For the first time since I believe February 15, the New Jersey Devils scored the first goal of the game tonight against the Winnipeg Jets. Ryan Carter backhanded home a rebound to make that happen. They also scored the second goal, the first two goal lead held by the team since the end of that game on February 15. Stephen Gionta got a one-on-one with Ondrej Pavelec and Gionta slid it through his gaping five-hole. However, an unfortunate deflection by Andy Greene on an otherwise harmless shot reduced the lead to one. An otherwise strong period, but one accident yielded a goal against. Improved play by the Jets in the second period made the game look more even and they tied it up with a mistake by Adam Larsson at the blueline turning into a two-on-one that Evander Kane finished with a laser blast late in the period.
However, the Devils pressed early for the breakthrough, the Jets' offense only showed up later, and the difference between this game and so many others was that the 2-2 deadlock was upheld for a period. There were no late comebacks to force overtime. There were no in-period drama on the scoreboard. The puck just wasn't going and while overtime opened things up, the breaks weren't there. It came down to a shootout. Patrik Elias scored the only goal and Johan Hedberg was the hero in a 3-2 win. The Devils could have faltered and dropped the game despite an early 2-0 lead. Instead, they managed to get two points from it. Given the team's recent run of form, all wins should be accepted and appreciated for now. Needless to say, the slump is still to be considered active until otherwise stated. But the Devils did a lot right tonight. Let's talk about that in this very recap.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Arctic Ice Hockey, Derek Gagnon has this summary of the game and ten thoughts about the Jets' performance.
The Game Highlights: See Carter score! See Gionta make a move! See an unfortunate deflection! See Larsson look foolish and Kane soar! See Moose make big stops! See a lot more hits than you'd otherwise expect from a Jets-Devils game! See this highlight video from NHL.com for what happened tonight!
Redemption for Hedberg: Johan Hedberg had a very good performance tonight. He squared up for shots, he didn't leave many rebounds his own skaters couldn't get to, and he tracked the puck very well in regulation, overtime, and in the shootout. There was no premature stackulation or anything of the sort. He didn't even misplay the puck outside of the net save for one sketchy moment late in the game that turned out to be no issue. Hedberg faced 25 shots, the Jets did their best work late in periods and in overtime (at least it seemed that way, a Fenwick timeline from AIC will confirm or deny that), and Hedberg made the stops on all but one legitimate shot on net. Mark Stuart's goal was really Andy Greene's as the defenseman inadvertently tipped his shot past the goalie. The one legitimate shot was laserblast of a wrist shot to the top corner by Evander Kane, the Jets' most talented player. As far as shots to get beaten by, that's a pretty good one. But Moose had the last laugh on Kane as he stopped Kane's shootout attempt and nine other shots, including a lovely glove save near the end of overtime.
Hedberg has been getting a lot of deserved criticism as of late with several mistakes leading to goals that goaltenders just shouldn't allow. It has really hurt a team that has had enough trouble scoring goals. Tonight, he was a positive and the crowd at the Rock certainly showed their appreciation at time went on. The ovation he got when he closed his legs on Andrew Ladd to win the shootout was deserved. This was a redemption game for him and, fortunately, it helped the team get the desired result.
So Good, So Talented, So Many Shots: Evander Kane had ten shots on net out of twelve attempts. You read that right: ten shots on net. The Devils really didn't have an answer for him. It's hard to have one given he's so fast, strong, and quick with his shot. In a way, it's amazing that only one of them got through. At the same time, it's defeating that Hedberg was able to deny him off 3-on-2s or off offensive possession but he still got a wide-open two-on-one. Why did that happen? Because Larsson couldn't get the puck in deep after lunging at it from the blueline. Mark Stuart got it, lobbed one past him, and Kane was off to score a goal - which he did. Still, he was the main driver of the Jets' offense from my eyes. Was it great that only one player took 40% of all of the Jets' shots tonight because it means the others didn't threaten much? Or was it bad that one player took 40% of all of the Jets' shots because he could've had more than just the one goal? Either way, I'm glad the Devils won't have to see Kane for a while. He was that impressive tonight.
Here's a Big Positive - That Was the One Lethal Mistake: Over this slump, we've seen opposing players get all kinds of open in 5-on-5 or 4-on-5 situations for the Devils where you just wonder where the coverage is. I get that everyone can't always be on everyone, but surely the middle of the ice is a place where you want someone to be aware of what's going on most of the time. It killed the Devils against Carolina on Saturday night. Tonight, Larsson getting caught was the only defensive error that yielded a goal - and it didn't even come in the defensive zone.
That's a big improvement within 24 hours. I don't know what the coaches said or whether the players discussed it or whether the return of Captain Bryce Salvador to the ice changed things, but the Devils were a lot more conscious of the slot tonight. If one defending Devil got beat, someone was there in support. The Jets got some open shots, but they didn't get several free ones in dangerous places like we've seen against Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and Carolina among recent games. They didn't catch the Devils too many times in odd man rushes. The Devils did get pinned back for a few shifts in the second, third, and overtime periods. But it appeared their communication and positioning was far better, even when they were pinned. I was very pleased to see that. The Devils should keep it up as it'll help them give up fewer goals in the long run.
Oh, as for the first goal? I think the word "accident" is more appropriate. Greene was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. He knew it, Hedberg knew it, and it's forgotten about.
A Fearsome First: You wouldn't know that they played on the road on Saturday night given how the Devils came out. They looked angry, they played angry, and they pressed the issue over and over again. They out-shot the Jets 11-5 and that's considering the Devils' scorer was undercounting shots this evening. The first goal came off a fortitutious bounce off a glass support on a dump-in by Anton Volchenkov. Travis Zajac gets the loose puck in front, he's denied, but Ryan Carter puts home the rebound. A few minutes later, after a strong shift by the Andrei Loktionov line, Ilya Kovalchuk saw Stephen Gionta coming over the boards. Kovalchuk hits him with a perfect diagonal pass across the neutral zone to play him into the Jets' end and behind everyone. Gionta cut in and made a great move to beat Pavelec. Those were the goals. They were big since, again, the Devils haven't scored first in a game for a long time and they've been so unfortunate in terms of shooting percentage over the last twelve games or so.
It could have been much more than two tonight. There were several rebounds and loose pucks around Pavelec's crease that the Devils couldn't put home for one reason or another. One time it would be in a player's skate. Another, it's past a Devil whose stick wasn't in position for it. Another, it's right into a defender. On another, it goes wide. The Devils had a fantastic looking power play that yielded only shot off the post and a bunch of misses. The Devils really tore the Jets apart in the first with their forecheck and neutral zone play and they won a lot of pucks because of it. This also took pressure off the defense, who didn't have to deal with a lot of counter-attacks.
The only blotch on the period was a Mark Stuart shot from the side-boards hitting Andy Greene's stick, which knocked it past Hedberg for a score. It was definitely against the run of play and a surprise. At the same time, what can you do? Bad bounces happen.
Next Stop - The Ice Bath: Anton Volchenkov played his usual fifteen-minutes-and-change at even strength tonight but I actually thought he stood out. He actually chipped in on offense with two shots out of five attempts. He even jumped up in a two-on-one in the third period; he could only lunge the puck forward to Pavelec, but the fact that Volchenkov didn't completely blow a two-on-one was impressive enough. The official record shows Volchenkov blocked only one shot tonight, but he had at least two in the third period that looked like they hurt him. The first was a shot by Kane that got him in the back. Volchenkov went down but slowly got up, went to the bench, and didn't miss a shift. The second was a high one by Zach Bogosian; but A-Train was not deterred. Volchenkov also threw a couple of good, hard hits. All of this and he wasn't badly torched or anything like that as far as I can recall. I like this A-Train. But I hope he's icing up what should be a sore body because he took a lot of pain tonight.
Return of the Captain: As much as I think Bryce Salvador is being given too large and difficult of a role on defense, I don't have any real complaints about how he played tonight. 23:11 overall at even strength and no really massive errors that nearly cost the team. In fact, I think the only defensive pairing that struggled at times was Larsson and Greene. I noticed they got pinned back quite a bit near the end of the second period. I suspect more of the same in the third; but I'd have to check on that later.
Looking Good Except on the Scoresheet: I really enjoyed how Ilya Kovalchuk played tonight. He was able to carry the puck into the zone successfully and he was usually looking to make plays. They weren't bad plays, either. He knew he didn't have a great shooting lane and by the pass, you knew that if it was on-target, then it would be a far better shot. Alas, most of those passes got away or bounced off sticks or whathaveyou. His one to Gionta was sublime, though. Anyway, I could tell he really wanted to win this game in regulation in the third and then later in overtime (and one lobbed puck just got away from him in OT). He would even try to go through Jets if he could. Given that all manners of stickchecks and puck battles have won him pucks all night long, I can't really fault him for trying. That said, I was surprised to see he only had one shot on net, a missed shot, and only 24:17 of ice time. Huh. His linemates of Alexei Ponikarovsky and Andrei Loktionov combined for exactly two shots on net. I suspect he looked better than he really was.
Forwards As a Unit: The Devils forwards did well but it's hard to identify a true standout. Two members of the bottom six scored, but they also seemed to get pinned back the most. I liked how the Loktionov line forechecked, but it didn't lead to much success on the shot count. The 27 shots on net that were officially counted were spread around. Steve Bernier got three shots on net while playing with Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique; he had the most. The most attempts were by Elias with seven (two on net). That total doesn't include all of the loose pucks around the net that didn't yield any actual shots at Pavelec. The Devils also had a significant number of misses, the most noticeable being a Travis Zajac deflection going wide of an unaware Pavelec in the second period. It's also worth noting that there were a lot of won pucks off a forecheck that just didn't lead to a shot or an attempt. As a result, I'm left thinking guys looked good but didn't produce as I thought they did. Like Ryan Carter. I liked what I saw in general, he got a goal, and two other shots; but he also was quiet in long stretches like the whole second period. As a team, that's not a problem. When trying to highlight individual players, it's a little tougher.
The Best Shotless Power Play of the Season: The refs really let the Devils and Jets get away with a lot tonight. Each team only got one power play. Andrei Loktionov was clearly held by Grant Clitsome in trying to gain the zone near the end of the first period. Within the final two minutes, the Devils put the puck anywhere they wanted except for in the net. This wasn't a power play that just hung out at the point. Even after a Jets clearance, the top unit was able to get set up, move it up and down as they wished, and even found Adam Henrique in the middle of it all for a possible shot a couple of times. The problem with that latter finding, Henrique didn't shoot except for twice. The first missed and the second hit the post. Henrique and others were content in trying to make that one additional pass instead of forcing Pavelec to be good. I really liked the puck movement and control. It made the Jets' PK look like a paper tiger. Except for one post, they had everything but the shots.
Oh, and the PK was pretty solid tonight: only one shot allowed on one kill.
If You Loved Stickchecks, Then This Was Your Game: From the beginning through the end of regulation, the puck was often battled away from sticks. The Devils came up with a lot of them, but the Jets had their share of wins. As a result along with possibly the ice, the puck was bouncing quite a bit, which ruined some offensive possibilities for each team. The third period was somehow even in shots at 7-7, but it was really an exciting, open affair with both teams just denying pucks at the last moment. Overtime really showcased the flow of the game as it had that one fewer player to get in and deny possession with their stick. Thankfully it was only for five minutes as the Jets were taking control as time went on.
Shootout Heroes: Patrik Elias' backhander through the five-hole was great and it got the Devils a second point. Johan Hedberg was excellent with his pads on Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd (Surprising to me, they each played over 22 minutes tonight total) and his glove on Kane was great. The Devils are now 2-3 in shootouts this season and responsible for the last two wins the team has had. I know regulation wins are better, but when you're slumping like this, you can't be choosy about the kind of victory.
A Last Point: It was another sellout at the Rock. With the final four home games this month being against the Second Rate Rival, Montreal on a Saturday, Our Hated Rivals, and Florida on Saturday, business has certainly been good. The crowds have been vocal and they want something to cheer about. The first period gave them plenty, but the feeling was tense after Kane's second goal. The people didn't want to see a 2-0 lead turn into 2-3 or worse, another sad addition to the slump. Hence, the crowd did go wild after Hedberg's stop. The Rock's been getting good crowds; hopefully the team's play improves to really get the most out of them, which will make the game more enjoyable for everyone. Well, except for visiting fans, but whatever.
What did you think of the Devils' win tonight? How happy were you with Johan Hedberg's performance? Are you pleased with how the defense performed given they didn't leave the gate wide open in the middle so much? Do you think if the Devils keep doing what they did tonight, they'll get out of this slump? If not, what else do you think they need to do? Were there any Jets not named Evander Kane that had a really good night? What should the Devils work on before facing the Second Rate Rivals on Wednesday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments. Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter through @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.