The New Jersey Devils capped off a season of milestones (e.g. Brian Rolston's 1000th game, Rolston's 300th goal, Brodeur's 100th shutout) and records being broken (e.g. Brodeur's 552nd win, Elias becoming the franchise leader in points, Parise with the most shots in a season) with a tight 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Their 51st win was the first win the Devils have earned over Carolina all season and it was the first game where the Devils were the superior team.
In their eventual recap, Canes Country may disagree with that last assertion, but Bubba and Cory will have to admit that Carolina did not have a strong game on the puck overall. Their defense especially misplayed passes out of their zone, and the Devils won plenty of possession back in the neutral zone by picking off or picking up Carolina's passes. That accomplished two goals: the Devils with more chances going forward and the Canes being forced to get back. Let me tell you, that's a big reason why the shot disparity favored the Devils so much. It also helped that the Hurricanes didn't even collapse into the zone all that well as the Devils were able to win battles along the boards and move the puck well down low.
Yet, like in previous Devils games, they couldn't finish enough of those chances. The difference, and this is a positive point, is that the Devils created many more scoring chances than they have been in recent games. They ranged from two-on-ones (e.g. Parise and Zajac in the first period), scrums for loose pucks in the slot, shots missing the net (e.g. Greene after Parise and Zajac's two-on-one) long shots on to the far post that forced Michael Leighton to make a big glove save, rebounds that the Hurricanes defense thwarted at the last second (e.g. Parise off an Elias shot had the net, but the defense knocked the stick wide), and mistakes by Leighton with the puck. Because of their superior play on the puck, their lead in shots (35 to 25), and the number of chances they created (Parise with 7 shots on net, Clarkson with 6), the Devils did better than the score allowed.
Alas, what burned Carolina was Leighton combined with some really bad breaks. In the first period, a puck was dumped in by Brian Rolston. Leighton, like most goalies, went behind the net to eventually play it. Only, the puck hit the end board and went straight out. David Clarkson was right there and put it in with ease despite a diving Leighton. Later in the period, it happens again! On a delayed penalty call, Niclas Havelid dumped it into the boards with the intention of forcing the whistle. It comes straight out again and Zach Parise knocks it in for the lead! Joe Corvo never had possession, so the goal stood.
Then in the third period, Leighton - where it seemed every time he came out of the net to play the puck, it was an adventure - played the puck along the boards. This time, he was able to get in net. Only, Brian Gionta got the puck up to Dainus Zubrus, and he beat Leighton clean for the game winning goal!
Not exactly the greatest of goals to score, but the important thing is that when glorious opportunities present themselves, they need to finished. The Devils did do that on the first two and made one happen on the third. That said, were it not for Leighton or some gutsy, desperate defending (or a penalty in two cases to knock down Parise), the Devils win this game by a much larger margin.
The Hurricanes did keep this game close thanks to the Devils not doing so well on, you guessed it, special teams. Anton Babchuk is a Devils' killer of sorts - with his brace today, he has 4 goals and an assist in all four games against the Devils this season. More distressingly is that like his brace on March 19, Babchuk got his two on the powerplay. The Devils killers managed to kill two of them and on the other two, with less than 30 seconds to go, Babchuk winded up and found the twine through a screen.
Brodeur was solid on everything else and he wasn't challenged too greatly short some chances in the second period. The defense did a good job preventing Eric Staal or Sergei Samsonov from doing any major damage. Still, the goalie can't really stop what he can't see and Babchuk reigned again. Either the Devils have to take fewer penalties (it's not like 4 is a lot, but still) or they need to aggressively attack the point when the opposition has a big shooter like Babchuk. This is the sort of thing that can doom a team in the playoffs.
At least the PK unit was successful twice. The power play units were held scoreless again. Unlike in Ottawa, they managed many more shots on net in their 5 chances (when NHL.com actually has their numbers up, I'll have it here for confirmation). They managed to put some legitimate pressure on Carolina at times. That's a bit heartening, but it's still opportunity lost. Another thing that can doom a team in the playoffs.
As far as the returning Devils, Niclas Havelid looked all right on defense and managed 4 shots on net. I felt Patrik Elias looked more fluid and threatening today than he did in Ottawa, so the rust may be completely gone soon enough. Surprisingly, Sutter played Pierre-Luc Latourneau-Leblond, who took a post-whistle penalty that led to Babchuk's second goal, but otherwise looked OK. I don't see how Leblond would be of use in the playoffs but I suppose Mike Rupp or Bobby Holik still had a lesson to learn? Even more suprisingly, Colin White sat for Havelid. I don't think White was playing all that poorly as of late. I guess Sutter felt Andy Greene (who had a good game) deserved some more minutes and another chance to see whether Sutter will use him in the post season. That all said, the roster should be ready to go in the coming week. Again, the Devils were better on the ice today.
That all said, the result is positive for the Devils. They beat a team they haven't done all season, they outplayed a team they haven't outplayed all season, and they won closely. In the playoffs, the games become tighter defensively with a bad break or a bad bounce possibly deciding the entire outcome. That the Devils didn't sulk or give up on the game either equalizer from Babchuk and managed to win is a very good sign going into the playoffs. The team's confidence should be high.
Ironically, today's win may mean that the Devils may have to face Carolina in the first round. Fortunately, if today's game was a sign that the Canes are cooling off in the worst way, then bring them on!