Folks, it’s August. We’re officially in the hockey desert. Save for a few RFA deals to work out, there isn’t much to report on here in Devil-land. Barring a big surprise, things are likely to be pretty quiet until around training camp. Plus, with the Devils making minimal roster changes this offseason, we’ve already dug pretty deep into what the lineup might look like next season. The last three weeks, I’ve written either directly or tangentially about which line Travis Zajac will be centering and, well, that’s probably enough of that for now. So for the next month, unless something major comes up, I’m going to stroll down memory lane with some of my favorite games from the past season.
First up, let’s head back to the start of February for a game against the Flyers, when the Devils were trying to rebound after nose-diving into the All-Star Break at the end of January.
As you may remember, the Devils had an utterly dreadful month of January. Stepping it back to a few days before the start of the month, the Devils were a first place team, riding high on a five-game win streak to cap a stunningly good first three months of the season. The team was 22-9-5 going into December 29th, the third-best record of any team through that point. What would follow is about at disastrous a 4-week stretch as you will see in the NHL. The Devils went 2-7-3 over their next 12 games and entered the All-Star Break with the league’s 18th-best record, a banged up Taylor Hall, and an injured starting goaltender.
Everything went against the Devils that month. Untimely injuries, bad bounces, mind-numbing goal reviews, and slumps abounded. If the Devils didn’t find a way to start winning games coming out of the break, the season was on the verge of total collapse. Luckily for New Jersey, their first post-break game was against the hapless Buffalo Sabres, and the Devils sank their gimme putt to put a win on the board in the last game of January. The next game would be much more of a test, though. The Flyers, just two points behind the Devils after being 11 points back just a month earlier were coming to town and could leapfrog the Devils in the standings with a win. The Devils were a team desperately trying to stop the bleeding and, entering a stretch run packed with divisional games, they had to start beating rivals to do that.
The game that would follow on this night was a vintage Devils-Flyers contest. It would be a game filled with goals, plot twists, and more than enough venom to go around. It was also Pride Night at the Rock, and the Devils would send their fans home appropriately proud. The first period was one of the more wild ones in a season full of wild periods for New Jersey. There would be four goals, all on the power play, and 36 minutes of penalties between the two teams (four fighting majors and another eight minor penalties). Radko Gudas would build on his ignoble resume of questionable and down-right dirty plays with an (“accidental,” to hear some apologists tell it) flying cross-check to the face of Kyle Palmieri. Then Radko Gudas would absorb about a dozen punches right in his grill as deserved payment, but we’ll get to that in more detail momentarily.
The period started excitingly enough, with each team capitalizing on the other’s mistakes with power play goals. The Devils would strike first as Kyle Palmieri would unload a rocket of a one-timer, as he is wont to do, on a nice setup by Hall and Pavel Zacha. The Flyers would answer with a Claude Giroux goal shortly after as the Devils took back-to-back penalties to create a 5-on-3 situation. Then, at 12:47 of the period, all hell would break loose thanks to Gudas (video below).
Gudas, skating through the middle of the ice, jumped, ostensibly to avoid colliding with a teammate, and in mid air decided the way that he would cushion his landing was by driving the shaft of his stick into the face of Palmieri. Palmieri, due to receiving a flying cross-check to the face, crumbled to the ice. A huge scrum ensued in the aftermath and Damon Severson mixed it up with Brandon Manning to earn himself a fighting major, plus Hall and Jakub Voracek would go off for coincidental roughing minors. The Devils would get a power play out of the chaos from the initial Gudas hit and they would get a rare Drew Stafford goal to go up one. Shortly after Gudas would emerge from the box, Travis Zajac would issue a polite response and earned himself an extra minor which the Flyers would respond on with a Wayne Simmonds goal. The period would close with the teams locked at 2-2.
In a much quieter second period, the Flyers would gain the upper hand on a Shayne Gostisbehere goal and then they would hold that lead until more than halfway through the third. Heading into the third period down two goals, the Devils needed a big third period effort to get a victory, and that is what they would get. The Devils would push for the equalizer, putting up 11 of the first 14 attempts of the period and they would be rewarded, when Severson (who had a nice night himself and 2/3rds of a Gordie Howe Hat Trick) snuck into the slot and buried a beautiful feed from Zacha to tie it. Then, with the game looking like it might be headed to overtime, Blake Coleman and Nico Hischier connected on the rush for a tip-in goal to give the Devils the upper hand and, ultimately, the victory.
The NHL recap video conveniently whitewashes out the chaos of the Gudas hit and its aftermath, but watch here for all the goals, including Severson’s equalizer and Nico’s winner:
The Signature Moment(s)
Travis Zajac was having an absolutely dreadful year prior to this game. He missed the first 20 games of the season with a pectoral injury, probably rushed his return, and looked, frankly, pretty awful for his first couple of months back on the ice. He had seven points in 32 games, bad possession numbers, and save for a short blip of production around the New Year, looked like he could be just about cooked. He entered the Flyers game without a point in his previous eight contests and perhaps, if only for convenient narrative purposes, turned his season around with burst of rage triggered by trash-can-on-skates Radko Gudas.
The Gudas hit seemed to shake something loose for Zajac, and as retribution for his dirty play on Palmieri, Travis unloaded 32 games worth of frustration via punches to Gudas’ big, dumb head. We’ve seen a lot of Travis Zajac hockey over the years and boy, I cannot remember a time seeing him this mad. The long time Devil channeled his anger into many punches, with a stretch of at least 10 in 5 seconds by my count. I’m not a big proponent of fighting in general, at least not of the staged variety, but this was a fight I can throw my hat behind. It’s only so often you get to see a player like Gudas catch a well-deserved beating, and Zajac gifted it to everyone here. Even when the Devils ended up giving back a goal on the extra minor Zajac got (I suspect for the extra punch to the dome he tossed after the takedown), there was little grumbling. The Devils, and Zajac himself, needed to let loose some frustration and rally around one another and I’m going to say this was a nice team-building moment. The team continued their roller coaster for a while, but overall would see much more successful months of February and March to close their season. And Zajac would score almost three times as many points in his final 30 games as he did in the opening 32.
Nico Goes to the Dirty Areas
Meanwhile, in actual gameplay, the Devils had an important game to win, and with under two minutes left in the third, their rookie first overall pick would get himself one of those greasy goals everyone likes to talk about. Blake Coleman, ever present, particularly in the season’s second half, set this play up on the rush and Nico finished it off to secure the victory. Coleman collected an outlet pass from Ben Lovejoy and got going as Nico hopped on the ice. He then delivered a puck to the low slot hoping that Hischier could beat his man and get on the other end of it. That’s exactly what Hischier did, as he outmuscled the larger Robert Hagg to tip the puck through Alex Lyon for the win.
People often noted that Nico Hischier got knocked around quite a bit this season, but that never stopped him from mixing it up on the boards or in front of the net. He’s a skilled player, obviously, but he is also pretty fearless as well and often willing to physically challenge players who outweigh him. He would end up with his butt on the ice sometimes, sure, but he also won more than his share of battles, too, and this was an example of a huge won battle for both him and the team. And it was a nice cap to one of my favorite Devils games of this past season.
So this was a nice trip down memory lane, and I’m excited to do a few more of these from this past season, the most fun Devils season in over half a decade. What are your memories from this game? Were you at the arena for it? Is your assessment of the game similar to mine and did anything else stand out to you about it? Did you enjoy the beating Travis Zajac delivered to Radko Gudas as much as I did? Also, do you have any other games you want me to rewind from this past season? I already have a few in mind, but I am also open to some suggestions. Leave your thoughts below and thanks for reading.