Nobody said breaking a playoff drought would be easy. The Devils needed to scratch and claw to get their 40th win of the season tonight, over the Carolina Hurricanes. Their 4-3 win got them to that mark for the first time since the 2011-12 season and put some room behind them and the Florida Panthers, inching them closer to the Philadelphia Flyers who currently occupy the top wild card spot in the East.
The Devils got the win, but it was a real nailbiter. The Devils got goals from Pavel Zacha, two from Kyle Palmieri on the power play and a timely late goal from Sefean Noesen along with some great goaltending from Keith Kinkaid to come away with the victory.
They also got someone back in the lineup. Miles Wood was back from a hyperextended elbow suffered at Anaheim last week. He would play on a line with Zacha and Palmieri. Patrick Maroon was a scratch to heal up some lingering injuries for him. Jimmy Hayes, Ben Lovejoy and Drew Stafford were the healthy scratches with him with the lineup staying mostly the same as the other night against Tampa.
Big news on the injury front, however, is that Marcus Johansson has been skating at practice and could be on his way to coming back. He has not played since January at Boston when he was elbowed in the head on a dirty play.
In the nets, Kinkaid went for New Jersey. He made 31 stops on 34 shots and was amazing at times, coming up big when he had to. The Devils have been playing very well in front of him and they and the coaching staff’s confidence in him has only grown exponentially. Scott Darling was between the pipes for Carolina and made 41 saves on 45 shots on goal. He has had a rough season for the Canes individually, but was good for them tonight.
With the Panthers continuing to win (they beat the Islanders 2-0 last night) and the Hurricanes not letting up (they beat Ottawa at home last night and had won four in a row coming into this game) now was a time for the Devils to step up and gather some points.
The Devils took the early lead just 5:47 into the first period when Zacha scored from Palmieri and Taylor Hall. Mirco Mueller wound the puck around the boards to Hall along the near half wall. Hall centered to Palmieri, who shot and his rebound bounced right to the stick of Zacha, camped out near the far faceoff dot. He put it home to give the Devils the 1-0 lead.
Hall’s assist on that goal, his 50th of the year and the first of three on the night, made him the first Devil since Patrik Elias in 2011-12 with at least 50 assists.
From there, Carolina took over the game for the rest of the period. It paid off when Phillip Di Giuseppe scored from Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner at 11:41 of the first period. That tied it at one as Di Giuseppe went high on Kinkaid to beat him.
Almost five minutes later at 16:53, Warren Foegele, who scored on his first NHL shot last night against Ottawa, scored his second career goal from Lee Stempniak and Derek Ryan to give Carolina the 2-1 lead.
Kinkaid made a giant save on the Hurricanes’ Skinner to kick off the second period. Skinner was all alone off a big stretch pass through the neutral zone by Jaccob Slavin. Kinkaid was able to get the heel of his stick blade on the puck on a desperate second chance when he was clearly beaten by Skinner.
The Devils would then settle things down a little bit and were able to tie the game at two. That one came on the power play off the stick of Palmieri at 14:07. Hall and Will Butcher had the assists. It was set up when Di Giuseppe was sent off for holding at 13:22. On the ensuing man advantage, Hall set up shot by the near half wall and played catch with Butcher at the point. Hall took the puck back and found a seam right to Palmieri at the top of the far faceoff circle. He fired and beat Darling, scoring his tenth power play goal of the year, taking over the team lead from Hall in that category.
Also of note on that goal, Butcher notched the 35th assist of his rookie season, setting a new benchmark for assists for Devils rookie d-men. He passed Eric Weinrich (1990-91) and Slava Fetisov (1989-90) who each had 34 in their rookie seasons.
That 2-2 score after two periods set up a big third period for the Devils, but it did not begin the way they wanted it to. Noah Hanifin scored off of a mad scramble in front of the Devils’ net to give Carolina a 3-2 lead. He scored from Trevor van Riemsdyk and Skinner at 3:39 of the third.
But the Devils kept in it. At 9:06, with the Devils already on the penalty kill for a John Moore holding penalty, the Canes’ Valentin Zykov was assessed a holding the stick penalty to give the Devils 21 seconds of 4-on-4 and then an abbreviated power play.
Once they got on the PP, it was Kyle Palmieri again. He scored at 11:05 from Hall and Butcher (again) to tie the game up at three. Travis Zajac came out of the near corner and gave the puck to Butcher at the point. He found Hall along the far wall. Hall shot and Palmieri, who was camped in the slot, redirected the puck by Darling to make it 3-3.
The Devils finished the night 2-for-4 on the power play with nine shots on goal. The Hurricanes were 0-for-3 with just two power play shots on Kinkaid.
Following that goal, Palmieri also made a huge defensive play on a Carolina 2-on-1. He dropped down, blocking a shot and saving a surefire goal, as Kinkaid was down and would have been beaten. Butcher was coming back for support, but credit Palmieri with a huge play there for the Devils and one that just might have won it for them.
This would set things up for a tremendous finish for the Devils. Stefan Noesen scored at 18:27 of the third from Andy Greene and Michael Grabner to give the Devils the late 4-3 lead. Grabner won a puck battle in the far corner and got the puck back to Greene at the point. Greene fired and Darling made the initial save, but could not control the rebound. It came right out in front to Noesen, who tapped it home. Just like that, the Devils had the lead.
Carolina would pull Darling quickly and the Devils tried in vain to ice the game with an empty netter, but some sound defensive play in their own zone saw the time ultimately tick down and the Devils pick up the two points.
Statistically, the Devils were able to get 45 shots on a Carolina team that does not give up many shots, but only win 44-percent of the game’s faceoffs against a Canes team that wins a lot of faceoffs. New Jersey also out hit the Hurricanes, 18-11 and blocked more shots, 8-6.
Individually, Sami Vatanen led in ice time with 22:28 (three seconds more than Greene) – including 2:43 on the power play and 59 seconds on the PK. Shots were led by Vatanen with seven (Palmieri had six and Hall had five), hits were led by Blake Coleman with four, Noesen and Mueller each had two blocks to lead in that category and Zajac had four takeaways to lead there.
That sets up another matchup with the Penguins on Thursday. The Devils will put their perfect record against the defending champs on the line at Prudential Center as they try to take another two points in the tight playoff race. We’ll see you then.
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