Well, we may not get to watch our team in some playoff hockey this year, but leave it to your 2018-19 Devils to drag the last game of the season out right to the very end. As far as the post-season goes the outcome of tonight was effectively meaningless, but this game saw two very frustrated teams battle it out for pride, next year’s roster spots, and the chance for a positive end to the season.
The Devils started the first period with the line of Miles Wood, Travis Zajac, and Joey Anderson up first. Anderson, who is among those who needs a good final showing in tonight’s game to help earn him a spot in the lineup next season, opens the first minute with a scoring try on Florida netminder Roberto Luongo. Immediately off the face-off Wood would follow up with another try, again blocked away. This jump on the offence would set the pace for the opening minutes, and the second line of Blake Coleman, Nico Hischier, and Nathan Bastian would follow up on the established early momentum. Nico Hischier would carry the puck into the zone, through the defense, and make a perfect pass across the slot to Nathan Bastian who wouldn’t miss on the wide-open net. 1-0 Devils in the first two minutes.
The Panthers would respond with some pressure of their own, starting with some offensive zone time gained after Brett Seney’s first touch of an NHL puck results in an icing call against the Devils. Mackenzie Blackwood would be forced to make save after rebound save in a huge sequence from Florida, including several saves without a stick as it was knocked away earlier in the play. The Devils would respond in kind though, this time from the third line of Kenny Agostino, Pavel Zacha, and Drew Stafford. Stafford gets his stick on a slap shot from Agostino up high, but just a little bit too high—a quick call to Toronto, and the goal would be waived off. No high-stucking allowed, apparently.
Florida would gain some momentum from the almost-goal, tilting the ice pretty aggressively for the rest of the first period. Blackwood, however, decided he’s going to single-handedly carry this team into the off-season with a win if he has to and played unbelievably solid despite the severely lopsided scoring chances. The Devils would not register another shot for the entirely of the first period, but Blackwood shut down all 12 shots the Panthers would register on net through the opening 20 minutes.
The second period would start the way the first went— the Devils would exit their zone, move into the offensive zone, and promptly be sent out and be forced to defend another minute before regaining control, rinse and repeat. Egor Yakovlev, back in the lineup for the first time since March 21st, eventually got tired of the pattern and got things started again for the Devils with a simple shot on net, their first in over 20 minutes of play. After forcing Luongo to stay awake on one end, Yakovlev would go back to defend and look utterly unfazed as Troy Brouwer tried to rush in on him 1 on 1, making a quick 200 foot case for a more regular spot for himself in the lineup next season. Another couple Devils would try to make their own case for next season a little better, this time with Kevin Rooney making a great pass to Michael McLeod in front of the net to try and get McLeod his first goal before the seasons end, but Luongo made the save. The momentum continued to even up for the Devils since Yakovlev’s shot, and he would come in and make the most of it on his next shift. He would start the play with a shot from up high, but the tip on it from Hischier wouldn’t go. Coleman’s next shot wouldn’t go either, but Yakovlev makes a great decision to jump in and pick up the deflected puck and put it towards goal, where Nathan Bastian would get tape on it and redirect it for his second goal of the night.
Soon after, the Devils would find themselves on the power play as a result of a delay of game call to Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but couldn’t capitalize on the man advantage. A few minutes later, the Panthers would return to the Devils end, catching Butcher with the moving pick and leaving Santini to defend a partial 2-on-1. He made a solid effort but Aleksandr Barkov would get the quick shot off anyway, beating Blackwood 5-hole to put the Panthers on the board, and put himself in the record book for most points in a season in franchise history (95). Immediately after the goal, Zacha would be collared for a hooking penalty (which was a soft, soft call if you ask me but of course nobody actually did, so he went to the box anyway). The Devils penalty kill showed up as usual and was actually better both offensively and defensively than the power play would be the entire game. Coleman and Zajac start off the kill with a shorthanded 2-on-1, and Coleman would nearly pick up another rush chance a moment after. Both Blackwood and Luongo stop all chances on the penalty kill but the New Jersey Devils penalty killers don’t stop just because the penalty is up! Joey Anderson, on the kill with Kevin Rooney for the second wave, catches Pavel Zacha coming out of the box with a long pass. Zacha would move in alone on former Calder-winning d-man Ekblad, power move around him, pull the puck to his forehand across the crease and away from Ekblad and the reaching Luongo and put it home for his 13th goal of the season, 12th point in the last 14 games, and one solid candidate for goal of the year.
The Panthers would come back mad and try to light a fire under the Devils late in the period, but Blackwood put on a clinic snuffing out shots like he’s Smokey the Bear in net. He seemed determined to get through the second period with the two goal lead once again intact but Damon Severson would take an interference penalty late in the period just to keep everyone on edge. Rooney and Zacha start the kill and take an offensive rush themselves anyway. Evgenii Dadanov would rush back to break it up somewhat too enthusiastically, and he and Rooney would go absolutely crunching into the boards together, but both got back up fine after. Evidently now that the season is over, the Devils are finally safe from the injury bug that cost them a grand total of 361 man-games this season.
Severson’s penalty would drag across to start the third period, and see a good chance from Jonathon Huberdeau and a followup down the other end from Rooney before expiring. Yakovlev would try to set up Hischier again, but the back of the net continued to elude Hischier. The first few minutes of the third period read like a ping pong game, with chances for both but not much developing. Blackwood would be forced to make some tough saves but continued to make it look easy. Ping pong apparently would get a bit boring for the guys, because about halfway through the third period, they decided to make the switch to boxing. Keith Yandle would get the excitement started by slashing Michael McLeod, who may not have made the NHL highlight reel this season but he might make the Oscars highlights with the delayed performance he put on after taking the slash. A man of many talents, the actor/hockey player would proceed to start a mini-brawl but somehow the Devils still came away with the man advantage. Agostino and Stafford worked well together all game and continued to do so on this power play, culminating in a huge rush but Ekblad got back far enough to lift the stick of Stafford and prevent him from getting the shot off. After the power play, McLeod would draw a boarding call from Vince Trochek, then decide to further enhance his resume by adding fighter to the list and drop the gloves with rookie defenseman Josh Brown. I’m not going to tell you how that went, we’ll just say this: McLeod, 6’2”, 185lbs. Brown, 6’5”, 225lbs, with 3 fights in 36 career NHL games. Ouch. On the plus side, the Devils would get another power play out of it from the boarding call to Trochek, but it never really looked like anyone told them they were supposed to be on the advantage there so nothing really materialized and it didn’t last all that long anyway.
The Devils are certainly not a team of guys that are content to let McLeod have all the action, and with Kurtis Gabriel out of the lineup, the Miles Wood we know and love would make an extremely in-character end to the season. He and Denis Malgin rode each other into Blackwood, and Wood would take exception to Malgin’s part in the event and jumped on top of Malgin to start scrum number two. When the dust settled, Malgin would go off for roughing against Blackwood, while Wood would end up going straight to the locker room with penalties for holding, roughing, and a game misconduct. As the penalty to Trocheck hadn’t yet expired when scrum number two started, the teams played 4-on-4 for a few seconds and then the Panthers got a short power play, which saw chances from both teams yet again.
Florida apparently decided to end this season by going down fighting, both metaphorically and physically. Troy Brouwer would kick off scrum number three not two minutes after the last with a deliberate cross-check to Blackwood after the whistle. Will Butcher and Nico Hischier both responded, and everyone else followed suit. Brouwer continued to go after Hischier even after the players had been separated, earning himself a game misconduct on top of the original cross-checking call. Hischier and Butcher were also handed misconduct penalties and joined Wood in the locker room, leaving the Devils resulting power play slightly anemic. Stafford and Agostino would again combine to create some chances, including Stafford forcing Luongo to misplay the puck and creating a huge chance for Kevin Rooney who would just miss. The Panthers, on the following play, would make sure to not miss. Dadanov would beat Greene behind the net then pass across to a cutting Huberdeau, who beat both Santini and Blackwood to make it a one goal game. With less than two minutes remaining in the third period, Florida would pull Luongo, and with the extra man there would be just enough room for the Panthers to force Blackwood to chase across his crease and hit the ice, then find Mike Hoffman open in the high slot. With the top half of the net open, Hoffman ties the game at three with just over a minute left.
The Devils would be forced to go to OT still down three players to the carryover misconduct penalties— everyone’s favorite overtime hero Nico Hischier as well as Wood and Butcher, all of whom have been regulars in overtime this season. Huberdeau and the Panthers must have felt bad about that so they let the Devils start OT on a 1:59 power play, as Huberdeau had the mental lapse of the season and flipped the puck over the glass with less than a second left in the third period. There must have been something in the air at that moment , because then the Devils opted to pull Blackwood... for the 0.8 seconds left in the third period. Blackwood would return to the ice along with Damon Severson, Stafford, Zacha, and Zajac to start overtime. Apparently four is the magic number for the Devils this season because we seem to be better 4-on-5 shorthanded than 5-on-4 on a power play, but a 4-on-3 power play in overtime suited them just fine. The Devils would control the zone and cycle well, peppering Luongo for a minute before Severson would find Zajac in the slot and Zajac would rip it home top-shelf for the game winner.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out Litter Box Cats for their take on tonight’s game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Rookie Reviews: For the young guys that have remained in the lineup since the injured list lightened up a bit, tonight’s game was huge for setting the tone for how they’ll be viewed when they return to battle for a position in the 2019 preseason. Joey Anderson and Nathan Bastian were both given Grade A chances, each slotting in on the top 6. For Anderson, its a role he’s played at least the last few games, but Bastian’s jump up to play next to Hischier was a huge moment for him this season. Slotting in next to your top guys is a true do-or-die moment for the rookie—how well can you produce with linemates a la Hischier and Blake Coleman? Can you hang with the big boys? Bastian rose to the occasion way better than I ever expected him to by scoring twice and maintaining one of the better Corsis on the team in a pretty skewed-shooting game.
Anderson, to his credit, gets put up against some tough guns when lining up next to Travis Zajac so its not surprising that his entire line struggled, but Anderson took the worst of it by far. He was only able to record one shot, which may actually have been the first shot of the game. He spent most of the rest of his time on the ice penned in his own zone without much to show for his efforts. He likely won’t be matched up against other teams’ top lines if he makes the lineup next season so he should fair at least a bit better than he has the last few games, but this definitely wasn’t the taste he wanted to leave this season with.
Brett Seney made a last-minute return to the NHL lineup for one final game this season. He had a pretty quiet night overall, so he might not have made the impact he would have liked in his one-game retry but he also didn’t do poorly. He was involved in plays and a few scuffles but didn’t take a bunch of penalties like he did in his last game with the Devils, so its good to see a little better discipline in his play. He’ll have to rely on a solid performance in the preseason if he wants to make the NHL roster next season.
Pavel Zacha may have been the biggest topic of debate in the Devils community over the last season or two. He’s a hot and cold young player who’s lulls last far longer than anyone would like them to, but when he’s hot, he shows flashes that are nothing short of brilliant. He will likely not be a Hischier, or a Bratt, or a Barzal (do I dare mention that name and Zacha’s in the same paragraph?) but this season he’s proven he can play a 200 foot game and kill penalties and, sometimes, he can pull out lightning-in-a-bottle moves that leave everyone with something else to talk about over the off-season. If he can pull moves like that out a little more consistently next season, he should have no problem proving where and why he belongs in the lineup moving forward.
Egor Yakovlev, Michael McLeod, Kevin Rooney, and possibly Steve Santini and Connor Carrick will all be playing for regular spots at the start of next season as well.
The Lottery’s Last Straw: With a win tonight, the Devils cemented their position for 29th in the league, so they’ll finish off the season with the third best odds to win the first draft position in June. Assuming we don’t get lottery luck two years apart, Colorado and LA will snap up Hughes and Kakko, so it’s time to break out a new slogan and start combing the prospect profiles for who the Devils might take if we go third or fourth, or even later.
Out of Town Update: Before we can get to the draft, the rest of the league has to at least make it through playoffs first. With the results of today’s games, the playoff bracket is now set, and it includes all four of the former Devils scattered throughout the league from this season’s trades. Brian Boyle and the Nashville Predators will be taking on Ben Lovejoy and the Dallas Stars. Marcus Johansson and the Bruins will be playing Toronto, while Keith Kinkaid’s Blue Jackets will have the unenviable task of playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. The rest of the first round match-ups will be Capitals vs. Hurricanes, Islanders vs. Penguins, Sharks vs. Knights, Flames vs. Avalanche, and Jets vs. Blues.
Your Take: The last game of the season is always tough, but the Devils saw us off with a win and there’s going to be a lot to look forward to next season between draft picks, prospects signing, and new top players emerging (or returning!). Who or what are you looking forward to this off-season? Which of the rookies we brought up this season do you want to see in the roster come October? Who are you thinking the Devils will pick in the upcoming draft? Are you watching any other teams in the post-season? Thanks to all of you for making my first season in the AAtJ community a great one no matter how the games went, thanks Chris for doing the preview, and as always, thanks for reading!