Intensity and Tension Rise In Final Push for Playoffs

In this week’s Dano on the Devils, Ken Daneyko breaks down the Devils‘ nail-biting win over the Hurricanes, Keith Kinkaid‘s ascendency to the team’s main goalie and the final stretch before the postseason. It seems like every single game in the last month or so has been so dramatic for the Devils. Tuesday night was no different, with New Jersey coming from behind to take the two points. What are your thoughts on the game and the recent stretch of intense games?

Ken Daneyko: As we know, every game is so crucial. Every team around the Devils — whether it’s the teams ahead of them in the standings or the Panthers, who are right behind them — are playing extremely well and are manufacturing wins. That’s what made this race so intriguing, you’re seeing teams play with desperation. All the teams involved are scratching and clawing, and it’s going to be a fight till the end.

The Devils got through a daunting seven-game stretch against some of the best teams in the NHL with a 5-2 record. With the game against the Hurricanes Tuesday, it was always going to be a tough one after beating Pittsburgh and Tampa. This is no disregard to Carolina, who was right there in the race for the most season before hitting a down stretch recently. They had won three in a row going into Tuesday and they have a lot of speed and young talent.

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I thought Carolina played hard and put the Devils on their heels after a strong start by New Jersey. The second 10 minutes of the first period was so different from the first 10. The Hurricanes went up 2-1 and, all of sudden, you’re thinking this is going to be one of those games. But you’re never going to be perfect, things aren’t always going to be in sync in every game for 60 minutes. After the second half of the second period all the way into third, the Devils had that surge and moxie to find a way to win the game.

They got a big play when it mattered, whether it was a big save from Keith Kinkaid or a big goal at the right time. You need your big guns to show up in situations like this and that’s what Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall did. You need your workhorses to pitch in as well and what a huge goal from Stefan Noesen, who has stepped up recently along with others like Blake Coleman.

As a guy with a rooting interest, I have to say it’s gut-wrenching to watch! It’s much easier when you’re playing. Nevertheless, the Devils have given themselves a chance here and that’s all you can ask for. You mentioned Keith Kinkaid, who looks as if he has seized the No. 1 goalie spot from Cory Schneider. He didn’t have a perfect game against the Hurricanes, but managed to come through when it counted. Are you surprised that Keith has played this well and is there any concern about Schneider going forward?

Ken Daneyko: Keith wasn’t perfect Tuesday night, but that’s the element that has improved in his game recently. To be a goalie that plays regularly, you know you’re not going to be perfect every night or stand on your head. Having said that, it’s having that mental toughness to make the big save at the right time and he was able to do that. He’s been outstanding in recent games and probably stole a game or two during their recent stretch. He was good when he needed to be.

[Fischler: Kinkaid Becomes Devils’ “Block-aid”]

It’s a tough and delicate situation for Cory. But this is pro sports. Cory is such a character guy and an elite first-class goaltender on and off the ice. He’s dealing with some adversity and he would be the first one not to make an excuse for himself. But certainly, the injuries he’s suffered this season have played a factor. It is what it is. All elite players go through tough stretches. That’s what makes you better.

Having said that, he gets it and he’s been supportive. You have to go with the hot hand, that’s the bottom line. I try to be even-keeled about the situation because you’re only as good as your last game. Keith has got to stay in the zone and he’s done something to improve his game – his mental toughness has gone to another level.  As for Cory, it’s going to be his moment before you-know-what and you’ll need everyone on the roster. He gets it and that’s what you love about him. He’s a character guy. The man making that decision is John Hynes. He’s guided the team through this season and has them in position to make the playoffs. The coach always seems to keep his emotions in check and be even-keeled most of the time. Is that something that can be an advantage, especially for a young team like the Devils?

Ken Daneyko: You normally see that type of calm out of veteran coaches. Speaking from experience with my time with coaches like [Jacques] Lemaire and Larry Robinson, they always managed to be even-keeled. They always keep their emotional balance. They never got too high after wins or too low after losses. These games are basically playoff games and the Devils are fighting for their lives to stay in this race. It’s an important learning process, especially for a young team.

I’m around Coach Hynes a lot and I really like his demeanor, the way he handles the team and his knowledge of the game. I thought he did a heck of a job in the game against Tampa Bay. Execution from the players make a coach look good on any given night, but you could see he had a gameplan against Tampa.  He was able to strategically matchup Travis Zajac‘s line against the Lightning’s top forwards. He really coached that night and those are some of the steps he’s taken and the team has taken. He was able to shut down Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos as good as any team has this season.

This is coming on the back end of back-to-back nights after a tough game in Pittsburgh. Despite not being at their peak physically, they were able to play a sound game. That shows the preparation from Hynes and the rest of his coaching staff — Geoff Ward and Alain Nasreddine. These guys are learning, too, and they’re a young coaching staff.

I have the utmost respect for Coach Hynes and he continues to show that he’s a smart hockey mind. How different is it for you to watch these games as someone who’s in the media compared to your playing days? I’m sure there’s a lot of scoreboard watching going on.

Ken Daneyko: It’s funny, this time of year, you end up rooting for your rivals! The fans will get behind the Islanders when they play the Panthers or the Rangers when they play another team in playoff contention. For one night, you’ll be thinking, ‘Let’s go Rangers!’ You hope you get help along the way.

As a fan, it’s gut-wrenching and you get into it. As a player, you take a peek out of the corner of your eye at the scoreboard, but you’re more worried about what you can do and control.

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