz top line of Ondrej Palat – who also had two goals against the Canucks – Hischier and Bratt leading to a penalty, which led to yet another Dougie ripper from inside the blueline, off a feed from Palat and that proved to be all the offense needed for one night at least.

I swear, Dougie goals from the middle of the blueline are becoming almost as frequent as Ovi goals from just above the faceoff dot – a point reinforced in the third period when another power play led to another Dougie goal ripped from the blueline, also assisted by Palat. Despite having no five-on-five goals last night, the Dougie-Palat power play connection and Blackwood’s performance were enough to get the two points, sealed with a John Marino empty-netter. At this point it seems like the Devils are on the verge of ‘nice problem to have’ territory with their goalies, given Blackwood’s improved play combined with Vanecek’s consistency and long winning streak. Although I submit a big reason for Blackwood’s being improved this year is less wear and tear being the 1B, since injuries have been a big part of his career to this point. Still, having two goalies play well beats the alternative of last year when we had no goalies playing well.

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2 Responses to Devils sweep home stand, run their Rock winning streak to five

  1. Derek Felix says:

    Hamilton healthy makes a difference. He has a great shot. Who holds the record for most goals by a Devil in a season? He’ll break it.

    Thought this was funny..a few guys didn’t know.


  2. hasan4978 says:

    Stevens had 18 and 17 in two different seasons in the early ’90’s, Hamilton’s almost already matched it with 15. Stevens also has the point record with 78, Hamilton could well approach that too (he has 51 in 51 games so far).


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