Jacques Lemaire wasn't happy with how the Devils were looking in their last two games. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils put out a performance that I'm sure he should be pleased with. The Devils put out a solid effort for all 60 minutes and played the Dallas Stars right off the rink at times en route to a 4-0 win. The team hustled forward every time they got a stop on defense and they held off Dallas for the most part save for the final part of the game where the Stars just scrambled to get something out of this one. Instead, they didn't even come away with a goal. The Stars rolled into Brick City only to be dropped like a ton of bricks.
I think it's safe to say the Devils are avoiding getting into any kind of lull. Tonight's performance was befitting on a night where the Devils honored the 2000 Stanley Cup Championship team. The only beef Lemaire has according to this postgame post by Tom Gulitti is the cross-check Patrik Elias threw on Steve Ott (he is an excellent pest, I will give him that) early in the second period. It was a stupid move by Elias, he lost his cool. But I'm forgiving of it because A) the Devils killed the penalty and, more importantly, B) Patrik Elias picked up the puck on a backcheck, raced up ice, and put in a goal so hot and smooth, it should be on the cover of GQ next month. From there, the second period became a period of glory for New Jersey and the third period play could have easily led to a fifth goal for New Jersey.
I don't have any real complaints about how the Devils played tonight. While he was surprised - I assume pleasantly surprised - by the team's performance, I will say that I'm pleased to find out that Lemaire isn't taking this win for granted, as Gulitti reported after the game:
"We’ve just got to stay focused and keep going and not think that we’re good because we won’t be that good (the entire season)," Lemaire said.
That's a big reason why the Devils are 30-10-1 halfway through the season. Check out this terse recap from Defending Big D for a perspective from a Stars' fan. Read on for my further thoughts on the game.
This may sound like hyperbole but I really can't think of a Devil who didn't have a good game. OK, Mark Fraser looked a little jumpy with the puck but he was fine for the most part. Martin Brodeur was great with his 106th career shutout. I think Mike Ribiero is still talking to himself after getting robbed by Brodeur in the second period. The last non-Devil to score at the Rock was Atlanta's Marty Reasoner at 7:28 into the third period. Amazing. While I felt the Devils' defense did a very good job for the first 50 minutes of the game, the Stars still had some good chances to score. Most notably, the Stars caught the Devils on a line change which led to Ribiero going down low only for Brodeur to stack the pads and the odds in New Jersey's favor.
In the final 10 minutes, it seemed to me that the Stars realized that they should, you know, try to score a goal, and then they just started bombing away. The Stars eventually totaled 13 shots in the third, but that truly wasn't indicative of how the period was going. Most of those shots weren't dangerous, short of a point blank one by Loui Eriksson that Brodeur easily stopped. They may have hit the post once, but other than that, the period was really controlled by the Devils. The biggest piece of evidence was that ZZ Pops was applauded by the fans after a shift where they just pinned the Stars in their own end for a minute. They didn't score, they didn't generate a ton of shots on net, but they just owned the puck and kept Dallas on their heels in the third with hard work and excellent puck movement. That's control. Only some missed and blocked shots by New Jersey prevented the shot total in the third period from being more even.
Nevertheless, the defense had a good night and Brodeur earned his 106th shutout. Bryce Salvador returned from an ankle injury and put in some good minutes with Mark Fraser. Salvador looked composed in his 14:24, threw a few hits, and looked like himself out there. The addition of Salvador, I think, is why Fraser played a lot more tonight. After 4:28 against the Wild, he got 12:30 against the Stars and maybe that's why he looked a little nervous with the puck. Against the opposition's body, he cooly brought the pain with 4 hits. He'll be fine. And so were the other defenders: Colin White, Andy Greene, Johnny Oduya, and Mike Mottau (who had the best recovery play out of all of them - Ribiero takes the puck from him deep in the 2nd, but Mottau sticks with him around to the top of the circle, knocks the puck away, and starts a rush the other way in one motion) all played a fairly even amount of minutes ranging from 20 to 22. Lemaire didn't lean too heavily on a single guy or a single pairing and that's a good sign of how well the team did as a whole in defending. Again, if the Stars didn't start getting more desparate late, they could have held the Stars to less than 25 shots. Even so, they only allowed 28.
Let's talk about the forwards. First, how about a paragraph for Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond? No, seriously. He played in his first game since November 4 and he looked great for his role. He played an energetic 7:39, threw some big hits, made some nice passes, drew a slashing call that led to a power play goal, and he even won a faceoff. Leblond won a faceoff. He had a very fine night after not playing for 2 months, all things considered. In my opinion, Leblond made a statement tonight and that statement is that he is more than capable on playing on this team's fourth line. I hope Ilkka Pikkarainen and Andrew Peters respond in kind otherwise they'll continue to be scratched.
Between him, Rod Pelley, and Vladimir Zharkov, whose speed continues to amaze me night after night, the fourth line had a fairly good game. But tonight wasn't the Leblond show. No, it was the night of the impact players. The guys you would expect to play well on New Jersey did just that. Patrik Elias was great with two beautiful goals and looked lively all game long. The cross-check on Ott was his only major mistake and, well, he scored a second goal right after that. I honestly thought with the way he was moving with the puck that he'd get a hat trick, but a brace is excellent all the same.
You know who else was excellent? Zach Parise. After Elias' tip-in goal in the first period, Parise charged down the ice like he was on fire and took on at least two Stars on a forecheck behind the net for a good 15 seconds. No, Parise didn't win the puck; but you could tell with that effort that he was skating with a purpose. That's Parise at his best. Skating like mad all over the place, but with the intent to strike with a shot or a killer pass. He took hits, he burst out forward, and put a ridiculous 9 shots on net tonight. Parise finally did get one goal tonight, finishing off a 3-on-2; but he could have had more. He wanted more. Hopefully, he can get more in coming games. I think we're on the verge of seeing Parise going on a torrid streak of points.
And speaking of more, let's hear it for Travis Zajac. No, not for his faceoffs, he went 8 for 20. But he deserves praise for something bigger: he finally scored a goal! Zajac put one past Alex Auld on a power play in the second period that really put the Stars in deep at 3-0. Overall, the power play was pretty good in my view. The first power play was poor, but the rest were good with solid puck movement. Over 4 of them, the Devils got 8 shots and, of course, a goal. Good work, I'd say. But the goal itself is a big one for Zajac. His confidence should get a massive boost from the goal. He should get the idea that it's OK to shoot when you got the shot - even from an angle. The lack of production was bringing him down, so this goal could be a big pick-me-up. The assist on Parise's goal just adds to that, I think. What really struck me was that Lemaire played him for 22:29 tonight. Since Elias took two minors, he took his spot on the PK units so that led to more time; but that Lemaire kept throwing ZZ Pops out there is a good sign. He's rewarding good, productive play (also good for Zajac) while sending the message to the opposition that they aren't sitting back on a lead. Let's also hope Zajac can produce at a more regular rate, like Zajac did in October.
Those three forwards stick out, but that doesn't mean Jamie Langenbrunner should be totally ignored. He set up Zajac and Parise very well - especially the pass to Parise, that's how you make a cross-ice pass on an odd-man rush - while playing nearly the most ice time on the team at 22:51 (Mottau had 22:52). The captain is having a monumental season and it's just a joy to see him play like this. In fact, all of the Devils played like he did tonight. Constantly in motion, making good decisions with the puck, and making appropriate adjustments to the Stars as they played.
I feel a bit bad for the Stars. After Elias' second goal, they didn't look like a team in sync. They would have one good shift; but then have 3 poor ones afterwards. They called a timeout after Zajac's goal, only to keep conceding space to the Devils. I asked myself at the arena. Where was the rushes back on defense? Where was the communication? Where's the help for Alex Auld? The only thing I can say they did consistently well was to make sure the Devils didn't put back any of the rebounds Auld gave up. Even then, it's not like the Devils needed them - look at the goals they scored in the highlights. Great shots, all of them. It's great that the Devils pounced on a team like this and continued to rain misery on them throughout the game. At no point after Elias' goal did many Devils fans think Dallas could do much and if they did, the robbery of Ribiero made it clear that New Jersey was ending this with a big W.
I thank you all for commenting in the GameThread (including Steve for making it) and for your continued readership and support. Please leave your thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. I know this was a lot of words to describe that the Devils played a very good game of hockey. I just want to document the how and the why it was so good and my feelings on it. I hope the team can play more consistently like this in coming games if only to get into a rhythm and to establish the confidence that they can be a dominant team in the NHL on any given night. They did just that tonight; the Devils did not just defeat the Dallas Stars, they dominated them.