Nico Hischier goes down after a check by Patrik Nemeth during the third period at Prudential Center.

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Lichtenstein: Devils’ Run Of Puck Luck Comes To An End

Steve Lichtenstein
October 19, 2018 - 2:50 pm
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The Devils had their top gun loaded.

With about 47 seconds remaining and New Jersey trailing, 4-3, to visiting Colorado on Thursday night, defenseman Will Butcher sent a pass to the top of the left circle, the spot often referred to as the “Ovi-Zoid” in honor of Washington sniper Alex Ovechkin.

Right wing Kyle Palmieri started this season producing Ovechkin-like numbers, with seven goals in four games.  Even though the Devils were blanketed by the Avalanche for much of the night, Palmieri’s first shot attempt of the game earlier in the third period on a power play bounced off teammate Brian Boyle’s foot and into the net to give New Jersey a short-lived 3-2 lead.

This was the guy the Devils wanted with the game on the line, the man with the hot stick.

Palmieri wound up and one-timed the puck on net.  Only this time, his—and the Devils’—puck luck ran out.

Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer moved across his crease, almost overshooting his angle.  However, he was able to reach back to his left and snag Palmieri’s blast with his glove. 

“That’s everything I had into it,” Palmieri said.  “Six-on-five, just trying to get it on net, and see what kind of rebound and chaos I can create.  (Grubauer) made a nice save, so sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap.”

34 seconds later, the Avs sealed the game with an empty-net goal to hand the Devils their first loss of the season after starting off with four consecutive victories.  

Long ago baseball general manager Branch Rickey is often credited with the saying that “luck is the residue of design,” and it’s true that the Devils created much of their own magic to jumpstart their season. 

They took care of home ice (the season-opening win over Edmonton in Sweden was considered a “home game”) against two teams (Washington and Dallas) on the back end of a back-to-back, and another (San Jose) at the end of a five-game road trip, outscoring their first four opponents by a whopping 17-4.

The Devils were the dominant team by far in each game except the more evenly-played one against the Sharks.  New Jersey played with pace and grit, the identity coach John Hynes has cultivated since its cellar-dwelling campaign two seasons ago.

They weren’t going to win them all, obviously.  However, Hynes has emphasized that “results may vary, but the process doesn’t change.” 

And for the first time this season, Hynes was not pleased with his players’ process following Thursday’s defeat.

“We’ve got to be a lot smarter than we were tonight,” a terse Hynes said.  “We had some key mistakes at some key times, and we’ve got to learn from that.”

Hynes couldn’t have been happy with the sequence that led to Colorado’s game-winning goal, a snipe by winger Gabriel Landeskog from the left circle with 3:22 remaining to complete his hat trick.

“There were multiple breakdowns on it,” Hynes said.  “Coming into d-zone coverage, we had a low forward—we needed a second and third forward coming into the zone after stopping in the slot.  We drifted away and had a guy wide open in front.  When you talk about beating yourself and not having attention to detail, that’s it right there.  That’s the game-winning goal.  There was too much of that that went on in tonight’s game.  That’s mental.”

After Saturday’s matinee in Philadelphia, the Devils have two more challenging home games versus Nashville and Florida before hitting the road for seven straight games.  The league may have did New Jersey a scheduling favor for participating in its Global Series, but payback will be harsh if the Devils don’t play their “A” games.  

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Travis Zajac had to be helped off the ice and limped down the tunnel favoring his right leg after a second period collision with Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen. Zajac will not make the trip to Philadelphia and will be re-evaluated later next week, but the team is hopeful it is a short-term injury, according to Amanda Stein of the Devils' official site.  

Though the Devils refused to use the injury as an excuse, I thought Zajac’s departure hurt the team in the areas Hynes felt were lacking.  Zajac is well-regarded for his defensive zone diligence and can be counted on to make smart decisions with the puck even when he’s not scoring. 

As one who has made some harsh comments regarding Zajac’s performance, I would agree that since late last season he had been playing some of his best two-way hockey in years.  Hynes had always said that whoever he puts on Zajac’s wing seems to get his game going, and there has been some evidence of that this season.

The Devils announced during the third period that Zajac’s return was “questionable”, which might mean that it was not serious, like when Butcher exited Tuesday’s win over Dallas after getting slammed into the boards.  What looked like a devastating shoulder injury turned out to be just soreness.

However, if Zajac’s diagnosis turns into something more dire over the next week, the Devils will have a big headache to attend to.  

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1