Had this been October, or even November, a clash between the Devils and Islanders would not be regarded as a battle for a playoff berth.
But we’re in the homestretch and all of a sudden the Brooklynites’ visit to Newark on Friday night (6:30 PM, MSG+ & MSG+2) has become serious stuff — for at least two reasons:
REASON NO. 1:
When the prognosticators were prognosticating last Fall, nobody — with the very possible exception of John Hynes — expected New Jersey to be competing for a playoff berth. Now, they loom as a direct threat to Jack Capuano‘s hopes of a postseason on Flatbush Avenue.
REASON NO. 2:
The Islanders, as now constituted, are regarded by many savants as a club whose roster has enough stars — try John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Johnny Boychuk, et. al. — to not only reach the playoffs, but leapfrog to the second round and then … who knows what. Problem is that they have to get into the playoffs first.
This collision comes at a time when only someone who likes “I Love A Mystery” can figure what’s going on with their respective favorite team.
The Devils, who are not exactly loaded with Art Ross Trophy winners, manage to win even without their ace of aces Michael Cammalleri, but as the loss to Philly on Tuesday proved that feat cannot go on forever.
With a little bit of luck, Cammy will be back in the lineup Friday and if ever coach Hynes could use him, the time has come.
The mystery — if you want to call it that — surrounds Hynes’ ability to squeeze the most out of his squad and keep them playing to their theme — Relentless.
“We all know what we’re expected to do,” says captain Andy Greene who, along with Adam Larsson, has given the Devs a solid first D pair. “We have a system and we know that each guy has to give his utmost for us to succeed.”
That success hinges on goalie Cory Schneider’s ability to steal games that often appear to be secure in the opponent’s grasp. His pinch-goalie ain’t too bad either.
Exhibit A was the 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings last Sunday at the Rock. New Jersey scored early in the first and — uncannily — backup Keith Kinkaid pitched a shut out the rest of the way.
“We find ways to win,” says Schneider. “It’s been that way since the start of the season. We’ve fooled a lot of people who figured we’d have faded away a long time ago.”
But the homestretch is now and Hynes must find ways to sustain the early success generated by Kyle Palmieri and Lee Stempniak.
To do so, general manager Ray Shero recently promoted young studs Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher from his AHL Albany farm club and each has shown promise via hustle and timely goals.
Apart from some weak moments against the Flyers, Hynes’ back line has been impressive. After the Greene-Larsson duet, newcomers David Schlemko and John Moore have worked well.Damon Severson has been in and out — but has lots of talent to burn — while Seth Helgeson is winning raves since his emigration from Albany.
By contrast, the Islanders have no problem scoring goals. Beyond Tavares-Okposo, Cappy employs the likes of Brock Nelson — having a career year — ever-improving Anders Lee and two-way reliable Frans Nielsen.
No less vital has been the all-season contribution of the club’s “Fourth Line” which sometimes plays better than any of the other trio.
Coupled together like three subway cars on the Brighton Express (B), Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas not only dazzle with their footwork, but invariably keep the enemy on its heels with energetic forechecking and a more than occasional goal.
Cappy’s defense is anchored by the Big Three — Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and Travis Hamonic— each of whom appears to be lifting their games in crunch time.
If Calvin de Haan is forced to miss this game with an injury, reliable Thomas Hickey is around to fill the gap abetted by Brian Strait and ex-Devil Marek Zidlicky, the latter of whom starred against Detroit last Monday.
What has perplexed Islanders fans in the past month is the question of who plays goal and when.
While Jaroslav Halak is the titular No. 1 netminder, his backup Thomas Greiss has put up better numbers in not only wins and losses but also goals against and save percentage.
Cappy’s goalie choices inevitably have fans riveted from game-to-game, while Hynes almost always sticks with Schneider. However in back-to-back situations, the rookie coach has no qualms about starting Kinkaid who appears to be improving by the month.
Picking a winner in this one is about as easy as counting hockey pucks in Labrador. In October’s opener, the Devils won a shootout, 3-2. But the Isles then won the next two in regulation, 2-1 and 4-0.
But that, as Christopher Columbus would have said, is ancient history.
All we know about this fourth clash is that it’s now serious business!