Devils’ Resilience In Win Over Isles A Throwback To Last Season’s Success
A lot didn’t go right for the Devils in the second period of their match against their Metropolitan Division rival Islanders on Tuesday night at Prudential Center. It mirrored much of what has transpired in this strange start to this highly-anticipated season.
Another key player, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, was unable to finish the game. Even before his upper body injury, the D corps was exposed to the tune of three unanswered Islander goals that turned a 2-1 Devils lead into a 4-2 deficit. With it came the extension of New Jersey goalie Vitek Vanecek’s maddening inconsistencies; he was replaced by Akira Schmid with seven minutes remaining in the second period.
Last season, there would have been little cause for alarm at such a blip. The hallmark of the Devils’ rise into serious contention was their ability to step up their game when facing adversity. No other team came back from a hole at the start of the third period to win more than the eight games New Jersey turned around.
Unfortunately, as Devils Head Coach Lindy Ruff explained after his club stormed back on Tuesday for a 5-4 victory on grinding winger Curtis Lazar’s goal with 23 seconds remaining, each season bears no relation to the previous one. Just because the Devils excelled in late-game situations when trailing last season, it wasn’t necessarily going to carry over into 2023-24. Tuesday’s win was their first against six defeats when trailing after two periods.
At least the Devils (10-9-1) had managed to tie the contest up at 4-4 before the final minutes on Nico Hischier’s power play goal. Whereas New Jersey was lethal when pulling their goalie for an extra attacker last season, scoring seven times versus 10 empty net goals against, their only 6-on-5 goal through 20 games this season came on a mid-game delayed penalty, and they have already surrendered a league-high seven empty net goals.
In fact, this Devils’ outfit has already matched last season’s total in yielding three goals against when their opponent put out the extra attacker. They’ve just been lucky that none of those late-game stumbles cost them any points (though the Islanders were able to send the first meeting between the two clubs into overtime before falling on a patented Jack Hughes foray). There wasn’t enough time for the Islanders to do much damage when they sent out a sixth skater for the final 23 seconds—they weren’t even able to get off a single shot attempt.
For New Jersey, this one felt like a more consequential win than what you’d typically think for regular season Game 20. It followed Saturday’s more dominant, wire-to-wire performance, a 7-2, victory over Buffalo in Hischier’s first game back after sitting out the previous 11 games with a presumed concussion. All that was missing then was the opportunity to showcase resiliency, since the Devils were never in dire straits.
The Devils definitely had to feel the heat after Ruff “talked” to the group during Tuesday’s second intermission. The Islanders may not be an elite team, but they are virtually tied with New Jersey in their respective climbs to reach an Eastern Conference wild card slot. If the Devils hoped to pull this one out, they had to put quite a bit more desperation into their game.
And they did, outshooting New York, 15-6 in the third period and outchancing them, 16-2, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. New Jersey won more board battles and fought their way to the hard areas around the net front. With their defense in flux due to Hamilton’s injury, they limited the Islanders to just one high danger scoring chance, which Schmid got.
The winning goal wasn’t the typical thing of beauty engineered by the Devils’ top skill players; they weren’t even on the ice. Instead, it was New Jersey’s third line which produced their second goal of the night, with Lazar outworking Islanders defenseman Alexander Romanov near the left post to backhand the rebound of a Kevin Bahl point floater past goalie Ilya Sorokin.
The Devils weren’t winning enough of these types of games earlier in the season. There was always an excuse at the ready. Now, the injuries may keep piling up, their goaltending still looks shaky, and their continued defensive gaffes remain confounding. But with this victory, maybe the Devils are starting to get things back to normal.