November 11. It was a night where Cory Schneider was the star, bailing out a secondary effort by most of his skaters. It was a night where Schneider made it hard on himself for a goal against he should not have conceded. It was a night where the skaters did pull two goals out of nowhere. It was a night were the home team sealed the win with a late power play as Minnesota got caught with too many men on the ice - and Travis Zajac put home an empty netter. It was the last time the New Jersey Devils won a game in regulation at the Rock.
December 8. It was a night where Cory Schneider was the star, bailing out a secondary effort by the entire Devils roster. Especially in the third period where the team put up a whopping one shot on goal in the face of 16 by Carolina. The Canes got one back but Schneider was the definition of a wall to maintain the slimmest of margins late. The effort beyond the crease didn't warrant a win, but the Devils got one in sixty minutes of play. It was the last time the Devils won a game in regulation.
Tonight, both marks were reset as the Devils won a game in regulation and in front of a legitimately sold out crowd at the Prudential Center. The Devils beat up on the really-beaten-up Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1. This winning feeling feels great and it's been a long time coming.
The start was auspicious and familiar. The game was the definition of dreary with both teams putting up a few shots here and there as the dump-ins were plentiful. The Devils did have one good shift going, and then Sidney Crosby turned into a superstar again. Crosby got past Andy Greene - a good defenseman - with total ease and then somehow lifted a backhander above Schneider's glove like it was a slapshot. It was a wonderful goal for the Pens. And the Devils responded with more dump-ins, chip-aways, and standing about on defense as the Penguins put up the next six shots to close out the period. My fear was apparently coming true: that Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury could be good enough to carry an ailing Pens team to a win against the Devils.
That did not happen and it started in the second period. It only took about a minute or so to get that shot on net. The passing wasn't all that good, but a few more of them were hitting home and the Penguins weren't coming right back with shots of their own. Hope began to mount when Tuomo Ruutu hit a post. A little later, Andrew Ebbet boarded Stephen Gionta right in front of the referee for the team's first power play. The 1-3-1 set up actually yielded good puck movement and a good result. Marek Zidlicky bombed a slapshot on Fleury, Dainius Zubrus was denied on his rebound attempt, but Travis Zajac swooped in for the second effort and the goal. Later in the second, after a good penalty kill, Ruutu was sprung for a good look on net. That didn't go and the Pens countered. Jayson Megna tried to stop but fell instead, allowing Jon Merrill to easily take the puck. He immediately moved it up to Jaromir Jagr, who took it across to the left circle and fired a lovely wrist shot past Simon Despres and Fleury, off the right post and in. The Rock exploded with glee as it was the Devils turning 0-1 into a comeback of their own for a change. The two good goals scored were also the result of making the Penguins pay for their errors. It wasn't necessarily a great period but much better than a bad one.
The third period was a good example of how to play with the lead. When the Devils got an opportunity to go forward, they've did so - they didn't just dump the puck away (common in the first period) or just sit on it. They didn't completely abandon their forecheck. It paid off. Travis Zajac picked up a defensive turnover, which led to a good attacking shift that ended with Adam Henrique jamming a puck past Fleury for a 3-1 lead. (Kris Letang was salty about it. Too bad, bro.) When they had a chance to break through, they did and got two one-on-ones where Fleury had to make a tough stop to prevent a 4-1 lead. The Devils were resolute on their penalty kill, they used their third period power play like an actual third period power play, and ultimately were close in matching Pittsburgh shot-for-shot. Schneider did have to work well and the Devils were fortunate some of those rebounds didn't go Pittsburgh's ways and some of those opportunities turned out to be misses. They were guilty of puck watching at times. Considering they managed to keep the Penguins more than honest with the lead, added to that lead, and nearly did so again, it's hard to complain. A too many men on the ice call with Fleury pulled all but iced the game and sent thousands home happy for a glorious change.
I don't know about you, but even if 2014-15 is lost, I'd rather see more performances like this. If only to avoid going over a month and a half without a home win in regulation. It's fun to smile after a game for a change.
The Game Summary: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts
The Opposition Opinion: James Conley has this recap up at PensBurgh.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight's highlights featuring a sweet goal by Jagr:
But What About those All Important Fights?: Part of the story behind this win was that Jordin Tootoo fought Robert Bortuzzo twice. Since the Devils scored some time after each fight, it somehow made a difference. Sure, it got the crowd excited, though the crowd was significantly louder for the goals scored. It's no secret I'm no fan of fighting. And neither fight really had any point. I find it hard to believe that Tootoo would wait until the second period to enact "revenge" for a headshot that led to a punishment by a league nearly a month ago in a game where Tootoo didn't even both trying to go for "revenge" on that evening. And then do it again. The two were jawjacking and since neither were doing much of anything, they went for it. Simple as. If anything, Tootoo was fortunate not to get a high-sticking call before his second fight.
Further, to say the fights energized the team to score goals makes no sense. Why were they energized by the first fight but not Ruutu hitting the post or getting a power play in the nearly two minutes afterwards? Tootoo's second fight was at the 16:16 mark and the Devils had to kill a minor taken by Ruutu for holding. I don't see how throwing fists got them up for killing a penalty. Nor how it made Megna fell for Merrill to easily find Jagr or how Jagr put home a fantastic shot. That's ultimately the issue with "momentum." If a hit, a shot, a good play, a successful kill, and other things can all affect it, then a fight really doesn't mean all that much. If you liked the fights, fine. But you can't tell me Tootoo's 2:37 of work somehow provided the key inspiration the team to score two second period goals for a big win tonight.
A Second Chance: At least Tootoo was notable for that. I'll say that much. Joe Whitney made his return to the NHL. Given that he was on a line with Tootoo and Tim Sestito, it's not like he was set up for much success. Given that the team has resorted to calling up Whitney, it's not like there's a plethora of spots available. In any case, Whitney played 5:17 and showed nothing that suggests he really belongs here. He's not all that fast, he's not all that good off the puck, he's not all that good defensively, and he's not even all that for energy. Those who lamented he only got eight minutes last season got a reminder of exactly why. No disrespected intended, I just don't think he did anything that would warrant further action. He might get some, though, and I'll get to why in a bit.
You Need Your Top Players to Be Top Players: Against the Rangers, Tootoo led the Devils in shots on net. Either that means he had the game of his life or the rest of the skaters weren't at all good going forward. Tonight, it was refreshing to see a turnaround.
After a poor first shift, Travis Zajac just got better as the game went on. He was awesome, whether it was making plays on defense, controlling the puck, and picking up some turnovers. Zajac earned his goal and an assist, and he was close to getting a second goal when he forced his way through a Penguins defender for a quick one-on-one with Fleury. Fleury made the stop, but Zajac controlled the rebound to keep the attack going. I really liked how he played tonight after the first period, and I hope he can keep it up.
Jaromir Jagr also broke a long goalless drought with a sweet goal. When Jagr was out there, the play tended to go forward and that's not an accident. He was pivoting with a purpose. He made better decisions on when to shoot it and when to defer. The goal certainly helps but Jagr was playing like he did many times last season. That makes him an asset and the Devils need him to be that if they want to be somewhat competitive going forward.
Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri had poor starts. Henrique resembled Michael Ryder in the first period and Cammalleri just couldn't get shots off. By the third, they got out of whatever was holding them back. Henrique was moving his feet more and was more aware of what was going on offense. He ended up with four shots and a goal for his efforts, while being more useful on defense. Cammalleri got four shots in the third period alone. Not that Cammalleri is like Ryder where he's only helping if he's shooting, he has the concepts of defending pretty down pat. But when Cammalleri is doing so, the offense is noticeably better for it and that helped make the third period so good for the Devils.
This isn't to say the other forwards or defensemen didn't help. But if the Devils want to be in more games, then they need their remaining top forwards to be effective and at least threaten to score. That not only happened, but three of them got goals. That's a good thing.
One Extreme to Another on Defense: Defensively, I saw a lot of standing around when the Penguins were able to get possession on offense at times. That, I did not like. However, it happened against certain defenseman more than others and that was because of match-ups. Those are key because Andy Greene and Peter Harrold got rolled by Sidney Crosby's line and a healthy amount of Evgeni Malkin. Jon Merrill and Marek Zidlicky had a far better time not going against those players. That said, I really liked how Zidlicky and Merrill played in general. They didn't give up loose pucks, they got some good shots on net, and they were fairly solid. Greene-Harrold was a real mixed bag. Greene got highlighted in the worst way on the goal against, but he settled down somewhat in one-on-one situations. Not enough to really stop any unit led by #87. While their match-ups were the most difficult, I'm not so sold on that being a viable pairing for long. While Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson were far better at not giving pucks away, I don't think either's really good enough to step up next to Zidlicky or Greene.
I Shrug: Who is Bryan Rust?
Seriously, I know that the Penguins are going really deep into their system for warm bodies. But Bryan Rust was with Crosby all game long; that's the best they can do? He got two shots on net for his efforts. He was with Crosby even when Evgeni Malkin was moved up to play with him late in the game. If you're going to put all your aces in one unit, then I'm baffled that the Penguins didn't put Chris Kunitz with them. Kunitz has played with Crosby a lot and he had six shots on ten attempts tonight. I would've rolled with that three and hope for the best. Thankfully for the Devils, that did not happen.
By the by, you know how I said your top players have to be your top players? While Crosby and Malkin pushed the play forward a lot, they only had two and one shots, respectively. That's a small victory in of itself given the opponent. Believe it or not, Kunitz had six and Despres had seven (!), nearly half of the total shots the Penguins had tonight. At least Crosby had that highlight-reel worthy goal and the Despres pairing with Derrick Pouliot looked solid - Jagr goal aside.
Special Teams Win: Here's another reason to smile: the Devils got a PPG, put up four shots on their two power plays (their third was at the very end and they understandably attack it like they would normally do so), and they were very good on their kills. Their breakout on the power plays were good, they didn't get cute on the penalty kill, and they didn't get too aggressive shorthanded. The Penguins aren't a bad team at all on special teams, so getting the better of them in that regard is another plus.
Schneider Was Good And Didn't Have to Be Perfect: If you're going to concede a goal, I guess one like Crosby's is hard to be mad about. I will likely change my opinion on it upon closer inspection this summer, but I don't think there can be much complaint about Schneider's performance. He was in good positions for the shots he faced. He handled the puck well, bravely moving it and correctly to prevent a Penguin from getting a free look at it. I was happy for him that the skaters gave him some goal support and didn't play like the other team was going to drop 40 attempts in a period on him.
Still Needs Work: If the Devils want to build on this, their puck movement needs to get better. They were hitting more of their passes in the third period, which gives me some hope. But let's not forget the constant dump-ins and chips in the first period. Or the bad line changes that nearly caught the Devils out at times due in part by not putting the puck in advantageous places for quick changes. That does not lead to much good for the Devils and a sharper opponent will pick up on that and make the Devils suffer for it. Look at most of the games from the last two months for that. So it's imperative that they show their more effective movement in the third period is a result of the players executing better rather than just getting the benefit of a frustrated opponent that's not even remotely close to a full strength lineup.
Congratulations: Tonight was Scott Gomez's 1,000th career game. He was fine tonight.
Bad News: Stephen Gionta did not play after midway through the second period. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice after the game that he has broken his hand. That's really bad news as the Devils are short on NHL forwards in the short term and a broken hand means he'll be out for a while. Say what you want about Gionta but he's a far, far better option in the bottom six than Tim Sestito.
Lastly: The Devils were out-attempted 11-19, with much of that deficit coming after the goal by Crosby. Attempts were even since then. That speaks to the Devils playing relatively well with the lead as much as it speaks to the Penguins not playing all that well.
Your Take: I'm still smiling from this win. I want to know what you think. What did you make from the overall team performance? Was it a case of the Devils playing well or more that the Penguins just weren't sharp enough? Who was the best Devil in your opinion tonight? How good does it feel that the team finally won a home game in regulation? Please leave your thoughts on tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks for all those who commented in the Gamethread and followed along on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.