Short of a blowout, you could not have picked a better start for the New Jersey Devils in this series.
The New Jersey Devils defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 at the Rock; a game where the score reflected the dominance of the Devils in their performance. I believe this was the best game by the Devils in over a month. And this is the right time for it to come! It is late, but it's quite simple to break down.
The Carolina Hurricanes played like they did on Saturday in the last regular season game for both teams. A game where I felt Carolina didn't play all that well. In my "Hopes" post a few days ago, I noted that Carolina may be due for a slump after being so ridiculously hot from February 1 onward.
Tonight's game is further evidence that they are definitely in a lull. Their passing was all over the place. Martin Brodeur wasn't challenged too seriously and it required a fortunate rebound to Ray Whitney beat him in the third period. Brodeur did his job and wasn't exactly a tough night for him from where I stood.
The issues for Carolina were worse than just not challenging Brodeur Since the passing was poor, it led to an out of sync offense - and easy pickings for the Devils' defenders/backcheckers - resulting in a mere 19 shots on net all game long. There were Carolina Hurricanes falling down on the ice by accident than there were Hurricanes scoring chances!!
Moreover, since Carolina's passing was poor, it also led to the Devils not only dominating on puck possession but on the flow of the game. Carolina didn't get a chance to hit New Jersey on many (if any?) rushes up ice; the Devils forced a lot of the play to be down low, along the boards, and resulting in battles. Even on the penalty kill (which was good), the Devils were patient to wait for the seemingly inevitable Carolina misplay and then dump that puck down ice. Battles that, of course, New Jersey won. Hence, their 3 drawn penalties and 39 shots on net.
Complementing Carolina's less than average performance were the Devils' great performance. New Jersey smelt blood and took advantage all night long. I saw this game next to 4 Carolina Hurricanes fans - who do read Canes Country, I might add - and they kept noting that Cam Ward was the only one who really showed up tonight. Ward had to! He was peppered all night and only got a little help from his defense (stopping two nearly-sure goals off rebounds). Even the Jay Pandolfo-John Madden-Brendan Shanahan line gave the Carolina skaters fits with extended offensive possession on shome shifts! The third line of guys well into their 30s (or past them in Shanahan's case!)! You can believe ZZ Pops and the Elias unit were even bigger nightmares for them. Even when they got a stop, the Devils defense was often in position to either keep the puck in play or get back on defense quickly.
Even then, Ward wasn't perfect. His play of the puck off the boards went right to Mike Mottau, who unloaded a bullet to beat him. A big "oops" on his end. And he got beaten cleanly by the Devils' top goal scorers: Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and Jamie Langenbrunner. If you felt those three needed to make their mark for the Devils to be successful, then you were proven right tonight! Don't think I'm putting the loss all on Ward. Langenbrunner's goal was the most telling as it came less than a minute from Whitney's goal; it was decisive evidence that the Devils were not going to allow Carolina a lifeline. That could be very important in the bigger scheme of the series as it's a message sent to Carolina and the critics. That message being, "We are the Devils. This is not 2006. This is our time."
In Game 1, the Devils played their best hockey in a month. They did what they really needed to do: play hard, make Ward work, be able to beat Ward and the Carolina defense, keep the 'Canes big players quiet (what did Eric Staal do again?), and play fairly disciplined hockey (2 penalties, 2 penalties killed). The only caveat you could make is that the power play didn't score; but with 13 shots on man advantages, even the PP units did their job in making the effort. Sutter should be praised for making the right decisions with his lineup, tactics, and motivation; and the players should be praised for what they did on the ice.
Game 2 should be much more difficult and Brent Sutter and the Devils players will have to be ready for a stinger and angrier Carolina squad on Friday. The series is far from over and while the start is great, it'll be a tough performance to repeat. You can be sure Paul Maurice will get his team fired up enough to do much better than 19 mostly pedestrian shots on Brodeur; do much better than making Cam Ward play out of his mind out of necessity; and definitely do much better in controlling the puck.
Alas, tonight, the victory should be savored by the fans. The Devils dominated, after all. For the Carolina faithful, the question needs to be asked: Is Carolina now in or entering a slump? Whatever you call it, if they don't shape up soon, expect this one to end well and fairly quickly.