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FanFirst Fridays: California Dreamin’ Edition

I attended the Ducks and Kings games in person last weekend and here are some random observations and thoughts from seeing the Devils live.

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Los Angeles Kings
Seeing this guy live is always the right decision.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When the New Jersey Devils left the friendly (though given their record there, maybe not-so-friendly) confines of the Rock and headed south to Carolina, their longest road trip of the season looked like it may be a significant challenge to a young team on the rise. Alas, a huge 5-3 win over Carolina, who also happens to be the team directly above them in the standings, got the road trip off on the right foot.

Next was a cross country flight that I’ve done many times myself from Raleigh, NC to Orange County, CA. See, my brother lives in Raleigh and I live in the OC. And I would wind up being there in person with my daughter and son. The last time I saw the Devils in person was Thanksgiving week at the Rock and my son and I wound up showered in beer thanks to not one, not two, but THREE disallowed goals that ended the Devils historic 13-game winning streak.

But before we actually went to the game, my kids and I went to Anaheim Ducks Day at Disney’s California Adventure the night before. There, I met someone who I’ve long wanted to thank for one of the most memorable moments a Devils fan ever had:

I had one hell of a few days, starting with meeting the guy who beat the Rangers in 2012. It only got better from there. Two Ws, a puck from Tatar and so many Devils fans in Anaheim and Los Angeles.

I told Rico, we miss you on the Devils so much and would love to see you play with Jack Hughes into the playoffs this year. He laughed and said it would be pretty cool. And yes, I wore my Devils jersey to Anaheim Ducks Day. I’m always representing. As is my son, who happens to love Cale Makar.

The next night, we arrived at Honda Center very early to make sure we got a space close to the glass. My daughter wanted desperately to get a puck or a stick for her 18th birthday. Here we are walking over to Honda Center after a nice dinner at a place next door:

It was a beautiful Southern California night and I don’t often arrive early enough to see warmups in full. It was fascinating to me as both Dougie and Jesper Boqvist came out early to do so some stretching and Dougie appeared to do a lot of visualization techniques on the bench.

Then while we were waiting for the Devils to come out for warmups, none other than Glenn “Chico” Resch comes waltzing down the stairs where the fans are. I ran up quickly to meet him for the first time and he just seemed to genuinely enjoy chatting with passionate Devils fans. He also let me know that it appeared like Vitek Vanecek would be starting in Anaheim and Mackenzie Blackwood would get the Kings the following night. I wasn’t terribly pleased to hear this but he explained that the Devils thought MacBlack plays well against the Kings so it made sense from that perspective. I was still a skeptic. I’d thought we should play Vitek against the better team and clearly, the Kings were the better team. Initially, I was only going to take a photo of my son with Chico, but then someone offered to take a pic so we could both be in it and I jumped all over it. Course, Chico made my son, who is only 12 but is already taller than I am, stand on the step lower than him. But the curveball of me being included, meant that I would be towering over him. Still, was fantastic to meet someone I’ve been watching and hearing for YEARS.

Meanwhile my daughter waited patiently by the glass with her sign. Warmups went on and Devils kept parking themselves by my daughter but no puck. As more time went on, I was afraid we would go home puckless but then the beautifully quaff of hair of Tomas Tatar made his way over to us after picking up a puck with his stick. He lofted it over the glass and Gianni, the legendary Devils Twitter handle, caught the puck intended for my girl. He immediately handed it over to her as we’d been chatting and he knew how much it meant for her. My daughter’s friend, who happened to be a Ducks fan, caught the entire thing on video. So that was an unbelievable start to the day.

Two things stood out to me about the Devils in warmup.

1. Mackenzie Blackwood had pucks repeatedly hit his glove and come flying out of it. He couldn’t seem to catch a puck to save his life. I instantly felt relief that he wasn’t starting against the Ducks because it made me nervous. MacBlack, when he struggles, can’t catch pucks or leaves enticing rebounds. I figured I’d save that worry for the game against the Kings the following evening.

2. Jack Hughes and Dawson Mercer are two of the final guys on the ice. They practice hard passes, saucers across ice, one timers and just quick rushes. It’s clear to me that these two genuinely have the same energy and same mentality for the game and I’d like to see them play together more frequently. Mercer has been stellar recently and even when he isn’t putting up points, his effort level never appears to dip below full throttle, full gas. I also think both of those guys play and see the game similarly, which is why I think they should be stapled together for now. Regardless, it isn’t surprising to me that Jack has as many goals as he does. He’s got a crazy fast release and a very accurate shot. He kept placing the puck right in the elbow of the top corner, even on one timers from Mercer. The kid is special. If he spends some time figuring out faceoffs, I’m fairly sure nothing is going to hold him back. Even better if he does it with Mercer as his sidekick.

We all know how the Ducks game worked out. Thankfully, all but one of the goals were scored on the side of the rink we sat (the beautiful Bratt wrap around). I will also just add one thing. The Devils play with such speed and transition that they are immensely fun to watch. If you live in New Jersey and you aren’t going to as many games as you possibly can, you’re the one losing out. Yes, they aren’t nearly as good at the Rock as they are on the road, but still seeing Bratt make silly skilled cuts in the zone and Jack Hughes repeatedly perfectly saucer pucks to teammates live is just something you can’t fully appreciate through a TV screen. It’s quite simply breathtaking and I would follow the team around the country if it was feasible. Alas it is not, and I had to settle for two games in California. Thankfully, the Devils pulled out a 6-2 win that was not even as close as that score.

One other random bonus thought before I leave this game. To be honest, I wasn’t in love with Vitek Vanecek’s mask prior to this game. I kind of thought it was a little generic, run-of-the-mill and looked like it was one of the generic ones they give you in NHL23. But seeing it up close in person, it really pops off the ice with the little details and the contrast between the different parts of it. So ignore The Athletic’s rankings when it comes to Vitek’s mask. It’s actually pretty sick.

The next night filled me with trepidation for multiple reasons. First and foremost, just getting to the game was going to be a nightmare. See, it was pouring here in the OC and driving to Los Angeles in the rain is akin to driving elsewhere in the country during a huge blizzard. Just because Californians really struggle to drive in the rain. It’s just not something we have much experience with, so I knew I was in for a bit of an adventure. People either tend to be too aggressive and drive faster than normal (don’t understand this mentality) or people brake unexpectedly because they fear sliding, but more sudden braking means more likely to slide, so you understand the counterintuitive thinking here? Because I sure don’t. Any way, I’m happy to report that even though it was pouring, we made it there safely.

We again went down to the glass even though we didn’t bring my daughter’s 18th birthday sign. Again, Jack and Dawson stuck around long after the warmup to practice by themselves. It was beautiful to watch and I hope they have that kind of connection for tons of years in New Jersey. One thing I noticed really quickly was that MacBlack was REALLY dialed in. The guy was catching everything and took a 180 over the warmups in Anaheim. Every puck in his glove, he swallowed up. Everything in his pads was a decent kick-out save. Maybe he has a different mentality in warm ups when he isn’t starting? I’m not entirely sure but he looked like a different goalie and suddenly I felt something a bit unfamiliar to me. I had hope that MacBlack was going to perform well that night.

Still, the Devils came out flat against a Kings team that had its legs beneath it. And they took advantage of a power play with a net-front pass that no goalie in the world would’ve stopped. I was thinking, here we go. But alas, the Devils luckily got a rusty Jonathan Quick in goal instead of the Pheonix Copley experience that much of the rest of the NHL has been dealing with. Quick wasn’t exactly Quick circa 2012 this night and two Devils defensemen scored and the Devils walked away with two Ws, two fantastic experiences despite the obnoxious Kings fans repeatedly riding MacBlack and how much he “sucks”. Funny thing was we were sitting right below a luxury box and there was a Devils fan in there who was clearly imbibing his fair share (he was giving us knuckles after every Devils goal) and he wound up basically challenging a bunch of the Kings fans around us. We wound up in an all-Kings section because one of my best friends bought the tickets and he’s a HUGE Kings fan. Funny thing is that his son came down with Covid a few days before the game so he sold his tickets. Regardless, the war of words escalated between the luxury box Devils fan and the Kings fans around us, leading to the Devils fan throwing out our three Cups versus the Kings two Cups as the main argument. Never mind the fact that the Kings beat us for the 2012 one. Regardless, my daughter got pretty stressed out as the altercation was amping up as the game ended. Still, we were able to celebrate Jesper Bratt’s ENG quite loudly (I said something like good night sweet prince, meaning the Kings had been demoted to princedom instead of Kings).

Any way, it was an amazing experience to see the Devils wagon rolling through Southern California and secure four big points towards a possible playoff appearance in 2023. The best part, besides experiencing these wins with my kids, was meeting and talking with a lot of Jersey fans who’d actually flown out to California for these games. Gianni, Fink and many others were so very nice to my kids and it just feels like a wonderful to be a part of this Devils community. From everyone I meet in person at these games to the People Who Matter here at AAtJ.