Over the past few weeks, the playoff hopes of the New Jersey Devils have waned. Their losses caught up to them and now their remaining games are critical from night to night. Blame it on the goaltending. Blame it on the lack of production. Blame it on the in-game decisions. Blame it on the roster. Blame it on bad luck. Blame it on the other teams getting hot. Blame it on all of that or something else. Regardless, the Devils ended up needing to get two points tonight. Prior to this trip, the potential of taking more than half the points on a difficult six-game road trip was just a lot of hope. It ended up being a near-requirement to keep hold of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This meant the Devils needed to go to the Steel City and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And they did it. Oh, how they did it.
This game was absolute rollercoaster. The dizzying highs showcased how great the Devils can be when things are working out. The terrifying lows revealed how the Penguins tore apart the Devils like so many other teams in this month (and in 2018 so far). The creamy middles, um, well, that’s just mentioned to complete the Simpsons reference. This game had it all from the worst the Devils had to offer to the best. And it ended up on one of the highest of notes on this road trip and possibly this season: Nico Hischier to Taylor Hall for the breakaway game winning goal in overtime.
I was absolutely ecstatic to see this on the broadcast. This play, this goal, this moment is just greatness. This is a clip that got me so hyped, I’m staying hyped even after typing in all capital letters on the AAtJerseyBlog account on Twitter, extolling Nico and Hall on this play. This is a highlight that you will see for years to come for the Devils. This is something you show to kids, show to non-fans, and show to everyone else why you love these players, you love this team, and you love this game. This was more than a great play and a great finish. It won the game. You cannot ask for much more than this in a hockey play.
As I exclaimed on Twitter, this play furthers the evidence that Taylor Hall is a Superstar Left Winger. Superstars make superstar plays. Hall made a bold decision to go forward. More like a bold assumption. But it worked out and he was free. It was all up to him to finish it and he did so against Matt Murray, who had himself a fine game otherwise. This was his 33rd goal of the season, it comes in a game where he put seven shots on net, and registered two assists to crack the 80-point mark. Production. Passion. P. Taylor Hall is a Superstar.
This play also shows that Nico Hischier is a man. He is a young man. He is a very strong man. He is a very brave man. From minute one in a Devils uniform, Hischier has not been wary of contact. He will go to the boards. He will go to the corners. He will go to the net. He has been hit, he will be hit, he has been pressured, he will be pressured - and he keeps on playing this way. On this night, early in overtime, Pittsburgh brought the forecheck hard, Hischier crashed in from the blueline - and past Phil Kessel - to keep the puck from going out, and Hischier ended up alone with the puck. Kessel was right on him and the puck was in Hischier’s skates. Kris Letang was coming to support while Evgeni Malkin was at the blueline to deny and passes or clearances up the boards. Hischier boxed out Kessel like a basketball player in the post as he searched for the puck. When he could, Hischier kicked the puck up to his stick. With Letang coming at him, he saw Hall and fired a perfect pass to him in the neutral zone. Nico was in a spot where it would have been understandable if he lost possession. Or if Pittsburgh won it. But Hischier are up Kessel’s pressure like a cheap hot dog and then took him to school. Nico Hischier is a man. He will be a star before we know it.
Making this highlight so sweet and why I’m still excited about it is based on the sixty minutes before it. First, the terrifying lows of the first period.
The Devils ended up in overtime after a third period where Pittsburgh bossed them around and made up a two-goal deficit. The Devils entered the third period up 3-1. They ended it at 3-3 with being out-shot 16-4 and out-attempted 29-9 in the third period. The Devils even chanced the frighteningly-effective Pittsburgh power play when Brian Gibbons took a really obvious interference call on the shift after the equalizer. Keith Kinkaid had to stand on his head - he was seriously great tonight - and he was still beaten twice. The Pens kept coming at the Devils in waves. What few offensive attempts resulted in some narrow misses as the pace of the game picked up, bodies flew everywhere, and pucks were taking some weird bounces. The Devils were bodied so badly that the Penguins could have really took this game in regulation. They held on to make this you-better-win game a win.
This third period was even worse than the first period, where the Penguins dominated the first ten minutes, scored an early goal, and out-shot the Devils something like 10-2. While the Devils would take more shots and have some kind of presence in Pittsburgh’s end of the rink, a lot of those advances were one-and-done. Nearly all of the 12 shots on Murray were easy for the goalie. Only one, a breakaway for Hall, really concerned him - and that one was stopped. Despite expressing displeasure for how they played in San Jose, seeing the Penguins just swarm all over the Devils so much to start the game reminded me of that effort. It was a bad first period where the only positives were Kinkaid playing great in net and only being down 0-1 after the period.
But if you want positives, look no further than the second period. While the Devils conceded more odd man rushes than they would have liked, the Devils prevailed in the middle frame. You want shots? Devils out-shot Pittsburgh 17-12. Chances? Devils out-did them 15-12 in that period too. Saves? Kinkaid was still making them. How about a functional power play? The first one certainly looked good and ended greatly off a rushed entry - Damon Severson laid a beautiful pass for Will Butcher to take a shot off immediately. It went in to tie the game. Breaks? A little after that goal, a breakdown yields a 3-on-1 against New Jersey and the shot from Letang trickled through Kinkaid and went wide. Pavel Zacha recovered, passed it up to Drew Stafford, who sprung Blake Coleman past Derick Brassard. While falling down, Coleman chipped up a backhander to beat Murray and make it 2-1. Another special situation? Carl Hagelin evened up a penalty call for Andy Greene with one of his own. In 4-on-4 play, the Devils had a 3-on-2 rush that ended with John Moore putting a pass away from Murray but right to Hischier for an easy tap in. That’s three goals in less than four minutes. Pressure? The Devils kept it up as they did not hang back. Maybe they should have in some cases, but they continued to attack even with the two-goal lead. It was a great response to a bad first period. It was a great second period. It gave the Devils a chance to succeed. They did albeit through a non-ideal way.
This game could have ended badly. This is a sport where one bad deflection or bounce or chance makes a difference. Kinkaid was great, and was still beaten three times as the team saw a 3-1 lead go away in the third period. You saw better efforts from defenders like John Moore and Damon Severson, even though the team conceded 43 shots on net. You saw some offensive charges despite the offense being rendered ineffective in the third period. Despite what was better than the last game, my point remains: this could have been a loss. And that’s why Nico to Hall in overtime was so amazing. It’s more than just a great pass and a great goal. The Devils pulled out a much-needed win with it - despite what happened earlier in the game. With that play, the Devils’ playoff hopes became a little stronger. They did it.
The Opposition Opinion: Hooks Orpik has this summary of the game at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
He Makes Things Happen Even when the Team Doesn’t Look Like It Is: Let’s dig into Hall’s on-ice numbers. Let’s go beyond the obvious scoresheet numbers of one OT goal, two (legitimate) secondary assists, and seven shots on net. To Natural Stat Trick!
The third period beatdown pretty much cratered the Devils’ numbers in 5-on-5 play. However, Hall was not as damaged. While he finished below 50% in CF% (like everyone else except for Zacha), when Hall was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils actually out-shot the Pens 13-12. Only Severson can claim to have been present for more 5v5 shots for than against. Additionally, while Hall was negative in scoring chance differential; he was on the ice for more Devils scoring chances than any other with 12. And if you trust them, only two Devils players were present for more high-danger scoring chances for than against: Zacha and Hall. Given that Hall played 14:43 a lot against Brian Dumoulin, Letang, Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, and Hagelin, that’s rather impressive since most of the team was eventually rocked in 5-on-5 play. Throw in other moments like creating and taking the only real scoring chance of the first period for New Jersey, and it’s further evidence that Hall is on another level.
Or, in other words, evidence why Hall has legitimate buzz for the Hart Trophy. The Superstar just makes things happen on a night-to-night basis.
The Return of Zacha: Those above numbers featured well for Zacha - and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. While Zacha had some dubious decisions on and off the puck at times, I thought he was moving well on the ice. He was trying to make positive plays. He did try to backcheck and he made some good recovery plays after shots from Pittsburgh. One resulted in a secondary assist on Coleman’s goal. I thought he was utilized well. And Zacha did create amid some good offensive shifts. I thought he had a good game tonight. I hope he gets some more ice time tomorrow and plays a little more aggressively on the puck.
The Most Pounded: Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen, goodness. I know drawing Sidney Crosby and his unit is one of the toughest matchups in the league. But this wasn’t even a competition in 5-on-5 play. When Greene was on the ice with Crosby, the Devils were out-attempted 4-21, out-shot 2-12, and out-scored 0-2. Vatanen had the same numbers. You know Pittsburgh wanted that match-up because Crosby got to see 6-45 for over ten minutes of 5-on-5 play. There’s some nights where you just get worked over. Then there was what Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust did to them. The mighty offense of tomorrow’s opponents aren’t much relief, but at least John Hynes will be able to control their match-up better at home.
At forward, Brian Gibbons struggled mightily. It is no surprise that the most common forward he saw in 5-on-5 play was Crosby. Gibbons was a non-factor for the most part tonight. His shot-attempt differential of -15 (8 for, 23 against) supports that. Ditto the -10 scoring chance differential (3 for, 13 against) Gibbons’ one big claim on the scoresheet was taking a very needless interference penalty in the third period. It was right after Kessel scored to make it 3-3. It was on offense. It was a thrown check on Justin Schultz to deny him a chance to play the puck. It was a bad decision on top of a night where Gibbons was worked over repeatedly all night long. Gibbons has been better before and I hope he will be tomorrow night.
Let Me Answer You Now - No: Keith Kinkaid was tested early, often, and all night long. The only night where he got some relief was in overtime. Kinkaid faced 43 shots out of 67 shooting attempts. He had bodies in his face. He had rebounds to be mindful of. He had men in yellow and black jerseys fly around his area as the Devils tried to keep up. When the game opened up where the two teams were trading rushes, Kinkaid had to have nerves of steel. Despite giving up three goals - none were anyone reasonable would call soft - Kinkaid played an excellent and crucial game in the crease tonight.
So I’ll answer the question you may have: No, he should not start against Tampa Bay. I don’t care what you think of Cory Schneider at this point. Kinkaid had a heavy workload on a road trip where he had a heavy workload in the five games he started in, including tonight. If the Pens only put up 20 shots and 40 attempts with not a lot of chances, then that’s one thing. But the Pens forced Kinkaid to play above his level. While he did that, it would be almost setting him up to fail against the most potent offense in the NHL on Saturday night. If John Hynes is smart, he will not start Kinkaid back-to-back.
The Almost Goat: Ben Lovejoy has avoided a lot of ire around these parts. Mostly because he’s being used more appropriately as a third-pairing defenseman. However, he had one awful sequence that resulted in the third goal against. In a rare bit of offense in the third period, the Devils were able to get all five skaters into Pittsburgh’s end of the rink. Butcher made a pass to Lovejoy in the hopes of continuing the attack. Lovejoy was open, that was the right move. I don’t know if he was attempting a shot or dump-in or whatever. He completely failed and the puck just drifted right to Conor Sheary. Sheary passed it up to Brassard, who passed it across to Kessel. Kessel cut to the high slot and fired a low shot through Lovejoy’s and Kinkaid’s legs. Yes, the man who made the turnover also screened the goalie. And that shot made it 3-3.
Thankfully, Nico hooked up Hall in OT and so Lovejoy’s not quite a goat tonight.
Around the Division: Nobody else in the division played tonight. Pittsburgh did get a point. That must annoy Columbus fans as the point puts the Pens just ahead of the Jackets again. By the way, Columbus is in third place. They’re just one point ahead of Philadelphia, who is now in a wild card spot.
The Devils’ win tonight is huge not just for themselves, but also because Florida lost to Columbus on Thursday. This gives the Devils some relief: three points ahead of Florida. Not a lot of safety. The Cats have two games in hand and still have a superior ROW count. This makes the main goal for the Devils a simple one: stay ahead of Florida in the standings. Should the Cats start to falter and the Devils take care of business at home, then this is possible. If Philly slips, they may come into play. But they’re four points ahead of the Devils with a better ROW count - and the Devils only have the one game in hand on them. Regardless, the goal is to stay ahead of Florida. This win helps big-time with that. A win tomorrow would help too, but that will be super-hard given that the Devils played tonight and Tampa Bay did not. (Florida has Arizona, who has been surprisingly good lately, so maybe Arizona will do NJ a solid tomorrow.)
By the way, the Devils end the Most Difficult Road Trip of the season with a 4-2-0 record. But because Columbus got so hot, Philly stopped failing so hard recently, and Florida kept on winning, the Devils really didn’t secure anything despite winning a majority of the tough road games on this trip. So it goes in the 2017-18 season.
One Final Thought: Michael Grabner, please learn a move you can use on breakaways. Please do not miss the net either - even if the bounce off the glass went off the top of the net and bounced off Murray’s glove and stayed just outside of the goal. On target, please.
Your Take: The Devils won 4-3 in OT with a beautiful play that almost commands this song to be played alongside of it. Now comes the hard part: trying to succeed again tomorrow against Tampa Bay. It would be great if the Devils can get a lead and not have it erased. But the Devils won. Nico and Hall put together a fantastic play in OT to do it. They beat the Penguins. I’m still hyped about the OT winner. Please let me know what you think about this game - and what in the world the team can do tomorrow to get something out of the Tampa Bay game - in the comments.
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.
Now watch the glorious game-winner again: