Tonight, the New Jersey Devils defeated the Nashville Predators 3-1, which was important for two reasons. First, the Devils are now officially first place in the Atlantic Division. It may be only for one night; but that's big considering what they've been through so far this season. Second? The return of this man:
Brendan Shanahan didn't just play in his first game with the Devils, he excelled. He got 13:59 of ice time, and 1:11 on the power play. His most notable shift? Well, there's the 5-on-3 the Devils enjoyed in the beginning of the second period. A ton of shots on Pekka Rinne, looking good. But Shanhan was used on the second unit of that power play, setting up down low first and then off to the wing. He takes a feed from Brian Rolston, fakes a shot, walks it in at a sharp angle to Rinne's right, and just smoothly beats him to the far corner of the goal. It was out of nowhere. Not a big blast, not a finish off a great pass, not a deflection, but just a solid shot on the ice. The first goal of the game, the first goal of Shanahan's season, and the first piece of evidence that Lou made a good move signing Shanahan. I thought he wouldn't get a lot of action or any power play time, and I'm glad I was wrong!
One of his last shifts was almost as equally impressive. Nashville eventually pulled one back - Jason Arnott's slapshot hits what I believe was Bryce Salvador's stomach, off Radek Bonk's leg (I think?), and it just trickles in. A bad break, even literally - breaking a streak of 20 straight penalty kills. So the Predators are starting to feeling it late, throwing whatever they can at the Devils. And who do we see out there? Shanahan. There's a scrum up front, the puck is loose, Shanahan picks the Preds' pocket from having a glorious chance, knocks it away, blocks a shot by the point man, rushes out of the zone, starts flying because Brian Rolston lobs it ahead, Rinne gets to it first, plays it off of Shanahan's shoulder while he's wheeling away, Shanahan gets to the puck first behind the goal line and just protects it while taking about 6 or 7 cross checks. A long run-on sentence? Yes. Hard to read? About as hard as some of lumber that hit Shanhan's back. But that's exactly all he did in a matter of 10 seconds or so. A big defensive play turning into a possible breakaway in the last few minutes of the game, and then he reacts quickly to eat up more clock when the puck goes his way and takes a lot of pain for it. You couldn't ask for more from Shanahan than what he did on that shift.
Overall, I'd say that Shanahan was the most impressive Devil on the ice. A goal, strong play at both ends, earning ice time when the game was all kinds of intense, and a massive 6 shots on net! I am absolutely amazed that he wasn't named a star of the game, but it doesn't matter. We all know how well he did.
Now, that I got out of the way, the game itself wasn't exactly what you'd call defensive hockey. The Devils put 35 on Rinne; the Predators put 34 on Clemmensen. Fair play to both goalies; Clemmensen was beaten only by a fluke, and Rinne was just shocked on a 5-on-3 and later by a near-perfect deflection by David Clarkson (who only made one bad mistake all night). It was an open game and it really tested the Devils' defensemen's skill at bending and not breaking. They hit the Predators hard, they stickchecked to break up some plays, and they succeeded at not letting the Predators get to Clemmensen's massive rebounds. Salvador in particular was a beast, with 5 hits and who knows how many scoring plays broken up. Colin White played tough as well and survived a bit of a scare by taking a puck to face (Chere reports that he's OK). And Paul Martin was solid, as usual, most impressively recovering after being beaten one-on-one by Steve Sullivan to stop him from even getting a shot.
Still, tonight would indicate the main problem with bending, not breaking defense. It doesn't so much stop opportunities, but they stop them from being real easy ones. Again, it bears repeating, the Devils only got beat on a fluke of a shot on a penalty kill. Were the Predators much better at finishing plays, or if Clemmensen wasn't a stalwart at getting his body in front of that puck, or if the Devils didn't tighten up around those rebounds, this game could have gotten ugly real fast.
Speaking of ugly, if you're wondering why some of those rebounds were hard, fast, and/or long at times, it's because Clemmensen's got some new pads. And he intentionally wanted them to be hard such that the rebounds he gives up go farther. It's a good move if he can direct them away from the play. Not so good if the other team notices that while scouting him and plays back a bit on offense to get those pucks. Still, you can't really fault 33 saves on 34 shots.
Now, here's something else the Devils really should be happy they didn't get killed on: penalties. The Devils provided Nashville 5 power plays and some of these were just stupid. Mike Mottau's hook on David Legwand was lazy, he had no reason to have his stick up at all on that dump-in. Bobby Holik's trip in the first period was just poor stick placement. Jamie Langenbrunner's interference call was weak, but what is he doing playing someone without the puck when he was supposed to be skating back? And, the one that led to the Predators' only goal, David Clarkson lobbing the puck over the glass. Right there, I just named 4 penalties that really should haven't have happened. The penalty killing tonight was great - no complaints from me. John Madden played great on it, in particular. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to keep testing the PK units. Especially with dumb, lazy, controllable minor infractions. I'm not looking for a perfectly clean game; but some of those calls are just inexcusable. The discipline has got to shape up for Montreal, because the Canadiens are far better on the power play than Nashville.
Regardless, the Devils got the job done. They weathered the storm and Zach Parise iced the game with an empty netter. Not the greatest of Devils wins, but it's not like they were just opportunistic against Columbus. They fought hard with Nashville and had the skill to score that Nashville floundered on. The longest road trip of the season is now complete. 5 wins out of 6. 20 for 21 on the penalty kill. 7 for 16 on the power play. The successful return of Brendan Shanahan to the Devils.
And first in the Atlantic Division.