New Jersey Devils Survive Scare to Beat Minnesota Wild 5-3

The New Jersey Devils needed to respond to their disappointing 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.  They went into the over-sold XCel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.  They faced the Minnesota Wild in what turned out to be a very, er, wild game.   NHL.com has the recap to that game, complete with a link to the boxscore and other stats.

While Martin Brodeur held the Wild to nothing after a first period they owned; ultimately, the hero of the day was Jamie Langenbrunner. The Cloquet, Minnesota native scored his first career hat trick and they were important goals.  The first goal, a beauty of a one-timer during a power play, made it 2-0 Devils and silenced the crowd. After the Wild rallied back to equalize on a pair of 3-on-2 rushes, Langenbrunner went hard to the net, backhanded a loose puck that went off Kim Johnsson and in to retake the lead on the power play just before the second period ended.   And when the Wild were pressing for a late equalizer, Jamie Langenbrunner denied Petr Sykora a chance at a loose puck in the slot, won the puck on the boards, pushed up ice even though Travis Zajac's long pass to Zach Parise bounced backwards, picked off a Marek Zidlicky pass, and scored the empty net goal to seal the win.

Langenbrunner had 7 shots total (4 were blocked, so he attempted 11) and 6 hits to go with those 3 goals.  He was one of the few Devils who were consistently good all night long and thankfully he was as good as he was tonight.  He dazzled his family and friends, as well as all of the Devils fans tonight.  Outside of that, it was a flawed performance by both teams - for differing reasons.  Check out Hockey Wilderness for a recap from the Wild perspective, but do continue for my further thoughts on tonight's win.

To describe what transpired in tonight's game, I think, is best to bring up among the three individual periods.

The first period was mostly owned by the Minnesota Wild.  The Devils had lots of trouble getting any sustained offense going, with their best chance being Dean McAmmond getting sprung for a breakaway.  For much of the period, the sequence of events included the Wild getting the puck in deep, the Wild setting up plays on offense, Martin Brodeur making big plays, and the Devils defense getting a clearance by some way only for the offense to give the puck back to the Wild.  And repeat, save for the one power play the Wild had where they got no penetration at all. 

Brodeur was the hero. The Wild outshot the Devils 11-6 and that made perfect sense to anyone who watched the game; the Wild got sustained pressure, they made smart attacking passes, and they set up some great shots.  In contrast, the Devils weren't winning many battles along the boards and were really reacting to the Wild more than anything else.  The lack of sustained offense by New Jersey meant the ice was further tipped in Minnesota's favor. The Devils netminder was the only reason the Wild didn't score early.

Then the second began and to say that the scoring opened up the game is an understatement.  When it started, the Devils looked better along the boards, but the Wild were still the better team on the ice despite allowing a Jamie Langenbrunner breakaway.  Yet, the Wild would give up a breakaway in a bizarre fashion.  After a shift where at least on Devil lost a stick, the battle for the puck went along in front of Minnesota's bench, and Dean McAmmond came out on the ice.  Patrik Elias somehow got onto the puck and pushed it forward to a completely open McAmmond.  McAmmond drove in and scored a beautiful backhanded breakaway.

This disturbed Minnesota and it led to one of their downfalls - penalties. Eric Belanger picked Dean McAmmond on offense, which is an interference call.  The New Jersey Devils power play went to work and Jamie Langenbrunner scored on a wonderful cross-ice pass from Patrik Elias to make it 2-0.  Two quick goals, no problem right?  The XCel Energy Center was quiet, the Wild started looking despondent on the ice.  Nick Schultz lazily tugged on Patrik Elias' jersey from behind and then things got weird.  Mikko Koivu jarred a puck loose at the point and Andy Greene had to haul him down to prevent a breakaway.  Greene succeeded but took a penalty. 

On the ensuing 4-on-4, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac got a 2-on-1.  Normally, this is a good thing. Who else would you want on a 2-on-1?  But the duo made the first of their fatal mistakes tonight.  Honestly, Parise had a very quiet night with one shot on net; Zajac was more active with 3 shots and 11 for 20 on faceoffs.  Yet, Zajac had the puck and decided to pass to Parise. Only thing is, the Wild defense (and everyone in the arena and watching) knew Zajac would pass it and it was easily picked.  Since it's a 4-on-4, this meant 2 Devils were back and the Wild immediately had a 3-on-2.  Zidlicky made an inch-perfect pass to Eric Belanger at the crease and that's 2-1 Wild. The Wild get some more life, but the Devils do a better job in preventing the Wild from dictating the entire pace of the game.  They actually had some solid shifts on offense, getting some sustained possession in the Wild's end.

Later in the second, the ZZ Pops line - since reformed during the period - actually had some of this possession and with Parise given a dished pass by Langenbrunner (who else) into the slot, Zidlicky was beat.  So he decided to haul down Parise.  On the ensuing power play, in the final minute of the period, the Devils rush the puck forward.  The three forwards (Parise, Bergfors, and Langenbrunner) crashed the net, but the puck went wide and around the boards.  This led to the rare shorthanded 3-on-2.  Martin Brodeur robs Koivu completely on the first shot, but no one could have done anything on the rebound.  The defense was already split, Brodeur was still sliding back from the first save, and so Koivu equalizes with a shorty.  

The power play then ends the period by totally redeeming itself.  They decide to rush the puck to the net, crash the net, and the puck was knocked loose by Mike Mottau, and Jamie Langenbrunner sent a backhand off Kim Johnsson an in with 2 seconds left. The second periods ends 3-2 New Jersey and I, for one, was confused.  Do I applaud the power play for converting twice on three chances, despite the shorthanded goal against?  Do I get mad that a poor offensive decision led to a 3-on-2 that led to a Wild goal.  Do I fault the defense for playing passive in general and not compelting those breakout or outlet passes?

In the third period, the last question seemed most prominent.  It was almost a return to the first period only with the Wild missing more shots - and, boy, did they miss shots tonight! 17 missed shots, very poor accuracy from the Wild - and the Devils looking calmer.  Still, the breakout and outlet passes after getting a stop in their own zone were very poor.  Parise and Zajac contributed to another Wild attack when Parise missed Zajac on a pass (again, not their best nights in terms of decision making). However, as time went on, they improved and the Devils and Wild started trading off good shifts with some chances by both teams.   Yet, it was the Devils who were rewarded first. After some fine board play by the third line, Elias got a pass to Rob Niedermayer in a cycle.  His pass to the center where Jay Pandolfo was tipped perfectly to Jay Pandolfo by Johnsson, and Pandolfo stashed it in. 

A typical "garbage" goal, but at the time, it was a perfect response to the Wild.  It sent the message that despite the advantage in time of possession, the shots on net, the attempts on net, and the overflowing home crowd supporting their team, the Devils were going to win this game.  They led after two periods, the Devils are 20-0 after such a lead, and they will not be denied a 21st win.  At 4-2, it was looking good for New Jersey.

Once again, things got weird.  Much the rest of the period until the final five minutes was nondescript. Sure, the Wild attempted a few attacks, but the Devils' defense looked poised and easily stopped them.  More of their passes hit Devils going forward in the neutral zone, which led to more offense and kept the Wild honest.  Then the Wild decide to crash the net and they get, well, lucky.  In the ensuing scrum in front, a puck is jarred loose from Brodeur's blocker, it somehow pops up, hits Andrew Brunette's helmet, and drops in.  Seriously. A header in hockey.  How do you even defend it?  It's not like Brodeur could have smothered the puck initially, it's not like the Devils weren't there in front, and the puck went up in the air, hit someone's head, and dropped in perfectly.  And the Wild are revitalized. They have every reason to throw everything forward, right?

No. That didn't really happen.  The Devils actually respond with some shifts where they were the ones applying offensive pressure.  The Wild made their final push late after pulling Niklas Backstrom, but as noted earlier, Langenbrunner sealed the deal and the win.   Now that you've read all that (I hope you did), these highlights from NHL.com should make more sense given the context of when they happened:

I felt both goaltenders did fairly well tonight despite the number of goals given up.  Brodeur faced 32 shots and was beaten on two odd-man rushes and an absolute fluke wherein he had no real chance on the goals.  Backstrom may feel worse, but he shouldn't.  OK, he could have done better than giving up the top shelf to McAmmond's breakaway.  Yet, Langenbrunner's first goal was a one-timer on his flank; his second went in off his own defender in front; and Pandolfo got his goal from traffic in front as well.  It's not like either fell flat on their face.

Speaking of not falling on their face, I felt Colin White looked fine on defense for the most part.  His partner, Mike Mottau, played an unbelievable amount of minutes (28:06 and before you ask, yes, Mark Fraser and Matthew Corrente each got less than 7 minutes tonight); but White was a more poised presence.  He had 4 big shot-blocks and he got 3 hits along with his work in the corners, in front, and in the left circle.  White's 24:13 was largely well played and it's a shame he didn't get any other big numbers to go with it.  While the Devils' defense didn't look great as a whole, allowing 32 shots in total, White was a positive factor on defense.

Speaking of positive factor, Patrik Elias deserves plenty of praise for 3 assists, two of which were primary: the first sprung McAmmond for his breakaway, and the second set up Langenbrunner's beautiful shot on the power play. In his 18:10 of ice time tonight, he showed the Wild faithful at the XCel Energy Center that he is a remarkable playmaker.  While Elias has only one goal in his last 9 games, he now has 7 assists in that same timeframe.  When he's involved in the action, Elias does tend to shine and he did just that.  

One other interesting stat is that the Devils managed to beat the Wild on faceoffs more often than not, winning 52% of all the draws.  That is excellent considering how ridiculous Mikko Koivu and Eric Belanger have been at faceoffs this season. Yet, what concerns me is how poor passes by New Jersey were easily turned into attacked from Minnesota.  I feel that led to the struggles in getting offensive pressure during parts of the game. I think the two go hand-in-hand.  I felt the Devils tried too many long passes through the neutral zone and too many passes in situations where the puck carrier should have shot it.  Chico called it "over-passing" in the broadcast and that fits.  All it served to do was hold the Devils back and I wonder how tonight would have went if the Devils weren't guilty of poor feeds.  Probably a more decisive win.

All the same, it was a win tonight and similar to what was seen in December, the Devils rebound from a loss with a win of varying quality.  Not a bad way to start a new year. That in of itself is good; but once again, let us hope the Devils improve on their puck movement out of their zone (and while they have odd man rushes themselves, for that matter) for the next game. Thanks to Steve for the GameThread, thanks to all the commenters in said GameThread, and thank you all for reading.  Please leave your thoughts and concerns about tonight's game in the comments.

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