By Steve Lichtenstein
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Late in the second period at the Prudential Center on Tuesday night, the Devils’ second power play unit went to work against the rival Rangers, looking to break a scoreless tie.
New Jersey center Pavel Zacha picked up a wraparound pass along the right wing boards and backhanded the puck behind the net. Joseph Blandisi took it on his tape and, after a quick look, threaded a backdoor pass to John Quenneville, who one-timed it from the left circle past sprawling Rangers goalie Antti Raanta for his first career NHL goal.
The average age of the trio credited with points on such an exquisitely executed play: 20.3 years old.
Blandisi and Quenneville combined again to end the contest in overtime. This time it was Quenneville who provided the helper, crisscrossing with Blandisi on a two-on-one before feeding his buddy, who beat Raanta with a deke across the crease with 54.6 seconds remaining in the extra period to give the Devils a thrilling 3-2 victory.
“I think (the chemistry with Quenneville) starts off the ice,” Blandisi said. “The friendship we’ve built over the past couple of years coming to camp together, it goes a long way on the ice, too. I think the guys in the dressing room definitely notice it, and on the ice I think the chemistry is pretty undeniable. It’s pretty exciting to be able to play in the NHL with one of my best buds.”
Of the game-winner, Blandisi said: “I had a feeling — I knew when he was holding up and waiting for me to get down there. I thought it was going to end up on my stick, so I was just focused on making the right move to finish the game.”
Miles Wood, one of seven Devils rookies (Blandisi is technically a sophomore after playing 41 games last season) to dress for this heated contest — which included a “Slap Shot”-esque fracas in the final minute of the second period after Wood took exception to a Nick Holden hit — summed up the team’s performance when he said, “I think tonight was a good glimpse of what the future holds for us, and I’m excited for it.”
With New Jersey mired in last place in the Eastern Conference and virtually eliminated from the playoff picture for a fifth consecutive season, the future is all that’s left to consider over its final 10 games.
There’s a tendency to overrate short-term contributions in these end-of-season situations, but I think the Devils will provide a sufficient sample size to be able to make proper evaluations as to which players they believe they can build around in the coming years.
As one who also covers pro basketball, I cringe when the Devils talk about “process.” They share the same owner (Josh Harris) as the 76ers, who have made a half-decade of dreadful seasons a normal cost of doing business.
The difference here is that the Devils are allowing their young players to actually play. They’re not held out for precautionary purposes or stored overseas. To the contrary, coach John Hynes has been giving them significant responsibilities in key moments.
In addition to the aforementioned power play, the ice-time allocation during the overtime was noteworthy. Wood, fresh from a 17-minute respite in the penalty box, started the period, and Zacha also took a shift before the Blandisi/Quenneville combo closed the deal. Veterans Travis Zajac, Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri all saw the ice in overtime, but Hynes had no problem having his young guns decide the game in the last minute.
“We haven’t necessarily sheltered (the young players) a lot,” Hynes said. “We’ve tried to give these guys opportunities to play against some of the best players on the other team. Those guys are three-on-three players. They’re quick, they’re skilled, and they’re smart. They can play in those situations, and tonight was a test to see if they can have some success, and tonight it worked out.”
While the finish was exciting, Hynes was also quick to point out that youthful indiscretions could have easily altered the outcome. About 40 seconds before his game-winner, Blandisi was beaten badly by Rangers center Kevin Hayes, who then forced his way to the net. Devils goalie Cory Schneider made a ridiculous stop with his skate on Hayes’ forehand-to-backhand move in the blue paint.
“I thought it went in,” Schneider said.
As the play continued, Quenneville reached to poke the puck away from Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh at the blue line, not quite the safest play. Fortunately, after McDonagh cut to the wide-open slot, his wrister went well wide, leading directly to the Devils’ game-winning, odd-man transition rush.
And just like that, the postgame news conference topic turned from hopelessness to hope. In reality, Hynes said, all of the Devils’ results are important, but there’s also a larger picture.
“I really would like to make the point: We wound up winning the hockey game tonight, but the last few games we’ve played pretty well and haven’t found ways to win, and it was all negativity,” Hynes said. “We have lots of younger guys in the lineup. We really like the way they’re playing. We haven’t gotten as many results as we’ve wanted, but I thought tonight you see the more games they play, the more comfortable they get.”
The key now is to get the kids to play with consistency. Blandisi provided a jolt upon his call-up from Albany last season but went goalless with just five assists over his final 23 games and was almost invisible in his first 14 games this season. Zacha and Wood have shown dazzling bursts of speed and skill at various points this year, but their meager production (eight goals, 21 points in 60 games for Zacha, and eight goals, 16 points in 51 games for Wood) should be a little concerning, although Wood’s physical presence can sometimes mitigate his scoring slumps.
I just can’t get too excited about the Devils’ youth movement when the flames burn so intermittently. Getting up for rivalry games against the Rangers or Flyers is one thing, but how will the young Devils respond in Toronto on Thursday?
These last 10 games will be helpful to see just how far along the “process” road the Devils really are.
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