hile the big story may be that Martin Brodeur didn't get his 104th career shutout, I think the team's performance is worthy of more attention. Were I to be simplistic, I could say the New Jersey Devils went up 3-0 on the Carolina Hurricanes, conceded two in the second period, but managed to hold on and snag an empty net goal to win 4-2. Not completely unlike what the Hurricanes did to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night.
However, that wouldn't be honest with what happened on the ice. The Devils looked great in the first period, playing as if they were still in Buffalo. But the team declined in the second and third period, only waking up near the end to shut the door on Carolina's hopes of an equalizer. I hate to sound like someone with high expectations or a sore winner, but like the recent wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit, the 4-2 win over Carolina wasn't a great one for New Jersey. Sure, I'm glad they got the result without a shootout or a late tip-in goal; but I can't get past how the game actually went or how the Devils nearly gave up a 3 goal lead. One thing is for sure, Carolina certainly didn't play the whole game like the last place team in the NHL.
NHL.com has their recap up complete with links to the boxscore and other stats. For the opposition's perspective, check out Canes Country later for their recap. Read on for further thoughts about tonight's game.
First, for those who want a visual set of highlights of tonight's game, NHL.com has a video of that:
Now, let's start with the first period. Pay no mind to the 10-7 shot differential between the two teams, tonight was a game where what the boxscore says isn't necessarily indicative of the flow of the game. The Devils were very strong in the first, battling Canes for pucks, applying a deep forecheck, and constant stick-checking whenever a Devil was in range of the opposing puck carrier. The stick-check is a fairly basic defensive move, but the Devils were very effective with it in the neutral zone and on defense to prevent Carolina from really getting some sustained offense going.
Those loose pucks were quickly moved up ice for the Devils' own offense. While some of the passes were off, the Devils did manage to beat Cam Ward twice - one with a bit of a fluke (Patrik Elias' goal) and one great slapshot from the high slot (Andy Greene's first goal). The Devils were playing like this all the way through the period, ending with Brian Rolston keeping a Cane holding onto the puck in the corner of his own zone in the dying seconds. I took at as proof that the Devils weren't looking past the Canes, that they had the right attitude for this game, and that they're going to keep up the effort and put this game out of doubt in the second.
I was definitely wrong on the last point.
For the next 40 minutes, the Devils' team effort declined. From the start of the second period onward, much of the stick-checking and defensive work in the neutral zone that the Devils used to so much success wasn't utilized. That was a mistake and I'm amazed that it even continued into the third period. As a result, Carolina saw that they had space to go forward on offense and did just that. They started to cycle and the Devils' defense started making some bad decisions, some poor clearances, and take some bad calls. It wasn't Carolina's first goal that got the Canes going in that period, it came right from Mike Mottau's trip of Jussi Jokinen (I thought it was a dive in the heat of the moment, in retrospect, I was wrong). Sure, they didn't score on that power play, but they were far more competitive. From then on, Carolina started building confidence, gaining momentum, and pinning the Devils back more and more - all the way through the third period. It became a game again, unofficially, from that power play onward.
Officially, it became again when Brandon Sutter took a shot that took a deflection off Mark Fraser's stick and then his body, which fooled Martin Brodeur. The crowd hated this goal as it ruined the shutout. I can't blame Fraser because he was in the right position; upon looking at the goal, I wonder whether Brodeur should have had that. They were shocked by Tuomo Ruutu's shot on the power play nearly 2 minutes later (P.S. the hook by Rob Niedermayer was the only big mistake he made all night). That was just a well-placed shot, credit Ruutu for that. Still, in mere minutes, the Devils went from being up by 3 to scrambling to make sure they don't give up a third goal against. Definitely not worthy of praise.
Oddly enough, the Devils' offense was actually quite good in the first half of the second period. They put 13 shots on Cam Ward in the second period; they were able to get the puck up ice; and they scored on the first power play they got (Greene's second goal). Then again, Brian Rolston threw a bad cross-ice pass at the point that Brandon Sutter took down ice and got lucky with a deflection to score; and the power play wasted two man advantages later in the period. The Devils remained in this lull on offense for the first 8 to 11 minutes (depends on who you ask). A re-tooled line of Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Brian Rolston finally had a strong shift (you see some of that in the video), and a late power play nearly gave the Devils that fourth goal, but Ward somehow stopped Langenbrunner on a rebound (also in the video). I mean, I saw it live and I'm not quite sure how he did it, but he did.
So why did the Devils end up outshooting the Canes 31-23? Well, Carolina got blocked 13 times in the game (Johnny Oduya led with 4 blocks) so their shooting wasn't exactly proficient. I also think they took too much time on offense to get a good shot. I fully understand the concept of setting up an offense. I fully understand why teams do this, but given that Carolina was giving the Devils' defense the run around for most of the post-first period game, they really should have tried firing away more often. Martin Brodeur played well, but he wasn't necessarily dominating tonight.
In contrast, the Devils offense had the game plan of getting Cam Ward moving as much as he could. Not a bad idea for most goalies, especially ones returning from a leg laceration. Especially on the power play, the Devils attempted a number of cross-ice and cross-crease passes. Again, I fully understand why a team would want to do this. If the pass hits it's target, the target can have a great chance to score. However, while the theory makes sense, the execution wasn't and so a lot of shots from sharp angles and glancing shots and those cross-slot passes weren't so effective. A lot of the attempts got on net, the Devils weren't blocked much or missed much; but there was more than a few times where you'd watch the play develop and just go "OH!" when that final pass didn't hit home.
At first, I thought Ward looked rusty; but by the end, I felt he played well in his return from injury. The goals that beat him were a deflection off Aaron Ward, a shot in the slot behind a screen, and a cross-crease pass that actually hit Andy Greene in the right spot for a goal. Not exactly shots most goaltenders could stop. That said, I wish the Devils mixed it up and tried firing more low, hard shots on Ward as he was giving up some choice rebounds. There were plenty tonight for the Devils as-is, but if they kept at it, then maybe a Devil beats the Carolina defense to one of them for the big score.
In terms of who I felt had a good night, well, Andy Greene and Zach Parise stick out as the most logical choices. Parise had 5 shots on net and 2 assists, and Greene looked fairly decent playing 24:56 and putting in 2 goals. They got stars of the game and deservedly so. Rob Niedermayer actually rates right up there too. He played fairly solid on defense, put 3 shots on net, screened Ward on Andy Greene's first goal, played 19:37, iced the game with a shorthanded empty net goal, and most impressively went 18 for 23 on faceoffs. That's just fantastic work at the dot. When Bryce Salvador took a cross checking call at the end of the game, I noticed Niedermayer was right there for the faceoff. Good thing, as he won yet another one and it allowed the Devils to kill off the game. Without Niedermayer's work, I don't think the Devils don't hold on to win tonight. He did very well - aside from the dumb hooking infraction he committed, of course.
I would also like to highlight Bryce Salvador, who took a nasty hit from Erik Cole, left the game, but managed to come back and play defense for the Devils later on. He didn't get up immediately after the hit and many in the arena were concerned. It was a scary moment, but the fans applauded when he got up after a few minutes with the trainer. I was very glad to see him return to the game and contribute 14:10 total of work on the blueline. This post-game post from Tom Gulitti covers what Salvador was thinking and how he returned from what maybe was an injury. I recommend reading it and I hope he did not sustain an injury by coming back into tonight's game.
Yet, that the Devils had to hold on to win tonight is what many of the Devils fans who left tonight game weren't happy about. That the Devils managed to get 3 goals up on the worst team in the NHL, and it nearly was given away. Why couldn't the Devils respond to those two goals with getting one more past Ward? Why couldn't they hit home on the three power plays beyond the 30 minute mark of the game? Why were the Devils being pinned back by Carolina so much in the second and third periods? Most of all, why did we see such a great first period by the Devils followed up by a poor second and third periods?
I'm hoping Jacques Lemaire will ask the players these same questions because tonight could have easily ended up as an embarrassing night if a few things went a bit differently. Carolina played well after the first period and didn't give up on the game after Greene's second goal. They didn't look like the worst team in the NHL tonight and it only goes to prove my earlier point that looking past this team or letting up on them is a big mistake. While the Devils didn't look past them, it cannot be argued that they let the proverbial foot off the proverbial pedal on defense despite allowing 23 shots on net.
There is a cliche that good teams know how to win games where maybe they shouldn't. There is another one about how sometimes a team just has to win ugly. I'm glad the Devils won their last four games. Again, this is a results-oriented business and no Devils fan can complain about the results. I'm not. But I can't help but think that they should be doing a better job in these games. Especially after playing so well against Buffalo on Monday night, one wonders what happened to that kind of effort and performance. I will say this win was better than the recent wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit because the offense was actually involved for a part of this game and the team's first period performance. However, I don't think that is saying much. I think the Devils need to get back to playing strong hockey for all 60 minutes (or even 40-50) if they want to continue their winning streak.
No matter, the Devils move on with four straight wins and have a back-to-back set against Florida and Philadelphia. Thank you all for reading and commenting about tonight's game. Please leave your thoughts and feelings about tonight's game in the comments.