It wasn't the sharpest of games from both teams, but the New Jersey Devils rose above the Atlanta Thrashers tonight at the Rock. It was a big and loud crowd, close to a sellout, and they were rewarded with an ultimately energetic - as well as chippy and sloppy - game. The Atlanta Thrashers played better on defense and the Devils were more focused throughout the game tonight. Alas, the Thrashers did make some crucial mistakes in their own end; and there were stretches where the Devils didn't get much offense going, like most of the second period.
Rarely do I put a player in the headline for a recap unless they did something historic, but tonight really was Zach Parise's night. If he was an animal, he was a super-fast lion, roaring all over the place. While I said in the preview that I wasn't too wary of the 12 game goalless streak, I am very happy his effort was rewarded with two goals tonight and nearly got a tip on Colin White's bomb from the point. He had 6 shots on net, his power play goal that eventually won the game was beautiful, and he played with a myriad of forwards in his 20:24 of ice time tonight. He was truly the best player on the ice between the two teams. Now that his goal slump has been busted, the real question is, will he now go on a scoring tear?
NHL.com has their recap up, complete with links to all the stats with respect to tonight's game. Please continue reading after the jump for further thoughts on tonight's game.
First and foremost, here are the highlights from tonight's game. The embedded video, as usual, is from NHL.com.
Now, the story of the game itself was how chippy it was. There was plenty of physical play, complete with a few fights (Andrew Peters actually was in one) and huge hits (e.g. Ron Hainsey getting trucked by David Clarkson). Normally, I don't bring up fights but the Peters fight was interesting in that A) Andrew Peters got a game misconduct for not tying down his jersey (insert facepalm here) and B) Peters didn't see the ice after his 13 pre-fight seconds of ice time so it meant for a cavalcade of line combinations. With David Clarkson back in the lineup, Lemaire chose to double shift a few players - Parise, Patrik Elias - and switch up positions at forward. So you got to see EMP (Elias-McAmmond-Parise), ZZ Pops, ZZ Bergs, ZZ Clarks, and ZZ Elias, among others. Wacky.
Despite the physical play (20 hits for Atlanta, 15 for NJ), the refs didn't call too many minors and the goals themselves were quite pretty. Upon reflection, while David Clarkson did get a piece of Marty Reasoner's cross-ice pass and should have had, well, all of it, Ilya Kovalchuk's blast from the right circle was gorgeous. That's why he's commanding big money. Just like I said in the preview, expect Kovalchuk to be a factor and he was tonight. 5 shots on net, the game's first goal, and 24:03 of ice time. Nicklas Bergfors was huge tonight and he set up Parise's first goal and his play along the boards helped get the puck up to Travis Zajac who got it up to Colin White for his bomb that beat Johan Hedberg through the legs. Zach Parise's second goal was an absolute golazo; a perfect set-up pass from Patrik Elias, a great dummy by Jamie Langenbrunner, and the finish was divine.
The only questionable goal was Marty Reasoner's goal midway through the third period. The shot appeared to take a small deflection off Mike Mottau and Marty Brodeur did get a piece of it. In retrospect, that was your "ugliest" goal and quite frankly that's not too bad from a neutral standpoint. From a Devils' standpoint, it really should have been stopped.
Overall, the game was a fairly sloppy affair. As I called out in the preview, the Atlanta Thrashers did play better defense tonight then they did in the last Devils-Thrashers game. Their positioning was much better and they broke up a lot of Devils' attacks by stopping a cross-ice pass or by beating Devils to dumped pucks. By allowing only 26 shots against, that in of itself is a major improvement over the 40 they conceded in the last game between these two teams. That said, it was an improvement - it wasn't all good. The Thrashers' defense coughed up the puck too many times in their own end when they should have easily cleared it. One time led to a goal, thanks to the work of Nicklas Bergfors and Zach Parise, and really, it should have been zero times.
As for the Devils, their sloppiness came with puck movement. Sometimes, they were strong in their own end, strong in the neutral zone, but couldn't make a good first or second pass in the Thrashers' zone. Other times, they would just make a bad read in the neutral zone and Atlanta would come right back. All that does is turn a potential attack into an easy clearance or a chance for Atlanta to collect and regroup. I felt the Devils were looking for incisive passes, they got a couple off, but they made it too easy for the Atlanta defense. This was especially apparent in the second period, where the Devils spent most of that period with an ineffective offense. As the Devils would make a stop on defense, they would either lose it in the neutral zone or lose it in Atlanta's zone. It wasn't as if the Thrashers were pinning the Devils back, the Devils just kept giving them the puck up the ice and so Atlanta tried to take advantage. Thankfully, the defense and Brodeur held up well in those situations.
Big criticisms aside, I felt New Jersey was the better team more often. Atlanta would have a few great shifts in between some mediocre ones. While Johan Hedberg looked shaky by the end first period, he came up big a few times later in the game to keep Atlanta in it. Therefore, I'm left with plenty of praise to be had for the Devils. Parise had a fantastic game, capping off an excellent move on a power play. Exactly the sort of thing this team's PP units needed after the egg they laid in DC. Nicklas Bergfors had an excellent game with 3 shots on net, 2 assists, and a consistently hard forecheck with his 15:48 of work. Per Tom Gulitti's postgame report, he earned the praise of Jacques Lemaire. Travis Zajac also had a good game and picked up an assist, breaking his own five game point streak. I also personally felt Brian Rolston had a good game as well, he was quite effective on the forecheck and created a one-on-one with Hedberg in the third period. Too bad he didn't do better on the chance, but he was moving well tonight.
On defense, holding an offensive team like the Thrashers to 26 shots isn't bad. And Brodeur did come up big more than a few times on the Thrashers, most notably denying Rich Peverley off a few rebounds. The pairing of Johnny Oduya and Colin White was fantastic. Oduya in particular looked really inspired, stopping some Atlanta offensive movements all by himself; and White made his mark at both ends with a few hits and a goal (and impressively, 3 shots on net). But really, Oduya probably had one of the best games of this season on defense. He was a monster on the Devils' remarkable penalty kill, devouring minutes (25:57) and Thrashers' momentum. There was some bad news on defense and I don't mean Mike Mottau's -2 (I don't believe he really could have done anything on the Kovalchuk goal, the Reasoner goal was poor luck, I felt). Bryce Salvador left the game during the second period and according to Tom Gulitti, it is due to a "lower body injury." Definitely not good news. Naturally, there will be no more information until tomorrow but I certainly hope it's minor and that Salvador will be OK.
Lastly, a few words about David Clarkson. You could tell that this was his first game back from injury. What I mean was that some of the decisions he made with the puck were a bit off and his shooting wasn't all that strong. That said, he had a good game all things considered. He played 11:39, he skated pretty hard with his ice time, he got 2:09 on the power play setting up in his usual spot in front of the net, and he was physical with 2 hits and a fight. I think he'll be a bit rusty for a few more games, his passing and shooting will improve as he gets more practice and more ice time.
The result is a bounce back from the loss the Devils suffered on Washington. I think the performance can be characterized in the same way. The power play did it's job and converted; Zach Parise triumphantly returned to the goal scorer's position on the box score; and the Devils worked hard enough to get the win. For the next two games especially, I'd like the Devils to be smarter with the puck. This means fewer cross-ice passes on offense, fewer touch passes in the neutral zone, and fewer passes that try to go through a defender. While the Thrashers didn't capitalize on those gifts, the Penguins or the Blackhawks might. Smarter passing will not only lead to more possession, but also more shots and more control of the game. Again, after a decisive loss, the effort was an improvement and a win was earned.
Thanks to all the commenters and to Steve for setting up the GameThread. Thanks for reading, and please leave all your thoughts, questions, and concerns about tonight's game in the comments below. For the Atlanta side, do check out Bird Watchers Anonymous as The Falconer is back from vacation. Welcome him by politely informing him of tonight's game if you so desire.