Hockey, like in life, sometimes requires some luck to succeed. A fortunate bounce. A deflection that was just perfect. A rebound coming out into space. A teammate just in the right place at the right time. Tonight, it was the latter that made the difference between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. Travis Zajac just happened to be in the spot to re-direct a hard shot from Marek Zidlicky into the net. However, it came at the cost of a lot of pain. Zidlicky's shot hit Zajac right in the shoulder. At first glance, I thought it was his face but the replay showed it hitting his right shoulder. The puck hit off him just so it dropped down and to the left of Evgeni Nabokov. While I'm sure Zajac wished he didn't have to suffer for his seventh of the season, I'm pretty confident he's glad it held up as the game winning goal in a 2-1 game.
In a way, it's fitting that inadvertent play by Zajac decided this one as the third period was a crazy one. To put this in perspective, consider that the Isles led 17-14 in shots after the first two periods. You could mentally add one more for the Devils as Michael Ryder hit the inside of the post in the second. Not a bad shot differential given that the Devils were up 1-0 for most of the first two periods. They came close to adding to their lead. But the third featured the Isles out-shooting the Devils 14-11, starting with a massive 9-1 deficit to the Isles. For those twenty minutes, play opened up, missed passes and blocked shots led to rushes up ice for both teams, penalties seemed to be turned off save for one moment, hitting picked up, and both Cory Schneider and Nabokov had to stay calm amid the chaos. There were long shifts for the Devils to simply survive and escape, followed by shifts where they pounded the Isles. It was exciting and probably in the way that Peter DeBoer and Jack Capuano both hate.
Zajac's goal broke a deadlock created by Frans Nielsen. Zajac stole a puck and then threw it away to no one with a drop pass. The Isles rush up and dump it in. Bryce Salvador tries to clear it out, only for Thomas Vanek to stop it. Vanek knocks it to Kyle Okposo and as Zidlicky stood in the slot like a pylon, Okposo fed Nielsen for a shot. The shot ricocheted off Zidlicky's stick and went high past Schneider. It was a reward for how hard the Isles came at the Devils in the first ten minutes of the third. It was off a play where a pairing not many Devils fans wanted to see for the better part of 18 minutes looked like scrubs. It began with a silly error that could've been a scoring chance had Zajac simply gone forward. It was deflating as it recalled all the opportunities the Devils had to increase their lead in the first two periods but did not for one reason or another. But, again, it was answered and the Devils held on to that lead.
Schneider obviously had a big role with that. He stopped every shot clean through to him and the only one that beat him came off a deflection by his own man in front of him. Schneider only made me worried when he tried to play the puck, but that all ended well as well. He was very good. He had to be as the Isles out-shot the Devils by a good margin. In all situations, they out-attempted the Devils 60-48; though even strength was a closer 50-47. Score effects played a role, surely, as did the Isles realizing by the third that throwing passes away on rushes was a poor move among other epiphanies. So the fact that Schneider was excellent does not just help his own cause, but helped the Devils get a needed result. Even if it came in a way I certainly would not have predicted prior to this game.
The Opposition Opinion: Dominik at Lighthouse Hockey has this recap where the Isles' frustrations continue.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's the highlights to tonight's game:
The First Goal: While the two third period goals came off deflections of sorts, there was nothing fortunate about the first goal scored. Adam Henrique chipped the puck up to Michael Ryder into the neutral zone. Ryder played Reid Boucher forward as Henrique cut to the middle. The rookie threw a beautiful backhanded pass to Henrique, right on the tape of his stick. Henrique moved to his backhand and lifted it over Nabokov. It was a highlight-reel worthy pass and goal. For quite a while, it held up as the only goal of the game.
The Tedenby-Blew-It Line: When Stephen Gionta replaces your spot in the top six, that's a bad sign. It's worse when he actually plays well. Gionta, Steve Bernier, and Patrik Elias was the team's best line in terms of possession and among the best in terms of shots. Bernier had four, Gionta and Elias each had one, and there could've been more had Elias not get blocked four times. Gionta-Elias-Bernier didn't face the Isles' weaker players. I liked the way those two forechecked as Elias focused on distribution the puck. I don't know if I want to see that trio in the future, but I do feel pretty confident that Mattias Tedenby's days are numbered. For now, at least.
The Return of Salvador: Anton Volchenkov was scratched for this game, which speaks well of Mark Fayne and the two rookies in my opinion. Of course, Salvador got paired with Zidlicky which led to some heinous moments. Salvador did have a number of giveaways, including one that led to the Isles' sole goal of the night. But he was thrown into the fire and didn't get completely burnt. He didn't get beaten too badly with the Isles' speed. He threw a number of hits. He played all but 35 seconds of the Devils' penalty kill tonight as part of an effort where the Isles only got four shots on net in three opportunities. He had his moments. I would have preferred to have him get fewer minutes but if this speeds up the process to get him into form, then so be it.
The Zidlicky Non-Surprise: A lazy holding penalty, getting caught standing in the slot a few times on defense, and managed to pick up an assist. He was a bad giveaway away from his own personal hat trick.
The Referee's Decision: I don't really have a problem with the first two calls they made. The tripping call on Mark Fayne seemed weak considering they let far more obvious restraining and physical fouls go in the run of play. I get why they did it, but it seemed weird given what they let go. Oh well.
The Clowe Fight Was Dumb: Ryane Clowe played 13:24 and got one shot on net. It's a step forward from his first game. However, I really didn't like it when he fought Matt Carkner. One, it was your commonplace "You hit my guy cleanly so I have to fight you for code honor" fight. Two, Clowe has a history of concussions. The last thing I want to see him is drop his gloves for an event that involves face punching. Good thing he continued to play; I will take that to mean he's OK.
That said, his line with Ryder and Henrique was picked on the most. It wasn't that they didn't have opportunities to score or anything like that. It was just that they got pinned back quite a lot. Ryder's not a defensive player whatsoever so he was often floating about instead of getting active at trying to win a puck. Clowe is still in the returning process and had to catch up to some feisty play by the Isles. Henrique had to do a lot of scrambling, depending on which pairing was out there. And they just struggled to get the puck out at times. Their unit was out-shot by seven and out-attempted by nine in 5-on-5 play. The numbers reflected how much they got pinned back. Sure, it happened quite a bit to the Zajac line but at least they had enough bossing shifts to get closer to even. Not so with this group.
The Boss on the Ice: Andy Greene wasn't the boss on defense tonight. It was the Islanders' Travis Hamonic. Six shots on net, eleven attempts total, and he was on the ice for 21 of the Isles' 27 shots on net in 5-on-5 play. His attempt differential was +19, which is crazy enough on it's own. It's crazier considering the Isles only led by three attempts in 5-on-5 play. Hamonic looked like the stud defender the Isles have needed for years tonight. I really liked what he did, even if he was trying to damage New Jersey. Game respect game and all that.
The Beauty of Jagr: While Jaromir Jagr only had one shot on net, he displayed his amazing puck control just prior to Zajac's shoulder-goal. He simply carried the puck, pivoted and circled himself into open space. Before you knew it, he knew Zidlicky was wide open in the right circle for a potentially killer shot. As far as secondary assists go, it was a good one. He almost had a second when he dished off a pass to Gionta in the slot but the shot didn't go in the intended location. I think he's had better nights but it's a testament to his talent that he can still bust out a few creative plays like he did tonight. Even if the finish was a fortunate bounce off a shoulder. So it goes in hockey.
The Sobering Reminder: John Tavares was out for the Isles and the Devils managed to get out-shot and out-attempted by the Isles. As great as Schneider was, the Isles were able to enter and stay in New Jersey's end way too many times and too long for my liking. There are some aspects to their game that will need tightening up soon as they have two very tough opponents ahead of them. Fortunately, they'll have two days to figure that out.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils won their last road game of 2013 and took three out of four points in a back-to-back within the Metropolitan Division. What did you think of tonight's performance? While it was better than last night's game, are you pleased with it anyway? Who do you think stood out the most (e.g. Schneider)? Who had the roughest time out there? What would you like them to do differently for future games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.