The Devils returned from their COVID-19-induced break and were set to take on their archrivals, the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. They came back on a high note, winning 5-2.
There’s a lot to get to, so let’s begin.
First off, the Devils had six games rescheduled, which I will try to get to more specifically in tomorrow’s post.
They also restructured some roles at the top. In new management positions were former Devil goalie Scott Clemmensen, who took over the role of Director, Goaltending Development; Kate Madigan, who was made Executive Director, Hockey Management/Operations; and Jim Mill who will take on the role of Director, Pro Scouting.
These were all announced today and I wanted to get that in here.
In addition, a few days ago, the Devils made some player transactions. Goalie Aaron Dell was sent to Binghamton on a conditioning loan, Kevin Bahl and Nolan Foote were sent to Binghamton from the taxi squad and Gilles Senn was moved to the taxi squad.
These were all announced February 13, so of course there is a change. Mikhail Maltsev was originally sent to Binghamton with Bahl and Foote but was instead recalled to New Jersey and he played tonight, as did Nick Merkley, who was also recalled from the taxi squad.
Now to the game, as the Devils had not played in 16 days since a win over Buffalo on January 31. At one point, they had 19 players on the COVID Protocol list. Now it is down to three, but the Devils have played a league-low nine games. From here to the end of the season, it will basically be one game every other day.
The Devils only had one team practice before tonight’s game and there was worry there would be some rust, as Buffalo showed last night against the Islanders.
But the Devils instead were right back to it.
Between the pipes, Mackenzie Blackwood was making his first start since January 19 (coincidentally at the Garden in a win over the Rangers). He got sick before most of the others on the Protocol list and was also back sooner.
He stopped 37-of-39 shots, including both he saw shorthanded for a .949 save percentage. He stopped 35-of-37 at even strength.
Facing him for New York was Igor Shesterkin. He stopped 32-of-35 at even strength, was 0-for-1 on the Devils’ power play shots and totaled 32 saves on 36 Devils shots for an .889 save percentage.
The Devils were outshot 39-37 but edged the Rangers in faceoffs won with 51-percent, a step up over the pre-break games. New Jersey was also 1-for-2 on the power play and played a penalty-free game (aside from a scrap early in the game that we will get to). The Rangers outhit the Devils, 30-21 and the Devils did have more giveaways at 14 to the Rangers’ 10. The Devils edged in blocked shots, 17-16.
The scratches for the Devils were goalies Eric Comrie and Aaron Dell and defenseman Ryan Murray, who was ill, but the team did not confirm what the illness was.
Kenny Albert was calling the play-by-play on MSG 2, as Steve Cangialosi was out for reasons not mentioned.
Just 29 seconds into the game, Michael McLeod hit Mika Zibanejad along the benches. The hit was legal, but New York’s Chris Kreider took offense. He and McLeod scrapped as McLeod did answer the bell. It was a good way to get the juices flowing in a rivalry game.
Following a scoreless first, Ryan Strome seemed to score with about two minutes gone in the second. However, the goal was immediately waived off on ice as Strome had put his own rebound in with his hand.
The real scoring would begin at the 7:37 mark when Pavel Zacha made it 1-0 Devils. It came on the power play when Damon Severson moved the puck from the point to Zacha, who was at the top of the far faceoff circle. Zacha wristed the puck by Shesterkin, who did get a piece but could not stop it. Janne Kuokkanen had the secondary assist.
But in a pattern that would repeat all period, the Rangers would tie it. It came at 11:32 when the Rangers chipped the puck up ice into the Devils’ zone Brett Howden took a Devils turnover and gave the puck to Colin Blackwell, who snapped the puck by Blackwood to make it 1-1.
A few minutes later, at 17:14, it appeared Zacha had his second of the night when Will Butcher, playing in his first game this season, threw the puck at the net from the near wall. The puck deflected in off of Rangers’ defenseman Jacob Trouba and seemed to go in off of Zacha too, but it did not and Butcher got credit for the goal. It was the first goal for Butcher in nearly a year (February 18. 2020).
But the Rangers got back into it, tying it at two when, with a little more than 30 seconds to go in the period, Kreider passed cross-ice to Pavel Buchnevich, who collected the puck with his skate and got it to his stick. He shot and beat Blackwood to make it 2-2. Trouba had the secondary assist.
In the third, the Devils would finally pull away. That began with Yegor Sharangovich scoring to make it 3-2.
PK Subban took a shot from the point, it deflected off of Alexis Lafreniere’s stick and that was tipped by Shesterkin by Sharangovich in front. That came at 10:43 of the third period.
Nick Merkley made it 4-2 when Kuokkanen worked the puck around the net, feeding Merkley out of the near corner. Merkley scored one year to the day that he last found the back of the net to double up the Devils’ lead. That one came at 14:09 of the third and featured Kuokkanen’s third assist of the night.
Maltsev added an empty net goal with Kyle Palmieri picking up the assist 19:39. This was Maltsev’s first NHL goal, but why not?
That made it 5-2 and gave us our final.
Damon Severson led all Devils skaters with 24:48 time on ice. Jack Hughes led the forwards with 18:59.
As mentioned, Kuokkanen’s three assists led in points. Ty Smith led in shots on goal with four, Severson led in hits with four, Subban led in blocks with five and Connor Carrick had a takeaway. McLeod led the centers in faceoff percentage with a 74-percent winning clip.
Next up, the Devils will ship up to Boston to take on the Bruins as they try to test themselves against a good team and get back in the swing of things.
Until then, stay safe everyone!