They had created an atmosphere on this random weeknight in late November that felt more like the Stanley Cup Finals, chanting “LET’S GO DEVILS” and swearing at the referees until their throats were raw and even throwing beer bottles onto the ice to protest the unthinkable string of calls that had gone against the home team.
Then, finally, the Devils fans watched as the puck harmlessly floated down the ice one final time as time expired. Maybe they could appreciate the wild hockey game they just witnessed as soon as they reached the Prudential Center exits. Maybe, given the controversy and disappointment, it would take a few days for that to sink in.
The Devils lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1, ending a 13-game winning streak that tied for the best in franchise history and topped all but six streaks in the long history of the NHL. Somehow, given the circumstances, their first loss in more than a month was more impressive than the string of victories that preceded it.
That might sound like hyperbole. But when a team has three goals disallowed in the same game — each one a little more controversial than the last — and still responds with furious finish that makes the equalizer feel like an inevitability, that speaks to the character of a team that can’t be measured on the stat sheet.
Or put more succinctly: If you didn’t think the Devils were for real before watching this and you still didn’t when the final horn sounded, well, you’re just trolling.
“I’ve seen teams deflate off one (disallowed) goal, let alone three,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “We just kept coming. I’m proud we kept doing that. It’s tough sometimes. The hockey gods are interesting. The end picture is the playoffs and winning the last game of the year, and we just want to get better.”
Devils coach Lindy Ruff, a man who has witnessed hockey’s idiosyncrasies for almost a half century, seemed to know this night might be coming. He responded to a question after the team’s morning skate about how hard it is to beat a team twice in a short span — the Devils topped the Leafs just last week in Toronto — with a wry smile.
“You might find this hard to believe: I think it’s hard to win every night,” he said.
Even Ruff couldn’t have imagined, however, what would transpire a few hours later. The Devils, down 2-0, already had seen a pair of goals disallowed when veteran Erik Haula appeared to have scored in the third period. But the referees ruled that Haula had kicked the puck into the net even though it had deflected off a Toronto player’s skate before crossing the goal line.
The crowd threw water bottles, beer cups and other trash onto the ice as the Toronto players retreated up the tunnel for cover. The scene was ugly, unacceptable and (forgive me) downright refreshing. When was the last time Devils fans cared this much about their team?
“I love the passion,” said Haula, acquired from Boston in an offseason trade. “You live for that. I don’t care if I get a beer spilled on me. I tried to wave to stop so we could keep the game going, but I think I got hit with a chicken finger during that time, too.”
it was wild. And to think: It’s still November.
“It was definitely something I’ll never forget,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said, and he made it clear that what matters most now is how this team responds. It travels to Buffalo on Friday before hosting Washington on Saturday. The NHL schedule is a grind, and the best teams never let one bad night spiral into two, or three, or more.
The 13-game winning streak is over. This Devils team, however, is not the same. These 29 days should not only change the perception of the Devils around the NHL, but it should alter how the players see themselves, too. This is not some plucky group of overachievers.
Oh, sure, there are still doubters. Former NHL defenseman Keith Yandle went on Canadian TV this week and predicted that the Devils still wouldn’t make the playoffs, and his reasons were … well, he didn’t actually give any. No matter how you measure it — modern analytics, the old-fashioned eye test, or just the freakin’ standings — the Devils are one of the NHL’s best teams.
Barring a catastrophic streak of bad luck with injuries, they will comfortably make the playoffs for just the second time since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012. The question now is this: Will they be ready to do something special when they get there?
That, of course, is a long way off. For now, it’s shaking off a wild night at the Rock and beating Buffalo on Friday night. How the Devils respond to the end of their streak will be the next piece of information to file away as we learn just how good they’ll be this season.
We know that the fans are ready. If they can make the Prudential Center feel like it’s the Stanley Cup Finals in November, just imagine what the place will feel like when there’s an actual playoff game here this spring?
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Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.