The fun in playing any simulation game is to see whether you can achieve a great amount of success. For sports, the goal is to win a championship and build a team to win many of them. This is also true in real life but it does not happen very often. There are many systemic and luck-based reasons why teams do not just become good and stay good for a while. The simulation, if it is a good one, will also make it a challenge to stay successful too. For the last several weeks, I have been re-doing the 2019-20 season for the New Jersey Devils in Eastside Hockey Manager (EHM), one of the best hockey simulators available today. In real life, they fell flat on their faces to start, they never really got back up from it, and now the team has no permanent general manager, no permanent head coach, and several key players have been traded so there is no clear direction other than that the future will be (or should be) built around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. In EHM, the goal was to see if we - me and whatever input you, the People Who Matter, have provided - could make the Devils successful. We have achieved that and soared beyond expectations.
The 2019-20 Devils in EHM not only made the playoffs, but also secured a playoff spot in mid-March and finished second in the Metropolitan Division. They finished with 109 points, which would have been the second highest amount in franchise history had it happen in real life. The initial goal of making the postseason was met. They were not done. The Devils drew Our Hated Rivals in the first round of the playoffs and dispatched them in five games. Already, a cherry was placed on top of the sundae of success; the Devils won a playoff series. They were still not done. A tougher, more talented, and arguably better Pittsburgh Penguins were their opponents in the second round. The Pens sniped the top seed in the Eastern Conference during the stretch run to the end of the season. They boasted great goaltending plus magic from Crosby’s line and a strong defense led by Letang. It was not easy but the Devils’ offensive machine eventually ramped up to roll through Pittsburgh in five games. Add a banana to the sundae as the Devils earned an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were to face Tampa Bay, who like New Jersey, took down their division leader in the second round (Montreal). Unlike New Jersey, Andrei Vasilevskiy was pretty much a wall and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov made any opposition’s defense queasy. The series was a knock-down, dragged-out battle with both teams trading blows. Douse that sundae with sprinkles or jimmies, whichever you prefer. The Devils prevailed in seven games for the right to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Only one team stood in their way: the Nashville Predators.
The Predators had strong goaltending, multiple talents up front, a very good defense, and a lot of close wins. Six of their twelve wins came in overtime, including three in the stunning sweep of Colorado in the Western Conference Finals. The media hyped up the angle of how the Devils almost (but not really) moved to Nashville and now they were facing a team from there. Much was made how the Devils made Murray and Vasilevskiy look more human and questioned whether Saros (or Rinne) would be next. Posts were written about how these weren’t the Devils that killed hockey by haters and losers, of which there are sadly still many, holding onto the past. Tweets and comments were made about whether Oettinger usurped Blackwood’s spot. Devils and Predators fans were amped up as they could be. How could anyone not be? It was the Stanley Cup Finals - a place I did not expect when I started this weeks back with the fictional GM, Sherman Abrams. Let’s get to it. And take your time. This may be one of my longest posts ever.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 1 - Deja Vu
Ahead of the Stanley Cup Finals, Abrams decided to keep the same lineup from the Game 7 win against Tampa Bay. They just won a pivotal game. This meant Oettinger was the starter.
The Rock was jam packed with Devils fans. Many felt like it was in 2012 when Los Angeles visited the Rock for Game 1. Abrams had the team bring out the original presentations from then, only changing Kings to Predators. It was an electric atmosphere through warm-ups, pre-game presentations, and the opening faceoff. However, no one told Nashville to be intimidated. They started past series on the road and this was no different. This was evident when Filip Forsberg torched Damon Severson and passed it to an open Ryan Johansen in the slot for the game’s opening goal. The Devils fans were taken aback but returned to cheering when Austin Watson took his second minor penalty of the game. Seconds after the call, Kyle Palmieri took a feed from Nico Hischier on the rush and beat Juuse Saros with a sick top-shelf shot. 1-1 and the Rock roared in approval. Later in the period, Pavel Zacha took a hooking penalty. Oettinger and the Devils held on until the penalty was nearly over. Matt Duchene won an offensive faceoff back to Mattias Ekholm. Ekholm wound up and ripped a slapshot that beat Oettinger. The Devils fell back down, 1-2, and the first period was over. It was close but the Predators served notice early that they took a few lessons from the Lightning.
Early in the second period, the Predators started to quiet the crowd. Palmieri chipped a puck ahead in the neutral zone and went off for a change. However, Roman Josi took it and as the Devils were changing, saw Viktor Arvidsson open. He dumped it in for Arvidsson to win it. He did behind the net and saw Johansen crash towards the crease. Pass, shot, score, and the Devils went down 1-3. A couple of minutes later, Mikael Granlund went in on a breakaway. Oettinger stopped him. However, Duchene won the offensive zone draw back to Ekholm. Ekholm fired it towards the bodies in the slot. Kyle Turris exerted himself to get the puck in front of Will Butcher. He took a quick moment and fired a hard shot past Oettinger. The Devils were down 1-4 and the fans were stunned at what was happening. Where was the response? Where were the Devils that took down the Lightning, the Penguins, and Our Hated Rivals?
A response did come a little bit after Turris’ goal. The fourth line had a good attacking shift and Wayne Simmonds forced an offensive zone faceoff with a shot. Travis Zajac won the draw back to P.K. Subban for a shot on net. Saros got his arm on it and left a rebound in front. Simmonds being Simmonds was around the net and found the loose puck before Josi did. He slammed the puck in behind Saros and the fans woke up. The PA played a loud train whistle as the Wayne Train brought the Devils within two, 2-4. A little bit after that, the third line made an impact. Sami Vatanen played Nathan Bastian forward during a line change for both sides. Bastian passed it across to Blake Coleman, who gave it back to Bastian. The rookie winger one-timed the return pass and beat a stretched out Saros. The crowd went even more electric. Bastian brought the Devils within one with over half of the game remaining. It was 3-4. The Devils have came back from three goal deficits in the season and in the playoffs. Fans worldwide wondered who would provide the equalizer. Palmieri? Hall? Hughes? Hischier? Simmonds? Zacha? Anyone else?
The answer, provided by Juuse Saros, was no one. The Devils attacked but could not find a fourth goal. Not when Watson took his third minor penalty of the game near the end of the second period. Not in the third period after intermission. Not even when Turris took a slashing call with less than seven minutes left that also earned him a misconduct. Not even when Oettinger was pulled. The Devils put plenty of rubber on Saros, but he stood tall after Bastian’s goal. The Predators attacked plenty of times to keep the Devils honest, but they did not need to score. The win would be theirs if they held on and they did. As time ticked down, the mood in the arena was more of disappointment rather than unhappiness. It was similar to Game 1 back in 2012. The Devils lost Game 1, 3-4.
The Predators won by one, but they managed to hang with the Devils in some respects. They were nearly even in shots and blocked shots. They each got a power play goal. In others, they were superior. The Predators won more board battles, more faceoffs - which led to plenty of the scoring in this game, and they made over 90% of their passing attempts - which is astounding. Nashville fans could not have asked for a better road performance.
While Palmieri scored during Watson’s second minor of the game, the Devils failed to punish him for the other two. They also failed to take advantage when Johansen, one of Nashville’s top players, sat for two minutes or when Turris took that minor late in the game. Sure, Saros played very well, but they were still opportunities lost. At least New Jersey did not take many calls out of frustration after going down 1-4.
Saros really should have been the first star of the game. Still, one could not find much complaint with Johansen or Ekholm getting top billing. Johansen provided a question the Devils could not answer. Duchene, Arvidsson, and Yanick Weber were also standouts. The Devils were not so much bad, but the game may have wasted strong games from the bottom-six that have not consistently had them in 2019-20.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 2 - Blankwood
Oettinger did not play poorly in Game 1. However, Abrams felt a change was needed. Mackenzie Blackwood was effectively the #1 goalie all season. He at least deserved a chance to redeem himself from the poor outings he had in the Tampa Bay series. Abrams also swapped out Severson for Ty Smith. Smith was often a scratch throughout the postseason. He showed he had game. With Severson not playing so well in the past few games, the GM opted for the rookie.
The fans filled up the Rock for Game 2. It was quite loud but there was an air of concern. Going down 0-2 in the series would put the Devils in a very tough spot. 2012 did not feel like eight years ago in the building. Many remembered it like it was yesterday.
As the players took to the ice, the Devils flexed their offensive muscle early on. Saros saw plenty of rubber. A bit of a broken play would cost Nashville. Hischier tried to play Phil Kessel into space from the neutral zone. Matt Irwin had a step on Kessel and flung a blind backhand clearing attempt from the outside of the left circle. Hischier intercepted it at the center point. He waited a moment for Turris to fly by before firing a pass to Nikita Gusev, who was in the inside of the right circle. Weber was there but he made the wrong decision as the Goose got the puck. This gave him the room to turn and fire. 1-0, New Jersey. The many at Rock made goose noises amid their cheering.
The cheers went away a bit when Subban took a slashing call a few minutes later, but they resumed as Blackwood made stops. The penalty was killed and the Devils went back to challenging Saros. Irwin took a double-minor for high-sticking Simmonds in the face. Fans were unhappy and therefore disappointed that they did not convert. But it helped keep the Predators back and so the Devils after one, 1-0.
Blackwood continued to make the saves he had to as the Devils rolled through the Predators. The vaunted defense from Game 1 was not in Game 2. The fourth line tried to push on, but a pass got away from Zajac and Ryan Ellis recovered. Ellis tried to pass it across to Johansen to lead a counter-attack only for Simmonds to pick it off perfectly. He passed it up to Zajac in the slot, who took a touch and then rifled a wrister past Saros to make it 2-0. The fans were more jubilant as a 2-0 lead was safer than a 1-0 lead. They also appreciated seeing the fourth line contribute again. The Devils continued to control the game and it was 2-0 after two.
In the third period, the Devils never let go of the game. Their offensive moves drew a roughing call from Ellis early and a slashing call from Duchene later on. The Devils did not convert, but they did pin the Preds back. When they would get forward, Blackwood would stop the attempt and play the puck such that the Devils could get an exit and go back on offense. The control was so strong that Nashville could not even pull the goalie late in regulation. Saros denied Gusev twice, then the Goose played it back to Vatanen. After a quick pass to and from Derek Forbort, Vatanen took a shot that Hischier tipped in the high slot. The deflection did not go, but Kessel swooped in across the slot, took the loose puck, and shot it past Saros to make it 3-0. The fans reacted greatly to this goal as it secured the win. Kessel’s goal really put an exclamation mark on how much the Devils owned Game 2. And the fans loved seeing Mackenzie Blackwood get back into the crease and shut out the Predators in his return to the rink. The Devils tied up the series with the 3-0 win.
More than the goals themselves, the Devils really forced the Predators to play a lot of defense. While Nashville were still superior along the boards, at faceoffs, and in making passes, they could not turn it into much offense. They were forced to absorb a very nice 69 shot attempts (at least) in regulation while generating at least 33 of their own. The Devils really made Saros earn his money.
The only thing that would have made Game 2 even better was if the Devils converted on any of these four power plays. That would have made the win more decisive. Nashville did not take a ton compared with past playoff teams in this EHM game. However, they did take four in a row and at a minimum, it forced them to play defense when they could have been trying to get back into either a one or two goal game, depending on the time.
Blackwood was given a big ovation when he was announced as the first star of the game. He was perfect. Again, the fans loved seeing him back in the net. Anyone would love a shutout performance at any point, much less in a return game in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils as a whole played great. It is a little offputting to see the first line scoreless in the few times it does happen, but they were good too. Only Smith and Zacha were merely OK. The Devils also benefited from Ellis and Duchene having poor games. Saros did the best he could but he cannot score goals and Nashville was not putting anything past Blackwood that night.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 3 - If You Want to See a ‘10,’ Gimmie a Hall Yeah
Abrams decided to keep the lineup as-is for Game 3 in Nashville. While Smith was not anything better than Severson, he decided on not tinkering with a squad that just blanked the Predators. The Bridgestone Arena was going to be a rocking place almost entirely clad in mustard yellow. He did not feel the lineup needed someone else in there to make it more comfortable for the Devils.
Say what you want about Nashville, but their fans were as loud as any the Devils heard all season. Tennessee is not in Canada but you would not have known it from how passionate the arena and the area were for this game. This was their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance and they were thirsty for a drink from the Cup this time.
The Predators fed off this energy as they took to the game early on, save for a slashing call on Ekholm. The roof may have shook when Josi scored at 11:11. A triangle of passes between Josi, Ellis, and Forsberg ended with Josi firing a laser through traffic to beat Blackwood. The Devils were not playing badly, it was more that Nashville was thriving along with them. They threatened more and more as the period went on, thanks to Zacha taking two minors almost back-to-back. Blackwood and the PK would keep the game at 0-1 going into the first intermission.
You know how I wrote how offputting it looked to see the first line pointless in a game? The Devils’ top trio of forwards played like it was their mission to avoid that fate in the second period. Just under four minutes in, Ellis rimmed the puck around the nearside corner to Watson. Hall was forechecking and Watson just panicked. He delayed as Hall lurked, waiting for him to make a mistake. After two seconds of that, Hall went in for a body check and it was perfect. Watson lost the puck and Hall recovered it. Hall saw Jack Hughes all alone entering the slot. Pass, shot, and - save? Yes, Saros robbed Hughes. Hughes took te rebound and sl-no, he passed it across to Hall. Hall took it and put the puck past Saros. It was 1-1 and the fans voiced their displeasure at the sequence of events. Past the halfway mark, Butcher recovered a dumped in puck while Nashville was changing. New Jersey was changing too, getting the remainder of the fourth line out for Palmieri and Hughes. Hall got a pass from Butcher, who passed it up to Palmieri, who played Hughes into the zone and such that Josi was caught at the blueline. Hughes went in alone on Saros and The Big Deal beat the goalie blocker-side to make it 2-1. The fans voiced their displeasure yet again. A few minutes later, Ellis was given two for elbowing Miles Wood. Almost a minute after that call, Hughes sprung Palmieri for a rush up ice as Hall headed down to the net on the wing. Palmieri fired a saucer pass where only Hall could get it, much to the dismay of Dante Fabbro and Saros. Hall one-timed it in for the PPG, his second of the game, and a 3-1 Devils lead. The fans were unhappy again while Devils fans boasted that Hall was their MVP. The Devils kept it at 3-1 going into the third period.
Remember how Zacha took those two minors in the first? He felt bad about it and decided to make it up to his team. Early in the period, a turnover by Granlund led to a long shot by Bastian and a freeze by Saros. Zacha won the draw against Duchene (!) and played it back to Subban. Subban went D-to-D to Butcher, who fired a bold pass to Zacha back at the dot. Zacha was bothered by Duchene, so he did not collect the pass cleanly. He did get a touch on it and then decided to fire it one-time. His shot was a hard, fast one to the far post that torched Saros. The Devils were up 4-1 and the Nashville fans could not believe what was happening. The stunned silence led to the decision by Lukas Craggs to throw down with a Devil to “get the guys going.” He chose Wayne Simmonds to fight on the next shift. He chose poorly. The fans were excited at first, but were left feeling worse after seeing Craggs trying to block multiple punches with his face. but it did not change the nature of the game, and definitely not the score.
Nashville would get a glimmer of hope before the halfway mark of the period. Arvidsson dumped a puck in and went off for a change. Calle Järnkrok won the loose puck along the boards and headed forward. He saw Erik Haula in the slot, who took the pass and beat Blackwood to make it 4-2. But there would be nothing else for Nashville. They tried, but they could not solve Blackwood a third time. New Jersey kept them honest, and Nashville failed to make it more of a game. The Devils took Game 3 with a solid 4-2 win, led by the team’s top line.
Similar to Game 1, the shots and run of play were more even. However, the Devils really shined in the second period. The Hall-Hughes-Palmieri unit trashed the Predators for three goals. Nashville could not answer all three. That was the turning point of this game. Zacha’s goal was the right kind of insurance for the moment, too.
There were not an excessive number of calls in this one. Ekholm took a really poor one early and Zacha taking two in a row was bad on him. But nothing spiraled out of control for either side. Ellis’ call was punished. Credit to the Devils for keeping it clean after the first period. Also, I think this is the first fight since the first round? The play-by-play log listed eight entries in a row where Simmonds threw and connected with some kind of punch. Again, Craggs chose poorly.
Hall, Palmieri, and Hughes were amazing. Subban was also great and apparently the media attending the game decided to give him the third star over Palmieri. That is fine. Nashville fans do not hate Subban but in this game, they wondered what they actually received in Steve Santini (20 GP in the season, healthy scratched all playoffs). It was not a dominant game by all the Devils. The second line was quiet, with Hischier having a rough one. Smith and Zajac were quiet. Still, there was a lot more good among the defense, another good game from Blackwood, and the dominance by the top line. Hall was amazing.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 4 - For the First Time
The Nashville fans filled up the Bridgestone Arena again, hoping for something better. Or even overtime. The Predators are 6-0 in games that went into overtime in this playoff run. Surely, even getting to the fourth (or more) period would see them prevail. It would be anxiety-inducing, and the ideal situation would be to just win in regulation. But if that is what it took for the Predators to tie up the series, then so be it. This was a sentiment shared among the Nashville fans.
Abrams made no changes to the lineup and so the same crew went out and played among the loud sea of mustard in Nashville. This loudness was cranked up whenever Nashville had a chance early on and when Craggs decided to throw down for the second straight game. He took on Simmonds again for the second straight game. The fight was more even and Craggs threw more at the end, with the crowd going electric at the sight. Perhaps it would be an analogy for how Game 4 would go. The place got even louder when Nick Bonino opened the game’s scoring. Josi stole a puck from Palmieri in the neutral zone, headed into the offensive zone himself, passed it back to Forsberg, who passed it back to Bonino. His shot went through a high screen inadvertently set by Zajac to make it 0-1. The Devils got some offense going in response but Saros stopped them all. The first period ended with the Predator faithful cheering their team off the ice.
There were some concerns about a blow-up by the Devils in the second period like it did in Game 3. This did not happen. The game continued to go back and forth. A slashing minor by Zacha early in the period gave the Preds some good looks, but Blackwood was quick to deny them the net. The play went on until Watson cross-checked Butcher on a forecheck. It was not a smart call to take. It looked even dumber when the power play started. While Johansen won the draw, Vatanen denied the clearing attempt by Ellis. While Vatanen moved the puck to Hughes and Johansen hit him, Hughes got a pass off to Hischier. Hischier sent it down to the left circle to Palmieri, who had the time and space to fire a shot to beat Saros. The PPG made it 1-1 and the fans started getting restless. While Saros was denying the Devils, Blackwood was doing the same to the Predators. The period ended 1-1.
The fairly even play continued into the third period with the goalies being the true standouts. There would be a breakthrough a little past nine minutes into the period. Järnkrok iced the puck to give the Devils an offensive zone faceoff. Hughes won the draw against Haula and passed it back to Andy Greene. Greene sent a short pass to Smith, who fired a hopeful shot into traffic. It was a seeing-eye shot that hit off Järnkrok and beat Saros. Nashville was stunned. In a blink of an eye, they were down 2-1. With Blackwood playing so well, could he be beaten? It turned out, yes, he could. A few minutes later, Järnkrok redeemed his errors. It started when Matt Irwin hit Butcher along the boards and took the puck in the Devils’ zone. Haula was open in the slot - Hischier was not in the right spot - and so Irwin fed him. Blackwood denied Haula’s shot, but not Järnkrok’s attempt on the rebound. It was 2-2 and the place erupted with cheers. The Predators not only tied up the game, but there was plenty of time to go up by one. Despite some good efforts by both sides, Saros and Blackwood did not allow another one in regulation. The final buzzer sounded and the game was to head to overtime.
No Predator fan was fully calm or confident, but there was a some of it felt in the atmosphere. Nashville has been perfect in games beyond sixty minutes in 2020. Could the Devils really expect to win? Their defense was not all that hot in Game 4; the bottom six was not doing so well; and the top line was held pointless in sixty minutes. Blackwood was really the one to beat, but he is not perfect - he was beaten twice already. The fans were hopeful as overtime began. They roared in approval when Subban, who was having a bad game, took a cross-checking penalty, early in OT. Would this power play yield the game winning goal? Blackwood and the Devils’ penalty kill said no. The game went back and forth at a tentative place. Then at about the 75th minute mark, things changed.
Nashville dumped the puck in and went for a change. Subban took a pass from Blackwood to start the breakout, who then made a short pass to Bastian. Bastian carried the puck out and sent a cross-ice pass to Coleman to beat two forecheckers. Coleman carried the puck almost to the goal line ahead of Fabbro and passed it across to Bastian. Bastian passed it back to Vatanen for a shot as Coleman set up in front of the net. Vatanen’s shot missed, but as it happened, Fabbro took down Coleman with a cross-check. Nashville touched up a few seconds later and the mood in the arena was grim. Fans booed the call while silently hoping the Devils’ power play would not convert. The first power play unit came out as did Nashville’s top penalty killing unit. Hischier and Johansen faced off and Hischier won the draw. He immediately sent it back to Vatanen, who decided to try a quick one-timer. The puck hit off Johansen, then Ellis, and then past Saros. The Devils bench popped and Vatanen threw his hands up in celebration with a “I don’t know how, but I’m glad it happened” expression on his face. Saros hung his head in shock. Fabbro looked guiltier than a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar he was not supposed to have a hand in. The Devils took Game 4 with a 3-2 win in overtime. The home fans could not believe it. For the first time in this playoff run, the Predators lost in overtime. And it put them on the brink of elimination. Devils fans at watch parties and those watching on their own worldwide were jubilant. The Devils were one win away from the Cup!
This was a tight playoff game, the one most fans come to expect in just about any Stanley Cup Finals series. Nashville dominated at the dot, but they lost big on two for goals against. Nashville even out-shot the Devils by a bit, which is something not commonly seen in this run so far. Yet, the Devils’ power play was crucially effective and their goaltender rose to the challenge just as much as Nashville’s did.
After the fight, both sides took three minors each. The Devils punished Watson for another time in this series and made the most of Fabbro’s cross-check. They did well to not pay for their own crimes, which could have seen this game go right into Nashville’s hands.
Blackwood was excellent and Saros was very good too. I was surprised to see neither get a star of the game. They were each key reasons why the game was close and went into overtime. The media preferred Nashville’s bottom-six, which did have a better night than some of their top forwards like Johansen and Duchene. The Devils’ ratings were not so hot. Only Greene and Smith had good games on defense as the other two pairings had issues. Especially Subban, which is odd since he had a great night in Game 3. Up front, the top forwards were Hall, who was pointless but still threatened a lot; Hughes, who created two goals; and Hischier, who also created two goals. While the game did not think so, I think Blackwood was really the team’s most important player in this one.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 5 - Elimination Attempt #1
The scene in Newark was like a party. Fans at the arena were excited and hyped up at potentially seeing the Cup by the end of Game 5. Fans around the world were hopeful and confident the Devils would close out the series. The media already pre-wrote their headlines for a Devils Cup wins. Local journalists asked about the Devils Fever around the state. It leaked that parade plans down Market, Broad, and Lafayette Street were in discussion. Media people were already talking up the Devils’ winning their fourth Cup and how they can set a new normal for offense by people who still wish the 1980s level of scoring returned. Even the most ardent Predators fans knew their end was near. Who would come back from a 3-1 series deficit? Abrams saw it fit to make one change - Jesper Boqvist in for Pavel Zacha. Zacha was not playing so well in Game 4 and thought a player change could give Nashville a different look amid their depth.
The Rock was electric when the puck dropped. The good feelings lasted all of two minutes. Nashville took control. Just before the three minute mark, Coleman iced the puck. Haula won the draw against Boqvist and the puck went back to Ekholm, whose shot sailed over the glass and into the protective netting. Haula beat Boqvist again on the draw and the puck went towards the slot. Watson fired a quick shot that hit off Greene and went past Blackwood. 0-1 New Jersey. A little bit after that Craggs decided a fight was in order against Derek Forbort. While Forbort handled Craggs to the delight of the crowd, this took the Devils down to five men on defense. This contributed to Nashville just rolling through the Devils like the Devils did to so many teams in this season and in Game 2 against Nashville. The fans were being taken out of the game as Nashville tilted the rink. In the dying seconds of the first period, Zajac lost the puck in the neutral zone. Bonino recovered it and fired a pass up ice to Arvidsson. The winger was not put off by the double team, went in deep, passed the puck back to Johansen in the circle, and headed to the net. Johansen shot it, Blackwood stopped it, and Arvidsson piled in the rebound with four seconds left on the clock. The Devils were down 0-2 and the previously rocking crowd at the Rock was murmuring.
New Jersey needed a spark. Fortunately, they have made plenty of comebacks from two goals down. Unfortunately, the Devils made it hard on themselves. As Nashville kept coming in waves, the Devils took calls. Wood took a cross-checking call. Just after that was killed, Palmieri took a hooking call. A few minutes after that, Hall took a hooking penalty. That was six minutes of the Devils largely playing in their own end when they needed to attack - not that Nashville was allowing that to happen given their own offense. But there would be a break. Palmieri started a breakout by making a defensive zone pass to Hall, who collected it off the wall. He made the exit and made a pass up to Hughes to beat Weber. Irwin was the only defender back and Palmieri was charging hard down the wing. Hughes made a pass to Palmieri. He gained the zone, beat Irwin, and fired a low, hard shot on Saros. Saros went down to the make the save. The rebound popped up, Palmieri collected it, and fired it high over Saros to make it 1-2. The crowd roared in approval and they were back in it. As were the Devils. They were just down one goal. Surely, they would rise up in the third to take it.
They did not. Subban took a holding penalty about two minutes into the third period. The Devils almost survived the penalty kill. With a few seconds left on the penalty, Johansen took a loose puck that was stolen from Craggs but not recovered by Smith, wrapped around the net, and tucked in a shot to make it 1-3. The Devils tried but failed to really give a lot of challenging shots to Saros. (It did not help that Simmonds took a holding call four minutes after Johansen’s goal.) Blackwood was forced to make many saves instead. While Hynes pulled Blackwood, it was not going to yield much of anything given how the game went. It did not as Johansen sailed in the empty netter. Some fans were upset but most of them took it in stride as the Devils did not win the Cup on their rink in Game 5. They lost 1-4 and would head back to Nashville for Game 6.
The Predators really owned this game. They were better than the Devils at nearly everything except for board battles. Even that was not worth much. The Predators went up early and while the Devils made it close on the scoreboard, they took care of business in the third. Johansen’s PPG was a huge insurance goal and the shot count of 40-20 really helped ensure New Jersey would not make a comeback.
The Devils were forced to take some of these penalties in some cases. In others, they were just out of frustration. Just as past playoff games where the Devils would out-shoot their competition by 20 or so often had the opposition take a load of calls, the Devils were in their skates in Game 5. This helped Nashville secure the game and keep the series alive.
The player ratings really highlight how much better Nashville was in this game. Johansen played like he did in Game 1. Saros was a stud. The defense was very good. Plenty of Nashville’s forwards contributed. Even Craggs did so, despite going for fight #3 in this series. The Devils, on the other hand, did not have many excel save for Blackwood, Vatanen, and Palmieri. Simmonds, Boqvist, Coleman, and Zajac all had particularly poor games. Still, the Devils had three chances to secure the Cup and this one got away from them. Game 6 awaited in two days.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 6 - Elimination Attempt #2
The Devils fans were more concerned but still confident going into Game 6. OK, the Devils had a bad game. Better to have that while 3-1 in a series instead of later on. As long as they bounce back in Game 6, it is no big deal. They won twice in Nashville already in this series. They even won in overtime against the Predators, who are in this series because of their previously perfect overtime record. That said, the media was starting to question whether the Devils could be making history by blowing a 3-1 series lead if Nashville wins this game. But they also noted that nothing was going to be easy for Nashville as the Devils did win twice in their building days earlier. The Cup may have been in the arena for the other team, but the Nashville fanbase decided that if the team was going to go down in Game 6, then they would hear them all night long to have their back.
Abrams made some changes to the lineup. He decided to move Boqvist to left wing, put Zacha in for Bastian, and move Coleman to his natural position at right wing. He did not want to remove a player in a captaincy position like Zajac, so the hope was that the fourths would bounce back on their own.
The sea of yellow was as complete as ever as the puck dropped in Nashville. Unlike the last three games, there would be no fights. Unlike Game 5, New Jersey came to play. Nashville would not be shutting down their offense. The two teams traded chances for most of the period, with Saros and Blackwood. This was interrupted when Wood elbowed Ekholm after Nashville iced the puck and they won the defensive zone draw. It took almost a minute but the Preds made Wood pay for that mistake. Josi missed Johansen on a pass down low, but Johansen collected the puck off the end boards, skated back to the right circle, turned and fired a shot past Blackwood. The noise at the Bridgestone Arena must have exceeded 105 decibels from the reaction to the PPG. The Devils were down 0-1.
Things would go from not good to worse early in the second period. During the first shift of the period, Duchene would get the puck down low and beat Blackwood shortside at a sharp angle to make it 0-2. Less than two minutes after that, the Devils win a defensive zone faceoff and eventually Gusev gets the puck to make an exit. But Jarnkrok denied him and the puck stayed in the zone and went to Turris. Turris saw Granlund heading to the inside of the right circle. He passed it, Granlund shot it, and the Nashville faithful couldn’t believe their eyes. The Preds were up by three! They were running wild all over the Devils! New Jersey fans were shocked.
The game would settle down over the next five minutes. Blackwood began to square himself up more often and the Devils’ offense went back to work. Subban found Simmonds in the slot, who fired a hard shot that Saros struggled to hold onto - but he held onto it. Zajac won the draw back to Subban, who passed it across to Butcher. Butcher found Wood with his back to the goal at the right circle. Wood collected the pass, turned and fired the puck towards the net. Simmonds was waiting at the left post, took the puck, and tapped it in to make it 1-3. The crowd started to get a little doubtful for a bit. The Devils fans around the world were glad they were on the board. However, the Devils shot themselves in the foot shortly thereafter. A couple minutes after the goal, Subban took a slashing minor. It did not take long for the punishment to arrive. A quick sequence of about seven passes ended with Arvidsson firing a hard shot from the high slot past Blackwood. The crowd roared in mass approval and the Devils were back down to being down by three. There would be a response a little later, though. Palmieri went down the wing and found Hall in the high slot. Saros stopped Hall’s shot, but the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey cleaned up the rebound. It was 2-4. Not a good place to be in, but not the worst.
Unfortunately, that would be it up until near the end in terms of a comeback. Kessel took a slashing minor near the end of the second, which took time away from the Devils trying to comeback themselves. Even though Nashville took two penalties in the third period, the Devils’ power play were unable to make the most of them. Saros was standing tall and Nashville’s offense never really stopped even though they built up a lead. There was one last gasp, though. With Blackwood pulled and Kessel on as an extra skater, Kessel set up Hall for a close shot. Saros stopped that but Hall put in his own rebound with 26 seconds left. It was a wild 26 seconds, but the Predators stopped the Devils. The Nashville fans were elated. A lot of them went into this game with a “Hope for the best but expect the worst” feeling. They left with seeing a result among the best. The Devils lost 3-4 in a game that was not really so close. The Cup would be decided in Game 7. And the pressure was seemingly all on the Devils.
While this loss had a better performance from the Devils in general, Nashville was the better team once again. They came out to a big lead that they never lost. They converted two of their four power play chances. They out-shot the Devils by a bit. They were better at moving the puck. Again, if it was not for Hall’s late goal, then the score would have better reflected how the game went throughout most of it.
The Devils took the first four calls in this game and they paid for it big-time. While they were disciplined in the first period, Wood’s penalty was a rather stupid one to take on his part. They paid for it. Subban slashing Irwin at the top of the Devils’ zone was also not a smart one on his part. They paid for that too. And as the Devils went down early int he second period, the other two calls hurt the cause for a comeback. Adding insult to it is that the Predators handed the Devils two chances in the third to pull within one much earlier than they did. They did not take advantage of either.
The Devils had their two best forwards put up spectacular perofrmances - and lost. Mediocre games from a number of players contribute to that. Like all four centers. The gambit to put Boqvist and Coleman at left and right wing did have them play a bit better, though. But other than Kessel, the second line was meh. Hughes looked like a rookie in between two aces. Vatanen did not look like a #1 looking for a big contract. Blackwood played well given the circumstances but the team as a whole did not do as well as Nashville did. They had no one player be top-tier, but they had several playing quite well and they all contributed to the winning cause.
Stanley Cup Finals, Game 7 - Elimination Attempt #3, The End
Days earlier, Devils fans were very happy. Their team was up 3-1 in the series for the championship. They were thrilled that the team made it to the playoffs at all. But they knew this was no Cinderella story like the 1988 team. This was a good team with a great offense and they pushed their way to this point.
Yet, Devils fans became worried like never before as Game 6 ended. The Devils were now on the brink of losing to Nashville. This would be one thing if the Predators went up 3-0 or 3-1 in the series and would go on to win the Cup. It would be disappointing, but it would be understandable. It would be better respected than the real possibility of committing one of the biggest choke-jobs in hockey history. That is what the Devils are now on the precipice of. Not just losing the Cup, but being jeered for years despite finishing better than everyone else in this league. It did not help that the media online, in print, and on TV kept hammering home this point. Nashville was being presented as the plucky underdog to make the most improbable comeback in recent NHL history. Philadelphia fans were already talking junk about it, even though their team did not even qualify for the postseason. Fans of Our Hated Rivals were still salty about the referees, claimed they could have been there, and then went to go watch Al Trautwig interview the dude who sharpened skates for the 1994 team as part of MSG’s 80th retrospective of that playoff run, which would follow the 100th retrospective of the 1973 Knicks. The Devils fans were besides themselves. They wanted to see their team win their fourth Cup ever, but they feared the reasonable possibility of witnessing a massive failure first-hand.
The players and coaches were also on edge. It was not so much they were caught up in their own confidence after Game 4. Sure, Game 5 was bad. But Game 6 was not all bad. They just needed to keep it together. Yet, they felt the pressure. For many in that room, this was their first series for the Finals. They certainly showed they could win. They did win three in this series. But they learned that the cliche is sometimes true; the last one can very well be the most difficult. Kessel, Greene, and Zajac - guys who have been in the Finals before - spoke up about the Finals to try to calm everyone down. They resolved they just needed to play smart and focus on their way intstead of how Nashville wanted to do business. The coaches, in their own meeting, came to a similar conclusion.
As for Abrams, he decided to make only one change. Smith would go out and Severson would go in. Despite cries online for Wood to be benched or Zajac to be benched or Greene to be benched, he figured that Boqvist and Coleman did well enough on the wings to live with Zacha at center. Smith was having some ups and downs since coming in for Severson. Having a more experienced defender in this game would be more useful.
(Quick aside: Martin Hanzal finally became healthy enough to play a hockey game on the day of Game 7. No, he was not ever going to be in the lineup.)
The fans filled the arena. Similar to Nashville fans in Game 6, the crowd ultimately adopted the unsaid policy of, “Cheering on the Devils to the end, no matter what.” They were screaming “Let’s Go Devils” but internally, they did not know what to expect. A million different things could honestly happen. Then the puck dropped.
And then the Devils scored.
Hughes won the opening faceoff and sent it back to Butcher. Butcher passed it back to Hughes in the netural zone, who tossed the puck back to Subban. Subban passed it back to Hughes, who noticed Hall was all alone on the left wing. Hughes got away from Forsberg and fired a pass across to Hall. He collected the puck off the boards and fired a pass across the zone to Palmieri. Palmieri shot it quickly and it beat Saros blocker-side. The Rock erupted to celebrate the goal. The Devils were up 1-0 thirteen seconds in. The fans worldwide felt a little more at ease.
Then Severson decided to ramp up the worry. Past the five-minute mark, Severson elbowed Duchene on defense. He went to the box and Nashville had a chance to score. Blackwood was good and the penalty killers killed it. Forty seconds after he left the box, he went back to it because he high-sticked Granlund away from the play. Nashville did punish this mistake. The PK was going well until Blackwood swallowed up a shot by Duchene. On the resulting faceoff, the Predators took a two attempts (one miss, one shot) and Blackwood froze it again. On that faceoff, Duchene won it directly to Turris, who one-timed it in for the PPG. It was 1-1 and the mood at the Rock returned from relief to concern. The tension mounted as the game was evened. The Devils would get two power plays of their own due to Weber being called for roughing and Ellis being called for hooking. But the PP disappointed and did not score. Gusev took a late roughing call, but the Devils survived the PK and went into the locker room at 1-1. Blackwood looked good and the offense was more present, but the game could turn at any point.
The tension continued to start the second. Neither team could get through, but the Devils started to tilt the ice a bit. Then the fourth line got, to use a term from Steve Cangialosi, “buzzing.” The pressure led to attempts. First, a long one from Subban. That was blocked high by Haula. Zajac was able to recover the loose puck, turn, and fire a shot. Jarnkrok blocked that one. Zajac tried again and his shot did go off. Saros stopped it but left a short rebound. Simmonds came in and backhanded in the goal. The entire arena popped up out of their seats. The Wayne Train had arrived at the Rock and scored a huge goal to put the Devils up 2-1. You could see the joy on his face as the train whistle blared throughout the arena for his score. This eased some of the worries as the Devils took the lead. They were eased even more as the Devils started to take over more of the game. The worries returned when Jack Hughes took a roughing minor with less than five minutes left. But Blackwood did his job, the PK did their job, and so the Devils closed out the period without much incident. The fans were pleased but they knew nothing was secure. They have seen the Devils blow all kinds of leads as well as come back and salvage games all season long. All they wanted was one more period of good hockey to seal the deal. All Hynes stressed at intermission was to play well for one more period. The players knew they just do their jobs for one more period.
The puck dropped to start the third period. The play ended up in Nashville’s end of the rink. They tried a breakout but the Devils stopped them as a pass by Turris missed Ekholm due to a well-timed hit by Subban. Subban collected the loose puck and fired it away towards Hall before Granlund could go for a steal. Hall immediately fired it diagonally across the neutral zone to Palmieri. Fabbro was the only one back but he was nowhere near Palmieri. Palmieri decided to try a shot right over the blueline as he saw space as Saros was coming out. He took a snapshot, which sailed up, hit off Saros’ side, and into the net. To write that the reaction was enthusiastic was an understatement. The crowd was emphatic in their support. The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey took it all in. The Devils had the perfect start to the third period. The Devils kept up the pace. They kept it clean - at least to what referee Wes McCauley was allowing. They never stopped attacking. A little over six minutes after Palmieri’s second of the night, a mixed line struck. As Subban was looking to breakout, Wood and Zajac headed to the bench to be replaced by Hughes and Hall. Simmonds stayed on as he saw the play moving forward. Subban fed it up to Hughes, who passed it up to Hall for the zone entry. Hall flew by Weber and passed the puck to Hughes in the slot. The fans in that end of the rink rose up expecting a one-timer goal. That did not happen, the pass missed Hughes but went back to Subban at the point. Despite thousands yelling “SHOOOOOT,” Subban passed it to Hughes in the slot. But he was surrounded by three in white and mustard and Johansen deflected the puck away. Johansen never had control and so Simmonds came in, took the loose puck, went a bit around Hughes and Josi, and fired a shot. The puck sailed past Saros and into the net! Simmonds did it again! The Devils were up 4-1! Simmonds’ brace almost brought the place down. The Cup was within New Jersey’s grasp. They just had to not meltdown for the next 13:20.
They were not going to meltdown. Blackwood was too good and the Devils skaters were sharp. It also helped that Josi took a cross-checking penalty. The fans wanted a fifth goal, but it was not to be. In the final few minutes, Irwin scored off a faceoff win by Haula. This did not lead to any last scramble. The Predators knew it was a consolation goal. The Devils were going to win. The buzzer sounded! The Devils won 4-2; the celebrations began! The Devils in EHM won the Cup!
The bench, coaches included, spilled out onto the rink to celebrate with Blackwood. Nashville was collectively disappointed, but they understood they lost the game fairly. After some time, the two teams lined up. Handshakes were exchanged with Blackwood and Saros both profusely congratulating each other for the series. Hats celebrating the team’s fourth Cup were given out, a red carpet was rolled out, Gary Bettman got a microphone, and he was booed out of the building. Bettman no-sold it and then said that credit should go to Nashville for getting this far. Booing continued. Then stated that the Devils prevailed. Before getting to the main prize, he asked that the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey come forward. Kyle Palmieri was presented with the Conn Smythe* Trophy. The booing became total cheers. Bettman then asked for Andy Greene to step forward and then the Cup came out. Greene was handed the Cup and lifted it higher than anything he ever lifted before. The Cup went around as each player got a chance with it, then the scratches, then the coaching staff, and then the equipment and training staff.
Interviews were done, pictures were taken all over, and the streets of Newark were jubilant that the Devils brought a championship to Brick City. Media people scrapped their pre-written Devils choked articles and wrote about the glory coming from a Jersey guy, a train, a comeback by Blackwood, and many others in a campaign filled with ups and downs under a brand new GM. The haters and losers, of which there are many, continued to hate and be losers. Devils fans worldwide were ecstatic and would be for months to come.
Palmieri’s quick goals in the first and third periods were important and helped set a tone. The Devils pulled away in the run of play for this one. While Nashville were superior at the dots, the Devils moved the puck better and were even along the boards. As tense as it was after the first and even second periods, the third period was as comfortable as a third period in a Game 7 for the Cup could really be.
This series may have been the cleanest of the four in the Devils’ playoff run in EHM. Even when down, Nashville did not get frustrated and shoot themselves in the foot by taking a lot of fouls. New Jersey was careful to not do it themselves; although it must have been odd to see Hughes get a roughing call. Severson made Abrams’ decision to put him look bad early on, but he would clean it up.
So many good nights in Game 7 for the Devils. Hall put up another 10, Palmieri came close to it, and Hughes was very good. Subban was a total force of good in this one. So much so that he earned first star of the game honors ahead of either goal scorer. Simmonds was excellent as the fourth line has a great game. The second and third line were mostly OK, but that was good enough. Blackwood had another good game to complete a series where he did not start in Game 1. So much for a goaltending controversy. Severson, well, did not really play much better than Smith. But who cares? The Devils won it all!
Final Playoff Stats & Season Awards
The parade indeed involved Market, Broad, and Lafayette Avenues. And some others in Newark I am not super-familiar with but would know by sight. It was well attended as the skies of New Jersey shined on the Devils’ fourth Stanley Cup. Sherman Abrams was conspicuous by his absence when players and personnel started making speeches to the thousands of fans for the parade. He claimed he did not feel well. Whatever, there was a Cup to celebrate.
To do that, here is the team’s stats after the Cup:
Palmieri had a massively productive Stanley Cup Finals with 9 points in 7 games with six goals and three assists. He finished as the only other skater with an average rating over 8 and managed to outscore that skater, who is, of course, Taylor Hall. Hall may have went pointless in some games. In the others, he too put up 9 points in total. Some players were cooler in the fourth round like Gusev and Kessel. Others heated up like Hischier, Simmonds, and Subban.
The Devils dominated the top playoff scorers. Sure, they played more than everyone but Nashville, but no Predator came close to the Devils’ top four. As well as Johansen, Arvidsson, and Forsberg played in the finals, Stamkos remained as the highest scoring non-Devil in the playoffs.
The most positive development was the return of Blackwood. He rated well in every single game since Game 2. Oettinger was not bad in Game 1, but Blackwood just hit the crease running well and gave no reason to be replaced. While Oettinger ended up slipping below 90% like he was in the season, Blackwood rose from a 90.5% after the Tampa Bay series to a 91.6%. He had a great Stanley Cup Finals and was a big reason why the Devils won it all. Where did he finish up among all NHL goalies in the playoffs? Interestingly enough:
Right with Saros! Saros fell from a 92.8% to a 91.6%. Similar to Vaislevskiy, Saros played well but the Devils would break him down a bit. He made it difficult all series long, though.
Now, here is where I will complain a bit about EHM. I put an asterisk next to Conn Smythe for Palmieri. This was because the game does not actually award the Smythe when the Cup is won, unlike real life. It is named at the NHL Awards Ceremony. Which, for some reason, happens after the NHL Draft in this game. So I had to simulate the game all the way to the final week of June to see what regular season awards were earned by the Devils. I did not save it as if we revisit this particular EHM game in the future, then I would like you all to help with the draft and free agency. The only signings made in season were Hischier’s extension, so there is a lot of room. Anyway, here are the awards the Devils won:
- Art Ross: Taylor Hall (runners up: Nathan MacKinnon, Patrik Laine)
- Calder: Jack Hughes (runners up: Nick Suzuki, Cale Makar)
- King Clancy: Hall (runners up: Mikko Ratanen, Alex Ovechkin)
- Conn Smythe: Kyle Palmieri (runners up: Hall, Blackwood)
- Jack Adams: John Hynes (runners up: Jared Bednar of Colorado, Paul Maurice of Winnipeg)
- GM of the Year: Sherman Abrams (runners up: David Poile of Nashville, Joe Sakic of Colorado)
- Other placements - Hughes finished third for the Lady Byng, which went to Johnny Gaudreau.
So I had to play further into the game to find out that the playoff’s leading scorer was the playoff MVP. Whatever. What is outrageous is what you don’t see here. Hall is not listed for the Hart. He didn’t win the Hart. He was not even a finalist. Hall literally led the league in scoring, had the highest average rating among all players in the season, and was the best player on a team that went from the basement to the floor beneath the penthouse in one season. He is not even a finalist? On top of that, Hall was named to the NHL Second All-Star Team because outscoring everyone isn’t good enough for the first team. Hughes and Blackwood were both named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. That is not a lot of praise for Blackwood as it is a season award; it speaks to how all the rookie goalies were “meh” at best in the 2019-20 EHM-NHL season. Final thought about the awards: The EHM version of the PHWA are filled with fools.
Again, I didn’t save the game after seeing the awards, so maybe they would turn up differently somehow if we revisit this to do a second season. We’ll see, but I doubt it.
The joy in a simulation comes from succeeding at a goal. Whether it is a goal you set for yourself or the game sets. Achieving it shows that you at least have an understanding of the game’s version of what it is your simulating. I am very pleased that I was able to lead a team to the Cup in EHM. When I did a Let’s Re-Do in EHM series back in 2016, those Devils lost in the ECFs to Tampa Bay. I just wanted to see if we could take the 2019-20 Devils to the playoffs. We did that and so much more. Yes, it is just a game. Given that there will very likely be no Devils hockey until the 2020-21 season, whenever that is, it is a diversion to help pass the time.
To that end, I had a lot of fun doing it and even writing it up despite the fact they are so, so, so, so long. So much so that I’m going to continue the series with EHM Experiments. One of the other joys of simulation games is being able to try all kinds of things out and see what happens. Next week, I’ll explain how it works and reveal the first experiment. And then we can do more based on suggestions by you, the People Who Matter. As a final point, I want to thank all of you for reading this series, offering your comments, and -
NOT SO FAST. It’s my time to talk.
Sherman Abrams, what are you doing? You didn’t even speak at the championship parade. What do you have to say?
I’m not happy and I’m going to do something about.
Not happy? Abrams, your team won the Stanley Cup and you were named the GM of the Year. The board and the fans are happy with you. What’s wrong?
You run your mouth about haters and losers. Well, guess what, I’m a loser, Fischer. I’m all about losing.
You managed a team to the highest possible success and even got a trophy.Abrams, you literally are a winner.
And it makes me sick. I’ve been reading your little site for the past few months and getting excited for all of these prospects. Prospects I cannot draft at 31st overall.
Well, you might. The EHM world of propsects is very different then what happened in real life and besides, doesn’t this Cup win vindicate your earlier urges for tanks back in 2017 and 2019 since Hischier and Hughes played important roles?
You bite your tongue. The tanks never stop and the next one is always better then the old ones. Plus, I got a bone to pick with you. You go on about the People Who Matter. Well, I couldn’t retain Hall and some said to trade him away. We didn’t listen to those people for some reason. We didn’t listen to those people who wanted to reset things when it went bad. I want to listen to them now and be true to myself. I’ll show you, Fischer. I’ll show you this week what Sherman Abrams is really all about.
Well, I guess Abrams is going to have something up later this week. Joy. Still, I want to thank everyone who read any or all of this series. Everyone who left a comment, tweeted about it, or shared it with their friends, I thank you all. Next week, we will do something different and I hope to see you there. Thank you for reading.