The New Jersey Devils win their eighth game in a row
It must have been a slow night, sports-wise, if I feel the need to talk about the New Jersey Devils. There hasn’t been a better set design team, and it’s sad because of that, than the Devils in the last 10 years. You didn’t think about them until they hit the schedule against your favorite team. And even when that happened, it wasn’t an occasion you can remember. I was a season ticket holder here in Chicago for 12 seasons and I don’t remember a visit from the Devils. I know they were there every year because they had to be there, but other than that, they couldn’t help you.
Turn on a Devils game at Center Ice and you’d see a half-empty building full of wayward souls just acting out of ritual and trying not to think too much about what brought them to a refrigerated warehouse in Newark. I guess that’s what Newark is all about, and I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, which is what most people feel about Newark. It’s a place you’ve heard about and would never stumble upon on purpose. [Editor’s note: Newark has the Ironbound Section around the Devils’ home ice, which is worth checking out.] Here’s how the Devils’ roster was constructed.
And yet…now…on a Tuesday night, there was “The Rock” packed and buzzing. The faithful were only too happy to sing “Take On Me” or “My Own Worst Enemy” (becoming an NHL tradition, to be fair) long after the PA had settled for action on the ice The place bounced actively after big hits and goals from the Devils and sounded agitated after the hosts had two goals ruled out by video reviews.
And on the ice, the Devils were fast. They were creative. Were they… fun? Is that what this says? That can’t be, can it?
The Devils won their eighth straight, their second in a week over the Calgary Flames, 3-2. They came back from a goal down to take it, with Nico Hischier scoring the winner with eight minutes remaining. It was one of the few games this season where the Devils had to fight off an onslaught to maintain a lead, but they did. Only the Bruins have more points in the East.
Noise? Excitement? Devils did not long for these things before. At the end of the day, this is an organization that still lives off the reputation of a lack of action, of noise, of illusion. Success was based on sucking up all that stuff, with your trap and your goalie and the idea that the best way to win hockey games was to make them as little hockey as possible and make the oxygen be difficult to achieve. That every inch of the court was to be contested as if it were holy ground, and the puck was incidental. The Devils haven’t played like this in a while, of course, but that’s what most people think of when they hear the name.
There is probably no coach more opposed to this old Devils style than Lindy Ruff, who has come to let his team off the leash as he ultimately prefers. The offseason addition of John Marino on the blue line has given Ruff another option to take the dungeon shifts and allowed Dougie Hamilton more freedom with his assignments to push the Devils to the end of the ice.
Hischier making the jump hasn’t hurt either, as he finally looks like the top-line center that should make a No. 1 overall pick. Hischier has seen a huge jump in the shots, chances and goals he and his line are producing, with Jesper Bratt in his side as another weapon.
Which has meant that Jack Hughes has come to be somewhat protected on the second line. It’s almost a point per game with comfort.
There is no drop-off anywhere on the list, as anyone who has skated meaningful moves carries metrics well above water. Ruff in Dallas had a team that was run as well as anyone we’ve seen in years, and it’s no different in New Jersey.
Sure, goaltending isn’t great, but they could really be on to something if it improves with a return to health for MacKenzie Blackwood. Or maybe Vitek Vanecek is just filling the job full-time in his absence, as his .915 save percentage suggests he probably should (though still below the save-goal line).
But the vibrations with the devils are very strong. This is a fan base that has been waiting for not only a winner, but a version of the Devils to shake off the shackles of the past. To re-identify everything. It’s not even showtime yet, and the idea of showtime in northern New Jersey is utter madness. But where before there was a void of intrigue or excitement, where the signs of life were the absence of color and vitality, now there is juice and bursts from the crowd. There is a rumor. There is a feeling that foreshadows something even bigger and better.
The Devils are no longer an absence, a void, ellipses. Nothing is permanent.
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