Devils win a track meet on ice and let Canes know they have a series

Sometimes when seeing all the strange things that have already happened this postseason with the Devils in general, I wonder is it just me who thinks our whole postseason is weird? It has been a while since the Devils have had even this long of a playoff run and as much as I like I hockey, I can’t bring myself to watch random other teams in postseasons where the Devils aren’t in it (or even most of the time when they are). Even before today’s pond hockey game, you just can’t explain all the things that have gone on – getting obliterated the first two at home by the Rangers followed by winning four of the next five including two shutouts at home, then getting obliterated in Carolina before coming home and turning the tables this afternoon in a wild Game 3.

Make no mistake, the 8-4 scoreline actually flattered Carolina. Today’s game was about fifty minutes of domination by the Devils, a few tenative minutes early, and a few minutes where our power play skated around the ice drunk – more on that later. We absolutely lit up goalies Frederik Andersen and Pyotr Kochetkov to the tune of four goals apiece, the way Carolina lit up everyone we put in net the first two games. To be fair, it’s not like Vitek Vanecek (this afternoon’s starter after Akira Schmid was pulled in the first two) was much better, but he didn’t have to be. Not when you put up eight, including four by the early moments of the second period.

I haven’t heard the term ‘positive regression’ until recently but it fit today as there was a lot of positive regression by our top scorers – with Nico Hischier, Timo Meier and defenseman Damon Severson all getting their first goals of the playoffs in our tenth postseason game. Timo’s goal in particular was well-timed, being the first one after a nervous first six minutes where we created little.

Timo’s goal seemingly took some of the nervousness out of both the building and the skaters on ice, setting up a first period that was a long time coming. Before we get to that though, I almost forgot to comment about the lineup changes – Derek covered the insertion of Luke Hughes into the lineup and I alluded to the change in goal as well, but Lindy Ruff also decided to go 11-7 and put in Brendan Smith as an extra defenseman for forward Jesper Boqvist. I was originally worried Smith was put in as a caddy for Hughes, but it turned out he was more of a caddy for Kevin Bahl, who only played six minutes and probably will be an odd man out in Game 4 – if we decide to make any lineup changes coming off a big win.

I admit, I wasn’t exactly on board with all the lineup changes the way I was after Game 2 of the Ranger series, to me it felt like making all the wrong changes other than finally giving the younger Hughes a chance in a series that needed his skillset. To his credit, he made the most of it with two assists in his 14:28 of icetime. To me it felt like he played more, since he was involved when he was on the ice. Mostly for good, with one exception. Admittedly, I winced when my friend in 104 told me that Vanecek led the team on the ice in pregame warmups, signaling he was going to start. Even if as I said in my last blog, I can’t exactly make too compelling of an argument for or against either guy at the moment, though I’d have given Schmid the call considering his last two home starts were shutouts. Of course, coaching 101 states that usually when a guy gets pulled in back-to-back games, the other guy gets to start the next game.

I can’t exactly say it was the right decision given that Vanecek gave up four goals, though as Ruff alluded to later, a couple of them were in third period junktime at 7-2. It sure didn’t feel like junktime to me though, given the way goals have been flying in from left, right and center this series – especially with the memory of the Colorado shootout from a few months ago fresh in mind. He did make a couple of solid saves early when it was a game at least, and thankfully had the crowd support throughout. Mostly I winced when I heard he was starting because I really just didn’t want him to get blown up again, and have his entire season ruined by getting lit in a third straight home playoff game.

I wasn’t too thrilled over bringing Smith back either, but I kind of expected it once they said Luke would play for the injured Ryan Graves. It’s not like Luke was going to replace Graves’ penalty minutes, and today showed Bahl hasn’t gotten the staff’s trust enough yet to assume those minutes either. At least Smith didn’t commit one of his typical stupid penalties today, although imo he got away with an obvious high stick in the first period. At least it looked like one, though with the Canes’ penchant for diving and embellishing you can’t really be sure. In any case, nothing was called and at least the officials didn’t get in the way today – again, with one exception.

Back to the game itself…putting in Luke did more than improve our breakouts on the defensive end and add more offense, it also fired up older brother Jack who had by far his best game of the postseason, executing a nice give-and-go with (cough) Smith for the Devils’ second goal of the first period – but even that wasn’t as amazing as our third goal, a shorthanded tally by Mike McLeod where he made a nice one-on-one move to beat Seth Jarvis, then…willed the puck past Andersen for an electrifying goal.

McLeod astutely noted in the postgame that he was more aggressive, noticing he had a forward (Jarvis) as the man back on the Canes’ PP. That might be the best moment of skill I’ve seen in his entire career and it couldn’t have come at a much better time, solidifying a three-goal lead and our best period of the playoffs. New Jersey kept the pressure on early in the second, with captain Hischier finally getting his first of the postseason, a typically gritty goal in front of the net after a diving feed in front by Jesper Bratt. I called out the captain for his scoring slump after Game 2, he responded in Game 3 and Andersen’s night was done.

That’s when things turned from great to just plain weird. Sebastian Aho answered Nico’s goal with one of his own barely a minute later off a double deflection that Vitek couldn’t do much about. I’m not going to lie though…with Schmid or regular season Vanecek, I wouldn’t have been nervous given the way the Devils were dominating. Today with the way Vitek has played in the postseason? I was jittery after every goal allowed, even if he wasn’t giving up soft goals per se, you’d have liked to see more saves on the few quality chances the Canes did get. Thankfully the Devils were able to outscore their mistakes today, and Severson’s first of the postseason at 5:33 of the second both restored the Devils’ four goal lead, and dented Kochetkov.

Then came the most annoying moment of the game, for two reasons – one, because when you have a four-goal lead, the last thing you want to do is throw a blind cross-ice pass while on a power play, knowing the Hurricanes are going to be looking for shorthanded breakaways. It was Luke who committed this cardinal sin, his only real mistake of the night and it led to a breakaway where Dougie Hamilton appeared to actually play the stick and not touch Jordan Martinook, but a penalty shot was awarded nonetheless. Why even bother trying to defend breakaways if they’re just going to give the benefit of the doubt to the shooter on legal defensive plays?

Of course, that play would cost us as Martinook scored on his penalty shot and the Canes were back within three goals. We survived some anxious moments toward the end of the second period, including having to kill off a McLeod penalty without him on the ice to do it. Give credit where credit is due, at least the Devils’ PK did the job in Newark, not only shutting down the Canes’ PP but also scoring shorthanded earlier in the game. Smith and John Marino were the Devils’ top shutdown pair on the PK and they both clearly did the job, allowing few quality looks by the Canes.

Knowing the Canes were not going to back down, the Devils just needed to keep pouring on in the third period – which they did, through an unlikely source. Another guy I’ve been critical of this year is Miles Wood, but he showed some of his old speed on a breakaway early in the third period, scoring an electrifying goal and showing his emotion with an emphatic fist pump after the goal.

I couldn’t help but feel good for him at that moment, as much as I’ve criticized his play this year you do know he’s always going to give his best. He’s had a tough postseason being in and out of the lineup (and as a FA-to be no less), but after a couple of strong games it looks like he’s back in for a while at least. If you’re a Canes fan you’d describe this as farcical since two guys collided, enabling Wood to get his breakaway. Oh well, not our problem this time.

Also looking inspired was big brother Jack, who played jacked up at least in part because little brother was on the ice for his first playoff game. Not only did he put up two goals and two assists for a four-point night, but he also felt his oats enough to fight Aho after the two got into a kerfuffle in the second period. So much for his Lady Byng candidacy. Hughes did what he does best in the third period though, as his second goal of the game on a nice little move in close made it 7-2 and seemingly put the game away as a contest.

However, the game then turned from blowout to farce as the Devils gave up not one, but two more shorthanded goals…on the same penalty. First, Martinook and Jordan Staal got a step on both the Hughes brothers and the latter fed the former for the Canes’ second shorty of the night (the first was technically the penalty shot) to make it 7-3. Then, Tomas Tatar got poke-checked with both he and Severson getting beaten to the goal by Jarvis, who got a measure of revenge with a breakaway shorty of his own. Once again our lead was ‘only’ three goals and I was still nervous somehow. Especially with a power play that was a total tire fire, being a -3 on the night in terms of goals scored, after they hadn’t scored all season against the Canes, giving up three other shorthanded goals to boot!

Yet the Canes were still melting down emotionally – taking penalty after penalty in the third – and finally, we were able to get one of the power play freebees back on an extended five-on-three, when a nice tic-tac-toe play from Luke and Bratt led to Ondrej Palat scoring the Devils’ eighth goal of the night. An actual power play marker of our own! Technically it was a five-on-four, though the first guy out of the penalty box hadn’t really entered the play before the goal. Either way we need more than that to combat a shorthanded unit that’s dominated us all year long.

Thankfully despite the power play woes and Vitek’s shakiness at times, the Devils had more than enough firepower to come away with a relatively comfortable 8-4 win, getting themselves back in the series. Clearly more work needs to be done, they need to find a way to get move saves out of whoever plays goal, and they absolutely need work on the power play. If both those things happen maybe Game 3 can portend another turnaround. If neither happens, then today’s game might just be a blip on the radar like Game 3 against Tampa in 2018. At least for one day we were able to have fun at the Rock without the specter of Ranger fans or the what if of losing that series hanging over our heads. And yes, we finally managed to not lose the first three games of the next series after beating them…yay for small victories.

At least Luke’s success today is another more meaningful victory going forward, not only does he have playoff experience now, but it was a mostly positive one. Even if that shorthanded breakaway allowed was a lesson learned.

It looks like Luke’s in the lineup to stay now, just one game after I wasn’t sure if he’d get in all postseason. I’m not sure if Ruff will make any changes for Game 4, he usually doesn’t like to change a winning lineup but the fact we went 11-7 plus the fact Bahl only played around six minutes probably means he could get scratched in a more conventional 12-6 lineup for Game 4. I don’t think the goalie decision is all that clearcut either, it’s not like the coach has been averse to benching Vitek off of wins (he sat him for Mackenzie Blackwood two straight games when Vitek was on a three-game winning streak earlier in the year). I’m glad he got through this game, but he’s still not playing well enough for me to have any real confidence in him, giving up seven goals in five periods this series is just not good enough. Maybe Schmid just needs a blow regardless.

I’d be tempted to change it up in goal, but we’ve made mostly the right decisions in this postseason so far, so we’ll see what the lineup card looks like for Game 4.

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