Road sweet road as Devils tie the series with two straight tense wins at MSG

After Game 2, I was looking for some examples of teams who lost the first two home games as badly as the Devils did at the Rock last week who still came back to win the series. And while I didn’t really find that, maybe the point of this whole season is the Devils continually making the impossible possible. If they looked like they were a fluke who wasn’t ready for prime time after the first two games, they’ve certainly proven their road record wasn’t a fluke by walking into MSG and grinding out two straight nail-biters to even the series and restore ‘home-ice advantage’, for what that’s worth. At least it’ll be a home ice advantage in the stands again after I’ve been dreading the 3-1 scenario for days. A different kind of 0-2 start was alluded to in the wake of last Thursday’s defeat:

Not only have the Devils managed to flip the series back to even, but they’ve also flipped the script in terms of how they’re winning these games. Tight, defensive contests with great goaltending and special teams are how the Rangers are supposed to win games, right? Not the last three nights. How on this green earth has this turnaround happened? Like with almost anything, it’s never one silver bullet but you clearly have to start with the lineup changes before Game #3.

Whoever was ultimately responsible – since Lindy Ruff admitted he made all his changes after consulting with his goaltending coach Dave Rogalski, GM Tom Fitzgerald and in-house legend Martin Brodeur – they obviously hit the right note with pretty much all of their decisions, restoring Jonas Siegenthaler to the lineup over Brendan Smith after Lindy’s moment of madness switching them in Game 2, along with finally benching Miles Wood after one too many stupid offensive zone penalties.

Of course, the lineup change which had the most consequence was putting in rookie Akira Schmid for Vitek Vanecek in goal. As much as I had confidence Schmid could handle the moment, I wasn’t sure putting him in now with the way the team played in the first two games would really help matters. Early in Game #3 though, Ruff alluded to the fact that Schmid’s size and puckhandling were part of the reason why they made the switch, commenting on how the former could help with the fact that we have been giving up a lot of tip-in goals. It was at that point I thought, okay at least this decision had some form of logic to it rather than just playing the ‘make the goalie a scapegoat’ card.

Lindy himself admitted he didn’t really want to make the switch at first but came around on the idea. I’d probably say I would feel the same way. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered in the end if the Devils didn’t step up their play. It did seem as if the last two games (particularly Game 3), the Rangers were psyched out by Schmid’s size and tried to be too fine with their shooting. Even Artemi Panarin missed the net multiple times with grade-A chances on Saturday night.

Schmid playing well and the Devils finally clamping down on the Rangers’ power play gave them a chance but they still fell behind early, needing a Jack Hughes power play goal to tie Game 3 several minutes after Chris Kreider opened the scoring with his fifth goal of the series in the second period. Eventually it went into overtime, before a Jesper Bratt feed (his second assist of the night) led to Dougie Hamilton’s OT winner which kept the Devils within touching distance of evening the series. If you want a further recap, check out Derek’s blog post-Game 3. Just don’t listen to the ABC/ESPN broadcast if you want any kind of balanced coverage.

I don’t even feel like getting into that rant right now, except to say when you’re poking fun at the skate sharpener as a reason why the Devils are falling down on the ice as opposed to just admitting the ice is bad because there was an NBA playoff game the day before and it was a warm-ish weekend night, then you’re only looking to take shots. When you comment about how the Devils have had no shot attempts in four minutes when half that time the Devils were killing a penalty, I can’t take you seriously. Get your heads out of the computers with stat sheets and watch the game. Thank goodness after two games of being at the arena for losses and dealing with the national broadcast nonsense in Game #3, I finally got to watch the MSG Devils crew for Game #4.

Getting back to on-ice…Hughes waking up and finding some of his regular season form at the Garden has been a big reason for the turnaround. After two games of the Devils’ stars not playing anywhere near that level at home, Hughes at least is playing big-boy hockey. Not just with goals in two straight games (and three overall in the series), but also picking his spots to get physical. When your best player is throwing his body around, the rest of the team will get charged up by that. Of course, ultimately we pay him and play him top line minutes to score goals and put up points.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see this goal in real time or any of the first period tonight as I was playing one of my rec league games (sand volleyball in this case). I did get home in time for the second period and it was the same taut, tense affair that Game #3 was. Not a lot of chances either way. Even holding our slender 1-0 lead after two I wasn’t all that confident, since it seemed like it would be another game where the first to two won. Our odds of that got worse when the Rangers tied the game early in the third on a Vincent Trocheck goal, after sustaining pressure all through the first couple minutes of the third. Maybe sitting back in prevent to try to protect a 1-0 lead wasn’t the best way to come out.

Fortunately, there was still plenty of time in the third to reset, and then we caught a break that you typically need to win evenly matched games such as this. In this case, the break being an uncharacterisically bad goal allowed by Igor Shesterkin to Jonas Siegenthaler unscreened from a bad angle. Sometimes in the playoffs, guys find hot sticks out of nowhere. Siegs had four goals and twenty-one points in eighty games during the regular season and it bears repeating, was a healthy scratch four nights ago as the Devils suffered a second straight humiliation at the Rock. Oh how things can change…from scratch to Game 4 hero

I was tempted to post the movie clip which came to mind when seeing that goal go in off the normally solid Shesterkin…the scene from Rocky IV when the trainer Duke screamed at Rocky after he cut his opponent Drago in the second round, ‘You see, he’s not a machine! He’s a man!!!’. Of course, that goal would have meant little in the end if the Devils didn’t finish the deal and hang on. At least this time they didn’t try to play prevent defense, though they did manage to keep the Rangers’ high-danger chances to a minimum. Schmid from what I saw in the last two periods didn’t have nearly as much heavy lifting to do as he did at times in Game 3, but in the end, the 22-year old rookie did all you could ask of him yet again and then some.

All this after a stunning admission that he was nervous going into Game 3 no less…you wouldn’t have known it the way he played. I’m not sure it’s premature to say the Devils have found their starting goalie for the foreseeable future, and I still adore Vitek and respect what he did for us this year. As much as I normally hate the phrase ‘has a higher upside’, clearly that’s the case with Akira. He’s got the higher upside and right now is playing up to it on the biggest stage possible – in the most high-pressure environment imaginable – down two, after two straight home embarrassments and helping to steady the ship.

It might be too early to start comparing Schmid to Cam Ward circa 2006 but I’d be lying if I said that comparison didn’t flash in my mind, especially how he got his chance after Martin Gerber lost the first two games of the postseason at home to Montreal. Gerber basically had a career year in ’06 (posting 38 wins for the top-seed in the East), much like Vitek did this year. In that playoff, it was the young rookie Ward who came in and led the Hurricanes through the postseason to an unlikely Stanley Cup. Ironically the one part of the comparison that doesn’t fit – aside from being absurdly early in the playoffs to think of a Cup – is that Ward was terrible that regular season, while Schmid had already shown signs of this kind of play during his fourteen starts and four relief appearances with a 2.13 GAA and .922 save percentage.

I shudder to think what the results would have been if Mackenzie Blackwood didn’t get lit up in Game #82 of the regular season with Schmid coming in to save the day and guide the Devils to their franchise record 52nd win. Seemingly that finally forced the issue towards making Schmid the #2, and in short order he’s become the #1. You also have to give the Devils’ defense credit for playing better in these two games though, particularly tonight. They’ve stopped the Rangers’ power play from running riot and kept their skill players at bay the way they did to us in the first two games.

I wouldn’t go as far as some people would in considering our third period a master class a la the late ’90’s Devils, but certainly in the last several minutes at least they played about as well as you could have given the circumstance. In the third period, I alternated between confidence given how they’ve come back in the series and nervousness over what if they actually lost this lead after getting that kind of a goal, which should have turned the tide enough to get over the line. Finally though, the Devils sealed it with an empty-netter from Ondrej Palat, who’s otherwise had a disappointing playoff. Hopefully that gets him started.

After it looked like a disappointing series was going to result from one of the two or three most hyped matchups in the first round (the Devils were the last team in the first round of the postseason to assure there wouldn’t be a sweep), now it’s on like Donkey Kong as the kids say. They’ve clearly passed the resiliency test as well as beginning to learn how to win in the playoffs. Now comes the next challenge…channeling their re-won confidence and energy into giving the same type of performance – if not better – at home and finally giving someone’s home fans a reason to cheer at the end of the game in this series.

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1 Response to Road sweet road as Devils tie the series with two straight tense wins at MSG

  1. Derek Felix says:

    They played great. Strong on pucks. More pressure. More physical. Much better defensively. The Rangers stunk it up. I did a column on the game. Paging Mika and Panarin.


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