Today, we take a look back at what I think was perhaps my favorite game from last season, one of a number of exciting comebacks the Devils would be involved in over the course of 2017-18. The game was on December 18th, and it was a home tilt against the Anaheim Ducks. This, of course, was the game that featured the return of Adam Henrique to New Jersey after his surprise trade to Anaheim on November 30th for Sami Vatanen. A mid-season tilt with Anaheim isn’t usually the most compelling matchup on the schedule, but coming off the big and surprising trade, the atmosphere was about as emotionally charged as any game this season. And while Henrique and Vatanen were the big stories, another Duck turned Devil in a transaction with much less fanfare would be the one to provide the decisive moment.
Devils fans have started to become accustomed to big time trades since the arrival of Ray Shero as general manager. Many of the team’s best players have been acquired via trade over the past few years, including the reigning NHL MVP, Taylor Hall. This did not make it any less shocking, however, when fan favorite and hero of the 2012 playoff run Adam Henrique was reported to be traded. It’s not that fans had never considered the possibility of Henrique being traded, but the move was not really rumored at all and came with a somewhat stunning abruptness.
If you can recall, Henrique had just hosted his big charity event in Hoboken supporting the Movember foundation, Rico’s Soiree, less than 48 hours before the trade was announced. The event featured fans mingling with many of the Devils players, including the man putting on the event and owner of the most prominent of Devils Movember mustaches, Henrique. Henrique had long been one of the most accessible and outgoing of the Devils players and, along with his past postseason heroics, it made him a definite fan favorite. This event was the embodiment of Henrique’s identity and relationship with the fans New Jersey. At the event Henrique even spoke about the success Devils were starting to cultivate with their team:
“We’re building a real culture here where everyone wants to get better every single day and we’re never satisfied even coming off a big win,” Henrique said.
The news of Henrique being traded arriving just two days later was an understandable shock to everyone involved. On a hockey level, the trade made sense, as the Devils were trading from a position of relative strength and getting a sorely-needed top-four defenseman in the form of Vatanen in return, but it would take some time to process the emotions swirling around the trade.
It would be just three weeks before the Devils and their fans were scheduled to see Henrique back at the Prudential Center again. With the trade still fresh in everyone’s minds, it was sure to be an emotional night. Henrique would be back at the Rock and Vatanen would have his first NHL game versus his former Anaheim teammates. And in a somewhat overlooked fact that would soon be remembered, this was also Stefan Noesen’s first game against the team that had waived him back in January of 2017.
The game itself had a lot of anticipation in the lead-up and it absolutely did not disappoint. Henrique and Vatanen would both find the scoresheet, Henrique would put up one of the best highlight reel goals in the NHL for the year (at the expense of his trade counterpart), and the forgotten Duck turned Devil, Noesen, would have one of his biggest nights in a breakout season.
The game got off to a not-so-great start for New Jersey on the scoreboard, but before that, the fans got a chance to show their appreciation to Henrique for his time in a Devils uniform. With a tribute video from the team and a roar of support from the Prudential Center crowd, it was an emotional moment in the arena. Henrique had been someone who leaned into being a New Jersey Devil both on and off the ice, and it was clear that his efforts were not taken for granted.
After we all canned the waterworks, though, there was a hockey game to be played. As mentioned, it did not start great for New Jersey, and not long after the tribute video was done rolling, the Devils would find themselves in an 0-2 hole. Ryan Getzlaf would get the scoring going on the rush as he squeezed one through Cory Schneider, and then the Ducks would make it 2-0 as Henrique would pick up his first point against his former team. It was technically a second assist, but it was no flukey point for number 14. It was a gorgeous stretch breakout pass by Henrique from his own slot to hit Andrew Cogliano in stride and crate an odd-man rush that Jakob Silfverberg would finish off for the two-goal lead. Advantage Henrique.
So the Devils would hit the first intermission in a two-goal hole, but they would get on the board in the second period. The Devils first goal would be created by, yes, Sami Vatanen on the power play. After the Devils entered the zone, Vatanen would receive a pass back to the point, where Vatanen would find a lane and then blast a puck on net. The puck would get through traffic and tip off Miles Wood’s stick for the Devils opening goal to cut the deficit to 2-1. Advantage Vatanen, maybe? Well, about that.
Not long after the Devils pulled to within 2-1, Henrique would score a ridiculous goal that certainly felt like a bit of a bad omen at the time. Henrique would take a puck in his own end in the waning seconds of a Devils power play, and flip it high in the air as he took off through the neutral zone. His defensive counterpart, Vatanen, would be caught a bit off-guard by the flip, which gave Henrique the opening he needed. Henrique would beat Vatanen to the bouncing puck, power past him into the slot, and lift a perfect backhand into the roof of the net to beat Schneider to make it 3-1 Ducks. Advantage, very much Henrique.
The Devils, though, as they showed so many times in 2017-18, were not about to go down without a fight. Before the end of the second period, they would climb back to within one with a goal by Miles Wood (his second of the period) that found its way through Ryan Miller from a sharp angle. They would enter the third down 3-2 and they would finish the comeback about five minutes in with a snipe from Jesper Bratt on the rush to tie the game at 3-3. The game would remain deadlocked at until the waning minutes of regulation, when the former Duck the Devils had plucked off of waivers the season prior would put his stamp on a game that was defined by the Vatanen-Henrique trade to that point.
The play started innocently enough. Brian Boyle tried to force a puck in on net, but had it partially blocked. Stefan Noesen collected the puck in the high slot with some space to work with. He would get a fluttering shot off that would be saved by Miller, but the rebound would ping right back out to him where he buried it into a yawning net for the 4-3 lead. Noesen scores, the Devils lead for the first time, and it’s pandemonium at the Rock. Advantage... Noesen?
STEFAN NOESEN REVENGE GAME— All About the Jersey (@AATJerseyBlog) December 19, 2017
The Ducks would push to tie it before the end, with Henrique coming close with an opportunity on the doorstep, but the Devils would salt it away with Noesen putting the exclamation point on the victory with an empty netter in the final seconds. The Devils would win a thriller, with Noesen getting the first multi-goal game of his career to seal the victory. It was an exciting night with the big pieces of the surprising trade from three weeks earlier being involved in the drama, but the somewhat forgotten waiver pickup from a year before stealing the game’s biggest moment. Final score 5-3 Devils, and the fans went home very happy. Highlights and link to the recap from the game are below.
Henrique Blows Vatanen’s Doors Off
This goal warrants a little more talk because 1) it was just a really good goal and 2) the context in which it was scored. This was one of the weirdest feeling moments I can remember as a sports fan. Henrique was as ingrained in Devils culture as any current player prior to being traded on November 30th, and the outpouring of support for Henrique by the fans in his return showed just how appreciated he was. So when he scored this goal, there was certainly a swell of pride beneath the surface. That’s our boy. Old habits die hard and all of that. Obviously, though, the fact that was wearing the wrong uniform means him scoring was now an objectively bad thing for the Devils on this night. The fact that he did it primarily at the expense of the player he was just traded just added more layers to the strangeness of the whole moment.
It was a fantastic goal and while Henrique certainly wasn’t without his big moments and pretty goals in New Jersey, this still fell a little like “well where the hell did that come from?” It’s not that Henrique wasn’t capable of those goals — he has a well-documented record of scoring shorthanded goals (which this more-or-less was), some of which are certainly pretty ones — but he probably only has a handful of plays from his 5.5 years in New Jersey that could stack up to the skill showed here. It felt great to see him do something that cool, but with his scorching start up to that point in Anaheim and this goal on top of another beautiful assist on this night, it was fair to wonder if there were heights to his game we had never seen in New Jersey. And with Vatanen getting off to a somewhat slow start for the Devils and being the victim on this particular play, the hmmm factor was through the roof. We now know that Vatanen settled into his role on the Devils and Henrique ultimately produced pretty much at his previous levels, but at the time, there was definitely an element of dread buried in all the other emotions swirling around this goal. In retrospect, it was a footnote, but a fascinating goal to experience all the same.
Noesen Sends His Regards
Being waived is a reality that many players experience in the NHL or any sports league. Very rarely does a player who was waived get to stick it to their old team, though. This is obviously, in part, because a lot of players who end up picked up on waivers aren’t necessarily that good. Guys getting waived are typically NHL/AHL tweeners or players who have no spot on the depth chart. So Stefan Noesen’s subsequent success in New Jersey is already a somewhat uncommon experience. Getting to plant an L on your old team the first time they come into town since waiving you on top of that success seems like an exceedingly rare occurrence.
That’s exactly what Stefan Noesen got to do on this night, though. In a night dominated by the Henrique-Vatanen storyline, Noesen was the one to deliver the game winning goal with four minutes to play. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but it got the job done. Noesen became a workhorse and a reliable everyday player for the Devils this season and this goal is a good embodiment of a guy who always follows the play and gets himself in position to make good things happen for New Jersey. The acquisition of Noesen is not going to float to the top of any lists of the big moves that have turned the Devils around the past few years, but it has certainly paid dividends and should probably get a little more shine for the savvy pickup it was. And the Devils gain on this night was doubly the Ducks loss, and I’m sure that was as sweet for Noesen as it was for anyone else in the arena.
What are your thoughts on this game? How did you feel when Henrique scored his goal? How do you remember reacting when Noesen put the Devils in the lead? Are there other moments you recall from this night that I’m overlooking? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for joining on another trip down memory lane.