Last week was quite the whirlwind for goaltender Ken Appleby. After being recalled from the AHL’s Binghamton Devils to backup Keith Kinkaid on the New Jersey Devils with Cory Schneider sidelined (illness) the 22-year-old was pressed into action when Kinkaid was injured in Philadelphia. The next game Schneider returned (a 3-0 home loss to Detroit) and Appleby was the backup as Kinkaid was sidelined with a groin injury. One night later Appleby was again called upon as Schneider was injured at the end of the second period of a 3-2 loss in Boston.
Two days later the 22-year-old got his first NHL start in New Jersey against the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators, who are currently one of the top-five teams in the league. Not an easy task. “Obviously I was a little nervous, but I think that’s going to happen to anyone playing they’re first ever National Hockey League game,” Appleby told reporters after a 3-0 loss to the Preds. “Once things got going I kind of got into the flow of the game and I felt better as the game went on for sure.”
Student of the Game
After a stretch of 94:24 without giving up a goal over parts of three games the rookie netminder – who spent time in both the ECHL and AHL last season – Appleby finally surrendered an NHL goal when Nashville defenseman PK Subban’s long shot eluded him in the second period. “He’s a very skilled defenseman with a great shot; I learned that really fast. I feel like that’s one I’d like to have back for sure.”
“I watch a lot of hockey and kind of knew what to expect, they have a very good team over there,” explained Appleby. “They have lots of skill and I knew I would have to be on top of my game tonight if I was going to give us a chance to win.” His two unplanned relief appearances helped him prepare for his first NHL start and eased some of the nerves. “Any kind of time in the net is definitely good and I think it helped me tonight. I was calm early on and I got some saves early.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 26, 2018
His teammates rued the fact that they gave him no support in the form of goals, unable to get out of their January funk that has seen the rest of the Metropolitan Division catch up to New Jersey in the standings. “He’s in control, he’s calm, it looks like he’s confident,” said Brian Boyle. “He’s a big boy, has a great attitude, and he’s played well; he deserves better.”
Defenseman John Moore expounded on Boyle’s comments, “I think you need to start with Ken played an incredible game; he really made some huge saves and kept us in that game against a very high powered offensive team. It’s frustrating, but I think we learn from moments like this. Every team goes through stretches like this, but it’s how we are going to respond to it that’s ultimately going to show us what we have in here.”
Blake Coleman, who played alongside Appleby in the AHL, lamented the lack of offense the Devils provided in a game that they really needed some positives from before the NHL’s All-Star break. “He was good, I think he’s been solid for us ever since he was called upon. I feel for him; we didn’t give him any run support in his first start.”
He definitely impressed his coach on a night where he was unhappy with the performance of the team in front of him. “I thought he played well. A couple of the goals got deflected, and he’d like to have some of those (back). But I thought he played well, he made some saves that when we had breakdowns, we needed them,” Devils head coach John Hynes said during his postgame press conference.
“But we have to put something on the board for him. We gave up a shorthanded 2-on-1, so you can’t hang that on him. We just didn’t play well enough. You’re not going to win any games if you don’t score goals. That’s not on the goalie.”
The month of January wasn’t too kind to New Jersey (2-6-2) and the schedule isn’t going to get any easier for a team looking to end a five-year playoff drought. Multiple games against division opponents. Four games left against the defending Stanley Cup champions. A monster six-game road trip in mid-March that includes games in California, Las Vegas, and Nashville. If they are going to make the postseason, they are going to earn it. “When we get out of it (this funk), we’re going to be better for it,” said Boyle.
Currently, fourth in their division, teams 2-8 are separated by a grand total of five points and the Metro-leading Washington Capitals are seven points clear of New Jersey at the moment. “We take a lot of pride in what we do in here and it’s not like we can just go home and forget about it,” Moore said angrily after the loss to Nashville. “This stings, and we have a lot of proud people in here that – we’re going to take three days to look after our bodies (during the All-Star break) and be ready to come back for one hell of a stretch run down the line here.”
Coleman echoed Moore’s sentiments, “I guess it’s good (to go on the break now), I don’t know. Speaking for myself – there’s a fire burning in me and I’m sick of losing. I’m sure everybody in this room is. It’ll be good to regroup mentally and maybe get a body or two back (in the lineup).” He paused, and put his head down before adding, “I’m pretty frustrated right now.”
Highway to Hell?
This season Hynes has often spoken about establishing an identity of who the Devils want to be, about creating a brotherhood rather than a neighborhood. He was not happy with what he has seen recently, and it showed in his postgame comments. “We haven’t played as well as we need to play really in this last stretch of games so we have to get that fixed pretty quick,” said the third-year coach.
New Jersey was missing both of their goalies in addition to Taylor Hall (hand), Brian Gibbons (hand), and Marcus Johansson (concussion) against the Predators. But as far as Hynes was concerned, none of that should matter to the 20 players that were in uniform that night. (Even if on most nights it is Hall’s play that drives the Devils’ bus and gets the team going with his All-Star play).
“It’s not about getting people back, it’s about the players that are in the lineup – they have to play. We have to play better than we played tonight,” he snarled after the team’s second shutout loss (both at Prudential Center) in three games. “We’re not going to be healthy the whole year so it has zero to do with who’s out of the lineup. It’s who’s in the lineup, and we have to play better.”
If they don’t play better in short order they will unlikely be able to climb out of the downward spiral they are in the midst of. But maybe the All-Star break came at the right time for them, where they will be able to recover, and regroup, for the final 34 games – starting with a game against the Buffalo Sabres, a team that beat the Devils late in December in a come-from-behind fashion that really started this skid.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.