The Devils have been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season, and a big part of that success has come from all the wins they have racked up against top teams.
Their first win of the season came on October 18 at The Garden against the Rangers in overtime, and that was the spark they needed.
They have beaten the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks twice, the Detroit Red Wings twice, the Vancouver Canucks twice and took three of four points in a home-and-home with the Montreal Canadiens in late November. They dominated the Penguins so much in a 4-0 win on November 14 that it precipitated a coaching change in Pittsburgh.
Devils right wing Kyle Palmieri said of their ability to beat playoff teams starting with the one against the Rangers, “I think you look at the first four or five games of our year, they were against some pretty tough teams, some playoff teams. I think you look back at how emotional a rivalry game and a team looking for its first win, going on the road to Madison Square Garden, where this team hasn’t had much success as of late the last couple of years, and that sparked us. That’s exactly what it did that month, and kind of kept our momentum going and we went on a pretty good run after that.”
Palmieri said of what’s different about this team now than when the season began, “I think just that confidence. I think you look at, like I mentioned before, the teams that we beat, that people go out and say, ‘these are the powerhouse in the league, these are the best teams in the league,’ and we go out there and compete with them, and we’ve been lucky enough to take two points from a lot of teams.”
Saturday night was perhaps their biggest test, as they were hosting the best team in the NHL, the Dallas Stars, who entered the game with a 28-8-3 record.
This game was amped-up from the start, as Dallas took a penalty 24 seconds in, and the Devils took one just as that one was ending. Each team got big chances on their power plays, and that kind of set the tone for a brisk first period in which neither team was able to cash in.
The Devils wasted no time getting on the board in the second period, as Kyle Palmieri scored 1:02 into the frame.
Five minutes later, the “Wild Thing” Bobby Farnham found some space and launched a rocket to make it 2-0 New Jersey.
Farnham, who has five goals on the season, said of doing more than is expected of him, “Thank you, I appreciate that. I don’t know, I just try to play the same way. My line just tries to play fast, aggressive forechecking game, and we get pucks in the net when we can, and luckily they’re going in a little bit lately.”
The Devils took a two-goal lead into the third, but at some point, the Dallas offense was going to erupt.
Patrick Sharp got the Stars on the board with 9:06 remaining in the third, and the Stars tied it just over a few minutes later, as Colton Sceviour got one by Schneider at the 5:36 mark to tie it at 2.
The game went into overtime, and the Devils controlled play from the start, leading to a hooking penalty on Jamie Benn 1:07 into the extra session.
The Devils crashed the net trying to get the winner, and Dallas came close to getting it out of the zone a couple of times.
One of those clearing attempts found Devils defenseman John Moore on the left side, and he blasted one by Dallas goalie Antti Niemi to give them the 3-2 win 1:40 into overtime.
Moore said of the game-winner, “All game, it (the puck) was taking some tough bounces, and especially when overtime comes around, there’s no scrape there to the ice. It was a pretty determined puck pursuit by our forwards, and we able to be the beneficiary of some fortunate bounces there. I found it in the middle of the slot, hit it as hard as I could, and it knuckled pretty good on him (Niemi) to find its way to the back of the net.”
The win was the Devils’ 20th of the season, and their record is 20-14-5 with 45 points. They are well ahead of last season’s pace, as their 20th win did not occur until February 3, 2015.
This game could be looked at as a benchmark for the Devils, as it was the first one in calendar year 2016 right near the halfway point of the season, and a win that could be looked at as a statement.
Devils Head Coach John Hynes said of it being a benchmark game, “It’s a good question, but we don’t think of it that way really. Each game’s different, we had different lineup tonight, we had a different team, we had a different situation, so it’s more of ‘what are we going to do to try to be able to win this hockey game.’ I think the fact that, when you win games, it always helps reinforce what you want to do – that’s the big key. The second thing is the game tonight’s not going to help us win the Detroit game (on Monday night). We can enjoy it tonight, but tomorrow, we got to turn the page and we got to find a way to be ready for Detroit. That’s that mental preparation, the physical preparation, and the mentality we have to play with, and that’s our focus.”
Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said of how much importance the team put into this game, which was played in front of a sellout crowd, “It was a fun atmosphere, crowd was great. I think, for whatever the reason right now, the best teams are bringing the best out of us, so we were definitely ready to go. We just have to make sure we keep that level of play for every single game we play, but we’re stringing a few together here. It’s fun to play this kind of hockey and it’s fun to win games like that.”
Schneider said of the win, “Exciting stuff, we kind of have a knack for doing that in overtime this year. We got a great game going, but like we talked about this morning though is, you can only keep them down for so long, they’re able to find a way, couple nice plays, kind of a seeing-eye shot and they got back into it, but we didn’t waver, we didn’t break down at all. We stuck with it and we really, I think, pushed the play in overtime there on that power play to keep the puck alive and just kind of got a good bounce to Johnny (Moore), who didn’t miss.”
Farnham said of the confidence level of the Devils with these wins against big teams, “Absolutely, it’s no different than when we were a little bit back and forth there for a while. It’s just the same mindset, and each team’s a little bit different, just have to prepare and take it game by game, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Pretty level-headed locker room and a good group of guys that believe in this team, so that’s what we’re trying to do right now and string as many in a row together.”
Hynes said of the Devils’ ability to compete with top teams, “I don’t think guys necessarily have to be reminded of it, just in the fact that I think we feel that in the room. The ebbs and flows of the season, we can be back to two weeks ago when we lost a couple games and we couldn’t win two in a row and it was ‘what’s going on with the team?’ It was that segment of the season, so we dealt with it the same way, we didn’t get too low. Today, we can’t get too high. We have to understand that we weren’t perfect tonight. We did a lot of great things, we should enjoy it, but we have to continue to get better. It’s a long season, and I think when you don’t get too high and too low with the wins and losses, you can remain consistent.”
The Devils won this game without Mike Cammalleri, who leads the team with 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists), who was dealing with an upper-body issue.
Hynes said of what player he wanted step up in Cammalleri’s absence, “No one, really. I think when you lose a guy like Michael, he’s a special player, he brings different attributes. When you lose a guy like him out of your lineup, I think it’s unfair to go up to a player and say ‘we need this from you.’ It really has to come from the team, and I think we did a good job of that. We needed all four lines to play and not have passengers and the guys did that as a collective group.”