This week in what will, for now, be the final Devils Game Rewind of this stretch, I will look at the night that Taylor Hall and the Devils rewarded one of the most raucous crowds in the history of the Prudential Center with the first Devils playoff victory since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. The New Jersey Devils, in their history, have won scores of playoff games (137, to be exact). Almost all of them have technically been more meaningful than the first victory of an opening-round series, if we count each game of the 16 required to win a Stanley Cup as progressively more important. This one felt special, though. That feeling was admittedly fleeting, but the game-winning goal in this game felt as exciting in the moment as almost any I can remember in my years of rooting for this team. A look back at the game will remind you that this win very much did not come easy.
The situation heading into this game, being a playoff game, was pretty clear-cut. It was round one and the Devils were down 2-0 to the heavily-favored Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a game the Devils had to have if they wanted any hope of winning the series or at least making the Lightning sweat for it. The term “must win” is perhaps one of the biggest cliches in sports, but if the Devils wanted the games beyond this one to be anything more than window dressing, they pretty much had to take this one.
On top of that, it was also the Devils’ first home playoff game in more than a half of a decade, so a fanbase that had been wallowing in mediocre or downright bad hockey for the better part of the previous five seasons was hoping to see something special. This season, for myself and pretty much any other Devils fans under 35, was a unique experience as a fan of this team. Not since the 1987-88 season when the Devils first broke into the playoffs has there been a comparable scenario for New Jersey’s hockey club. A playoff drought for this team is not something this group, the millenial or subsequent Generation Z Devils fan, was ever exposed to (and lucky for me, it was timed just right for me to get to write about 1000 or so words about the Devils several hundred times over the drought’s duration). And for those who were older, well, the 80s were a pretty long time ago now, so this situation was fairly novel for them as well.
So, the combination of a crucial game within the context of the series and the first home playoff game since the first Obama administration made for a lot of anticipation for this particular home game. Game 3 was a significant one, and the Devils would have to rise to the occasion to meet the moment.
It’s amazing how quickly your mind filters memories down to the really significant moments in situations like like this. This game ended up being a glorious, if fleeting, moment for New Jersey, but it was tense while it was happening. The excitement in the Rock was palpable through the entire game, but this was a hard-won victory against a relentless Tampa team and I spent most of this game with my heart in my throat, and I’d guess most of you will remember the same feelings when we look at how the game progressed.
The first period opened with plenty of action on the ice, but nothing to show on the scoreboard. Tampa, already up 2-0 in the series, tried to seize control of game 3 as well as they pressured the Devils significantly in the first frame. The Lightning put up 12 shots and 19 attempts in that first frame. It wasn’t just them flinging pucks at the net, either, as many of them were good looks. Cory Schneider, in his return to starting duty after replacing Keith Kinkaid in Game 2, stood tall, though. But while Tampa certainly controlled much of the pace in the period the Devils, in a year when they excelled at being effective counter-punchers, created opportunities of their own. This culminated with Taylor Hall beating Andrei Vasilevskiy on the rush, but ringing his shot off the crossbar. Each team would escape the first unscathed, but the Devils would hand the lethal Tampa power play an opportunity in the waning seconds of the period, with Andy Greene going off for a slash.
As the second period opened, the Lightning made the Devils pay very quickly, as Nikita Kucherov, the bane of the Devils’ existence in this series, would find Alex Killorn on the doorstep for the opening goal of the game. The Lightning’s PP puck movement put the Devils’ PK out of sorts and when they lost track of Killorn, Kucherov wasted no time setting him up in the slot. After this goal, the Lightning would surge and put the Devils very much on the ropes. Upon reviewing this game, it flooded back just how dire things felt as the Lightning hammered away on the Devils in the first half of that second period. The Devils were very nearly buried, but Schneider kept the dam from breaking over this 10 minute stretch. When the Lightning got another power play midway through the period, you had to wonder if the Devils could continue to hold up, given how relentless the Tampa PP unit was for the first two-and-a-half games (converting four of five power plays).
The Devils would do more than survive that power play, though, they would turn the tide of the game there. Blake Coleman, one of the breakout stories of the Devils’ regular season, would be the catalyst for that shift. He would have not just one, but two separate scoring opportunities on that kill with the first momentarily looking like it might be the tying goal, before it was revealed that it got tucked in after the net was dislodged. The Devils would build on that effort though, and they would be rewarded when, who else, Taylor Hall blasted home a goal that looked like the release of seven seasons of frustration all in one shot. And the look on his face in the aftermath told very much the same story.
The years he waited to soak up a moment like that are written on his face like a flashing neon sign. The Rock sounds deafening in that moment and it is beautiful. After the initial Hall heroics (he was not done on this night), the game was on at 1-1. Tampa would respond with a surge on a subsequent 4-on-4 but Schneider would again turn them away, then the Devils would bomb away on a power play of their own after that. It would be deja vu at the end of this period, though, as the Devils would again take a penalty and head into the intermission down a man.
Once again, coming out of the locker room on the power play, the Lightning would punish the Devils for giving them a man advantage with a fresh sheet of ice. Kucherov, from a basically identical spot as he did in the second, would again find a wide open teammate, this time Steven Stamkos, who had what felt like an eternity in the left circle, and that teammate would make the Devils pay. Stamkos sent a rocket toward net and it squeezed through Cory Schneider, who I’m sure wished he had this one back. 2-1 Lightning and creeping dread was back.
But as Cory Schneider picked up his team in the first half of this game, the team would respond and do the same for their netminder in the third. The Devils would put up 20 shots in the third period and, spoiler alert, four of them would go in. The Devils would get a power play of their own shortly after the Lightning converted on theirs and would make it a two-man advantage when Tampa was caught with too many men halfway through. A minute-long two-man advantage is something theoretically difficult to screw up, but as someone who has watched the Devils bumble through more than their share of failed 5-on-3s over the past six seasons, it very much did not feel like a sure thing. The Devils would quickly put any fears to bed though, as Will Butcher would fire a laser from the point off a feed from Taylor Hall (strange for him to be involved, I know) to tie the game at two.
The Devils would continue to push as the period went on, but the Lightning would also produce golden opportunities of their own. Massive saves from Schneider and later Will Butcher in a desperation scramble would keep the game tied for New Jersey. It was playoff hockey at its very best: utterly crippling for the mind, body, and soul. With just over seven minutes left in the game, the moment would arrive. Taylor Hall (again, who else?) would streak through the neutral zone into the Tampa end and thread a cross-ice pass to Stefan Noesen on his opposite wing. Noesen would unleash an absolute screamer of a one-timer and find the back of the net; 3-2, Devils. Pandemonium at the Rock.
There was plenty of game left after that, and when Tampa got a power play with under three minutes remaining (the penalty being a trip called on Hall), there was no shortage of dread for what would come next. The Devils would slam the door this time, though, and Blake Coleman would get himself an extremely well-earned empty-netter. Ben Lovejoy would follow with a second empty-netter just a few seconds of game time later, and the that would be that. But it wasn’t quite that, as everyone still had a little time left to get mad at each other. Victor Hedman, building on an unsavory series of events from various Tampa players in this series, speared Nico Hischier during Tampa’s final power play. The Devils, as most people would, took exception to that and it boiled over to a complete scrum toward the end of the game. Brian Boyle would say some probably unpleasant things to Mikhail Sergachev, who had thrown an elbow at Blake Coleman’s head earlier, and all 10 skaters on the ice would be handed misconducts and shown the door. No matter, as the Devils had won their first playoff game in nearly six years and the Rock was as alive as it has ever been.
Noesen Buries the Winner
This goal was an experience, and its the exact kind of moment that keeps you coming back to this dumb sport that makes you want to tear your hair out 90% of the time. Many bigger goals have been scored in New Jersey Devils history, but this was like reaching an oasis after so many years in the desert. If we measure goals by how much of a damn fool I look like while celebrating them, well this one was pretty high on the list, as I was jumping around like an idiot in my living room and riling up the dog until she was jumping around with me.
The buildup is great, as Hall does Hall things, sidestepping an opponent and blowing by him in the neutral zone, before making a perfect pass to tee up Noesen. Noesen, for his part puts absolutely everything behind the shot and just blazes it by Vasilevskiy, who was so difficult to beat in this series. The excitement of the players and the fans completes the moment. Not to mention this face from Noesen:
We know now that the moment was fleeting and the Devils would be unable to solve Tampa in Games 4 and 5. Ultimately, it’s a footnote. But it was still as thrilling a goal for the Devils as there has been in a long time and the game as a whole was as exciting as they come. Hopefully, it’s the taste that keeps these players wanting to come back for more so that maybe sometime in the near future, we’ll have a bigger moment to celebrate. Either way, it was a hell of an evening to be a Devils fan.