Photo by Mark Fischgrund

All wins on the Western Front for the Devils

The Devils returned home to Newark from a Western Canada road trip, having taken six of six points from contests against Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. The last time the Devils swept this trip was in December of 1996, a year before Lindy Ruff started his head coaching career that is now in its 22nd season. There is a sense emanating out of the locker room that this year's Devils are special.  To a man, the players in training camp kept saying that this year felt different. The lopsided losses to Philadelphia and Detroit to begin the season put the team in a position to test its mental toughness and resiliency. The Devils have since answered the call by winning nine of their last ten games and taking the lead in the Metropolitan Division. Their resurgence has been led not only by point per game players Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, but by the stalwart fourth line.

THE BMW LINE

The road trip featured contributions from all four lines, both special teams, and between the pipes. The BMW line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian, often deployed in the past as a checking line with speed has each member riding a four-game point scoring streak. Bastian's size has been utilized on the power play, and Wood appears all the way back from a hip injury that took all but three games of his season last year. Wood seemingly flashes his speed on every shift flying down the left side of the ice and heading to the goal front. He currently is tied for the team lead in goals with five. Collectively, the line has tallied 16 points over the last four games and have been a large part of the team's success at 5-on-5.

VANECEK AND....

The road trip began with Mackenzie Blackwood improving his record against Vancouver to 5-0-0. Blackwood turned in an impressive outing never allowing Vancouver into the game. He continued his stellar play against Edmonton until exiting the game 8:41 into the second period as he slid across the post. Unknown at the time, Blackwood had suffered a sprained MCL that will likely put him out of action for  several weeks. Vanecek entered the game and immediately surrendered a power play goal to Leon Draisaitl, then proceeded to shut out the Oilers for the remainder of the game making 18 saves including several spectacular ones which allowed the Devils to climb back into the game.

Vanecek's performance in net set the stage for the seven seconds that vaulted the Devils from fun, early season story, to team to be reckoned with.

DON'T BLINK OR YOU WILL MISS IT

The Devils were teetering. They entered the third period against Edmonton down 3-1 after playing one of the worst periods of the season against arguably the best team they played all year. Those who were still awake were flooding Twitter with echoes of "same ol' Devils". The Devils came out of the locker room in the third period on fire cutting the deficit in half just over a minute into the period with a Miles Wood goal off of a faceoff win by Erik Haula. Despite dominating the play for the rest of the period, the Devils were unable to break through. The game, and perhaps the season, changed with 3:15 left in the game as Tomas Tatar took a puck off the boards and hit a cutting Ryan Graves who weaved through traffic and slipped the puck past a surprised Stuart Skinner tying the game at three.

 

Seven seconds later the Devils executed a set play off the faceoff and had the game winner. Hischier won the faceoff back to John Marino, who hit Jesper Bratt on a stretch pass walking him in on goal where he buried the game winner off the left post and into the net. The seven seconds between goals was the fastest time in team history and took the team from tough defeat to hard fought victory.

Bratt's goal was followed up by strong defending and more saves from Vanecek as New Jersey held off the surging Oilers and gave the Devils four points on the trip heading into Calgary.

FINDING NEW WAYS TO WIN

Entering their twelfth game of the season, the Devils had yet to give up a two goal lead and play an overtime game. Before they left Alberta that would change.  The Devils stormed back from an early goal by Nazem Kadri and scored three straight from Bastian, Fabian Zetterlund, and Miles Wood to take a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. The highlight of the three goals was Bastian's off of a no-look backhanded pass from Jack Hughes as he took the puck off the boards below the goal line.

As the second period began the Devils had difficulty matching the size and aggression of the Flames, who capitalized with one goal in the second and an equalizer early in the third.  The Flames outshot the Devils in both the second and third periods and were unfortunate not to have taken the lead, largely held off by exceptional play by Vanecek.

Overtime began with the Elias Lindholm of the Flames picking up a controversial and ultimately costly penalty for interference. A call about which Flames coach Daryl Sutter would remark, "It's not a call in regulation, so I don't know how it can be called in overtime." The Devils exploited the call and the resulting power play and controlled the puck in the offensive zone ultimately leading to a "royal road" pass off the stick of Dougie Hamilton to a wide open and poised Zetterlund who blasted a one-timer into the open side of the net before goalie Jacob Markstrom could glide across his crease.

 

Zetterlund's goal gave the Devils an undefeated swing through Western Canada and extended their winning streak to six games for the first time since 2012. Zetterlund entered the lineup full-time when Ondrej Palat went on the injured list. In that time Zetterlund has established himself as a force in the top six combining strength along the boards with his knack for finding open spots on the ice and firing the puck accurately with his quick release.  He already has three goals in only seven games and will likely see some time on the power play as the season progresses. Zetterlund was exuberant after the goal later saying, "to win a game like that is always fun." He also sees his role as being more than just a scorer. "I'm trying to produce and be a guy who can play both ends."

HOME SWEET HOME

The Devils returned to practice on Monday greeted by loud music during the start of the drills. The excitement and good spirits was noticeable throughout practice and carried over into the locker room where players were joking with the media and each other. In a strange schedule quirk, the Devils will take on the Flames again on Tuesday night followed by games with struggling Ottawa and Arizona on Thursday and Saturday. For a young team still finding its way, beating the teams you are favored to beat is a hallmark of gaining maturity and being ready to compete for the playoffs. This week holds that opportunity for the Devils, who would not be happy with anything less than five points in these three games.

This may sound familiar but the Devils currently have health related challenges at goaltender. Coach Ruff indicated that his team will need two goaltenders. When asked if backup Akira Schmid would see the net during the homestand Ruff demurred, "Understanding that we will need a second goaltender...We have Calgary tomorrow, we have a day off so I think we will look at it after the day off and see where we are at and how Vitek is doing."

The Devils currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division with 18 points.

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