In Sunday’s post, I showed that the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils clinched the playoffs in a season played out in Eastside Hockey Manager. On Tuesday, I revealed that the team prevailed over Our Hated Rivals in a five-game series. Their reward was a second round match-up against the first seed in the East and a team that has done well against the Devils in this EHM season: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They have two very good goalies. They have Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, and Jake Guentzel. Kris Letang leads the D, which got a big boost from Mike Green prior to the 2020 Trade Deadline. They are not nearly as aggressive and undisciplined as Our Hated Rivals. This would be a tough match up for the team put together by GM Sherman Abrams with the support of the People Who Matter. Such as alslammerz, OfManNotMachine, norton-nemesis, EliasStillRocks, and smelph who all commented in the previous post in this series. This post is about the second round. We shall see how the Devils did.
Round 2, Game 1 - Welcome to the Paint Can
PPG Paints Arena. I guess they call it the Paint Can? Such are the thoughts you think when you wait for the second round series schedule to come out. In the world of EHM, the NHL lets you know on the evening before the first game. This was on April 27. The only news and moves of note are the following:
- Mackenzie Blackwood returned to a light practice of April 26. So he would miss the first few games of this series, which is expected.
- Binghamton did not make the playoffs weeks ago, so Abrams called up some players for extra coverage. With no roster limit in the playoffs and the B-Devils being idle, why not? Daniel Sprong and Brendan Gaunce, whom were acquired by Abrams, were brought up as additional coverage. They joined Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist as scratches for Game 1 as Abrams opted to start this series with the roster that won Game 5 in the first round.
Shortly after the game began, the Devils got a gift. Evgeni Malkin took a needless hooking call just over a minute in. Unfortunately, they learned that Matt Murray is at least five times better than Igor Shestyorkin. They also learned that the Pens would put up a bit more of a fight. That said, the Devils would break through. A hooking call on Andrew Agozzino in the first period led to the second PP unit getting a chance. Travis Zajac won an offensive draw, the Devils maintain control, Phil Kessel fired a shot from distance, Murray stopped that, and Nikita Gusev pounced on the rebound and put it home. The Goose opened the scoring for the series. Oddly, the Pens faithful were not deterred.
The second period hit the Devils hard like a smack to the face. Forty-seven seconds, Dominik Kahun beat Jake Oettinger with helpers from Dominik Simon and Malkin. Twenty-four seconds after that, Kahun scored again with the same players assisting him in that order. Despite the territorial adventage, the Devils were down 1-2 and the fans enjoyed Murray shutting down just about everything. Oettinger rebounded well from the two quick scores, but he was not going to score. The high powered offense by the 2019-20 Devils was getting denied throughout the second. In the third period, it was more of the same. Until there were about six minutes left. Miles Wood made a pass out of his zone to Kyle Palmieri and headed off the ice. One quick give-and-go with Jack Hughes and Palmieri caught Jack Johnson flat-footed. As the winger pushed forward, Hughes trailed back far enough from Chad Ruhwedel. From the goal line, Palmieri made an amazing pass across the slot and Hughes put it top shelf behind Murray. It was 2-2. Now the Pens faithful were deterred and nervous. The Pens held on to force overtime.
The thing about overtime in the playoffs is that you have to play your regular lines as it is like a regular period, except that the next goal won. Nathan Bastian did not make a good dump in and the Penguins recovered. Their third line pushed forward on a breakout and a miscommunication led to Brandon Tanev tossing a pass to Zach Aston-Reese across the slot. Aston-Reese one-timed it home on a shot Oettinger had no chance on. The Paint Can erupted in elation. The Devils could only hang their heads in disappointment. The Penguins took Game 1. The Devils lost 2-3.
The Devils indeed out-shot the lights out of Pittsburgh. 43-25 is astounding. They dominated at the dots and won plenty of board battles. This was a classic example of the process being quite good despite the result.
Adding to that: the Devils took zero penalties. Another area where the Devils were great. They even punished Pittsburgh for one of their three minor penalties. Alas, it was not enough.
The player ratings indicate that most of the Devils had good games. The Devils’ third line and third pairing did not. Pavel Zacha had another poor night. It is not a surprise to see Murray with a ‘9’ given how much rubber he saw. I am surprised he was not named a star of the game. I suppose the only double-goal scorer of the game is a fair choice for #1. But that line literally had less than a minute of success against New Jersey. Murray posting up an excellent performance right away is enough to be concerned about the rest of this series would go. Murray averaged a 7.9 and posted a 92.1% save percentage in the season. Surely, he would not go cold, would he?
Round 2, Game 2 - Trying for an Equalizer
The Devils needed to tie up the series. Going back to the Rock down two games in the series would make for a very tough hill to climb. If they could come away from Pittsburgh with a win, then the series effectively becomes a best-of-five with the next two games in Newark. Trying to beat Murray would be easier said than done. So Abrams did something else. He took out Zacha and put in Jesper Boqvist. He had low hopes but a mediocre night from Boqvist would be an improvement.
The Devils as a team would be put behind early on. Rust snuck in from behind the Devils defensive efforts - Crosby drew the coverage - and John Marino found him open in front. Rust finished the play to make it 0-1 early on. About six minutes later, Kahun snuck in a short-side one-timer past Oettinger’s left skate to make it 0-2. The Devils were struggling to get much on net, much less make Murray sweat. Was this how things were going to go?
John Hynes had other ideas. I think. The Devils largely shot from Murray’s left in the first period. They shifted their attack to the other side and more centrally. All of the sudden as the second started, this made a difference. The Devils started getting more going. After six minutes and twenty seconds passed, Palmieri found Gusev open by the benches. The pass was on target and Gusev had the space to leave Marino in the dust. The Goose broke away and finished the rush with the Devils’ first goal. 1-2. About five minutes later, Jack Hughes took an offensive zone faceoff with P.K. Subban behind him. Hughes won the draw right to him and Subban hammered the loose puck as it came to him. The shot went off the left post and in past Murray. It’s now 2-2 and the Penguins fans started murmuring more than cheering.
They resumed their good cheering in a few minutes. After Malkin and Nico Hischier took matching minors for roughing, the Penguins dominated the 4-on-4 situation. Letang and Crosby passed it off diagonially to each other a few times before Crosby found a bit of space. He fired it to the far top corner and scored. It was 2-3 again. Would the Devils be able to respond? From an unlikely source, yes. The third line took to the ice after the game returned to 5-on-5. Bastian played it across into the zone for Blake Coleman. Coleman found Jesper Boqvist in the high slot. Before Malkin could get to him, Boqvist took a one-timer as hard as any one could in that moment. The shot went beneath Murray like a laser. It was 3-3 and the Pens fans returned to their nervousness. They were right to do so. A few minutes after that, Murray froze a long dump-in. Hughes took the draw with Damon Severson in the same spot where Subban was earlier in the period. The same play just about happened. Faceoff win to one-timer blast to a goal. This time, the Devils were now up 4-3.
This was no time to relax. Unlike Game 1, the Penguins hung with the Devils on the shot chart. Oettinger had to be good. The defense needed to be supportive. They both were. Both to close out the four-goal second period by New Jersey and throughout the third period. They would benefit from just one more goal. After plenty of close calls on either side, there was a breakthrough. Derek Forbort denied a long clearing attempt and passed it across to Sami Vatanen. Vatanen fired a quick pass to Gusev at the wing. Gusev charged in and saw Phil Kessel crashing the net. The Goose fired a great pass across and Kessel slammed it in. With just under five minutes left, the Devils were up 5-3. The Pens fans were stunned. There would be no late comeback - and there was none. The Devils got their series equalizer in winning Game 2. The series was now even heading back to New Jersey.
The Devils had a monstrous second period comeback. Four goals on Murray was a stunning and welcome development. I would not go as far as to say the Devils solved him, but he was not the same stalwart from Game 1. Note that there were no power play goals in this game. Both teams took few penalties and neither were punished. Both teams were also better about getting shots on target; the Devils led again, but only 35-30, not as dominant as 43-25.
The Devils did have two first period power plays they did not convert on. That added to the sting of that two-goal against period. The Devils rose above it. The only penalty situation that contributed to the scoring were the matching minors for Hischier and Malkin. Crosby and his crew controlled and scored an important goal off of that.
While the Penguins scored in the 4-on-4 situation, it was a rare bad game for Malkin. Murray was pedestrian and half of the Penguins defense had ratings of five or six. On the opposite end, the only Devil to not post a seven or better was Travis Zajac. Which is fine since he is the fourth line center. Boqvist had a very good game. Hughes and Subban were fantastic. The Goose has been the top bird in this series. There was much to be happy about as the team would return to Newark.
They would get one more piece of good news on May 1, the day after Game 2:
Mackenzie Blackwood was healthy again. Given that he came back on the day of the team’s practice session before Game 3, Abrams figured he would go right back in. There were concerns among the Devils fans about whether the Devils would go right back to Blackwood. Oettinger has done well so far in his absence. Would it be the right call to go right back to Blackwood coming off a groin strain in what could be an important game? Abrams looked at the schedule and said, “Yes.” Games 3 and 4 would be back-to-back at the Rock for the weekend. Blackwood and Oettinger would each get a start. And so he put Blackwood in for the next game. (What about Schneider? He’s kept on the NJ roster since Binghamton has long been done.)
Round 2, Game 3 - Choo! Choo! Wayne Train! Choo! Choo!
The Rock was electric. Unlike Round 1, there was much more red and black to surround the few pockets of fans clad in black and yellow. But those pockets of visiting fans got to cheer first. Early in the first period, Vatanen was called for a slash. Just before a minute into that penalty, Jake Guentzel, Crosby, and Rust pounded the net on a breakout. Blackwood denied Crosby, but Guentzel was right on his door step to put in the rebound. It was a 0-1 start. Not ideal for New Jersey. It was fuel for those questioning the decision to go to Blackwood. The Devils would have a response that would please the fans about three and a half minutes later. After an offensive faceoff win by Hughes, Forbort sent the puck across to Severson, who passed it to Hall, who sent it back. On the third pass to Hall, he worked over Marino, got in front of him, and roofed a shot to the top left corner to make the fans happy and tie up the game. The M-V-P chants emerged in response and was repeated throughout the game. The Pens were limited to few shots in the first and Blackwood stopped them to keep the game at 1-1.
The Devils kept working over the Penguins in the second period. Just before the four-minute mark, Wood broke down the wing and skated quickly. Wayne Simmonds was trailing, but Wood knew where he would be. He fired a pass to Simmonds and Letang was in the area. Letang threw a hit on Simmonds. Simmonds was knocked off the puck briefly, but quickly recovered - and found himself behind Letang. He saw Zajac streak into the high slot. Simmonds made the pass, and Zajac fired it high past Murray to make it 2-1. About four minutes after that, Subban dumped the puck in and most of the Devils went for a change. Simmonds did not. His job was to forecheck to keep the Pens honest. Brian Dumoulin retrieved the puck behind the net. Like a train, Simmonds went right for him. Dumoulin panicked, dropped the puck behind the net to no one, and Simmonds picked it up. He had Zajac and Wood wide open in front. He passed it to Zajac and Zajac roofed his second of the game to make it 3-1. The crowd loved it. He did not score, but the fans popped big for the Wayne Train getting announced for his second primary assist of the game.
Unfortunately, the Penguins would cut the lead down to one and make the fans nervous in the second period. A dump-in by Pittsburgh eluded Subban and the forwards were not in a good position as they expected Subban to win the puck and move it forward. The puck rimmed around to Rust, who passed it to Kahun for a shot from the center point. Blackwood stopped it but the rebound went right to Malkin. Malkin did not miss and it was 3-2. The Devils fans have seen this story all season long. Would they avoid blowing this lead in a crucial playoff game? Sure, they closed out the second period up 3-2, but the Penguins only needed one shot in the third to get in and force a stomach-wrenching overtime.
Yes, they would. And the one to ensure it was someone the fans did expect: Taylor Hall. Despite their situation, the Penguins lost their discipline for the first time this series. Early in the third, Dumoulin gets a slashing minor. That is killed and shortly thereafter, Nick Bjugstad took a cross-checking call. That is killed. Not long after that, Rust takes a cross-checking minor. During that power play, Hall passed the puck across to Kessel on a rush. Kessel made a short pass to Zajac, who was denied on a close one-timer. Rather than take a shot off the rebound, he saw Hall open on the other side of the net. He banked a pass off the end board to Hall. Hall came out from around the post and roofed in a shortside shot past Murray, one-on-one. The Devils converted that power play and had a two-goal lead. The MVP chants roared on and the Penguins looked stunned. Coleman took a minor for hooking, but their power play did not generate much. They could not get much going at all. The Devils cruised to a 4-2 win to take Game 3 and a 2-1 lead in the series.
The Devils’ offense returned to shooting a lot and keeping the opposition from doing much in response. In this game, it resulted in a win. 19 shots against Blackwood is a good amount for a goalie returning after an injury. They do not represent whether those 19 were challenging, but he was not shelled. Murray, on the other hand, got shelled. The Devils were the better team in general on the ice, whether it was taking draws, playing along the boards, making passes, or taking calls.
The third period calls hurt the Penguins a lot more than they may care to admit. While one was in the final minute and they killed the first two, that is about seven minutes of regulation where they really could not go forward and attack. Taking three of them within the first ten minutes of the period while only down a goal was akin to playing with fire. Hall burned them and their one-goal deficit became a much more grave two-goal deficit.
It was not so much that the goalies were bad. Both were fine. But the Devils’ skaters had a better night in general. Zajac had one of his best games ever with a three point effort and excellent work on the fourth line. The train whistle for the third star of the game got another pop as the fans chanted for the Wayne Train. Hall showed why he is likely the MVP. Pittsburgh’s top two lines had good games, but the Devils’ first and fourth lines had a great one and the second line had a good one.
Round 2, Game 4 - Back to Back at the Rock
Game 3 was on May 2. Game 4 was on May 3. Abrams looked at the roster and assessed everyone’s fatigue. He also saw the third line not have such a great time. They were not bad but they were also not all that good. He did not want to take out Boqvist so quickly after Game 2. He did not want to take out Coleman and upset the penalty killing units. (By the way, without Zacha, Abrams put Hall in his place because his defensive attributes, believe it or not, are among the better ones among the forwards. Zacha’s are not. This EHM database is unaware of the might of Zacha on a PK in real life. Oh well.) So he decided to do something Abrams did down the stretch. He took out a winger - Bastian - and put in Ty Smith. The young defenseman had plenty of good games. He could provide a different look - and further limit Andy Greene’s usage - in this back-to-back set. Lastly, Abrams put in Oettinger for Blackwood. It was a back-to-back; no need to risk Blackwood’s groin any further. Pittsburgh countered that with Tristan Jarry. Jarry had an average rating of 7.92 and a save percentage of 91.9% in 24 games. This backup would not be second rate based on his season’s stats.
The Devils made him look second-rate anyway. The Devils took to the ice and attacked right away. It was enough for Crosby to cross-check Zajac down early on because Crosby just had to deny the might of Zajac. Less than twenty seconds later, the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey finished a pass from Hall for a one-timer goal that torched Jarry and made the Rock jump up in glee. 1-0. Past the halfway mark through the first period, Wood stole a puck from Erik Gudbranson at the New Jersey blueline. He chjarged forward, sent it across to Zajac, who made a short pass to Simmonds in the slot, and as Jarry squared up to him, Simmonds sent it down to Wood, who beat a sliding Jarry. 2-0. About five minutes after that, it was the closing seconds of a power play for New Jersey (Simon took a roughing minor). The Devils maintained the zone after Simon left the box. Kessel sent a puck down behind the net. Gusev won the battle with Gudbranson for it and found Zajac open on Jarry’s doorstep. 3-0. The Devils were up big-time. Jarry looked bad and the Penguins were frustrated. New Jersey fans all around the world were loving it.
Until they did not. Dread re-entered their minds in the second period. Wood took a cross-checking penalty early in the second period. The penalty kill went well. But a defensive zone faceoff after the PK was lost. A shot was taken but it missed. But Pittsburgh recovered and Marcus Pettersson found Alex Galchenyuk open to Oettinger’s left. The Pens made it 3-1. A few minutes later, during a Devils power play, Crosby cleared the puck by rimming it around to the other end of the rink. Somehow, Malkin got ahead of all of the Devils to retrieve the rim and had a breakaway. He scored a shorthanded goal. 3-2. Heart rates were increased. Sweat formed on palms. The Devils were at risk of blowing a great first period.
Fortunately, that risk was not realized. The Devils settled down in the next few minutes and went back to work. A bit after an offensive zone faceoff win, Kessel got to the puck behind the net. He tossed it back to Will Butcher. Butcher passed it to Kessel, who fired a backhander. Jarry got a piece of it but not enough of the puck and it went in to make it 4-2. Sighs of relief were made after the initial cheering of the goal. The Penguins responded with penalties. One after the goal and then more in the third period. This sank the Penguins in the game for good. Simon took a hooking call early in the third. This yielded a power play goal for Gusev, 5-2. Seconds after the goal, Bjugstad took a slashing call. More time for attacking - no goal. Then Gudbranson got stupid. He viciously cross-checked Simmonds down in the slot during the umpteenth offensive movement by the Devils. It was heinous. The refs gave Gudbranson a major penalty and a match penalty for the hit. The fans were irate at Gudbranson for trying to take out Simmonds. But you need much more than a stick to derail the Wayne Train. The Wayne Train was bruised but he was ultimately fine. During that five-minute power play, Palmieri went down his wing and made a pass back to Hughes from the center point. Hughes ripped a shot from distance and it beat Jarry to make it 6-2.
The Devils fans at the arena and around the world were jubiliant. The Penguins fans were in a state of shock. Partially because of Gudbranson’s recklessness, partially because of how terrible Jarry was in the game, and partially because the Penguins went from storming up the standings to take the division and sweeping the Isles to being one game away from elimination.
From a big-picture point of view, this game did not seem close. Those who saw the second period would tell you otherwise. Yet, the Devils controlled the run of play and handled the puck and their business far better than the Penguins. For a team that finished with the conference’s best record, they looked like anything but.
Throughout this series so far, the Penguins largely stayed out of penalty trouble save for the third period in Game 3. This is more like how it was in the first round. Bjugstad took three minors. The Devils punished him for one of them. Simon and Kahun, both on the second line, took a minor each. Even Crosby took a minor - and that one cost the team. Gudbranson was tossed for his cross-check. He would be suspended for Game 5 in Pittsburgh. Still, the Devils took just one penalty and the Penguins took nine. You cannot win many games that way. They did not win this one.
I know I write a ton in these posts, but you may have figured out from the verbiage that Gudbranson was having a horrendous game even before his heinous cross-check on Simmonds. He got a ‘3.’ I have looked at the player ratings of every game in this EHM season and I have never seen a ‘3.’ I’ve seen goalies, such as Jarry in this game, dip to a ‘4’ (he rose up to a ‘5’, which is still bad). A 3 is just abysmal. Those two really brought the Pens down. It did not helpthat much of their forward depth also did not stand out. The Devils, on the other hand, had more great performances. Oettinger was great. The defense except for Subban (who was just OK) was very good. Hall was a stud. Kessel was a stud. The fourth line was great again, with Simmonds leading the way. Only Hischier and Boqvist had OK games. The Devils put together another strong performance and now have the Penguins on the brink of elimination.
Round 2, Game 5 - Elimination Attempt #1
Abrams was pleased with how the Devils did with seven defensemen. However, he was concerned about the fatigue of the wingers. He decided before Game 5 to give Zacha another chance. However, it would not be at center. Abrams slid Coleman to his right wing position, kept Boqvist in the middle, and placed Zacha on the left wing. Despite the difference in attributes, he returned Zacha to the PK so Hall could just be awesome at even strength and the power play. Blackwood returned to being the starter. May 5 awaited for an elimination attempt.
One thing I will say that is just because a series is short, does not mean it was not close. The Devils-Penguins series finished after Tampa Bay-Montreal. While Tampa Bay swept Montreal, the games were 3-0, 1-0, 2-1, and 3-0 with the 3-0 games including an empty netter. They were not easy wins. (They were also dominant performances by Andrei Vasilevskiy) How would this game go after what ended up being a rout in Game 4? More like that. It was a tense affair at the PPG Paints Arena.
It was also filled with whistles. After the Gudbranson hit, the refs were alert to call anything to keep things under control. Early in the first, the Devils struck first thanks again to a minor penalty by Crosby. Crosby cross-check gave way to a situation that ended with Palmieri feeding Hischier in the high slot off a rush for a PPG. The Penguins fans that filled the arena were crushed. They held out hope for a good start. This was not it. And they initially cringed at the thought of the Devils’ offensive machine ramping up. Then Simmonds was given a roughing minor on the next shift. The Pens did not convert that power play but it slowed the Devils down. As did a tripping penalty on Zajac that also yielded a ten-minute misconduct penalty. The Pens did not take advantage with the Devils being down a primary penalty killer for two minutes and eight more without a fourth center. Murray was standing tall when the Devils would fire away at him. There was a reason to hope. The Devils were up just 1-0 after one.
The hope in the arena took a big hit when Guentzel was called for a hook early in the second period. Hughes recovered a cleared puck as the Devils and Pens went for a change. The Pens picked a wrong time to change. Hughes quickly passed it up ice to Hischier. Hischier saw Dumoulin and Marino converge on him and Gusev open on the opposite wing. Hischier threaded a pass through to the Goose, and he one-timed it on Murray’s right flank. It was another PPG and it was 2-0. The Devils were in a good position. The Pens fans at the arena hoped for a break. They would get one. Will Butcher attempted to clear a puck off the glass and out. He missed the glass. Seconds after the delay of game penalty, the Penguins owned the puck and the passes ended up going from Green to Letang to Rust, whereupon he shot it in past Blackwood. The PPG Paints Arena became raucous again. It was 2-1. Hope returned to Pittsburgh. For the Devils, the goal was to get a third one.
They found that to be much more challenging than they thought. Murray was playing like he did in Game 1. He was getting in front of everything and managing his rebounds. The Devils kept trying. They just could not beat him. On the other end, Blackwood was having a very fine night himself. The Devils killed a minor that Forbort took near the end of the second. He was not facing nearly as much rubber as Murray but he was making the saves - which was crucial in a one-goal game.
The third period was a classic example of a low-scoring playoff game. Even when the Devils were rolling, they could not get that extra move or extra second of delay from Murray. The goalie kept making stops. Even a power play was denied. As time ticked off the clock, the Devils were forced to defend more. They were doing a fine job. But the Penguins kept pressing more and more. Again, the Devils kept the Penguins’ shooting to a minimum but they were winning more pucks and clearances. Murray was pulled for a sixth skater. It was all hands on deck, so to speak. Even with the net empty, the Devils opted to be conservative and not risk icing the puck. The Penguins took an icing call with 29 seconds left, Murray returned to the net, and the end was in sight. Hughes won the faceoff and sent it to Butcher. Butcher took a shot and it was stopped. Pittsburgh collected the puck and just marched forward. Crosby was flying down the middle of the ice and he had the puck. Subban had to slow him down by any means. He hooked him down. It was a penalty. A defendable move by the defenseman; letting Crosby walk in alone on a goalie is a Bad Idea. Still, the Devils had 14 seconds to kill. Both Devils and Penguins fans were on the proverbial edges of their seat. This would be pivotal.
Crosby won the draw. The puck went to Letang, across to Green, ten seconds left, D-to-D back to Letang, Letang shot it, seven seconds left, Blackwood stopped it, and the rebound came out to Guentzel in the slot. Guentzel was surrounded by Devils but he had a moment of time to shoot. Five seconds left. He took a snap shot and at the last moment, Vatanen reached to get his stick in front of the shot. The shot was deflected up and sailed over the net! Three seconds. Rust scrambled to collect the loose puck behind the net, two seconds, Vatanen flew in to get in his way, one second, Rust tried to fling the puck around to the front of the net - and it was too late. The buzzer sounded. The Devils survived the last gasp of the Penguins in this game and in this season. The Penguins fans were just crushed to see it all end. The Devils fans around the world were relieved and ecstatic about the team heading to the ECFs. For the second time in this simulated season, the Devils went for handshakes knowing they had more to play.
With the Devils out-shooting the Penguins 40-27 even though the Penguins had one additional power play (albeit with 14 seconds left in the game), it is not a shock that the Penguins kept it close largely because Matt Murray. That said, a 2-1 game is reflective of the goalies playing very well and they did. The Devils definitely pushed the tempo a lot more save for the final few minutes of regulation. Note that all three goals in this game were power play goals. This meant the penalty calls played a significant role.
By the way, the headline photo for this post is Gusev’s goal from this game. He started the scoring for the Devils in this series. He ended it. Honk honk.
Crosby and Guentzel will have all offseason (in EHM) to wonder why they took the minors that they did. I would like to think Hynes is telling Simmonds and Zajac to watch themselves after goals. I do not know what Zajac did or said to get ten on top of two, but it was likely not smart. Again, the Subban hook is defendable as it denied Crosby a path to the goal.
Both goalies were stars of this game and that is appropriate. This was very much a goaltender’s duel. Murray bounced back to his Game 1 form and Blackwood being fantastic bodes well for this playoff run. Nobody was actually bad in this game for either side. Maybe a few did not stand out so much, but most had a good game. I can see more ‘8’s than ‘7’s for New Jersey: Hall, Gusev, Hughes, Hischier, and Palmieri. Only Green and Letang for Pittsburgh.
All series, the Devils out-shot the Penguins and they generally had better performances from their players compared with Pittsburgh’s. Once Murray had more pedestrian outings, the Devils were able to add more goals with their offensive might. That Game 4 decision to put in Jarry was understandable, asking a goalie to go back to back is tough. Yet, it blew up in Pittsburgh’s faces. I’m surprised in retrospect that the AI did not put in Murray after that first period. Oh well.
While the series looks like it was an easy one for New Jersey, there were plenty of tough moments and important turning points. Seeing New Jersey on the brink of blowing leads was tough - and it made getting insurance goals or having the goaltender play excellent that much more important. They will need more of that when they take on Tampa Bay in the third round.
Especially since it is for the Prince of Wales Trophy. The Devils have gone this far. Why not see how far they can go?
Playoff Stats at a Glance
Here are the Devils players’ stats by points after the second round:
This was a huge series for the second line. Gusev had four goals and two assists; Kessel put up two goals and four assists; and Hischier put up a goal and two assists. Both Gusev and Kessel are still rocking average ratings above eight, joining team leading scorer Palmieri, Vatanen, and NHL Offensive Player of the Week of May 5 (yes, for two goals and four assists in four games). The fourth line of Wood, Zajac, and Simmonds were also great with their contributions. Simmonds was a force and set up a bunch of Zajac’s goals. The defense in general is doing well (an understatement for Vatanen and Subban); even Greene is closing in on an average of 7. The third line did have some struggles. Outside of one game, Boqvist has not been that much better than Zacha at center but it is at least better.
Oettinger was quite good in place of Blackwood and again in Game 4. Blackwood came back in Game 3 and performed splendidly in Game 5. After the seasons they had, this is wonderful to see.
A quick peek at the leading playoff scorers shows that the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey is at the top for the moment. I was surprised to see three Devils ahead of Steven Stamkos, who will be leading the offensive effort in the next round. Sure, it is not by much, but it is something. Similarly, the Devils’ top two lines are among the top 25 in scoring plus Zajac. It is weird to not see so many Lightning players in the mix. With the way Vasilevskiy is playing (seriously, three shutouts in the sweep of Montreal), they do not need to score a lot to succeed. Hopefully, the Devils offensive machine will be the one to cool him off.
What’s Next & Your Take
The Eastern Conference Finals is what’s next!
Here is the playoff tree. Winnipeg suffered some major injuries, which led to Colorado just smacking them down. Injuries to Schiefele, Little, Hellebuyck, and Brossiot. They had to go to their third-string goalie and, well, the Avs beat him up in a 9-2 win - perhaps the peak of their series win. Nashville pulled out two overtime winners to take down Calgary. Again, Tampa Bay swept the Atlantic Division leaders on the strength of their amazingly-hot goaltender.
The Devils have actually done well against Tampa Bay in this EHM season. They beat them three out of three games. Two were in overtime and the one that was not was a 6-0 beat down in January. The big concern is that, well, it is still Tampa Bay. Their offensive talent is still incredible even without Shattenkirk (he’s good in this game and he’s out for this series with a fractured ankle) and Palat (he’s done for the playoffs with a fractured shin) and, especially right now, Vasilevskiy is playing out of his mind. He finished the season with an average rating of 7.9 and a 92% save percentage. In the playoffs, he has a 96.1% save percentage and an average rating of 8.75 (second to Ratanen’s ridiculous 8.99 and ahead of Hall’s 8.6). He alone can stop the Devils in his current form. Then again, the Devils just took down Murray and the Penguins in five games. Anything is indeed possible.
This post concluded on May 6 in the game, the playoffs will start on May 12. Maybe Martin Hanzal gets to 100% fitness. Right now, I am not concerned. The third line has not been so hot, but with the fourth line contributing as much as they have and the top two scoring plenty, it is not a huge deal. No one is injured for New Jersey right now so it is up to Abrams - and perhaps even you - as to how to proceed.
I plan on playing the third round on Friday with the results being posted on Saturday evening. If you have any recommendations for what to do with the team, then get it in fast. Should Abrams just make the Zajac line the third line and bump down what is the third line? Should Zacha return to center in place of Boqvist? Should Zacha get Bastian back in, or perhaps sit one of Zacha or Boqvist and go with seven defensemen like Smith? What is your prediction for the Devils in this series? What was your reaction to the series win over Pittsburgh? Please leave your answers and your thoughts and reactions to the Devils winning the second round in EHM in the comments. Thank you for reading.