For the first time in a while, the New Jersey Devils were the better team on the ice and won the game. Do you know how good it is to type that? Do you know how good it is to feel that? Seven days ago was the last Devils' win, a miraculous come-from-behind 4-3 win against Toronto in Ilya Kovalchuk's first game as a Devil. And that wasn't a game where the Devils were the better team on the ice. Not at all. I'm a little worried to wonder when was the last time the Devils won in a fashion like this. Tonight, the Nashville Predators were the victims of a Devils' offense that was hungry for goals, a defense that wanted to hold steady all night long, and a team that just wanted to win something before the Olympic break.
Mark it on your calenders, tonight was the night Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first goal as a New Jersey Devil. Right from the get-go, I had a feeling today would be the night Kovalchuk makes his mark in the goal column. His first shot of the game wasn't an official shot, a blistering slapshot that beat Pekka Rinne but struck the cross-bar with a great force. So many thought it went in, including myself, only to be shown otherwise on the replay. But he, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus looked great together tonight. Kovalchuk put 7 shots on net, played only 21:51, and got the game winning goal 8:24 into the third period.
The fans were so ecstatic, many threw their free Devils baseball caps (tonight's promotion) onto the ice. Which, really, was dumb. Surely, the Devils will now give their free gifts at the end of games instead of before them.
Regardless, the place exploded. Massive cheers from the many, many Devils fans when his name was announced as the goal scorer. What better time for an elite player to make his mark, breaking a deadlock! Even more impressive in my eyes, after scoring that goal, he upped his intensity. He wanted to attack, he wanted to push ahead, he wanted more. He would just "settle" for another assist, playing a big role in creating a power play goal (really, a PPG) for New Jersey. He had a fantastic night. The best Devil on the ice, I'd say. In large part to his performance the many, many Devils fans left with something they haven't had on their faces: a big smile after a decisive win by New Jersey
For a standard recap and links to the official stats, NHL.com has you covered. For a Nashville fan perspective, Chris Burton at On the Forecheck broke down the game period-by-period, attributing the loss to defensive lapses. Read on for my further and extended thoughts on tonight's game.
Before continuing, here's the embedded video of tonight's highlights from NHL.com. Feel free to savor all of the Devils' goals:
Admittedly, I cannot say the Devils were the better team for all 60 minutes or they looked good for all 60 minutes. That would be wrong. That would be incorrect. So let's get the criticism out of the way.
First item of criticism: the Devils' first penalty kill of the night. For the most part, the team did quite well in repelling Nashville's attack. All period long, they struggled to do much against New Jersey. Yet, the PK left it's guard down just before the penalty to Dainius Zubrus ended. The vast majority of penalty killing strategies, if not all of them, is to prevent the puck from getting to the slot. The slot is a high percentage area for shots. Lots of teams on offense try to get the puck to the slot because if someone is set-up there, they have a great chance at beating the goaltender.
Cal O'Reilly was able to get in between the Devils' killers (Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Jamie Langenbrunner, Travis Zajac) and hang out in the slot. OK. Surely, the Devils would want to close off all lanes that would get the puck to O'Reilly, right? Wrong. When the puck got to Colin Wilson, Bryce Salvador was in position to make sure Wilson really didn't get a good angle on Brodeur. Wilson wasn't looking for a shot, he was looking for O'Reilly. The pass went underneath the outreached stick of Salvador. O'Reilly was so open, he had the time to take the pass, turned, and fire in all of one motion. That's a difficult shot for any goaltender to stop, and so it beats Brodeur. The PK there gave up the slot and it burned them.
Moreover, the Devils were by far the better team on the ice in the first period. That was a late power play goal given up in the first period and all it did was give the Predators something to be happy about going into the second. A little momentum that could have cost the Devils.
Second item of criticism: the 5-on-3 power play. The Devils were able to get a significantly long 5-on-3 power play tonight. After Francois Bouillon got caught hooking, Dan Hamhuis was called for hooking only 34 seconds into the Bouillon penalty. That's 1:26 of a two-man advantage. The Devils surely should have scored there. And I don't mean that in a "it's a two-man advantage, you should score" way; but in a "Zach Parise, you had the whole net wide open down low and you somehow missed the shot" way. It couldn't have been easier for Parise, yet he somehow sent it across the crease instead!
The Devils at least kept the puck in Nashville's zone on that two-man advantage and bombed away. They struggled on their other power plays (including the one shortened by Zubrus "interfering" with Rinne despite being so far away from him) to set themselves up for most of the power play; save for the last one, where the Devils actually scored a power play goal. Intentionally.
Third item of criticism: the second goal against by Martin Brodeur. Poor Andy Greene. It was looking like a routine play, the first (or second?) by Nashville in the second period, David Legwand passed it to Jordin Tootoo high in the zone. Greene was in front of Tootoo, and normally the puck carrier will either dump it or just throw a shot on net. Tootoo had enough space past Greene to fire a shot and Martin Brodeur misread it. It went between his arm and his pad on his blocker side. A good shot, yes; but that one should have been stopped by Brodeur. Poor Greene gets dinged for not doing anything wrong.
Fourth item of criticism: most of the second period was sloppy. The Devils looked confident, strong, and energetic in the first period. So much so that perhaps a drop-off was to be expected. Yet, despite early goals from both teams, both the Devils and the Predators struggled to make much really happen. Neither really took full advantage, and that falls on New Jersey moreso because they really needed a win badly. Going into the third period 2-2 didn't bode well against Philadelphia, they should have made more of an effort to avoid doing that for a third straight game.
Fifth item of criticism: two-on-ones. The Devils had a few two-on-ones where they made one too many passes instead of just putting the puck on net. Now, I understand the concept of the second pass on a two-on-one. The idea is to beat the goalie on his flank. I get that. Yet, the problem tonight was that when the Devils made that second pass, there wasn't enough space or the right angle to put a good shot on net. Next time, just shoot it. Even if it went into Pekka Rinne's chest, fine. At least it wasn't a totally wasted play.
Those are my main points of criticism. Now let's heap on some praise!
First, the penalty killers did a great job in response to that one PPG against. The Devils got clearances regularly and Nashville got very little on net with only 3 shots on net across 4 power plays for 7:33 of time. They tightened up in their own zone and didn't mess around when they had the puck. The only foul-up beyond the first period was Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner passing the puck one too many times on a shorthanded scoring chance. Bryce Salvador's work on the team's third penalty kill was excellent and redeemed his earlier error in my eyes.
Second, tonight wasn't just the Devils' first win in a week, but the first intentional power play goal in a week too. Ilya Kovalchuk takes the puck just outside the corner on Rinne's right and sees Dainius Zubrus in the area. Kovalchuk's pass is blocked by Shea Weber's skates. Now, just before the pass, as Zubrus goes inside; Zach Parise glided back a little bit to give him space. Zubrus knocks the puck up closer to Parise, Parise charges up, and pounds the loose puck past Rinne. That was the Devils' fourth goal, and important goal as it added to the lead and it was a power play goal, that's huge. Parise missed a glorious opportunity on the 5-on-3; but he did pick up a power play goal later on. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Overall, the power play went 1-for-5 with 6 shots on net; an improvement over some recent power play efforts, I think. I'd like to see more consistency on the power play in terms of offensive possession, especially getting into the zone to set-up the offense. That's been a weakness of the team, I think. Once they do that better, more goals will come.
Third, after the Tootoo goal, Martin Brodeur raised his game to where it needed to be. He allowed nothing else, an effort helped out by the Devils defense playing fairly smart hockey and the Nashville offense not doing so well. The Predators struggled early to get consistent possession, decent shots on net. Their best effort was in the second period, but they really didn't get much going on either their power play or at even strength with only a total of 9 shots. The third period found Nashville mostly battling or chasing the Devils for the puck and got very little on Brodeur. When Nashville did fire the puck, it was mostly Martin Erat (6 shots on goal) or Jason Arnott (4 shots on goal). Their defense contributed little (a total of 5 shots from all of them) from the point and the team just couldn't disrupt Brodeur's positioning or vision too much.
Fourth, the Devils looked really strong to start and end the games. Even after O'Reilly's goal, Elias was sprung on a breakaway only to be denied by Rinne. They put so much pressure on early, forcing Rinne to be great. They were rewarded when Jamie Langenbrunner took the puck down low, past two Predator defenders, drawing a third's attention, and fired a pass between an out-of-position Rinne and the left goalpost to find a wide open Travis Zajac (thanks to the three Preds not in position) to for an easy goal. The top 6 - ZZ Pops and Elias-Zubrus-Kovalchuk - just looked so good just kept finding seams to get the puck in Nashville's zone to create something. Even the bottom two lines had some good shifts attacking. No wonder they had 12 shots on net.
The second period was where they hit a lull. Patrik Elias responding to Tootoo's goal with a gorgeous slapshot over Rinne's left shoulder was great, but the team didn't build on it. The passes weren't so strong into the zone, they were worse within the zone. As a result, the team didn't get too many shots to the net.
Yet, the team didn't get demoralized, the Devils didn't play without intensity or confidence in the third period. They got more and more opportunities on offense, and when Kovalchuk scored his goal from the high slot, you can see the jubilation among the team. Not just that Kovalchuk scored, but the Devils broke a deadlock themselves. They did it because Elias drew the attention of three Predators and found an open Kovalchuk. It was a great play that made it all happen, and you can almost sense a big weight lifted off the shoulders of the forwards. Did the Devils let up? Not at all, and they were rewarded with a power play goal and an empty net goal (Jamie Langenbrunner) to seal the deal. The top 6 forwards made plays and made goals happen. I'd argue that, next to Kovalchuk, Elias was the best forward out there in terms of making good passes, keeping good possession, and being involved in scoring chances. Really, no one on the top 6 was bad; hopefully, they'll give Lemaire reason to keep them all together as they are.
Not that the other forwards were terrible. Matthew Corrente returned to New Jersey and started at wing. He didn't play much there, only 5:32, but he didn't do much wrong in his 9 shifts. He made good passes, he got 2 shots on net, and he hustled well. Rod Pelley also played a little, but looked good in what little time he had. Brian Rolston was caught up in the mix of the bottom 6, but still managed to get 3 shots on net and get some significant time on both special teams. The only one who really didn't look so good was Dean McAmmond, some of his passes - especially in the second period - were poor and picked up by Nashville. They didn't kill the team, but it's still not good.
Among them all, I feel real bad for Vladimir Zharkov. He skated real hard, he set up a few chances only to be denied at the last second by the Nashville defense, and he had a great deflection denied by a Rinne toe save. Zharkov hasn't scored in his 32 games with New Jersey (only 8 assists), but he's so noticeable on the ice despite his limited ice time (11:40 tonight) that you wonder when will he get a break. He came real close on the deflection. Maybe it'll happen soon? (By the way, had Niclas Bergfors play like Zharkov, perhaps he wouldn't have seemed invisible in New Jersey in the past few weeks. We will never know now.) I would love to see Zharkov finally get his first NHL goal.
Overall, the offense wasn't tepid, it was threatening, it wasn't solely focused on one player or just one line, and it was successful. As a result, there was a lot less pressure on the defense (helped out by Nashville's inconsistent offense, true) and so they had a fairly solid night. Colin White's and Mike Mottau's only faults were minors that the Devils killed off with aplomb. Mark Fraser only saw 13:24 but he looked good doing so, just simple play by the rookie and one big hit on Joel Ward (who somehow blocked a Kovalchuk slapshot on a PK with his helmet and continued to play - that man is tough). Cory Murphy's return saw him play 14:09 - 3:50 on the power play - and he looked OK. Salvador's made only one error, but made up for it with good play later in my book; and Greene was solid as usual. No one on defense played ridiculous minutes, so they should all be good to go for tomorrow.
Honestly, this is such a good feeling because the Devils were the better team on the ice for a majority of the game and got the goals necessary to win the game. That hasn't happened for a while and now I look forward to tomorrow's game wondering if they can do it again. One final note: After being announced as the first star of the game, "The Maven" Stan Fischler did a short interview with Kovalchuk on the ice. He asked Kovalchuk about scoring his first goal, how it felt. The first word out of Kovalchuk's mouth was "Finally."
Those are my exact words regarding this win, too: Finally.
Thank you to Steve for the GameThread and I thank you all for commenting in the GameThread as well as reading this recap. Please leave all your thoughts, feelings, criticisms, and praise in the comments.