Stepping up is a common phrase in sports. It's means for a player, a unit, a team, an organization, or even a fan base to do more. Improve their performance. Put out a better effort. Recognize that the situation may be non-ideal, dire, bleak, and/or downright bad and try to rise above it. They put out respectable efforts in their last two games, but they only scored once across those games and lost both. They had to deal with a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has been very good at home and very prolific in scoring. With the Devils without their best center in Travis Zajac, their best forward in Jaromir Jagr, their...well, Patrik Elias, an emerging defenseman in Adam Larsson, and without a win in their last five games, the Devils needed to collectively put up a strong game to get that elusive win. They essentially did that in their 5-3 win.
It was not so much a case of the Devils dominating the game in terms of possession. Toronto took the game over and that edge only increased in the third period as the lead did. But the Devils applied enough pressure to keep the team honest when they had the lead. To get that lead, the Devils took advantage of the sketchy defense that has been present for the Maple Leafs. Denied zone exits aren't a countable stat anywhere, but the Devils got plenty of those which kept their offense alive. It directly led to one of their power play goals, which gave them a 3-2 lead heading into the third. Their unawareness bit them for three other goals, which helped get the Devils up so big. The passing through the neutral zone was acceptable. Cory Schneider made plenty of impressive stops; but with the offense, he didn't have to be absolutely pinpoint perfect. It was the sort of game Devils fans like you and I haven't seen in a while. It wasn't just a very welcomed win, but a quality win.
What's more is who provided the goals. Eric Gelinas scored early to convert a power play with a wrist shot. Stephen Gionta put a dump-in back around the boards and then popped in his first of the season off a one-timer set-up by Steve Bernier. Mike Cammalleri got the team's second power play goal by pounding a rebound off the end boards from The Truth. Steve Bernier corralled a rebound in front of Jonathan Bernier off a Marek Zidlicky shot, curled and put the puck in low. After Michael Ryder forced a puck into the slot, Adam Henrique followed him with no issue to snipe the puck past Bernier after a weird diving poke check. That's two goals from the fourth line, two power play goals, and a goal to extend a lead created in part by a man who hasn't scored in a long while. With so many players out, the contributions had to come from varying sources and they did. That's what makes me pleased with the victory. The gameplan didn't rest on one unit doing all the work or hoping they'd win close. The team kept the Maple Leafs honest with the lead, they added to it, and they only had to sit back when they had a 4-on-6 penalty kill in the final minutes of the game. That's quite good, all things concerned.
It wasn't a perfect effort by any means, but given the situation of the team's lack of recent results and lack of healthy players, they clearly stepped up. They were rewarded for it. Well done.
The Game Stats: 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: Maybe Pension Plan Puppets will recap this game? They didn't for the team's 5-3 win on Tuesday. Maybe they will because they lost? I don't know.
The Game Highlights: Goals from Gelinas, Cammalleri, Henrique, Bernier, and Gionta should be enough of a reason to check out the highlight video from NHL.com:
Fangless Cerberus: Toronto's top line didn't really play like one at even strength. Phil Kessel, James van Reimsdyk, and Tyler Bozak certainly got their 'O' going but it was mostly on the power play. Kessel's four shots and his one goal - a total consolation goal - was on the power play. Bozak's lone shot was on the power play. Van Reimsdyk was the only one of the trio who put up three shots at evens - and somehow got nothing on net in the third. They actually struggled against the Seth Helgeson and Marek Zidlicky pairing at evens, which is really impressive considering it's a rookie and Marek Zidlicky. They saw a lot of Adam Henrique, Michael Ryder, and Mike Cammalleri at evens and because Henrique's line attacked so much, they didn't get nearly as much in response. That the Devils kept them mostly in check at even strength was a big reason why the Devils got the result they got. Kessel, van Reimsdyk, and Bozak lead Toronto's goal and shot production; so if they only do damage on special teams and it wasn't much, then that's a victory within the game that can help lead towards a victory in the game.
These Other Leafs Did What They Wanted: While the top line was quelled, two other lines behind them had their way with the Devils at times. The unit of Daniel Winnik, Peter Holland, and David Clarkson were just a handful at times tonight. They combined for nine of Toronto's 23 shots at even strength tonight and made life difficult for most of the Devils, especially Jon Merrill. They nearly scored in the third with a scrum in the net where Michael Ryder had to cross-check Holland down, giving Toronto their first power play of the night. So they did well but thanks to some timely clean ups in front of the net and Schneider, they didn't get on the scoreboard.
The most threatening line was Mike Santorelli, Nazem Kadri, and Joffery Lupul. They didn't start off great, but when they got going, it was a force to be reckoned with. Damon Severson and Andy Greene played a lot of defense tonight against them. The Henrique line had some troubles with them, the Jacob Josefson-led line absolutely had trouble with them, and the few shifts Merrill and Gelinas saw against them were difficult to watch at times. This unit actually did get on the scoreboard. Lupul took a shot from distance and Santorelli re-directed it down next to Schneider. The stick was judged to be below the crossbar, so the goal stood. Kadri didn't score at evens, but he made the Devils' power play look stupid with a shorthanded goal off his own rebound. Thankfully, that would be it from them.
This isn't to say that the Devils got totally rolled beyond the Bozak line. The Devils did get a little offense against them. Just that these two lines gave the Devils the most problems. I will say that while the attempts were ugly for Severson, Greene, Mike Sislo, Damien Brunner, and Tuomo Ruutu among others. Yet, they didn't get heavily outshot at evens or shut out from being present for shots. So the Devils got pressured, but it wasn't as if it was a total shooting gallery for the Leafs when it happened.
The Return of Sislo: While Sislo got to play more in his own end than otherwise, I was generally pleased with how he played. He wasn't an eyesore at all for the 15:03 of ice time he did play. He got a shot off, he helped set up others for shots, and he used his speed well to chase down pucks. Late in the game, his forechecking efforts did give the Leafs pause in their own end, and little things like that have to be done to help hold on to a lead. I'm not saying that Sislo needs to stay with New Jersey. But he was OK in a non-ideal situation.
The Return of Ryder: Michael Ryder had himself a neat performance tonight. He didn't get hammered on defense, which is usually good. While he only got one shot on net, he did attempt five shots, which is what I'd like to see from him. I really did like Ryder's two assists. He was very smart to stay in front of the net while minding with the defender behind it. When Marek Zidlicky kept it in, Ryder was in a good spot to collect it off the sideboards and laid a good pass to Gelinas. That became Cammalleri's goal, which took a 3-2 lead late in the second period. Later in the third, he took a chip in by Adam Henrique, curled, and instead of just releasing a shot that Bernier was ready for, he dragged it into the middle. Korbinian Holzer just lied on the ice, couldn't really knock it away but because of that, Henrique was able to drop in behind him for a shot. He's helping make things happen and that's what going to keep him as a regular. The goals will come provided he keeps firing away. (He also got a friendly no-call for a hook on a needless forecheck in the third, so no penalties for him.)
The Return of Merrill: Well, Jon Merrill got two assists tonight. Good? Well, it's not quite so simple. He struggled in his own end of the rink. When Daniel Winnik beats you with a simple move by the net, it's indicative of a bad night. He was just a bit off with everything he did in his own end, from positioning to making clearances. While he got the two assists, he didn't attempt a shot on net and that's with nearly three minutes on the power play. It was good in general to see him back what with Adam Larsson suddenly getting sick. While he had his struggles, he wasn't a complete and utter disaster. I'm just saying he could have been better. In his defense, it was the first game back after an injury so he'll have the opportunity to be better. It'll be interesting to see what happens after Larsson comes back; keep in mind Peter Harrold was already sent down to Albany for his return.
The Return of One Awful Power Play: The Devils scored two power play goals, but their power play ended up as a +1 tonight. They conceded a shorthanded goal tonight and it was terrible. Nazem Kadri just took the puck up ice, Zidlicky did nothing about it (Aside: Zidlicky had a very good night other than this in my view), Kadri took a shot, Schneider paddled the rebound away in haste, Severson bungled that puck, Kadri took it and easily put it in. That was awful. So did the fact that it tied up the game at the time 2-2. But it wasn't just that moment for the Devils' second power play of the night. That whole advantage was a waste as the Devils seemingly spent more time not in Toronto's end than they were in it. Because the Devils did convert the other two chances and won the game, it'll just be noted that it was bad and not necessarily a sign that the power play is going to become some kind of colander for penalty killing forwards to get through.
The Return of Cammalleri: OK, he wasn't out, but I wasn't real pleased with his performance in Pittsburgh. He passed up a few shots and didn't really create so many. Tonight, he got four on net, he did score a PPG, and he was very active in all situations. He ended up being one of New Jersey's better forwards in possession and helped make the Devils go forward. This is the kind of game the team needs from Cammalleri, especially with Jagr and Zajac still out.
The Continued Return of the Bernier Comeback Season: Bernier has been playing good hockey for his role in recent weeks. Tonight, he was in full effect. He actually created one of his two shots out of sheer will. He was strong on the forecheck. His passes were mostly good, with the highpoint being his feed to Gionta in the second period. Bernier got four attempts at shooting and scored his first goal since November 7. It allowed people to throw up the rare "X on X crime" statement, with X = Bernier. He's still very much a fourth liner, but he was effective tonight. Arguably the best player named Bernier at the rink tonight. Nights like this justify his continued inclusion in the lineup. So while he didn't leave, his good play continues his cause to stay in the NHL.
The Return of Questionable Decisions by the Opponent: When Tuomo Ruutu was correctly tagged for a tripping penalty late in the game, the Leafs had the puck. There was about 2:30 left. Bernier was pulled for the extra skater and the Leafs proceeded to pass it around, have a puck bounce off someone's skate to leave the zone, have another Leaf recover and skate all the way back to their own slot, and then attempt a breakout. Roughly 26 seconds later, a Devil touches it. Down three goals, the Leafs should've thrown the puck away, let the Devils get it immediately, then push for a quick power play goal to keep faint hope alive. Well, they burned nearly half of a minute and then thanks largely to Cory Schneider making some ridiculous point-blank saves, it takes about 90 seconds before Kessel batted in a puck. Not that the Leafs were more likely to score three in 2:30 than three in two minutes, but it only helped the Devils retain the lead. The PPGA? I don't care, it was purely consolation. At least Kessel left the rink with another mark in the 'G' column.
The Return of Goals: Seriously, the Devils scored five goals on a goaltender for the first time since the second game of the season. The Devils didn't just snap a five-plus-period long scoreless streak, they put it away and made Jonathan Bernier suffer for it. I cannot emphasize how much I enjoy that. Let's hope it continues along with some returning players.
Your Take: The Devils won their first game in nearly two weeks and did so by a decisive score; they out-scored a high-scoring Leafs team. What was your reaction to the win? Who would you say was the best Devil tonight? Who could have been much better? Who stepped up the most? What do you think of the performance in general? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.