New Jersey Devils' Offense Got It's Groove Back in 6-3 Win Over the Columbus Blue Jackets

Before tonight's game, Tom Gulitti had this quote from Martin Brodeur:

Brodeur said the players are aware of their recent problems against lesser teams and will probably discuss it again before tonight’s game.

"Just look at the record," Brodeur said. "You look at teams that are above us or close to us and we play real well. Teams that are below us or not in the playoffs, we have a hard time. It’s not that we’re playing bad hockey. It’s just that we’re not playing a full game. Tonight that’s going to be something that we’ll touch on to make sure that right from the drop of the puck we’re going to go after them."

Well, I wouldn't say they took it right to the Columbus Blue Jackets right from the start. The two teams were even early and Brodeur had to make a huge stop of Derick Brassard to keep it 0-0 early.  Yet, as time went on, New Jersey rose to the task and just pounded them in the second and third periods.  A few absolutely fantastic shots from the visitors made the score look close; but really, the New Jersey Devils were the superior team in tonight's 6-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

While beating the Western Conference's fourteenth-placed team isn't exactly a cause for a celebration, Devils fans have every reason to feel good about the win.  The power play finally - finally - played a major impact with three power play goals.  The last time the Devils got three power play goals in a game was on November 7, 2009 against Ottawa (which won them the game outright).  A unit that needed confidence got some.  The second period performance broke the game wide open for New Jersey with 4 goals; sure, Columbus got 2 but there was little the Devils could have done on either of them.  Ilya Kovalchuk had a big night with a goal and three assists and he increased his intensity as the game went on.  The Devils responded to a third period goal by Columbus with shots, possession, and a goal of their own - an absolutely gorgeous goal, likely a goal of the year nomination - to ice the game.   

There was no lead being sat upon, the Devils took over the game and fully earned their result. The win was Martin Brodeur's 40th of the season, achieving that mark for the eighth time in his career.  Yeah, he's pretty good.

The offense was strong, the defense only conceded 22 shots, and the Devils get a decisive win before a string of tough games ahead of them (NY Rangers, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago).  This was great for momentum and hopefully it'll carry the Devils over the next few games.   Check out The Cannon for the Columbus Blue Jackets' point of view - where I'm sure they are lamenting the number of penalties they took tonight.  For the game's stats, check out the NHL.com recap where they have the links to those stats.  Please read on further for my additional thoughts on tonight's game.

 

Honestly, the Devils didn't really start off the game all that well.  The two teams traded off decent shifts, the passing was a bit off, and Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston in particular didn't look all that good on their new lines.  Of all the Devils in the first period, I felt that Dainius Zubrus was the best skater on the ice for his impressive stick-handling along the boards, his movement on the cycle on the third line, and drawing a hooking penalty.  

The Devils got two power plays and looked pretty bad on them. The first one barely set anything up and Zach Parise was only able to score his goal because a Columbus penalty killer jarred the puck loose into open space for Travis Zajac Jamie Langenbrunner to shoot. Chris Mason made the stop, but Parise pounded in yet another rebound.  The second power play had possession, but it was all for naught as there were no shooting lanes - it would be the one time the Blue Jackets actually set themselves up great on their PK.   Yes, the Devils finally snapped their power play goal drought, but it truly was more of a break than anything else.  So that was the first period.  Not a great first period for New Jersey.

Then came the second period and everything changed. I believe there was a definite turning point.  The Devils cashed in early on the power play thanks to Paul Martin banging home a rebound on Mason's flank.   That wasn't it.  A few minutes later, Antoine Vermette burned Brodeur with a laser from the point to make it 2-1.  Ah, it becomes a game, right?  That wasn't the turning point.  A few minutes after that, Derick Brassard takes a slashing call and the Devils looked great on this power play with possession and puck movement, but did not score (shame on the fans who booed that one, it really was their best effort).  That wasn't it either.  The turning point came from a penalty kill - a joint effort by the Devils' PK units and Kristian Huselius

Here's the situation: The Devils killed two three penalties all game long, and they both happened in the second.  Dean McAmmond flips out on Mike Blunden and starts wailing on him instead of the standard mutual fight. He gets a double minor for roughing and a game misconduct.  Derek Dorsett got two for roughing as well, so it's a standard 5-on-4.  Then Rob Niedermayer got caught for hooking which was dumb.  No, the ref made the right call. It's just that Niedermayer was hooking the same Blue Jacket at least twice before the ref had enough.  So it's a 5-on-3 for at least a minute.  The Blue Jackets proceed to do nothing with it and Elias picks up a loose puck and curls it before dishing it to Paul Martin.  Martin does the same thing and Huselius does something very stupid - he trips Martin.   Two-man advantage: killed. Devils were to get an abbreviated power play afterwards.  Columbus blows their chance to tie it up and the Devils have every reason to feel good.  In retrospect, this is where it all went wrong for Columbus.

And did they ever pay for that Huselius trip!  It is on the shortened power play where Ilya Kovalchuk struck. He sets himself down in the right circle, he takes Zach Parise's pass, and - this is crucial - he takes a moment.  He sets up his own shot and fires it near post through a tiny hole under Mason's right arm.  A picture perfect shot and a perfect example of why players don't just shoot whenever they touch the puck.  It was the Devils' third power play goal, Kovalchuk's first goal since March 19, and it crushed the Blue Jackets for most of the next 7 minutes.   Of all of the goals scored tonight, that was the weakest one allowed because Mason should have been hugging that post. He can't be fully faulted for the other five he gave up, but that one was something he could have done better on.

The Kovalchuk line's only dead weight was Brian Rolston, but it thrived anyway thanks to the intense skating of Kovalchuk and his awareness on the ice.  He knew Zajac was set up well in the slot for his shot, leading to Zajac tipping it in for his first of the night.  Kovalchuk displayed his great passing when he picked Mike Mottau in the corner, who fired it and his shot was tipped by Zajac.  Kovalchuk ended the night with a goal, three assists, and two shots on net.  Absolutely fantastic for #17, hopefully it's a sign of things to come in the next few games.  Zajac as his pivot-man looked great with 4 shots and two tip-in goals. Only his faceoffs were just OK, as he went 8 for 15.  Rolston was just out of sorts, sometimes found in the wrong spot or doesn't make the proper pass. 

It's not just that he ended up with no points and no shots on net; but his positioning and pace are just not a good fit next to Kovalchuk and Zajac/Elias.  I truly feel Dainius Zubrus would be a better on the second line as he can dig deep in the corners and along the boards, his size is enough of a factor to draw attention, and he's got some good moves of his own.  It would make the line that much more versatile.  Likewise, Rolston on the third line can provide an offensive edge: Niedermayer and David Clarkson can battle for pucks and just feed Rolston for shots.  Zajac is fine next to Kovalchuk and Elias eventually fit in with Parise and Langenbrunner.  I really hope tonight's offensive success doesn't lead Jacques Lemaire to keep the second line as-is; I'd like to see Zubrus and Rolston switch their spots.

As for the first line, well, I wouldn't mind keeping that group together.  I felt Elias was out of sync in the first period but whatever he did or what was said to him in the first intermission worked because he looked far better going forward.  His passes connected more, he stepped up when necessary, he played strong in the corners, and at the end of the night, he has three assists and four shots on net. Great.   Again, faceoffs were a problem as he went 4-for-13 tonight; but it didn't hurt too much.  Jamie Langenbrunner also made his presence felt as the game went on with his work down low, most notably providing the key pass for this goal:

Zach Parise ruled tonight. If it weren't for Kovalchuk's four points, he'd be far and away the first star of tonight's game.    Eight shots on net, an assist, constantly in motion on the ice, and he scored the first goal and he scored the last one, which was brilliant.  Poor Steve Mason!  On a night where things did not go right in his own end.  On a night where Kristian Huselius' easy goal on Brodeur's flank in the third gave the Blue Jackets a chance at 5-3 but the team still leaked Devils' offensive chances. On a night where he's already been beaten by tips, rebounds, and a sniper-like shot from Kovalchuk.  Mason just got owned.   There was little he could do. Parise's presence in front, like a ninja appearing from the shadows, froze him.  Parise's back being turned protected the puck enough for his deke, and the shot was unstoppable.  Absolute brilliance from Parise and it killed the game.

Yet, the third period performance as a whole was good for New Jersey.  They outshot the Blue Jackets 10-4, they drew a late power play to truly ice the game, and they just kept swarming Columbus' on the cycle.  All the Blue Jackets could do for most of the period was just clear it out only for a Devils defenseman to pick it up to start the attack.  The Devils took full advantage, they scored quality goals, they got three on the power play - there's not a whole lot more you could ask from your offense.  Other than wanting Brian Rolston to not be on the second line in future games.

As for the defensive end, not bad with 22 shots allowed, only three  The first two goals Columbus scored were goals Brodeur or defense couldn't do anything about them.  If you were to make a video of a perfectly taken slapshot or a perfectly taken one-timer off the rush, then the respective goals by Vermette and Jakub Voracek in the second would be excellent candidates.  The third goal by Huselius was something the defense could have helped Brodeur on.  Vermette just fed the puck to Huselius across the crease for the easy shot on Brodeur's flank.  Where was the defense on him? Well, Andy Greene got there but he was a just a bit too late (read: Huselius beat him to the spot) to stop the shot. Other than that, they cleaned up everything else fairly well and if they made an error, they recovered in time.  Everyone had a good, solid game except for Martin, who had a great game. 

One item of note on the stat sheet: Paul Martin played 22:20; Andy Greene only played 15:48.  Martin has returned to his spot as the #1 defenseman - only with Martin Skoula still as his partner (who played 18:52).

Note that I didn't bring up Rick Nash's name until now.  He only played 18:13 and did little in the game. In terms of shots, Columbus' attack was led by the second line of R.J. Umberger (3 shots), Derick Brassard (5 shots), and Voracek (1 shot).  Yet, only Voracek scored from that unit - Vermette and Huselius.  Maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets' offense would have fared better than 22 shots on net if they were more disciplined tonight. The Devils went 3 for 6 on the power play tonight.  Forget the three power play goals against, Columbus, you cannot be giving 6 power plays to anyone! Nearly all of them were on preventable calls.  Because the Blue Jackets had to spend parts of the period killing penalties, the Devils burnt them on half of those chances to put them in a hole they couldn't get out of.  Sure, they answered each of them but not after the Devils used those goals to roll on two more in the second.   After Parise's goal, you can tell from the opposition's body language that this game was over. I know the Blue Jackets won't go to the playoffs, but they can surely work on their discipline and stop being among league leaders in being shorthanded (third in NHL at 297.)  If only to stop handing opponents chances to score goals.

Anyway, here's the embedded video of the highlights from tonight's game, featuring a lot of goals and a few big saves.  Yes, this one also has Parise's brilliant second goal - but it's so good it warrants multiple looks.

Thanks to Steve for setting up the GameThread and thanks to all who read and commented there. Thank you all for reading.  Let's hope the Devils' good times tonight keep on rolling through the week and beyond.  Our Hated Rivals are up next on Thursday.  Please leave all of your thoughts, concerns, complaints, corrections, compliments, additions, subtractions, and other feelings about tonight's game in the comments.

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