Last night as the New Jersey Devils took the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Prudential Center, I was stuck at an airport in Florida. Ironically enough, I was in Tampa Bay Lightning territory (well kind of, it was Orlando). With my flight delayed and every TV in the airport lounge turned to the seemingly more important Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers game, I had to tune in by watching the game on my phone.
The Lightning entered Prudential Center with a ten-game winning streak. Determined and talented as they were, it was destined to be a tough fight for the Devils. I told my waiter to keep the Coronas coming, as I hoped for the best but expected the worst. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the game that I wish I was in attendance for at Prudential Center instead of watching from an airport filled with tourists.
In my pregame, I said that goaltending would be a major part of this game. I also correctly predicted that Louis Domingue and Curtis McElhinney would be the starting goaltenders. This made it the first time Domingue faced off against his former team, and to an extent, his replacement behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Domingue started for the second time in as many nights after an impressive performance in Washington. An injury to Mackenzie Blackwood saw Cory Schneider return to the big leagues as Domingue’s back up. It was a homecoming for the Devils’ $6 million man, even if he spent it on the bench.
Starting a goaltender two nights in a row, especially on a home and away, is never optimal. Instead, Domingue rose up to the challenge to stop 26 of 27 Tampa Bay shots. Although that third-period empty-netter sealed the victory for New Jersey, Domingue’s point-blank save on reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov paid dividends. The Devils are finally seeing glimpses of the Domingue that took over as Tampa Bay’s number one during Vasilevskiy’s injury last season, a season where Domingue had 21 wins.
The other Nikita put on a show for the home crowd. The first year Devil assisted on Travis Zajac’s go-ahead goal in the second period. That gave the Russian import his team-leading 19th assist of the season.
Gusev almost had a tally of his own, a beautiful backhander that shot past McElhinney was eventually called back for goaltender interference, but not on Gusev’s doing. It’s debatable if the goal should have stood, but it was fun to watch.
Miles Wood had himself a two-point night as well, including his second empty-net goal in as many games. That gives him three points over the back-to-back weekend. Even if two of those points came from empty netters, it’s still a worthy accomplishment.
Almost immediately before the game began, news broke that the Devils had fired general manager Ray Shero. It’s rare to see a GM fired mid-season, and considering the longevity of Lou Lamoriello, it’s the first time a Devils general manager had been fired since the 1980s. Extremely unconventional, it added a bit of pre-game drama.
Did Shero’s firing have any direct effect on the game? Maybe it put everyone on the team on notice to give a little extra? Maybe it came at such a shock, at such an odd time, it distracted them from focusing on the game. Considering they won 3-1 against one of the Eastern Conference’s best, if I had to guess, I’d go with the first one.
Who Are the 2019-20 Devils?
Over the past few weeks, the Devils have been playing much better hockey than the beginning of the season. The hockey media has begun asking themselves just who are these Devils and what will their identity be? The consensus seems to be that the Devils are escaping the NHL’s basement but not good enough to make the playoffs. They’re beginning to play spoiler for the rest of the league.
Spoiler is a hard term because I don’t think the Devils will end up staying in the way of the playoffs for the Capitals or Lightning. The Devils have begun stringing together consistent and convincing wins. As of Monday morning, New Jersey is 12 points out of a playoff spot. After the St. Louis Blues turn around last season, anything is possible.