Tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was far different than last night's game against the Kings. Whereas they didn't make the most of their chances, the home team certainly did tonight and even got a fortunate event to get the scoring going. Getting some goals makes any game different and the New Jersey Devils were able to fend off the Penguins by a comfortable-looking score of 4-1.
Of course, any game that features two of the most talented players in the world today is rarely comfortable. Any contest where said team with two of the most talented players in the world get four full power plays puts one on edge. Any night where the Devils are able to drag the game into a low-event battle (Pens led 31-30 in 5-on-5 play) with plenty of zone entries denied can be wary as one good play could blow things wide open. It wasn't until the Devils made it 3-1 in the third where I started to relax a little and even then I was hoping the Pens wouldn't find a way to make it 3-2 to set up a dramatic final few minutes. In other words, the game appeared to be closer in my eyes than the score would suggest.
A big reason why the result happened was because of goaltender Martin Brodeur. He was marvelous in net tonight. He had to face 28 shots in total, including eleven on the power play. His most impressive stop was a point-blank pad save to deny Kris Letang on his right flank. What could have - no, should have - been an equalizer was simply denied by the legend. He denied Chris Kunitz on jam plays and short rebounds. He wasn't entirely perfect. A gaffe behind the net at playing the puck nearly went into the net, only to be denied by Adam Larsson's skate. Brodeur was beaten on a breakaway by Kunitz in the second period when he dove out to knock it off his stick, only for the puck to go up and over him. Still, Brodeur was a key reason why the Penguins never got that second goal despite some great opportunities to do so. He was named the first star of the game, and appropriately so.
Let's be real: Brodeur isn't going to stay this hot for the whole season, but right now, he's on fire. He's faced a significant amount of rubber in his past two games, plenty of chaos in front of the net, and the only goals to beat him were a shortsided shot from distance, a deflection off his own defender, and a breakaway goal that shouldn't have happened if a certain defender was able to not cough it up. Brodeur has only made one or two errors at playing the puck but otherwise has been solid as solid can be at playing it to deny dump-ins from the other team. You have to enjoy what he's done in net recently and hope it can continue
Of course, it'll also help if the Devils can continue to put up a few goals per game as they did tonight. I'll tell you what, Cory Schneider will eventually get his goal support and when that happens, this team could make October seem like the distant past. Games like this are a big step in the right direction.
The Opposition Opinion: Mike Darnay has this mini-recap at PensBurgh entitled: Jagr Wins. There you are.
The Game Highlights: A fluke goal, two great shots, a lot of big saves, and one of the prettiest empty net goals you'll ever see. All in this video from NHL.com:
I Hope Hockey Canada Wasn't Watching: Of course, great goaltending only denies the the opposition from scoring. You still have to score to win. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury was in net. He got beaten three times and none of them really made him look good.
First was the arguably the weakest of the bunch. The Devils were out-shot 10-2 as the first period entered it's final minute. It wasn't that the Devils didn't have attempts on net, they just didn't get them on net. Plus, they took two penalties that led to Pittsburgh boosting their shot count. Anyway, Andy Greene keeps a puck in at the blueline and just takes a wrist shot on net. It was deflected near the top of the circle by Craig Adams, which made the puck bounce but it also slowed the puck down. It never went high in the air or anything like that. It was a very stoppable puck. It trickled through Fleury's legs and just into the net. As Hockey Prospectus' Timo Seppa told me, it was a Fleury Special. It was a fortunate fluke for New Jersey. Thousands at the Rock chanted "You suck" at Fleury and he fully deserved it. It wouldn't surprise me if some of them came from Penguins fans, who were out in force in the stands tonight.
Second was arguably the strongest to allow, so to speak. It began with Brodeur knocking a passed puck away from Evgeni Malkin and Dainius Zubrus picking it up. Rather than dumping it in, something the Devils did a lot of tonight, he carried the puck into the zone and laid it off for Travis Zajac. Zajac moved in a bit and saw Larsson jump up on the play. He passed it across the slot, Larsson delayed, and then fired a wrist shot on net. The puck goes off the inside of Fleury's blocker, through his right armpit, and into the net. It was a great shot by the young defenseman. It also could have been stopped had Fleury moved a few inches to his left or kept his arms close to himself.
Third, well, this one made Kris Letang and Fleury silly. Zubrus went up on the forecheck as Paul Martin went D-to-D with a pass to Letang. Letang normally would get this puck away with ease, but he flubbed a pass. It went right off Zubrus and into the right point for Jaromir Jagr to pick it up with ease. Zubrus ran into Letang, but the defender was able to pop right back up as Jagr cut into the slot. He just froze Fleury with a beautiful wrist shot. All Fleury did was get into a tight form and then look behind at the net as if to wonder what just happened. The goal put the Pens in a deep 3-1 hole with less than six minutes to play.
This isn't to say that Fleury made no good saves. He impressively denied Michael Ryder one-on-one and stopped Steve Bernier on a breakaway in the second period. Yet, he didn't look good in net. He should have been beaten a fourth time by Patrik Elias, who fell instead of lifting a puck up past a prone Fleury off a silly rebound he allowed. When the eventual question of "How come this team can't score with Schneider in net?" comes up, I suggest looking at the other team's goalie in those games.
Ride the Line: Pittsburgh put up 28 shots on net and eleven them came from three players: Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, and Pascal Dupuis. While seven of those eleven came at evens, it's not a surprise that all three played together. Crosby's one of the best players in the world so seeing that he ultimately put up three shots on net isn't news. What is news was Kunitz' night. He scored the lone Pittsburgh goal and put six other shots on Brodeur. And they were good shots too; he was able to get behind the defense a few times and win pucks as needed to keep their attacks alive. He even drew a call on Adam Henrique for holding, though it appeared to be boarding more than anything else. The unit of Patrik Elias, Michael Ryder, and Henrique had their hands full of them. Kunitz and Crosby were threatening on the power play, too. They stood out for Pittsburgh. Thankfully, they only got the one goal.
Roll the Die: This simple phrase summarizes Marek Zidlicky on the offensive blue line with the puck. Sometimes, he'll put a good shot on net. Sometimes, he'll take a weak shot on net but at least it's on net. Sometimes, he'll pinch but do nothing much of consequence with the puck. Sometimes, he'll lose the puck at the blueline and concede an offensive chance. All of this happened tonight and the latter was hideous. It wasn't so much he couldn't handle the puck but it was a routine low puck up the boards and he made no effort to get back at all. Just the sort of play that highlights why some fans get frustrated with him. I can't fully disagree with that. Throw in the fact that he took a minor penalty away from the play in the third period and it was one assist shy of a vintage night from him. ronically, he saw plenty of Dupuis-Crosby-Kunitz and somehow came ahead in possession, moving the play forward. Still, it seems like it's a gamble when he has the puck, more than anyone else.
Learn A Breakout: The Devils had two power plays tonight: a standard two-minute man advantage and a four-minute man advantage when Crosby high-sticked Dainius Zubrus. The Devils got two shots total, and those came within the first minute on the double-minor penalty. They weren't bad shots but the Devils once again failed to even gain the zone properly. Their puck movement up ice was miserable. When they got near the blue line, they would dump it in. Yes, with an extra man on the ice, the Devils repeatedly couldn't identify someone open or try to just carry it in. Their option was to throw the puck away, which made it easy for the Penguins to clear it out. Terrible.
For whatever reason, this isn't that big of an issue at even strength although the Devils did this quite a bit in the first period. In contrast, the Penguins were able to gain the zone much more easily. Yes, having players like Letang, Malkin, and Crosby helps. But their puck movement made sense. They recognized that the Devils penalty killers were bunched in the middle so they got it around to get in the zone along the sides. If they had to dump it away, they could count on support from their teammates coming through the middle and offwing to make it possible to get a stop. It looked so simple when they did it that I honestly don't know why the Devils can't do the same. Identify where the holes are and get the puck there.
The Successful to a Point PK: Brodeur was easily the team's best penalty killer tonight. How can he not be? He faced eleven shots and stopped them all, including some real challenging ones. But it wasn't as if the Penguins just asserted their authority. It was really up-and-down. There were points where the Devils would get a few good clearances, some nice blocks to break up attacks, and reset. They looked good. There were other points where the Penguins got a great look and Brodeur had to come up big or the defense had to scramble to deny a rebound or loose puck opportunity. Pittsburgh being able to break out of the zone and get through to New Jersey's made all of that possible. While successful, I can't say the penalty killers were good given how much the Penguins were able to get in.
By the by, I felt three of the four calls the Devils took were avoidable. Henrique didn't need to grab/board Kunitz. Zidlicky did his thing away from the play and that was annoying. Larsson throwing a puck over the glass without much pressure was dumb. I'll excuse Zubrus' high-stick on Jussi Jokinen because that was really a follow-through of his stick as opposed to an intentional foul. Jokinen lifted Zubrus' stick to deny him a passed puck into the slot and Zubrus just got his face when he tried to get away. That was more of an accident in my eyes. The other three had the Devils play with fire. Fortunately, Brodeur had the extinguisher ready.
Other Notes: Here are some other thoughts from the game as I recall them.
I really liked Peter Harrold's performance tonight. He was much better than he was in L.A. in that he didn't cause any big errors. I really liked his long pass that sprung Bernier for a breakaway; I'd say that was his big highlight of the night.
The unit of Damien Brunner, Andrei Loktionov, and Steve Bernier did very well in terms of possession but I didn't think they did all that well going forward. Ultimately, these guys are good for a few shots here and there but not necessarily repeated threats on offense. I did like how Brunner caught his own stick when it was lifted out of his hands.
Michael Ryder continues to prove he's a younger Petr Sykora.
I think Travis Zajac got better as the game went on. The puck got away from him a few times early on but he was calmer on the puck later. His pass to Larsson was the right decision and he was rewarded with an assist. He had to do a lot of hustling in his own end on the PK. He played 21:38 and probably needed to do so.
Andy Greene is still a boss. Over 27 minutes of ice time and one attempt by the Devils shy of being 50% at evens. He gets things done. His goal was really an error by Fleury but it was good to see him get an early reward for a lot of unheralded play. He was named the second star of the game by Tonight's Attending Media and why not? Fluke goal aside, he was doing all kinds of things in his own end with very few blatant mistakes. Appreciate Greene.
Speaking of unheralded play, hello Dainius Zubrus. Possession wasn't kind to him at 12-18. However, he was near the top in attempts by the Devils and he helped make those happen. He also had a hand in all three goals on Fleury. His incoming hit force a clearing attempt that Greene stopped before he shot it; he gained the zone prior to Larsson's goal; and his forecheck on Letang led to the turnover that Jagr took advantage of.
James Neal trying to start something with Jagr was weirder than that one puck that went into the netting that wasn't whistled by the refs. Good on Jagr to not get into it as I don't want to see the team's leading scorer risk his hands or hand the Penguins another penalty from the "Why I Outtas" Neal was trying to throw out there.
I'm done with the Cam Janssen experience, though
More Change in the Experience: For the second night in the row, the platform behind Section 2 got a backdrop for the Devils Dance Party. Of course it starts with Earl and it ends with Earl and I'm sure everyone's having a good time with Earl's blessing. But it's always going to be Earl's Dance Party to me. Don't forget the hustle, don't forget the Earl.
The Prettiest Empty Net Goal I've Seen: A no-look, backhander off a spin move off a turnover by Kunitz. Jagr's just having fun out there at this point:
Your Take: The Devils win their third game in their last four and did it against the top team in the Metropolitan Division. Surely, you are pleased with this result? What about their performance, did you like that? Were you impressed with Brodeur as much as I was? How about those goals the Devils scored? Which Devils skater did you think did the best tonight? Who do you think should have had a better game? How would you fix the power play breakout at this point - assuming it's repairable? Did you notice Malkin much tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments. Thanks to those who commented in the Gamethread and thank you for reading.