New Jersey Devils End Skid with Improved Effort to Shutout Florida Panthers, 2-0

If I can describe the New Jersey Devils' performance in two words, it would be vastly improved.  I can't think of an aspect of tonight's game that wasn't improvement over Monday's game.  In general, I felt the Devils were in control of tonight's game and played far better at both ends of the rink.  The effort was exactly what you want to see after three losses. It wasn't perfect, but it was good and, more importantly, something to build on.

The Florida Panthers, who were doing quite well recently, didn't show much tonight and the stats back this up.  The Devils outshot the Panthers 32-22, and unlike recent games, the Devils were getting shots all over the place on Tomas Vokoun and in varying situations.  The Devils put up a more physical game, officially outhitting the Panthers 27-14.  On special teams, the Devils power play moved the puck well and were putting good pressure on the Panthers despite not scoring, whereas the Panthers power play didn't going until the very end and even then the penalty killers got the job done (and an empty net).     Even on faceoffs, not an area where the Devils have done well all season, New Jersey won 30 out of 48 draws - Travis Zajac (11 for 15) and Rob Niedermayer (12 for 18) were excellent.

Personally, I felt the score flatters Florida as the Devils were clearly the better team on the ice tonight.  If it wasn't for Vokoun - and he really did play a great game, then the Devils would have won by a larger margin.  For those worried about Martin Brodeur's workload, he didn't have a whole lot to do and he came up with a stop when necessary.  But unlike recent games, the Devils defense played much better in their own zone.  

There's nothing like a shutout win to snap a losing streak, especially amid all the injuries the team currently has; not that the Devils were completely healthy at one point this season.  Whale4Ever at Litter Box Cats is lamenting the punchless offense of the Panthers tonight.  NHL.com has their recap up with links to all the stats from the game.  Read on further for my thoughts on the game.

Admittedly, I got to this game late.  I brought a friend to tonight's game with a free ticket provided by the team for full season ticket holders who renewed their plans early.  But due to circumstances out of control and my holding of the ticket, I had to wait.  I didn't miss much, coming in before the Devils first power play but already I could tell the Devils were playing much better.  They had the puck more often, they were calm in their own end, and they were positioned well to pick up a loose puck in the slot while in their zone and often started a breakout in the opposite direction.  To me, that was the biggest change.

In fact, the defense in general had a great night.  Bryce Salvador prevented a loose puck in the crease from going into the net and had a nice little game in his 19:44.  Johnny Oduya saw fewer minutes - only 16:29 - but he did well in both special teams situations and got 3 shots on net.  Andy Greene and Mike Mottau each played over 24 minutes (Greene: 24:21, Mottau: 24:03) and the only real criticism I have for either is that Mottau was a bit late in getting to an open Rostislav Olesz on Florida's first power play, but that's inconsequential since Olesz missed the net entirely.  Greene looked better since he managed himself well whenever he jumped up on the play (he didn't get caught, protected the puck well) and kept attempting shots (2 on net, 4 blocked, 1 missed).   Mark Fraser saw significantly less time than he saw on Long Island, but he was acceptable in his 9:53 of work.  Colin White was huge tonight, though.  Sure, he missed 3 shots and came real close inadvertantly deflecting a puck in his own net (not his fault, just a freak occurrence), but he was a force in his own end tonight.  He suffered no fools, throwing 5 hits officially and many more unofficially.  No wonder he got 22:40 of ice time tonight, he earned it all.  All that and Jacques Lemaire decided to not use him as a screen on the power play.

The defense really didn't make any really obvious mistakes.  In fact, when they were about to be beaten, someone would make a strong effort to recover and get the puck away or back in New Jersey control.   One of my biggest gripes in the last three losses is that someone on the blueline would make a bad decision or get caught out of position or do something dumb and that would lead to an easy goal for opposition.  That didn't happen tonight. The Panthers had very few scoring chances and it was a big reason why the game ended up the way they did.  Brodeur didn't have to play out of his mind to keep the Devils "in the game," much less earn a shutout. 

Tonight, the defense for New Jersey was great positionally and in their reactions in their own zone.  Far and away, this was the biggest improvement that I've seen as opposed to the last three games.   They were a big reason why the Devils didn't allow 2 goals in the first period for a fourth straight game; and they were a big reason the offense was motivated.

When the Devils got a stop in their own zone or in the neutral zone, the team looked energized to go forward immediately.  While some of the passes were sloppy early, the Devils finding teammates in space, and the puck carrier wasn't afraid at all to take the shot himself.  The lone shot that beat Vokoun was a perfect example of this. Nick Palmieri picks up a loose puck from a Devils clearance at the blueline and fires it to Parise.  Parise hangs back to draw the defense's attention and sees Zajac breaking at the blueline. The timing was perfect. The puck came over just Zajac came over the line (on side) and put him wide enough to make Bryan McCabe make a desparate lunge. Zajac shot it, McCabe got a little piece of it to make the shot wobble, and it beats Vokoun. You can see it among the highlights of tonight's game thanks to this video from NHL.com:

That was the ideal, but the offense did so much more than that with their 32 shots on net.  They set up some screens on some plays, they took shots at the point, they got odd-man rushes, and they crashed the net.  The diversity of shots taken and looks made on offense was an improvement over recent games. The Devils didn't settle just for outside shots and the flexible Florida defense didn't little to stop it. Yes, the power play is still scoreless since January 5. Yes, it is only one goal against Vokoun.  But that's more because of Vokoun being massive.  I felt the offensive performance was improved over the last few games because they were threatening for goals all game long - even after Zajac's tally late in the second period.

I'm even including the power play in that statement.  OK, for the first power play, I was stunned at the unit that took the ice first.  The unit thrown out there was Dean McAmmond, Rob Niedermayer, Nick Palmieri, Brian Rolston, and Johnny Oduya.  My initial reaction was "Urrrgh."  My second was, "I'm guessing Rolston's quarterbacking this unit."  I was proven right as he fired slapshot after slapshot. Some missed (hence his 4 missed shots), some got on net, and one hit the crossbar and was nearly put in by Palmieri on the rebound.  But the improvement there was the Devils set up those shots and kept at the plan, they nearly cashed in. The Devils would go on to have another power play where they moved the puck well and Zach Parise nearly cashed in down low only for the puck to pop up and be guided behind the net by Keith Ballard.    While I want to see this team finally get some PPGs, I'm a big believer that a good power play at the least maintains possession in the opposition's zone, sets up a few good shots, and generally pressures the defense. The Devils did that on both of these, which is an improvement over some of the awful power plays seen in the last three games (or last 6 or so).

With Patrik Elias out with concussion symptoms (or a concussion, whichever) and both Rod Pelley and Vladimir Zharkov succumbing to the dreaded "lower body injury," both Patrick Davis and Nick Palmieri got to play tonight.  Lemaire really wanted to see what these two can do because he gave Davis 13:34 of ice time and Palmieri 12:43 (with 59 seconds of power play time).  This is way more than Ilkka Pikkarainen, who got 2:34 presumably because Lemaire hasn't forgotten about his bad game on Monday, and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who got 2:04 presumably because Lemaire didn't need to use him much.   In fact, Davis was a hit machine out there with 5 hits, and Palmieri put 5 shots on net at nearly every decent opportunity.  No wonder Lemaire gave them more ice time and moved them up to scoring lines for a few shifts.  Here's what Lemaire had to say about both players and his decision to give them as much time as he did, as reported by Tom Gulitti:

"They had energy," Lemaire said of Palmieri and Davis. "They were good with the puck, good in our end, goiod offensively. They protected the puck well They made good passes. I was very pleased with the way they both played."

...

"He was playing better than the other guys," Lemaire said. "That’s why (he moved him). You get a chance to play, you’ve got to take the chance to play. The kids, they have to know this. They’re coming up. We call them. We try to feed them with all the stuff that we know that’s going to help them to play good and try not to put pressure on them and all that. But, on the other hand, you’ve got to show that you're capable of doing it."

One of the stated problems in the last three losses is that the Devils didn't come out with energy, they didn't come out ready to hustle and get going. These two definitely did and they didn't stop all night long.  Sure, a lot of that is probably because both Davis and Palmieri wanted to make a good impression in their call up.  In fact, this was Palmieri's NHL debut so I know tonight was big for him. I felt both played well and certainly wouldn't mind seeing them play for a few more games.  Also, congratulations to Palmieri for his first NHL point, a secondary assist on Zajac's goal.

Fortunately, that energy was infectious as other players eventually had better nights as the night went on.  Nicklas Bergfors, a winger lost in the shuffle and shortening of the bench so he only got 9:51, managed to put 5 shots on net anyway.  That was an efficient performance.  Zajac and Niedermayer proceeded to have strong games at both ends of the rink as well as on faceoffs, both played over 20 minutes each.  Zajac's goal was well earned, especially with all the work he had to do - I'm pretty sure he was double-shifted more than a few times. Dean McAmmond got even more ice time than Zach Parise (who made out OK with 4 shots and, oh, setting up the game winning goal). due to the lack of centers, but his play tonight reminded me of the useful role player who impressed me back in December.

I was fearing that injuries were catching up to the team and even though Pelley and Zharkov haven't been productive, those are still roles to be filled.  Yet, you wouldn't have known that it would be an issue from tonight's game.  Players stepped up as necessary and were important in the win, that was an improvement.

Lastly, one improvement I'd like to add is in terms of penalties.  OK, Rob Niedermayer's hook in his own zone in the dying seconds of the second period was avoidable.  Whereas some of the calls taken in recent games were poor ones to take, I'd like to say that the two third period penalties were more bad calls than anything else.  Mike Mottau's stick was loose and on his backhand.  Since Mottau isn't Iron Man™ or even an Iron Boar (that's Salvador, according to some), I honestly don't know how Steven Reinprecht managed to get so much air from that stick.  Maybe he didn't dive.  Maybe he changed the coefficient of gravity for that instantaneous moment of time to get up higher.  Maybe he's got "ups."  I don't fault Mottau for that minor.  

Nor can I fault for Jamie Langenbrunner for his "hooking" call late in the game.   Let me tell you what the fans saw, they saw Langenbrunner hauled down from behind as he was chasing a loose puck to stash into an empty net.  Langenbrunner was hauled down and yet the penalty was on him.  I am not making this up. I normally don't get on the refs case in a NHL game because a season ticket holder to the NY Red Bulls, I've seen far worse refereeing on a regular basis.  The call on Langenbrunner was a move right out of MLS, something I'd expect out of the likes of Abbey Okalaja or Baldomero Toledo instead of Gord Dwyer and Ian Walsh.   Absolutely awful call. Langenbrunner hated the call, the Devils hated the call, and the Rock absolutely hated the call.  I was upset, screaming my head off about it. Fans were either yelling like me or just shocked at the call. Thankfully, the Panthers not only didn't convert, but Dean McAmmond got an empty net goal anyway at the last possible second. 

(Aside: Should I complain that the refs were biased against Langenbrunner/NJ Devils, using a penalty as the sole basis for my argument? Oh, wait. I'm not a conspiracy nut or a Burrows supporter. Nevermind this insulting aside.)

So, yes, I'd even say the penalties the Devils took were improved because only one of the three were really at the fault of the player.

I am so glad at how the Devils achieved their result tonight. The losing streak is over and the Devils did it by playing a good game overall.   The win alone would make it an improvement over recent games, but the performance is why Devils fans should be very pleased with what the team did tonight.

Thank you all for reading and commenting. Thanks to Steve for running the GameThread.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, and other feelings about tonight's game in the comments.

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