Tonight was another night where the best player for the New Jersey Devils wore #35 on his back. Cory Schneider has proven to be the brightest silver lining in this dark grey cloud of a season. His latest accomplishment was shutting out the Arizona Coyotes in a 3-0 victory. Arizona is one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. However, they made Schneider earn this shutout the hard way with a whopping 38 shots on net. Schneider stopped them all from everywhere, sometimes even with the help of his skaters. It wasn't a large crowd at The Rock and it was even smaller as people left early for one reason or another, but those who remained gave Schneider the standing ovation he deserved.
Witnessing a goaltender make a lot of saves in a winning effort is always deserving of praise - for the goalie. For the rest of the team, not so much. The Devils got beaten in the possession department for two periods, including a second period performance more reminiscent of the abysmal hockey they played for two weeks after the All Star Game. The neutral zone was seemingly an optional area for both teams to freely skate through. Alas, Arizona took New Jersey's offensive turnovers and defensive struggles and turned it into offense. The first wasn't as bad as the second and the third was better in that the Devils actually kept Arizona honest or at least stopped them from doing as they wished. Say what you want about score effects, but conceding 38 to the third worst team in hockey is worthy of at least a little wince.
A deeper dive into who took the shots does dull some of that pain. Nineteen of those thirty-eight shots came from the Coyotes' defensmen. Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were Arizona's leading shooters in terms of volume, but it means that Schneider had to stop a lot of shots from distance, which aren't that difficult. Arizona would try to crash the net a few times, but they didn't get many shots from the middle of the ice. As poor as the Devils looked on defense at times, they were consistently good at cleaning up rebounds (and in one case, clearing a puck from the crease - thank you, Marek Zidlicky) so Schneider didn't have to deal with too many second-chance attempts. It's still a lot of work and Schneider was great in stopping all of them. Arizona had a handful of excellent opportunities but just only a handful. It is not to say that it was a massive one-against-all game like some of those periods and games from that horrid two-week span. Though parts of the second period made it feel that way.
It also helped that Schneider had goals to work with. The Devils offense wavered between looking strong and conceding pucks away for Arizona to take advantage of. They still put up 28 shots on net, which is better than average for them. Some of those twenty eight shots forced massive glove saves, such as two robberies by Mike Smith on Mike Cammalleri. I can easily say that Smith had the saves of the night. I can also easily say that Smith gave up two bad goals. Scott Gomez beat him five-hole (!) with a backhander (!!) in a one-on-one started by stealing the puck from Jordan Martinook for the game's first goal. As the Coyotes were searching for an equalizer, Cammalleri torched Michael Stone and Connor Murphy took a bad angle, essentially another one-on-one. Smith was beaten high by a sweet backhander. He knew it was a bad goal to allow, especially when his team was banging on the door, hoping for a friend named Opportunity. Smith can't score goals, but he doesn't help his team when he gives up goals like the ones he did tonight. I'd like to think the Arizona fans watching him from afar were chanting "You suck" at him after those goals too. In a big contrast, Schneider was just too good to be beaten much less by such goals, Cammalleri tacked on an empty netter, and that's the game.
The Devils have now won four in a row. This makes their homestand a mathematical success as they won more than half of their potential games. Unfortunately, they'll be playing some better teams next, which should bring them back down to some kind of reality. For now, fans should appreciate and celebrate Schneider's shutout performance. He can be considered elite, as CJ would state. He can be considered the best Devils player in 2014-15. Tonight was just another example.
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 Report | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts | The War on Ice Game Stats
The Opposition Opinion: The Coyotes lost their sixth game in a row. Jason Bartel has this recap of it at Five for Howling.
The Game Highlights: There were highlights tonight per this video from NHL.com. Cammalleri's goal was especially nice:
The Best Forward: Mike Cammalleri made his presence felt. He had five shots on net, nearly scored on two of them only to be denied at the last moment by Smith's glove, and did score on two of them. While he spent more time defending than otherwise, he was on the prowl when the play did go forward. Cammalleri is one of New Jersey's top shooters and when he's able to find the target, his importance is clear. I'd say he was the best forward on the Devils tonight, even as he notched another ENG to boost his goal total. That's not a criticism, it's important to get the empty netter than risk the opposition attempt a desperate comeback.
The Best Defenseman: For those wondering why fans have been so gush with praise for Adam Larsson, tonight's game would serve as a fine example. Larsson brought it from the offensive end with four shots out of eight attempts. Granted, three attempts being blocked doesn't help much but Larsson firing them away is a good thing. Arizona's defense made a point of it to go hard in the corners and stop an attack with a simple outlet pass down low to get out of traffic and hopefully catch three Devils in deep as the play goes away. The pointmen weren't so heavily defended, so Larsson picking up on that and using that is a good thing helps. He did pick up a secondary assist on the empty netter, though his assist was a poke of the puck off the glass that Gionta turned to an open Cammalleri for the score. Not an actual pass. No matter, it is a point.
Defensively, Larsson was very good. He was in good positions to make plays. He didn't get caught out on many (or any?) rushes against the Devils. He didn't take any penalties or put himself in a position where he had to foul. He didn't even take all that many hits. In a game where the Coyotes out-attempted the Devils 38-49 at evens, it was even at 19 when Larsson was on the ice. And, as usual with Andy Greene, he didn't face weak competition; they went up against Arizona's top line of Antoine Vermette, Shane Doan, and Lucas Lessio as well as Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle. Coming out even in a game where the opposition tilted the ice quite a bit is big for a defender. Overall, Larsson had a very good night. It's not just simple confidence; I think he's figured it out.
The Defensive Struggles: If this game was a great example of Larsson playing well, then it was also a great example of some other defenders having some terrible games. Peter Harrold and Eric Gelinas was a constant adventure as a pairing, especially in the second period. Seeing Gelinas take the wrong side of an on-coming defender, approach an attacker Harrold already had, missing easy passes, and reacting slowly to what was going around him was just a sore sight for eyes. Gelinas only registered one shot on net. He was benched for most of the third period after a bizarre decision to rush up ice to join an attack that didn't need him, only to wipe out to not help the attack except to help Arizona end said attack. He may have his tweaked his ankle per this Tweet by Tom Gulitti, but his performance warranted limited ice time.
Harrold demonstrated why he gets so much flack from the fans. He's either too slow to react or he tends to hesitate on the puck. This causes opponents to get to him or at least force him to make a dubious mistake. Like making a D-to-D pass across the slot with two Coyotes lunging forward. Or facing the goal on a shot, such that it rebounded off him - thankfully away from the net. He even came close to pulling a Lyle Odelien. All that and he generated very little to go forward. He was less of a basketcase on the ice when he wasn't with Gelinas in the third period, which may be a clue.
As for the pairing of Jon Merrill and Marek Zidlicky, well, they were underwhelming. Zidlicky showed off to the Rock (and the many scouts that attended this game) that he's more than willing to take a terrible penalty (hauling down Joe Vitale. Joe Vitale!) to follow a bad moment (a bouncing puck going past him to start a power play). He's also willing to not shoot after a few games where he was doing just that. He wasn't all that strong in his own end either. When Zidlicky isn't doing well, Merrill isn't also going to do as well. He gave up a heinous turnover early in the first period that yielded a big stop from Schneider, his passes were all over the place, and he was pinned back a lot so trying to play out of it didn't help. It was a night where I wonder what some people see in Merrill. In any case, the Coyotes loved the 2-7 pairing tonight; a reason as to why the Coyotes put 38 shots on net.
Special Teams No's & Woes: The power play was woeful. The first one did nothing but garner deserved boos. The second one ended quickly thanks to Zidlicky. They had no shots on net. The penalty kill wasn't so woeful. While the Coyotes got seven shots on net (and a post) out of three advantages, the Devils would hit back with some shorthanded rushes, got one on net, and got plenty of clearances beyond the first one. Schneider was clearly important on the PK, but the Devils defense cleaned up well enough and the forwards were smart to go forward as needed - especially on the third kill.
The Wave: Yes, there was a wave going on in the arena. It wasn't a big crowd, but something about the Cammalleri goal got them warm. And the wave really got everyone going. It went around seven times, even through breaks in the action and through part of the third penalty kill. This is where I'm supposed to say how lame that is and it's dumb but that would be stupid. The Devils are a bad team, they didn't play a particularly strong game against the third-worst team in hockey, ticket prices are expected to rise, and the season is lost. So the crowd had some fun anyway. Wave on.
Invisible 68: No shots and not much done by Jaromir Jagr tonight. I know he was moved down and his minutes was reduced, but seriously, nothing from #68 is a bit sad to see. I know he can make a real impact in a game. I know other teams probably would like to some sign of that from him should they want him in less than a week.
Pest: Stephen Gionta didn't make a huge mark on the game, but they got under somebody's skin. Gionta was in plenty of physical encounters and drew an inteference call by Brandon Gormley in an attempt to break on through to goal in the second period. The fourth line was a bit better tonight. Gionta getting back to drawing a call or two is a good thing in terms of getting back to his old form.
Lastly: That second goal really took some wind out of the Coyotes and the Devils defended their two goal lead better than they defended their one goal lead. It was as if the Devils became able to deny Arizona advances early. Able to make things a little more difficult in the middle of the ice. Able to keep them honest with shots against Smith. I would have liked more of the latter, but the Devils should emulate that more than how they played only up 1-0. That won't work against better teams.
Your Take: The Devils have won their fourth straight, largely on the back of Schneider. The goals Gomez and Cammalleri scored were nice and very nice, respectively. The third period was good enough, especially after the bad second period. What was your take on the game overall? Do you agree with my choices for the best Devils forward and defenseman in this game? What do you make of the struggles of the other defenders? What else did you notice? If you were there, did you take part of the wave? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.