Everything looked grim in the New Jersey Devils’ first two games for a young, mostly inexperienced squad with some veteran leaders. This Devils team went to MSG and took two games from the New York Rangers. It all came down to cutting back on stupid penalties and killing them off when they do. Vitek Vanecek may have been a 30-plus-win goalie in the regular season, but New Jersey Devils coach Lindy Ruff put Swiss netminder Akira Schmid in net in Game 3 and never looked back.
Coach Ruff pulled Miles Wood from the lineup in favor of a very solid defensive, physical menace in Curtis Lazar. Lazar has helped change the momentum in this Devils’ bottom six. Akira Schmid has cut back on rebounds and slowed down the game’s momentum like a quarterback trying to kill time with a lead.
The wins haven’t been flashy, except for the game-winner by Dougie Hamilton on Igor Shesterkin in overtime of Game 3. In addition, the Jonas Siegenthaler go-ahead goal in Game 4 was fun to watch. Seeing a veteran in Ondrej Palat score that critical empty-net goal after his titanic play of 4 Hits and 7 Blocked Shots. This was after one assist earlier in the game.
Palat’s 11% Sasquatch isolated defense on those four hits and seven blocked shots helped the Devils soften up the Rangers in their own zone. This helped them frustrate the hell out of their shooters. Like in the series preview here on Pucks and Pitchforks, he knows what it takes to be a thorn in their side. He helped the Devils close out Game 4.
The Devils are playing with house money heading into Game 5 at Prudential Center. On the flipside, this Devils team wasn’t supposed to be this impressive from the start. Or are they really this good? There is a lot of focus, determination, and perseverance. This team has the mindset to win. We learned that in the regular season. This can scare teams going forward in the near term. This team has speed, grit, defensive play, endurance, and they are cleaning up their act.
Tom Fitzgerald has looked like a genius in getting him to help this mix of players gel around a veteran like Erik Haula. Haula has been one of the most vocal and aggressive players playing shutdown hockey. He plays as a field general forcing a blitz on his opponents.
Jack Hughes has been a big tone-setter with three goals in this series, two of which helped the Devils tie the series 2-2. Hughes has been a major pest in Igor Shesterkin’s game, and he can help push more offensive output for other linemates he plays with. His ability to adapt to a tighter-knit offensive play has enabled this Devils team to build momentum against the Rangers’ defensive schemes.
The next thing on the Devils’ mission in this seven-game series is to get the critical win back at The Rock, not take one step back. This is the moment for the Devils to pressure the Rangers into a position to lose. The Rangers know this Devils team will be around for many years and become their biggest long-term nightmare.
In the recent wins, the Devils have suppressed the Rangers’ power play and even strength attacks outside of the perimeter to mid and low-danger scoring areas. This kind of adjustment has allowed the Devils to counterattack. Once the Devils gain more open ice, it benefits the Devils favorably. Kevin Bahl has been key in helping add that size, physicality, and young blood that helps add extra juice to the Devils’ lineup. This juice will gain more experience as they age well in these significant games.