NEWARK–With the home stretch of the regular season fast approaching, the Devils and Flyers got a good taste of what most contests might look like. Thursday’s matchup was a hard-fought, spirited affair that didn’t hold any punches (figurative or literal). But with divisional points in the ultra-tight Metro division on the line would you expect anything less?
Though the Devils bent, twice surrendering the lead in the opening period before allowing the Flyers to go ahead in the second, they didn’t break. A strong shift in the offensive zone led to Damon Severson’s equalizer midway through the third. Then, Nico Hischier tipped home the go-ahead goal late to secure the club’s sec0nd-straight regulation win. And just as important, the win sent the shadowing-Flyers home empty-handed.
“Most important really was the way we had to go about it,” head coach, John Hynes said. “It’s what we talked to the group about: How competitive the games become and how much your grit and compete and your mental toughness and focus and battle through 60 minutes, is important. And handling adversity in certain situations. I thought tonight we took a step in the right direction in understanding how hard it is to win this time of year.”
One area the coach had been looking to improve upon was the team’s power play, which hadn’t converted in four games (and was unable to go to work on Tuesday as the Sabres did not take a penalty). Kyle Palmieri ended the drought 3:42 into what was a special teams-friendly period. Jakub Voracek found Claude Giroux wide open on a five-on-three opportunity to even the score. Drew Stafford and Wayne Simmonds traded power play markers of their own before the horn sounded on a frame with 36 penalty minutes.
Among them included seven assessed to Radko Gudas, who at 12:47 left his feet and caught a puck-less Palmieri. After serving a minor for interference, he was met by surprise-heavyweight, Travis Zajac, who he obliged when challenged to fight.
“(Travis) is a character guy,” Severson said. “He’s a guy that a lot of guys in the room look up to. He doesn’t say much but he leads by example. He just does every little thing right. It was good to see him step up like that. He’s not afraid to do that–good old Western Canadian boy.”
Zajac, owner of roughly a dozen fewer bouts than Gudas, according to Hockey Fights, said after the game that he felt there was a better way to soften the blow that caught Palmieri high and presumably sent him off for concussion protocol. He did, however, return to the game that period and appreciated his teammate stepping up for him.
“I think it shows how close we are as a group and in this locker room,” Palmieri said. “That’s a character move by (Travis) and it goes a lot further with the guys in this room and our organization and the people who are here.”
A sloppy middle period by the Devils allowed the Flyers to take the lead on a Shayne Gostisbehere goal at 7:01. The Devils would answer in the third, firing a pair of goals past rookie goaltender, Alex Lyon. Pavel Zacha’s impressive behind the net pass to a pinching Severson at 11:00 evened the score. With the clock winding down and the game looking destined for extra-time (and a point for both teams), Blake Coleman’s shot was tipped by Hischier at 18:33 for what was the game-winning goal and had a dramatic undertone to it, too.
“That’s what you have–a big-time player scores a big-time goal for us at a real key time,” Hynes said on Hischier’s winner. “He’s that type of player. It’s nice to see him get rewarded for how hard he’s worked.”
The Flyers came into Thursday just two points back of the Devils, making the two points earned all the more important.
“This time of year, it’s the differences in games, it’s all so tight and such little things that you want to do your best to play that possession game and give yourself the best chance to win,” Palmieri said. “The last two games we weren’t happy with how we played against them. It was nice tonight to come out and get the two points.”
Keith Kinkaid made his second-straight start in net as Cory Schneider (groin) remains on injured reserve. He stopped 22 of 25 shots to improve to 4-1-0 in his career versus the rival.
The Devils continue within the division on Saturday as they take on Sidney Crosby and the Penguins for the first time this season. The Penguins, who were off on Thursday, will host the Capitals on Friday. A win in any fashion would put them one point ahead of the Devils in the division standings.