Patrik Elias is a New Jersey Devils legend and tonight was the night where his #26 would be raised to the rafters. It was an important night for one the franchise’s most important players. Ownership spoke, former players spoke, Travis Zajac spoke, Lou Lamoriello provided a message via video, NHL Deputy Comissioner Bill Daly spoke, and most of all: Elias spoke. As he put it, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you for letting me be a Devil forever.” His ceremony was wonderful and Elias’ speech detailing his career and thanking the many, many people was glorious. The Rock, which was legitimately full, gave Elias the love he appreciated with many chants of “Pat-ty” throughout the ceremony and ample amounts of applause. Here’s a video taken by NJ.com’s Andrew Mills of the actual banner being raised.
There was also an important game tonight. The New Jersey Devils were hosting the New York Islanders. This is a game within the division. The Isles need points to stay in the playoff bubble. The Devils, having lost the last two, needed a result to avoid being more exposed to the teams behind them in the standings. The game started late, the officiating was weirdly awful, and the Isles looked like they were in control after two periods even though they were only up by a goal. The Devils looked out of sorts in the first forty minutes. They played a teeth-gnashingly frustrating game as passes, reads, shots, and other decisions went awry. Sometimes, it would be from the Islanders just getting it the way. Other times, it was just a failure (e.g. a turnover) by the Devils. But the Devils got their acts together in the third period and Kyle Palmieri made the difference with two third-period goals. The Devils prevailed in regulation by a 2-1 score. In its own way, that was glorious too.
At the very least, Palmieri’s first goal was glorious. Taylor Hall sent Palmieri on his way from the Devils’ zone with a pass through Anders Lee’s legs. Palmieri charged in, one against two, skated towards the high slot, and fired a blistering wrist shot between Sebastian Aho and Johnny Boychuk and past goaltender Jaroslav Halak. It was a beautiful goal. It gave the sell out crowd what they wanted and what they needed. After forty minutes of sloppy play, frustrating failures, and lackluster performances, they wanted some success, something to work out, a goal on Elias’ night. Palmieri gave them a wonderful looking goal. The Rock erupted in joy over the score.
The second goal from Palmieri was more fortunate. After a dump-in - of which, there were many by New Jersey and most of them did not work - the puck was pinned at the endboards. Nico Hischier and Nick Leddy were tied up. The puck was kicked away and Taylor Hall fired it around the boards. Fading away, Sami Vatanen collected the puck at the point and immediately fired a wrister toward the net. Palmieri was cutting across at the top of the crease at just the right time to deflect the shot. It beat Halak. It was 2-1. The reaction from the crowd was similar - just a massive pop for the score.
The rest of the third period was nervy but the issues from the first two periods seemed to be mitigated. The Devils had issues with zone exits, but they were tighter in coverage to prevent those failures turning into shots. Vatanen was tagged for a slash on Ross Johnston despite a very similar slash to Vatanen earlier in the period going entirely uncalled. The Devils killed that off. The Devils protected their slot well and Keith Kinkaid was excellent at denying the longer shots the Isles threw at them. With the net empty, the Devils were forced to defend. Despite all of the attack time, they kept the Islanders to one shot on net - a sharp angled try from Jordan Eberle. As the Devils did get a late clear, the ovation was true for a Devils win.
Ultimately, one good (for the most part) period for the Devils made this win after a mediocre first period and a bad second period. Kyle Palmieri and his brace, his two goals, powered the comeback win. Kinkaid was in fine form in the crease tonight. The team responded to something, I don’t know what, after the second intermission as the passes and the decision making was much better compared to the previous two. The 2017-18 squad avoided the ignominy of being the first Devils team to lose on a number retirement night. While it wasn’t an ideal performance, the Devils found a way to make it a win. Which is what they needed to do on Elias’ night. The result was the perfect compliment to go with the #26 banner being raised to join #3, #4, #27, and #30. The Devils succeeded with the ceremony and with the game - they succeeded with both important events at the Rock this evening.
The Opposition Opinion: Jenny Bergman at Lighthouse Hockey called this one a “flat game” for the Isles.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
More Ceremony Notes: This ceremony was long. It did not feel long or overdrawn. It was just that there was a lot involved. The Devils showed a mini-documentary about Elias’ final appearance in uniform last season, Patty’s Last Lap. That was at 5:45 PM. At 6:15 PM, Matt Loughlin emceed the event. Management, former teammates, the current roster, Elias’ family, and Elias himself were all introduced. I loved Elias’ entrance. He came in through the crowd! He even put on a green bowler hat a fan gave him. There were two video packages, one narrated by Elias for the fans and one going over Elias’ career. Loughlin’s speech was great. Lou was not at the ceremony, but he provided a video message as well. Bill Daly was so over, I heard heckling of “We want Bettman,” but the crowd was calmer by the time he was done. Scott Stevens got a turn at the mic to speak about how he’s joining the small club of Devils with retired numbers. Zajac spoke about Elias, which went well. Owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer then spoke. Blitzer was more natural on the microphone and he noted that the four seats that Elias’ family owns will be forever his and customized to have “26” on them.
Then it was Patrik Elias’ turn. He was fantastic. He had humor. He detailed his career from coming over and playing with the Albany River Rats. He thanked a lot of people along the way including former owners Jeff Vanderbeek and the McMullen family. He thanked Larry Robinson and Robbie Ftorek (who was there) along with Pat Burns, Jacques Lemaire, and Peter DeBoer. He thanked John Hynes and Ray Shero for allowing him to leave on his own terms and with dignity. He thanked his former teammates, giving special shout outs to Sergei Brylin, stating that he should be up here next; Jason Arnott (who looked good) and Petr Sykora for their magic as the A Line; and Zajac among others. At one point, during a pause, a fan yelled “One more year,” and Elias immediately said “Noooooo” which got a good laugh. The most emotional part was when Elias spoke to his family in Czech to thank them for helping his career. He thanked his wife and daughters. And he thanked the fans. I hope someone did record the whole thing. It likely took over the seven minutes he was told he had. But it was honest, it was thoughtful, it was right from Elias’ heart. You could tell that he truly appreciated this night. The banner raising was great.
As a result of all of this, the game was effectively delayed by almost thirty minutes. This meant the game started about 8:30 and it ended before 11 PM. Admittedly, if the Devils lost this game, I would have been upset about. A win makes the lack of sleep worth it. But, seriously, it was a world-class ceremony for a world-class player.
Palmieri was the Star: Palmieri led the team in shots with eight. All attempts were shots on net. Well, seven were shots and one was a deflection counted as a shot because it was a goal. When Palmieri was on the ice, the Devils went forward as the team out-attempted the Isles 16-7 and out-shot them 11-5 in 5-on-5 play. Palmieri replaced Jesper Bratt on a line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier. While it did not work so well in the second period, it worked very well in the third period. Most importantly, he scored the equalizer and the eventual game winner. That equalizer was fantastic and the game winner was a good bounce after some good work by the Devils. The New Jersey native who grew up watching Elias had a huge night on Elias’ retirement night. It’s a nice narrative, namely because it’s true.
Kinkaid was Also a Star: Keith Kinkaid made the Rock gasp when he committed a costly turnover to Josh Bailey early in the game. Thankfully, the iron frame saved the team from an early 0-1 deficit. Kinkaid would perform much better after that mistake. He was very solid in his positioning in front of the net. He did not have to scramble much. His glove was quick and crisp. There were a couple of shots he fought off, but he didn’t put the team into a lot of rebound trouble. He denied Eberle big time after a Severson breakaway attempt (!) went awry. He was very good in the crease tonight. The only goal against him was a goal he wasn’t going to stop anyway as it was on his left flank. Kinkaid has had a lot of struggles this season; this was one of his better performances. It was important too seeing that the game ended up being decided by one goal.
About that Goal Against: Typical for the Devils in the second period, a pass went astray and the Isles went off with it. Hischier’s pass hit off Jordan Eberle’s skate. The puck got away from Bratt by Anthony Beauvillier, who led a 3-on-2 man rush. He dropped a pass to Mathew Barzal as John Moore took Beauvillier. Vatanen had Eberle but was focused on the puck. Eberle continued to the net to get behind Moore and Vatanen stopped in the slot. Barzal gave the puck to Beauvillier to the high slot. He threaded a pass down to Eberle, who was wide open at the left post. Eberle just tapped it in. The offensive loss of possession was bad and Vatanen and Moore played it poorly. Vatanen never should have left Eberle and Moore needed to be aware of who was getting behind him. This wasn’t Kinkaid’s fault.
The sad thing is that the Devils responded to that goal against with a performance where the Isles looked like defensive kings and the Devils couldn’t put a round peg through a round hole on offense. Thankfully, the third period happened.
Bratt was the Farthest Thing from a Star: Jesper Bratt had a bad game. The Hall-Hischier-Bratt line did not do well and Bratt was booted from it. In fact, he was effectively benched throughout the whole third period and a lot of the second period. He only played 9:21 tonight. Even Drew Stafford played more than him. (Aside: I loved that backcheck on John Tavares in the first period, denying a one-on-one opportunity for him.) I cannot tell you exactly what happened that led to this. But he was poor tonight. Among all of the Devils, he had the worst CF% by far. When he was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 3-10 and out-shot 2-5 in 5-on-5 play. I don’t know what is up with him but I hope he sorts it out soon.
The Rough Night of Vatanen & the Good Night for Lovejoy: Sami Vatanen wasn’t the worst defenseman tonight. But a lot just went awry for him. Only one of his four shooting attempts actually got through on net. He deferred a few times on shooting attempts that he should have taken. Some of his exits were just denied. His coverage wasn’t on point. He even turned the puck over on at least one breakout, which is uncharacteristic for him. It was just a night where not a whole went right for Vatanen. I was happy to see him redeem some of the badness when Palmieri tipped his shot in.
On the flipside, I liked what I saw from Ben Lovejoy. Not that Will Butcher was bad, but Lovejoy was a solid hand in his own end tonight. While the team was out-shot 5-6 when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, attempts were 12-8 in favor of the Devils and only a few of those shots against were off chances. He was excellent on the Devils’ two penalty kills tonight.
The Debut of Grabner: Michael Grabner made his Devils debut tonight and he was OK. He didn’t get a chance to show off his blazing speed too much. However, he did finish the night with two shots on net, five shooting attempts of his own, and being positive in Corsi with the Devils out-attempting the Isles 11-9 when he was on the ice. I liked his PK work. I was surprised he didn’t play after the Isles pulled Halak. I think we’ll see him featured more when he gets acclimated.
The Streaks: Taylor Hall set up Palmieri’s first goal and received a legitimate secondary assist on his second. That’s two points to extend that point streak to 21.
The Struggles of the First & Second, Summarized: I thought Hall struggled, as with the rest of the team, in the first two periods. A lot of what they were trying to do just fell apart. The Isles were tight on them and the Devils struggled to get free from their defensive pressure. The Devils stuck to dumping and chasing so much and those did not result in a lot of won pucks. While the Devils were able to get in close on Halak with wraparounds and jam plays, Halak was not loose at all. The Devils spent the first forty minutes not really getting a lot of clean shots on net. In the first period, both teams were sloppy. In the second, the Isles were much sharper and, as a result, looked more in control as the Devils conceded possession over and over. It was tough, especially to see it from Hall and Hischier, two of the Devils’ best players on the puck. It was so bad, I was hoping Elias actually would suit up and show some of these Devils how it is supposed to be done.
So what changed in the third? The execution was a lot better. The breakouts and the passes were crisper. That led to more opportunities on Halak. It also helped that the Isles let up a bit on their forecheck.
Bad Officiating: The referees tonight let a whole lot go in the first two periods. It was as if they wanted this game to keep moving. I understand it was a later than usual night, but when Hall gets high-sticked in the face, then it should be a call! They let a lot go in the third, although they made some calls. They tagged Josh Bailey on a super-obvious goaltender interference call. Against the Devils, they gave Stefan Noesen a hooking minor to end what was a poor shift from him; and an ironic slashing call on Vatanen. Ironic in that Vatanen was slashed worse earlier in the third and that was uncalled. Ditto Blake Coleman getting mugged three times on a shorthanded rush with no call. Ditto Andrew Ladd (I think it was him) headlocking Butcher after a whistle and taking him down. It was just weirdly poor from the men in stripes tonight.
Related to that, the Devils’ one power play functioned like one. I thought Palmieri was going to slam in that one-timer from a cross-slot pass. Alas, Halak got right in front of it as he followed the pass. Still, the 5-on-4 units played like them and so I’m fine with that. I did like the Devils keeping the Isles to only two shots between their two power plays too.
Around the Division: The Caps won to re-take first. The Penguins surprisingly lost in regulation and fell to third because Philadelphia owns a tiebreaker on them (games played) after matching them in points due to a 5-3 win over Ottawa. Columbus did beat Chicago in regulation while Carolina lost to Detroit. The result of all of this for New Jersey is that the win keeps them five points ahead of Columbus, the Isles are now seven points back, and the Devils are four points behind both Pennsylvania teams. Losing this game would have been bad for New Jersey. But they won. Now they have a moment of security for the first wildcard spot. Alas, March and its tough schedule is coming up.
Extension: Reported during this evening by many on Twitter - I’m citing Chris Ryan of NJ.com here - the Devils picked up a fourth-year option on John Hynes. Congratulations to Hynes. Clearly, management and ownership like what he’s doing. The goal remains: make the playoffs.
One Last Thought: I loved the atmosphere tonight. When the Rock is full and, well, rocking, it’s a fun place to be. I want the Devils to make the playoffs if only to experience that again and again.
Your Take: The Devils won in regulation over the Islanders. Elias was honored, Palmieri scored a brace, and the Devils held on to win 2-1. You know what I think about it. What is your take on the win? Who impressed you? Who didn’t impress you? What should the Devils learn from this win before they play (gulp) Pittsburgh on Tuesday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thank you for reading.