Beating a rival always feels good to watch. It’s even better when your favorite team is the one doing the heart breaking for a change. The New Jersey Devils finally beat the Philadelphia Flyers for the first time this season. It was a 4-3 regulation win with the game-deciding goal happening within the final two minutes of the game. It was a joyful surprise. The lead was preserved for the 1:27 the Devils had to preserve it for. Hearing the final buzzer was glorious as the crowd roared in approval. On a Pride Night, the fans in attendance were given a reason to be proud of how the team pulled out the victory. (And it was better than last year’s Pride Night game too.)
Some background is in order. After a penalty-filled and nasty first period, the score was 2-2. The second period featured the Flyers taking more advantage of the run of play. They went up a goal when a 3-on-2 rush up ice led to Shayne Gostisbehere taking a shot from the right side, which went off either Keith Kinkaid or the post or both to slowly trickle into the net. The Flyers weren’t playing great hockey; they were coughing up plenty of pucks in their own end of the ice. It was just that they were executing better than the Devils. It’s sad when you see the Devils get the benefit or force multiple turnovers and almost none of them led to shots on net. It’s even worse when Philly, who played a full game the night before looked more up for the game, than the fresh team who was just down only a goal. It was a poor period for a devils team that just couldn’t make the AHL callup goalie on Philadelphia sweat all that much. The Devils needed to turn things around in the third period.
Slowly but surely, it did. While the Flyers were definitely active on defense, it wasn’t like, say, how Buffalo defended Devils back on Tuesday. And given that Alex Lyon isn’t Robin Lehner, who was hot going into the game, the Devils really didn’t need to find space just to work with. Forget finishing plays, the Devils just struggled to have plays to even finish. That’s how you end up with just 14 shots on net over 45 minutes into the game. But the Devils started shooting a bit more. They started firing away more freely. They started to play like a team that was down a goal and should be doing those things. Before you know it, the Devils were out-shooting the Flyers something like 6-1 near the midway mark of the period. Lyon wasn’t exactly confident in net; the challenges just needed to continue.
The equalizer would come from an unlikely source: a puck battle in the corner. Kyle Palmieri and Miles Wood were engaged in very long and very physical situation at the corner boards. In retrospect, I’m surprised the referee didn’t lose sight of the puck and blew the play dead. It was a good thing to as eventually Palmieri kicked the puck away from the bodies. It went right to Pavel Zacha, who was behind the goal line as support. Zacha smartly went away from the bodies, looked around the left side of the net, and saw Damon Severson cutting towards the left inside hashmark. Zacha split Michael Raffl and a cheapshot artist with a pass, Severson one-timed it, and it was 3-3 with nine minutes left to play. The Rock was rejuvenated, the Devils were pumped, and hope for a win was still alive.
The Devils kept attacking after the goal, but the Flyers found what offense looked like again. A few poor shifts gave the Flyers some attack time and a few opportunities to break the game again. Keith Kinkaid was careful to stop the shots. After a third straight bad shift where a turnover led to a shot against, the Devils seemingly got their acts together and pushed back. Both teams weren’t exactly great at holding possession or defending, but they were mindful to not give up the breakaway or the odd man rush that could spell disaster. Then something glorious happened with about 1:46 left.
Nico Hischier replaced Travis Zajac on a shift and, per Natural Stat Trick, played all of seven seconds with Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman. I suppose normally that line would do a dump-and-change and Hischier happened to come on first. They didn’t do that. Ben Lovejoy made a great first pass out of the zone to Coleman. Coleman looked up and went forward. Hischier went with him. It was a 2-on-2 rush against Ivan Provorov and Robert Hagg. Coleman drew Provorov and so Coleman went to the left sideboards. He was able to get a puck to the middle around Provorov, hoping that Hischier, who drew Hagg, was able to get inside position on the defender. While Hagg gave him some contact and while Hischier was sort of falling, Hischier was able to get his stickblade on the puck to re-directed it. The puck went at Lyon low. Every game, there seems to be one or two of these kinds of plays and the goalie tends to get it and just hold on. Not tonight. The puck went between Lyon’s legs and slowly trickled over the goal line. Lyon had no idea it went through him. The Flyers could only watch. The Devils and the fans were elated. Hischier only needed seven seconds with Coleman to make it a win over the Winged-P’s. Tonight would be the night where the Devils would get the late-game heartbreaking goal to decide it. Gaze upon it:
This was a big break and a big goal. It not only decided the game. It not only led to the Devils’ first win over Philadelphia this season. It not only was just a memorable stroke of luck that the re-direction was on-target and had enough for the puck to get all of the way through instead of, say, stopping in the crease or inside Lyon’s legs where no one can see it. This was Nico Hischier’s first goal since January 2 against St. Louis and this was easily his biggest goal of his young career. A tie-breaking goal near the end of regulation over a rival? You better believe that’s a big deal.
Ultimately, while the Devils’ performance overall was not so hot in a bunch of aspects, I’m happy with the win. I’m happy that Pride Night went off well enough for the second straight year. I’m happy that the Devils, who looked like they were beaten in a 2-3 game by the second intermission, rallied in the third period to make it a win. I’m happy that Nico Hischier scored this big goal.
The Opposition Opinion: Madeline Campbell has this recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Please Suspend Radko Gudas: Before getting into the game properly, I have to devote some words to a chump. In the first period, about 12:47 into it, the following happens. Thanks to Rob Taub on Twitter for having this .GIF:
Live, it was fast and in the far end of the rink. I figured that Radko Gudas just plowed into Kyle Palmieri. He was going to get an interference penalty. Then the Devils responded with a whole lot of anger as a big scrum developed and Damon Severson and Brandon Manning fought. While the penalties were being sorted out, the scoreboard showed the replay of what happened. I then understood exactly why the Devils were so angry. I apologize to everyone around Section 1 who heard all of the profanity I yelled in response to what I saw. It was that enraging. I’ll clean it up here.
This was an absolutely garbage act by Radko Gudas. It was an absolutely dangerous hit. This wasn’t just a body check to a player away from the play. This wasn’t like the interference penalty called on Mirco Mueller earlier in the first period, which was far more benign than this. No, this was a man deciding to leap into another, unsuspecting man. From what I gathered online and heard from broadcasts, Gudas was apparently trying to avoid Wayne Simmonds. That this defenseman, who has a serious history of suspensions, had no intention to hurt someone. That was the rationalization I kept seeing. That’s also a load of trash and other words that aren’t allowed on this site.
Gudas jumped in the air. He didn’t just leave his feet. He had to show the Rock that he had ups. Boy, did he as he was at least six inches off the ice. It was so obvious, it would have been something to suspend decades ago. He also had enough time in the air to get his hands and stick up, which maximized the force he could have hit Palmieri with. Both of those actions are not at all necessary to avoid someone! Also: Gudas isn’t such a bad skater that he could have tried to stop or turn elsewhere. It would have been one thing if Gudas stayed on the ice, awkwardly went around Simmonds, and just fell into Palmieri or something like that. That would be more of an accident and I could see that explanation being somewhere remotely close to acceptable. Gudas intentionally jumped up and jumped into Palmieri. He didn’t need to do that to avoid anyone. I don’t care if he has been on good behavior since his last ten-game suspension. I don’t care that Palmieri passed the concussion protocol and went on to play 16:43 tonight. This guy’s acts have been so prevalent, his Wikipedia page as a whole section called “Criticism” devoted to this sort of garbage play. The league needs Gudas to sit down and sit down for a while to think about what he has done.
How bad was this hit? Let me put it in this way: I’m pretty much not a fan of fighting. But seeing Travis Zajac make a beeline for Gudas and punch his ticket to pain-town was totally understandable. I wasn’t even mad about the extra two minutes for roughing (maybe it should’ve been an instigator?) or the PPG the Flyers scored with said penalty. Given that the refs didn’t give Zajac a misconduct penalty, I think they understood on some level too.
Hockey is truly for everyone in the sense of cultures, backgrounds, languages, and lifestyles. I fully support that. But I think we can do without cheapshot artists like Gudas. I’m fine with making that exception. I can deal with it. So could Palmieri and all of the other people who suffered from his reckless play.
As with Brad Marchand last week, now we get to see how much the NHL Department of Player Safety wants to get involved. They should be and they should give Gudas a long, long, long suspension. Alas, I cannot be 100% confident they’ll do anything. We’ll see.
So - How Was That First Period Otherwise: Honestly, this wasn’t so hot for the Devils. They had good first couple of minutes. Then the game became about special teams. The Devils converted their first two power plays: a sweet short-side shot by Palmieri from a sweet cross-slot pass Zacha and a re-direction from the middle by Drew Stafford (this converted the Gudas’ interference minor). The Flyers converted a two-man advantage, which was created thanks to Travis Zajac needlessly cross-checking Shayne Gostisbehere whilst killing a Mirco Mueller minor for interference that didn’t involve anyone leaping. Then, Jakub Voracek sent a pass that got through traffic across the top of the crease to Claude Giroux, who wasn’t going to miss and he didn’t. Later, during the Zajac minor for roughing, a rebounded puck was lost in Ben Lovejoy’s skates and Wayne Simmonds pounced on it to make it 2-2. While the score was even, the play in between the penalties was not. Attempts were 14-5 in favor of the Flyers in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. Shots were 8-4 also in favor of the visitors; given that total shots were 9-6 in favor of the Flyers, it was clear that the power plays didn’t take long to convert. It was also clear that after those first few minutes, the Flyers were able to do more things in 5-on-5 while the Devils had trouble to create much of any offense.
Looking back on it now, that first period performance outside of special teams, effectively continued into the second period. That was a period where it was more obvious that the Devils’ offense had a serious case of the blahs. In that when you saw a lost puck or a missed shot or a passed-up opportunity to shoot, you’d go “Blah.” The Devils’ turnaround in the third period was what they needed and, tonight, it was enough to turn the score around.
A Short Statistical Example of How This Game Was in 5-on-5: One of the Devils’ best lines tonight was Pavel Zacha, Kyle Palmieri, and Miles Wood. In 5-on-5 play, when Palmieri was with Zacha, the Devils out-attempted the Flyers 10-6. However, they only out-shot them 2-1. Fortunately, one of those shots was Damon Severson’s third period goal. But that’s how it was. Even an attempt advantage didn’t yield many shots. That’s kind of deflating given that they went up against an inexperienced Alex Lyon and Provorov and Gostisbehere couldn’t play the whole game.
Enough of That, Let’s Praise Some Devils: Certainly. As mentioned, Zacha, Palmieri, and Wood were an effective line. They saw a lot of Sean Couturier, Giroux, and Travis Konecny and they didn’t lose that matchup. If they did, it was slight. Zacha’s assists were good reads that were rewarded. Wood did not get a point but he was actually somewhat committed in both ends of the rink. Palmieri was more active and he produced a goal and an important secondary assist. It’s worth noting that Zacha was the standout of the three. He played 18 minutes and showcased why he’s the kind of player that can do so.
I also have to give a shoutout to a makeshift line tonight. The Devils went with eleven forwards and seven defensemen tonight. Therefore, they weren’t always together but when Blake Coleman, Stefan Noesen, and Brian Boyle were together, the play tended to go in the right direction. I liked their games tonight, I liked that Boyle put up three shots, and I liked Coleman and Noesen not getting wrecked by Philly’s depth. Of course, Coleman and Noesen only had seven seconds with Hischier but that turned out to be an important short stint for Coleman and Hischier.
On defense, Sami Vatanen was excellent in even strength play. While the Devils only conceded 25 shots and Philadelphia’s shot leader was defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, the defense didn’t really help out of the offense a lot. John Moore had a good game too and helped create Stafford’s goal. Andy Greene, who was commonly paired with Vatanen, was good. But when Vatanen was on the ice, good things tended to happen. He was rarely caught out of position. His passes tended to hit their target. He kept with the pace of the game. What was telling was that when he was on the ice, the Devils out shot Philadelphia 7-2 in 5-on-5 play. The stats matched up with the eye test, Vatanen did quite well.
Lastly, while his numbers were hit hard and Flyers hit him hard, Hischier ended up with a praise worthy performance in two regards. First, he re-directed in the game winning shot while being hit by Hagg. That’s toughness, desire, and a bit of luck rolled into one important play. Second, Hischier did draw two power plays - the first from Nolan Patrick, which led to Palmieri’s PPG. He does need to get stronger but that hasn’t stopped him from putting in the effort that leads to fouls and, tonight, a goal. I respect that.
Who Struggled: Taylor Hall was able to extend his point streak with a secondary assist on Palmieri’s power play goal. That was about the extent of his goodness tonight. CJ wrote a little while back how Flyers coach Dave Hakstol minimized Hall-Hischier-Bratt with matchups against the Flyers’ top defensemen and Giroux-Couturier-Konecny in Philadelphia. Tonight, it wasn’t just one matchup that the line struggled in. It was nearly everyone. While the 5-on-5 shots weren’t too much or even too bad (Hall-Hischier-Bratt were even at 4 for, 4 against), the attempts showed where the play was mostly happening. It was in New Jersey’s end as the Devils regsitered four attempts as the Flyers took at least eight against them. Hall was double-shifted quite a bit given that the Devils played eleven forwards. Hall’s shifts with Boyle and Stafford were just bad as the Devils were blanked on attempts when they were together. A few shifts with Zacha and Palmieri also resulted in zero attempts for NJ. While he wasn’t scored against and the Flyers didn’t ring up shots against, the expectation is that Hall equals positive play at 5-on-5. It was a bad night, whether it was against Simmonds, Voracek, and Patrick or Scott Laughton, Jordan Weal, and Michael Raffl. It happens, I suppose.
After a strong game in Buffalo, I didn’t think much of Will Butcher tonight. After a solid return in Buffalo, I didn’t think much of Mirco Mueller either. With seven defensemen, John Hynes had the ability to limit their minutes. He did so as Butcher only played 12:30 and Mueller played only 13:43. The Devils were often defending when they were out there and neither really made much of a difference when they were pinned back. I don’t mean to mean to Mueller or Butcher, but with a totally fresh Steve Santini in the pressbox, both need to be better. This statement may also apply to Ben Lovejoy, now that I think of it. I thought Damon Severson was OK and scored an important goal, but he was pinned back for some bad shifts by all of New Jersey. That led to the ugly 7-12 shot differential and the uglier 12-22 attempt differential he had tonight.
What of Kinkaid: Honestly, Kinkaid had no chance on the first goal against. It’s a 3-on-5 situation and any cross-ice pass that connects is going to end poorly. If you want to fault something for that goal, fault Zajac for taking an unnecessary cross-checking penalty during a penalty kill. The second one, well, it was a close rebound and it just bounced poorly for Lovejoy. The only goal that really looked bad was the third goal. While he did have to go post-to-post and the pass to Gostisbehere hit off a Devils skate in front, he was beaten at the post. He knew it too. While he was not as sharp as he was in Buffalo, I don’t think Kinkaid was particularly bad. He did make important saves in the third period. When the Devils went flat after Gostisbehere’s goal (and for some shifts before it), Kinkaid kept it to a one-goal game even though he wasn’t challenged a whole lot. Personally, I’d like Cory Schneider to comeback as soon as he’s 100%. I don’t think he was all that tonight; but this wasn’t the same Kinkaid who was struggling to keep it under five goals like he did earlier this season.
That Power Play Still Needs Work: While the Devils went 2-for-2 on their first two power plays, the team took a grand total of four shots out of four power plays tonight. The Devils received a power play with about four minutes left in the first and did nothing with it. Down a goal, the Devils received a power play in the second period which they utterly wasted. The Devils were more than tentative on their entries and they struggled to get even set up - nevermind have a shot ready to go. The issues are still present and the coaches have yet to sort it out with the players. Fortunately, the Devils did go 2-for-4 so the power play was at least productive. Functioning on a regular basis remains a challenge.
Attendance?: I was surprised that the Devils announced 13,906 tonight. It looked like it in the stands. I was surprised that a Devils-Flyers game wasn’t more packed. Yes, it’s a Thursday night, but it is a rivalry. There were plenty of Flyers fans too, so it’s not like they were too distracted by anything else to come. Weird. It was good to see the Rock go in on Pride Night again, and the Pride Devils t-shirts appeared to be a big hit again on the concourse; I saw them all over. (Hint to Devils merchandise people: Maybe make them available more often?)
Around the Division: What happens in the division is going to be even more relevant from here on out. So I’ll to summarize in more recaps instead of just leaving it for the weekly snapshot. Obviously, the Devils winning in regulation is huge for the division; it’s a four-point swing and the Devils are back in second in the division for the moment. Our Hated Rivals lost in fantastic fashion to Toronto, 4-0. They stay back, which is good. Carolina blanked Montreal 2-0, they now move up into a tie with Philadelphia in points. ROW gives Philly the advantage but this goes to show how one night can turn into a potential gain into being on the edge of losing a spot.
The Debate, Cont.: Nico is better than Nolan, who, I assure you, played tonight.
Two Last Thoughts: Here’s a fun fact from Andrew Gross:
Not noted in copy but notable: Flyers entered tonight's third period leading 3-2 and 18-0-3 this season when leading after two periods.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) February 2, 2018
Now, they're 18-1-3.
It’s good to be the 1 sometimes.
Your Take: There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m pleased with the 4-3 win. What did you think of it? Who impressed you? Who did you think not do well? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments about this win.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.