Heart. Grit. Guts. Moxie. Whatever you called it, the New Jersey Devils surely displayed it at the Rock this evening. They hosted the Washington Capitals and came away with two big points in a 2-1 win. Whether or not you think they'll make the playoffs, the game was still very important to Washington. So if you're thinking they're out and they should play spoiler and/or for pride, then they did just that. If you're all about "never say die" and will only believe they're out when they are, then tonight's game (plus Chicago's crazy last-two-second win over Columbus) suited you.
What made this game lead Devils fans to feel a lot of renewed pride in the team were the circumstances of the team's roster. They started the game with eleven forwards and seven defensemen; Peter Harrold, Anton Volchenkov, and Adam Larsson all played. Nearly twelve minutes into the first period, Patrik Elias was driven into the stanchion by Tom Wilson - it wasn't a dirty play or anything like that - and was knocked out of the game. With just over four minutes left in the second period, Adam Henrique left the ice and would not return with an injury of his own. And Jacob Josefson ended his last shift at 7:43 in the third period, presumably due to injury. The Devils had to play the majority of the game short one forward and the entire third period down two and later three forwards. Going down to 15 skaters is never ideal. It's definitely a big problem in a close game and the three skaters lost include two of the team's top defensive forwards and a potential PK guy. Your eyes weren't playing tricks on you; Michael Ryder and Damien Brunner got to play situations they would ordinarily not be in. So that the Devils got a win over a Washington team that badly needed this win with less than a full roster is impressive.
Of course, a win like this doesn't happen without desire and effort. But the Devils have displayed this desire and effort a lot this season. The fact that the Devils have been one of the best possession teams in the league throughout this season doesn't happen without effort. The difference tonight was that the Devils got the result to go with the effort. They got that go-ahead goal. They didn't concede a late equalizer or a second goal to Washington. The players certainly worked hard. Cory Schneider certainly played an excellent game. But let's not pretend the Devils didn't get some breaks their way.
Recall the Devils' first goal. While the Devils did not score on a double-minor power play, they brought the offense right to Jaroslav Halak with seven shots on net. The Devils continued to pepper the goalie with the puck. At the 12:21 mark, they broke through. Eric Gelinas attempted a wrister from distance and Tuomo Ruutu was able to deflect it among traffic. The puck sailed to the top corner past Halak for a 1-1 score.
Recall that the Caps, while out-shot 14-7 in the second, had a killer moment where they could have went up 1-2. Julien Brouillette came in on the weak side, took a shot, got his own rebound, and had the whole net for a wraparound. Dainius Zubrus slid to the open left post to deny him but the puck squirted loose. Nicklas Backstrom was in a perfect spot to bang it in, but he just couldn't get his stick in the right position. As Schneider dove back, the Devils scrambled. The Caps had a big gift and didn't accept it. They had other opportunities that could have been the tie-breaker in the game. But their potentially killer passes weren't so killer. They took that extra second that allowed the Devils to get set up. The other big moment for the Caps was when Marcus Johansson streaked to the net for a one-timer at Schneider's left. Schneider came up with the massive stop to maintain a then 2-1 lead.
Recall that the Devils special teams left opportunities. As for the Devils' PK, well, discipline was an issue at times. They conceded three power plays to the Caps, including a 53 second 3-on-5 and a 3-on-4 situation in the second period. The penalty killers definitely stepped up and Schneider was absolutely on form. They held the dangerous Washington power play to five shots on net across all three advantages. As good as that was, the Devils also benefited from a key whiff from Alexander Ovechkin in the right circle and other passes gone away. As for the power play, the Devils got five power plays, no goals, but ten shots. Their 4-minute advantage went a lot better than the last one (no goals, one conceded), and the fact they got ten total shots confirms that they were able to get set up and take good chances. Still, it would have loomed large if the score went the other way.
Recall the game winner from Ryan Carter. He has not scored a goal since February 3, when Colorado came to the Rock. Given the injuries, Carter had to play at least a little more than he would normally. He made the most of it with just under five minutes left. Carter started moving the puck through the neutral zone and passed it back and wide to Marek Zidlicky. Carter darted in between Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer and Zidlicky returned the puck to play him into the zone. Carter kept going forward as Mike Green didn't immediately engage him. Carter continued to the slot, Green really didn't do a whole lot, and beat Halak low. It was a great shot. It was unexpected given how the play developed and who scored. If there was a time to break a long goalless drought (man, the Devils have had quite a few of these this season), then this was it. Carter normally doesn't get that kind of chance and he made the most of it.
And recall the run of play right until the end. The Devils didn't completely sell out to defend the remaining 4:54. They looked for counter-attacks. They frustrated Washington. That big-time Johansson chance was their only big-time chance. Caps couldn't pull the Halak when they wanted to because of the Devils. I loved the dump-in right on net near that 1:40 mark when coaches like to pull goalies when down a goal or two. I absolutely loved Tuomo Ruutu taking the puck in (forcing Halak to stay), putting a shot on Halak he had to grab, and forcing an offensive zone faceoff with less than a minute left. I was so hopeful that Jaromir Jagr's bank shot from his own zone got into the empty net; but I was incredibly relieved the Devils won the resulting faceoff and at the puck for nine seconds. There's your grit, heart, moxie, guts, etc. Only they had the possession, very good play from a shortened roster, and good enough luck to seal the result. That made the difference between this 2-1 from a 2-2 late equalizer or another one-goal loss.
The Opposition Opinion: There's not a lot of happiness among Caps fans right now. Geoff Thompson has this recap at Japers' Rink if you want a take from one about this game.
The Game Highlights: Schneider making stops, a Ruutu deflection, and Carter being a hero of the game. All and more are in this video from NHL.com:
Seriously, That Possession: The Devils lost Elias early and Henrique later. Those are two top-six forwards for the Devils. Those are two forwards who can go up against tough competition, play defense well, and perform smartly on the ice. Losing those two were big. Yet, the Devils maintained a advantage in possession and shots throughout the game. The first period was sluggish, but the Devils really opened it up in the second period. The third period, which was 1-1 until roughly five minutes left, was even in shots 10-10. The Devils finished ahead 54-46 in total attempts and 39-33 at evens. For a team down three forwards at one point, including the part of the game Washington should've just went totally desperate and threw everthing forward, that's great to see.
Bosses: The line of Tuomo Ruutu, Jaromir Jagr, and Travis Zajac really carried the day. They also got to play a ton of minutes due to the forced-shortening of the roster. Ruutu nearly played 20 minutes, Zajac broke 23, and Jagr got over 25. They took 4, 5, and 4 shots on net respectively. They were also well ahead of the other forwards in terms of attempts for and against. They conceded their fair share, but hit back nearly twice as hard. Ruutu got the first goal with a deflection, so they even generated a goal. I wish they had more to match their continued power; but in general it helped force the game in washington's end, which is what you want to do to prevent their guys from doing a ton of damage.
Amazingly, Adam Larsson managed to have a game where he didn't face a single attempt against in 5-on-5 play. Granted, he only played over nine and a half minutes, but that's rather remarkable. Not one miss, block, or shot against. He was present for ten attempts, three that got to the net. Anton Volchenkov played a bit more and everything went well when he was present 18-6 in attempts, 10-4 in shots. While both didn't play a lot, they weren't protected in terms of zone starts. Their common match-up was against Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward. Outside of a last-man-on-receiving-a-gift-of-a-botched-pass breakaway for Chimera, those three did little tonight beyond taking calls. Good thing the play went this way for Larsson and Volchenkov in 5-on-5. I was not happy with either for taking a cheap holding call (Volchenkov) and a kneeing penalty (Larsson, seriously, kneeing is rarely called and it was obvious) early in the game that gave the most successful power play in the NHL a 53-second 5-on-3 in between two minors.
Not So Bosses: The pairing of Andy Greene and Mark Fayne was not pretty tonight. Fayne coughed up the puck in his own end that led to Nicklas Backstrom knocking it to the middle. Elias dove to knock it away from Alexander Ovechkin; which only knocked it away to Mikael Grabovski. Pass, free shot for Ovechkin in the slot, goal. A bad moment, yes. But Fayne-Greene were pinned back a lot. Not necessarily a lot of shots against, but plenty more attempts against than for from the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Grabovski line. It led to a lot of long shifts for both, particularly in the second period. With no penalty killing time, Greene averaged 1:20 per shift in the second; 1:14 for Fayne. They were notably gassed. They were sharper in the third period, but this was a rare not-so-good night from that pairing. It happens, I suppose.
Don't Blame Alex: As the Caps' season turns (continues?) into a nightmare, I'm sure there will be more questioning of what Ovechkin is all about. I wouldn't based on this game. In addition to being really frightened when he has the puck on his stick, he had a good game. He put four shots on net out of nine attempts. His line was better than the rest. Just as if not more importantly, he scored the only goal the Caps had. Ovechkin isn't the problem and he wasn't tonight.
If the media and/or fans want to be mad at someone tonight, they should focus on Mike Green. Devils loved playing against him when he was with either Dmitry Orlov or Julien Brouillette. He got ripped apart in terms of attempts in 5-on-5 play. The offense he brought was one little shot. Green looked somewhat lackadaisical on the game winner from Carter. He's the big "name" defenseman on a team that has had defensive woes all season and conceded 31 shots from the relatively-low-shooting Devils.
Or they can continue putting more heat on head coach Adam Oates because, well, there are issues with this Caps team. Seriously, little pressure on a skater entering the zone from the middle with the puck? Carter put in a sweet shot but that's asking for trouble. Not pressing the issue after being down a goal late in the game despite having the most prolific shooter in the world? Five penalties conceded? Continuing to use Dustin Penner on a fourth line when the other wingers are having a bad night? So many questions and I'm not even a fan of Washington.
Cory: Cory Schneider was superb tonight. A bit lucky that Backstrom didn't beat him on the doorstep in the second; but he came up with big stops when they arose. He also made the little stops too. He even handled the puck well. I don't think it's unfair to say that the Devils don't come close to winning like they did tonight without Schneider playing as well as he did. I want him to keep playing. Please keep starting him, DeBoer.
Is There Anything Left?: As great as the Devils left it all on the ice tonight, they have a game in Carolina tomorrow. Before the calls to Albany for...someone, the Devils may be able to fill in a roster as-is. Steve Bernier was a healthy scratch, so he'll draw in. Tim Sestito did skate this morning per Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice; Gulitti also noted that Stephen Gionta may be getting close to health. With Jon Merrill also available in practice, the team could slot Eric Gelinas at forward as a fill-in and go with seven defensemen again. I really hope Elias, Henrique, and Josefson can make proper recoveries. But I don't think the Devils will have to raid the A-Devils to get it together for Saturday.
That said, I'm more concerned about fatigue. Zajac, Jagr, and Greene all played big minutes. Zubrus and Ruutu nearly played 20, which is unusual for them as of late. The healthy part of the team tonight really skated as hard as they could to get and preserve the win. I just hope that doesn't mean they won't be able to fight against a Canes team that is playing for pride. But we can discuss that in tomorrow's later-than-usual game preview.
Your Take: The Devils won 2-1 with only 15 skaters at the end. Big result, but little time to celebrate. What's your take about this game? Who do you think did best among the 15 skaters in this win? How did you like Schneider in net? Did the early penalties frighten you as much as they did to me? Does this team have anything left in the tank? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and followed the sparse tweets from @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.