Sometimes, it's just your night. Sometimes, the puck gets onto your stick just a bit more often. Sometimes, you're able to make that one little move that beats a defender or gets into space. Sometimes, the pucks drop in your way. When it happens, it can be absolutely beautiful. Tonight, the Rock and a nation-wide audience got to witness Travis Zajac have one of those fantastic nights for the New Jersey Devils against the Florida Panthers.
He has never scored a hat trick in his career. The New Jersey Devils have not had anyone record a hat trick since March of 2012. Zajac has not finished all kinds of great chances with some regularity this season. Jaromir Jagr would often set him up only for the opportunity to not go well. Not tonight. Zajac scored the game's first goal when he jammed a loose puck through Dan Ellis. He scored the game's third goal when he slapped a loose puck from the slot right past Ellis to convert a power play. He nearly had a hat trick within the first period alone, not finishing on a breakaway and a one-timer on a later power play. He deferred to Ryane Clowe on a two-on-one early in the second - and it paid off as Clowe beat Ellis on his flank. But he eventually got the third goal as the game's icing on the proverbial cake. Tuomo Ruutu set him up into the slot. Ellis made the first stop on a backhander, but as Zajac persisted and popped the rebound - his sixth shot of the game - over his pad. The hats gloriously flew onto the ice surface. Zajac was the best player on the ice and the caps provided the exclamation mark.
Of course, very few people in hockey ever do it by themselves. Jaromir Jagr snapped a four game pointless streak with one goal with a perfectly-placed shot to the far post and three assists. He took the shot that baffled Ellis that Zajac cleaned up right at the start of the game. He stopped Nick Bjugstad right along the side boards in the neutral zone, took the puck, and fed it up for Zajac to start the two-on-one. He moved the puck ahead in the neutral zone into Florida's end such that Ruutu was able to get on it and throw it to the middle, only to find that Zajac had a step on (I think) Colby Robak. Clowe was fantastic with those two; scoring a goal and getting an assist on Zajac's PPG by knocking the puck out while battling for it. After Clowe left the game with an injury in the second period, Ruutu was moved up and it was like nothing changed as that line still dominated. It just went their way.
By the score, you'd expect some kind of beat down performance with Florida getting a few consolation goals. That's not what happened. But I'm in too good of a mood to lead with how dramatic the game was. All thanks to Zajac's hat trick, the Devils faithful have every reason to smile. It nearly all went his way and it drove the team their first win since last Sunday against Toronto.
The Opposition Opinion: Please check out Litter Box Cats for all your Panthers needs.
The Game Highlights: The ecstasy of Zajac's three goals out of the Devils' six. The agony of the three given up. From NHL.com, this is the highlight video of the game for the whole wide world of sports:
Near-Perfect First Period: The Devils started their last two games very poorly. The Panthers have been notoriously bad in first periods all season long. The Devils took full advantage and dropped hammers on the Panthers for the majority of the first twenty minutes. The Panthers iced the puck right after the opening faceoff and the Devils made them pay with a quick goal. After that, the Devils just swarmed Florida over and over. They ended the period up 18-4 in shots. For kicks, check out the Fenwick graph in the Extra Skater game stats; the Devils just blew away from Florida in the possession department and never looked back.
Zajac had his two goals, Jagr had a goal, and the Devils came remarkably close to scoring a fourth goal. After Jagr's goal, Jimmy Hayes got tagged for hooking and the Devils made the league's worst penalty kill pay. It was an absolute joy between the Zajac line creaming players, Dainius Zubrus maneuvering around guys like he was Jagr, Eric Gelinas being active and smart about it, and the fourth line making things happen. It was all wonderful. Until 15:46 into the game.
After Ed Jovanovski hit Ryan Carter in the corner and bizarrely decided to start wailing on him, he got a double-minor for roughing. Given how the Devils pretty much owned the game, I and many fans were expecting a fourth goal. Oh, there was - for the game. While the Devils had a number of great looks such as Marek Zidlicky getting an unexpected cross-ice pass for a one-timer that nearly beat Ellis and Zajac getting a one-timer in front that just went wide, the power play was just out of sorts at times. A bad pinch (or a turnover?) by Damien Brunner turned ugly as Bjugstad took it up and rushed up ice. He went lateral to draw attention and no one picked up Dmitry Kulikov. Kulikov wound up and put home a well-placed unscreened shot past Martin Brodeur. 3-1 and all of a sudden, the Panthers have something to build on. The Devils didn't convert the power play, Sean Bergenheim threatened to score a second SHG (he didn't get a shot away), and so that stretch was the lone bad event for the Devils all period long. It was a near-perfect start and it came against a team that has absolutely struggled against them.
These Cats Have Claws: As Montreal fans and those who read my preview will tell you, the Panthers wouldn't give up in this game without a fight. They took advantage of the Devils' lack of discipline in the second period; putting seven shots on net out of four power plays in a row. And there were some real good ones like a breakaway allowed and multiple shots through traffic. They out-shot the Devils 13-7 and pulled within one in the period. Oh, how did that happen? Well, that deserves it's own section.
Undefendable: Martin Brodeur conceded three goals out of nine shots. The Kulikov goal beat him. Not even a minute into the second period, Brad Boyes got past Mark Fayne after a hit, deked around Zajac (one of the few things that went bad for #19), and beat Brodeur. Brodeur covered the post but as Boyes went around Zajac he assumed he'd keep going so he moved away from the post. Guess where Boyes shot it. Just as the time expired on Patrik Elias' penalty - which occurred during a penalty being served by Fayne - the Panthers were able to get one last shot off. Dylan Olson fired a slapshot from distance, it deflected off Brandon Pirri in the slot, and the puck slid along the ice through Brodeur. He sadly fell as if he slipped on a banana peel as the puck got by him. That was it for him; Peter DeBoer pulled him for Cory Schneider.
Honestly, this was the right call. While Brodeur did make one important stop early in the first, three goals allowed out of nine shots is simply unacceptable. Yes, there could and should have been better help on the first two. Yes, Jacob Josefson should've knocked the puck away instead of trying to skate it out only to have Kulikov use his power to get it away. Yes, Kulikov and Boyes had great shots and Pirri's goal was a deflection. But those were all entirely stoppable had Brodeur played better. That's a feeling I've felt many times this season and I know I'm not the only one. A 3-0 lead turned into 4-3 because of it. Florida really did come that close to making a proper comeback - especially with all of the penalties the Devils took in the middle period. If DeBoer stuck with him, I think it would have happened.
About the Opposition Goalie: In that light, how come Dan Ellis didn't get pulled by Peter Horachek? Well, their back up tonight was Scott Clemmensen. In retrospect, I think he would have received this game instead of likely starting in Long Island. In fairness, Ellis didn't get beat by as many stoppable goals. Though he's going to regret the one that really dug the hole too deep for Florida.
Cory's Better: Schneider not only came into the game, but he had to come in hot. It would be several minutes before his first save of the night, but it came during a rather feisty power play. Eric Gelinas got beat by Quinton Howden, held him, and almost didn't stop him. The Panthers put up four quick shots and a total of six on that power play. Schneider came up big on them all and continued to keep pucks out for the rest of the way. He'll still start in Buffalo, which I think makes sense.
Josefson's Moment: Jacob Josefson was inserted into the lineup due to an injury to Stephen Gionta. Josefson made a real mark on the game. The fourth line had a solid night in general. He took multiple shots on net: three out of five attempts, which is big for him since he doesn't always recognize when he should shoot the puck. He skated real well. Josefson got time on the PK and looked bad near the end of Elias' minor when Kulikov stripped him of the puck before he got it out. That led to the play that led to Pirri's goal and Brodeur's exit. But Josefson was doing well enough before that even to keep playing, even on the PK. That led to his big moment.
Ryan Carter beat Robak to a cleared puck around the boards in the neutral zone. Josefson joined him on the rush and Carter slid a pass to him. Josefson one-timed it - and beat Ellis low. Josefson finally scored his first goal of the season. And it was an important goal. It re-established a two-goal lead for the Devils. It redeemed him of what happened earlier. It made a lot of people like myself feel confident that the Devils would keep this game in their favor. And it just made the hole way too deep for Florida to catch up. He did very well and it's nights like this that will keep him in the lineup.
Another Injury: Unfortunately, another injury struck the Devils that would have necessitated Josefson's inclusion in the next few games. Clowe was checked by Howden in what seemed like an ordinary hit. But Clowe was clearly dazed and skated right to the bench, hunched over. Play didn't stop but it slowed down considerably from both teams so he could get off. He did not return and there is so far no update to his status. Unless the Devils go with seven defensemen (meaning one of Volchenkov, Salvador, or Merrill has to be ready to play) tomorrow, they would need to call up a forward.
It's real unfortunate for Clowe because he was playing very well with Jagr and Zajac tonight. It was a combination that I don't think DeBoer has really used. They absolutely picked on Kulikov and Robak at evens. I don't know why Horachek didn't try to get Brian Campbell and Erik Gudbranson out there against them when he could.
What in the World?: Believe it or not, the best possession players for Florida tonight were Krys Barch and Jimmy Hayes. These weren't guys who just got a few events for and little against. The Panthers severely outshot their competition at evens when they were out there. What's crazier was that their most common match-up was the unit of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Damien Brunner. Seriously, that's not a line that should be struggling much against anyone. Especially with zero defensive zone starts at evens. But those three were way at the bottom of possession. Sure, the Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas pairing was also below break even, but they weren't as bad for attempts and the shots were in NJ's favor when Gelinas was out there. I just don't get why the Elias line was so poor at evens and why Barch and Hayes were so good.
Return of Adam: Adam Larsson got a moderate cheer when he was announced before the game to be added to the lineup. I think it's fair to say that most Devils fans think he belongs in New Jersey. He had an OK game. He had some struggles, but nothing too major. I didn't like the high-sticking penalty he took right before the end of the second period. I didn't think he was all that great on the PK, but when Fayne serves a penalty and two guys who play big PK minutes aren't available, his inclusion was necessary. Still, not a lot bad happened when he was out there (no, the Pirri goal isn't on him) and that's what you want from a defender. I think he'll be a better off with another game or two to get back into the swing of things.
The Truth: Three shots, five attempts, nothing too obscene on defense, and only one penalty because he got beat with speed. I can live with that from Gelinas.
Marked: Ryan Carter drew all four power plays for the Devils tonight. His speed helped create a goal, drew a hook from Hayes in the first period, and a trip from Robak in the third. Jovanovski being a big jerk led to four minutes for him. Throw that in with a primary assist and a solid night in possession and it's clear he had a good game.
If You Watch the Games, Then You Know: Peter Harrold has been trying a bit too hard when he tries to beat guys one-on-one with the puck. But other than that, there isn't much to complain about when he's out there. Tonight was no different. I liked his hustle to deny potential Florida attacks. His pairing with Marek Zidlicky was actually quite good; Florida didn't go at them all that much. Unlike Zidlicky, he didn't get a lot of offensive zone starts so he wasn't all that protected. He played nearly as much as Andy Greene tonight, and I think it was warranted. I wouldn't want him to play 20+ regularly for an extended stretch of time. But with three injuries on defense and the way he's been playing, I'm fine with that.
Booooo?: Scott Gomez still got some boos tonight. Come on, he's on Florida now in the twilight of his career. Hasn't he suffered enough?
Seriously: Five straight penalties. Do I have to say that discipline was lacking? Do I have to say they can't continue on like this? They probably won't but still.
One Last Note: Zajac was awesome tonight. Yes, I already explained why. It bears repeating: six shots on net, 13-4 in Corsi, an assist, and a hat trick. I'd love to see what he (and Jagr) does to follow that up.
Your Take: The Devils won big over a team I think most fans would hope they would beat. It took a winding road to get there, but they did get there. What's your take? How did you react when Zajac put in that third goal? What were your feelings when Florida pulled within one in the second period and Brodeur was pulled? Outside of Zajac's line, who do you think had a stand out performance? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the gamethread and followed the sparse tweets of @InLouWeTrust. Thanks for reading.