One of the big reasons why last season's New Jersey Devils team struggled was that their shooting percentages were in the tank. By the end of the season, they were collectively still dead last in shooting percentage - one of the lowest in recent memory. This season, the Devils haven't been as unfortunate in terms of percentages; but scoring goals has come at a premium. Going into tonight's game, they were still among the worst five teams in the league in goals scored per game. Their power play has been horrific, though Matt Ventolo had more to say about that earlier today. Over at Behind the Net, the Devils were still shooting at a mere 7.5% in 5-on-5 situations. Only two of their wins have been by more than one goal. Offense would be an issue.
Tonight, the offense got the benefit of the percentages on the Buffalo Sabres and Jhonas Enroth. The Devils only put 21 shots on net, but they scored five goals. They scored a shorthanded goal and a 5-on-4 power play goal. They took a lead on the Sabres in the first period and didn't reliquish it. In fact, they scored a third in the second period to extend the lead; and a fourth near the beginning of the third period to make it 4-1. The Sabres answered only two of the goals, but the Devils tacked a fifth one off a breakaway. The last one was enough to cause head coach Lindy Ruff to pull Enroth and put in Drew MacIntyre with about 10 minutes left in the game. I am not kidding you, the Devils chased a healthy goalie out of the game.
Despite the Sabres doing their best Boston Bruins impersonation late in the game with their rushes up ice and constant crashing of the net, the Devils' offense put the game out of reach for a change - a very welcome surprise given how this season has gone. The Devils had glorious chances to score - and they did. It should be appreciated by all the Devils fans in the world. Who knows whether the Devils will be able to repeat this kind of production anytime soon? Who knows whether we'll see a 5-on-4 power play converted in the near future? Who knows whether the Devils will get a breakaway opportunity to respond to a Buffalo goal? Nevertheless, I'm just glad it happened and drove the Devils to victory this evening.
As usual, I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Sabres-based take on tonight's game, please check out Die by the Blade.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight's highlights which are filled with five glorious goals by the Devils.
Five Goals on 21 Shots: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
More Seriously, About the Offense: After playing an intense game against Boston last night, I was worried that the Devils were going to be fatigued. Well, Buffalo's puck movement in the neutral zone left a lot to be desired and the Devils were fresh enough to pick them up most of the time. Later on in the game, the Sabres shaped up in that department, but the Devils managed to win plenty of pucks from Buffalo in all three zones. When they had space and/or numbers, the Devils did well to make the most of it. Take Patrik Elias' goal tonight for example. The shot that became the goal was the direct result of Petr Sykora (yeah, him) winning a puck along the boards and finding a big gaping hole in the Sabres' coverage to find Elias. The Devils won that battle and it quickly turned into a rocket for a score.
Interestingly, their best offensive opportunities started off with some defense. A stop on the PK led to Zach Parise setting up Adam Henrique in the neutral zone. Henrique flew in, somehow managed enough control to slide it to the slot with two Sabres skaters crashing on him, and Parise pounded the puck in. Prior to Mark Fayne's goal, a stop in the Devils' end yielded a 2-on-1 for Ilya Kovalchuk and Henrique. Kovalchuk looked for the pass the whole way, still managed to get a shot off of it; and Henrique jammed at it to force a freeze from Enroth. Henrique won the subsequent faceoff and Fayne teed it up and put it high past Enroth. Goal #5 started off with the Sabres overloading the slot. A Sabre (I forget who) broke his stick on an attempt on a rebound. Andy Greene took it and flung it up ice into the neutral zone. Clarkson was right there to take it, he had nothing but acres of space, and he drove in and beat Enroth on a breakaway. You may not see it in the highlight video, but three defensive stops led to plays that led to three of the Devils' 5 goals.
Normally, I wouldn't be pleased with just 21 shots on net. But when 5 goals are scored from it, I'm not going to complain too much. Likewise, I wouldn't complain about Buffalo putting up 32 shots on net.
The Rattling Sabres: The Sabres gave up two goals in the first period and didn't really respond until there was about 5:30 left in the first period. Then the Sabres got some shots on net - only 2 prior - and they figured on trying to beat the Devils in their own end with speed. It definitely created some good chances for them and they built on that as they game went on. Of course, the Devils kept scoring goals as the game went on - boy, does it feel good to type that - so the score compelled Buffalo to get more aggressive. The game opened up and the Sabres started to resemble the Bruins from last night's at times on offense. Lots of stretch passes, lots of crashing the net, and loads of pace.
As such, the shot count leaned heavily in Buffalo's favor, as they out-shot the Devils 12-7 in the second and 13-7 in the third. Also, some of these shifts absolutely pinned the Devils back and that's when the fatigue really sets in and the attacking team is at their most dangerous. Late in the first period, the Henrique line got stuck in their own end and Adam Larsson was so gassed, he struggled to skate. That was the most notable case since one out of five Devils skaters was just beat; but there were other shifts where it was clear that Buffalo was in control. Fortunately, it wasn't necessarily those instances that got the Sabres their 3 goals - thanks to a certain legend.
Again, it shouldn't be a surprise the Sabres looked and played so strong on offense from the second period onward since the Sabres were losing for most of the game. They had to be more aggressive on offense to try and claw their way back into it. It didn't happen, thankfully; and so I wouldn't write off the Devils defense just yet.
A Legend Was Mostly Solid: It's so nice to have a goaltender who you don't have to worry about when he leaves the crease to play the puck. Martin Brodeur got the start and I felt he did mostly good. He wasn't bothered by the lack of action early on. He didn't succumb to the Sabres crashing the net looking for a "garbage" goal. He played the puck with calmness and purpose. Of course, he was called upon to bail out his team when Sabres were found wide open in front a few times. Most memorably, he slid from the right post to the left side to absolute robbed Jason Pominville with a glove save.
However, it was not all perfect for Brodeur. Tyler Myers' first goal wasn't his fault, the puck bounced to an open Myers on his flank during a Sabres power play. Someone had to be open and it was him. While he got a piece of Jordan Leopold's shot that led to the third goal for Buffalo, the shot did find it's way through several bodies before it got to Brodeur. Myers' second goal, however, was a bit of a soft one. Nathan Gerbe played Myers out wide, the big defender cut inside, and rocketed a shot past an awkward-looking Brodeur. I don't know whether he was surprised by the shot or just didn't get to the post cleanly, but Brodeur's stance could have been much better. That said, I felt Brodeur was quite fine in net and his bailout saves more than make up for Myers' second tally in my eyes.
Head Shots Are Illegal, Right?: While Myers will get a lot of credit for scoring two goals and only looking foolish in trying to stop Henrique prior to Parise's goal, Myers left his feet and hit Dainius Zubrus in the head. Zubrus and Myers aren't small guys, but the hit took down Zubrus right away. Thankfully, Zubrus went to the bench and went on to play the rest of the game. However, there was no penalty on Myers. What's more is that those unfortunate to have listened to Mike Milbury and Randy Jones during the second intermission report on Versus, as both claimed it was clean check. Yes, a head shot. I do not care whether he targeted the head or not, aren't head shots illegal now? Why wasn't there a penalty?
Myers got away with something dangerous in the game, hopefully the league is smarter than that and will enforce the rules on him later on. That said, I'm not getting my hopes up.
The Return of Ilya Kovalchuk: This was a weird game to watch #17. He played his first game after being out the last five with a groin pull. I expected some rust, but it didn't seem to me that Kovalchuk ever went into top speed. He didn't fly up and down the ice as we're used to seeing. He had chances to shoot in a couple of odd-man rushes and not only chose to pass, but his body language clearly said he was only going to pass. As strange as this sounds, I wanted Kovalchuk to be a bit more selfish with the puck - yet he wasn't.
Yet, this didn't seem to hinder him much in the run of play. Kovalchuk was a part of a few odd-man rushes and no one caught up to him. Kovalchuk still played 22:33 and didn't look too out of place. Kovalchuk managed to lead the team in shot attempts with 6: 3 on net, 1 blocked, 2 missed. Kovalchuk threw a big hit on Myers not long after Myers got away with a dirty hit on Zubrus. Oh, and Kovalchuk undressed Derek Roy and picked a corner past Mike Weber and Enroth during the Devils' second power play of the evening. Yep, Kovalchuk scored a goal in his first game back and it was on the power play. Therefore, I can't complain too loudly about his return. He looked a little rusty, but he wasn't a detriment to the team this evening. I do think he'll be fine going forward in future games.
Another Reason Why Kovalchuk May Have Looked Slow: One reason that Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Adam Henrique looked to struggle at times was their most match up this evening. Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff definitely made the most of his last change and targeted the Henrique line with their top line of Roy, Pominville, and Thomas Vanek. While they didn't score, they definitely tried their best as Roy had 4 shots on net, Pominville had 5, and Vanek chipped in 1. The Henrique were behind in Corsi even right from the start; and they finished the worst among Devils skaters: Parise, -7; Kovalchuk, -8; and Henrique, -10. It definitely matches up with how they struggled with their pressure at times. While they broke off a few odd-man rushes, the Roy unit dictated play for the most part. To a degree, that's understandable since A) the Sabres were losing throughout the game and B) that line's not exactly a defensive group. Still, forwards always look slow when they're force to play back for a good chunk of their shift first.
I would also like to add that this is the tactical problem the Devils will have to learn to deal with. Peter DeBoer has used the Elias line to go up against the other team's top line. On the road, without that last change, opponents have keyed on the Henrique unit. DeBoer tried to help them out by sticking Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne behind them, the usual pairing that takes on the toughs. Yet, they couldn't quell the Sabres too much; just clean up whatever they could. Truthfully, I'm not sure if this is so much a coaching issue as it is a player issue. Since DeBoer doesn't have as much control with match-ups on the road, the players outside of the Elias line have to be prepared to the other team's top players. If that means further work on defense, then so be it.
More than Seven Minutes of Janssen: If you want the best example of the Devils feeling confident in the third period, then know this: the fourth line got multiple shifts in the third period. That's right, Cam Janssen played multiple shifts in the third period. He nearly had a chance to score, too. With just over 7:30 of ice time, the fourth line featured the most when the Devils had a 3-goal lead. I'm fine with that because DeBoer hasn't used his fourth line much at all in most games this season. With the Devils having played the night before, spelling the other forwards a little more was understandable.
That said, their night was cut short when they failed to get control and get a clearance prior to Leopold scoring. Instead of pushing forward, they were knocked back by the Brad Boyes line and the Sabres got a lifeline in the game. Alas, the likes of Brad Mills (4 missed shots, really?), Vladimir Zharkov, and Cam Janssen can take solace in being the only Devils to finish the game positive in Corsi.
Reminder that Adam Larsson is a Rookie: The first period was definitely a struggle for Larsson. He had a few giveaways, a few soft plays on the puck, and thanks to the Devils recovering in their own end, he was very lucky the Sabres didn't make the Devils pay the price for his errors. Larsson, I think, looked a little better as the game went on and he didn't need to be protected like he was last night. Perhaps the back-to-back affected him early on? Even if he didn't, it's clear to me that's what you get with a rookie defender. On some nights, he has early troubles and rises above; and on others, he didn't.
Penalty Killing Perfection Thwarted: The Sabres have done something to the Devils that hasn't been done since the Devils played in Phoenix: scored a power play goal. The play itself was a good bounce finding Myers wide open at the net on Brodeur's (and the Devils skaters') flank. But that play doesn't happen if Ryan Carter wasn't so foolish. Late in the first period, as the Sabres were starting to get back into the game, Carter hit Andrej Sekera into Enroth and the net. That was a clear interference penalty. After the Devils kill that penalty, he gets caught hooking Matt Ellis in the neutral zone. Two straight PK situations, and Buffalo scored on the second one. Thanks, Carter.
By the way, he very neatly got a third penalty tonight when he came close to boarding Patrick Kaleta during the second period. Carter's been pretty good as a third line, energy center; but he needs to temper his physical play.
Fortunately, the Devils PK got back on track in the third period after Clarkson got caught high-sticking Paul Gaustad. They didn't let the Sabres get a good shot off and they cleared the puck as if they were still on their streak. I think they'll be fine going forward. As a whole, the PK allowed 6 shots on net over 6:04 across 4 opportunities. That's not too bad, considering the Sabres needed the PP to get something on the board (and they did).
Power Play...Woes Again?: Yes, yes, yes, Kovalchuk scored a magnificent goal on a power play. The Devils went 1-for-4, which is a far better percentage than what they usually do in a game. Yet, I can't say the power play had a good night. The Devils had 6:12 of power play time (Aside: some of Buffalo's penalties were just lazy - Vanek's chopping down of Tallinder during a forecheck, Roy's hook on Brad Mills.) and mustered only 3 shots on net. That's not good at all. After Kovalchuk's goal, one would think the plan should involve #17 getting the puck. Alas, it was not. I will say the Devils tried to use him on a backdoor play, but Parise botched the pass. I mention it because it's different from what they've been doing. Basically, while the Devils converted one, they still have a lot more work to do.
Let's Talk About a Healthy Scratch: Since Kovalchuk returned, someone had to sit and that someone was Mattias Tedenby. While he played very well at Boston, he was a victim of the numbers game - and the guy who took his spot did score 2 goals the night before. It's a fair question to ask whether he'll be back sooner rather than later. Nick Palmieri only played 11:21 and got 1 shot on goal. He did finish a -2 in Corsi, which isn't bad on a team that finished -10 (again, Buffalo needed to attack and they did). Yet, I wasn't real impressed with #12 after a game where he scored two goals. Maybe this will open up the possibility of starting Mattias Tedenby. When he does get one, he's got to take it.
Why Didn't Dainius Zubrus Take Some of Patrik Elias' Faceoffs?: Tonight, Elias was miserable at the dot. He went 3-for-17. Carter wasn't much better at 4-for-13; but Elias was positively stinky. Why didn't Zubrus take some of his draws? Zubrus was perfect by going 4-on-4 when Elias was tossed out of the zone. We know he's played center before, and taking the draw doesn't mean he can't shift back to the wing immediately. It's a small point to make, but I wanted to point it out anyway.
By the by, the rest of the Devils' faceoff takers were well above 50%. Elias and Carter dragged the team down to 46% of all draws won.
Congratulations: Zubrus played in his 1,000th game this evening. Congratulations. After the game, he said it was OK, as reported here by Tom Gulitti.
Those are my thoughts on tonight's game. Now I want to know yours. What did you think of the Devils performance overall? Wasn't it great to see the Devils score 5 in a game? How did the Devils look to you on the second half of this back-to-back? What would you like the Devils to improve upon for Saturday's game? What impressed you about Buffalo's game, if anything? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone who read and commented on the game in the Gamethread; thanks to all who followed @InLouWeTrust during the game; and thank you for reading.