You know what, in being a good enough sport to reprise a character he already looked absolutely ridiculous playing a good 20-some-odd years ago, the actor officially known as Patrick Warburton and cult figure known as David Puddy really hit the nail on the head with one of his signature lines...
The New Jersey Devils can, in fact, beat anybody. They damn near proved it in taking down a gauntlet of great teams en route to their first playoff berth in six years. That's why it's a little disappointing that "anybody" currently has a huge upper hand in a series that's starting to look like nothing more than a learning experience.
Now, unexpected is something it's definitely not, but I really can't help but feel like the Devils didn't just owe it to themselves to take this thing back to Tampa Bay tied at two, but also owed it to the 53 year old man that gladly painted both his face and his chest in maniacal support of the team. Granted, he probably basked in having both a non-obnoxious opportunity to go topless given his stunning amount of upper body definition. Still, that was a shocking amount of dedication to method acting from someone whose decades removed from having to do it to break into the industry. If for no other reason than it was at least deserving of a win in return, the Devils need to bring this back to New Jersey so Puddy can get his payoff.
My first inclination was to start off talking about the questionable Nikita Kucherov hit that left Sami Vatanen in the locker room, and - unfortunately - that speaks volumes about how ordinary the Devils' effort was in being pushed to within a loss of their offseason. There were certainly things to like about a flawless penalty killing performance that highlighted the work of a depleted defense that was without its most important player for the final forty minutes, but there were just as many things not to like a pitiful powerplay that low-lighted the work of an impotent offense that couldn't get much going after coming up empty on a couple point blank chances. Nico Hischier looked much like his bathroom scale reads and, on first glance, Taylor Hall appeared to fall victim to the Lightning's much more concerted effort to not let him beat them. While I think that considering New Jersey a one man show is insanely stupid, the Devils don't exactly have multiple headliners and their main one wasn't as much of a rockstar as he usually is. Like any top-end team would, Tampa Bay made adjustments that flustered an inexperienced group and coaching staff that's still learning the intricacies of the chess match that is playoff hockey.
Now, having their two-way defenseman that, mostly out of necessity, admirably carries their top defensive pairing and mans both special teams units available to them probably could have aided in creating some offense, and for his absence we have Nikita Kucherov to thank...
Honestly, if you had asked me last night then a stoning in the public square would be the only acceptable form of justice, but - having had time to digest the disappointment - I actually don't think the hit was all that dirty. Of course, "dirty" isn't supposed to be the only grounds for suspension, but that's neither here nor there...
At this point, I would be the most annoyed if I were Drew Doughty, for it's clear that the NHL just scapegoated the front-runner for the superlative Most Likely To Deserve It in trying to convince people that they really, really do give star players the same treatment. Seeing as I don't think Sami Vatanen spent two periods in the locker room with a bruised bosum after having his head jerked back in a fashion fitting of a fender bender, I think we've already begun to let semantics decide suspensions. Nikita Kucherov should have been temporarily sent to timeout for no other reasoning than the NHL's own goddamn reasoning. That fact that he's not going to be, during a series that has gotten increasingly out of the hands of the officials, is just another sign that the NHL values its predictable unpredictability over player safety.
I suppose it's also of note that someone who knows a thing or two about in-zone coverage decided to examine the lack of it from the player you'd most expect to get picked on during film study...
In turning his full back on one of the most dangerous snipers in the sport while he sat in the slot, Damon Severson basically displayed the situational awareness of someone trying to answer an e-mail while at gunpoint. What he was thinking? Well, much like the logic behind every decision that's forced the Devils to send one of their two most talented defensemen to a luxury suite, the world may never know. Scott Stevens broke down exactly why he's just as polarizing as he is both promising and infuriating. He's just as likely to be brilliant as he is to be braindead, and sometimes being flat out bad is easier on your teammates than being bipolar.
That's not to say that one blind box out or one uncalled hit to the head cost the Devils the game. They merely played pretty good against a great team, and - especially when you're not opportunistic - that's not going to cut it in the postseason. They've played their best hockey when their backs are against the wall, so counting them out completely - no matter how bleak things currently look - is a fool's errand. That said, if Sami Vatanen is out for any amount of time and the powerplay and penalty kill don't start clicking in conjunction, then that wall is going to give way pretty damn quickly.
While The Missed Call On Eric Staal Was Inexcusable, It's A Bit Much For Bruce Boudreau To Claim It Cost His Team The Game
First and foremost, the play above is one in which a penalty inarguably needs to be called, regardless of circumstance. Even if the NHL weren't in the midst of taking a long overdue stance against head shots in their sport, their officials letting an obvious crosscheck to the side of a player's face go undisciplined solely because it happened to occur when the guilty party was already on the penalty kill is the type of antiquated and overly traditionalist bullshit that makes the league look as though it's about as capable of governing itself as internet comment sections. The game is no longer organized warfare, and thus a successful homicide should not be a requirement of every two-man advantage throughout its playoffs.
That being said, what this instance isn't - or shouldn't be, anyway - is an opportunity for a losing team to pin all of their own failures on one first period play...
I don't want to call into question the character of someone with which my familiarity is limited to watching his face turn the color of the warning sign that should pop up on the screen as the camera scans to his lips when things aren't going his way. However, I'd be lying if I said that Bruce Boudreau didn't strike me as the type of old-fashioned antagonist that typically loves when referees pick and choose when to put their whistles away. I could be wrong, of course, but he also doesn't come off as someone who would adamantly demand an immediate ejection for a wayward stick to the face if not for said face belonging to his 40+ goal scorer.
I'm not going to go as far as calling him a hypocrite because it's impossible for anyone to remain objective in judging the officiating of a game in which they're emotionally invested, never mind someone whose job security depends on it. On the other hand, I will go as far as calling him a finger-pointing son of a bitch who probably should have put more thought into coaching the contest as it stood as opposed to crafting a hypothetical game script in which, for some reason, his team's 5-on-3 powerplay would have only been successful in erasing their careless defensive zone breakdown.
I surely sympathize with his frustration, but I guess what I am trying to say is that if a head coach ignores the butterfly effect while listing off a bunch of dependent assumptions that favor his team and, in crafting his biased best case scenario, still doesn't envision said team scoring a single goal in regulation then they probably needed a hell of a lot more help than one whistle.
By no means does the following excuse the officials' stupidity, but sometimes in hockey shit just happens. The best teams are those that wipe it and move the hell on, because needing everything to go your way to win is a loser's mentality.
After Being Left Exposed By The Kings In The Expansion Draft, Brayden McNabb Swept Up Their Season In Scoring The Game-Winning Goal For The Golden Knights
I guess my only question is, when does it end? That's not at all a desperate plea for the clock to strike midnight on the Cinderella season of the Golden Knights. Unlike almost every executive on the NHL payroll, I want what's best for hockey. An expansion team in a non-traditional market making an immediate playoff run with an upstart group that's thrown together recyclables just about as efficiently as those community initiatives that somehow repurpose actual trash as eco-friendly playgrounds is good for business. Plus, the 11th hour has a much different meaning in a city where time is of absolute no essence, so it's very fitting that the nightcap to this fairytale is getting extended one round at a time.
That being said, are we really going to exhaust even the most implausible of feel good stories during their first season in the league? I wanted to force a topical gambling reference here, but I truly don't think there's anything available at the sportsbook that's as unlikely as a stay-at-home defenseman who came into the contest having scored 12 goals in 322 career games coming back to haunt the team that let him walk by stepping up into the play, getting down on one knee, and unleashing a game winning one-timer like he got body snatched by Brent Burns. If it embarrasses an organization that encourages Drew Doughty then I'm typically all for it, but was Marc-Andre Fleury completing his slow and steady transformation from postseason parking cone to impenetrable shield of armor not a perfect enough narrative for a team that's been producing them as frequently as the rainbows they keep shooting out of their ass?
Did defying all sorts of odds and analytics to sweep up the divisional opponent with which they are most likely to become rivals in their first ever postseason series as a franchise make for more of a filler column than a front page story?
I'm a big fan of the "how you like me now?" angle that was produced by the most unlikely of sources, but Brayden McNabb sealing the Kings' fate feels a little too fit for a movie script that's being acted out hourly on the strip. I don't hate that the Vegas Golden Knights can't stop, won't stop making the rest of the league look stupid. However, now that they've silenced Hollywood, could they at least space out the show times on their ironic acts of comeuppance before they saturate the market and force us all to start resenting them in the same way we begin to resent their city during the cab ride to the airport?
In What I'm Deeming An Inevitable Accident, Radko Gudas Likely Ended Sean Couturier's Sensational Season During Practice
I don't want to blame Radko Gudas for likely ending the season of his first line center who was enjoying a career year up until the point he got his legs violently clipped out from under him by an oblivious teammate. It's probably not his fault that, during the time of the year in which health is of the upmost priority, a moronic drill was designed to have to two professional hockey players receiving passes from opposite directions while at high rates of speed in the same area of the ice. Call me crazy, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the preeminent big dumb animal of all the big dumb animals that have filled the antiquated role of penalty box pundit/hooligan in the Flyers' lineup is forbidden from laying his graceless hands on the clipboard. Therefore, pointing a finger in his direction is relatively senseless given that the insanely dangerous collision somehow didn't appear to be too far off from how it was drawn up.
Sadly though, I have no choice but to do just that. You see, in my eyes, Radko Gudas has long lost the benefit of the doubt. His "it was an accident" card has been punched so many goddamn times that it has more holes than the Flyers' postseason resume, and I'm pretty sure it got flat out revoked after that time he tried to behead someone with his stick. Add a full beard and an appetite for injury while subtracting any and all hirable qualities and he's basically 'Mayhem' from the AllState commercials. He lurks around for long enough and disaster is universally known to strike sooner rather than later, so no - his reputation is not currently insured from unfortunate circumstances that are outside of his control.
Radko Gudas legitimately would have had a tough time throwing a dirtier hit if he was actually trying to, and that's truly saying something. That something is that the Flyers have been playing with fire by keeping him employed, and - while I hate making a joke of a seemingly avoidable injury to a high-level player - they finally burned themselves in a way that can't just be padded by Sidney Crosby's powerplay stats with their 'Broad Street Bullies' bullshit.
Plus. can you really call something an accident when it's preceded by a warning sign?
Twenty four hours ago, the Devils were averaging five goals against during two straight losses of which they spent exactly zero seconds with the lead. Now, you could legitimately envision a scenario in which existing pieces could be put together to solve the puzzle that is the Tampa Bay Lightning, so I guess that's why you should wait until both teams get an opportunity to play at home before writing one of them off. Every small victory that could be taken from the games in Tampa Bay was moral in nature, but - in instilling a little bit of doubt into the heavy favorite - the Devils stumbled upon quite a few avenues to get this thing back to Tampa tied at two.
First and foremost, Cory Schneider was excellent in a way that makes me want to waterboard myself for questioning the decision to start him. I think the rap he's gotten since his return from injury has somehow been worse than every mumbled musical abortion that has been released in 2018. Still, the truth of the matter is that he was undeniably struggling and when his team needed him the most he battled through both the physical and mental bumps and bruises to give them a chance to win. The problem with making the call on goaltending controversies is that it's largely up to the 18 players in front of them to make you look like either a genius or an idiot with absolutely no in between. Continuing to ride Keith Kinkaid was the safe choice in that it would have made smaller that disparity, so credit to the selfless veteran whose ups have always been undeservingly overshadowed by his downs for making everyone look smart with a stellar performance. He was given the chance, but he earned back his net when a failure to do so would have effectively ended the season. The rest of the book remains unwritten, but Cory Schneider penned a hell of an opening chapter to his redemption story.
That said, acting as if a goalie switch was the only thing to turn the tides on Tampa would be quite the disservice to the rest of the team. Marcus Johansson's puck carrying ability was a breathe of air that was as fresh as his legs seemed to be. The endorsements of Travis Zajac rung louder and louder with each face-off leading to yet another even strength shift in which Steven Stamkos name went without mention. The dominance of Taylor Hall continued to be predetermined, even in the postseason. Guys like Blake Coleman and Pat Maroon spent just as much time annoying the opposition with their in-your-face styles of play as they did with the non-stop motors on their mouthes. For as strategically limited as Will Butcher's role is, both his goal and his blocked shot were necessary in making sure the Devils' powerplay didn't work against them at the worst possible time. The rest of the defense, while not exactly reminiscent of those that currently line the rafters, did an admirable job in avoiding the half-forced disasters that doomed them in Tampa Bay.
All in all, it was an effort that was a lot more like what we grew accustomed to seeing from a team that's makes up the length they are from perfect with perseverance. The Devils needed to be a difficult team to play against, and look no further than Tampa's temper tantrum for proof that they got back to that last night. A player who typically remains unfazed in playing a Norris Trophy-caliber brand of defense doesn't stick a 19 year old in the dick for no apparent reason because he has an elementary sense of humor....
Rather, he does so because he's clearly frustrated, and a hard-fought, fast-paced game devolving into a laugher complete with death threats was proof that he was far from the only one...
It won't matter much if they continue to take penalties against a Lightning team that treats powerplays like magic mushrooms, but the Devils clearly found their way under the skin of the superior team last night. If that was a precursor for Wednesday then there's no reason to think their relentlessness won't be relevant in a series that's more than likely going to be a hell of a lot tighter than the first three scores would lead you to believe. The Lightning can outscore the best of them, but they certainly aren't the type of team that excels at being forced to grind out victories. The Devils did just that in fighting their way off the mat that they were complicit in pinning themselves to, and - in a building whose raucousness has been six years in the making - they have a chance to reaffirm that they now have a better command of the postseason ropes.
Just listen to that reaction and tell me it's not amazing the difference a day can make...
After Months Spent Battling Concussion Issues, Marcus Johansson Is Making His Much Anticipated Return To The Devils' Lineup And Not A Moment Too Soon
I think I speak for almost every New Jersey Devils' fan in saying that a smile shot across my face as I read that Marcus Johansson was finally making his return from his second head injury of the season. Never mind what he brings as a player, because this is great news for him as a person, and I think he would agree that it feels long, long overdue.
Now, that said, I have absolute no idea what to expect out of him tonight. The optimist in me says it should be an infusion of experience, puck skills, and creative on the left side of the second line, as well as a desperately needed puck carrier and playmaker for the second power play unit. The pessimist in me says someone who looks like a shell of the player whose compromised health never allowed him to carve out a consistent role in a lineup that didn't truly take shape until well after Brad Marchand got a 5-game slap on the wrist for trying to end his career.
Considering that he's been skating for awhile now and John Hynes isn't currently in a position to be handing out pity plays in the Top 6, I'm inclined to believe it's closer to the former than the latter and that should bode well for a team that could benefit from any and all forms of offensive firepower at their disposal. I have no choice but to speak theoretically until he takes a shift or two, but the lineup should be one that's both deepened and improved by the presence of a proven playoff performer like Marcus Johansson.
More so, I wouldn't discount what this means in the locker room. If the decision to start Cory Schneider is at least partly an attempt to light a fire under this team, then seeing a guy that's been doing everything in his power to get back on the ice finally have the chance to lace them up when it matters most has to serve as at least a couple dozen squirts of gasoline.
I don't think that a lack of inspiration is what cost the Devils two games in which they reverted back to being disaster-prone defensively. That said, it'll be impossible for them to take this opportunity for granted having just got their MoJo back for the first playoff game in front of a fanbase that has been itching and scratching like Tyrone Biggums to finally, after six long ass years, turn home ice into a meaningful advantage. This Devils' team has proved they can play with the Tampa Bay Lightning for prolonged stretches, so the one thing this wealth of internal motivation doesn't provide them is an excuse if that next prolonged stretch isn't 60 minutes (and possibly +). They should be familiar with the concept of do-or-die hockey by now, and they should be more equipped to breathe some life into this series than they have been at any point this season.
After A Rocky Reality Check On The Road, The Devils Desperately Need To Find Their Poise At The Prudential Center
Not so coincidentally, it's never the team that's used and, in the case of Tampa Bay fans and their mind-numbingly obnoxious children's toys, abused their home ice advantage that is left banging the drum and loudly repeating to anyone that will listen that a playoff series doesn't truly start until a team loses in their own building. I don't think that overused phrase was coined solely to give hope to the hopeless so there is probably some merit to it, but if the Devils' confidence and consistency doesn't match their urgency then that well of wishes will run dry very, very quickly.
If there's one thing that could be said about a young team that was resilient in its constant surpassing of expectations it's that, even when the standings appeared the bleakest and the schedule looked the most daunting, they never let one mistake lead to another. The Devils may have been short on experience while desperately clinging to their playoff spot all season, but they were also short on memory. The exact opposite could be said about the last two games in which stretches of play plagued by tentativeness, indiscipline, disorganization, and a lack of focus have dug them into meteoric holes that would have Chilean miners considering the ensuing uphill battle a pointless one.
The first period may have been better this time around, but it was much of the same in regards to quickly crumbling due to self-destructive plays. Instead of an egregious turnover or two, it was a poorly-timed change that left Andy Greene and Damon Severson staring at each other like two kids who knocked into a vase while playing ball in the house and were more concerned about figuring out who was going to take the rap for breaking it as opposed to grabbing it mid-wobble. Instead of Miles Wood selfishly taking an unnecessary slashing penalty, it was Ben Lovejoy's rushed and nervous taking of an unnecessary delay of game penalty. Instead of Mirco Mueller whacking a puck waywardly into a wide-open one timer, it was Sami Vatanen providing an even more "helpful" hand in stopping at no amount of rebounds while stuffing the puck into his own goddamn net.
In living up to their name, the Lightning are no strangers to striking quickly, but the Devils have turned themselves into the most prototypical of victims by drowning deep in their own end of the talent pool while the skies are at their darkest. The opponent is quite obviously a formidable one, but their job is being made a hell of a lot easier by a team that's doing the hockey equivalent of standing under a tree and tightly clutching a metal flag pole during a thunderstorm. Tampa Bay is deadly enough to make even the best teams in the league look dumb in their demise, but there have been periods in which it looked like New Jersey was actively campaigning to win a Darwin Award. Those periods are only made more frustrating by the amount of fight they have shown in making things look as respectable as their effort outside the mental bathroom breaks that have flushed their odds of an upset.
To be honest, I'm not too concerned with the personnel decisions, because the last two games haven't been close enough to be decided by the absence of one particular skill-set or an over-reliance on another. Those losses were team efforts no matter who was on the ice, just as the wins that that got them into the postseason in the first place were team efforts regardless of who was on the ice. John Hynes will always be the scapegoat because that's one of his top 2-3 responsibilities as the head coach of a professional hockey team, but - much like one healthy scratch isn't to blame for them coming out the gates slow - the inevitable changes to the 4th line or the 3rd pairing, in and off themselves, aren't capable of getting the Devils back up to speed in this series.
Therefore, there's really only one upcoming choice that's worth debating, and boy, oh boy, is it a doozy...
The truth is, there is no definitive answer when it comes to who to start in net for Game 3. It doesn't matter who it ends up being, if that person puts forth a better then average showing in victory then it was the right decision, and if that person puts forth a subpar showing in defeat then it was the wrong decision. That said, I think I'd stick with the guy who, since dragging the Devils into the playoffs, has done nothing other than been hung out to dry by the team in front of him. The worst goal Keith Kinkaid gave up last game was a Brayden Point-blank shot that got pinned perfectly under the crossbar, so - while he's been lit up like a Christmas tree - he certainly hasn't been most responsible for the abundance of red lights flickering around him.
I'm generally a Cory Schneider apologist in that I don't think he was nearly as bad as some would lead you to believe in the first two starts he made after returning from the IR, nor do I completely dismiss what was a hell of a first half to his season due to some circumstantial losing streak that spanned both a sickness and an injury. Still, thinking he should start means thinking that one very good period in one of the least pressurized situations the Devils have faced in the last month and a half completely cured what's been ailing the combination of his groin and his psyche.
Cory Schneider is the more talented net minder, but that was also true when he was forced to the end of the bench like he stole something during both ends of a back-to-back against bottom-feeders like the Islanders and Canadiens. Maybe he's found his game, but the entirety of the organization better know that to be the case if he's the choice, because one early goal against is much more liable to kill his confidence in cold blood than it is the person who has earned a reputation of being able to recover in willing the Devils to the playoffs.
Long story short, if the reasoning is nothing more than "maybe a team that prides itself on self-starting will be magically sparked into playing less stupid by benching the player that saved their season" then it's purely a desperation move, and that line of thinking runs directly contrary to the idea that this series is still very much undecided.
I tend to agree with Taylor Hall in believing that goaltending is the least of their concerns, but that doesn't change the fact that going away from Keith Kinkaid before he even got a well-deserved postseason start at home is much more likely to create questions than answer them. It's a tough decision that will undoubtedly be judged too harshly or praised too adamantly in retrospect, so let's hope the person making that decision is taking every possible ramification into consideration as opposed to making a change for the sake of making a change. This Devils team didn't get where they are by panicking, and - as inevitable as a Cory Schneider spot start would be during an sort of significant playoff run - they damn sure aren't going to get where they want to go by doing so either.
I tried to think about the best way to put this in perspective for a person who has never picked up a hockey stick and, in conjunction with the puck, used it to completely demoralize the person standing between them and the net. I searched and searched for the best cross-sport analogy, and here is what I have come up with.
Filip Forsberg having the balls to even attempt going through both his legs and the legs of his defender in a one-goal playoff game is like trying to throw down what would be a certified '50' in a dunk contest within the framework of a half-court offense. Think Vince Carter jumping clear over a 7'2 French dude at the Olympics, but with less compromised testicles. If fans of the And 1 Mixtape Tour happened to be tuned into the NHL Playoffs for some odd reason they would be left wondering what the Predators faithful were still doing in their seats, for they would have long run out of the goddamn gym hissing and hollering like a catfish out of water after witnessing such a high level of emasculation. In fact, it was a display so disrespectful that if we were judging by the unwritten rules of baseball, the Colorado Avalanche would have to lineup and pelt Filip Forsberg in the jugular with at least 6-8 slapshots before they felt as though retribution had been achieved and the matter had been resolved.
Pulling off a move with that many moving parts would be impressive no matter who the opponent or what the stage. When you consider the moving parts belonged to a professional athlete skating at full speed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the idea of manipulating them so effortlessly is almost as incomprehensible as a team letting go of a player that possesses that type of talent.
Oh well, at least he's in another conference so the Capitals don't have to worry about being directly haunted by right-handed left wingers that are endlessly crafty, wear #9, and were traded for far less than they are worth. Am I right?!?
Against All Odds, Nazem Kadri Managed To Become The Most Hated Player In A Series That Features Brad Marchand
You couldn't possibly ask for an easier job. I'm not going to pretend I was in the unfriendly confines of TD Bank Garden and know exactly what role Mike Babcock laid out for his second line, two-way center that's as talented as he is enigmatic, but I can't imagine that he was asked to go out there and immediately become the most bathroom-clearing asshole in the entire building. The one thing that was working in Toronto's favor was that the person most likely to draw the ire of the officials, as well as force the hand of the Department of Player Safety, played for their opponent. While that will temporarily remain true as Nazem Kadri stands a better chance of having Donald Trump personally grant him American citizenship than he does of playing in Game 2 (or, if the NHL's balls have dropped, 3 and 4), the long term prognosis is that this rat-nosed piece of trash is merely the runner-up for the superlative of Most Likely To Come Upon His Reckoning...
And it's not just one of the most unsightly instances of attempted ass-to-mouth that these eyes have ever seen that makes me say so. If the following clips are any indication, Nazem Kadri basically made it his mission to be the first player suspended from a series that featured your favorite dickhead's favorite dickhead and that's something that Tom Cruise would have found impossible prior to last night...
Like, talk about not even leaving a shadow of a doubt in rendering both his "but..." and his butt deserving of a spanking. A player that could have easily goated the GOAT of doing indiscipline dumb shit into a disciplinary hearing instead decided to steal his crown as King Scumbag. Just straight up took whatever sympathy card the Maple Leafs might have had in their back pocket and ripped it into a million indecipherable pieces by chin-checking a defenseless player with his hip.
Honestly, I might need to guzzle TUMS like they are Skittles to get through the remainder of a series in which Brad Marchand is (temporarily, anyway) playing on the moral high ground, and - for the endurance of that internal discomfort - I have Nazem Kadri to "thank".
The truth is, despite believing that New Jersey had a decent chance of winning this series before it started, I thought it would have taken an upset of epic proportions for them to go into Tampa Bay and steal home ice advantage in Game 1. After a head-scratching season series, they were owed one by a team that finally had the motivation to match their level of desperation. If you've been building their case by telling yourself that the Devils have been playoff hockey against top-end competition for the last month then I welcome you to the club, but admitting to yourself that - for the most part -their opposition wasn't is a response that's required of this membership. Not that anyone thought that beating the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference after scratching and clawing to retain their playoff spot was going to be easy, but everything should be a little bit harder come mid-April. Defensively, the Devils didn't act according to the latter half of that cliche, and that's largely why the are looking at a one game hole headed into Saturday.
While I'd love to take up residence in a perfect world where the Devils are capable of breaking the spirit of even the most ferocious of forechecks, the fact of the matter is that the Lightning are too goddamn good not to turn them over every once and awhile. Limiting those giveaways and breakdowns while making sure they don't result in one of Tampa's handful of 20-goal scorers standing unencumbered in front of their net is a much more realistic expectation that a young team failed miserably in meeting last night. It wasn't entirely unpredictable that they were overwhelmed and outclassed in the first period of a series against a team that's been there before, but fixing the issues in their own end are paramount if they want to instill even a little bit of doubt in said team. Long story short, now more than ever, you absolutely cannot beat yourself if you're looking to also beat a team that is, top to bottom, better than you.
And that's where Mirco Mueller comes in, or - more accurately - should come out. He wasn't the only player whose mistakes cost the Devils (See: Maroon's tape-to-tape offensive zone turnover) but he's one of the only players whose mistakes looked to have effected his play over the course of the game. Theoretically, he's only playing because he's the "safer" option, but after his overhanding of the puck turned into the most untimely of two goal deficits he was about as cautious as juggling a live grenade while trying to weave your way through traffic to get to the nearest shitter. The haphazard clear turned perfect one-timer pass wasn't as egregious a decision as watching the result in slow-motion would lead you to believe, but it was fitting of player that played like...well...someone who struggled to take his game to the next level after spending merely eight games back in the lineup getting used to the previous level. I was already skeptical of the Devils scratching their second or third most skilled defensemen against a team with which they are dealing from an obvious talent disparity, but if that was an example of the "smarts" they are prioritizing then get Damon Severson's dumb ass in the lineup ASAP. Sink or swim, his offensive prowess and right-handed shot probably give the blue line their best chance of staying afloat in stormy waters.
All in all, the score didn't reflect how well the Devils played for some stretches. After Miles Wood's moronic and unnecessary penalty rightfully got him benched and ultimately pushed Tampa's lead to three, the final 38 minutes and change were a pretty good portrayal of how close this series can be if the Devils avoid defensive disasters. Zajac and friends put quite the kibosh on the Stamkos-Kucherov line, the powerplay looked fantastic (and for potentially the first time all year I say that of both units), Taylor Hall proved that he probably should have started doing this whole postseason ages ago, and the resilient team we've all come to know and love actually made a game of it. If they do that from the outset then, win or lose, you're likely looking at a much more competitive game on Saturday. The Devils got their kick in the ass and it didn't leave them flat on their face. I think that bodes well for a team that's very much learning what it takes to win this time of the year on the fly.
My only problem with this harmless and mildly clever act of fandom is that it didn't come later in the series. To be quite honest, I chuckled a little bit when I saw it, and that has everything to do with he fact that I didn't see it at some point during the two week war that's about to be started at 7PM EST. I'm about two hours and change from despising everything about a relatively nondescript city in a state whose secession would bring an abrupt end to the American epidemic of inventing new drugs out of household cleaning products, and that includes the airline employees and their silly senses of humor.
So touché, funny man, but try this shit again a week from now and I'm hoping on the next flight to the poor, drunk, and homeless man's California and bolting you to the runway I landed on. It's New Jersey Devils Vs. Everybody. Keep thinking your slick by hanging those flags and soon they will be gently laying one across your casket.
I know that 'Paint The Ice' promotions are largely aimed at pandering to young, naive fans that can be easily distracted from organizational incompetence with bright colors and drawing utensils. Still, I can't help but think that it's oxymoronic for the Buffalo Sabres, of all organizations, to host one with the unspoken rule being "if you don't have something nice to write then don't write anything at all". Like, either give your season ticket holders free reign to be critical or don't encourage them to turn your ice into their canvas, because making them say complimentary things about a franchise they wasted their hard-earned money on might actually be more painstaking than subjecting them to 41 games of futility for the umpteenth season in a row.
I suppose the creativity of the kids shouldn't be sabotaged by the frustrations of their parents, but let's take a second to think about who is flipping the bill to come see a team that's annually dreaming of clear fairways every single February. In my opinion, if the Sabres gave a damn about their truest of fans they'd bring in artificial snow and let the holder of every credit card on file empty their bladder in sending an unmistakable message to management. At the very least, the person who knows all-too-well exactly what a season ticket is worth should be able to deem it "worthless".
Hey advanced analytics community...check, and - if you don't have the math available to measure the collective moods of grown men - then...mate. I know you worked really hard calculating them, but unfortunately you're going to have to take all those fancy equations that, over the course of 82 underwhelming games, shows that the Montreal Canadiens were set up for failure by their front office and shove 'em, because the iceberg that was a bad overall attitude is what they really sank their season.
Obviously it's not the lack of talent that was instrumental in their losing ways, but rather the fact that said talent didn't show up to the rink everyday with a smile on their face packing the cheerful spirit necessary to succeed. Granted, that's probably because the General Manager pining for a different demeanor is the same one that shipped out one of the most electrifying defensemen in all of hockey for an older, less talented version of himself due to the locker room cancer that was his affable personality. Still, let's not act like that quote is just a diversion of blame to anyone whose high paying job doesn't require them to build a competitive roster for one of the most prestigious organizations in hockey.
After all, would someone that didn't see any error in his ways be kind enough to fall on the sword for the 13 games in which his team accidentally happened to stumble upon a loser point? It wasn't only the players' fault....just the 40 or so times that they didn't summon their positivity to will their way into an overtime period that could boost their point total by way of a largely empty result. Seems like a pretty fair dispersal of scapegoating, you know, if you ignore just about every preseason prediction that had them finishing exactly where they did prior to taking into account the team's overall temperament.
Hockey Sticks Across All Of North America Are Being Left Out In Memory Of, And In Solidarity With, The Humboldt Broncos
For the love of the game.
Call it just one of the dozen baseball movies featuring Kevin Costner. Call it a rationalization of the seemingly absurd amount of time and effort we put into sports. Call it going to extreme lengths to humanize the athletics we immerse ourselves in so as to justify an otherwise suffering social life. What that saying is, in this instance anyway, is pretty much the only way to describe how long bus rides, that - in and of themselves - are typically terrible, become unforgettable bonding experiences upon being shared with teammates.
I'm not going to lie to you. It's a sad truth that I'm not proud of, but I've become at least mildly desensitized to almost every disastrous event in which the mass casualties are those that had full lives left to live. Maybe the prominence of school shootings, the all-too-familiar details that generally surround them, and the shameless politicizing that tends to follow just blend together in a hodgepodge of horrific, but - for whatever reason - the nauseating news of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash packed much more of a gut punch.
That doesn't make it any more or less of a tragedy obviously, but - for everyone that grew up looking forward to cramming themselves into a restricted mode of transportation that they were sure to turn into an adolescent playground for hours on end - this one hit closer to home. Oddly enough, seeing as a considerable amount of time on it was spent in anything but a secure position, the team bus has always been a bit of a safe haven of unsophistication. A sanctuary on wheels, if you will. The family, friends, and remaining members of a proud junior hockey organization can no longer think of it that way and that's almost an unimaginable feeling for everyone that can all-too-easily go back in time and put themselves in the carefree skates of the injured or deceased.
While propping up a stick on the porch is a small showing of solidarity with a group of young men that, whether they are still with us or not, just eternally became a team for all the wrong reasons, it's actually the perfect one. To almost any hockey player, the only thing as relatable as leaning a twig up against a house, or a garage, or a basement wall, or a locker room, or the boards, or anywhere else where it is easily accessible if literally any handheld object is just begging to be toe-dragged is casually launching it into the luggage compartment of a Greyhound so as to get in another couple of seconds messing around in a way that turns teammates into friends and friends into family. I'm not even sure how anyone could feel entirely comfortable doing the latter as of yet, but the former serves quite the remembrance of a group of kids who were just trying to live an eerily familiar dream when, out of absolutely nowhere, it became a nightmare.
The unbelievable support and the inspirational stories that have come of this catastrophe serve as formidable band-aids, but nothing can quite patch the hole left in Saskatchewan's heart and the hockey community's soul...
In A Move That Is Poetically Nonsensical, Ilya Kovalchuk Is Reportedly Signing A Multi-Year Deal With The Rangers
Normally I would be a bit more skeptical of breaking news that's preceded by nothing more than "per source", seeing as that's become the sports media's way of implying that they've finished exchanging whispers and their game of telephone has reached it's conclusion.
However, this particular breaking news actually makes so little sense that I'm feeling more and more inclined to treat it as fact. After all, Ilya Kovalchuk and the New York Rangers currently make for such a horrific match that no one, in their right mind, would comfortably presume that they were getting together unless they had verification that was the case.
In theory, the team whose organizational philosophy has always revolved around acquiring shooting stars as their brightness begins to fade is the perfect destination for a soon-to-be 35 year old that, while still very talented, is well past his prime. Adding him to a list of names that's awe-inspiring when you consider how little they accomplished in New York actually seems fitting. Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Bobby Holik, Chris Drury, Brad Richards, Scott Gomez, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle, Rick Nash. Those underwhelming additions could use a self-serving left winger to continue the Blueshirts' rich history of bolstering aging players' bank accounts.
That is, if it weren't for the recently publicized priorities of the two parties in question.
First and foremost, Ilya Kovalchuk, who - despite shredding his contract and up and leaving the NHL to play for a stacked team in an inferior league - is now apparently dying to hoist a trophy that actually has some prestige...
And then, the New York Rangers, who - after decades of doing almost the exact opposite - made a mid-season insistence that they will be changing the direction of their franchise by way of "young, competitive players that combine speed, skill, and character"...
The only scenario in which those two thought processes could possibly meet is in the VIP section of an upscale NYC club after relapsing on their drug of choice. In this particular instance, the substance they allegedly chose to abuse is the spotlight. I don't know which entity is more desperate for attention, but I've seen far too many headlines hijacked by the player in question and too many offseasons won by the organization in question to believe there's nothing suspicious about the timing of this announcement. The Devils officially have a playoff matchup to call their own and the Rangers don't for the first time since his abrupt departure, and Ilya Kovalchuk almost immediately calls for the dropping of this bomb? Kudos to him for being able to build up a senseless grudge against the organization that he (in retrospect, thankfully) wronged, but this is the one time, throughout the last six years, in which Devils' fans have an immunity built up to the ghosts of untimely retirement's past.
Seriously though, it this is indeed true, there are people whose gym memberships became nothing more than a monthly, directly-deposited donation by Valentines Day that have clung more tightly to their resolutions than either Ilya Kovalchuk or the New York Rangers. The former finally wanted to win now, the latter finally dedicated themselves to winning later, and instead of sticking to those goals they both reportedly made a relatively long-term commitment to their kryptonite during their first withdrawal.
In a laughable way that's best encapsulated by every relationship that's either motivated by money or bred out of convenience, this marriage is almost poetic in how doomed it would be to fail. The Rangers are trying to shift the entirety of their culture, and in doing so they are trusting a proven mercenary with a fully-guaranteed, multi-year contract to presumably provide veteran leadership, or something very, very unlike it, to a team that's admittedly a ways away from competing? Might as well hire Patrick Roy to bring a calm, trusted voice behind the bench, because if that's supposed to be an example of parallel thinking then it runs perpendicular to any sort of building process.
You can call me a salty Devils' fan, but I have been seasoned by nothing more than historically supported facts that show that the Rangers, in conjunction with Ilya Kovalchuk, don't stand to have any real success in the next 2-3 seasons. As far as I'm concerned, this makes New Jersey's undeniable upward trajectory that much sweeter in that there's only one team to wish the worst upon going forward.
Kovy may have taken the money, the Rangers may have taken the bait, and both of them may have sacrificed what they actually wanted to satisfy their incessant need to be newsworthy. With the playoffs on the Devils' horizon, the sun could already be setting on the Rangers' rebuild. If the repetition of a predictably disappointing history was the plot line, you honestly couldn't write a better script.
To be honest, I wanted no part of a first round matchup with a Bruins team that's spent the last few seasons making the doldrum-dwelling Devils look stupid even before all their picks panned out and made them look smart. Despite the latter going winless, the two teams actually played some pretty compelling games this season, but there was nothing enticing about going against a deep team whose special teams are semantically accurate that is led by the most dangerous two-way line in hockey for two whole weeks. In that sense, I temporarily got what I wished for, even if a seven game series against a team with five 20-goal scorers, the Norris Trophy front runner, and a Vezina Trophy candidate is the least careful thing that has ever been granted.
The truth is, Florida didn't just help New Jersey avoid Boston with a victory last night. They also proved that each and every point that the Devils picked up in their heart-wrenching quest to secure a playoff spot was absolutely necessary. Obviously they wouldn't have handicapped themselves in Game 82 if Game 81 didn't reach such a celebratory conclusion, but the New Jersey Devils narrowly evaded their nightmare scenario as opposed to their nightmare scenario narrowly evading the New Jersey Devils. That can't be understated as the 'must-win' games against highly skilled competition somehow become more frequent going forward.
Their reward for playing their best hockey at the most important part of the season is a series against one of the most dangerous teams in the sport, but their decision to put forth a half-hearted effort against the Capitals serves as proof that, in the battle of the New Jersey Devils Vs. Everybody, 'everybody' is actually nobody in particular. What the Devils lack in top-end depth, they make up for in desire and determination. Those are traits that play well against anyone, and apparently anyone was exactly who they were hoping to play.
For those of us that are overly concerned about match-ups, however, one that should have a young, energized group confidently going up against a team they beat all three times they played them is certainly preferable. There are no shootouts in the postseason and they'll need a hell of a lot more than 48 saves if, for some odd reason, they end up thrusting Eddie Lack into action. However, the one benefit of an inexperienced team entering their first postseason is that they only know what they learned during the regular season, which happens to be that they can beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Whether or not they will is a much different story, but whatever intimidation factor a conference leader might typically possess over an "8 seed" has been minimized by a season series in which the roles were reversed.
And, from a hockey perspective, why wouldn't the Devils be confident? Not only are they riding a 10-3-1 finish despite the most unforgiving of schedules, but they are now riding a Top 9 that appears to be solidified for the first time all season. A loss to the Capitals that was meaningless in theory, was encouraging in the continued execution of a line that features the oddest of combinations of speed, skill, and size. Add Wood-Zacha-Maroon to the relentless, two-way efforts of Coleman-Zajac-Noesen, and Hall is given his best chance to make his long-overdue playoff debut a successful one playing alongside Nico and Palmieri. Whether or not Marcus Johansson will return to join Grabner, Gibbons, and Bratt as potential flanks to Brian Boyle is still very much up in the air, but the Devils actually look as though they've achieved some semblance of offensive continuity in preparation for a team that, if nothing else, is certainly willing to trade chances.
Defensively, things are still very much an adventure as the Devils have been disproportionally led through the dark by Sami Vatanen while Keith Kinkaid has acted as the most thoroughly overused of insurance policies, but it's not like they aren't familiar with focusing their efforts into bending without breaking. The 'avoid-the-disaster' defensive philosophy is probably what's had their second most skilled blue-liner sitting in a suite with the season in jeopardy. So while they are at high risk against a Lightning team whose leading scorer can create highlights without even touching the damn puck, they know a thing or two about remaining safe instead of ending up sorry. Hopefully the player who was deemed the badder apple of the rotten second pairing that was John Moore and Damon Severson summons his Dr. Jekyll so he doesn't have to Hyde in the shadows of the stadium, but his prolonged absence from the lineup is proof that lazy turnovers and lackluster in-zone coverage won't be tolerated.
Full disclosure? Other than a hell of a lot of effort, I have no idea what to expect from the Devils as they enter what's unchartered territory for the majority of their roster. After all, the playoffs are a whole different beast. Seeing as they've proven successful at playing an urgent brand of hockey over the last month, I think I envision a Stanley Cup contender being made uncomfortable by a fast team with nothing to lose. Worst comes to worst, they get struck by the Lightning, but they've earned every bit of this opportunity and it will be interesting to see what they are able to do with it.
The tough is about to get going, but - for the Devils - the going has long been tough. So, bring on the Bolts, because - against all odds - whatever seed of doubt might exist isn't planted in the minds of the team whose postseason hopes were still very much hypothetical as of a week ago.
If I had given you only the fun, almost unbelievable fact above as a description of how the Devils' regular season went it would be like telling you that Saving Private Ryan was merely about a successful trip to the beaches of Normandy. In a way, it's a credit to how incredibly resilient they have been when it's mattered the most, but making it sound like there was merely a couple speed bumps on an otherwise clear path to the playoffs does a laughable disservice to the highs and lows of what is comparable to only pregnancy as an emotionally exhaustive adventure.
The players, as they are known to do, said all the right things in battling inexperience, inconsistency, injuries, incompetent officiating, and the plucking of asshole hairs that is the reviewing of offsides and/or the challenging of goaltender interference. However, the expressions on their faces last night told a much more exasperating tale of what's transpired between October and April. And why wouldn't they? In coming back from a one goal deficit that was the result of a bad bounce after a mind-blowingly piss poor call, last night was a nice little microcosm of a season that has had the most pessimistic and the most optimistic of fans running into each other en route to the next overreaction. The sense of long overdue elation in the Prudential Center air was as ever present as the sense of relief, and that's because every damn person in the building was taking their first deep breathe of 2018.
In every sense of the word, a young Devils team - that just as easily could as easily counted "almost" as a moral victory - refused to give in to early expectations and earned the right to play in the postseason. There was no margin left for error. No backdoor left unlocked. Hell, if anything, that proverbial backdoor was getting beaten down, and while it was? New Jersey simply took to task a murderer's row of opponents in front of them because a failure to do so would have cost them their playoff lives. There were times when it was far from pretty, but almost as often it was poetic the way in which a team that continually had the bar raised remained unrelenting in reaching it. 97 goddamn points, and only after game 81 were they able to bust into the room to breathe.
I'm happy for John Hynes. I think he's remained rigorous in keeping his finger on the pulse of a team that's heavily reliant on rookies and once spare parts, and that wouldn't have gotten anywhere near enough attention if they flatlined. I'm ecstatic for Taylor Hall. I legitimately would have put together a GoFundMe to rent the Hart of the team a padded room during the offseason if, despite keeping the team afloat with his seemingly endless excellence, he still failed to shoot his shot with his white whale. I'm appreciative of Keith Kinkaid, for tomorrow's game would be nothing but a fatality of a formality if it weren't for his overnight growth into a whole new player. I'm proud of the rest of a team that trusted itself, even when no one else would, and pissed on every antiquated, overdone narrative about a franchise that's having as much fun as ever before.
If absolutely nothing goes right from here on out, a promising group of pesky and improving players has a feather to put in their cap. With their confidence at an all time high, I doubt they are resting on their laurels, but there is nothing left for them to prove to a fan base that collectively looked as though it had just lost its virginity when the clock hit zero last night. The Devils have nothing to lose and I expect them to play like it going forward, but they've already won over everyone whose bated breaths have been given a few days to normalize as their acceptance of what's less than a year removed from being an unreal reality sets in.
Set the awe-inspiring tribute video, that will undoubtedly be shared by two players whose illustrious careers have basically been mutually exclusive, to the Twilight Zone theme. For, in biding farewell to a building they've both called home for far longer than two brothers who are interested in maintaining their own sanity ever should, Henrik and Daniel Sedin reminded us that stranger things really haven't happened.
It's incredibly rare for one player to spend seventeen years worth of playing days employed by a single organization, never mind twin brothers doing so together after being drafted as one and being purposefully pegged as a package deal so often that their usage rates are as indistinguishable as their head shots. Hell, the Sedin brothers have probably shared more purely constructed lines than the Sheen brothers, and the former have somehow blown a hell of a lot more minds in the process. Still, the fact that they have remained inseparable clones in a league whose business side has broken up more rewarding relationships than the rock 'n' roll lifestyle isn't even the oddest thing about them.
That designation would have to go to the twinning telepathy that, at one point or another, we just became accustomed to them exhibiting on the ice. The no-look passes, the give-and-go's, the organic understanding of one another's yet-to-be-thought process that can apparently only be met by being simultaneously forged within the same vaginal walls. To put it insanely lightly, when it comes to the success of two players who differ in number and first initial only, there is more than meets the eye.
Now, I don't know that having chemistry that can be described in no other way than biological is what allowed for the Sedins to seemingly control the clock and scheme the stats. I'm no ESP expert, but - as I understand it - even the most psychic of powers aren't capable of manipulating professional athletes so as to allow for coincidental scoring during the most memorable of occasions. Still, it's impossible to deny that having said coincidental scoring provide the grand finale to extraordinary careers in Vancouver was perfectly fitting of hockey lives that were lived atop the "you can't make this shit up" scale.
I feel guilty saying the following, because - prior to the season starting - a complete thrashing of an irrelevant Rangers team by the playoff-bound (::knocks on wood::) Devils team was but a pipe dream. However, I can't shake the feeling that last night's win was kind of...you might want to sit down for this...boring.
Don't get me wrong, pulling within two points of a postseason berth by way a start-to-finish shellacking of a self important rival whose championship window closed when the trade winds proved too strong for a frail foundation was entertaining, but it damn sure wasn't intriguing. In fact, after the initial 25 seconds it basically felt like I was watching a skills competition. Will Butcher handled the accuracy portion, Keith Kinkaid exerted a semblance of energy in stopping a couple dozen pucks, and Taylor Hall took good care of just about every other category in turning the Rangers into glorified parking cones and The King's throne into a goddamn shooter tutor.
Maybe it's due to the fact that every goal scored in every game played over the last month has either felt like a dagger to the heart or a sniff of cocaine to the brain, but waiting out an inevitable conclusion that was reached prior to the first TV timeout served as reminder that Rangers games are a lot more fun when the aren't a late 90's-level of incompetent.
Trust me, I truly appreciated them doing (or not doing) all they could to make sure Taylor Hall took home the Hart Trophy prior to the second intermission, but it felt a little wrong that he was flexing his muscles at the expense of a dead horse. Considering all he's done following his unofficial 26-game point streak is increase in value to his team when they've needed it the most, he really didn't need to continue beating a once (undeservedly) proud organization into submission to prove what's become the most obvious of cases...
I guess what I am trying to say is that I would really appreciate it if the Rangers could keep things a little more interesting as they move forward in their rebuild. Pulverizing them is fun, but pitying Henrik Lundqvist just feels like a huge disservice to all the heavy lifting he's done as a perennial puck-stopping pain in the ass. To put it bluntly, see below...