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With the Series at 2-2, What Can We Takeaway from the First 4 Games?

The Devils have fought back with wins in Game 3 and 4 to even up their Best of Seven series vs. the Rangers. This post will cover what they’re doing right and where they still have another level to gain.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Keep staring them down, Jack
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That’s more like it.

I started out my column last week saying “Well, that stunk” after the New Jersey Devils dropped Game 1 to the Rangers in humiliating fashion and things weren’t much better after Game 2. Fortunately, the Devils bounced back in MSG to even things up at two games apiece and we now have a best-of-three to decide who advances to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

A lot has happened since last week when I talked about what I was and wasn’t concerned with, but now that there are three more games in the books since then, I think there’s a lot to dissect from this series. Let’s talk about what the Devils have done right, where they can still improve, and every other storyline from this series that needs to be addressed.

Lindy Ruff Deserves Credit for Making Adjustments

Devils fans were annoyed with Lindy Ruff after Game 1 and livid with him after Game 2, and rightfully so. The lineup decisions and game plan in general for Game 2 made no sense, the fans correctly first-guessed him, and he got the performance he asked for as a result.

So give credit where credit is due. Lindy Ruff has pushed the right buttons after a disastrous 0-2 start to the series and has helped the Devils claw back into this series.

We’ll touch more on Akira Schmid in a second, but turning to the rookie was 100 percent the right call and Schmid delivered with the season on the line. I know we like to rip the Devils from time to time for discussing everything in a committee, but credit to Ruff for consulting with the Devils goaltending braintrust before making the right call here. Miles Wood was actively hurting the Devils cause with offensive zone penalties that led to a power play goal against. Getting him out of the lineup was a no-brainer and long overdue, and I’m genuinely surprised Ruff finally made the call to healthy scratch Wood given his affinity for the veteran winger. It’s debatable whether or not the new fourth line of Jesper Boqvist-Curtis Lazar-Nate Bastian is actually doing a whole lot in these games as they’re playing heavily sheltered minutes, but there’s something to be said about them not sabotaging things for the Devils either.

But perhaps the biggest move (aside from the goalie) that Ruff has made was reinserting Jonas Siegenthaler into the lineup. Granted, Siegenthaler probably never should’ve been out of the lineup in the first place, but what’s done is done and he fixed the mistake he made with the lineup. It turns out playing your best defensive defenseman may in fact help prevent the other team from scoring a bunch of goals. Big, if true.

Siegenthaler was the Devils best skater in Game 4. He was outstanding defensively with his positioning, outstanding with his stick play, and contributed offensively with the critical clearing of the loose puck in Schmid’s crease and subsequent pass for the primary assist on the Jack Hughes goal to make it 1-0. He isn’t known as an offensive force, so he deserves credit as well for his snipe on the eventual game-winning goal in the third period.

It’s not just the lineup changes though where Ruff deserves credit. They’ve made the adjustments to get more space to operate in both the neutral zone and offensive zone. It’s not perfect by any means as the Devils have still struggled to create sustained offensive pressure, but with how the Rangers smothered them in the first two games, its an improvement. The penalty kill has been more aggressive the last two games pursuing the puck-handler as opposed to sitting back and reacting. They’re probably a little fortunate the Rangers power play is 0-for-8 the last two games, but they do deserve credit for slowing down Kreider and making someone else beat them for a change. The Devils would be smart to cut down further on the careless penalties. They’re just asking for trouble between the Dougie Hamilton high stick and the Timo Meier delay of game for a puck over the glass in Game 4, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Schmid Saving the Devils Season

It wouldn’t be fair to solely blame Vitek Vanecek for the Devils falling into an 0-2 hole. He wasn’t great but the skaters in front of him did just as much to put the Devils in that hole as he did. And Vanecek is a big part of the reason why the Devils are in the playoffs in the first place. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Akira Schmid has emerged as the Devils starting goaltender, and he has saved the season in the process.

One could argue that Schmid probably should’ve been starting all along. It’s not a Johnny come lately take, as Mike wrote last month about how Schmid was making his case for the starter’s net. Mike made a great argument at the time, however he did not mention Schmid’s poise, demeanor, and composure in net. He didn’t mention Schmid’s glove work. I don’t write that to take a shot at Mike, of course. But if you watched the Devils throughout season, these are the things you’ve seen with Schmid all season long, regardless of the quality of the opposition he faced. You see his size in net and his positioning in the crease. You see the good glovework. You see that nothing has rattled the kid. You see that he’s been able to come in off the bench and slam the door shut on the opposition. Its one of those things where you either see that Schmid has it watching the games and you understand it, or you don’t.

Also, as a side note, I’m not concerned about Schmid’s rebound control after ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski asked Ruff about it postgame. After rewatching Game 4, it looked to me like the rebounds Schmid was allowing was of the controlled variety, where he was making pad saves, redirecting the puck into the corners or to a space where a Devils player would be the first one to touch the puck and get it out of the zone. It’s true the Rangers got their one goal off of a rebound, but it was also a bit of a broken play that’ll happen from time to time.

Anyways, after getting two critical wins and posting a .966 save percentage in The World’s Quietest Arena When The Opposition is Up 1-0 (trademark pending), there is zero doubt that the Devils need to ride or die with Schmid as their unquestioned starting goaltender for as long as this run lasts.

Devils Stepping Up Defensively

For as much criticism the Devils receive in regards to not getting to the front of the net, the Rangers have arguably been far worse through four games.

I already talked about the job Siegenthaler has done defensively, but the Devils as a collective unit deserve credit as well. They’ve done an outstanding job keeping the Rangers to the outside and taking shots from the perimeter, and the Devils have responded to a rough start by limiting the Rangers to two 5-on-5 goals in the last 132 minutes of game action. Kudos to not only the Devils defensemen, but the forwards as well who are contributing in this area.

It’s not just a result of limiting shot attempts to low-danger chances from distance though (According to Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers have had 12 HDCF chances in the last two games versus 18 in the first two games). It’s a combination of the team buying in and playing with a sense of desperation, their play in the neutral zone, getting sticks in lanes, getting bodies in traffic, well-timed physicality to separate the Rangers puckhandlers from the puck, tying the puck up along the boards, winning board battles, and Schmid’s outstanding rebound control and play in net doing the rest. It’s a performance that was reminiscent of what we saw during the late 90s and early 00s when the Devils were at their best defensively.

I would expect the Rangers to use this extra day off prior to Game 5 to take a look at what the Devils have been doing to them and make an adjustment. But the bottom line is that the Rangers aren’t creating a whole lot offensively right now, which is a testament to how the Devils have played. I’ll be curious to see if the Rangers cheat a little bit defensively to try to create more offense. If they do, it should in theory be easier for the Devils to generate offense off of the rush going the other way. If the Devils have more space to operate when they gain the offensive zone, it should help them solve Shesterkin.

Do The Devils Have Another Level to Gain Offensively?

Sometimes, you got to give the devil their due. The Rangers have done an outstanding job defensively this series making the Devils fight for every inch in the offensive zone. Nothing has come easy for New Jersey in this respect.

Now that we’re four games into the series, I think we’re starting to see the Devils slowly figure things out offensively. The first period of Game 4 was the closest they’ve looked to being the 52-win team we saw in the regular season. The fact that this is even a series at all with the Devils only having three 5-on-5 goals through four games is a credit to what they’ve done defensively the last two games.

I think there are reasons to be encouraged though. The Devils have been winning the possession battle. They’ve done a better job mixing up their approach when gaining the offensive zone rather than skating into a roadblock and turning the puck over on every possession. They’ve been more patient with their approach, as we saw on Jesper Bratt’s primary assist to Dougie Hamilton on his game winning goal in Game 3. As a result, they’re getting more sustained offensive zone time than the one-and-dones they were getting during the first two games of this series. They’re still missing the net too much for my liking and they’re not making Igor Shesterkin work hard enough, but the Devils have chipped away at what the Rangers have thrown at them defensively. Maybe Games 5, 6, and perhaps even Game 7 will be when the Devils finally solve the Rubik’s Cube.

The Devils have been too good offensively this season (T-4th in NHL with 3.52 goals per game) and have too much talent for Timo Meier, Dawson Mercer, and Tomas Tatar to go silently into the night. Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt haven’t found the back of the net yet, and Ondrej Palat only has a goal because it was an empty-netter. The Devils as a unit are shooting 5.8% as a team this postseason. Part of that is going up against a great goaltender in Shesterkin, but the bigger issue has been what the Rangers have done in front of him to keep the Devils from generating sustained pressure.

This is purely a gut feeling on my part, but I feel like the Devils are close to having one of those games where everything clicks, they make it look easy, and they put 4 or 5 pucks past Shesterkin. Hopefully, this happens as soon as tomorrow night and again on Saturday and the Devils advance.

Power Play 2 should be the top Power Play Unit. Prove me Wrong.

Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme, but you get the point. The power play has been somewhere between mid and garbage this series, scoring twice in 13 opportunities (15%).

The power play might be better in that they’re at least gaining the zone and managing to pass the puck along the perimeter a little bit before turning it over or shooting into someone’s kneepads, but it has not been good. The Rangers have been aggressive on their forecheck to force the Devils into coughing the puck up, and the problems that plagued the Devils with the power play during the year are still prevalent now. They have issues gaining the zone and getting set up, let alone getting pucks on net and making the goaltender work.

The Devils put Ondrej Palat in the bumper spot and it did work beautifully in Game 3 as he screened Shesterkin on Jack Hughes’s PPG. But for the most part, the Devils aren’t moving around enough, they’re not moving the puck fast enough to try to get the Rangers out of position, and they’re certainly not shooting enough. It’s easy to backseat coach and yell “SHOOT”, but sometimes, doing that and playing for a rebound or deflection is the right play. The Devils need to simplify their approach with the man advantage. The second power play unit isn’t overly talented when compared to the top unit, but there’s something to be said about playing a simple game, getting pucks on net and trying to create something out of nothing. On a related note, the second unit has as many PPG as the first unit this postseason.

I don’t expect the Devils power play to go toe-to-toe with the Rangers, but with as much talent as the Devils have on offense, I do expect better than what we’ve seen through four games.

Jack Hughes is an Ice-Cold Killer and I Love It

When you think about Madison Square Garden’s greatest villains, the first names you might think of are Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller. Perhaps you’d even recall Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young playing the heel during a playoff series against the Knicks. Young went as far as to make an appearance at WWE Smackdown IN Madison Square Garden to take it to a whole other level.

Jack Hughes is quickly etching his name on the list of players who are public enemy #1 at The World’s Most Overrated Arena. And I love it.

Including the playoffs, Hughes has 6 goals and 3 assists in 10 career games at MSG. He’s scored a goal in Game 3 and Game 4 in New York, staring down Rangers fans in the front row in the process and cementing his status as an ice-cold killer. Rangers fans have responded by raining down boos on Hughes every time he touches the puck as the series has progressed, but to quote New York Yankees legend Reggie Jackson, “Fans don’t boo nobodies.” They’re booing for a reason and its because Jack Hughes has been killing them.

But hey, this is what Rangers fans wanted.

If you think that Hughes is not fully aware of Rangers fans cheering him going to NJ so the Rangers could take the player they convinced themselves was better in Kappo Kakko, you’re not paying attention. Hughes, who grabbed and/or pointed at the Devils crest on his jersey after scoring on the Rangers back on January 7th, symbolically saying he reps New Jersey, has relished every opportunity he’s gotten to stick it to the Rangers. You truly do love to see it.

Under Pressure

One could make the argument that the pressure of playing in the postseason got to the Devils in Games 1 and 2. One could suggest their lack of experience was a contributing factor to them getting blown out twice in their own building. I think the simpler and more accurate explanation for that is the Devils didn’t play all that well, a sentiment Jack Hughes echoed.

Hughes doesn’t speak for everyone on the team though, and there were several players on the team that admitted after Game 1 they were dealing with jitters. It would be naive to suggest the Devils didn’t feel pressure to some extent.

Now that the Devils have won two straight to even up the series, it’s fair to say the pressure is shifting to the other side of the Hudson River.

By now, everyone knows the backstory with the Rangers. They were a team that “rebuilt” by having Artemi Panarin choose to sign there in free agency, Adam Fox force his way to his childhood team before ever playing an NHL game, and Jacob Trouba steer his way out of Winnipeg and into the Big Apple. The Rangers made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final last season before blowing a 2-0 series lead to the Lightning, and then pushed all their chips to the middle of the table at the trade deadline this year with the acquisitions of Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane in an effort to put them over the top.

The Rangers, in a series where they were up 2-0 on the local rival that their fanbase views more as an annoying little brother than a legitimate threat, can not blow it.

Or can they?

Now that the Devils have clawed back into the series, it’ll be fascinating to see what type of response the Rangers have, if any. Schmid and the Devils defense have shut down the Rangers offense the last two games. Will the Rangers stay true to their game plan and try to capitalize on Devils mistakes like they did in the first two games? Or will they get a little more aggressive and potentially open things up the other way where the Devils can take advantage of the Rangers aggression? Will the Rangers players get frustrated the longer they’re held off the scoresheet? Will they start gripping the sticks a little tighter or try to do more than they’re capable of?

It’s impossible to say. But given how the Rangers have approached this season versus the Devils, the pressure is on them to advance. They HAVE to win. Remember, the Devils are in Year 1 of a multi-year window. They’re positioned to contend for years to come. It would be annoying if they lost, but they can also chalk it up as a learning experience and use it as motivation to be better in the future. Can we say the same for the Rangers? It would be a colossal failure not only for the Rangers to lose to a local rival in a “Cup or bust” year, but to blow a 2-0 series lead in the process. I hope it happens.

Celebrate the Little Victories without Getting Too Far Ahead of Yourselves

Your boy made a cameo on the New Jersey Devils official Twitter account at the Watch Party at Redd’s in Carlstadt the other night.

Yeah, that’s me in the red Devils jersey and “Raise Hell” hat at the 11 second mark, jumping up and down and celebrating the Game 3 OT win like we just won the damn Stanley Cup. All the Devils did was win one (1) game to extend their season a few more days, so in retrospect, maybe its a bit over the top.

We have no idea how this journey is going to end for this group, but I think its important to keep things in perspective, celebrate the little victories, and hope like hell this team only continues to further exceed expectations even more than they already have to this point. It’s been a long, rough road for this team and the fanbase since 2012, the last time the Devils won multiple games in a postseason. We’ve had to watch a lot of garbage hockey since then. If you’re not a hermit and have been in public in North Jersey, you may have noticed there’s a bit of a buzz in the air with this team. So enjoy these victories when they happen because they don’t come around very often.

I still believe the Devils are the better team in this series and will ultimately win this series. The fact that the Devils can win games in a variety of different ways and their response in Games 3 and 4 has only reinforced my belief. I’ll definitely be disappointed if they come up short. Losing sucks and losing to your rival sucks even more. But after these last two games, I’m happy that they fought their asses off to keep this run going, even if its just for a few more days.

With all of that said, the series is right there for them. It’s a best-of-three with two of the games in your building, and the other game in a building where you’ve already won twice. Go out and win it.

That’s how I view things through four games. Perhaps you have a different viewpoint you’d like to share. Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading!