Maybe it was the practice upon returning from Edmonton on Monday.
Maybe it was just the fact that they were playing Our Hated Rivals on Wednesday night.
Whatever you think it was, I'm just glad they did it.
The New Jersey Devils did not just beat the New York Rangers. They out-hit them. They out-hustled them. They out-worked them. They even chased Henrik Lundqvist and tacked one more past his backup, Alex Auld. By and large, they out-played them. There was no period of failure. There was no part of a period where the Devils looked terrible and nearly lost the game. Was the Devils' performance perfect? No. There is definite room for criticism. But for the first time in a long time, I can definitively say that the Devils were the better team tonight and the score reflects that.
Every Devils fan and supporter should be smiling after this one. The Devils won 6-3 over Our Hated Rivals. Here's the NHL.com recap, complete with links to all of the stats from tonight's game. Check out Blueshirt Banter for the Rangers' perspective. It's not happy over there. The loss was their fourth straight and the Rangers' playoff hopes are becoming bleaker. NYRBlogger has the Rangers-based recap up. Read on for my further thoughts and a very important question.
First, have a video of game's highlights from NHL.com. It'll help explain what I'm about to say:
I honestly felt bad for Martin Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist tonight. Between the two, 8 goals were given up and nearly all of them weren't their fault. They both suffered from very poor defensive play. Such as costly errors on defense; the biggest one was Mark Fraser's coughing up the puck en-route to Brandon Prust. Such as defensemen standing around instead of going after a loose puck; like Rob Niedermayer's and Zach Parise's goals where they put in a second rebound for a goal and Erik Christensen's move to the slot where he just walked in and scored a highlight reel goal. Such as just some bad bounces, like the three deflected shots - Vinny Prospal on Bryce Salvador's shot, Jamie Langenbrunner redirecting Mike Mottau's shot Dan Girardi's on Brian Rolston's shot - that beat Lundqvist. And then there was Vinny Prospal's first goal (ha) where no Devil thought to cover him down low.
Talk about some bad luck intermixed with being hung out to dry. For both goalies. But I'm really adamant about Lundqvist. Rangers fans, please, this man cannot be solely to blame for tonight. I know it's great to taunt Henrik Lundqvist and the fans at the Rock let him hear it; it's great that he got pulled. But, really, he isn't the one to blame for the Rangers' loss tonight. I know, I know, I'm defending a Ranger; but it's true. What more could have he done on those shots? Smack every Ranger defenseman upside the head after the first period and yelling at them to play with their heads out of their respective orifices?
At least the Devils' defense sharpened up after the third goal against - except for Fraser, he was benched after the Prust goal - and really closed the game off in the third period. Good adjustments by the coaches and the players. The Devils did let up a bit, they wanted to play a more conservative third period and protect their two goal lead, which I think is understandable given the last two months. The Rangers ending up having the puck more often. I think the Devils were trying to trap the Rangers, but the Blueshirts kept finding ways through. Yet, every red-jerseyed player made the additional effort to prevent shots, disrupt passes, and clean up any loose pucks. Brodeur looked solid and as evidence of how well they worked, despite having most of the possession, the Rangers only put up 6 shots on net.
Oh, and the Devils still managed to get an insurance goal from Travis Zajac with a big assist by Auld's five-hole. That was big for me. The three Ranger goals tonight were defense-deficient or defense-assisted; I was so nervous that the Devils would make a critical error and allow the Rangers toget back into the game. When that puck trickled in, I began to relax.
Back to the defense: the Rangers didn't even reach 20 shots tonight. Great. Still, I was and am not at all happy with how no one picked up Prospal before he scored; how Martin Brodeur had to absolutely rob Olli Jokinen of a 99%-sure-as-sure-can-get-goal in a little 2-on-Brodeur; how every Devil not named Brodeur stood and watched Christensen take the puck to the net; and how Fraser coughed up the puck and no one picking up Prust on the rebound. Giving up goals not long after scoring them just kills momentum. At least, that what it normally does. That has to be addressed going forward.
Moreover, and more importantly, that the Devils scored goals later on in response to the Rangers' equalizers. They didn't give up successive goals, they didn't waver after the Rangers cashed in. No, they kept attacking throughout the first 40 minutes and playing more opportunistic in the third period. Even on a penalty kill, they were aggressive and had a few scoring chances of their own. Whenever they felt they could win the puck from a Ranger, they went for it - be it a stick lift, a stick check, a body check, a block. With 14 official giveaways (5 by Brodeur strangely), the Devils nearly paid dearly at times (and, well, did, thanks to Prust). Overall, it paid dividends as the Devils took on numerous 3-on-2s, kept possession alive hard on the boards, outscored the Rangers 3-2 in the second period (YEAH!), and generally getting multiple turnovers from the Rangers in the neutral zone in the first two periods (maybe that's why they tried to trap in the third?).
I don't know who I can honestly say was the best Devil on the ice, but I was impressed by the offense as a while. The first, second, and third lines all scored tonight. The power play scored a goal, the unit finished 1 for 2 tonight. The centers won 54% of the faceoffs tonight. The Devils as a whole put up 27 shots, got blocked only 6 times, and missed the net only 8 times. Very nice overall for the team.
Ilya Kovalchuk was more in a creative role, making the space and the plays that allowed Jamie Langenbrunner and Patrik Elias to put 4 shots apiece on the Rangers. Dainius Zubrus looked real good next to Parise (who wasn't just a scorer with a goal, an assist, and 1 shot, but a banger with 5 hits) and Travis Zajac. Brian Rolston had one of his best games in a long time with 4 shots, a goal, and an assist. Rob Niedermayer (1 G, 1 A, 2 SOG, +3) looked like Scott Niedermayer at times with the way he was skating and moving the puck. Rod Pelley was even throwing out some hits, justifying his spot.
Granted, the Devils got a lot of benefits from good bounces and the Rangers' defense, who played very poorly tonight. Still, they created those odd-man rushes, they made those shots happen, and now they have every reason to feel confident about it. Among them all, the one that impressed me the most was on a shift in the second period, the Devils had an offensive zone faceoff. Zubrus gets thrown out of the dot and Zajac takes the draw. There's a little scrum, Parise comes out with the puck, and Zubrus and Zajac both jump up and it's a 3-on-2. Lundqvist made the stop; but seriously an odd man rush starting from their own blueline and forward. That's how good the forwards were in those first two periods. That's how bad the Rangers' defense was tonight.
I'm sure you (the reader) and I can go on and on about how well the Devils worked tonight, how the offense was effective, how the coaching was solid, how the defense played much tighter in the third, and how this was something that they needed. The postgame post with all the quotes from the players and Jacques Lemaire form Tom Gulitti echoes all that and more. It's great stuff. There's just one big elephant in the room, though. And it's not in considering how Anssi Salmela will look in Fraser's spot:
Can they do it again on Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins?
In my opinion, I'm not ready to call an end to the slump or the struggles or whatever you call it until the Devils can string some solid performances together. I'd love to see this team finally get two wins in a row; but I'm not looking for a ridiculous hot streak (though I wouldn't complain). I just don't want to see New Jersey follow up all the good they did tonight with a stinker at the Rock on Friday. I want the Devils to play solid, Devils hockey more often - like tonight.
Thanks for reading. Thanks to Steve for the GameThread. Please leave all your thoughts, feelings, complaints, and criticisms in the comments. For now, let's be happy over a big win over Our Hated Rivals. (P.S. One final note, shame on all the fans who thought it was important to yell something during the national anthem and/or get into fights in the upper sections. I don't care who you support, either grow up or don't come to the Rock.)