I wanted the New Jersey Devils to beat Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers tonight. Earlier in this season, the Devils have been thwarted three other times. The first was an embarrassing rout in Manhattan. The second, a week after the first, was a much better-played game with a close score - but still a loss through the shootout. The third would come in what would become a ten-game losing streak; this loss came with a heartbreaking equalizer in the third period and a similarly hurtful overtime goal against. With the Devils being both a bad team and have nothing to play for, a season series sweep by the Rangers was possible. Probable, even.
It could even be argued that a loss would have been preferable. I’ve made a fictional character to represent the pro-tank perspective of the Devils. I include that in recaps and in Tweets. I’ve added a new feature to the weekly Metropolitan Divison snapshots called the Race for 28th. I’ve begrudgingly accepted that there are those who have bought into tanking for better draft picks and I feel those fans should be represented. I don’t like it myself, but
I know the 2016-17 Devils have been bad. I know what the team has been bad at. I know that it’s a foul mix of a lack of talent with ill-advised tactics. I know the Devils are all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs for five straight seasons. I know that the surrounding teams in the area have been better for the most part over these past five seasons. I know I keep paying money for full season tickets, spending gas and time and money to go watch a team try to re-build live. I know I keep blocking off my schedule to watch the road games. And I know I write too many words about them. It seems like contention is so far away. It’s a fair question to ask: why do you keep doing this?
Tonight provided an answer when Joseph Blandisi finished a cross-ice pass from John Quenneville by going around Antti Raanta’s left and stashing the puck in the net. Here’s the video from NHL.com.
The goal was glorious. It was amazing in light of what happened in the game.
Prior to overtime, the Devils played a respectable two periods of hockey. Amid a sluggish second period, the final five minutes of the period saw three goals scored and a massive brawl. Talk about packing in the action. And the Devils were up 2-1 after two periods. Yet, the Devils were steamrolled for most of the third period. Rick Nash tied it up early and the Devils’ response was to have one shot on net at 2:23 (by Jon Merrill) and another shot at Antti Raanta at 10:39 (by Taylor Hall). At one point, the Rangers were out-shooting the Devils 15-2 in the period. The Devils looked like they have in so many games in this season where they knew they were beat even though it was a 2-2 game. As a fan, I was frustrated and almost expecting the breakthrough goal to come in an awfully lame period for the team that I love. Thanks to Cory Schneider and the post, that didn’t happen. The Devils played out the string to get to overtime. The hope would be they could figure out a win.
Instead, the Devils nearly lost multiple times. I’d go as far as to say that the Rangers should have scored in overtime. There were close shots with rebounds that the Rangers somehow didn’t cash in. A lead pass to Michael Grabner had him leave Andy Greene in the dust - Grabner is very fast, he can do that - and Schneider had to deny him with a Brodeur-like poke-check. It was inch-perfect and it’s probably already added to any Devils highlight video for Schneider and this season. On that same shift, Grabner and Kevin Hayes forced a toe save and the puck just slid literally inches away from the goal line. Somehow, the puck stayed out. These were plays where it looked to me that there would be a goal, a goal would be understandable, a goal should have been scored. It was astounding stuff from Schneider. The Rangers, for lack of a better word, choked in overtime. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but they had the plays; they had the opportunities; and they had shifts where they beat on the Devils’ three-man unit, like the first shift in overtime. They just couldn’t beat Schneider and, I suppose, Lady Luck. So, thankfully, the Rangers did not score. And after a big miss by Ryan McDonagh, Quenneville led a rush that resulted in Blandisi’s big goal.
And I was beyond happy. I’ll admit it, just like those around Section 1 know, I popped off. I high-fived and hugged and fist-bumped. I spat some verbals that can’t be written on this site. (I apologize for my profane language, but I am not sorry for hating the Rangers and popping off.) But the gist of it was that there would be no brooms. No brooms for rivals. There will be no brooms. There is no sweep this year. There would be no embarrassing sweep by a hated rival to cap off an already-lost season. There would be no exclamation mark from a rival team and fanbase that thinks they can go to the Rock, act like they own the place, talk like they know something about success, and leave knowing they’re always better. The Rangers (and their fans) were taken down a peg when Blandisi went around Raanta. The fans did their walk of shame out of the Rock (thanks Steve for that line) and the players left with the disappointment of dropping a point to a bad hockey team. Yes, the Rangers will go to the playoffs. They will in all likelihood disappoint their fans yet again, win as many Cups as the Devils will this season, and, depending on who they get in the first round, go golfing in early April since they’re clearly not as good as they think they are. Good teams would’ve beaten a 28th-place team like the Devils, in that kind of overtime if not in regulation outright. I know because I’ve seen that happen a lot this season.
And this is what I wanted. Forget Sherman Abrams, tanking, and standings position. Forget the data and the facts that prove how bad the players and the team are for a moment. Moments and the feelings that come from good shifts even amid struggling periods, the goals, the big saves by Schneider, the overtime winner, and the cheers at the end with the sea of blue walking away with only a small few jawjacking on their way to wherever it is they roam. That all reminded me of what this is all about. Why I do all of this. Big wins over hated rivals are still great achievements even in the last weeks of a soon-to-be-over regular season. This is all worth it. I love the New Jersey Devils. And despite a performance that reminded everyone yet again why the Devils are where they are in the standings, I loved this win. The Devils won 3-2 in overtime over the Rangers. I loved seeing it at the Rock, I loved thinking about it on my way home, and I love typing that out.
10 games left.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Shift Charts | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Bryan Winters wrote at Blueshirt Banter that the Devils were outplayed. That is true. I am still very happy that the Devils beat the Rangers.
Schneider’s Night: Cory Schneider faced 40 shots on net and 68 attempts in over 64 minutes of action. While I would agree his goal allowed to Oscar Lindberg was soft, Schneider more than made up for however soft that goal was. Besides, that goal wouldn’t have happened if John Moore didn’t try to force a clearance without enough force, which gave possession back to the Rangers to start the whole sequence. In any case, Schneider was beaten only three more times tonight: saved by the post twice int he third and by Rick Nash, who was all alone in front of him on a power play. I thought penalty killing formations was to protect the middle and the crease. That didn’t go well. All the same, Schneider made loads of difficult stops. There was a lot of crashing of the crease, there were plenty of shots involving traffic, and his overtime performance was on another level. There were also hot players that Schneider had to deny, such as eight shots from an inspired Mika Zibanejad and a couple of really good ones from Hayes (that stop in overtime was amazing), Derek Stepan (who hit a post too), J.T. Miller, and a Nash that showed up to play. Schneider was the main reason why it was a 2-2 game when the Devils were seemingly like doormats to the Rangers in the third period. Schneider ensured that overtime would not end when the Rangers wanted it to end. While Raanta certainly had plenty of work to deal with, Schneider’s performance was clearly the more important one among the two. And he had the better performance at that.
Kids!: From the perspective of the run of play, this wasn’t a good night for Quenneville, Blandisi, Pavel Zacha, Steve Santini, Blake Coleman, Damon Severson, and Miles Wood. In the case of Wood, he was a non-factor except for an incident late in the second period I’ll get to in a bit. Coleman wasn’t so good either. But I thought the other young players were better than those figures suggest. Severson was doing the best he could in his own end and was a far sight better than, say, the many turnovers from Jon Merrill. Zacha kept up as well, he picked up an assist to keep his point streak going, and he didn’t have an error filled night either.
Quenneville had a big night on the scoresheet. He scored off a great pass by Blandisi, who got a good pass from Zacha to convert the one good power play the Devils had all night. The other two were depressingly ineffective. Quenneville not only made that one work, but the goal opened the scoring int he game and it was his first career NHL goal. Quenneville would bookend his night by setting up Blandisi’s game winner. Can Quenneville make some improvements? Sure. But keep in mind that this is a rookie who received a shift in OT, appeared on the second power play unit, played over 15 minutes tonight, and had a big goal and a bigger assist. It’s apparent he’s got a future with New Jersey and we saw more of that tonight.
Blandisi was awful to start out this game. He was missing his own teammates with passes by feet in several cases. He was rushing to make plays happen before they did happen. So pucks either missed or went right to Rangers who just happened to be where they were on the ice. In his defense, he didn’t really help out much early on either. But as the game went on, Blandisi started hitting more of his passes and he started being more involved in a positive way. And he did contribute the creation of the first goal as well as finishing the last goal of the game. Those cannot be understated about how important those contributions were. What’s refreshing is that Blandisi of 2015-16 would’ve tried to be a pest, try to “draw” some calls, and maybe hurt the team with penalties or ineffective play of his own. He’s a smarter player now and he was a net positive in a big way tonight.
Lastly, I was impressed with Steve Santini’s skating. This is why I think the Devils signed him when they did and moved him up instead of letting him stay in Albany all season. Santini was quick to recover positions when the play go wide and/or a Ranger would attempt to charge forward on a rush. While he’s not as fast as Miles Wood or Blake Coleman, Santini was mobile enough to get in front of puck carriers and disrupt their play without fouling or getting beaten. That’s important for a defender to do, to be able to not only react quickly to changing plays but to move quickly to be in a good position to defend those plays. I think the cross-checking penalty he received wasn’t a terrible call; and he didn’t go over the line physically. He kept his composure in a rivalry game against a rival that was teeing off on offense over the whole game. He did well with what he could do. With just about 18 minutes on the ice, I wonder if we’ll see him get more and more ice time to see how much he can handle in the future.
The Mighty Hall: Taylor Hall was a stud forward tonight. He was flying all over the ice and he kept firing away. While some of his passes were too well covered, Hall often took offensive matters into his own hands. With eight shots on net and hammering in a one-timer from a feed by Kyle Palmieri, it worked out. Hall almost scored two other times. Late in the third, he forced an important skate save by Raanta on a wraparound. In overtime, Hall had New Jersey’s first shot and real chance when he flew up ice and put in a stunning move that forced a big stop from the goalie. While Blandisi was the hero of the night, Hall was easily the team’s best skater tonight.
Collision Pt. 1: In the second period, Hall and Mats Zuccarello ran into each other and went right down in pain. There was no malfeasance that I recall. Just a nasty collision between two players. Thankfully, Hall and Zuccarello skated to the bench and would return to the game to play a full performance.
Faced Off: They may not mean a whole lot over a season or even several games. But faceoffs can make an impact within a game. Rachel Doerrie has an excellent post about what winning draws mean at Hockey Graphs if you’d like to learn more about that. As for tonight, the Devils didn’t know much about that impact as they were frequently on the losing end of them tonight. Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Zacha, and Coleman were all below 50% at winning faceoffs. Only Blandisi won more draws than he lost and he only took seven of them. What this meant was a lot of potential offensive plays were lost since the Rangers would win their defensive zone draws. It also meant more pressure on Schneider and the defense as only Zajac and Blandisi did well on defensive zone draws. It didn’t so much define the run of play favoring the Rangers so much, it just helped it out.
The Not So Mighty: Jon Merrill was a turnover machine at points in this game. Whether it was a pass within the defensive zone, an attempt at a clear, or just a bad read, Merrill was just error-prone tonight. This wasn’t a good game for him despite a positive CF%. Andy Greene wasn’t so bad in regulation, but his performance in overtime was just rough. Grabner will make just about anyone slow, but Greene did a lot of chasing on that shift and was fortunate the Devils were able to get out - and go score.
I was not a huge fan of Adam Henrique’s performance either. It didn’t help that Blandisi was rather bad to start the game. While Blandisi improved a bit as the game went on, it didn’t lead to many gains in 5-on-5 play. Beau Bennett wasn’t much of a factor either, but Henrique’s the veteran player that’s supposed to help these less experienced players out in making things happen. It didn’t. Henrique’s match-ups ranged from “meh” (the Derek Stepan line - by the way, Chris Kreider played tonight) to the very poor (the J.T. Miller line with Nash and Zibanejad).
As noted, Wood really didn’t have a positive impact on the team tonight. He didn’t get any shots or attempts on net and he was frequently on defense. But he was involved in one of the biggest moments of the game. Let’s get into that:
Collision Pt. 2: Late in the second period, Miles Wood tried to get onto a loose puck in the neutral zone - with only Nick Holden to beat. Wood turned on the jets to try to take the puck and fly by the defender. Holden managed to contact Wood away from the puck - and continue his contact that led to Wood being hit by the stanchion at the Devils bench. It was a nasty hit and possibly could have been an intereference call since Wood and Holden were past the puck when the hit happened. Wood went down hard and popped right back up. He saw red. He was beyond angry. He saw Holden by the goal line, threw down his gloves, and skated several yards right at him. A brawl ensued as Wood beat down Holden, which led to a more traditional fight between Coleman and Jimmy Vesey (yes, he played tonight). The crowd definitely got up for it, it was an astonishing sight, and it will be remembered as another part of this long hated rivalry.
I’m not a fan of fighting and I wouldn’t miss it if it were banned. But this was one of the rare occasions where I understood why Wood did what he did. It was a dangerous hit and it could have injured Wood. I can see why Wood thought Holden knew what he was doing and wanted to make him pay. Wood fully earned his 17 minutes on the play as he definitely instigated the fight, he definitely fought Holden not that Holden did much about it, and the misconduct was justifiable since it led to a whole lot more beef.
The Sherman Abrams Section: I know I said nuts to Sherman Abrams for this game. But his people are still around so let’s talk about it. Funnily enough, this win didn’t matter. Yes, the Devils earned two points. They’re still in 28th thanks to results around the league. Vancouver beat Chicago in overtime, Carolina beat Florida to stay further away, Winnipeg beat Philadelphia, and Detroit edged Montreal in over time. 29th may still be in play as Arizona shocked Tampa Bay with a regulation win; they’re only three points behind the Devils. The only result that didn’t go Sherman’s way was Buffalo losing to Pittsburgh, but Buffalo isn’t the immediate concern.
While Sherman Abrams won’t tell you this, I will. The Devils have ten games left and they won’t lose all ten. They’ll win some games. I’d rather have them win this game and the two Philly games coming up. If the Devils really want to minimize the damage of any wins, then the games to really lose are coming up before those two Flyers games: Carolina, Dallas, and Winnipeg. Those are the teams that Mr. Abrams wants the Devils to finish behind; those are the teams to lose to - and in regulation. Beating on a rival won’t hurt them. Beating those teams will. Detroit is at the very end of the season, we’ll see whether that’s a must-lose game too in Mr. Abrams’ eyes then.
One Last Thought: Since the Devils are a bad hockey team and they haven’t been so fun to watch over the last few months, plenty of fans have checked out. So they sell their seats, which is understandable. Unfortunately, a lot of Ranger fans bought them up. As usual, most were no problem. But there’s always people who run their mouth and act like fools - especially after having a few beverages in them. The most notable one I saw was in Section 5 as a gentleman decided that taking off his shirt for the Rangers was a good idea. And running up and down, twirling his shirt in one hand, holding a tallboy in another, and yelling “wooooooo goooooo Rangers.” Security came and he triumphly pumped his fists as he was escorted from the premises. It’d be one thing if the Rangers were winning by a big margin or just scored and he did this. This happened during the middle of a third period that was 2-2 and not after any big event.
I personally shout him out because I am happy to say that all of his hooting and hollering was all for nothing. The Devils beat the Rangers. I am happy that wouldn’t make him happy at all.
Your Take: The Devils finally beat the Rangers this season and the 3-2 overtime win still feels so good. What was your reaction to Blandisi’s goal? Did you pop off? What did you make of Schneider’s performance? Who impressed you the most? What should the Devils take from this game ahead of their next one in Toronto? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading. The Devils beat the Rangers. No brooms for rivals this year.