NEWARK–Lindy Ruff called the Devils stretch to close out this season their version of playoff hockey. Which is, the obvious thing to say to a mostly sub-25 year-old core that is facing down another postseason absence. It also may be the right way to approach things, because the organizational expectation meter has to be pointing to postseason or bust next year. Because Tuesday at home to the rival-Rangers, the Devils showed the kind of postseason headache they can present.
Rangers netminder and leading candidate for the Vezina, Igor Shesterkin entered Tuesday 16-3-2 in games in which he saw 33 or more shots. And stymied the Devils, who had averaged 33 shots-per-game in their last 18, in the first, before scoring twice in the opening 13:55 of the game, once on a Mika Zibanejad rebound effort and another on an Adam Fox shot New Jersey goaltender, Nico Daws couldn’t find.
But, on the day after the team declared their season’s direction–the Blueshirts acquiring four players for a postseason run and the Devils standing pat on its current lineup to close out the regular season, it was the latter team showing some form of a team wanting to prep themselves for playoff hockey. A Ryan Graves point-shot got through traffic and Shesterkin and on the next New Jersey shot on goal, P.K. Subban also beat the goaltender from distance.
If the Rangers were too in the mode of treating their stretch drive to be some type of playoff preview, the response in the second was convincingly uninspired. The Devils didn’t just carry the play, they provided a near 10-minute offensive onslaught to close out the middle period–outshooting Broadway 10-1, scoring three times and ending Shesterkin’s night after 40:00.
“We came out flying,” Jack Hughes said following his night which included a two-goal third period to ice the 7-4 final. “Anyone that watches us knows our transition game is really good. We don’t lack offense. That’s one thing we know how to do–we know how to score.”
Like the rulebook, scoring in the playoffs is its own entity. And, that doesn’t exclude No. 86, whose pre-NHL career of coming up on the biggest of stages, will still be challenged when the team he re-upped with for eight seasons climbs into the postseason. So, that strength will ultimately need to be coupled with competent goaltending and stingier defense. That fact, if not already known, reiterated by their rivals somewhat concerning performance.
“We were playing too slow,” Ruff said on his team’s inopportune first period. “I thought if we filled lanes a little quicker, we might have some opportunities. Our first two opportunities coming down the ice, we didn’t shoot–we didn’t execute. After that, we really started moving the puck well.
“We went to a little more aggressive forecheck, stressed our transition game and I thought it led to a lot of opportunities.”
Of course, the Rangers are playoff-bound regardless, which makes the showing all the easier to remove from the brain. Though you have to wonder if management may have added even more aggressively if this game were three days earlier.
But, for the Devils, Tuesday showed they can be a tough team to catch up with, particularly against most teams void enough speed to stay with them through a full contest. It’s incumbent on Tom Fitzgerald’s management to find the pieces that can compliment that unique strength–that could be a startling obstacle for whoever gets the likely-dubbed ‘sneaky’ playoff team down the road.
“They got it rolling and we couldn’t stop it,” said Rangers head coach, Gerard Gallant. “A lot of it was self-inflicted but they’re a talented team. They got a lot of great young players that we talked about. They can make those plays when you give them the opportunity.”
Tuesday’s effort could mean a revamp or at the very least, definition of what and who the Devils’ third line is, may be in order. Which is to say, the evaluation period for Jesper Boqvist to be a full-time third-line center remains under review. Andreas Johnsson, who may very well have been among the candidates for a ‘hockey trade’ on Monday, is also trying to stand out as a middle-six winger, who’d rather play a scoring role than shutdown. Tomas Tatar has found his game of late and seems eager to be part of the process undergoing. Defensively, you’d have to wonder who may be a veteran partner for Ty Smith, who could very well need some mentorship, but more importantly, would need a reliable two-way force.
What’s been somewhat punted questions amidst a process in determining who and what this team is, has seemingly reached a point. Tuesday was a definition of what they are and what that can do to some of the league’s upperclass. And that’s reason to figure out some things in quick order.