Coming out of the Rock tonight, I witnessed a lot of cheering, I saw a lot of happy faces, and overheard chatter that this was the best the New Jersey Devils have played all season. I don't know, I really liked that effort in Philly; but this one was up there. The Devils beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-2. That may not seem like a big lead. It did for quite some time as Devils went up four goals to nothing within the first thirty minutes of the game. It wasn't until the final seven minutes or so did the Blackhawks exert anything resembling dominance and that required having an extra skater. I don't know about you, but forcing the opposing coach to pull the goalie with well over five minutes left indicates that you did real well up until that point.
Similar to their last home game, the Devils got off to a good start. They cashed in early when Lee Stempniak picked Niklas Hjarmalsson's turnover and proceeded to beat Corey Crawford five-hole. The Blackhawks put up more of an effort from that point, but the Devils remained strong in their own end and in the neutral zone. There wasn't so much pinning back, but two teams trading attempts at attacking. Closer to the end of the first, the Devils started breaking through more and making Crawford work. After Crawford froze a shot by Jiri Tlusty, Travis Zajac won the resulting faceoff. Kyle Palmieri pounced on the puck and sniped one past Crawford. Less than a minute later, Zajac attempted a backhander in the slot. It got blocked by Hjarmalsson and Zajac put the rebound home to make it 3-0. Chicago got mad, Adam Henrique and Jonathan Toews got into a scrap, and the home team cruised to close out the period. The Devils out-shot, out-attempted, and out-scored Chicago in the first. It was a dream start.
The dream kept going in the second period. After killing a penalty, Mike Cammalleri took the puck up ice and fired a hard shot at Scott Darling. Yes, Crawford was replaced at intermission. The Devils chased a goalie out. Darling didn't really hold onto it but it was stopped. Chicago cleared the zone and tried to attack. They failed. The Devils responded with a rush up ice. Kyle Palmieri took it in and dropped it back to Damon Severson. Severson saw Cammalleri all alone heading towards the left circle. Fantastic pass, one-timer, 4-0 Devils.
What's more is that didn't slow the Devils down. They kept attacking. Darling had to be strong pushing off his skates to deny at least three cross-ice looks by the Devils. Sergey Kalinin got a one-on-one with Darling, got stopped, Trevor Daley led him into the goalie, and Palmieri put home the rebound. The goal was waved off and the call was upheld despite a coach's challenge. No matter, the Devils kept pushing forward for that fifth goal. They nearly got it.
Of course, there was some drama near the end of the second. Patrick Kane wheeled out above the high slot, fired a wrister, and it got through a screen to make it 4-1. No big deal on it's own. It became more of a big deal when David Schlemko high-sticked Andrew Shaw in the corner with twenty seconds left in the period. A quick conversion would make it a more interesting game. Fortunately, the Devils killed the call and went back to doing more than Chicago and doing better than them at what they were doing. Whether it was winning puck battles in the neutral zone, denying attacks from the side, or making passes, the Devils were doing better. Up until 6:42 was remaining. Joel Quenneville decided to pull Darling.
What transpired was the Blackhawks, by sheer force of numbers, pushing the Devils back into their own end. Even if they got an offside call, Darling went back on the ice, quickly went off once Chicago gained the zone to continue the pressure. They were kept mostly to the perimeter, though that was still dangerous in that a puck could sneak through all of those bodies. Schneider was on point tonight and the defense did their best to ease some of the pressure. Alas, the Devils couldn't get many clearances and they only had one potential attempt at the empty net. The gambit would pay off for Chicago as Andrei Panarin put a pass to Tanner Kero right in front of the net. After a deke, Kero put home his first NHL goal. It would be 4-2, but there wasn't much reason to worry. Whereas the Devils couldn't ice the game, it took a little over five minutes of 6-on-5 hockey for Chicago to make it a two-shot game. So it worked, just later than Quenneville probably would've liked. The Devils clamped down on the remaining time and the game was won.
In general, those last seven minutes really tilted the ice and the shot-attempt differential in Chicago's favor. However, shots through to the net and shots on net tell a tale more in line with how the game went. Chicago would eventually lead in those categories, but it was out of desperation. They weren't the better team for most of this game. The Devils dug a too big hole for them. If there was a criticism for New Jersey tonight, then it was those last seven minutes or so, but it's hard to complain given they had to deal with six skaters. They built up such a lead that only massive breakdown would've done them in. They kept it tight and didn't let it happen.
Ultimately, the Devils can claim this as a statement win. They showed that they can chase a goalie. (I think that's the first time this season they've done that?) They can keep attacking with a lead; that didn't die until later in the third period. They defended their lead well, Chicago only answered two of the goals; in retrospect, it was all in consolation. They kept their general composure in light of a foul or a goal against. They did it against a Chicago team that, while weaker than last year's team, are still defending champions and feature more talent on paper. They showed they can more than just competitive at that level; on some nights, they can take over. Pretty much all Devils fans should be pleased with tonight's win.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Second City Hockey, Robert Zeglinski has this short recap on the loss.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a highlight video featuring four Devils goals I know you'll just enjoy:
Take The CF/CA Numbers With a Grain of Salt: As big as I am about possession, the game flow at Natural Stat Trick really shows what went down tonight.
So you could click on the Natural Stat Trick Advanced Stats link in the Game Stats section and marvel at how the Blackhawks out-attempted the Devils 50-35 at evens. You can be amazed with so many Chicago players in the green and so many Devils in the red. But that's all driven by those last seven minutes. I cannot stress enough how Chicago just bossed New Jersey around. With an extra skater on the ice, it's tough. And with so much time left, John Hynes can't afford to just shorten the bench to only guys who play on the PK. Everyone had to take shifts. So there was a lot of survival at the end. Again, Chicago only pulled one back and it was pretty late given when the risk was taken. They were down by three (and later two), so they got aggressive and that means attempts against. Besides, only 36 of those 50 attempts by Chicago didn't get blocked so it's not like they totally peppered Schneider. It looks worse than what most tonight's game was truly like.
Ice Up: Adam Larsson and Andy Greene both had a whale of a game tonight. Both combined for seven blocks and a lot of heavy minutes. Their last five or six shifts were over fifty seconds and most were well over a minute. It's a big reason why each played over twenty six minutes tonight. Still, they held it down as best as they could, cleaning up messes in front and pushing for exits. Larsson was especially impressive tonight. When Greene took a minor penalty, Larsson was just in full control on the PK. When a Kyle Palmieri effort up ice was knocked away, catching the Devils in a bad spot, Larsson hustled back to make it a 2-on-1 and ultimately denied Panarin a chance at a shot on net. He got a lot of cheers for that backcheck, one of his most impressive plays all night long. But like the Devils in general tonight, he just did a lot of things well. If a clearance was blocked or tipped, then he got the support. I really enjoyed how these two played tonight, but Larsson was a standout in my view.
Give Him More!: John Hynes returned the roster to the twelve forward, six defenseman format tonight. Jon Merrill was decent. But I was more impressed with Damon Severson. He created two of the goals tonight and his movement with the puck was very good. I thought he did well in his own end. I was surprised to see he only played about fourteen minutes tonight. I think he should get some more minutes. It'll help Greene and Larsson out and I think Severson can justify them.
The Return of Tlusty: Jiri Tlusty returned to the lineup after being held out of two games for a right shoulder injury. He made his presence felt early as his quickness helped the Zajac line punish the Blackhawks for the better part of two periods. I liked his passing, his work in the neutral zone, and he even got two shots on net. I was surprised to see Kalinin replace him to play with Zajac and Palmieri. I don't know whether that was to see what Kalinin can do, given the Devils were up 4-0. I don't know whether that was to ease up on Tlusty given he's coming back from a minor injury; which is doubtful as he did play under fifteen minutes tonight. Either way, I enjoyed seeing him back on the ice and I think it did help Zajac and Palmieri out early on.
The Better #19: Speaking of that line, talk about good games for Palmieri and Zajac. Palmieri performed pretty much as advertised. He was quick, he was aggressive on the puck, he was willing to fire away (three shots) but not to a point where he'd take a bad shot in place of a good pass. He got a great goal and tacked on an assist for the Cammalleri goal. Very good work for #21.
Zajac was awesome tonight. He's got six goals now and scored his first at even strength. He was just flying all over the ice, making plays in all three zones. With a little better luck, he could have easily had more than the two points he earned. I usually compare Zajac to Toews, who's a similar player. Tonight, Zajac was clearly better than Chicago's #19. The only things Toews accomplished in his 21:39 of ice time was beating Zajac plenty of times in neutral zone faceoffs and getting into a fight with Adam Henrique. Maybe he won it, but so what? He had no shots on net, only one attempt, and he didn't really help his teammates fire away when they needed it. Toews was mostly anonymous while Zajac was crushing it out there. Clearly, New Jersey had the better #19 tonight.
Kane, Defensemen, And...?: Part of why Chicago didn't really muster up a ton of offense until the end was because so much of their offense was limited to a few players. Patrick Kane was one of them. Unlike Toews, Kane came to play and was arguably Chicago's most consistent threat at forward tonight. His goal had some fortune on his side, but with five shots on net out of eight attempts and buzzing around New Jersey's end, one got a little concerned whenever he had the puck on his stick. He was trying to make things happen. Fortunately, it was limited to only one goal.
Other than that, the defense really picked up the slack. Brent Seabrook was the best defender on Chicago tonight and he was trying to make things happen from distance. With three shots out of six attempts, he was certainly trying. Curiously, Trevor Daley and Erik Gustafsson provided plenty of support with three and four shots, respectively. They each also had at least seven attempted shots, which speaks to how much Chicago was trying to create from the perimeter. With Toews throwing up a goose egg, some missing players (Marian Hossa was held out due to injury, Artem Anisimov left this game early with an injury), and other anonymous forwards, Chicago had that going for them. They were really on point - get it? - in those last seven minutes to keep their 6-on-5 attacks alive. Fortunately, they didn't get fortunate like Kane did from distance.
That I'm writing all of this speaks in part to why Chicago lost this game. Even when the game was in reach in the first period, Chicago was mostly one-and-done with their attacks, and sometimes didn't even get that shot. The forwards lost pucks in the neutral zone, they had plenty poked away elsewhere, and passing was dubious from time to time. The Devils did more and better than Chicago because only so few players were doing well enough to contribute. And that contributes to a win that looked a lot more decisive than a 4-2 scoreline may suggest.
Let's Get Back to Praising NJ: I wanted to see more from Henrique, Stempniak, and Cammalleri tonight and I got more. They combined for eight shots and two of them were goals. It could've been three if it wasn't for Trevor van Riemsdyk's leg denying Stempniak on a third period rebound. Well done all the same. I liked Jacob Josefson's effort tonight. He was smart to chase down a loose puck after an Adam Larsson penalty, getting behind Brent Seabrook. Josefson didn't score on the ensuing one-on-one, but he drew a call to negate the Chicago power play. It was his best moment, but he did a lot of work out there tonight and it went fairly well. Speaking of a lot of work, Cory Schneider had a solid game both in and out of the crease. Maybe he'd like the Kero goal back, but it's whatever at this point.
Sellout: The Devils announced that this was a sellout. Attendance was reported at 16,514. If that capacity number seems different, that's because it was last season. Still, I can buy it as legit in terms of tickets bought. Even the 200 sections were largely full. Chicago fans do travel well. Not as much as, say, Montreal but more than most other visitors. Based on jerseys, they love themselves some Kane and Toews. I know there were more of them by Schneider in the first and third periods, but their chanting was uncommon. Of course, going down 3-0 after a period and 4-0 by the halfway mark will silence a lot of visitors. Anyway, good business night for the Devils. We'll see if they'll get more during this homestand (three home games next week, one on the road in the middle).
One Last Thought: The Devils' power play did very little. If you want a criticism of the team's performance, there it is. But they got a shot on net at least. Chicago got none on their PP. So, even that yields more praise: good night for the Devils' PK.
Your Take: The Devils won 4-2 against the defending Stanley Cup champions and did it by building a big lead early. It felt great to see it live and it felt good writing about it. I want to know your take. Who on the Devils impressed you the most tonight? Which one of the four goals was your favorite? What could the Devils have done better tonight that they should apply to their next game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @AATJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thank you for reading.