By Steve Lichtenstein
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When hearts finally stop pounding after the Devils’ come-from-behind victory over the rival Flyers on Thursday at the Prudential Center, Nico Hischier’s game-winning goal with 1:27 remaining should last the test of time.
It was a marvelous effort by the 19-year-old center, especially in the wake of the whole Nico versus Nolan backdrop.
Hischier, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 draft (Nolan Patrick was picked second by Philadelphia), drove to the right side of the net on a Devils’ rush. As he was falling to the ice after getting wrapped up by Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg, he still managed to redirect Blake Coleman’s centering pass from the right wing boards. The puck trickled past goalie Alex Lyon, who was making his first career NHL start.
“(Hischier) is a big-time player,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “A big-time player scores a big-time goal for us at a real key time. That’s why we drafted him where he is.”
Even though Hischier won this round and has posted far superior numbers than Patrick to date, the debate over whether Devils general manager Ray Shero made the correct call on draft night likely won’t be settled for another decade.
Besides, I would rather delve into what really turned around this crucial game against a divisional opponent that had the Devils’ number in two previous meetings.
For two periods, the Flyers again were the harder team, punishing the Devils at every turn– legally, borderline legally, and, in the case of Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas’ first-period leap into innocent bystander Kyle Palmieri that caused the back of Palmieri’s head to bang against the ice, egregiously illegally.
While it was satisfying to some when Travis Zajac exacted revenge by pounding his fists into Gudas’ face (continuing even after Zajac fell on top of Gudas) two minutes later, the Flyers had the last laugh, tying the game at 2 while Zajac was in the penalty box for instigating.
No, if the Devils were going to learn how to deal with all these teams taking liberties with their skilled players (top-six forward Marcus Johansson is out indefinitely after suffering his second concussion of the season following an elbow from Boston agitator Brad Marchand on Jan. 23), they were going to have to find another way besides taking penalties. Instead, they should be matching the physicality that comes with playing important games at this time of the season, especially against a team like the Flyers, who were on a back-to-back.
They did just that in the third period. In my view, the momentum shifted with around 12 minutes remaining, thanks to Brian Boyle’s line with Drew Stafford and Coleman. It was what Hynes likes to call a “heavy shift,” with the Devils’ forwards strong on the puck along the walls in the offensive zone and creating some scoring opportunities.
The Devils continued to pressure when the newly-formed line of Pavel Zacha centering Miles Wood and Palmieri took the ice. Wood and Palmieri battled three Flyers behind the net and into the left wing corner. Wood shoved Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning to the ice and Palmieri eventually kicked the puck to Zacha. The former sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft went back behind the net and fed defenseman Damon Severson cutting in from the right point. Severson snapped the puck past Lyon to tie the game at 3 with nine minutes remaining.
“I was just coming onto the ice from a change,” Severson said. “It was just a stalled-up puck there in the o-zone — it seemed like it was there for a long time. But we were able to come out with it. Winning puck battles is huge, especially late in the game, especially in the o-zone as well, because that’s where you create your offense. You get it into the corners and then the defense loses some coverage, so I just tried to find a hole there in the slot and Pavel made a great pass.”
For Hynes, who constantly harps on his club needing to be harder to play against, the way the Devils came back had to be especially satisfying.
“In the second period, I thought we were just really light on the puck in the offensive zone,” Hynes said. “We were just in and out. We didn’t win puck battles. We didn’t have sustained, hard shifts, and we knew coming into this game, we were not going to get a lot off the rush against Philly.
“I think it goes back to leadership and guys that have been there,” Hynes continued. “So who set the tone? Brian Boyle. He’s got the most playoff games in the room. Drew Stafford, a guy we had come in here as a big, strong, heavy player with high character. They set the tone. Then it’s followed up by some pretty good young players in Zacha, Palmieri, and Wood. All three of those players are big, strong, heavy guys. They should be better in the offensive zone than they were in the second period. They understand what needs to be done, they committed to it, and they got rewarded for it. And I think that’s a good lesson coming out of this game. Lots of times if you’re going to create offense at this time of year, it has to be through your competitiveness.”
And that’s how you beat the bullies.
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