Photo Credit: Mark Fischgrund

Rangers dominate Devils to take 2-0 series lead

A resolute Lindy Ruff strode to the conference table and reflected on his team’s second straight 5-1 defeat at the hands of their arch-rivals and his former employer, the New York Rangers. Ruff was clear that he had confidence “in the guys who had given him everything all year.” He drew an apt comparison between the first two games of the series and the first two games of the regular season, which featured consecutive 5-1 losses and indicated that he still has faith in his players. 

The team has always been up for incredible challenge. They’re going to battle until the end.”

  • Head Coach Lindy Ruff

What is unclear though is if it is already over. The Devils, a dominant 5-v-5 team all year, have now gone 120 playoff minutes without an even-strength goal. They have been dominated at even strength and on special teams. 

The Devils battled in the first period, focusing on getting pucks deep into the zone and playing from below the goal line. While not breaking through on the scoresheet they looked like a different team than the jittery group from Tuesday. At times they looked improved on the power play but again the first unit was unable to break through. The Devils took their first lead of the series on a goal by the second unit. 

With less than 30 seconds remaining in the power play and an offensive zone face-off looming, Ruff took a chance and deployed Michael McLeod for the draw. McLeod was tossed from the dot, but Erik Haula won the draw. The puck found its way to Ondrej Palat who sent it on net. McLeod swept the puck across the crease under Igor Shesterkin to a waiting Haula who deposited it in the net for the Devils' first lead of the series. The Devils would take that lead into the second period.


In the second, the Rangers countered the Devils' plans and the Devils had no viable answers. The Rangers would score three times, twice Chris Kreider would tip in power-play goals eerily reminiscent of Game 1. Kreider now has four goals in the series, double that of the Devils. With a penchant for comebacks all season, the Devils were still very much in the game as the third period began.

The Devils came flying out of the locker room to start the third period but were quickly undone. On the first shift of the period, the Devils hit a crossbar then John Marino defied the laws of physics somehow missing an open tap in that would have changed the momentum of the game and brought the building back to life. Unable to capitalize on their chances, the Devils' sloppy play eventually led to the back-breaking goal. 

Down 3-1, the Devils were pressing and Patrick Kane was able to strip Jesper Bratt at the blue line, take the puck down the ice and lift a beautiful backhand over the shoulder of a helpless Vitek Vanecek.   The Rangers would later add another goal by Kappo Kakko to end the scoring at 5-1 again.  The last ten minutes of the game were marred by odd officiating which resulted in ten misconduct penalties with no explanation from the officials. 

Ruff shook up the lineup before the start by deciding to play Brendan Smith and Yegor Sharangovich rather than Jonas Siegenthaler and Jesper Boqvist. Neither of the substitutes was the reason for the loss which can be put squarely on poor puck management and many defensive coverage lapses. That Chris Kreider is finding ways to tip in pucks on the doorstep of the crease without any resistance is the most glaring example of the Devils simply not executing.

As expected, the Devils were a dejected bunch in the locker room. The players espoused that the series was not over and that they would continue to fight but there is clearly bewilderment. For a team that played so consistently well and was in 79 of their 82 games, the inability to counterpunch has been astonishing. 

"A lot of it is our game. We have to focus on ourselves. They're a good team, so we're just not playing our standard and it's biting us in the ass right now." - Jack Hughes

It is likely that more lineup changes are coming for the Devils. The play of Ryan Graves has likely earned him a night in the scratch suite. Will Ruff roll the dice and insert Luke Hughes or Curtis Lazar?  Regardless of any changes, the Devils need more from just about everyone. It would be difficult to single out any individuals that are playing well in spite of the team’s performance. 

Other than Hughes, it may be time to rely upon another rookie in Akira Schmid as Vanecek, who looked sharp early, was unable to shut the door when the Devils needed it most. After his dismal playoff performance last season for the Capitals, there may be some legitimate concern about Vanecek’s play in the playoffs. Vanecek shouldered a much larger workload than he had in previous seasons and did fulfill the needs of the team showing that even with just above-league-average goaltending this is a legit playoff-caliber team. Unfortunately, he has not raised his level in the playoffs where more is needed. 

It is difficult, in fact, to find any bright spots in the play of the Devils. The stars are not scoring, the defense is making coverage errors and none of the secondary stars have provided a lift.  Besides Erik Haula and Timo Meier, most of the remaining players have been largely invisible. Meier has made his presence felt along the boards logging 12 recorded hits in two games to go along with seven shots on goal. They have been destroyed on the power play, betrayed by a penalty kill that finished fourth in the NHL during the regular season. 

The Devils will travel across the Hudson to try to reinvigorate their season on Saturday. They made their mark this season as a great road team. Between the games, Ruff indicated that sometimes starting a series on the road can be helpful, especially for young teams, because you can keep the group together and there are fewer distractions. Perhaps that is what the Devils need to climb back into the series. As Ruff and the players continued to reiterate, this has been a team that has tossed aside obstacles all year and met every challenge. Their biggest challenge now awaits Saturday night.