It’s hard for me to know where to begin at the end…a game recap at this point seems pointless, the series is over and there are no more chances to rebound or adjust. To a large degree, I’d really rather look ahead with this team. Seemingly, the future is bright though sports is littered with teams that oozed promise and never delivered in the end – the mid 2010’s Mets with their pitching that was going to dominate baseball comes immediately to mind given my fandom. Of course today isn’t about dreading the worst-case scenario which is years away, but rather about celebrating a season well played. Like a real-life funeral or a wake, today and the next few days should be about remembering all the good things in the season just past.
Of course, before we can look ahead and leave this season in the past there has to be an autopsy. Let’s face it, the better team won this series. Maybe not necessarily the better talent but clearly the better team – more organized coaching and system-wise, more experienced in the ups and downs of the postseason and more aware of…shall we say the dark arts in knowing what obstruction and physical liberties refs will let you get away with.
Certainly, in a tight Game 5 third period and OT you knew there wasn’t going to be a penalty called (and thankfully for once, the officiating was equal-opportunity passive) – until the one penalty that is too obvious to ignore was committed, with Jonas Siegenthaler’s fatal delay of game penalty in overtime. It’s unfortunate the season ended this way, especially minutes after it briefly looked like he could be the OT hero with a similar shot than the one which beat Igor Shesterkin late in Game 4 for the winner there. Similar, and he had even more room to shoot this time…except this one from the left circle missed the net. Instead of the hero he turned into the goat, with an assist from Tomas Tatar whose stupid back-pass put Siegs in a bad position.
What was unfortunate is despite goals going in from left, right and center the Canes’ power play hadn’t really been a huge factor in the series – until they needed one to end it, and Jesper Fast’s body delivered.
That goal also illustrates another difference between the two teams, we had few goals like that in the entire postseason where guys went to the right spot, screening the goalie and looking for deflections. When our passing game shut down or short-circuited, we had few ways to get goals – especially in this series against a solid defensive team and a goalie (Frederik Andersen) who played well enough to win in four of the five games in this round. Not that goaltending was really any kind of decisive factor, we saw that last night when the Devils finally tightened up defensively and Akira Schmid looked better than he did earlier in the series. Perhaps he just needed the extended break of sitting out most of the last two games, after playing seven high-pressure games in two weeks.
Perhaps the schedule itself was another issue with this team – starting the postseason on the second day of it, going seven games in the first round and only getting more than one day off once in the entire postseason led to a ridiculously condensed schedule (even by postseason standards) with eleven games in twenty-three days. That’s one of the hidden factors teams and players have to navigate, both how to play a number of games without an extended break and practice-time and also how to play better early in a series where you aren’t expending extra energy. Maybe the Devils don’t need to go seven games against the Rangers if they didn’t no-show the first two at home.
It’s an overplayed line but they did learn a lot of lessons in the playoffs. Last night highlighted yet another in the form of momentum-killing goals and missed opportunities. While we were dominated early in Game 5 and it looked like another Raleigh blowout, this time we managed to settle ourselves and even get the first goal when Dawson Mercer finished off a nice breakout play and took advantage of a good feed from Timo Meier to score his third of the playoffs.
Even keeping that 1-0 lead through the first assured nothing. After all, the Canes would outscore us 14-4 in the second period of the five games of the postseason. Sure enough, Jaccob Slavin scored just fifty seconds into the middle frame on a double deflection tying the game. Again, a goal the Devils got too few of in the postseason and why our offense shut down for long stretches. It looked like this would be the third straight second period where they’d run us out of the rink as they got the first nine shots of the period.
However, against the run of play the Devils managed to actually reclaim the lead where even more shockingly, the Devils actually scored on a power play! It was our only five-on-four power play goal all season against the Canes (well technically the one in Game 3 was five-on-four but really a five-on-three where the guy coming out of the box wasn’t in the play yet), and came with our only shots on the man advantage all night. Stunningly, it was off a rebound when a heating up Meier went in front and showed the rest of the team how to get a garbage goal.
Suddenly, that goal turned the momentum – the Devils went from being the nail to the hammer and started peppering Andersen with shots. In a cruel twist of fate however, it was one miss that Andersen had no chance on which proved to be decisive in determining the game’s outcome. Even more cruelly, it was a suddenly heating-up Timo who missed the sitter that everyone, even coach Lindy Ruff after the game admitted he knew could be costly.
Stuff like that happens in hockey. You just can’t miss too many golden chances like that against an excellent defense and a well-structured team. Sure enough, minutes later it was the big-bearded Brent Burns who tied the game again, firing a wrister through a screen for a devastating last-minute goal to bookend Slavin’s first minute goal of the period. You can’t really blame Schmid on any of the goals last night, and overall you can’t blame any of the goalies for losing this series, as poor as they played in the first four games.
As the game grinded through the third period without much happening, it was obvious we were already basically in sudden death OT. When we finally reached that point it was just a matter of who was going to get the bounce and the break. Would we have had a different outcome if Tatar didn’t unnecessarily play the puck back towards Siegenthaler and put him under pressure? Perhaps, I doubt it would have made any big difference even if we’d somehow won last night though. Not with how Carolina played us this series, and especially with the news afterward that Jack Hughes was dealing with a serious enough injury that it was thought he wasn’t going to play.
People thought it was actually elaborate subterfuge when Jack didn’t take line rushes before Game 5, thinking we were just going the extra mile to hide our lines from Rod Brind’Amour after he line matched us to death in the first two games. Instead, it was indicative of a real problem. One that probably wasn’t helped when he got corkscrewed on the Timo miss late in the second. He played, and even got a secondary assist on the Meier goal, but if it wasn’t obvious beforehand something was an issue you knew it when you saw the 14:16 of icetime after the game.
If people thought Jack was just some skinny pretty boy that had flash but couldn’t play big-boy hockey, they got proven wrong this postseason. He was our one big-name player who consistently showed up, and also went above and beyond the call throwing his weight around physically. I’m not sure every last player did so, but I’ll leave that for the official post-mortem inquest after the team meets the media for the final time in New Jersey before dispersing for the summer. Ironically, among the players who stepped up for Jack tonight was kid brother Luke, who rebounded from his meh Game 4 to step up in a bigger way than imaginable by playing twenty-five minutes of first-pairing hockey alongside John Marino in just his fifth pro game. At nineteen years old. Both Hughes stepped up this postseason and will be all the better for learning what it takes going forward.
For now, I’ll leave on a similar note I struck before Game 7 against the Rangers, in the event we lost and I didn’t feel like doing a recap after – it would have been nice to advance further, and it would really be nice to beat this franchise one day. While none of the other players were around for our three playoff losses to them between 2002-2009, they’re certainly still fresh in my mind. And if it wasn’t obvious before this postseason, it seemingly is now – Carolina isn’t just the team we have to get past in the division now but likely will be for the next several years.
Worrying about winning and changing our playoff history against them (especially our 1-11 record in Carolina during those four playoff series) is for another day though. In a way, I actually kind of wish last night’s game was at home so the Devils could have gotten a sendoff for an overall good season, rather than the booing and catcalls Game 4 deserved. Then again, it was nice to go out of the arena for the final time in a season at least feeling hopeful about the future rather than annoyed about the never-ending cycle of rebuilding it seemed we were stuck in for several years, or even without being annoyed over a playoff exit.
In a way, I think of one of the final scenes in the first season of the surprisingly gripping Welcome to Wrexham documentary about two Hollywood a-listers buying a fifth-tier soccer club in Wales and ostensibly doing their best to not only turn the team around on the pitch, but also to better the community as well. After a brutal playoff loss which prevented the team from being promoted into a higher tier of the English league, it was the owners themselves who reminded the distraught players they already accomplished a more important goal by bringing hope and belief back into the town and fanbase.
That scene gets me more each time I think about it or see it, in part because it’s so applicable to this year’s Devils team. In less than one year, we went from disillusioned half-filled arenas, jeering the coach and booing players to selling out half the regular season and every playoff game with wild, passionate crowds who were having fun again. Beyond even winning, this team accomplished being relevant after a decade almost entirely in the wilderness sans the Taylor Hall-led run in 2018, which saw a quick postseason exit. For the first time in the post-Lou era, there’s genuine hope of bigger and better things ahead and perhaps a not-too-distant return to the glory days.
As your general manager said after the last round, take a bow boys.
Awesome recap, Hasan. You should be proud of the Devils. They fought hard last night. Too bad Meier missed. I hate the delay of game minor. Why do players throw the puck back? Tough way to lose. Ironically enough, I took Fast for Carolina. He had a good game. Many of our fans were blasting the Rangers afterwards. They could’ve kept him. My pick for your team was Luke Hughes, who played very well.
Wrexingtpn documentary looks interesting.
I was gonna post this, but when Siegs took that penalty I had visions of Carolina-Buffalo Game 7 in the third period when a critical delay of game power play goal broke a tie in Carolina. If I was thinking that fifteen years later, Lindy must have been really having acid flashbacks.
Agreed on the rule, it should be treated as an icing – don’t allow a line change.
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