On Wednesday night, I felt the New Jersey Devils played a great game of hockey but didn't get the breaks or what-have-you so they didn't win. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils played a great game of hockey and not only caught some breaks but scored some sweet goals as well. Sometimes luck can be the difference between a win and a loss, but the important take away is that initiating the attack, challenging the puck handler, winning the puck battles, and keeping it simple on defense are all important. Those "little things" lead to bigger things like shots on net and stopping the opposition, which in turn leads to the most important thing: scoring.
The Devils accomplished this tonight over the Atlanta Thrashers right from the start, and so they deserved their 3-1 victory at the Rock. The win was great, but to me, how they got the win was more meaningful. Unlike the 3-0 win over Phoenix - that other win this month - the Thrashers weren't sloppy and out of sync. I'd say the Devils took advantage of their fatigue, and so they didn't really step up their own intensity until into third period already down 2-0. Even so, the Thrashers weren't awful; the Devils were just better tonight.
Essentially, the Devils played two very good, solid games as a team in a row. Tonight, they were rewarded with a result; and I believe if they can play like this more often, the wins will come. It may be too late for this season, but in terms of establishing an identity and just to see the, this game may be seen as a step forward. That remains to be seen, though. All the same, it's a nice way to end what has been a crappy 2010 for the Devils. For now, that's enough.
I have plenty more thoughts on tonight's game including an embedded video of the game's highlights from NHL.com and detailing who I thought stood out in the game. For an Atlanta take, please visit Bird Watchers Anonymous. The preview for the Carolina game will come tomorrow morning or noonish - enjoy New Year's Eve safely.
Let's talk about Fayne first. Colin White was sick tonight, so Mark Fayne being placed in the lineup was logical. What was surprising was how much faith Jacques Lemaire put in him. Fayne was literally inserted in the lineup in White's spot right next to Henrik Tallinder. So Mark Fayne got 15:31 of even strength time playing mostly against Atlanta's top defensive pairing, Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien, and forwards Anthony Stewart, Rich Peverley, Patrice Cormier, and Andrew Ladd. Talk about being thrown into the fire.
Believe it or not, Fayne looked fine. He finished the night at -4 Corsi, which isn't so bad since he went up against some stiff competition. Fayne kept it simple in his own end, he didn't get caught in the wrong place, and the only real head-scratcher was his decision to take on Christopher Thorburn in a fight. Fayne was also the beneficiary of the night's biggest break, a floating shot after a Jason Arnott faceoff win that found it's way through traffic and past Chris Mason. While I don't expect Fayne-Tallinder to become a regular pairing, I did like how the rookie played tonight. We may see it again tomorrow in Carolina, since the ill White is not making the trip with the team as reported in this post-game post by Tom Gulitti.
Speaking of match-ups, the line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Mattias Tedenby wasn't all that great tonight, as Atlanta decided to stick Enstrom-Byfuglien against them the most, per the Time on Ice 5-on-5 head to head ice time chart. While they kept those three at bay (only 4 shots total from those 3, Zajac went 4-for-17 on draws), the Devils' other top forward line had a ball out there. Just check the Corsi: Patrik Elias, Arnott, and Jamie Langenbrunner all finished at +11 or better, which is pretty close to domination. In terms of total shots, that line combined for 11 of the Devils' 28 shots on net, including 8 by the captain per the event summary. Arnott was especially good at the dot, finishing the night at 12-for-16. The only time they slowed down was when Atlanta realized somewhere in the third period that they should step up their tempo.
Incidentally, the defensemen the Elias-Arnott-Langenbrunner line saw the most were Johnny Oduya and Freddy Meyer. Yeah, they were picked apart initially in the game. Needless to say, later in the game, Atlanta switched things about to balance out who went out there against the three veteran forwards. At least Oduya wasn't as largely non-effective as, say, Niclas Bergfors.
Going back to that line: Langenbrunner had a big night with a great shot to finish a backhanded pass by Arnott, along with 7 others on Mason. It wasn't just the offense though, Langenbrunner was upbeat on the PK and solid in his backchecking. It's not fair to expect such a big output out of the captain every night (8 SOG alone is rather impressive), but I do hope he can attempt to put in a similar effort in future games. He should, he got rewarded for it, it helped out the Devils en route to a win, and the fans appreciate him for it.
Langenbrunner wasn't the only one on that line to stand out. As noted, Arnott had a big game at faceoffs (one early win led to Fayne's goal), and he hustled well into the corners. The second goal doesn't happen if Arnott doesn't get after and get the puck away from Meyer behind Atlanta's net. While the backhanded pass was a bit risky, it led to the lamp being lit. Arnott had a fine game after a somewhat frustrating one against the Rangers, and I hope it leads to more in the future.
Which leads me to this larger point: the Devils forecheck did reap several turnovers both in Atlanta's end and in the neutral zone. I'm so very glad Lemaire has instructed the Devils to do this. The dump-and-chase game is helped by it, though I wish they wouldn't use it on the power play. The Devils did struggle to get set-up on the two man advantages, and along with some Rolston-like accuracy, ended up going 0-for-2 with no shots on net (though Kovalchuk hit the post on the first one). That aside, the aggressive approach from the opening whistle and the decision to establish a strong forecheck was a big reason why the Devils out-shot the Thrashers in the first two periods while having an early lead in the game.
Let me repeat that: the Devils out-shot their opponents 23-16 after two periods. It's right there in the game summary. They did not lose the first or second periods, they did not flop on the ice to start any period. Even with a lead, the Devils were the primary aggressors until about the Thrashers' lone power play in the third period. That's really impressive. It only turned around when the Thrashers got a couple shots on the power play (2, if I recall correctly) and started putting up more and more, as if they just realized they're down 2-0 late. I suppose score effects don't necessarily happen immediately, but they took place with a 13-5 shooting effort by the Thrashers in the third. It's not so much the Devils held back, but the Thrashers got more desperate because they had to be. Even so, it impressed me how well the Devils did in the first two periods in not choosing to sit on either lead.
Amid the Thrashers' more desperate attack, they did pull one back. After Travis Zajac couldn't get the puck behind the net, Alexander Burmistrov peeled out of the corner and saw "Big Buff" all alone in the slot. Ilya Kovalchuk, who as a left wing has to be watching for right defenseman join up on the play, was seen streaking to the slot to try and prevent what could happen, but he was too late. Burmistrov flung it across the slot and Byfuglien one-timed it past Johan Hedberg to cut the deficit in half with less than 8 minutes left to play.
In a weird way, I'm a little heartened by it happening in retrospect. Yes, I didn't like seeing anyone on Atlanta score a goal. Yes, the Devils made a mistake in their own end, one of the few tonight. Yes, Kovalchuk's man, the NHL's leading scorer among defenseman and Atlanta's top scorer, was just hanging in the slot. Yes, the feeling of "Oh, no, this game is about to get interesting in a bad way" came over the Devils faithful. Lemaire wisely called a timeout, the Devils were calmed down, and they went right back to work as if it wasn't the worst thing in the world that they were scored upon.
Shortly thereafter, Kovalchuk made up for his error. On his next shift, he knocked a loose puck past Brent Sopel (again, his man) to clear it, raced at it, and went in on a breakaway. Kovalchuk wanted Mason to make a move so he went wide, Mason was forced to go down, and just before Kovalchuk was past the point of no return, he slid it in to thrill the Rock and ensure the game was New Jersey's again. (Incidentally, he could have had an attempt at the empty net, instead was forced to the corner while eating up time. Lemaire trusted Kovalchuk enough in a 5-on-6 situation despite his missed coverage led to a goal against)
The main point isn't just that Kovalchuk made up for his defensive gaffe by scoring a sweet goal. It's that the Devils didn't just let Atlanta take the game over at 2-1 in the third period. The Devils kept things simple on defense, they were first rebounds and loose pucks, and they kept the turnovers to a minimum. The Devils played a solid game and didn't win a game just by having the goaltender and defense be near-perfect in their own end. They took a hit, didn't fall down, and hit back at the opposition. That's a big positive from tonight's game. Possibly the biggest?
Lastly, this takes me to the star of the night: Johan Hedberg. Whereas Mason was shaky with his glove and went on several adventures behind the net to handle the puck, Hedberg kept it conservative by freezing whatever he handled and just got in front of the puck. Not that Mason did anything specifically wrong on any of the three he allowed, but I got a sense that he was a bit frantic. Hedberg was cooler than Spencer Hall, regardless of how much traffic was in front of him or how many Thrashers duffed shots in his direction. The two were opposites in that regard. Either way, the Moose was in position for most of everything Atlanta sent his way; the only one he couldn't get was a one-timer on his flank. Hedberg was simply great tonight and the fans let him know about it.
When you consider the last two games, the goaltenders by New Jersey has proven themselves to be quite good. It's easier to notice (and praise) when the Devils aren't making stupid errors in their own end.
Sure, I'd like the Devils to work a little bit on their power play and I'd like the fourth line to contribute some offense when they aren't being pinned back (-5 or worse in Corsi for them). Improvements are always available and possible. However, it doesn't take away from how well the Devils played tonight. This is the effort the Devils fans want to see, win or lose, because it's at least competitive and watchable. And it's further justified when it leads to wins like this one tonight.
Tomorrow should prove an interesting test to see if they can do it back-to-back. Even if they falter, it doesn't take away from the fact that they can play this well.
That's my take on the game. What's yours? Who do you think did well tonight? Who do you think did poorly tonight, and what would you like them to do better next time? Do you believe the Devils can put 3 solid efforts in a row? Please leave your answers along with other thoughts and feelings about tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to the commenters in the Gamethread; and thank you for reading.