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New Jersey Devils Smoked Shesterkin & Spoiled the New York Rangers, 6-4

I hate the New York Rangers. They are Our Hated Rivals. I love it when the New Jersey Devils beat them. As the Devils won 6-4 and played well in the process of that victory, I am in a very good mood.

The score does not really reflect how the game went. The last two goals by Our Hated Rivals were ultimately consolation goals. Sure, it made the game more tense for a little bit and it woke up the normally sleepy crowd at the World’s Most Overrated Arena. The Devils did not lose the lead once they obtained it, which is more important than that. They blew up Igor Shesterkin for four goals in the second period to turn a 1-2 deficit into a 5-2 lead going into the third. While the Rangers may have technically won the third period, they needed a miracle and a massive Devils meltdown to come back in this one. They received neither. The second period was enough for the Devils to put the game out of reach and they did.

After a first period that was not so bad from a run of play point of view but still infuriating in how the Devils conceded two goals – both from wide open shots in the slot – the Devils played with a purpose in the second period. Kyle Palmieri, who scored the Devils’ first goal when he fired a shot from just above the goal line that went off Shesterkin’s right pad and in, provided a quick equalizer in the second period. Dakota Mermis flung a puck towards the net, Miles Wood tried to put home the rebound, and Palmieri got away from Mika Zibanejad to slam in the second rebound to make it 2-2. Shortly after that, Nikita Gusev made a fantastic pass to a trailing Fredrik Claesson. With acres of space, Claesson fired a laser of a shot past Shesterkin to put the Devils up 3-2. The Rangers were not only stunned, but David Quinn used his timeout to settle his team down. Even with the slim lead, the Devils maintained it thanks to MacKenzie Blackwood, successful penalty killing, and being able to force the Rangers to play defense regularly instead of just getting rolled over for large stretches. It was as if the Devils carried over their performance from the St. Louis game albeit with the Rangers being more successful in getting close to the net than Friday’s opponents.

The Devils would extend the lead late in that same second period. Adam Fox took the sole penalty for the Rangers tonight and the Devils made him pay. Travis Zajac took a loose puck after Palmieri collided with a Ranger, sent it across to Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes set up in front of Shesterkin, and then Hischier fired a hard pass to Zajac in the slot. Zajac re-directed the pass on net and the puck beat the screen (yes, a screen by Jack Hughes) and the goalie. The PPG put the Devils up 4-2. On the very next shift, Damon Severson fired a long shot and John Hayden – yes, the same guy I just called the worst Devils regular skater this season – redirected the shot past Shesterkin. The Devils were up 5-2 and the Rangers looked lost. I would be too if John Hayden lit the lamp on my home rink. The Devils fans all around the world were jubilant and Shesterkin got replaced by Henrik Lundqvist for the third period.

The only way the game could have been better was if the Devils just built on the lead like they did in Chicago earlier in the season. Alas, it was not to be. Lundqvist shut down the five-hole on a Jack Hughes breakaway (created, not taken, by Miles wood). Jesper Bratt hit the crossbar after two sick moves to get to the slot for a shot. The Devils’ attack became less threatening but they did enough to keep Our Hated Rivals honest. They forechecked. They challenged in the neutral zone. They even played some good defense on some shifts. Again, a re-direction by Grant McKegg from a Brendan Smith shot gave the Rangers some semblance of hope. But we can say now that it was just that – hope. It was not realized and the fate of Our Hated Rivals was sealed when Adam Fox coughed up a puck to Travis Zajac, who proceeded to fire the puck into the empty net. A bad bounce off Connor Carrick’s skate did nothing to change that fate.

About a month ago, the Devils would have won this game solely on the back of Blackwood playing out of his mind. Do not misunderstand me. Blackwood did play well. I would not blame him on any of the four goals against. But the Devils skaters played a good game of hockey themselves. In 5-on-5 situations and with a lead for most of the game, they out-attempted OHR 51-50, out-chanced them 25-19, and out-high-danger chanced them 15-9. The Devils were out-shot but only by four. If you add in the non-5-on-5 situations, the Devils were only out-attempted and out-shot by six while still leading in scoring chances. The Devils also won the expected goals battle too. The point of those numbers is that they represent a solid team effort by the Devils. There has not been a lot of those in this season; they are worth praising when they do happen in a winning effort.

And the winning effort is even sweeter by the fact that the Devils took down Our Hated Rivals. They were hot not that long ago. They were making a real push for a wild card spot. Those of you who follow the weekly Metropolitan Division snapshot knows that race is very tight and one good week or one bad week can make a huge difference. After two regulation losses, Our Hated Rivals busted out an OT win over Washington whereupon Zibanejad scored five goals. The Devils went to Manhattan and absolutely spoiled them from building off any of that. The Devils’ 6-4 win keeps the Our Hated Rivals in seventh in the division and behind Carolina and two spots behind the last wild card spot in the East. Teams that are looking to make the playoffs generally need to beat the teams well below them in the standings. I sincerely hope tonight’s win by the Devils will ensure them setting up tee times on April 5. You love to see it. I absolutely did.

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Over at Blueshirt Banter, Bryan Winter has this recap. It is very standard, but I sense the salt in between the lines.

Mea Culpa: On Friday, I wrote a post about John Hayden being the worst regular skater on the Devils and questioned if he was the worst Devils skater who played a significant amount of games with the team since 2007. Hayden ends up with the game winning goal as well as the marker that sent Shesterkin packing. Hayden also ended up with the best CF% of any Devils skater at 58.8% (10 for, 7 against) and the second best xGF% of any Devils skater at 86.8% (0.56 xGF, 0.09 xGA). Hayden, Kevin Rooney, and Michael McLeod legitimately had a very good game. Hayden made an important impact in this win. Thank you for making me look stupid, Hayden. I am glad to hold this ‘L’ this evening.

Fourth All Time Goal Scorer in Franchise History: Thanks to Fox’s generous turnover, Zajac scored his second of the game with an empty netter. That goal was the 195th of Zajac’s career and he now is the sole holder of fourth place in franchise history for goals. His power play re-direction tied him with Zach Parise. Zajac is now behind Bobby Holik (202), John MacLean (347), and Patrik Elias (408) per Hockey-Reference.

Zajac and his line had an up-and-down game. They did get pinned back quite a few times. There were some less than good passes by Joey Anderson and Hughes that helped the Rangers get going. But they also created as many attempts and their quality led to a negative but somewhat small expected goals differential. That is to say that they were not a sore spot in 5-on-5, but they could have been better.

Zajac was better on special teams. When he was on the ice on the penalty kill (which lasted over three minutes), he only saw one shot against. On the power play, Zajac’s one shot converted it. When Lundqvist was pulled for an extra skater, Zajac powered through two Rangers to get the puck into and through the neutral zone. He kept going forward and received a gift from Fox for his efforts.

Hughes 1, Kakko 0: In the third period, Kaapo Kakko lined up Jack Hughes for a big hit. Hughes hopped away and Kakko slammed into the boards like he was Cam Janssen. It was a fun moment. It also represented how the game went for each.

While Hughes lost possession not long after that dodge due to other pressure, he at least moved it forward. While Hughes lost a puck that ended up becoming McKegg’s defleciton goal, it was not a horrid giveaway like, say, Fox to Zajac. While Hughes lost an edge a few times, he kept the puck moving. While Hughes got stopped on a breakaway early in the third, Hughes at least had a breakaway. While pointless, his screen on Shesterkin helped Zajac’s goal be a goal. The point is that Hughes was not great but it was far from bad.

Compare that to Kakko. He registered no shots on net. When he was on the ice, the Devils out-attempted Our Hated Rivals 12-5 and out-shot them 8-2. Kakko was a total non-factor. For someone who played against men last season, he looked out of his element this evening. The men in the NHL are different then the men in Liiga. Right or wrong, the Hughes-Kakko comparison will be there in this and future games like Devils-Flyers game bring the Hischier-Patrick comparison to mind. Tonight, it was more like Hischier-Patrick even if you wanted more from Hughes tonight.

Dakota & Damon: The Devils’ best pairing on defense tonight was Dakota Mermis and Damon Severson. Each took a shot that led to a goal in the second period. Each won plenty of pucks along the boards and behind their net. Each kept their turnovers to a minimum; Severson only had one bad one in the first period. Each were a factor in the Devils keeping the Rangers to a mere twelve attempts on net and eight shots on net in 5-on-5 situations in the third period. Each were positive in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey too. The only other mark against this pairing was Severson’s cross-check on Artemi Panarin that yielded a power play in the first period. But the Devils killed that one. While a defense that yields 35 shots on net is not exactly sterling, this pairing was a net positive on the score sheet and elsewhere.

As a quick aside, I also thought P.K. Subban and Mirco Mueller had a good game too. Even though they looked very bad on Zibanejad’s goal. It was as if they were the sea and Zibanejad’s presence from twenty feet away parted them. But they did well after that moment.

Much Better: After a rough night against St. Louis, Nikita Gusev was much better in Manhattan this evening. His highlight will be his great pass to Claesson for his first goal as a Devil. But overall, Gusev was good at getting the puck forward and finding his teammates to keep offenses going. He was also not at all shy about firing away. Gusev led the Devils with seven shot attempts and three were on target. As Gusev was more able to get the puck and move it in all three zones, this led to a better night overall for Pavel Zacha and Bratt as well. They did more than just have one or two rushes, they generated a bunch and when they were on the ice, the Devils were usually going forward. I enjoyed that.

I also enjoyed Kyle Palmieri breaking a five-game goalless streak with two goals. The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey was fortunate for his first goal. That was more or less an error by Shesterkin. He was in the right place and right time for his second too. However, in several games over the past four or five weeks, he would have nights where he could not seemingly buy a goal despite getting some sweet passes and shooting situations. His goals were important early on in the game and I hope that means more contributions from the first line.

Oh, Well: Miles Wood unfortunately missed an empty net from the Rangers’ blueline and then was stick-checked later when he had a second chance within twenty feet from it. It is no big deal since A) Zajac would score an ENG later and B) the Devils won the game.

Wood, Hischier, and Palmieri were not as effective in the run of play tonight as they were against St. Louis. They lost their match-up against Panarin and Jesper Fast. They broke even with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Even so, Palmieri made his mark twice, Wood assisted Palmieri’s second goal, Hischier set up Zajac’s PPG, so the unit did contribute to the scoresheet.

About Blackwood: MacKenzie Blackwood played a very good game despite conceding four goals. I do not think any of them were his fault. Filip Chytil and Zibanejad each scored in the first period when the Devils skaters left the slot wide open for those players to get into for shots. One-timers are hard enough. One-timers from the slot are remarkably difficult shots to stop. The Devils hung him out to dry on each one. The latter two goals were deflections. McKegg re-directed a shot from Smith while in Blackwood’s grill and Tony DeAngelo’s lone point of the night was a pass intended for Brent Howden that hit off Carrick’s skate by accident. Blackwood did come up big multiple times when the Rangers did get other one-timers off in close. He shut down Panarin twice, he shut down Buchnevich four times, and he shut down Brendan Lemieux – their leading shooter tonight – five times. Blackwood was in control on the penalty kill, which was important as the third one was really driven by Blackwood making stops. The scoresheet does list 4 GA for Blackwood but that should not be taken to mean he had a poor night. He did not.

It was notable how much better Blackwood performed with traffic in front compared to Shesterkin. The MSG broadcast kept noting from time to time how Shesterkin struggled when players were able to get in close. To their credit, the Devils scored three of their four goals in the second with someone close to the crease. Wood had a shot off a rebound in front before Palmieri came in close to put in that rebound. Hughes, of all players, set a successful screen on Shesterkin on Zajac’s PPG. Hayden was right in front of the goalie on his re-direction. Clearly, the Devils got the message and it paid off.

By the way, this is the first time Blackwood was beaten more than three times in a game since conceding five against Nashville on January 30.

Not Yet: Before tonight’s game, Janne Kuokkanen was called up from Binghamton. He was the young player from the Sami Vatanen trade last week. He was very productive with the B-Devils right away. I assumed that with his call up, we would see him play tonight as Binghamton had an important game against Lehigh Valley today. He did not. His New Jersey debut will have to wait. Fortunately, Binghamton took down Lehigh Valley 5-1; check out Jeff’s recap of that win.

Also Making Me Smile: Fredrik Claesson was with the Rangers organization last season. He did not last after 37 games there. Claesson scored his first NHL goal as a Devil with a picture-perfect shot past Shesterkin that put the Devils up in the second to build a lead that would not be lost. He did note that in the second intermission interview with Erika Wachter. Claesson and Carrick were not as good as they were on Friday as the Devils were out-shot by a good margin when they were on the ice. However, Claesson’s only shot of the game was an important one and I was happy to see it happen. Even if it was a surprise since, well, it was Claesson firing an unscreened shot from about forty feet away.

Sherman Abrams is Swearing At Me so His Section is Suspended for Now so Enjoy This Out of Town Scoreboard Fact: While the Devils were spoiling the Rangers’ playoff hopes, Philly extended their winning streak to nine. They beat Buffalo. This now means that the Devils are ahead of Buffalo in the standings. This is the same team that traded for Wayne Simmonds (who waived his partial no-trade clause for this deal) and put a condition on the pick that is based in part on whether they make the playoffs. Take this as another sign that the playoffs are not happening, Buffalo.

One Last Thought: I will never get tired of the Devils beating Our Hated Rivals, who still inherently suck. I hope you never get tired of it either.

Your Take: The Devils beat Our Hated Rivals 6-4 with goals by Palmieri (2), Zajac (2), Claesson, and Hayden. I loved this win. What was your take on this one? Who on the Devils impressed you the most tonight? Which of the five goals was your favorite? (Mine was Claesson’s, which was a perfect shot.) What should the Devils learn from this game before their next one against Pittsburgh? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win over Our Hated Rivals in the comments.

Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading. You are all indeed the People Who Matter.

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