Preseason: Devils Prevail in Washington

And just like that, the 2021-22 NHL season has gotten underway for the Devils.

First off, I am fully aware of the Mackenzie Blackwood situation. I wanted to reserve comment until someone with some sources identified him, It seems Blackwood beat us to the punch and outed himself. I will see what I want to say (if anything) and will talk about it at a later time.

Instead, we will talk about tonight’s preseason tilt between the Devils and the Washington Capitals in DC.

In goal, we got our first look at at Jonathan Bernier in net. He got the start and played the first two periods. Nico Daws played the third for the Devils. Bernier made 13 saves on 17 shots against (including 12-of-13 at even strength, 0-for-2 on the power play and 1-for-2 shorthanded) for a .765 save percentage.

Daws stopped all ten shots he faced – all at even strength.

For the Caps, Zach Fucale got the start and played the first two periods. He stopped 12-for-15 total (9-for-12 at even strength, 2-for-2 on the power play, 1-for-1 shorthanded) for an .800 save percentage.

Ilya Samsonov relieved him in the third and stopped 6-of-8 total (6-of-7 at 5-on-5 and let in the only power play shot he faced) for a .750 save percentage.

Jack Hughes was wearing an “A” tonight as a sign that management is starting to see potential in his leadership abilities, even if it is a preseason game.

Yegor Sharangovich picked up right where he left off, scoring the first goal of the preseason for the Devils 5:49 into the game. It came when Sharangovich cut in behind the Washington defense, taking a pass from Alexander Holtz and burying it over Fucale’s glove. That made it 1-0 Devils. Nikita Okhotiuk had the secondary assist.

In what would become a tit-for-tat tend throughout the night, the Caps immediately responded with John Carlson scoring at the 9:01 mark to tie the game at one apiece. It came with the Capitals shorthanded and saw Carlson poke the puck away from Nico Hischier just inside his own blueline and was off to the races. He skated in on a 2-on-1 and shot just under the crossbar, beating Bernier shorthanded to tie the game at one heading into the second period.

In the second, Jack Hughes gave the Devils back the lead just 45 seconds in. This came when Hughes picked off an own-zone D-to-D pass by Michal Kempny near the near faceoff dot. He cut in front and beat Fucale just under the crossbar to make it 2-1 Devils. That goal, like the Carlson goal, was unassisted.

But Washington would tie things again at the 3:15 mark. Carlson, this time on the power play, blasted a bomb from the point, with Evgeny Kuznetsov feeding him from the halfwall. The puck hit the post and bounced in off of Bernier’s backside to make it 2-2. Anthony Mantha had the secondary assist – cross ice to Kuznetsov.

But midway through, the Devils would again take the lead. Holtz, at the 12:33 mark, broke into the Washington zone on a 2-on-1. He took the shot himself, absolutely snapping it by Fucale to give the Devils back the 3-2 lead. Damon Severson had the primary assist while Sharangovich helped out with the secondary.

That lead lasted less than 30 seconds, however, as at 13:00, TJ Oshie was sprung behind the Devils’ defense by Hendrix Lapierre and shot under the catching glove of Bernier, beating him to make ti 3-3. Kempny had the secondary assist.

The Caps would take their first lead of the night when Mike Vecchione scored a power play goal with less than a minute to go in the second. Connor McMichael lost the puck on the entry and Lapierre picked it up after it was lost in a scramble in the slot. Vecchione got it and shot, beating Bernier to make it 4-3 Caps. Note that McMichael actually did not get credit for an assist here.

The Caps took the 4-3 lead into the third but it was not to last for them.

Dawson Mercer scored 5:35 into the frame from Andreas Johnsson (complete with new Anglicized last name). Mercer cut near the halfwall on the near side to the top of the near faceoff circle. He then powered towards the goal, shooting from an off angle and scoring – tying the game at four apiece.

This set up the dramatic (as dramatic as a preseason game can actually get) finish. With a little less than two minutes to go in regulation, Hischier gave the Devils the late 5-4 lead.

The Devils won a faceoff deep in the Washington end. Damon Severson ended up with the puck, finding Hischier down low. He kind of drifted unmarked towards the goal mouth and scored what was actually a very fast power play goal. A 4-on-4 had just expired with Nolan Foote coming out of the box and the Devils were on the man advantage for what amounted to three seconds before Hischier scored the goal.

Washington would pull Samsonov for the extra attacker, but time would simply expire on them.

The two teams did a quick shootout practice session, which Holtz “won” for New Jersey.

Holtz, with a goal and an assist and Sharangovich, with a goal and an assist, each tied for the team lead with two points each.

Sharangovich led in shots with four, hits were led by Mark Jankowski, Foote, Severson and Okhotiuk with two each. Jonas Siegenthaler led in blocked shots with three while Hughes had two takeaways, leading there. Kevin Bahl, Christian Jaros, Hughes, Foote and Jankowski each had the distinction of leading in giveaways with one each.

Teamwise, the Devils were outshot, 27-23, only won 34-percent of the game’s faceoffs, were 1-for-5 on the power play, had 18 team hits (just as many as the Capitals), 13 blocks to Washington’s eight and six giveaways to the Caps’ seven.

Next up, the Devils will face the rival New York Rangers on Friday, October 1 at 7 PM at Prudential Center. See you then!

Zajac Retires from NHL as a Devil

First off, I know that this is a little bit late, but I have an excuse as I was in the hospital for a week. Nothing serious or major but something that will greatly make quality of life much better for me. A big thank you to the Wall Township Police Department, the staff and doctors at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and, of course, my family, all of whom played a key role at one time or another in getting me back in the game!

Now on to business. As training camps across the NHL started last week, Travis Zajac found himself in a strange situation. The Islanders were not keen on resigning him, it seemed, and he did not really want to leave the area where his kids were growing up and his family was being raised to play hockey in another city.

As Zajac told Sam Kasan of the Devils’ official website, he “took some time off, and then took some more time off. I realized that I didn’t have that fire in me to keep going. I never fell out of love with the game of hockey itself, but I did fall out of love with what it takes to keep playing – the time, the commitment, the conditioning, the sacrifice.”

That is when Zajac knew that it was time to hang up his skates for the final time in the NHL.

Last Monday, September 20, Zajac signed a one-day contract with the Devils and then promptly retired a Devil to put a cap on his 15-year NHL career, spent all with the Devils save a month or two (13 games according to the Devils’ PR team) with the Islanders.

Zajac will work as an on/off ice-player development coach and in a consulting role with the Devils. He will also work with the team’s “youth hockey initiatives” in trying to grow the game even more in the state of New Jersey.

Zajac’s statement to family, friends and fans read: “I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sing one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.

“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt of playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils.

“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed – thank you. And thanks to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me.

“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine.

“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.

“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.

“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”

After being drafted out of the University of North Dakota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, where he played two years from 2004 to 2006 (and playing in an NCAA Championship Game in 2004 – his freshman year and the Frozen Four as a sophomore), Zajac arrived in New Jersey.

He played in a total of 1,037 NHL games, collected 203 goals and 349 assists toalign 552 points over his career. The 36-year-old center played in his 1,000th game last season. Fans were not in the building for that milestone, due to COVID-19. However, the team announced that this season, on March 10, 2022 – fittingly against the Winnipeg Jets at Prudential Center – Zajac will be recognized by the Devils and fans will have a chance to give him a proper sendoff.

Thank you to Travis Zajac for the many years of stellar hockey (the 2012 Stanley Cup Final run will never be forgotten, nor will his OT winner in game six against the Panthers that kept the Devils’ postseason light flickering. Who can forget his Running Man Zajac celebration on that goal either?). Good luck in retirement!