Tonight was the first night of preseason action for the New Jersey Devils and they came out winners in the shootout, 3-2. NHL.com has their recap up, through there you can find links to the boxscore and the event summary. Big thanks to Lepore for his "Quick Thoughts." As he noted, my recaps will be more in detail. We may disagree (e.g. the shootout is not evil), so I recommend reading both.
In today's preview, I made a big deal about the game being about the performance and not the result. Of course, when you're at the game itself, that's pretty much thrown out the window. You want to scream in delight when your team goes up on their hated rivals. You want to be joyful while the fans of your rivals sulk. You want the team you support win - even if the game is ultimately meaningless. While the crowd definitely wasn't as large as most Devils-Rangers game, it sure was a lively atmosphere, especially in Section 1. Lively in supporting the Devils - I'm pretty confident there were significantly more Devils fans than Ranger fans at this one, booing the Rangers, and enjoying the shootout win. Needed more cowbells. No, seriously, there were guys with cowbells behind my seat.
Anyway, while it was the Rangers' second preseason game and the Devils first, you can tell this was nowhere close to each team's best. I'd go as far as to say nearly all the regular NHL players from both rosters exhibited some rust. The exceptions to this rule were, in my opinion, David Clarkson and Sean Avery. And that's only a compliment for one of them, as Avery managed to get into mid-season chump form by running Zach Parise into the Rangers' bench from behind while he was going off on a line change and running Yann Danis near the end of the first period. Because he ran Danis, a Rangers goal was immediately disallowed, he got 2 minutes for goalie interference, and then got another minor added because Avery wouldn't shut up. If you were ever worried that Avery would wise up and play smart hockey, then this game eased your concerns.
Clarkson sparkled tonight, scoring both Devils' goals in regulation and - even better - on the power play. The first was the result of a massive brainfart by the Rangers penalty killers. The play was up at the point, but the Devils controlled the puck - while Clarkson stayed in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Dainius Zubrus kept the puck, dished it to Niclas Bergfors who feeded it up to Clarkson. Lundqvist got the first shot, but couldn't collect it and Clarkson dashed a second attempt home. The second goal was a sweet finish off a power play rush. Dainius Zubrus took it in, passed it off to Brendan Shanahan, and Clarkson just put the right touch on it to beat back Chad Johnson.
Regardless, most of the regular players ranged from "OK" to "knows he can do better" but over time, they'll get the rust off and they'll play to their level. So let's consider the team's performance as a whole as well as the prospects. Some Devils made their case for a spot in New Jersey while others made their case for a spot in Lowell or elsewhere.
Let's start with the good things about the Devils' team performance. A big first point to hit on is the penalty kill. The Devils killed all 6 power plays they conceded. Given that the Devils were not all that great on the penalty kill last season, this is an excellent start. The killers never really allowed New York to set up a good shot and they were solid in their clearances. Based on the ice times, most of the penalty killers were regular Devils from last season - Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Zubrus, Brian Rolston, Mike Mottau, etc. The only prospect who got significant time on the PK was Mark Fraser, who fit in well in that aspect of the game. Overall, Lemaire got the units functioning well and without panicking in the rare case the Rangers maintained significant possession.
The Devils had 7 power play opportunities and scored on two of them. Yes, the Devils did not convert on either the double minor from Sean Avery or that big 4-on-3 power play in overtime. Yet, the Devils opened the scoring and earned a lead as a result of the power play. David Clarkson sparkled here as mentioned earlier, and I felt Zubrus looked good in what few power play shifts he had. Lemaire constantly played a unit of Parise-Zajac-Shanahan with Brian Rolston and Cory Murphy at the points. All but Shanahan got at least 5 minutes on the power play. They were threatening, but didn't score. Yet, it showed that Lemaire's not afraid to go with 4 forwards on a power play unit. Moreover, Murphy looked comfortable at the point in both distribution and in shooting.
As far as the overall type of game the Devils played, it was similar to how Brent Sutter ran the team last season. Someone's always forechecking, forwards head up ice for long passes, defensemen would sometimes jump up on the play, and if nothing else, dump it in and win the puck along the boards. I noticed the rest of the team played further up in the neutral zone while the forechecker was in the zone; and sometimes Lemaire would send in two forecheckers to mix things up. I also noticed they didn't rely as much on winning the battles along the boards; but that could be a result of who was playing more than anything else. But it sure looked like a tweaked Sutter system to me tonight and it looked good in the first two periods (and in overtime).
This leads me to who among the prospects and new players had a good game. Yann Danis, in my opinion, had the best night. He was calm in net whether it was a long shot or a scrum in front of the net. He looked good at holding the puck and in his overall movement. In total, he played the whole game unlike Henrik Lundqvist; he turned away 28 shots; and the only goal you really can fault him for is the first one where he bit on Matt Gilroy's first move - leaving a big gap for him to score on. And that was only one of two mistakes he made, the other was leaving his five hole a little too open in the shootout against Gilroy. Still, Danis came up big in the shootout, especially in sudden death, by stopping everyone else. I think he cemented his spot as the Devils' backup goaltender tonight. (As an aside, I think Rangers fans should be happy with Gilroy, he looked good tonight.)
Cory Murphy also had a very busy night. Did you know he played 26:35 tonight, the most minutes among all Devils defenseman? Surely, he impressed Lemaire enough to keep putting him out there on the ice. He was used on the second PK unit, he was featured on the top power play unit, and he was constantly on the ice otherwise. Like Danis, he was calm and collected in his own end - nothing too flashy, which is perfectly fine for a defenseman. I would have liked him to show a little more initiative on offense, but given that Lemaire used him so much tonight, I would think he I think he'll get many more opportunities in the very near future. He definitely made a strong case for making the roster tonight.
Lastly, congratulations, Niclas Bergfors. I said you needed to have a good game and you worked pretty hard out there. You picked up an assist on Clarkson's first goal; you put 4 shots on net despite only getting 13:58 of ice time; you were up on the forecheck and showed some solid aggression; and you got some time on the power play. Good job. I'm not saying that Bergfors made the team with tonight's game, but I'd say he took advantage of the opportunity given to him tonight. I'm sure next time, he'll get more time to show off his talent. Because he looked good tonight, there will almost definitely be a next time.
These three weren't the only ones who looked good; but they were the three that stuck out.
Now let's talk about the bad side to tonight's game. First and foremost, the Devils coughed up a 2 goal lead in the third period. Yes, I know tonight isn't about the result, but the Devils didn't respond well after Gilroy's goal and that's a concern. The skaters seemed more tentative when they should have been aggressive; the Rangers started getting more possession and longer offensive zone possessions; and the Devils' offense suffered as they had to backcheck more often. Thankfully, they limited the damage to just an equalizer, yet they could not come up with a third goal despite some opportunities to do so. I am certain Lemaire will take tomorrow to further "educate" the Devils about how poorly they've done in the third period.
Neither team will be happy about their team's defense, truth be told. The Devils allowed 30 shots, the Rangers allowed 37, and the units overall really didn't do a good job with preventative defense. Again, this could be due to rust, defensemen playing with each other for the first time, and so forth. Most of the stops the defense got were reactive, sometimes even last-minute interventions; and a good defensive performance normally has that. But it also has solid positioning and forcing the opposition to think twice about shooting. Each team did neither and 3 of the 4 goals scored in regulation were at the fault of the defense.
Likewise, neither team should be happy about their discipline. The Devils took 6 penalties - Mark Fraser fought and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond had his fight - and some were really dumb, like Bryce Salvador's really obvious high stick on Sean Avery. Others were really cheap, like Michal Rozsival's play-acting drawing a high sticking call for Clarkson during a Rangers PK. By the way, that happened in the corner in front of Section 1, we all know and saw Clarkson's stick not hitting anyone, much less Rozsival's face. Similarly, the Rangers should feel just as unhappy about discipline due to Sean Avery's needless double minor, a too many men on the ice call, and Michael Del Zotto's tripping of Bergfors in overtime. The Devils were able to burn the Rangers twice on minors; but both teams would be wise to play a little smarter.
In terms of which Devils prospect or new face didn't look good, the first name that comes to mind is Mark Fraser. It was Mark Fraser who moved closer to the center in that 2-on-2 with Aaron Voros and Matt Gilroy in the third period. Avery passed it to Gilroy, who just burned Fraser to go one-on-one with Danis. Basically, if Fraser just held his position or even moved to his right to cut off Gilroy rushing up, then that goal may not even happen.
Also, Fraser is at least partially at fault for the Rangers' second goal. Fraser was down low to Danis' right, which was where Del Zotto's shot came from. Did Fraser step up as that was where the play was? No. Fraser stood still, allowing Jordan Owens to swoop on in and put home a rebound. From my vantage point, he missed his coverage and it hurt the Devils a second time in the same period. Fraser only got 14:02 of ice time which tells me that Lemaire preferred to send out Murphy or Oduya instead of him, which is telling. While he looked good on the PK and got minutes there, I think that third period helped punch his ticket to Lowell.
The only other prospect/new player who I felt didn't do well on the Devils was Ilkka Pikkarainen. That whole fourth line wasn't all that impressive. Rod Pelley won 7 out of 11 faceoffs and skated with energy. Leblond had a fight, which is fitting for his role as a
goon enforcer. What did Pikkarainen even do? Not much. He seemed somewhat slow on that fourth line and I didn't see him drop back to help much on defense (a near-requirement for all Devils forwards). Inexplicably, Lemaire threw him out there with Parise and Zajac for a few shifts in the third period and he at least hustled more. But he didn't contribute much to the game, positively or negatively. Not good when you're fighting for a spot on the team.
The rest of the prospects and new players are somewhere in the middle. Vladimir Zharkov, Patrice Cormier, and Rod Pelley looked OK from what I saw, but they got limited minutes. Ditto for Alexander Urbom. It's hard to formulate a hard opinion on that alone; your mileage may vary for all of them, really.
So what can we learn overall? Well, it seems clear to me that Lemaire definitely worked on the special teams and got results and he did only tweak Brent Sutter's system (so far). As far as an overall performance, I feel like it's a "B-" in that it was ultimately positive it needs improvement. That will come as the regulars get less rusty, the team practices more, and the only prospects playing are the ones who have earned the time.
Now it's time to have your say about what you think about tonight's game overall and this recap. Do you agree that Danis, Murphy, and Bergfors stuck out the most? Do you agree that Fraser and Pikkarainen hurt their own causes tonight? Did you notice something interesting from the game overall? Leave it all in the comments and thank you for reading.