The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils have been a hard team to get a handle on. They have not gone on too many extended winning streaks, winning three or four here and there. Up until about two weeks ago, they had not been on any extended losing streaks. Then, suddenly, the losses started to pile up and their playoff hopes seemed all but lost. Now, they are back in the thick of things, albeit hanging on by a thread, in the Eastern Conference playoff race thanks to two wins over two of the top teams in the West.
The Devils came out of San Jose with a win but, although the Sharks are one of the top teams in the West, they are a notoriously bad team at home, so that could have been the Devils taking advantage of a team that has troubles at the SAP Center. Tonight, though, they would be facing the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings are in first place in the Pacific Division, a true Stanley Cup contender and just an all-around good team. Getting a win in LA would be a little bit different.
The Devils would be without Jordin Tootoo, out with an upper body injury, as well as Damon Severson and Jacob Josefson. Jon Merrill was a game time decision and did not play.
Getting the start in net for Los Angeles was Jonathan Quick. Due to the injury to Cory Schneider, fans were denied seeing the two Team USA goalies going one-on-one prior to the World Cup of Hockey in September. Quick made 22 saves on the night, facing 24 Devils shots.
The Devils countered with Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid had blanked the Kings the last time they met up last month at Prudential Center, earning his first career shutout. He made 22 saves while facing 23 Kings shots. On the MSG+ broadcast, Steve Cangialosi mentioned that after the Pittsburgh debacle a week ago, Kinkaid had a phone chat with Special Assignment Coach Jacques Caron, who, as longtime Devils goaltending coach, served as Martin Brodeur’s mentor. The results paid off, as Kinkaid has been stellar his last two games.
The Devils wasted no time getting on the board: at 1:12 of the first period, the New Jersey forecheck forced the puck out to Devante Smith-Pelly in the slot who shoveled it towards net. The rebound came out to Tyler Kennedy who hammered it home. It was 1-0 Devils and Smith-Pelly had another point as a Devil, meaning he has scored in all but one of his games in a New Jersey uniform (the home game against Pittsburgh where the Devils were held to one goal).
The Devils now had the lead and would nurse that for almost two periods. The ice was tilted towards the Devils in the first period. They had seven of the first eight scoring chances on the night (a lot of rebounds off initial shots) and Adam Henrique was stopped on a breakaway shorthanded in the middle of the first – one of several Devils shorthanded opportunities on the night.
And that was a big story: the Devils’ penalty kill. New Jersey had one power play to the Kings’ five (including a Bobby Farnham double minor for high sticking that came at 3:03 of the second that the Devils successfully killed off) and were successful in eliminated all of them. But they were playing with fire, as LA is a team with a very skilled power play. Still, it did not hinder the Devils tonight.
If the first period was tilted in the Devils’ favor, then the second was the complete opposite. Los Angeles had a lot of sustained pressure in the period and, in fact keeping the Devils pinned into their zone would directly lead to the Kings’ only goal. At 14:36 of the second, Anze Kopitar scored his 21st of the year from Milan Lucic and Alec Martinez. On the ice for the Devils were defensemen Seth Helgeson and David Warsofsky. They had been on the ice for a full 3:47 when the LA goal was scored. As the Kings had the Devils pinned in their zone, they could not get off for a change and were gassed by the end of their shift. Still, that was a remarkable sequence that earned Helgeson the hard hat as “game MVP” for the Devils. He only got it over Warsofsky because Kopitar’s stick clipped his mouth as Kopitar was following through on his shot, cutting Helgeson and drawing blood.
And with that Kings goal, Keith Kinkaid’s 98:31 shutout streak had come to an end. The Devils had been giving him lots of support by blocking shots. Helgeson had his share of blocked shots in his 3:47 on the ice for that shift, but the Devils have been doing this more in the last two games.
The game was now tied at one, but late in the second period the Devils would go on their only power play when Martinez was called for hooking. The call came at 19:16, so the bulk of the power play would come on fresh ice. Although the Devils did not score with the extra man, Quick was forced to make a great save on John Moore and the Devils showed good puck movement, something that was very encouraging going forward.
The third period was full of exciting end-to-end action, although somehow both teams went more than seven minutes mid-period without a shot. This was largely due, in the Devils end, to the sheer number of blocked shots that they had. The Devils ended up with 29 blocked shots in the game, to the Kings’ 11.
Regulation would end and three-on-three overtime would begin. Both teams came in with fantastic overtime records: the Devils were 7-1 and the Kings 10-2. As usual it was back-and-forth action in OT, hinging on puck possession. Henrique was stopped on a full breakaway by Quick about halfway through and things seemed to be headed to a shootout when, at 4:44, John Moore struck. He took a pass from Joseph Blandisi at the Devils blueline and skated it up ice, trying a wraparound. He mentioned in a postgame interview that he saw Kyle Palmieri in the slot and was going to pass to him, but as he came around the goal cage, saw that Quick was cheating off the post a little. He fired at the gap between goaltender and pipe and found his mark. The Devils had the 2-1 overtime win and were 2-0 in California so far.
The game winner by Moore was only the second goal by a Devils defenseman in 17 game (and the last one was an empty netter).
But New Jersey had the win and are going into the Honda Center looking to sweep the western road swing with a win in Anaheim on Monday. Though the Devils’ playoff hopes are still a bit murky at the moment, there is still a faint glimmer of hope. Teams above them still have games-in-hand and they are still about six points behind Detroit for the last wild card spot. But there is hope at this point and that is really all a fan needs right now.