“Speed kills”, an avid Devils fan said when asked about the key to his team’s victory in Game Seven. The Devils won races to pucks, forced turnovers, and turned tight plays into breakaways. None of that surprised the Rangers, who had to overcome those obstacles all series.
New York knew they could put New Jersey on their heels if they could sneak home a power play marker as they did in their convincing 5-2 game six victory.
Akin to game six, the Devils’ inexperience and nerves showed as they took three first-period penalties. But they killed all of them off with ease. You wouldn’t have known there were Blueshirts’ power plays by looking at the shots on goal count, which read 7-1 in favor of New Jersey, a mere 10 minutes into the contest.
Luckily, New York had Shesterkin, who by leaps and bounds is the best goaltender in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, and probably still statistically will be when it ends in June. He stoned Hischier point-blank on the game’s first shift, stopped Timo Meier on an odd-man rush, and denied Hughes a breakaway tally. He was the story of the first period and why it ended scoreless. However, in the second, the Devils would finally beat him.
The doomsday Second: The second period began with the Devils maintaining puck possession as they pinned the Rangers in their zone. But play turned when Alexis Lafreniere had a two-on-one opportunity, which Schmid stopped. While the impending restricted free-agent winger and 2020 first-overall pick didn’t record a point in this series, there’s potential in his game and ample time for the 21-year-old to grow.
GM Chris Drury is expected to give him a two-year bridge deal similar to the one Kaapo Kakko received last offseason. “It’s tough to lose like that, especially when I could’ve done much better,” Lafreniere said. “I want to be back here, so hopefully, we’ll get something done soon.”
With 12:14 left in the second stanza, the Devils received their first power play when K’Andre Miller high sticker Meier. However, that was negated when Jesper Bratt was boxed for tripping Barclay Goodrow 71 seconds later. The Rangers went on the man advantage for a fourth time, but shorthanded New Jersey did the damage.
Pressured by Ondrej Palat, the uncharacteristically timid Adam Fox attempted to find Chris Kreider but lost control of the puck, and Palat made him pay. He stripped Fox, went around Kreider, and found Micheal McLeod down low, who outwaited Shesterkin and slid home the game’s first goal with 10:07 remaining in the period.
Looking to get his offense going, it was then that Gallant reunited the kid line, putting Lafrenire, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko back together. Meanwhile, Panarin reunited with Vincent Trocheck and Patrick Kane in the second unit. While the change resulted in New York putting pressure on Schmid, they struggled to crash the net for rebounds, primarily how they bedeviled the Devils goaltender for five goals in game six.
Instead, the lineup changes of Devils head coach Lindy Ruff pulled through.
Before game seven, Ruff put Miles Wood on the fourth line with McLeod and Nathan Bastian and healthy scratched Curtis Lazar, who scored one of the Devil’s two goals in game six. Dawson Mercer moved from winger to center, flanked between Yegor Sharangovich, who replaced the struggling Jesper Boqvist, and Timo Meier.
Finally, he placed Tomas Tatar on the top line with Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, while the second line of Jack Hughes, Ondrej Palat, and Erik Haula remained the same. Ruff’s adjustments proved effective throughout the evening but proved most influential with 4:21 remaining in the second period.
Shesterkin stopped John Mariano’s backhand shot, but he quickly retrieved the puck behind the net and found an uncovered Tatar in the slot for the finish, doubling New Jersey’s lead.
After John Marino pinched in, Rangers defenseman Niko Mikkola and Braden Schneider could have communicated more effectively regarding who would take the Devils skater.
At the same time, Tatar beat Vladimir Tarasenko to the front of the net for the tally. It was a combination of defensive lapses, timid Rangers skaters, and the relentless Devils’ speed combined into one play. It was how New Jersey turned around the latter half of this series.
As the stanza concluded, Schmid would be tested but stood tall. He stopped a Mika Zibanejad redirection off a Jacob Trouba point shot redirected and denied a Tarasenko tip-in, keeping the Devils’ goal lead intact heading into the third period.
Starstruck: In the third, Gallant reunited Panarin and Kane, who were centered by Trocheck. Nothing worked as the Rangers stars went dormant when it mattered most. But it’ll be Panarin, the $11.6 million winger who finished the series with no goals and two assists, both of which came in game one, who’ll get the brunt of the blame.
While Kane, Zibanejad, and Tarasenko didn’t perform up to standard, they were at least noticeable. Zibanejad had three one-timers denied by Schmid, while Kane and Tarasenko used their speed to beat Devils defenders to the paint for scoring opportunities. “I get frustrated too early and then after it snowballs,” Panarin said. “I just try to play so much better than last year and it goes the other way somehow.”
There wasn’t enough urgency in New York throughout the evening. The Devils got under their skin physically and mentally. The mental side showed 5:03 into the final frame when the undisciplined K’Andre Miller was penalized after roughing up Nico Hischier, who accidentally knocked into Shesterkin after he came out of his crease to play the puck.
The Devils didn’t do much on the ensuing power play, where Jacob Trouba crushed Timo Meier at center ice. Meier was bloodied following the hit, wore a shield on his helmet to the Devils’ morning skate in Carolina on Wednesday, and missed game one of that second-round series.
There was no intent to injury by Trouba, and the two quickly made up in the series-ending handshake line following the game. However, the hit was a message from the Rangers captain that they needed to “Wake up.”
They tried, as Panrarin found Trochcek in the slot, which Schmid gloved. Schmid is from Bern, Switzerland, is 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. He played 23 games in the minors for the AHL’s Utica Comets this season.
His GAA was higher there (2.62) than in his 18 regular-season games with New Jersey (2.13). Yet given an opportunity in this series, he ran with it and enters the second round 4-1 with a 1.38 GAA, a .951 save percentage, and a +4.6 Goals Saved Above Expected, which ranks second amongst NHL goaltenders in these playoffs behind Shesterkin.
Another Palat takeaway allowed Hughes to lead an odd-man rush, and he perfectly set up Haula to make it 3-0 with 5:33 remaining. The Devils looked for more after that, but Shesterkin didn’t allow any. He finished the series with a 1.96 GAA, a .931 save percentage, and a league-best +8.8 Goals Saved Above Expected.
“I feel bad for Igor,” Fox said. “He battled all series for us. I feel bad not being able to get some goals for him. Credit to their goalie, too; he played well, but I obviously, feel bad for our goalie there for how he battled. Just kind of feel like we let him down.”
With 2:19 left, Marino found Jesper Bratt, who scored an empty-net goal, sealing the 4-0 victory. Aside from Haula, all the Devils who scored in game seven registered their first tallies of the playoffs. Putting that into perspective, it’s more than Panarin had in the series and equal to how many Zibanejad, Trocheck, and Kane had.
The ouster sends the Rangers into a strenuous offseason.