Devils’ big win over Canes a good start to the stretch drive push

Lately I’ve disdained the daily recaps towards more of a week in review approach, especially as it’s become obvious that the Devils will be in the postseason anyway. However, with the importance of Sunday’s game, that deserved a little bit of a standalone review (albeit belatedly). Of course, the Devils’ 3-0 win at the Rock didn’t exactly clinch the division – and there’s still plenty of time to go with sixteen games left starting with Florida week, a brutal gauntlet of four games in six nights – three against Tampa and one against a surging Panther team that needs every point in its own playoff push.

Still, it’s hard to look at anything that lays ahead and think the Devils can’t hack it when they’ve passed just about every challenge in front of them this season with flying colors, Sunday’s division showdown being the latest example. An old Lou Lamoriello axiom (and I doubt he’s the only one who believes in it) is that your best players need to be your best players, and to a degree that was the case on Sunday – Jack Hughes got the first star with three points, Jesper Bratt had the second star with two goals, and Vitek Vanecek had the third star with a sterling 32-save shutout.

Even if (somewhat controversially) Vanecek only got the third star, to me the game was as much about goaltending as anything else. After two straight games off Vanecek returned to form with a bang, making a ton of key saves throughout the game, including the point-blank chance above on Sebastian Aho. On the other hand, Canes rookie Pyotr Kochetkov has had a fine season, but perhaps the moment was too big for him on Sunday – allowing two five-hole goals in the first period and trying to play the puck in the second period with Hughes bearing down to comic results:

Unironically yes…if you’re a Devils fan anyway. When the order of the three stars is your main complaint on the night, things are going well. At least as far as the Devils are concerned, I was a little annoyed before the game when I checked Twitter and saw Rutgers got snubbed out of the NCAA Tournament entirely – bleh. I was half expecting the Aaron Rodgers ‘decision’ to break while I was at the arena as well, but that didn’t exactly happen.

Back to the Devils, we can pay lip service about taking nothing for granted until the postseason berth is officially clinched (and there’ll be a deserved celebration when that does happen), but let’s be honest – this last month of the regular season is basically about keeping the Devils’ game at a high level, avoiding injuries and working people in and out of the lineup. Even Devils players are embracing the idea that this stretch drive is a test run for what’s to come:

The good news is most of the players here haven’t really been a part of that era of failure. Sure Hughes has taken his lumps until this year, but this is only his fourth season after all. And while Nico Hischier’s been here for more of the stink, he also was a big part of our only playoff berth in the last decade as an 18-year old rookie. Still, a lot of this roster hasn’t really been through a stretch drive or playoff hockey either – which is where vets like Marino, Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat and a few others come in. Not to mention the head coach in Lindy Ruff, who’s been through too many playoff runs to count.

What is becoming obvious is that this organization will have to make a decision on how much to pursue winning the division down the stretch, now that it’s a realistic possibility. Especially with the unfortunate news out of Carolina that talented forward Andrei Svechnikov is out indefinitely with a knee injury, rumored to be a torn ACL – that would certainly end his season if it was the case. Even before the Svechnikov news broke, it’s hard to gauge how interested the Canes were in winning the division anyway. After all, they won the division the last couple years as well but didn’t get out of the second round of the playoffs either time.

Conversely, with a full month left to go in the regular season you don’t want to take your foot off the gas either. Especially with a schedule of games that can make you pay, although who knows what the Lightning’s motivation is right now after some desultory games lately? Hard to blame them considering they’re pretty much trapped into their playoff matchup already, with both them and the Leafs still double digit points behind of the colossus in Boston, and double-digit points ahead of Florida for a top three division seed.

After months of thinking the same fate befell us – i.e. being locked into playing the Rangers – the Devils’ sustained excellence the last two months (20-4-3 in their last twenty-seven games) finally saw them catch a Hurricanes team who’d managed to stay in front pretty much since early December. It’ll be interesting to see how much a young team pushes for the banner of a regular-season division title. As someone who’s seen a bunch of them, I don’t really care about that particular banner but I can’t blame the players if they did…it’d be a nice capper for a rags-to-riches season that sped the Devils past the world of the playoff bubble right into Stanley Cup contender mode.

What helps with the potential for stretchtime blues as the playoff clinch gets nearer, is that guys will have spots to compete for – starting in goal, although The Vitek took a big step toward reestablishing his crease on Sunday. Seeing how effective he was after a few days off should at least encourage spelling him with Akira Schmid more down the stretch, to give Vanecek a full tank of gas heading into what hopefully can be a long playoff run.

On defense, young Kevin Bahl and vet Brendan Smith are jockeying for the last defensive spot, at least until Luke Hughes arrives after his college season. And it’s not even a question he’s coming, since the Devils themselves have indicated he’ll be here once Michigan’s season is over. What kind of a role he’ll have and get the opportunity to earn is still a bit of a question mark, especially if the other defensemen are playing well. Down the stretch against the D did what it needed to do against the Hurricanes, locking down the game after getting their three-goal lead in the middle of the second period. It’ll be harder to do that in the playoffs when you don’t have a team coming in on a back-to-back (granted the Devils were on one themselves), but still good practice for when they’ll need to do so later on.

Up front, there’s the matter of assembling parts on the top lines and making roster decisions on the back lines. After the trade for Timo Meier, third-year forward Yegor Sharangovich has been relegated to the bench. Even newest acquisition Curtis Lazar hasn’t cracked the lineup yet, perhaps a victim of the team’s latest surge and not wanting to change a winning lineup. Still, I wouldn’t put the other guys’ roles in stone. Although Miles Wood seems to be an untouchable in terms of being scratched, if ever a game was going to do it Sunday should have – given he touched the puck as he was going to the bench in the first period, causing a delay of game penalty, then had a foolish turnover that led to a glorious slot chance in the third period for Carolina.

I’m sure also some lineup decisions will be couched in the name of resting guys for the playoffs, when in fact it’s a convenient excuse to give other guys a look. Whatever the case, it’s a nice problem to have and beats the alternative of the last few years of force-feeding younger players into big roles because the games don’t matter anyway.

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