In a series where logic (or momentum) doesn’t seem to apply, only one thing seems certain at this point…this group of Devils should now be ready for whatever challenges lie ahead. Even though this series clearly isn’t over, last night felt like a final test of sorts for this group. Sure, the Devils found their game on the road and were able to win two ‘playoff-style’ contests to get out of the hole and even up this emotional first-round series, but now could they handle the emotion of a home Game 5 at 2-2 and ride the home crowd’s energy this time?
This answer proved to be a resounding yes, as the Devils’ dominant 4-0 win at the Rock completed an amazing transformation from the first two games of the series, where they lost by a combined 10-2 at home. Are these really the same teams we saw last week?!
I already went into the Devils’ changes after Game 2, which continue to pay dividends – starting of course with Akira Schmid and his 23-save shutout. More on him later obviously. Without Miles Wood or Brendan Smth in the lineup to take penalties, the Devils conceded only three power play attempts last night, this despite having Chris Rooney as one of the refs. Given his checkered history with the Devils, I was nervous when I heard he’d be involved – starting with the Game 6 Kings fiasco in 2012 where he missed an obvious penalty on them, before fingering Steve Bernier for a match penalty early in the first, and the Devils themselves for a bunch of penalties after that in what turned out to be a farce of a Cup clincher. Not to mention the season-ending game with the Rangers the next year where Pete DeBoer got tossed, presumably for telling Rooney what he really felt about his reffing. Even earlier this year he was involved in the three disallowed goal game against Toronto, though he wasn’t the head ref then.
All that said, the reffing at least didn’t go so far as to try to decide the game. Even if you want to quibble about certain calls and non-calls, it wasn’t a total farce where the Devils dominated the game and still consistently got the short end of the whistle. I’ve seen that kind of game any number of times this year. Nor was it about coaching in the end, though Lindy Ruff was asleep at the switch when at least twice the Rangers got the Artemi Panarin line on the ice against our fourth line in our zone, and those were two of our only three legit bad shifts of the night. The other one came when Schmid had a Patrick Roy-esque moment of madness – playing a puck he didn’t need to play and turning it over onto a Ranger stick, leading to extended zone time for the Rangers. Of course, Schmid bailed himself out with a couple of monster saves before finally the Devils were able to regain possession.
Getting back to coaching, in the case of Gerard Gallant my questions of him are more off the ice. I don’t normally like to comment on other teams’ coaches in this space but Gallant’s behavior after the last two games has been odd, to put it mildly. After Game 4, which was basically an even game all around decided by one lucky break midway through the third – Gallant seemed basically dismissive of the Devils, chastising the Rangers for ‘not showing up’. It’d be one thing if the Rangers lost 5-1 like we did the first two games or got outshot to the extent they did last night, but to go at your team hammer and tongs after a coin flip game in a 2-2 series to me sent a bad message and reeked of panic.
Which was compounded by Gallant’s rainbows and sunshine attitude in the wake of Game 5. Maybe if he wasn’t so quick to unnecessarily bash his team after Game 4, he could have justifiably called them out for quitting last night in the third period, where the Rangers got outshot 20-2 and showed no pulse down 3-0 after two. It seems like Gallant is either searching for answers, or has already run out of them.
To be fair, it’s not like the Rangers haven’t been in this position before. Twice last year in fact, they came back from 3-2 down in a series. The obvious difference being the quality of goaltending they’re facing this time – though Akira Schmid is still a rookie, he looks like he’s ready to assume the Devils’ crease for the next decade – and perhaps also the quality of the team. Even if you take out the fact the Penguins were playing Louis Domingue (now a healthy scratch in the Rangers’ suite) and the Hurricanes were playing career 1B goalie Antti Raanta in those comebacks, this Devils team as a whole is certainly better than the Penguins team who the Rangers came back from 3-1 down against, and even arguably better than last year’s Canes, against who they came back from 3-2 down.
God knows on Saturday night, ABC will remind us ad nauseum about yet another time the Rangers were down 3-2 and came back to win. There are parallels to 1994 to be sure, specifically in goal where the Rangers got a series-saving performance from Mike Richter in Game #6, and their biggest threat to us now is clearly Igor Shesterkin (especially after he kept Game #5 from getting even more out of hand than it was). While both in 1994 and this year, we were playing rookies with bright futures in their first real test of playoff action. Not that it’s really fair to compare Schmid to the great Martin Brodeur, but in 1994 Brodeur was just a rookie with a bright future too. Also each time, the Rangers had a vet coach who seemingly lost his way, though Gallant hasn’t quite had a Mike Keenan in Game 4-esque meltdown that we know of.
Of course this time Game #6 will be at the Garden, not in New Jersey. And Ranger fans are justifiably going to be anxious after three straight losses. I’m not expecting quite the invasion of Devils fans in MSG that we saw in 2006 where the sweep was imminent, but I may well check the secondary market prices tomorrow, just in case. Assuming I do stay home, I’m muting the telecast and turning on the radio feed of Matt and Chico. I had enough of the national crew after their biased commentary in Game #3. It’ll only be worse tomorrow, pumping the 1994 comparisons endlessly.
I said here after Game #4 the rest of the series might come down to which missing stars stepped up offensively, but last night was about the role players chipping in for New Jersey. After a poor season with a slow start in this series, I’ve referred to Ondrej Palat sarcastically as Playoff P, but over the last couple of games Playoff Palat really has showed up. Sure, an empty-net goal (at the end of Game #4) is an empty-net goal and his first-minute tally which popped the roof off the Rock last night was deflected off of Adam Fox’s stick but on the whole he – like the rest of the team – looks a lot better than they did in the first two games of the series.
Yet Palat wasn’t even the best playoff-tested vet on the Devils last night…that was Erik Haula who had a three-point night including the second goal of the game – a power play marker which finally gave the Devils a little more cushion early in the second period – along with the seeing-eye empty-netter late in the third, which finally put the game officially to bed at least ten or fifteen minutes later than it should have been put to bed. Haula also had the primary assist on Dawson Mercer’s shorthanded goal in the second period, and won 73% of faceoffs last night.
If the crowd owed an apology to Ruff earlier in the season, I owe a long-overdue one to Haula. Early in the season, I thought he was little more than a modern-day Dave Steckel at this point of his career, a faceoff beast who did little else with frustrating near misses offensively, but he’s rediscovered his scoring touch down the stretch and carried it into the playoffs. Even as he was interviewed on the ice after the game by Erika Wachter though, Haula was quick to pass the credit to the guy who earned the first star last night:
Can Schmid possibly keep up this level of hockey for another game? Another series? Longer?! Who knows, but it’s been fun to watch his development this year, especially after his spotty debut last year where he was clearly too raw, and playing behind a team who couldn’t support him. Schmid, Haula and Palat will be big keys once again for the Devils to close out Game #6 – the latter two as much off the ice as on it, since you figure they’ll help keep the team in the right mindset having gone through the wars before. You literally have to expect the Rangers’ best effort tomorrow night, unless they’re just a broken team by now. Either way, you need to bring your best effort and determination to end this Saturday and not leave it up to a potential coin flip game on Monday.
When Palat scored on that play, it was an ominous sign. That is one of the oddest goals I’ve ever seen. He had his best game. Playoff Palat shows up. He kills us. Ever since 2015. That line switch by Ruff adding him and Haula to Hughes worked.
I thought the early save Schmid had on Panarin followed by the denial on the 94 MPH Zibanejad one-timer on the PP were big. He made some better stops and his rebound control was improved.
Graves and Marino had strong defensive nights. They’ve been better than Miller-Trouba due to Miller not doing anything. Trouba has been our best defenseman. Schneider and Mikkola have been solid. Disappointed in Fox. He was miserable. Very lazy back check by Panarin on the crushing shorthanded goal.
Rangers played a good 1st Period. Started okay in the second. Then, it went downhill after the Haula deflection, which Shesterkin should’ve closed up. That was huge.
It felt like they sunk afterwards. I agree that they gave up in the third It was embarrassing. I should’ve left for the gym.
Admittedly when Palat scored I was stunned and thought it was a bad goal on Shesty since it went off his glove. I didn’t see the deflection off Fox till you posted the highlight though.