Victory Tuesday: Devils cap historic comeback with second straight home shutout in Game 7


You too, Fitzy. You deserve a bow as much as anyone in this organization for everything that’s gone on this season and the turnaround of this franchise out of the dark ages, back into the spotlight of postseason success. If a 49-point turnaround in the regular season wasn’t enough to underscore the Devils’ resurgence as an organization, this series and everything involved with it represented just as much of a quantum leap forward as did our outstanding regular season.

I make no bones about the fact I didn’t believe in this team after the first two games of this season, and I sure didn’t think there’d be any comeback in this series coming after the way the first two games went. But all of us believe now, after the Devils’ second straight 4-0 shutout at the Rock completed their comeback from losing the first two in Newark with only this franchise’s third-ever Game 7 win at home, and the first since their move to Newark. Our other two Game 7 clinchers in NJ were at the Meadowlands…of course the 2003 Stanley Cup clincher against Anaheim was one, with a first-round win over the Buffalo Sabres in 1994 being the other. I was at the former thankfully, but didn’t even get to see the latter in real time. We’ve had quite a few Game 7 wins on the road, but not many at home oddly enough.

I’ve compared this season to 1994 a few times, maybe wistfully so since if I have one regret as a fan, it’s not becoming a truly big fan until the historic run to their first Cup in 1995. Not that I had much chance to, since our family didn’t even get SportsChannel until that season anyway. But our 1994 regular season (like this year) saw the Devils defy the skeptics and come out of nowhere to have a sterling regular season, and the postseason had enough excitement for several years of playoff hockey – starting with our tense back-and-forth with Buffalo involving a goalie duel between the great Dominik Hasek and rookie Martin Brodeur in his first full playoff series. In the second round, we fell behind 2-0 at home to the Bruins, before Chris Terreri came off the bench and won three times at the Boston Garden to lead the Devils to what would turn out to be an epic Conference Final with the Rangers.

Our series with the Rangers in 2023 actually had elements of both those first two rounds in 1994…the goalie duel between our young rookie and the other team’s established star culminating in a Game 7 home win, along with the comeback from 2-0 down with a goalie change before Game 3 on the road proving pivotal. Make no mistake, this was a pretty unique comeback though. Yes, teams have come back from 2-0 and even 3-0 before, but not many have come back after being blown up in the first two games at home. Ironically, it was Fitz himself who sent the message to his team after Game 2 saying something to the degree of ‘hey, nobody said this was going to be easy…just go out there, relax and have some fun’. That message of staying loose was reiterated by head coach Lindy Ruff before Game 7:

Some of us might need blood pressure medication if there are any more series like this in the playoffs! Fortunately they at least no longer have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, the way it’s felt like we have for months. Always in the background of having this spectacular season was, but we’re likely playing the Rangers in the first round, what if we come up short in that series and they make a big playoff run at our expense? Of course, now it’s the Rangers and their fans who have to deal with that reality, and worse since their expectations were higher from the get-go. In the end, it was the younger, happier, looser team that won.

I’m sure Derek will have more to say about the Rangers going forward later, but I absolutely agreed with most of his Game 7 recap, including where he alluded to the Rangers having a different approach this year than last year. As much as some of us may have mocked their penchant for overpaying for grit two offseasons ago, sometimes you have to overpay to get what you need. Even though they didn’t win it all last year, they came damn close of at least getting to the Cup Finals. This year? It seemed like they just collected talent without any thought of how it would fit into the team. Like Lou Lamoriello always would say, a team is an orchestra…you can’t have five violinists.

The collecting talent and worrying about the rest later approach was my biggest criticism of ex-GM Ray Shero here, though clearly to a degree he had to do that more in the earlier years of the rebuild just to get any talent. In the end, his best contributions to the organization were both the Taylor Hall trade(s), and bringing Fitzy into the organization as his right hand. Ownership gets slagged at times from Devils fans because they didn’t spend in the early years, but also give them credit for being willing to promote from within after parting ways with Shero. They could have gone for another big name from the outside or new blood but instead promoted Fitz, who was already highly regarded before getting a GM job and should only be a lot more so now.

Despite being Shero’s right hand, Fitz’s approach is more Lou than Shero, even if I’ve never heard him use the orchestra moniker himself he clearly believes in guys having roles and has filled in all the right gaps over the last couple of years. For all the talk about how the Devils were a young team going into this postseason, people forgot or overlooked that the Devils did bring in a lot of vets who were able to teach the kids what it took to win playoff hockey.

In a way, it was fitting that many of those vets carried the day in Game 7 with Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar and Erik Haula all getting – or heavily influencing – the first three goals. Haula was arguably the second most important player in the series after Akira Schmid, while Palat had one of the best individual efforts I’ve ever seen to create a goal by a guy who didn’t actually score himself, leading to Mike McLeod’s pivotal shorthanded marker last night that broke the ice and swung momentum firmly onto the Devils’ bench.

McLeod’s goal turned out to be all we needed thanks to Schmid and a Devils defense who did just enough to mitigate the Rangers’ stars for the fourth time in five games. It’s also telling that when the Rangers’ stars got shut down, they had no other answers while despite the fact our stars (aside from Jack Hughes, who only had a couple of assists himself the last two games) were shut down for almost the entire series, someone else usually stepped up. Dougie Hamilton had his one star moment of the series with the pivotal Game 3 OT winner, while Jonas Siegenthaler’s unexpected burst of offense made the difference in Game 4. Palat, Haula and second-year forward Dawson Mercer had all of our goals in Game 5. For all the talk about the Rangers’ star players outside of Chris Kreider not showing up, where were the role guys? You need them to step up for a deep playoff run too – as we showed. Some of that also goes back to a generally flawed philosophy of not having enough people who are happy to be role players and know what it entails.

Despite Igor Shesterkin’s yeoman play throughout the series, it was obvious the last few games that the Devils were objectively the better team, it was just a matter of whether Shesterkin and the Rangers’ PP would spoil the party. Shesterkin did his part, but so did the Devils’ PK, holding the Rangers to 1-17 in the last five games of the series after they ran riot in the first two. Despite shall we say, uneven officiating in the last two games which even Chris Cheilos commented on during the first intermission last night (and Derek also pointed out), the Devils never flinched…apart from when Hughes muffed a scoring chance in the first period while still barking at the officials for missing a call earlier. Fortunately, Timo Meier and others on the bench were able to re-focus Jack, who’s shown competitiveness on another level in this series.

Even when Jacob Trouba lined up Meier late in the third period when the Rangers went into full let’s get physical mode, the Devils didn’t alter their play one bit while it (and K’Andre Miller’s dumb unsportsmanlike penalty on Nico Hischier earlier, after he clearly wiped out and slid into Shesterkin) showed the Rangers’ desperation at that point. They ultimately had no answer for the Devils’ Swiss rookie in net though, as Schmid made 31 saves and recorded his second straight home shutout of the series.

While I’m delighted for Schmid, the progress he’s shown and the increasing likelihood we’ve found a long-term answer in net, I do feel a little bad for Vitek Vanecek. We’re not here without all the work he did in the regular season keeping the ship steady while Mackenzie Blackwood was struggling with his play and injuries for a third consecutive season, while Schmid was steadily making progress after an unsuccessful first few games at the NHL level last year. I hope Devil fans don’t forget the role he played in this season, no matter what happens with Schmid going forward. Vitek’s seemingly taken everything in stride this year though, and comes off as a good teammate in the locker room. Hopefully he’ll be able to enjoy a good chunk of the team’s success the next couple years, even if it’s in a 1B role long-term.

I also felt a little annoyed for Curtis Lazar yesterday, after he scored in Game 6 and finally had his first big Devils moment he came out of the lineup last night (along with Jesper Boqvist), in favor of Miles Wood and Yegor Sharangovich. I didn’t really have an issue with the latter, especially given Sharangovich’s role on the PK when he does play but he truly stepped up last night and had one of his best games in weeks, creating some chances offensively as well. Wood I wasn’t looking forward to seeing again after his dumb penalties early in the series and disappointing play throughout the year, but at least last night he kept it simple and got to enjoy a big night in the team’s resurgence himself, after being around through years of losing.

Between the lineup maneuvers and all the Ranger fans that I saw (more than in the prior three games) before Game 7 I had a bit of an uneasy feeling, one only exacerbated by the first period which looked like it was going to be another penalty-fest. Maybe after the intermission crew pointed out the spotty officiating, the league got the message the last two periods? At least it wasn’t as unbalanced then. Like that scene in Remember the Titans where they overcame the refs, we did the same last night in the end and the party was on after Jesper Bratt’s empty-netter gave us our fourth goal towards the end of the third period.

Little did I know, I would cause myself almost as much self-imposed angst in the postgame than the game itself gave me. After Bratt’s goal, I went over to the other side of the arena to celebrate with my friends but I couldn’t really stay near them since everyone around them was a Devils fan (heh) and was clearly going to stay for the postgame handshakes and interviews, so I paid my regards quickly and told them I’d see them in the second round with one eye on also making my train back from Broad Street at 11:15. I got to Broad Street at 11:10, and the train was a few minutes late but finally showed up…or so I thought.

Maybe like the Devils early in the series I just didn’t pay attention to details, and didn’t make sure it was actually the right train since evidently the previous one going to Montclair was also delayed. It turned out I got on that one instead of the one I needed which was a few minutes still after that, but I didn’t realize it until my train actually got to Montclair and the announcement came that it was the last stop. When I knew what happened, I figured I’d switch there back to my line…but to my horror the conductor said no more trains out of this station. Trains stop at midnight in Montclair?!

Guess it would have helped if I’d had my ticket checked and maybe found out before the last stop in case there was a possibility of switching somewhere else, but given the fact I had my earbuds in and wasn’t really listening to the stops I was now stranded at Montclair. After a minute or two of walking around in a daze, I figured I had to get a Lyft or Uber (some old guy who worked at the station told me Uber was less expensive than a cab, so I went with that suggestion), which I’d never done in my life. So I was frantically trying to install the apps with a battery almost running out on my cell phone, at first not realizing I was installing the driver apps rather than the ride apps.

Somehow I managed to install the correct Uber ride app, figure out how to use it and schedule a pickup while still having enough battery at 1% for the phone to give the driver my exact location. My driver was nice enough, and even had a charger for my phone, not that I really needed it anymore once he arrived. It was a half hour back from Montclair to Madison, so I arrived at my parking lot at 1 AM, about an hour later than it should have been and mine was the only car left in the lot. I gave him a $10 tip for a $45 ride, so it was a $55 mistake but hey, I got home soon enough to manage five hours of sleep and at least I learned something out of the situation. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, but now at least I know how to use Uber if I should need it again for whatever reason (like say, a multi-OT extravaganza later in the playoffs that I don’t feel like leaving early).

Guess it was a fitting end to a weird, but rewarding series. Weird in the sense that after we saw road teams win the first four games, home teams dominated the last three. Not to mention the fact that momentum seemed almost nonexistent from period to period, much less game to game. I’m not gonna lie though, I was really glad the Rangers didn’t score late in the second, because I had visions of 1994 dancing in my head as they got chances on that last shift down 2-0. God help the people watching the telecast if that had happened, and you had the entire second intermission of Steve Levy breathlessly asking Mark Messier about the comparison to his Game 6.

If you’d asked anyone irrespective of the score who dominated the game last night, most people would have said the Devils based on puck possession and quality of chances, yet the Rangers kept pace in shots on net through the first two periods and had more shots on goal in the third with Schmid making at least a handful of great saves to keep the Rangers at bay. Again, a weird dichotomy – but in the end the night showed learned lessons for the Devils to keep winning in the playoffs, or me in learning an emergency way to get home.

As Doc Emrick would say, they don’t ask how – they ask how many. Although we won’t get to hear his dulcet tones this postseason, it was nice to see so many other links to the Devils’ past show up during this series. Everyone of course knows Brodeur is a bigwig in the front office now, but you also had guys like Patrik Elias and Andy Greene popping in to be the ‘designated towel waver’ before other games in the series, along with the YouTube postgames with Scott Gomez throughout the first round. Maybe even somewhere, godfather Lou nodded his grudging approval over our commitment to lockdown D in the last few games of the series.

Now it’s onto Carolina and more postseason fun, excitement and agida!

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2 Responses to Victory Tuesday: Devils cap historic comeback with second straight home shutout in Game 7

  1. Derek Felix says:

    Wow. That’s quite the story. What an adventure you had. I thought something happened. Call it a guess on my part. So, I did my longest game recap of the season.

    I’m glad you were able to get home okay. That’s insane. Phone at 1 percent. Cmon! Cmfuckinon!
    Love Morris County. How close are you to town? I always enjoyed my time there when I attended FDU. Great area.

    I think what you said about how the Rangers ignored what adding those stars would do. Specifically Kane, who obviously needs surgery. He at least showed up last night. Tarasenko was underused by Gallant, who could be losing his job. They must have a fall guy. Granted. Ruff out-coached him. He made terrific adjustments. But is it all on him? No. The players didn’t play to capability. I could say so much more. But I’ll save it.

    I wasn’t even mad. I knew how the series was. You can’t predict Game 7. Not anymore. Nor the playoffs. It’s impossible. I went for a walk after the loss. That was good. I loved last year’s team. They had the right pieces. They were more resilient and gritty. It was unexpected. Maybe that created unrealistic expectations. It was Year 2 back. They were off defensively most of the year. The Devils exposed it.

    Good luck in the next round.

    Like

  2. hasan4978 says:

    Premonition maybe? I mean even if I got home at midnight as I was supposed to, I would have been in no shape to do a recap win or lose thanks to the superlate start time on a weeknight. If I wake up early enough sometimes I’d do it then, but had to go into work early this morning as it turned out anyway, so I was chomping at the bit to do this after getting home. Fortunately now that the schedule’s finally out for the Carolina series, at least the first two home games of this series start earlier than 8 on a weeknight (3:30 on a Sunday will be nice).

    Madison station is only a few minutes from where I live, basically the outskirts of Morristown. The phone said it was at 1% for like fifteen minutes or so lol so probably in actuality it was a little more in reserve than that, but yeah it could have gotten dicey if the phone had shut off. Who knew listening to YT/podcasts on 40-minute train rides and twenty-minute walks up Broad Street both ways could drain your phone so much? 😛

    The other funny thing is some dude at Montclair saw me walking around crestfallen in my Devils shirt while figuring out what to do and he said ‘so they lost?’…I was like no, they won actually and he was pumped lol

    Like

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