NEW YORK–You could say the fairest assessment of the Devils is they remain in need of fine-tuning. Which, would appear to be the most responsible approach for the team to take ahead of the March 21 deadline. Their play of late has shown enough. Friday night at the Garden was yet another installment of the play-good, exit stage left without a single point.
Which in its disappointment, it’s a reminder of the process the franchise has stuck to. And, a rivalry loss on the biggest stage might do a bit of good years down the road. Or, at least they can hope so.
The Devils opened the contest loose-legged and at times, frantic on the puck. The Rangers cycled around them for parts of the period before Mika Zibanejad capitalized 11:11 into the game and opened the scoring. The Devils found their legs and while Jack Hughes has taken the spotlight at times this season including repping the club at the All Star Game, on this night, it was captain, Nico Hischier that settled down the start, fired 7 shots on Igor Shesterkin and tallied a game-tying goal on a partial break 13:56 into the game.
The Devils, who played pockets of the game with some carelessness, went down by a goal 8:57 into the second with Filip Chytil’s tally and Chris Kreider found his 36th goal of the season 11:23 into the third. Nico Daws made 29 saves and was mostly composed, but it was Shesterkin, eying a Vezina, stopped 32 of New Jersey’s shots.
Hischier and Hughes can share the stage, whether that’s Broadway or anywhere else. Because, NHL GMs sleep much easier when they have a solid two options down the middle, especially for a pair of sub-25 year-old’s.
“He’s battling,” forward, Tomas Tatar said. “I feel like the season started to turn a little better for him over the last few games–last 20 or so. He’s playing real hard, he’s like a true leader. I love his effort on the ice–blocking the shots. For a young guy, he’s been a great captain and leader, which is great to see.”
Lindy Ruff, an assistant in New York for three seasons prior to signing on as New Jersey bench boss, offered more praise on a night that was largely New Jersey-controlled.
“Nico played a strong game for us,” Lindy Ruff said. “Every area–his penalty killing, his opportunities, just the battles inside the face-offs. We got what we expected from him. For him to score a goal like that, and he was in on a couple other opportunities. Strong night for him up the middle.”
The Devils, will presumably be sellers at the deadline, though as mentioned earlier this week, that may fail to yield much of an impact return. Perhaps, for the better. Because if New Jersey is to ship out talent this deadline for picks, prospects and /or unproven NHL talent, they might be squeezing the spots for youth, some of which have become seasoned this year. And that, with two legitimate center-icemen, a near-completed defense–evident on Friday and some trial-by-fire looks at goaltending, which might have landed its fine-tuning piece.
“I’m happy with him,” Ruff said on Daws. “It’s not easy. The shooters here are a level above what he was facing in the American League. The more you practice against NHL shooters, the more you practice against NHL speed, the reads you need to make–these guys make special plays. That you don’t see every night in the American League.”
And while somewhat shaky at times at MSG, Ruff agreed his third-straight start was solid and it sure sounds like he’ll warrant a longer look to be an NHL goaltender.
“It’s just another step for him. This is a big place to play goal inside. I think if you asked him what it was like to play at Madison Square Garden, I think he’d say it’s a big deal.”
MSG ultimately won’t make Nico Daws, or Nico Hischier. Jack Hughes even, won’t make his name on performances at MSG. And, on a Friday night with the big lights, New Jersey won’t fine-tune itself in one swoop, following one disheartening loss.
But, it could be enough of an impression to fine-tune the lessons that may fine-tune them.