By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
For Keith Kinkaid, it’s all about surviving the first two periods.
The Devils’ backup goaltender, who has been starting in place of injured Cory Schneider since Jan. 23, has had a disturbing habit of surrendering early goals. That’s why he has posted a ghastly .893 save percentage (41st out of 44 NHL netminders who have played at least 20 games) and a 3.24 goals-against average (40th).
Feel free to blame some of the goals against on the Devils’ leaky defense, but even Kinkaid will acknowledge that he has needed to be better at stopping pucks. Red lights have flashed all season due to his poor positioning and lack of rebound control.
However, Kinkaid has also exhibited the perseverance needed to stand tall when many games are decided, in third periods, overtimes and shootouts. His performances in his last two outings — a wild 5-4 come-from-behind shootout victory in Philadelphia on Tuesday and a 5-2 win over visiting Carolina on Thursday — may literally have saved the Devils’ season.
In both affairs, Kinkaid rebounded from early adversity to blank his opponents in the third period. Against the Flyers, he held the fort after allowing a power play goal with about four minutes left in the second period that put the Devils in a 4-2 hole. After Taylor Hall’s goal with 1:21 remaining tied the game, Kinkaid came up big in both the overtime and the shootout, going 3-for-3 in the skills competition to put a halt to his club’s four-game losing streak.
The Devils fell behind again Thursday, but took a 3-2 lead into the third period. The Hurricanes swarmed the Devils’ net for much of the frame, outshooting the hosts 12-4. The first five minutes were particularly alarming, with the ‘Canes often looking like they had a man advantage.
But Kinkaid shut the door.
He committed highway robbery with a sprawling save on Carolina center Derek Ryan’s rebound attempt at the left post three minutes into the period.
About five minutes later, Kinkaid blockered away a right-circle wrist shot by Brock McGinn. Hall then chipped the loose puck to Nico Hischier to start a two-on-one with Kyle Palmieri. Hischier, who had been chastised in the past for passing on such golden opportunities, ripped a shot past Carolina goalie Scott Darling for a two-goal lead.
While the assist was icing on the cake (“I don’t even remember what I did, to be honest — I’ll take it,” he would later say), it was Kinkaid’s composure early in the third period that gave the Devils a chance to close the game out.
“The biggest difference in Keith’s game tonight is when we needed a save, he gave it to us,” Devils coach John Hynes said during his postgame remarks.
I would argue that Kinkaid has done so more often than not this season. One would expect a goaltender with his numbers to have a record well below .500, yet Kinkaid is 12-7-2, mainly because of his play with games on the line.
Of Kinkaid’s 64 goals against this season, only 15 have been scored in third periods and nothing has gotten past him in seven overtime sessions. He is 3-0 in overtime and 2-2 in shootouts.
Kinkaid has gone 5-3 in Schneider’s absence, helping to keep the Devils afloat in the tight Eastern Conference playoff chase. New Jersey currently occupies the first wild card slot with 66 points in 57 games played. Carolina (63 points in 58), Columbus (62 in 57) and the Islanders (62 in 59) are all nipping at the Devils’ heels and are capable of surging ahead by next week if the New Jersey slips.
Schneider, who had dropped his last seven decisions (five in regulation) prior to the injury, has been ruled out of this weekend’s road back-to-back against Tampa and Carolina. He has yet to even practice with the team.
With only a shaky Eddie Lack in reserve, the Devils will be forced to continue to ride the rollercoaster that has been Kinkaid for a while longer. Chances are, if they can make it through the first 40 minutes, they won’t lose their lunch.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1