Letdown Wednesday: Devils crash back to reality in Game 1 against Canes

While it was always going to be difficult for me as a fan to get past the excitement of our Game 7 shutout-clinching win at the Rock on Monday night two nights later for the next series (especially since I was supposed to be busy for the latter part of the game, but those plans fell through due to the weather), I hoped the players would be able to do so. Particularly being on the road where they’ve been strong all year, not to mention the fact that Florida and Seattle both responded to winning Game 7’s in their series by carrying the momentum over to the first game in their next series.

Of course not every series and every team is the same – clearly last night’s 5-1 defeat at Raleigh was a reality check. Yes, beating the Rangers was great but you need four series to win the Cup. Sure, it was going to be tough playing less than 48 hours later on the road, and without big trade deadline acquisition Timo Meier, who’s day to day with facial injuries…but that’s the playoffs. Carolina was missing three top six forwards, part of the reason why many Devils fans (including perhaps me) were foolishly confident in this series.

You can never truly be confident as a Devil fan against this organization though. Seemingly at times one franchise gets another’s number and keeps it…look at how often the Penguins have beaten the Caps or the Habs have beaten the Bruins, with only a couple of examples of those results going the other way. What was scary about last night is the first twenty-two minutes of last night’s Game 1 were eerily reminiscent of Game 1 in 2006, where the Canes obliterated us the first game in Raleigh after we had a historic sweep of the Rangers in the first round and came into the series on a fifteen-game winning streak.

After listening to most of the first period on the radio, I barely got home in time to see the hideous third goal early in the second, which wasn’t helped by the fact Jonas Siegenthaler’s helmet was blatantly ripped off, though he could have legally stayed in to play the puck or put his helmet on he went back to the bench for a change and things broke down in front of the net. It looked to me like Akira Schmid missed a chance or two to jump on the puck but that goal was just a total breakdown with the missing Siegs a key reason why.

To me it should be a clear penalty if you rip a guy’s helmet off during play. I think that it actually is written as such in the rulebook but what difference does it make if NHL refs never call it? Doesn’t help that after our Game 7 experience with hideous reffing we had the exact same ref for Game 1 last night in Wes McCauley. How this guy is supposedly rated the top ref in the league is beyond me. Of course last night’s game wasn’t about him given our flat-footed start early, but I’d rather not see him or his crew the rest of the playoffs. Especially after they missed a blatant high stick on Jack Hughes which drew blood later in that period, or a clear hand-pass from the faceoff dot which is also illegal.

Last night was lost in the first period though, they looked ready to go and we looked in full Rangers letdown mode. I just hope that letdown doesn’t last three games this time – a la 2006 where we got in a 3-0 hole against the Canes the series after sweeping the Rangers, or 2012 where we did the same against the Kings after beating the Rangers in the Conference Finals. Seemingly they were able to reset a little after Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s goal early in the second, which ended Schmid’s night with a change the momentum pull.

To a degree putting in Vitek Vanecek did change the momentum, but it’s not like he was all that impressive either. We were fortunate the game didn’t get even more out of hand when the Canes hit a couple of posts and he was out of position a few times, in short he looked like a guy who hadn’t played in two weeks. Still, the Devils managed to find a lifeline from another unlikely source for goals, when Nathan Bastian of all people beat Frederik Andersen with a nice mini-breakaway move.

Look at the shot total when that goal happened…11-1 in favor of the Canes, with our only ‘shot’ in the first period on a dump-in that Andersen probably didn’t even need to play. Bastian’s goal did give us a jolt of life, but not enough of one to find a way through the Canes’ defense and past Andersen for a second goal. After missing our chance to get back in the game in the second period, the Canes’ defense and forechecking choked the life out of the game in the third. Then ironically, ex-Ranger Brady Skjei put the dagger in with a one-timer past Vanecek from the faceoff dot. It was a bad goal, something you would see in NHL 94, but it happened and an empty-netter from another ex-Ranger (Jesper Fast) ensured we would lose Game 1 by the exact same score in this round we did against the Rangers.

Going forward I don’t think there needs to be many changes but one I’d really consider is putting in Luke Hughes for Ryan Graves. I’m not expecting to see it, but Graves was bad enough last night to merit a benching and bad enough in the early part of Game 7 to be noticeable. Maybe Luke’s speed and transition game would help against a faster team. He certainly couldn’t do worse than Graves did on the second goal last night, coughing up the puck without any pressure on him then giving up a one-on-one chance when he got caught flat-footed by Seth Jarvis.

‘Devils defence’ is code for Graves here, just awful individual play but indicative of how the entire team played in the first period. Hopefully it was more of a style shock than a letdown, after playing seven games of a slowdown style it looked like the Canes were too quick and fast for us in Game 1. Missing Timo didn’t help, but hopefully they have him back for tomorrow’s game and are left with no excuses in Game 2. I’d also put Schmid back in, he really wasn’t at fault for any of the goals though I’d probably nitpick and say he looked scrambly on the third, but so did the whole team. You do wonder at what point does he hit a wall though, it’s not like he’s used to being a day-in and day-out goalie either. Whatever goalie plays, the team will need to be much better tomorrow night.

If I was doing a series preview, I would have (cautiously) predicted Devils in 6. If Timo comes back and they find the way to get the split I was expecting after the first two, I’d stick with that prediction…but you really don’t want to try going down 2-0 for the second straight series, this time against a better team that’s actually a team and not just a collection of talent. There’s no bigger illustration of that than the fact they’ve already won five playoff games despite having three key forwards on the shelf, playing guys like ex-Devil grinder Stefan Noesen on their top lines.

As much as everything is gravy now for Devil fans on the one hand after the season we’ve had, on the other it would be nice to beat this team too after all the playoff headaches this franchise have given us. If we can’t beat them this year with their injuries up front, it might not get any easier going forward. Not to mention with big-name teams like Boston, Colorado and Tampa Bay out of the playoffs in the first round and seemingly no elite goalies left to worry about the rest of the postseason, the bracket is wide open for anyone. Of the teams remaining in the playoffs Carolina themselves were the last to win a Cup – in 2006. Current coach Rod Brind’Amour was a key player on that team, as well as on the ’03 and ’09 Carolina teams which also stuck it to us in the postseason.

Even though we have proven we can come from 2-0 and this time it would have been a 2-0 hole on the road, again I wouldn’t want to try this in back-to-back rounds, against a better team. Friday should tell the story of what kind of series this is going to be.

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