Devils complete another successful trip after up-and-down play

After the first three games of this four game trip, I couldn’t help but think that we’re finally having our first bad road trip of the season. It wasn’t even that the results were bad points-wise, although clearly the team wasn’t at its best, sandwiching a shootout loss in Minnesota and another dreadful performance against the Blues with barely beating the lowly Blue Jackets in the final seconds of regulation. Sure, it was three points out of six, but those three games were continuing a trend of the Devils’ overall level of play going downhill over the last few weeks. I was starting to compare it to our 2009-10 season where we set the world on fire in the first half, only to peter out with a sloggish .500 second half, followed by an early playoff exit at the hands of the Flyers.

Fortunately a couple of things changed today in Pittsburgh…for one, the Devils were playing a team that they’ve had a lot of inexplicable success against over the last decade even when they weren’t beating many other teams. For another, Jack Hughes returned to the lineup after missing the previous four games with an undisclosed body injury. True, Hughes wasn’t at his best early on (and neither was the team in the first twenty minutes), but he did ultimately contribute a couple of assists in what turned out to be a fairly drama-free – for once – 5-2 win.

Still double-digit points up on a playoff spot, the focus is more on big picture if you’re a Devils fan at the moment, especially given the impending trade deadline and all the focus about a certain potential acquisition. All the Timo Meier speculation is already getting old, but make no mistake – the fact that both a trade would likely have to come with an extension, coupled with the fact we need a guy like him in our top six badly and compounded with the speculation that the Hurricanes are also in on the bidding make it fingernail-biting time. At least this is one trade deadline where we can actually focus on acquisitions rather than subtractions (or more often the last few years, not even being able to sell anyone because their value is so depreciated).

Maybe it’s a good thing there isn’t much drama as far as getting into the playoffs at the moment, because the top of the Metro is a clear meat grinder at the moment:

  1. Hurricanes 80 points (9-1 in their last ten)
  2. Devils 77 points (7-2-1 in their last ten)
  3. Rangers 74 points (8-1-1 with a seven game winning streak)

On paper that would also give an advantage to the division winner, facing one of the sixty-point wild card contenders as opposed to a brutal division matchup in round one. Of course, with the playoffs point totals and pedigrees don’t always matter in the end anyway. As much as I’d rather avoid the Armageddon of Devils-Rangers in the first round, I’ve seem more than enough Devil postseasons where a high seed = early exit to care about where we finish in the standings in a vacuum.

What does matter is twofold…health and getting the best level of play out of everyone possible. In regards to the latter, Nico Hischier’s four-point afternoon in Pittsburgh was big for him personally and the team in general after the captain had slumped to one point in the previous seven games (more than half of them since Hughes was out of the lineup). Included in the four points was two goals, including the 100th of Nico’s still-young career – in classic fashion as well, with Nico and Yegor Sharangovich combining for a sweet short-handed marker that helped break open the game.

If Hischier’s breakout game was a big reason for the Devils’ dominance in Pittsburgh, so too were the lineup changes by Lindy Ruff – scratching Nathan Bastian and the slumping Jonas Siegenthaler, and reducing the icetime of the fourth-liners who did play. I’ve been beating the drum that a big reason for the team’s struggles at home relative to its road dominance is that the coach doesn’t feel as compelled to line match on the road as he does at home. Granted, you don’t want to have a steady diet of only playing the fourth line five minutes when we’re in the middle of a stretch of four games in six nights and have another game at home tomorrow but maybe the team’s second hideous loss to a substandard Blues team forced the issue in terms of accountability.

Of course, ultimately the team’s stars – and it’s goaltending – will need to continue to lead the way and both have been doing so all season. Nico’s two goals (and four points), Jack’s two assists, Dougie Hamilton with a power play goal and Jesper Bratt’s goal was a game where all the studs played in first gear, as well as Dawson Mercer, whose quick answer to an early Evgeni Malkin goal was key in the first period. In net, Vitek Vanecek is continuing his breakout season – going 2-0-1 in his three starts on the trip. His shootout loss in Minnesota was the only time he’s tasted anything but victory in his last thirteen starts, dating back to late December.

While the stars and Vitek have been more than enough to maintain the Devils’ position in the standings till this point, eventually the team will have to get more production from its role players. In that vein, Mercer and Sharangovich having two-point games this afternoon helped. So, too did Tomas Tatar’s pair of goals in Minnesota (the only ones the team scored in regulation), not to mention the dramatic game-winner from Ryan Graves in Columbus with the clock ticking down in regulation.

All in all, you have to describe this as yet another successful trip – five points out of eight without the Devils’ potential Hart trophy finalist for the first three games of it. With the team also on a five-game home winning streak, we’re getting close to having all cylinders clicking again. Hopefully they can keep the good times rolling at the Rock with four games in the span of a week beginning tomorrow night against the Jets.

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