Normally, I'd like to be positive in how I see the Devils as a hockey team. Sometimes, it gets silly; but generally I see the glass being half full for the Devils and urge them to do better when they play poorly. I'm not one of those people who think that if the team's not in first place in the Atlantic or more than just outside of first place, that the team must be horrible and can't win anything. No. All teams have bad stretches - even the 1976-77 Canadiens didn't win every game (though they came close, with only 8 losses and 12 ties). Likewise, not every team can win the Stanley Cup or get to the third round every year. It's not all or nothing, in my view of the Devils.
Anyway, the Devils are currently riding a 5 game winning streak after a 4 game winless streak. As a result, the Devils are now only 3 points behind Pittsburgh before tonight's games. While this is good, I fear that Saturday's game at the Igloo is a good one as any for this streak to end.
The biggest cause for my concern is how the Devils did at Florida on Wednesday night. For the first 36 minutes or so, the Devils were just outclassing the Panthers. They beat the Panthers to loose pucks, they took pucks away from the Panthers, and at one point midway through the game the Devils were up 2-0 and leading in shots 17 to 4. The Elias-Zubrus-Gionta unit were just putting Florida to the sword, evidenced by Brian Gionta's 8 shots in the game. Yet, late in the second period, Jay Leach - the call-up from Lowell to replace Mottau - got caught for interference.
While the Devils penalty killers, who were absolutely excellent against Florida, didn't allow Florida to get a goal; the Panthers definitely got motivated from the power play. It was a catalyst to the momentum Craig Anderson's wonderful performance in replacing Tomas Vokoun. They turned what could have been a very low-shooting period into having placed 13 shots on Scott Clemmensen, mostly in the second half of the period. The power play helped energize the team further. As in the third period, the Florida Panthers played with the goal of "Death or Glory" and it largely worked with 16 shots on net, Anderson using his backup magic to thwart the Devils, and nailing an equalizing comeback in less than 2 and half minutes in the game. Yes, Johnny Oduya ended it all in overtime.
However, as Gulitti asserts, the Devils truly escaped south Florida with a win. You can tell from the quotes that the Devils are cognizant that they should have ended that game a lot sooner than it did. Given that the Devils couldn't close the deal to put the game out of doubt when they were dominant, or that they couldn't reestablish dominance in the third period, those are signs that the Devils are in fact, not perfect. When a team is hot, they seem to do everything right. Even if something goes against them - like conceeding 3 goals in the second period against Tampa Bay - the hot team will pull out of it and retake control of the game in their favor. Which Dainius Zubrus masterfully did to the tune of 2 of his 4 goals that night. The Florida game, to me, is evidence that this hot streak is about to cool off soon.
So why this Saturday? Well, look at the Penguins. They have lost exactly 2 games this entire month, and one of those was a shootout loss. Their last game featured a Penguins team that had to stick a goalie in net (John Curry) to replace Dany Sabourin in his first game and was down 3-1 on the road to the Islanders after two periods. Then the Penguins realized that they have these two all-world talents at forward and they led the team to put up 4 goals in the third period to end it all 5-3. Islanders fans are still probably smarting after seeing Sidney Crosby dazzle it up once again and seeing Evgeni Malkin eviscerate the Blue and Orange for a hat trick. My point is this: Even when it looks like you're beating the Penguins, they have the ability to come back and win games. Especially if you're hanging back and seemingly letting Malkin and Crosby do as they wish. If you're not convinced by last night's game, just ask Detroit fans about it.
In addition, the Penguins have to be thinking of revenge for the Devils. The last time the two teams played, October 11, the Devils took 80 attempts on net, 48 on Marc Andre-Fleury, used Hal Gill to score an equalizer, limited the Penguins to only 15 against Martin Brodeur, and sealed a win in overtime thanks to Zach Parise. Malkin, Crosby, et al will be sure not to allow the Devils to suffocate them and go on to win in their arena a second time.
Lastly, given Colin Stephenson's midday report about the Devils' practice, John Madden isn't practicing. And according to Gulitti, Madden isn't going to Pittsburgh with the team. It's a safe bet that the Penguins won't have to deal with Madden harshing their mellow on Saturday night. At least the Devils will get Mike Mottau back from suspension. The defense will definitely be stronger with Jay Leach now in Lowell. It's not that Leach was bad, but he's definitely not a NHL-calibur defender. That the league's leading scorer (Malkin; 35 pts.) and the league's second best assist man (Crosby; 20 assists) will definitely be featured against New Jersey, any boosts to the defense are welcome. Of course, I'm not sure how Sutter will match forwards for them - I really hope Mike Rupp won't be asked to do the difficult deed of covering Crosby.
The wildcard in tomorrow's game has to do with Pittsburgh's game tonight at Buffalo. If the Penguins do well and don't tire themselves completely in the process, then I'd expect Saturday's game to be more of a challenge. If the Penguins just get battered and don't look as good, then I'd feel a little more confident in the Devils'. But given the last game and the opponents, well while I'm hoping I'm wrong, I fear this winning streak has a good chance of ending tomorrow night. And if I'm wrong, it could be shortly after that. After all, all good things must end.