Finally, the New Jersey Devils scored three goals against a goaltender since March 13 against Edmonton. That is a streak of eight games with minimal goal production.
Finally, the New Jersey Devils won their first game against a Metropolitan Division team since February 10 when they edged Carolina. That is a streak of seven winless games within their division.
Finally, the New Jersey Devils defeated Our Hated Rivals for the first time this season. After three previous meetings where the Devils disappointed in some way or form against the Rangers. On January 31, they choked in a 3-4 loss. On February 23, the team flopped big time in Manhattan in a 2-5 loss. On March 9, the Devils blew a lead for the first time after holding one for two periods in a 2-4 loss.
Tonight was different. In their final game at the Rock for the 2018-19 season, the Devils and the Rangers in a game that was notably different from period to period. The Devils went up early, they lost the lead, it seemed like they would fail to breakthrough, and then something glorious happened.
Of all players, Drew Stafford nearly lost a puck to Vladimir Namestnikov, he stole the puck back, regained possession, skated in, faked a shot (that was taken), and made a great pass to an activated Connor Carrick to the high slot. Carrick settled the puck and ripped a shot past Henrik Lundqvist’s blocker. With less than five minutes in regulation, the Devils went up 3-2 thanks largely to one of the best individual plays by Stafford in years. The Rock erupted. I was elated. All the Devils would need to do is hold on.
They did just that. The Devils would work to maintain that lead. The Rangers were limited to just two shots on net, both stopped by Mackenzie Blackwood. The best scoring chance on a goalie since that goal was when Miles Wood was robbed of a brilliant fourth goal after he picked up a long lob from Kenny Agostino. And the Devils would get that fourth goal. Joey Anderson slammed in the puck into an empty net after Kenny Agostino’s long-range effort hit the post with authority. The put-back off the iron secured the sweet taste of victory.
It has been a terrible season for the Devils. Between injuries, a lack of talent, a lack of improvement from 2017-18, and coaching, the Devils were often outclassed. They were effectively eliminated from the playoffs months ago. They have been poor in 5-on-5 play. They have been one of the worst road teams in the whole league. They just finished a run of games in March where they went 4-9-2, the second worst record in the NHL in the month. As a result, the Devils have secured a bottom-five finish and are likely to finish 29th. It has been a long season in the proverbial desert. To that end, a win over a rival is like an oasis. Denying them the bragging rights of a season sweep feels good. Just as any win at any time over a hated rival is good. After a season loaded with disappointments, the Devils sent the good fans at the Rock home happy in their final home game of the season. It may not mean much in the bigger picture, but there is value in providing at least getting the last game in the season series over your rivals, one last time to cheer in your building, and one last reason to smile before the 2018-19 season ends. Finally.
The Opposition Opinion: If, for some reason, you want to know what a Rangers fan thinks about this game, then go visit Blueshirt Banter.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Note: I am usually not a fan of breaking a game down period-by-period. I tend to find a larger theme or a more notable play that represents the game. But tonight’s game was interesting because each period was distinctly different.
The First Period or Offense, Offense, Speed, and More Offense: In a game between two playoff-less teams, the Devils and Rangers forgoed the general concepts of defense for the first twenty minutes. The two teams traded shots, rushes up ice, and only a handful of shifts where a team was on offense for more than 20 or 30 seconds. The first period ended with both teams tied in shots at 17-17. Seriously, 34 total shots were counted in a rink not known for counting a lot of shots. It can take two or even a little more than two periods for a Devils game to get to that many shots. The MSG+ broadcast noted that this was the most in a period this season. I believe it.
I would say the Rangers had the better of the run of play as they created many more shots in the slot and near the crease. Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood had to be sharp early and often and he was. The Rangers decided to keep their shots high on Blackwood. That did not work so well; Blackwood’s large frame denied them all. While the Rangers were bombing away early, the Devils eventually caught up in shots and struck first. Connor Carrick set up Miles Wood, who torched Lundqvist with a fantastic wrist shot to open the game’s scoring. Later, the Devils converted the first power play of the game - Tony DeAngelo was caught tripping up Nico Hischier -when Travis Zajac tipped in a Damon Severson shot past Lundqvist. The Rangers were playing from behind, which is preferable.
Unfortunately, the Rangers nearly tied it up late in the period. After a sequence of rushes being traded between the teams, the Devils were caught with four men deep in the zone and the Rangers had the puck. Brett Howden skated up ice in a 3-on-1 counter-attack. He ripped a mid-height shot past Blackwood’s right side to make it 2-1. On the very next shift, Chris Kreider was caught open in front of the net. He took a shot, it hit the post, and the puck fell on the line. Severson cleared it away, but the Rangers celebrated and the ref on the ice signaled a goal. Thankfully, a video review showed that the puck hit off the post and never went fully over the line. Severson’s clearance ensured it would not be a goal. The review was correct, the goal was wiped away, and the Devils held on to end a high-octane, offense-filled first period 2-1.
It would not continue.
The Second Period or Sorry, Vegetarians, the Game Kept Serving Beef: Presumably, both coaching staffs reminded their players that defense would be something to utilize. It took the Devils a couple of minutes and a couple of big saves by Blackwood on wide-open Rangers before they would heed that advice. But the number of attempts, scoring chances, and shots was reduced. After a first period where shots were 17-17, the two teams combined for 17 shots (the Devils led, 10-7). There were bursts of offense here and there. However, the period took a turn for the physical.
The nastiness between the Devils and the Rangers emerged and blew up in the second period. Fighting in hockey is something I personally would not mind if it was banned. However, I do not expect it. Too many fans, too many people, and even the players get into it. The intensity tends to pick up in rivalry games and things kicked off just before the halfway mark of the period. Brendan Lemieux was at the center of the first big scrum, which led to a fight between Nathan Bastian and DeAngelo. Later, after the Rangers scored (more on that in a bit), DeAngelo and Miles Wood had a short-lived fight as Wood fell immediately and ate a whole bunch of punches. Less than a minute later, Blake Coleman collided with Lias Andersson as the puck was in Andersson’s feet. There was no initial call; but Andersson went after Coleman and so they had a fight. And Coleman was given two for interference for the aforementioned hit. The period ended with another scrum involving Carrick and Namestnikov in the center of it. For a game between two teams that have little to play for, they were sure acting like it meant a lot.
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the Rangers scored in the second period to tie up the game. When Lemieux was in that first scrum, he was given a double-minor for roughing. The refs may have erred on that so they found a make up call minutes later when Andy Greene tried and failed to hold up Kreider at the Devils’ blueline. For the first 1:20 of that penalty kill, the Devils put on a masterclass in playing shorthanded. The Devils owned the puck and kept the Rangers from even getting anywhere near the net. Then, the Rangers got one break out going; they gained the zone with a rush up ice; Vinni Letteri took a low shot on net; Blackwood made a save; and Filip Chytil got ahead of Mirco Mueller to get to the rebound and put a low shot in. It is unfortunate. The larger record will show the Devils failed on that kill, but they were just about perfect right up until that one rush. If only Mueller stuck with Chytil. Alas. The game was tied. But it was not over.
The Third Period, or The Devils Stormed the Net and Eventually Won: The Devils slowly but surely took the game over in the third period. In 5-on-5 play in the third, the Devils did not run up a large number of attempts and shots, but they did stay ahead of the Rangers. The difference was larger with other situations included (Example: 21-12 in attempts in all situations, 14-12 in 5-on-5). The dominance was in chances. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils out-chanced the Rangers 9-4 and put up a whopping 7 high-danger chances to the Rangers’ zero. If you add in the Devils’ power play and 5-on-6 play, then the scoring chances were 13-4 in favor of New Jersey and 10-0 in high-danger chances. Blackwood was not bored but Lundqvist had a lot more to sweat about in the third.
The Devils were knocking on the door. After getting away from holding and tossing away Steven Santini in the defensive zone, Howden was caught slashing Santini. On the resulting power play, the Devils put up three shots and Nico Hischier had Lundqvist beaten dead-to-rights - only to hit the right post. After the power play, the Devils kept mounting challenges and were pinning the Rangers back more and more. New York’s responses were fewer and not as challenging. The Devils battled for pucks, they made stops, and they pressed forward. They challenged the False King of New York and eventually succeeded.
They got the breakthrough from an unlikely set of players. The unit was Mueller, Pavel Zacha, McLeod, Stafford, and Carrick. That was not a forward line that did a lot in 5-on-5 play tonight. But it was all good because they provided the difference maker. While the points were handed out to three of them, all five Devils touched the puck and made successful passes on the whole sequence. The breakout of the defensive zone was excellent. Stafford made a good entry pass for McLeod. While Stafford nearly blew it, he salvaged the play and turned it into a great one.
What’s more is that the Devils did not relent after the goal. It would have been easy or even expected that the Rangers would storm back and throw everything plus the kitchen sink at the net. They didn’t. They had two shots on net. None were within the final three minutes of the game. Again, Anderson sealed the game after Agostino impressively hit the post from the neutral zone. The Devils’ ended the game excellently. They did not make a critical error like taking a penalty. They did not coughing up the puck in a dangerous spot and needed luck and Blackwood to bail them out. The Devils took care of their business to cap off a great third period with a win, which was vastly different from a high-event, offensively-charged first period and a physical and nasty second period.
The Best Devils: While Carrick did not exactly dominate in 5-on-5 play, when he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Devils were only out-attempted 12-14 but they did out-shoot the Rangers 10-7. His production more than makes up for it. Carrick set up Wood’s goal and he scored the breakthrough goal in the third. It was Carrick’s first goal as a Devil and his first this season since October 13. Well done, young Carrick.
Stefan Noesen was very close to scoring tonight. He led the Devils with four high-danger chances, seven scoring chances, and seven shots on net in all situations. Yes, Stefan Noesen was someone the Rangers just could not keep from firing away from desirable locations. When he was on the ice, the Devils were attacking, attacking, and attacking some more. Kevin Rooney and Nathan Bastian also had some incredibly good attempt differentials in New Jersey’s favor. They were very good and their line was dominant throughout the game. Noesen was just a big standout; I wish he had scored, but you cannot knock the effort.
I wished Hischier scored instead of hitting the post on the power play in the third period. It would have capped off a great night from him. Hischier drew a penalty the Devils would score on. He was helping push the play forward and get stops on defense. He was effective at that as he has been all season long. If there was something he could have done better at, then it would have been his shooting. He took six attempts and hit the net on one of them. One of the misses was a post; but the others were just misses. To put his six attempts in perspective, only Severson (5 SOG, 7 attempts) and Noesen had (7 out of 9) more tonight. If only he didn’t hit the post.
Severson saved a goal, helped push the play forward, created a power play goal that Zajac tipped in, and did not do anything egregiously bad. That’s a solid effort from #28. Speaking of solid, Zajac was that dude yet again. While his 5-on-5 numbers where nothing to write home about as a whole, he and his line did quite well against the Rangers’ top players of Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Ryan Strome. Zajac also put up three shots on net on top of his tip-in goal. While faceoffs may not mean much in the bigger picture, he was astonishingly great at the dots tonight as Zajac went 17-for-21 tonight.
Lastly and certainly not least, Blackwood was great. It seemed like Blackwood was more human in the 0-4 shutout loss in Detroit. His numbers in March were not great, although that was driven by a horrid nine-goal-against outing in Calgary. Tonight, Blackwood looked more like the goaltender who earned a job way back in the beginning of 2019. The Rangers kept going on high on him and it did not work. He moved very well in the crease. He even handled the puck pretty well. The only shots that beat him were low and I do not think they were soft. Chytil’s put back wasn’t. Howden maybe, but it was a 3-on-1 rush. But Blackwood was as crucial as any other Devil in tonight’s victory, especially in the first period. It is another encouraging sign for the young goaltender as this season comes to a close.
The Worst Devils?: I don’t think any Devil was actively bad. Mueller should’ve kept up with Chytil on that power play goal against. I didn’t think Zacha was that good. But even those two contributed in the game; they made the breakout that led to the game winning goal.
One Last Thought: There was a lot of teeth-gnashing and lamenting that the Devils would win this game and thus ruin the tank. Please. The Devils were sellers at the trade deadline, they have been bad for most of the season, and they earned a measly ten points in fifteen games in March. They dropped all the way down to 29th because of all of this. They’ve been tanking. Yes, they had a chance at 30th but to go down in the standings, the teams below them have to win. While they have more games to play this week than the Devils, the only way the Devils would move down is that the Kings out-earn the Devils by more than one point. This may shock you, but Los Angeles is a really bad team too!
As of this writing, they’re getting rushed down by Calgary. It’s 5-2, I don’t anticipate a Kings come back. So even if the Devils took their fourth loss in four games against Our Hated Rivals and ended their home schedule on another sour note, the Devils would be in the exact same position where they are now: 29th place.
The Devils are in a bottom three position and in a lottery system, an improvement of a few percentage points in for the top three is not anywhere close to a guarantee or a likelihood that they’ll get the desired player. By the way, I’ve only begun to look at the 2019 draft class and I assure you, there’s more than five really good prospects in it. There are multiple players you will be happy with if the Devils drafted them.
So, no, winning this game did not “ruin the tank.” Please do not be salty that the Devils beat the Rangers once this season.
Your Take: That reminds me: the Devils beat the Rangers! I am very pleased with the win. How about you? What did you enjoy most about the win? Which Devil was the best in your eyes? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this victory in the comments.
Thanks to Mike for taking care of the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.