It is always good to beat a rival. The New Jersey Devils did just that as they held on to beat the New York Rangers, 3-2. It was a night of firsts for the Devils’ 2017-18 campaign. This was their first one-goal victory. This was their first comeback win as the Rangers scored first; the Devils responded, built up, and maintained the lead. This was the first game where the Devils faced a six-skater situation. This was the first game where the Devils shortened their bench significantly. Most importantly, this was the first of hopefully many wins over rival teams.
Hopefully, the performance and the games will not swing so wildly. The game could be broken down into three acts.
The First Act: The Rangers’ Dominance. The Devils were ever fortunate to survive a first period beatdown by the Rangers. The Rangers out-shot the Devils 14-3 in the first period, constantly pinning back a Devils squad that just looked lost out there. Sure, the Devils played the night before but so did the Rangers. If it was from fatigue, then I’m not really buying it. Keith Kinkaid was the best Devil on the ice and the best player in the building for keeping it 0-0 amid a barrage of blueshirts.
The second period was not exactly good for New Jersey at the start. The Rangers continued to flow and a goal from them would have surprised no one from how they were just bossing the Devils around. A goal would come when David Desharnais found Rick Nash open at the crease. It was 0-1 and the Devils’ response was tepid. They struggled to maintain possession or any time in New York’s offensive zone. Desharnais slashed Jesper Bratt, which provided a power play that could have led to something. It yielded just about nothing.
But then the Devils would get a break. Brian Gibbons blocked a clearing attempt on a forecheck. He wins the puck from the boards, gets around the corner, and slides a pass behind a kneeling Ryan McDonagh to Adam Henrique. Henrique roofed a one-timer past Ondrej Pavelec to make it 1-1. It was a goal out of nowhere. It kickstarted the second act.
The Second Act: The Devils’ Dominance. The goal seemingly sparked the entire Devils roster. Almost simultaneously, the Rangers became ever more sloppy on the puck. The Devils were suddenly winning pucks, they were getting touches past the Rangers, and they were denying advances by the Rangers. Bryce Salvador noted on the MSG+ broadcast that the Devils were playing a more north-south style game and that was throwing the Rangers off. If it was an intentional adjustment, then it was the right call as the Devils kept swarming the Rangers. The result: a second period that ended with the Devils out-shooting the Rangers 12-3. More importantly: they scored another goal.
Gibbons started it by getting a puck deep. After a pass from Henrique to Miles Wood went astray, Tony DeAngelo (I remember when he was Anthony DeAngelo) ended up behind the net with the puck. He attempted a clearance around the corner into space, possibly influenced by an imminent check by Henrique. The clearance was picked off by Will Butcher. With bodies in front, Butcher decided to throw the puck to the middle. It deflected to the right point, off the boards, and picked up by Ben Lovejoy. While fading away, he launched a slapshot that hit off Miles Wood’s stick, rocketed into the bottom piping of the goal, and the puck flew out. It was fortunate but it was a result of the effort by the Devils.
What’s more, the offensive pressure didn’t really stop there. Shortly after the goal, a frustrated Nash elbowed Nico Hischier high for another power play. While that power play did not do much, the Devils continued to fire at Pavelec for a third goal. They would get their chance early in the third period. Shenanigans at the end of the second period led to a 4-on-4 situation. During that situation, DeAngelo dumped Hischier into the net away from the play. He was penalized and the Devils received a 4-on-3 power play. Will Butcher and Drew Stafford made that one count:
So glorious. The Devils were able to draw one more penalty going forward; a cross-checking call on Brendan Smith for when he did that to Kyle Palmieri. The Devils did not convert on that power play. After those two minutes, the game entered its third act.
The Third Act: The Rangers’ Desperation. The Rangers must have realized around this point that they are down two goals, they are at home, they are playing their rivals, and they are 1-4 for the season. They needed to pick it up and they absolutely did. All of a sudden, the boys in blue were able to make passes, gain the zone, and keep possession on offense. Kinkaid was again called on to make many, many saves. The opportunities kept expanding for the Rangers from Nash cherry-picking for a breakaway to trying for deflections to just crashing the net. Kinkaid did very well to keep his eyes on the puck and ensure that whatever rebounds he conceded would not be costly. The Devils were increasingly exhausted - there was a penalty kill where the Rangers spent the majority of the two minutes in New Jersey’s end and Palmieri iced the puck afterward. Up by two, they did not need to take risks in going forward. They did not have much of an opportunity to do so.
This brought to mind an aspect of the game from the First Act. In that first period, Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha, and Jimmy Hayes were just bad. Johansson made some careless turnovers; Zacha took a stupid penalty after taking a costly one last night; and Hayes was just a body. Head coach John Hynes benched them. A message of accountability was being sent. Yet, after that third period penalty kill and seeing Palmieri, Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, and Steve Santini completely gassed, one has to wonder whether Hynes was cutting his nose off to spite his face. Three fresh forwards could have been a big help. Instead, Hynes kept rolling nine.
The gambit was working, though. While the Rangers were piling on the shots, Kinkaid was stopping them and the forwards were able to get clearances and support the defense. Before one knew it, there was 3:07 left and Pavelec went to the bench. The Devils were just in survival mode. They were succeeding for the first two minutes of that. Henrique had a chance at an ENG from center ice; he missed. With a minute left, Drew Stafford pitchforked a loose puck out of the zone and the puck slid all the way down, just past the right post. That icing gave the Rangers an opportunity and they took it. J.T. Miller won the draw and Kevin Shattenkirk fired a wrister that got through. 3-2 with 56.8 seconds left to go and the Rangers took a timeout. It would be a tense near-minute.
The Devils did their best, though. Henrique won the faceoff and the team was able to get the puck in deep to take the clock down to about 40 seconds. A stop at the blueline led to another bit of time wasting. The Rangers dump it in and Nico Hischier was the first man in the corner, he tried to protect the puck, and that ate up more time. The Rangers eventually did get the puck, but a lob towards the middle was gloved by Kinkaid and so there would be a draw with 7 seconds left. Miller won this draw but it went to the far-side and not to the points. The Devils converged and eventually got the puck over the blue line as time expired.
As Alex wrote earlier today, this Devils team is dramatic. This game supports that theory.
The end of that third period: the Rangers out-shot the Devils 14-4. Not good, but at least understandable in that they were down two goals. And the Rangers did pull within one. But the Devils secured the win instead of blowing the lead. It was a game that could have used classic line from the Doc Emrick: “And they had them all the way.” I’ll stick with that it is always good to beat a rival.
The Opposition Opinion: Bryan Winters has this recap at Blueshirt Banter.
Please do not go there and cause problems. That is a problem for me and I solve problems quickly here.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com
The Defense?: The Rangers were able to take many attempts in front of the net as per the heat map at Natural Stat Trick, but the Rangers were limited to 19 scoring chances in 5-on-5 play and 27 in all situations. The Rangers put up 31 shots on Kinkaid, but that was a result of two high-shooting periods that sandwiched one where they were limited to just three shots. Two Devils defensemen took calls: a slashing call by Damon Severson and a hooking call on Ben Lovejoy. However, the Devils as a whole conceded only three power plays and while one was spent almost entirely in New Jersey’s end, the PK units kept the Rangers to five shots and no goals in total. And Severson went better as the game went on and Lovejoy at least created a goal. The Rangers scored in a 6-on-5 situation, but the Devils kept them to no shots after that goal and limited them for two minutes prior to that goal.
In a week that saw this team allow 50 shots to Toronto and get wrecked by Washington, I am not so unhappy about the defensive performance. There were plenty of hard-fought shifts by Andy Greene; Will Butcher made some good plays; Damon Severson played better next to Greene; and some good moments here and there. At the same time, it is apparent that this aspect of the game remains a weakness. There is much to improve from coverage, support from forwards, and ensuring that clearances are controlled instead of just tossed away with hope.
In retrospect of this game, it would have been beneficial for the Devils to avoid the big swings in the run of play. That starts with the defense succeeding on defense, which did not happen in the first. It was no accident that the offense emerged when they were able to snuff out Ranger attacks before Kinkaid even saw the puck. It is a lesson for future games.
Prime Assists: Will Butcher was notable yet again on the scoresheet. Tonight, he added two primary assists. I’m going to look more closely at them on Monday if only to watch them again. The first one came from a fortunate carom. The second one was an astounding feed to Stafford, who scored his first goal as a Devil in a beautiful fashion. It eluded three Rangers and sprung the man for a big goal. Butcher now has eight, which ties him for the third most in the entire NHL as of this writing.
Nico and the Elbow; Should Nash be Suspended?: Nico Hischier definitely took some lumps in this game. Both physically and in the run of play (-6 Corsi and shot differential). Thankfully, he kept on playing and kept on being supportive on defense as best as he could. I know that’s not the stuff that gets a lot of attention. But being out there in a one-goal extra-skater situation defending a lead is a big deal - especially when he does something good to kill clock. However, I want to touch on the penalty he “drew.” As in, the penalty where Nash rocked him up high. I’m really surprised Nash was not tagged with an illegal hit to the head penalty instead of the elbowing call he did receive. Nash appeared to have left the ice on it too. Should this be suspended? I think it should be reviewed at least. With the league being what it is, who knows if even that happens. Nico was OK from the hit and even bodied up Nash by the crease later in the game. One more reason to like Nico and hate the Rangers.
Energy Line: With the shortening of the forwards, Hynes put Adam Henrique with Miles Wood and Brian Gibbons. This line actually worked. This line worked really well. They were all on the positive side of CF% despite all three starting in their own end of the rink for most of their 5-on-5 zone starts. For Gibbons, it was 14 for, 8 against; for Wood, it was 13 for, 9 against; and for Henrique, it was 14 for, 10 against. When all three were on the ice, the Devils out-shot and out-chanced their opponents. Gibbons set up Henrique for his goal. Gibbons’ dump-in led to the sequence that ended up with Wood tipping in Lovejoy’s shot for a goal. Henrique and Gibbons were on the second penalty killing unit and they did well. The only thing they didn’t do tonight was draw a penalty, but that’s OK. While Hynes’ benching may have been too much, his adjustment to put these three together was an excellent decision.
As an fun fact and an aside, Henrique’s goal tonight was his sixth career regular season goal against the Rangers per Hockey-Reference. Not exactly a Rangers killer, 2012 playoffs aside. But his goal did lead to the Devils tilting the rink in their favor.
The Most Important Devil: The job of a backup goaltender is hard. It is not always known when you’ll play and when it does happen, it is usually after wearing a baseball cap on the bench for several games. Keith Kinkaid is the backup goaltender and he made it look easy tonight. Kinkaid made his first appearance of the season. It was not an ideal situation. It was after a loss, it was on the road, it was against a hated rival, and it was against a hated rival that really could use some wins. What’s more, the Devils skaters let him down as the Rangers were free to fire away at him for the first period.
Kinkaid was the main reason why the Rangers did not run away with the game in the first period or make a big comeback in the third period. His best traits were on display. He squared up well with the shooter. He maintained his stance when he was able to, while not being so into it that he could not throw his body in front of the puck. His glove was great. His blocker was good too, although he lost his stick while using it once. Kinkaid did not leave many big rebounds and I only counted one time he failed on an attempt to cover a puck. In a game where the Rangers won about 40 minutes of a 60 minute game, Kinkaid was prepared to be very good for all 60 minutes. He was the difference maker among all other Devils tonight.
One Last Thought: Regardless of how the performance went, the Rangers suck. Inherently.
Your Take: The Devils edged the Rangers. It is always good to beat a rival. What did you think of the Devils’ performance? Who impressed you the most and who disappointed you the most? Should Hynes have benched Johansson, Hayes, and Zacha for essentially two periods? How good was that pass from Butcher to Stafford? What should the Devils take away from this game before their next game against Tampa Bay? Please leave your answers and thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.