Back on April 16, 2018, the New Jersey Devils picked up a big win in Game 3 against Tampa Bay at the Rock to make it a 1-2 series. They went into Game 4 knowing that another win ties up the series and essentially resets it. Tried as they might, the Devils fell short in Game 4. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils entered a similar situation. The opponent was different: Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers. The rink was different: The World’s Most Overrated Arena, Madison Square Garden. Most importantly, the game was different. In what could be described as a great example of what playoff hockey looks like, the Devils prevailed with a 3-1 victory. The Devils won Game 4 to make it a 2-2 series in 2023. The series is now a best of three going back to Newark on Thursday.
I have always interpreted the the term “playoff hockey” to describe games where both sides are intense and tense. They want and will and do whatever it takes physically and mentally to make the plays for victory. They do not want and will try very hard to not make the big mistakes or fail to make the plays that could cost them the victory. More than Game 1 and Game 2, which were romps by Our Hated Rivals; Game 3 and Game 4 were closely played hockey games. Unlike Game 3, the Devils were far more competitive in the run of play - and I would say even better than Our Hated Rivals. Yes, the Devils being better in Manhattan; do not be surprised.
What was similar to Game 3 was Akira Schmid. The rookie goalie was once again very efficient in the net. He made a lot of tough stops look easy simply by being in position and not doing so in a particularly dramatic or flashy way. He did have to make some quick reaction saves. And he did get bailed out by his skaters twice. Regardless, he kept flummoxing the home team’s offense in conjunction with a Devils defensive effort that really gave them issues. There were a couple of rebounds that did get away from him, he often played those into places where his teammates could help. The one goal against a point-blank rebound try by Vincent Trocheck after a point-blank save on a rebound try by Chris Kreider after a Patrick Kane shot. I really cannot fault him for the goal against. And, as stated so many times on the broadcasts in both games, Schmid was very composed all night long. A great follow up to his Game 3 performance and he will be cheered for sure at the Rock for when he starts Game 5.
What was not so similar was that Our Hated Rivals were not able to generate a whole lot of offense. While the shots were kept to a low amount for both sides at 23 each, the Devils were able to go down the middle of the offensive zone. They were able to create odd-man rushes or 2-on-2 rushes where they had space to work with. The Devils were able to have defensemen jump up on plays. And there was often a Devil charging the net. As a result, the Devils nearly doubled up Our Hated Rivals in high-danger scoring chances and out-scoring chanced them by nine in all situations. That makes a huge difference in what was a fairly low-event game. It also made the People Who Matter realize, “Oh yes, this is what the Devils have done all season. They should keep it up.” Credit to the Devils for never giving up on the attack even with a 2-1 lead. Credit to Lindy Ruff for having his players continue to at least pressure Our Hated Rivals.
This even applied in their own end. That the Devils kept Our Hated Rivals to just 51 shooting attempts and 23 shots in all situations, including three power plays and an extra-man situation for about a minute and a half also speaks to how well the defense played. Kevin Bahl looked like a 10-year veteran with an earned reputation for defense. He was great and OHR failed to generate much against him. Damon Severson was very good in all three zones and did not make any heinous errors. John Marino and Ryan Graves suffered the most among the defensemen in the run of play, but they were very good at defusing a lot of attacks and second chance situations. They were also able to push forward on separate occasions. Game 3’s hero, Dougie Hamilton may regret getting his stick up on Vincent Trocheck’s jack-in-the-box-like head for a penalty in the first period, but he was very solid. Forwards all dropped back smartly to help clean up plays, force exits, and be outlets when the strong-side breakouts did not work. A strong effort from Nico Hischier to Ondrej Palat to Curtis Lazar and more. The defense had a great game as a whole.
The star was, of course, Jonas Siegenthaler. He was excellent in his own end. He rarely panicked or made a poor turnover. He was akin to a rock in the back. Tonight, he was more than just a defender. He attacked. He made the difference tonight. I would go as far as to say tonight was one of his best games ever as a NHL defenseman. It is a trope that the playoffs can unearth some unlikely heroes. It happened again. On this night, it is the man wearing #71 that is the real hero. The defensive-minded defenseman was primarily responsible for two goals scored against Igor Shesterkin in this evening.
- Early in the first period, OHR rushed up ice and Akira Schmid made a stop on Alexis Lafreniere. The save was made but the puck was left open in the crease. Siegenthaler hurried to get to it first and fling it away. In doing so, he lobbed the puck up and out of the zone. Ahead of Adam Fox. And in a place where Jack Hughes could get it. The Big Deal took the puck in on a breakaway, showed at least three flashes of the blade to Shesterkin, and rounded the goalie’s right side for the early goal. A wonderful goal by Hughes and it was a direct result of Siegenthaler saving a potential goal.
- In the third period, Siegenthaler joined an attack as Nico Hischier gained the zone and stopped at the halfwall. The captain saw the defenseman streaking down the right side. Hischier sent a perfect pass through - thanks to a dummy effort from Bratt - to Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler fired it far post and into the net. This made it a 2-1 game and would end up being the game winning goal.
Siegenthaler was named the First Star of the Game by Tonight’s Attending Media. A fully deserved recognition. It has been no secret that the high-scoring Devils from the season has yet to show up in this series. They had a whopping four goals in the first three games and they were scored by The Big Deal (2), Erik Haula (1), and Dougie Hamilton (1). The Devils do need to have more players hit the back of the net. That said, the playoffs are the ultimate situation for the “I don’t care how, just get it done” mentality and so if Siegenthaler’s first playoff goal and first playoff assist would do it, then so be it. That happened tonight and it created a beautiful win in Manhattan.
The game was tight from the start to 19:34 into the third period when Ondrej Palat put home an empty net goal after Jesper Bratt missed the net. The referees absolutely put their whistles away in the third period (and on some other plays). The fans were absolutely not on New Jersey’s side. Neither was the ice at some points or the plexiglass, which needed a panel to be replaced in the second period. It was a very tense situation where the series hung in the balance of a one-score game. The Devils, as a team, did an excellent job managing it in all three periods, and earned a very important win. More than just getting two wins in a row, I want to believe the Devils are legitimately turning this series around. Something that I and the People Who Matter wanted over Our Hated Rivals. Tonight’s strong performance that led to the win has rekindled hope. Now they can focus on the next step.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights from tonight’s Devils win.
There, Playoff Experience Achieved: With the Devils winning one playoff road game in overtime and winning tonight’s playoff road game 3-1 to tie up the series, can the Hockey Media at large drop this narrative? Especially as the better Devils in this series included the inexperienced Hughes, Bahl, and Schmid?
Another Important Change - Nonsense was Condensed: The first three games of this series featured a whole lot of beef between both sides. The Devils opted to throw their weight around in the first two games, which garnered them shorthanded situations that Our Hated Rivals feasted on and did nothing to really dissuade a very-conservative approach by the opponent. The Devils had plenty of that in Game 3 but not as much, which did contribute to, I think, the refs targetting them for fouls. Tonight, the Devils really kept that to a relative minimum. There were far fewer scrums initiated by both teams. There were far fewer attempts to just try to mess someone up instead of getting a puck and making a play. Sure, the Devils and OHR threw hits and got their bodies in the way, but they served purposes beyond wanting to go bonk some heads and show how GRITTY~! they are.
The result was a far more disciplined game from the Devils. They were content to just make stops on defense and focus on getting pucks. They took far, far fewer penalties in the game. Hamilton did get his stick up on Trocheck in the first period. The other two was a delay of game call on Timo Meier for clearing a puck over the glass and a soft holding call on Curtis Lazar. Sure, the refs missed at least two trips by Our Hated Rivals, but the Devils did not opt for revenge and kept focusing on winning the game. The referees, Francis Charron and Jake Brenk, were fine with calling it like a regular season game and the teams obliged. I want to believe Lindy Ruff got through to the players the importance of the game and to remain level headed. I do believe this was a factor in tonight’s winning performance.
The Shortened Bench: The forward lines kept shifting through the third period, leading to some moments like Jack Hughes being on the ice with Michael McLeod. This was a result of the bench being shortened. Jesper Boqvist did get some late shifts, but he played just 8:40 total. Nathan Bastian played 6:16 and Lazar played 4:58. This ended up being fine so no big deal. The purpose of the fourth line is basically to not do stupid things and maybe chip in going forward for a bit. This also meant big minutes for Haula at 18:49, Hischier at 19:58, and The Big Deal leading the team in ice time with 23:51. Fortunately, those three had great games tonight.
The latter was helped out by Palat’s stupid decision to ice the puck with two minutes left, keeping him, Haula, and Hughes out for what would be a 5-on-6 situation after a timeout. The Devils would get the clearance and who else but Hughes would chase it down to ensure that it would not be an icing and Our Hated Rivals could not throw it up ice for a quick restart, allowing his teammates to change. Sure, he was on the ice because he had to be; but Hughes showed that he can handle a defensive-priority situation in a one-goal game in the playoffs. Between that and another thrown hit (I think on Kreider again?) and another playoff goal and five shots on net out of six attempts, the narrative of The Big Deal not being a big deal or being soft took another hit. You love to see it.
Settle Down, Please: Timo Meier ultimately had a good game but he had some real moments where I wondered if he was just trying to do too much. Not only did he take a delay of game call, he coughed up an exit attempt to Kaapo Kakko prior to attempting a more costly exit. He also fell down before that happened too. Meier led the Devils in attempts tonight with nine, but only three got to Shesterkin. Meier would block a couple of shots and win some battles. But I want him to settle down a bit to be more effective than he was.
Streak Breaker: While regular season and playoff stats are normally kept separate, I cannot think the players feel that way. A multiple-game goalless streak going into the playoffs is still a goalless streak to the guy who wants to get out of it. Ondrej Palat, who has had a lot of flaws in this series (and tonight, that icing with two minutes left could have been a killer), did two important things tonight. One, in the second period, Schmid seemingly gloved a shot at the left post. But it squirted through him and slid by the goalline. Palat cleared it away to deny what would have been an easy equalizer. Palat would end up securing the win with an empty net goal after following Bratt missing the net and hitting the endboards with a shot. Palat’s goal was his first since March 7 against Toronto. That was the game where took a shot up high that he needed stitches and returned to the game with a hastily-repaired grill. And then scored that goal, if I recall correctly. That ENG ended an 21-game goalless streak for the veteran. Will this Get Him Going? Maybe. It would be fantastic if it did.
Credit to Ruff, Pt. 2: After getting out-coached in Game 1 and 2 and maybe even in Game 3, Ruff definitely had a better plan tonight. More than the players executing, the Devils skaters were often in good positions and that has something to do with how they were instructed. Defensemen were able to move up to deny potential attacks and make offensive possibilities happen. Forwards were more available as outlets instead of a constant forcing up the strong side of the boards to try to push pucks through the opposition. After three games of Our Hated Rivals owning the middle of the zone, the Devils were able to get into those dangerous locations and make Shesterkin work a bit. The performance by the Devils was, again, more similar to their regular season play. The adjustments made by the Devils, helped in part by Gerard Gallant falter a bit I don’t know why he changed his plans, played a factor in this win. Good job to Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff.
Yes, I know tonight’s hero was bizarrely scratched for Brendan Smith in Game 2. That was then. This is now.
What to Work On: The power play still needs work. And a lot of patience. Whereas Our Hated Rivals are able to get set up and confidently move the puck around, the Devils struggled to get into formation and did not do such a good job moving the puck smoothly. I will say that tonight’s power plays were world’s better than Game 1, but some things have be ironed out on entries and trying to get OHR penalty killers to back off a bit.
While the penalty situation was a lot better tonight, the first two penalties were avoidable. The more I think about it, the less I like the Lazar holding penalty being called at all given how much was let go. It ultimately did not matter, but disicipline needs to remain as a point of emphasis for the Devils in this series.
Be more mindful of Vladimir Tarasenko. While Trocheck got the goal and Kreider created it, that goal and Kreider’s shot before hand were the only shots on net they had tonight. Tarasenko was far more active and threatened a bit more in addition to getting three shots on net. Again, credit to the Devils for keeping many of New York’s top attacking players relatively quiet. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have been skating with him, contributing to Tarasenko being a problem all series, though. If the Devils can solve him (or Gallant can keep tinkering with his lines to mix them up), then that will help the cause further.
By the Way: One of the factors in Our Hated Rivals’ loss was some poor games from Trocheck, Patrick Kane, Kreider, Jacob Trouba, Braden Schneider, Ryan Lindgren, Barclay Goodrow, and Jimmy Vesey. Sure, the first three names mentioned in that list created the one goal. That goal was their sole contribution to the game. The Devils enjoyed playing against them otherwise in 5-on-5. Goodrow and Vesey have been non-factors for the most part all series and continue to drag down Our Hated Rivals when they get some shifts. Trouba having a bad game definitely helped and the Devils created a lot of offensive potential against Schneider and Lindgren. Those three play on different shifts, which speaks to how the Devils were able to attack either with volume or quality or both (especially against Kane) regardless of the matchup. I hate to write it but I do not think all of them will have poor efforts again. But if they do, the Devils would be wise to make it rain on them when they are on the ice.
Fun Fact: Tonight’s playoff win ensured that Lindy Ruff has more playoff wins in New Jersey than John Hynes (2018) and the late Herb Brooks (1993). He is tied with John Cunniff (1990). What does this mean? Not a whole lot right now, but it is a little fun to know.
Your Take: The Devils won an important Game 4 and did so with a very strong, professional effort in all three zones from all three positions and just about every situation. The series is now tied at 2-2, making it a best of three with the Devils having home ice advantage once more. It feels great. What did you think of tonight’s win? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? What was your favorite part of the win other than the win itself? How do you like the Devils chances now that the series is 2-2? What do you think the Devils need to adjust and/or address ahead of Game 5 on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this big win in the comments.