Sometimes the first hockey game of a season, whether it's 82 or 48 games long, can get very sloppy. While the teams did go through some sort of training camp and players try to stay in shape in the offseason, that first game can be filled with mistimed passes, miscommunications, and all kinds of mistakes that are left unpunished because the opposition doesn't take full advantage. In short, teams can have rust and it shows on the ice. This was on display in tonight's 2-1 win between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders. The big difference was that the Islanders displayed more of it than the Devils.
While the Devils had plenty of moments of taking loose pucks and flinging them to no one or the other team, leaving opposing players open in dangerous areas, and not taking full advantage of what was going on, the Islanders out-did them in each. Their turnovers in the neutral zone and their own end helped the Devils obtain a 28-19 shot differential in the game. Evgeni Nabokov had to be sharp tonight; and he was given that there were plenty of dangerous opportunities for the Devils to open this game. Even when the Islanders pressed and got some offensive pressure, the Devils responded with the same or more not long after. The Devils were clearly sharper than the Islanders and the game wasn't as close as the score indicated.
This isn't to say that everything the Devils did was great. Their power play wasn't effective. They took some dumb penalties. The Devils lost a lot of faceoffs. They left a few too many Isles open in the slot. The one goal they allowed, a power play strike by Travis Hamonic, could have been prevented if all four Devils weren't in the corner, leaving the slot uncovered. There were a few instances where Martin Brodeur bailed out the team. Since it's the first game, I wouldn't say that these are all going to be big problems for the Devils this season. Just areas for improvement for the next game.
That said, the Devils did a lot more right than wrong in my eyes. The Devils as a team out-attempted the Isles 50-40. Their forecheck, with one or two skaters, gave the Isles plenty of trouble. They kept the Isles' top line of Matt Moulson, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo quiet with only two shots on net between the trio. The Devils' own top line of Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk looked great with seven shots and generated the game's first (and beautiful) goal. David Clarkson had his shooting skates on with five shots on net and a wrister that became the game winning goal. In general, the Devils had more "hustle" in their play and yet looked fairly calm in the first two periods. That's a big deal given that the team, like everyone else, only had a week of camp to prepare. They didn't panic in the third when the Isles pressed further; they just held them off as best they could. And of course, Martin Brodeur played great.
As far as a first game of the season goes, it was a good effort and I'd say they deserved the win. The rust will come off and we'll get a better idea of what this team can really do in the next few games. Still, it's worth appreciating getting that first victory out the way. Onto the next one.
The Game Highlights: As usual, NHL.com has a highlight video of tonight's game right here. You can see Travis Zajac's beautiful goal, David Clarkson's shot, the breakdown that led to the Islanders' only goal, and plenty of saves:
Stats Note: I know it's missing the TimeOnIce reports. As of now, it's not clear whether there are or will be scripts for this season. It took a few days last season before they were up and running. It would be great to point out which Devil(s) were good or bad in possession as well as pointing out who got matched against the Tavares line. Alas, I can't in this recap. We will all just have to make do in the meantime.
The Shooters: Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson both led the Devils with five shots on net tonight. Kovalchuk did it out of eight attempts, while Clarkson did it out of nine. Yes, about 35% of all of the Devils' shots and 34% of all attempts came from just two players. Interestingly, their best moments couldn't have looked more different. Clarkson's most memorable shot was his fifth: a shot that slid all the way through traffic and Nabokov's five hole. The other four weren't, not so much. Kovalchuk's shots were what you would expect from him, but it was his passing that stood out to me. He deferred on odd-man rushes for better or worse; and he set up Travis Zajac on both of his shots. The first was for a good one-timer in the slot in the first period that forced a good save by Nabokov. The second was an absolutely beautiful saucer pass that Zajac scored on. I am pleased that they put up a good amount of shots and I hope it continues given this team's forward depth. I just hope more will stick out in the future.
Martin Is Old, But You Can't Tell While He's In Net: Both Brodeur and Nabokov were great for their respective teams. While the Islanders got outshot, they weren't lacking in opportunities. Brodeur was excellent in denying all but one of them. He robbed Michael Grabner twice, one on a breakaway in the first period and one early in the third period when he went hard to the slot. His glove was nearly as unwavering as his demeanor; the Isles weren't going to beat him on that side a second time. The first and only time can hardly be pinned on the goalie. All four Devils in a 4-on-5 situation end up in the left corner and the puck squirts out to a wide-open Hamonic. Talk about hanging out a goalie to dry. Other than that, Brodeur was sensational. Given that he's 40 and much of the team's success will hinge on whether he and Johan Hedberg can perform at a NHL-average-or-better level. Tonight was a good first sign.
Evgeni Is Also Pretty Old, But You Couldn't Tell Either: The Devils made the 37-year old Nabokov work early and often tonight. The Isles only out-shot the Devils in the third period, and much of those nine shots came on the power play. At even strength, the Devils put up more rubber and forced Nabokov into action quite a bit. His reactions were good, he didn't leave too many dangerous rebounds, and he tracked the puck well. Thankfully, he wasn't like Anders Nilsson and seem impenetrable. He had no chance on Zajac's goal and I don't know if he even saw Clarkson's shot completely. He was the Islander's best player tonight for sure. As an aside, I felt Michael Grabner was the Islanders' best skater; he used his speed quite well and he was more dangerous on the attack than any of the others - even Marty Reasoner.
The Too Many Defensemen Saga: The Devils decided to keep eight defensemen on their roster. Since Peter DeBoer decided to use a fourth line, this meant two defensemen had to sit. Tonight, it was Peter Harrold and Adam Larsson. While Harrold sitting isn't a surprise since he's a #6/#7 defender, Larsson certainly was since he's young, developing, and has been playing well in Albany. Unfortunately, if he's going to play, then someone has to sit.
Given that the Devils only allowed 19 shots against tonight, it's hard to point out who that should be. Anton Volchenkov had the most notorious torching when Brad Boyes just blew by him on a shift in the second period. As bad as it looked, it didn't lead to anything and Volchenkov seemed OK in his 17:34 of icetime. Mark Fayne made arguably the most costly mistake when he pushed a puck out of the corner on the penalty kill. That went right to Grabner, who fed it to a wide-open Hamonic. However, it's hard to be mad since the real error was that none of his teammates covered the slot. Besides, his spot is safe as safe can be given how he played against the Isles' top players. Henrik Tallinder played the least among all defensemen with 15:01 of ice time and even took a penalty that led to the Isles' lone goal. Yet, he didn't make too many other mistakes and in fact hit Kovalchuk with a great breakout pass that sprung him into space and caught the Islanders in a change. That long pass eventually became the Devils' first goal. After this game, it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will sit for Larsson as the Devils continue to carry more defenders than they need in their lineup.
Suggestion for the Defense: The Devils did a lot right in their own end tonight, as evidenced by allowing only 19 shots on net tonight. However, they were pretty soft in the slot at times. Either Isles were able to get open in the slot or just drive to the net. It wasn't an epidemic all night long, but there were enough moments that it stuck out to me. Hamonic's goal was an obvious example. I'm also talking about Matt Moulson crashing the net which led to Bryce Salvador hitting him without the puck, leading to an Islanders power play just 29 seconds into the game. I'm talking about Grabner just powering his way through early in the third period that forced a big stop by Brodeur moving laterally. I'm talking about David Ullstrom just standing there, waiting for a pass
A Shooting Power Play, You Say? But For Who?: During training camp, Peter DeBoer stated that the Devils' power play would show significant differences and be more of a shooting power play, as reported here by Tom Gulitti on Friday. That didn't happen tonight. The Devils only got two shots on net, one in each of their two power plays, and the Islanders penalty killers had no problem preventing the Devils from setting up on offense. The Devils didn't do much with the man advantage tonight. At least they didn't allow anything shorthanded. Needless to say, it still needs time, practice, and adjustments.
The Islanders' power play, on the other hand, was more effective. While the Devils easily snuffed their first of the evening, the Isles got six shots on net and a conversion on the two full power plays they got in the third period. The conversion was Hamonic scoring on Tallinder's minor, their second of the night. Even before the goal, the Isles were able to set up and get clear shots on Brodeur. Their third power play of the night didn't start off well, but they did quite well in getting the Devils to chase them in the second half. They even built off of it with pressure on the shift just after it ended. The Isles were awarded a fourth power play tonight, but it came with two seconds left. Given the score at the time of each power play, it's easy to see why the Isles were more aggressive on each. It worked out for them for the most part. Perhaps the Devils can do the same on their own in the future?
Unnecessary Penalties: The Devils took four penalties tonight and three of them were avoidable. I'm not mad about Patrik Elias tripping Tavares at the end of the game. Only two seconds were left on the clock so the Isles wouldn't have had the time to do much damage short of a perfect play. The others were annoying in how they weren't necessary. Salvador's first act as captain was to hit Moulson from behind away from the play 29 seconds into the game because Moulson beat him to the crease. Tallinder got his stick up on the hands of Brad Boyes because he was beat. While Boyes sold a hook shortly afterwards, the refs usually make the call when the hands are hit. Kovalchuk hit Keith Aucoin near the stanchion well behind the play along the boards; that was just plain unnecessary. There's no reason to think that discipline is or will be an issue; but I have to point it out when the Devils go shorthanded because someone did something they didn't have to do.
The Return of Tedenby: Since Bobby Butler cleared waivers, the Devils brought Mattias Tedenby back to New Jersey and put him on the left wing of Patrik Elias and Clarkson. Tedenby had the game's first dangerous chance when Elias sprung him into space and Tedenby streaked towards the net. He skied the shot but it was a moment showing off what he can do. Unlike most of last season, that moment wasn't his sole contribution. Tedenby was actually pretty good tonight. He was usually first in on the forecheck on his line, he tried to make plays, he attempted four shots on net and got one shot on net, he drew a penalty, and he got the secondary assist on Clarkson's goal. I think the biggest sign of how well he played was the fact that he actually got shifts into the third period. He didn't see the ice after there was six minutes left in the game and one could argue that DeBoer didn't have the luxury to bench him outright in the third period. Still, it's a good first game for a guy who really needs to prove he truly belongs in the NHL really soon.
The Debut of Matteau: Stefan Matteau was doing OK in junior, didn't make the USA WJC team, but he had a good enough camp to stay with the team and play his first NHL game. Matteau wasn't too bad considering his age and development. He initially started at left wing on a line with Jacob Josefson and Janssen, but he got a few shifts with a double-shifting Kovalchuk as the game went on. Matteau was very sheltered tonight as he only played 7:26, the second lowest ice time on the Devils. Still, he got three shots on net and didn't look too out of place physically. That alone is pretty good. He didn't really do much of anything in his own end or outside of those three shots. While that's to be expected for an 18 year old winger getting his first taste of the pro game, I didn't get the sense that he's already decent NHL player. I still think he's better served being sent back to the QMJHL to finish out the year. I think he will, but it may not be for a few more games.
Get Well Soon: Islanders head coach Jack Capuano was not behind the bench for tonight's game. He's been dealing with kidney stones in recent days. We hope he feels better soon.
Zajac's Goal Was So Beautiful...: ...so much so that I'm going to break it down on Monday. Thanks to users Cygnus21 and MattiasTedenbyFlyingCircus for encouraging me to do so.
Onwards and Upwards: The Devils will get two days off to prepare for their home opener. They got the first win in the books. Let's hope they build on this performance at the Rock on Tuesday.
That's my take on tonight's win. For the opposition's point of view, please check out Dominik's recap at Lighthouse Hockey. What did you make of the Devils' performance tonight? Do you think they were the better team on the ice? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? Who on the Devils did you think should have done better? Were you surprised to see Brodeur do so well right away? How badly did you facepalm when you saw four Devils skaters in the corner on a penalty kill? How did you react when Clarkson scored? What do you think the Devils need to take out of this game for the next one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments.
I'd like to thank all of those who followed along on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust, those who kept up in our Gamethread (and if you weren't there, then please join us next time), and those of you who've read this recap. Welcome back to the NHL, the New Jersey Devils, and winning.