The Most Important Game of the Season of the Night was against Our Hated Rivals. The New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers. No matter the circumstance. No matter the standings. No matter the time of the season. A rivalry game like this one always has value. Neither team or fanbase ever wants to lose it. Tonight, the Devils absolutely needed it more if they wanted to move up in the standings or at least move one step closer to securing the playoffs. The Devils got the job done and then some. The Devils buried the Rangers, 5-2.
The score was pretty much one of the few things that flattered the Rangers. The Devils got off to an awesome start. A total break by Henrik Lundqvist flopping out of his net allowed Travis Zajac to stash in a loose puck within the first minute of the game. The Rangers took two non-contact penalties and were punished for both. Taylor Hall slammed in a giveaway by Neal Pionk. Will Butcher fired a fantastic shot from the left point past a great screen by Patrick Maroon and a bewildered Lundqvist. The Devils were up 3-0 just over ten minutes into the game. The Rangers’ response was a whole lot of not much. The Devils were making plays like they were up 3-0 and the Rangers could not get much of anything going. Until the Devils made a mistake of their own.
Late in the first, neutral zone turnover by Pavel Zacha to Filip Chytil allowed Jimmy Vesey to gain the zone. Vesey fired a shot-pass that Ryan Spooner re-directed perfectly past Keith Kinkaid. The game was suddenly 3-1 and drama set in at the Rock. Vesey nearly pulled the Rangers within one with 59 seconds left in the period. He fired a wrister that Kinkaid whiffed on with his glove - only to be denied by the post. The Devils held on to finish the period 3-1, where they largely dominated the run of play. But Spooner’s goal and Vesey’s post-shot were reasons to think the game wasn’t over. This is a rivalry game. Sure, the Rangers have nothing to play for but pride but pride demands not rolling over against the Devils. A 3-1 lead is hardly safe with the Devils anyway - just ask Pittsburgh about it.
Poetic as it seems, the post-shot was a wake up call for New Jersey. The Devils would endure some early pressure and then basically quell the Rangers. As the period went on, the Devils kept attacking more and more and the Rangers, well, did not. The Devils finished the second period out-shooting New York, 20-7. The Devils more than doubled their shot total over the Rangers in the second. More importantly, they increased their lead before the Rangers got a chance to pull within one. Making it sweeted was the fact that both were due to fouls by the Rangers.
The first one came when Ryan Sproul high-sticked Blake Coleman. Seconds into the power play, Hall hooked up Butcher at the right point. Using Mika Zibanejad as a screen, Butcher fired a great wrist shot for his second power play goal of the night. Later in the second, the Devils just killed a minor penalty for Brian Gibbons, Hall got on the ice. He was sprung for a breakaway attempt similar to the one he had against Montreal. Brady Skjei took him down. Of course, the Devils kept on offense for a bit before the whistle blew. A penalty shot was awarded. Hall finished it for his second of the night and to place him just one point behind Kirk Muller and Zach Parise for the single season scoring leaders in franchise history.
Hall was named the First Star of the Game and so had an on-ice interview with Deb Placey. She asked him about the penalty shot and why he went high on Lundqvist. Hall responded that he saw an opening and took it. Tonight, Lundqvist had plenty of openings and the Devils did their best to take advantage.
Up 5-1, you would expect the Devils to take it easy. Nope. The Devils more than kept the Rangers honest all the way to the end of the game. A bad break giving the Rangers a 2-on-1? Sami Vatanen back-checked like a speed demon to break it up before Zibanejad could do anything on it. Trying to keep it in to get some offense going? Stefan Noesen willed one at the blueline by the Rangers bench to make something happening. Butcher wanting an open shot for a hat-trick try? He got it and came pretty close to it by hitting iron through traffic. Neutral zone play? The Devils were often bossing the Rangers; taking their zone exits and turning them back into zone entries, denying entries of the Rangers own, and just moving the puck well through it. Most of the third period, the Devils stuck to their game plan to really control the game - and they did. The 5-1 lead was very safe. It would take a big mistake or a big break for the Rangers to change the score.
Unfortunately, Miles Wood provided that by attempting an outlet pass to the middle of the defensive zone from the sideboards. This is a common play as there is supposed to be somebody there. Wood thought he had a Devil there but instead it went right to Kevin Hayes, who was in front of Kinkaid. Hayes beat him to make it 5-2. The Rangers brought the house on the next shift or so to try to make it 5-3, but the Devils’ collapsing defense only almost collapsed literally. They escaped it. After that, the game was essentially over. The last two minutes were played out, the Devils fans at the Rock cheered a whole lot, and the Devils prevailed.
Still, even with bits of drama, this was one of the best performances in recent months by the Devils. The Devils controlled the game in 5-on-5 play, out-attempting the Rangers 57-42 and out-shooting them 35-21. New Jersey’s power play was fantastic as they went 3-for-4 in both advantages and shots on net. The penalty kill was effective. The two minutes of 4-on-4 play was in New Jersey’s favor. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri were crushing it. Will Butcher was great. Mirco Mueller had a strong game. Ben Lovejoy had a much better game than he did in Montreal. Even Zacha and Wood, who committed costly errors, were not benched and had plenty of good things happening. Keith Kinkaid did not have to be amazing and stop a shelling by the opposition for a change. To put it another way, I struggle to think of anyone on New Jersey who actually had a really bad night. The Devils never really stopped attacking, they didn’t get too loose for too long, and they secured a big win over a rival. The result they needed was earned - and then some.
No, the Devils did not clinch the playoffs tonight. But they smacked down Our Hated Rivals to be right on the edge of achieving it for the first time since 2012. That’s always important and worth celebrating.
The Opposition Opinion: You could check out Blueshirt Banter. Just behave over there if you do. They’re civil here, so don’t be uncivil there.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Around the Division, or No, They Didn’t Clinch Yet Because Teams Aren’t Being Bros: Let us get this out of the way, first. The Devils decisively beat down Our Hated Rivals. They took care of business. During the winning effort, the Devils appeared to be on track to receiving plenty of help. Detroit was beating Columbus, the Isles were up big on Philly, and Nashville was even with Florida. The latter was the crucial game: a Nashville win in regulation would have punched the Devils’ ticket to the postseason. (Aside: The Devils did air the remainder of the third period of that game on the scoreboard and TVs at the Rock for fans to see. Not that it ended like we would have wanted it.)
It nearly all went awry. Detroit stinks as they blew their lead with Columbus, went to overtime, and lost to them. Even with a minor injury, Florida held off the Nashville offense to win 2-1. A controversial goaltender interference call wiped out a last-second equalizer; but even then the Devils needed Florida to gain nothing. The only help the Devils got came from New York City’s less odious hockey team. The Isles nearly botched their lead against Philly to win 5-4 after being up 4-1 earlier in the third period. What does this all mean?
For now, the Devils are currently in the first wild card spot. They have a one point lead on Philly with the same number of ROW (38) and games played (80). To stay ahead of them, well, they need to keep ahead of them in results. They are a point behind Pittsburgh and Columbus; their game against each other on Thursday will decide who gets second. For the Devils to move up to third, will need that game to not go to overtime and hope the loser loses their last game while the Devils win. As for Florida, they’re not dead yet. Their tragic number is now two. Florida can still catch New Jersey or Philadelphia in theory. But the Panthers cannot lose a game in regulation. Nor can they have New Jersey or Philly win a game.
In short: all the Devils have to do is win another game and they are in. The Devils can win on Fan Appreciation Night against Toronto on Thursday to do that. That would be appropriate. Hey fans, thanks for supporting us all season, we’re going to the playoffs. I would appreciate that. A lot more than the lack of other teams being bros and helping the Devils out.
(And if you still believe in teams being bros to the Devils, then cheer for the following on Thursday plus the Devils: a regulation result between Columbus and Pittsburgh, a Carolina regulation win over Philadelphia, and for Boston - who lost big to Tampa Bay tonight - to stomp all over Florida in regulation.)
Earning MVP Chants: Taylor Hall had a four-point night while kicking the Rangers around in 5-on-5 play. Amazingly, the Hischier line did not score. They only just had CF%s and SF%s in the 70s, which is just fantastic. When they were on the ice, they were often swarming it up in the Rangers’ end of the rink. Hall did his damage in special situations. He scored a PPG, he had passes that led to Butcher’s goals, and he had the penalty shot goal. Hall now has 93 points on the season, his point streak remains alive, and he has a chance at surpassing Patrik Elias’ single-season points record of 96. It would take four points against Toronto and Washington combined; but I’m not going to bet against Hall at this rate. He was playing with a real fire inside and Hischier and Palmieri were more than happy to stoke the flames. The goals are highlights, the passes lead to production, and he continues to make all kind of good things happen. Tonight was another reason why he’s getting MVP chants and buzz in the media for the Hart Trophy.
Keep Firing, Young Butcher: Will Butcher attempted five shots, two got through to the target - and into it as they were goals. Butcher has really been an asset on the Devils’ productive first power play unit. It’s not that he’s just picking up cheap assists on plays where Hall and Palmieri are doing a lot of work. Butcher has been keeping pucks in play, making good reads, and executing passes for his teammates to handle. As a result, he’s got loads of assists. Tonight, he got to use something he should use more often: his shot. The screens he used were good ones and the shots were well-placed. Butcher had his first multi-goal game in his NHL career and the points now have him as the leader in points among rookie defensemen with 44. He’s tied for ninth among all rookies per NHL.com.
But tonight was not just about the two PPGs that sent the Rock into elation. No, Butcher had a good game in all three zones. He was handling the puck well from the neutral zone and back. Butcher was not beaten up on defense. He was helping the play go forward as indicated by his 5-on-5 on-ice attempts of 18-16 and shots 11-6. In other words, the Devils had more attempts and shots than the Rangers when he was on the ice. During the power play, the Rangers picked up on the Devils’ drop pass on breakouts so they had their forechecker trail Butcher on a few rushes up ice. I don’t know if someone clued him in, but Butcher didn’t fall for it, kept the puck in himself, and made some entries. This was a smart game from Butcher and another reason why I would not mind him getting a larger role in 2018-19. Word on the street is that CJ may have more to say about Butcher, but this was an excellent game from the rookie rearguard.
Poor Greene: Andy Greene had a good night on defense tonight. I’m just lamenting the fact that he was the only Devil to not register an official shot on net tonight. Out of 44 shots, Greene ended up with one attempt blocked and one missed. Oh well.
To give you an idea of how prolific the offense was, your leaders in total shots on net tonight were Hall and Lovejoy with five each; Pavel Zacha had four (again, other than that turnover, he exerted himself well); and Hischier, Wood, Michael Grabner, Zajac, and John Moore each had three.
Making Them Pay: I’ll give the Rangers this. They were not the worst performing team I’ve seen at the Rock this season. I’d give that to Montreal on March 6 when they just totally mailed it in as they allowed six goals, and Pittsburgh on February 3, where they clearly played hard the previous night and mustered up a whole lot of not much for sixty minutes. That said, the Rangers were bad and the Devils made them suffer a lot.
First, the Rangers were prone to the Devils’ forecheck. While the Rangers weren’t coughing up pucks like, say, the Islanders; they had more than their fair share of lost pucks that allowed the Devils to keep attacking and pin them back. The key was in the neutral zone. Even when the Rangers would get a clear, they would not have control as they would chip it away or try a pass. The Devils did a very good job, even in the third period of a then-5-1 game, to pick these passes off or position themselves such that the Rangers could not get ahead with the puck. As a result, they were able to move pucks forward for more attack time by the Devils. The forecheck applied pressure well and that helped the Devils control this game for the better part of sixty minutes.
Second, you can count on one hand the number of Rangers who threatened to do much. Even then, they were limited. The line of Vesey, Spooner, and Chytil provided problems and a goal. By the end of the game, though, they were run over in the run of play. Kevin Hayes was open a whole lot, not that any of his teammates found him. Chris Kreider had a great chance in the second period that he didn’t finish - and that was that from him. I know the Rangers sold off plenty of talent, but goodness, there wasn’t a lot of guys in white that stood out in a bad way for New Jersey.
Third, Henrik Lundqvist was fighting it tonight. He was conceding big rebounds. He struggled to catch pucks; more than few shots bounced off from his glove. He had issues trying to freeze pucks, which helped him get beat by Hall for a PPG. I’m not even sure what he was trying to do before Zajac scored - leave his crease to deny Zajac? I don’t know. To be fair, the guy did face 44 shots which included four power plays and a penalty shot. But the Rangers have been defined for a decade plus by Lundqvist bailing them out over and over in these runs of play. Lundqvist wasn’t that goalie and the Devils tried their best to test him over and over and over. It did work to a degree; as the Devils’ official Twitter account tweeted out:
Fourth, discipline really dug the grave in for the Rangers. The first penalty was too many men on the ice - and Hall scored. The second penalty was a delay of game on John Gilmour, who cleared a puck over the glass. Butcher scored. The third penalty was shortly after that - the Devils did not do much with that one. In the second period of a 3-1 game where the Rangers could have made it a game, Sproul high-sticked Coleman - and Butcher scored again. Lastly, Skjei fouled Hall on a breakaway to deny him a scoring opportunity. So Hall got one. That’s five fouls yielding four goals. Credit to the Devils’ first power play unit, (Geoff Ward, this includes you) and Hall’s sweet penalty shot for making it happen. But the Rangers could have avoided a lot of this beat down if they were in better control of themselves.
The Devils should be praised for their game plan and how they kept pressuring the Rangers to make them pay. When a weak team comes into your rink and is vulnerable in certain areas, you should try to take advantage. The Devils did that.
The Season Series: The Devils went 3-1-0 against Our Hated Rivals in 2017-18, the Devils are on the edge of making the playoffs, and the Rangers have a chance to pick tenth overall. The Rangers suck.
One Last Thought: The Devils won their first game by more than two goals tonight since March 17, a 3-0 shutout win in Los Angeles. The Devils won their first home game by more than two goals tonight since March 6, the 6-4 win over Montreal. Needless to say, the Devils have prevailed in a lot of tight contests in 2018!
Your Take: The Devils won a rivalry game in a big way tonight. It was a lot of fun to watch with the Devils’ success, the Devils fans being happy, and the Rangers faithful in a state of ennui. I thought it was one of the Devils’ best performances this season. What did you think? How well do you think the Devils played tonight? Who impressed you the most? Which of the five goals was your favorite? What can the Devils learn from this game ahead of their last home game of the regular season against Toronto (other than win it)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
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