In a game that was a possible preview of first-round series and in an arena that had that playoff feel to it the New Jersey Devils defeated their Hudson River Rivals, the New York Rangers, 2-1. They got one goal from an unlikely source (Erik Haula), another from a likely source (Timo Meier), a game-saving play by a key member of their defense corps (Ryan Graves), and an authoritative performance in goal by their number one netminder (Vitek Vanecek).
“It was great,” exclaimed Graves of the game. “That’s as close as you’re going to get to a playoff game in the regular season; you have the already exciting rivalry and we all know where we sit in the standings. You really want to set the tone of how (a potential) series could be, but there are still points to be had in the regular season. We want home ice.”
The Devils finished 3-0-1 in their four-game season series with the Rangers, the first time since way back in 2002-03 they have finished a season series without a regulation loss to the Blueshirts. But make no mistake about it the teams are as even as their records and in a seven-game series (if they do meet in mid-April), it will likely come down to a seventh game.
“I thought we did a good job being ready to play, being physically involved, skating – doing all of the things that make us a good team,” said Meier, whose power-play goal in the first period ended up being the game-winning goal. “It’s exciting, but we know there is plenty of work ahead.”
Meier’s acquisition by GM Tom Fitzgerald was the team’s reward after an electric start to the season that has seen them remain in the NHL’s top five since late November (let that marinate in your skulls for a second or two), and the game vs. their biggest rivals was his first taste of the rivalry and a possible playoff preview – whether it’s in round 1, round 2, or next season.
“This was the first time I got to experience it,” Meier continued, “The playoffs, it’s a different game. It changes a little bit. It was fun, fun to play (in that atmosphere), maybe a little too much blue (in the stands) for my taste,” he added. “It was great. You could hear the fans battling with the chants, it’s exciting to play as a player (in those situations). It was fun, but more fun because we won this game.”
Come playoff time, New Jersey will need more clutch goals – especially on the power play – from Meier, who is looking more and more comfortable each shift, and maybe had his best game as a Devil against the Blueshirts.
“Great pass by Jack there. I thought we did a good job entering the zone and moving the puck around, making it hard on their penalty kill,” he said, describing the plays that led to his goal. “Jack found me – put it in a perfect spot and I just tried to get it off as fast and hard as possible. Luckily, it hit their guy’s stick and found the back of the net.”
“Gravy…he saved a puck there on the line. That’s what it takes – everybody buying in.”
Gravy would be Graves and his play to swipe the puck off the goal line behind Vanecek before Rangers’ star Vladimir Tarasenko was able to put it in the net and tie the game late in the third period was the biggest play of the night in a game full of big plays, hits, and saves.
“He’s (already) had a few for us this year,” Graves said of Meier’s goal. “Big goals – whether they’ve been tying or timely. We’re gonna need that down the stretch, he’s a guy who’s played playoff hockey and we’re a young group that doesn’t have a ton of experience. A guy like that will take a little bit of pressure off of the younger guys.”
Graves, a 26-year-old defenseman with nearly 300 regular season games and 25 playoff games under his belt, is more known for his defense and physicality than his offense – and in the upcoming postseason, he may need to make a play like he did to deny an easy goal for Tarasenko again.
“The puck was just sitting behind V and I just tried to scoop it out,” he paused and laughed, “ I think it was closer than I’d hoped. Those plays are 50-50. If you whack it back into him or you try to pull it out. I just tried to pull it out and thankfully I didn’t whack it in.”
What does a win like this mean to the Devils who are now four points ahead of the Rangers, and one point behind the first-place Carolina Hurricanes with seven games left in the regular season?
“Above everything else, it just gives us confidence that we can beat anyone,” replied Graves. “That’s a good team who added pieces at the deadline, big pieces, they’re better (now) than we’ve played them all year. (I think) it shows a lot that we’re able to win a 2-1 game against a team like that.”