Coming off of a week in which they took three out of six points, but looked mostly uninspired, it was hard to know what to expect from the Devils against the division-leader Penguins. The Pens came into the game as winners of 9 out of their last 10 and 14 of their last 16. The Devils have been mostly treading water during the same period. The Pens led the woeful Metropolitan Division by an astounding 14 points over the second place Caps. At first glace, you might expect this game to be a bit of a mismatch in favor of the Pens, but it certainly didn't look that way on the ice, as the Devils controlled play for much of the night and held off Pittsburgh for a 2-1 victory.
The result is particularly impressive when you consider that one of their best players, Patrik Elias, went down with an apparent shoulder injury early in game. Despite being shorthanded, the Devils were able to constantly press the Penguins back into their own end. The Adam Henrique-Michael Ryder-Ryane Clowe line in particular was impressive tonight, especially during the first two periods. They would combine for both of the Devils goals, with Henrique potting the first and setting up Michael Ryder for the second. Clowe added an assist of his own for his long-awaited second point of the year. Martin Brodeur played very well too, turning aside 19 of the 20 shots he faced.
The first period in particular was a dominant effort for the Devils as they struck first on the scoreboard and pinned back the Pens for much of the period. Most of the Pens attempts were limited in their dangerousness, save for one glorious chance off a scramble where Kunitz had 24 square feet of net to shoot at and missed all of it. After that squandered opportunity, the Devils would reel off the next 14 attempts on net. The first was a lot of great hockey and one lucky break, and it amounted to a 1-0 lead.
The second would be slightly more back in forth in terms of gameplay, particularly early, where the teams were trading shots, chances, and ultimately, goals. The Devils would strike first to take a 2-0 lead when Henrique fed Ryder in the shot for a beautiful shot that beat Marc-Andre Fleury high. Not long after, the Pens would get it back though as Sidney Crosby teed up Matt Niskanen at the right circle for a one-time blast past Marty. The Devils would start to get things back under control by the end of the period, even though they looked incompetent on a couple of power play opportunities. After two, the lead was only one, but it felt like the Devils were playing well enough to finish it off.
Coming out for the third, the Devils would let off the gas a little bit (or at least it felt that way) and started to look like they were going into "hang on" mode with about 15 minutes left to play. I began to brace myself for an equalizer as the Devils continued to hang back, but around the ten minute mark, the tide turned back the other way with the Devils getting great pressure that ended with Loktionov sliding a wraparound attempt that had Fleury beat wide. It felt like that was going to hurt at the time, but it ended up being inconsequential as the Devils would play a very good lockdown final 10 minutes to salt the game away. It was a pretty solid all around effort and the Devils were rewarded with 2 points.
Game highlights from NHL.com are here:
Henrique Stays Hot: Adam Henrique is dealing with some heightened expectations ever since landing a big RFA deal from the Devils this offseason. The team really needs scoring from wherever they can get it and he is one of the guys they will rely on going forward. Tonight, he showed some of his offensive capabilities, first with a nice finish off a turnover forced by his linemates, and second with a great setup of Ryder in the slot to make it 2-0. If he has more stretches like his last 3 games (3G, 1A), some of that pressure will cool off on the young forward.
Clowe Breaks Through: It has to feel good for Ryane Clowe to get back on the score sheet. After a long hiatus with his injury, Clowe finally put up his second point of the season nearly three months after his first. He was active all night long, helping drive play and putting up 3 shots in 4 attempts. This is the type of game he needs to keep having in order to make that contract easier to swallow.
Two Line Team: After Patrik Elias left the game in the first (injury status still unsure for now) the Devils were basically down to 10 useful skaters after accounting for Janssen. The top two lines did enough damage to keep the Devils in control of the action, though. Z-Z-Grandpops was as dominant as ever, even without finding the scoresheet. Henrique-Clowe-Ryder was also a force, winning battles and grinding down the Penguins on the forecheck.
Solid Night From Marty: Marty has had a good past couple games, following up his strong Friday against Columbus with another good effort. The only shot that beat him was a point blank one-timer that developed in a hurry; not much he could do about that. Also, he was given his second assist of the year on Ryder's snipe in the second period. He's now back within one point of Janssen in the great Cam-Marty points race.
Andy Greene is Still Really Good: Andy Greene is still really good.
Up and Down Night for Salvador: I thought Bryce Salvador did some good things in spots tonight. He was separating guys from pucks effectively and was generally holding his own. But he had one really horrid misplay in the neutral zone that led to an odd-man rush and a late interference penalty, both of which came as the Devils were trying to hold off the Pens in the third. The penalty felt ticky-tack to me but the misplay was an unfortunate reminder of how he has received some of his more pylon-centric nicknames.
Rest of the Defense: I thought Mark Fayne looked very good alongside Greene tonight. The pair has really been clicking of late. I'm having trouble remembering much that Marek Zidlicky did tonight, which is a refreshing change of pace, to be honest. I thought the rookies looked fairly shaky again, particularly Gelinas, who has had some growing pains the past couple weeks. Maybe he should just go back to focusing on "playing well" instead of "being more physical" as I seem to remember hearing him say the coaches advised him to do a couple weeks ago.
Final Thoughts: Overall, this was a good effort against a good team. The Pens seem to be the one elite team that the Devils have been able to actually impose their will on this year. Hopefully this win is a confidence builder going into their next game versus Chicago. A well-earned two points was my assessment of the game, what about yours? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.