Going into this game, there was reason for fans of the New Jersey Devils to be worried about this one:
They lost their last three games.
The Devils gave up goals in the final minute of their last two games, which led to losses. Especially frustrating given how well they played against Chicago the night before.
The Devils were generally bad on the road in March with a 2-4-1 record and lost their last road game in a bad fashion.
The Devils have been winless in the second half of back-to-back sets in their last 5 back-to-back sets of games.
The Devils were playing the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been playing very well since the beginning of 2010 and destroyed the Devils the last time New Jersey visited the RBC Center. Not to mention the first round of the playoffs from 2009 still lingers in the hearts and minds of the Devils faithful.
On top of all that, the Devils rested captain Jamie Langenbrunner and top defenseman Paul Martin. So the Devils didn't even have their best possible lineup on the ice tonight, putting Jay Pandolfo and Mark Fraser in the lineup after being scratched for several games.
Yet, the Devils come out of Carolina with dominant 4-0 win over the Hurricanes. The return of Dainius Zubrus and slotting him next to Zach Parise and Travis Zajac at right wing worked very well. David Clarkson held his own on the right side next to Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils defense played tight and if they made a mistake, they were quick about making sure Carolina didn't take advantage. And Martin Brodeur continues to be hot with another terrific performance in the net. After playing shutout-caliber hockey against Boston and Chicago, I am glad that he picked up his 109th career shutout (and 599th win) tonight. He deserved it.
Quite frankly, they did what I said was the goal for tonight's game in the preview: they didn't let last night get them down, and they continued the work ethic they displayed against Chicago. Carolina did not play a very confident game, only late in the game did they show any consistent offensive threat, but the Devils didn't give up too much to the Canes. This was largely a 60 minute performance and the result clearly reflect that. Devils fans should feel real good about this win, especially considering their recent games. I really think they made an example out of Carolina, showing that the Devils can beat up on a team not playing their best, put up a big win on the road, and do all this right after playing a good game the night before this one.
Oh, and they are back at the top of the Atlantic. For now.
Check out this recap from Bob Harwood Waeghe of Canes Country for the Carolina perspective on tonight's win. For the official stats, check out NHL.com for their recap and links to the boxscore and more. Please continue after the jump for my additional thoughts on tonight's game.Before continuing, here is NHL.com's embedded video of highlights from tonight's game. In it, you'll see some big saves by Brodeur, some big saves by Cam Ward, and four Devils goals. Good stuff.
In a way, I love writing recaps for games like this because not only is it simple - the Devils outplayed the Canes for the most part - but it feels good to witness a dominant Devils win as a Devils fan. Let's break down what went right for the Devils:
The Devils came out and started off the game fairly well. Not as strong as against Chicago, but pretty well. Mike Mottau took a hooking call leading to an early penalty kill but the Devils did fairly well from there and kept on rolling through the period. Martin Brodeur had to make a few important saves early - including a robbery on Brent Carson - and some clearances just led to more momentum. The top two lines capitalized on said momentum and really put some pressure on Cam Ward. They even drew a power play, and quite frankly, I liked how the power play looked in the first period. They set themselves up fairly well, they battled for the puck, and their hard work got them a goal near the end of the first one. Parise just blocks out a Cane to keep the puck in, dishes it off to Zubrus who had plenty of time. Zubrus was patient, saw Cam Ward's five hole wide open, and potted it in.
Patience proved to be a virtue for New Jersey. They passed the puck well throughout the night. A few misfires, sure, but they were able to get the puck consistently up ice and make good decisions on offense. When a team is able to move the puck where they want it, they usually find players in space. The Devils' second goal of the period was evidence of this fact. The Devils get into the zone, Kovalchuk lays it off to Elias in the high slot who just takes his time. A great decision because he saw the hole wide open over Ward's left shoulder and scored a beauty. Even if it didn't go in, it bounced right to David Clarkson who put it in just to ensure that the Devils indeed scored.
The Devils passed the puck well, they played well in their own end, Brodeur got into the game with some strong saves, but the most impressive part was that they scored two goals. They scored two goals in their last three games. Getting two in one period on the road, against an opponent who has a recent history of success when hosting the Devils, and was huge for confidence. And that carried on.
Granted, the Devils didn't score in the second period, their second power play of the night led to nothing, and Carolina actually stopped rolling over in the neutral zone after the first. Still, they outshot the Canes 10-7 and had a few good chances on net. The third period didn't see the Devils sit back, but actually add to their total when Zach Parise pounded the puck at the net and bounced it in off Ward's back from behind the goal line to make it 3-0. Parise kept whacking at it until he got enough force to go in - he was patient with his continued effort and was properly rewarded for it.
I'm sure some Devils fans breathed some sighs of relief as the Canes weren't likely going to make up 3 goals in 11 and a half minutes. Not with the way they played tonight. They weren't passing the puck well; they didn't play with too much urgency; the Devils killed off their penalties with ease except for the last one, as Jussi Jokinen did it himself; and the Devils defense ensured that there wouldn't be many second chances throughout the last 40 minutes.
Check that, the Devils as a whole did that. The forwards on the penalty kill were great, most notably Dean McAmmond who nutmegged a Cane en route to a slow 2-on-1 that just ate up time. Travis Zajac came back strong for some stops. Even Ilya Kovalchuk - yes, the supposed "offense only" winger - came from behind to stop a Cane shot and force a clearance in the third. The only Cane who had a real, glorious scoring chance after Carson got robbed in the first period was Sergei Samsonov in the third period. A puck bounced off the boards, he had it on Brodeur's flank, and he missed the net entirely. A shame for Carolina. Everything else, Brodeur got in front of the puck and stopped it.
Speaking of Canes players, let me quickly note how Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen, and Ray Whitney played tonight. I was concerned about them in the preview, but there wasn't much reason to be worried during the game. Each of the three weren't much of a factor on the ice in my opinion. Whitney drew a call from Bryce Salvador and that was his one major contribution tonight. Jokinen was totally off tonight, his real moment of the game was cross-checking Colin White on a power play and go to the box for it. Staal was notably losing faceoff after faceoff, as he went 6 for 22 tonight. I was honestly surprised to see that Staal had 4 shots on net.
I was just as honestly surprised to see Cam Ward leave his legs wide open for Zubrus to score. That was bad. Similarly, I was a bit shocked that he wasn't able to smother the puck prior to Parise's goal. But that's more forgivable given the chaos around the net. From what I saw, Ward wasn't awful; but he had to be brilliant to keep the Canes in this one and he just wasn't tonight. It didn't help that the Canes defense had no real answer for Parise-Zajac-Zubrus, as that line alone put up 15 of the Devils' 29 shots tonight.
In any case, it wasn't until the final 7 minutes of the game did the Canes start getting any challenging shots on Brodeur and maintaining possession down low. And, impressively, the Devils didn't get panicky. They showed no signs of a team that has given up goals late in recent games. Carolina pulled the goalie with over two and a half minutes remaining in the hopes for a lifeline. The power cord was quickly pulled from the socket when David Clarkson patiently won the puck up in the neutral zone, skated up, and calmly put home an empty netter - putting the puck in the net for the second time tonight - to seal the deal. A fitting end to a great performance by the Devils. Carolina not playing well helped out, sure, but the Devils didn't play down to their level - they won this game their way.
As such, a lot of Devils stood out. Martin Brodeur's contributions were obvious. On defense, Andy Greene played like he did back in November - big minutes (22:14), all situations, and solid hockey. My only complaint from him was that he didn't hit the net once on his shots: 3 blocked, 2 missed; but that's perfectly fine for a defenseman. I felt Mark Fraser had a decent outing after being scratched for a few weeks. Fraser was only out there for 15:05, but he was very physical with 9 hits. He wanted to make a mark and I'm sure some Canes will have some marks on their bodies after tonight. That counts, I suppose. I wonder if Lemaire will see Anssi Salmela get a game in soon to see if he'll have a good performance after watching Martin Skoula (who was solid again) for a while.
At forward, take your pick of Devils who did well. Dainius Zubrus may not feel 100% but he played great with a power play goal, an assist, 5 shots on net, and 4 hits. He looked great next to Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. Parise had a fine game with 6 shots on net along with a goal and an assist. Zajac managed 4 shots as well and was great at the dot by going 12-for-18. Patrik Elias was even above average on faceoffs, going 8 for 15. A nice feather in the cap for a performance that yielded a goal, an assist, and 16:11 of ice time across all situations. Very good hockey from Elias. Ilya Kovalchuk wasn't a big shooter tonight, but he managed to get two assists, notably setting up Elias for his sweet goal - once again, the production continues from Kovalchuk. I was worried about how Clarkson would fit in next to Elias and Kovalchuk, but it turned out OK as he had 3 shots on goal and kept up with their speed. Rob Niedermayer's game may fly under the radar, but he was excellent at faceoffs (10 for 14!) and handled himself well on the penalty kill - important within the context of the game as it meant Carolina couldn't get much of a reprieve when the Devils' top two lines were on the bench.
Again, the Devils as a whole played well so there really isn't anyone you can say that had a bad game on New Jersey. As a whole, all you could ask for was some fewer giveaways in the defensive zone (not a factor as the Devils recovered from those quickly) and It feels so good to honestly say that, after a 4-0 win.
Thanks for reading and commenting. Please leave your feelings, questions, concerns, complaints, corrections, compliments, and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.