The New Jersey Devils have won their first regular season game in regulation by defeating the Florida Panthers 3-2. While the score was close, for many stretches within the game, the Devils were clearly the better team on the ice. The biggest piece of evidence for this would be the Devils leading the Panthers in shots on goal 41-21. That is not a typo, the Devils' offense kept finding spaces and holes to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more all game long.
In my preview for this game, I wanted the New Jersey Devils defense to play much better on defense and they did just that. Paul Martin in particular was great tonight. He looked calm despite Florida forecheckers surrounding the puck, his positioning was solid, and he made the right decisions with the puck - when to pinch in, when to stay at the point, and so forth. He set up the game's first goal, he gave 22:30 of great hockey, and the only real negative to his performance was being on the ice for Florida's first goal.
I also wanted to see the Devils to not drop in intensity during the game and prevent the Panthers from making the game their own. Again, 41-21 in shots speak to that pretty well. For the Panthers' perspective, check out Litter Box Cats later on. Read on for my further thoughts from what I saw tonight.Now, I didn't see much of the first period outside of the final 4 minutes - wherein I saw Dainius Zubrus get robbed on a rebound by Tomas Vokoun. When I learned that New Jersey not only outshot Florida 16-4 but prevented the Panthers to take their fifth shot until Florida's first power play in the second period, I was pleasantly surprised. Yet, in retrospect, what I saw is the big story out of this game. The Devils would bomb away at the Panthers, getting shots in all sorts of manners, but Tomas Vokoun was great. After giving up 5 last night against Carolina, he really had an excellent game. Panthers fans should be unhappy with their defense, not with Vokoun tonight.
The Devils goals were all well-placed efforts. Paul Martin, from behind the net, patiently waited until Keith Ballard made a move. That allowed Rob Niedermayer to be wide open in front of the crease, Martin made the pass, and Niedermayer scored easily. The second and third goals came on the power play - power plays all thanks to Michael Frolik, a player Florida fans should be unhappy with tonight. Travis Zajac was fed in the high slot by Andy Greene, Zajac was wide open and let loose a laser of a shot that Vokoun couldn't stop. And then late in the third, David Clarkson tapped in an excellent pass by Zajac in front of the net that, again, Vokoun couldn't stop.
After a disappointing 0-for-3 on the man advantage in the first period, the Devils finished the night 2-for-6 and scored important goals on those power plays. Important as they re-took the lead for New Jersey.
While Florida was out-shot heavily in this game and went through long stretches where their only offense was to fire a puck at a body in front of the net and watch the Devils defense take the puck away from them and move it out. The Panthers caught the Devils in an ill-advised line change in the second period, allowing Dennis Seidenberg to make a long pass to Radek Dvorak, who fed it to a streaking Rostislav Olsez. Brodeur couldn't get in front of it in time, Martin tried to cover Olsez, but the pass was too perfect and the shot was too wide to the right for anyone to get to it. Later in the third period, an ill-advised stick-hold by Travis Zajac led to a fourth power play for Florida. While the Devils have been very successful on the first three penalty kills (and nearly scored on the end of the third), Stephen Weiss went from center-ice-to-end, burned Johnny Oduya, and beat Brodeur with a killer shot to tie it up.
In both cases, bad, preventable decisions led to Florida tying up this game twice. Lemaire could have called for the line change on a longer dump-in or only called for the forwards to go off. Zajac, who otherwise had a great game, didn't need to grab a Panther's stick while on offense. Oduya could have tried to do something to Weiss.
But in the bigger picture, the Devils rose above those mistakes in both cases. It wasn't a failure of a certain component or system of the team; just mistakes that the Devils paid for dearly. After both Florida equalizers, the Devils would get a power play a few minutes later (again, thanks to Frolik) and they would succeed and so they won the game.
Lemaire changed the lines tonight to get some more offense going and, hey, 41 shots on net is good evidence of it not being a bad idea so far. The new second line of Niclas Bergfors (6), Matt Halischuk (3), and Dainius Zubrus (2) contributed 11 shots tonight; and were represented as the forwards on the Devils' second power play unit. They were quiet in my opinion in the third period. But they had a good enough game in my view to warrant another game together. The new third line may have not been as prolific, but they contributed to the game in a significant way. Brian Rolston got two assists, the secondary on Martin's goal, as the third line of Rolston, Jay Pandolfo, and Niedermayer got a goal and 5 shots. The fourth-version of the fourth line featured 5 shots from David Clarkson, and some energetic play from Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Rod Pelley. But ZZ Pops stood out the most, leading the offense with a total of 19 shots (Parise - 9 shots, 1 A; Zajac - 5 shots, 1 G, 1 A; Langenbrunner - 5 shots). They were dominant, but they weren't relied on at any point to be the difference makers and that's an important distinction in my view.
I would have liked the Devils to have scored more, early and often, but I fully understand that Vokoun simply wasn't making that happen. There were a few other scoring chances where the execution could have been better. For example, Rolston fed Pandolfo right in front of the crease, had a hole to beat Vokoun, but Pandolfo whiffed on the pass in the dying seconds of the second period. Another example would be on the end of the Devils' third penalty kill, where Jamie Langenbrunner fed Zajac down low, but the pass was behind Zajac a bit and it prevented him from an easy open bottom left corner that Vokoun couldn't reach.
Again, it's a bit difficult to criticize the Devils' offense considering they got the job done eventually and Vokoun really was great tonight. But I think the Devils would be wise to work on their execution on some of these offensive opportunities.
That said, I feel the Devils played better than the score indicated and this should be seen as a big confidence boost. I'd say the road trip has to be seen as a success in advance of the Washington game as the Devils got their first win in a shootout, their first win in regulation, they got both on the road, and they've played better and better with each game so far this season. Let's hope the Devils continue to improve their overall game.