As you know from reading this site regularly or watching the games themselves, the New Jersey Devils put out some hideous performances in spite of the results. The results have been good, as the team headed into tonight's game with a 3-0-1 record in their last four. But they've been winning in spite of getting heavily outshot and seemingly unable to string three passes in a row or break out of their own end or resemble a NHL team. This was the case last week against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tonight's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a different. Not only in the result, as the Devils won 4-1 within regulation. This was also a far more competitive and entertaining game.
Granted, the Devils still got heavily out-shot (17-34) and out-attempted (26-50). The difference was that most of those shots and shooting attempts by the Maple Leafs weren't all that dangerous, whereas the Devils created many glorious opportunities. The Maple Leafs spent the better part of their offense firing shots directly at Cory Schneider. It speaks to both how good Schneider was in his positioning and reading the play and how uninspired the Leafs' offense was tonight. They made very few attempts to change the point of attack, they didn't win a lot of rebounds that could have proved perilous, and they didn't really bring the proverbial fire until they were down two and later three goals. War on Ice's game reports tally scoring chances (shots and misses from the high slot to the crease, between the dots) and the Leafs ended up with 19 out of their 50 attempts. The Devils also had 19, which was indicative how efficient the Devils were going forward since they only put up 26 attempts. In other words, when the Devils went forward, a good attempt was made - and three went in. Whether the Devils scorer can be trusted on shot locations remains to be seen, but it speaks in part as to why this game was so much better than last Wednesday's or the three games afterward. If Ryan wants to have his say, then I'd pay attention as he was counting passes for this one and he saw the big difference in offensive efficiency from that standpoint.
The other part was that the Devils really didn't get destroyed in the possession department until the Devils went up 2-0. The third goal by New Jersey led to the gap widening further, as best indicated by Natural Stat Trick's Corsi charts. While the Devils have had some leads in these other games, they weren't large ones by any means. The Leafs put up plenty of rubber on net because they were losing by a good margin as opposed to New Jersey conceding possession left and right. It helped that the Leafs really didn't get too many shifts with plenty of attack time until the third period, especially after they scored their lone goal of the night. In that sense, I can better understand getting out-shot and out-attempted by a near 2:1 ratio. I don't like it in that the Devils really do need to make a better effort to attack more often to take less pressure on their goalie and defense. But it's more forgivable with a three-goal lead than with a one-goal lead.
On top of that, a major milestone was achieved by one of the legends of the organization: Patrik Elias. This season may be proving that Father Time remains the all-time champion. And he's been searching for that milestone marker for several games. But tonight was the night and it was a dandy. A little less than a half-minute earlier, Elias ringed one off the post after a heinous giveaway by Mike Santorelli. I'm sure he must have felt terrible. When he was the late man coming in off the rush and Travis Zajac hit him with a perfect pass, he had a second chance. What a finish. He finally scored his 400th career goal. One of only 91 players in NHL history to have done it. He must have felt so relieved to get that goal as well as happy that he contributed another point to his one and only franchise. As a bonus, it held up as the game winning goal, too. I will absolutely break this goal down in more detail soon.
Overall, though, there was an energy not felt in a long time as I left the Rock. Part of that has to do with Elias scoring his 400th goal. Part of that has to do with a decisive win on the scoreboard. Part of that has to do with the fact that the performance wasn't nearly as hideous. Part of that has to do that it was Friday night and so some were "ready for the weekend," so to speak. It's all of that. I know, I know. It's no secret this team isn't getting anywhere near the postseason. But, as I left the building, I thought: Who cares? The Devils looked like a NHL team, they got a good result against a fellow non-playoff team, they won 4-1, and it was enjoyable at points. They can go back to losing to legitimately good teams soon and will likely do that. For tonight, let us enjoy the victory.
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 War on Ice Game Report
The Opposition Opinion: I don't see one up yet as of this writing, but maybe someone at Pension Plan Puppets will have something to say about Toronto's eleventh winless game in a row?
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a highlight video of tonight's game.
Better But Not Good: My four word summary of the Devils' performance.
While I've explained why this game felt different from the previous four, the Devils aren't going to do themselves any favors if the game plan is to score some goals, concede a lot of shots, clean up rebounds, and hope the goalie can do all of the in-between work. The Devils were visibly better at moving the puck tonight and they picked on the Leafs' defensive woes considering how many scoring chances they got out of how many attempts they had. While I wrote that I can understand score effects helping drive a massive difference in shots for and against, it's something that still has to be improved drastically if the Devils want to keep being a competitive team.
A Little Energy & A Goal: The fourth line stood out early. They had some excellent offensive shifts in the first period and Tuomo Ruutu chipped in a goal off James Reimer's skate. While it was a bit of a blooper, it was the result of the fourth line attacking, keeping up the pressure, throwing hits for a purpose, and keeping control. They had a few of those. Unfortunately, that was it as they got housed on defense. That's acceptable for the fourths, at least. It was clear to me again that Jordin Tootoo and Ruutu have picked up their hustle as they want to show to the coaches why they should be in the lineup regularly. Jacob Josefson was OK.
The Best Line? Or The Funniest Non-ENG I've Seen In A While: The best line in my eyes were the unit of Mike Cammalleri, Jaromir Jagr, and Dainius Zubrus. Cammalleri smoked Cody Franson and James Gardiner with a move to set up Jagr, only for Reimer to rob them early in the game. I was hoping they'd have a strong night. Not so much in the way of productive offense, as Cammalleri only had one shot and Jagr had only two. One of those two shots was a goal, though, and it made me laugh quite a bit.
As the period was within the last three minutes, James Reimer skated away from the net for an extra skater. The Leafs were applying good pressure after their power play goal and had every reason to desperately seek a shot to make it a one-goal game. Unfortunately, the Leafs lost the puck when Reimer started to head out. Adam Larsson pokechecked the puck away from Joffery Lupul and right into the neutral zone where Jagr could pick up on it. Reimer was in no man's land. He fell down as he saw Jagr fling the puck into the empty net. Because Reimer never got the bench, that GA will count against him. Did I laugh then? Yes. Do I chuckle about it now? You bet. By the way, that goal puts Jagr only one behind Phil Esposito's mark of 717 goals.
In any case, I would've wanted to see more from those three. Especially Jagr, who had one of the first shot for the Devils and one of the last ones tonight. But at least they weren't spending a lot of shifts in their own end of the rink. In contrast, there was the unit of Scott Gomez, Adam Henrique, and Steve Bernier. They were pinned back on the very first shift of the game and they just kept getting pinned. They did generate a bit more offense than the Cammalleri line. They had five shots between the three forwards and they did contribute a goal with Reimer in the net. Then again that shot (and one of the five shots) was Steve Bernier getting a touch on a long shot by Adam Larsson that got through. But it was a defensive concern throughout the night and not necessarily against one match-up. Every Leaf unit had their time against that one.
Defense Roundup: By my eye, Larsson had a strong game. He was playing with a wider vision, he didn't delay on pucks, he cleaned up plenty of pucks, and his passing looked very good. Yet, by the numbers, he was pinned back more than most Devils defensemen. Although, with plenty of shifts with the Gomez line, I don't think it's indicative that Larsson was beaten up. I think he still had a strong game.
Jon Merrill, on the other hand, had better numbers in possession but I was less than impressed with his performance. Yet, there were shifts where he and Marek Zidlicky seemed clueless and useless in their own end of the rink. Zidlicky definitely was Zidlicky with multiple moments of taking pucks into the offensive zone only to do nothing with it but take himself out of position. I don't know if this pairing really is helping Merrill (or the team) get good experience that will yield better play. There was also his role on the PPGA. Phil Kessel torched Mark Fraser off the wing and fired a hard shot off the post. It was assumed by the team that Kessel scored - I thought he did - but the goal was really when Tyler Bozak tapped the loose puck in. Merrill could've easily knocked that puck away instead of assuming the play was up. That didn't look good, but neither did Merrill's overall performance in my eyes.
Speaking of not looking good, Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser didn't. But that's not really surprising.
Light on the Whistle: The refs let a lot go. When Leo Komarov blatently held up Dainius Zubrus in the neutral zone in the second period and both refs did nothing, I knew there would have to be something really obvious to get a penalty tonight. And they were. Peter Holland boarded Peter Harrold on a shift where the Devils were creating something and the Leafs just had no answer. Clarkson held up Ruutu's stick between his legs, and presumably the jaw-jacking that ensued led to unsportsmanlike calls for both; I'm not really sure what Ruutu did wrong. Zajac hit the keeper, so that was another call. Zidlicky hooked Kadri after Kadri beat him with a sweet move. I felt the last call was understandable as it denied Kadri a great chance to shoot. Of course, that was the one they converted on. Regardless, nearly all of the few calls made were legit. I guess Tom Kowal and Kyle Rehman just wanted this to go on. And so it did.
Another Night, Another Piece of Praise for Schneider: What more can I say? He was very good, though he's happy the post helped him out once and nearly a second time. Another strong night for him and another well-earned night off.
Booth Played!: And he had himself a game, with a whopping seven shots on net. And some of them were from good places too. It was a surprise to me because I forgot he was on the Leafs last Wednesday. His linemates, Nazem Kadri and Richard Panik had very good games too. Kadri pulled a sweet move on Marek Zidlicky that led to a hooking penalty that ultimately led to Toronto's only goal tonight. He could've had one himself on that power play, but he missed the net. That unit got plenty of time against the fourths, Peter Harrold, and Mark Fraser. They did do very well against Larsson and Andy Greene, so it wasn't as if they were just beating up the Devils' scrubbiest players.
Clarkson Didn't Fall Much: OK, he did when he held up Ruutu's stick in the third period between his legs, which yielded a 4-on-4 situation that turned into a 3-on-4 when Travis Zajac hit Reimer a bit later. But Clarkson's balance was better tonight. As far as other things he did, well, let's see. He hit a post. He didn't fall down when receiving a puck. He wasn't shy to throw a cheap-shot after a whistle, like the little shot he gave Henrique after he helped guide Henrique into Reimer. That was pretty much it. There is your David "$5.75 million per year" Clarkson update.
Streaks!: The Devils are on one, with three straight wins to end a five-game home-stand at 4-0-1. That's the first time the Devils have had that since October. As for Toronto, the number to know is eleven. As in, they are now winless in their last eleven games. Bummer.
Lastly: Ruutu's goal was not only his first since November 22, but Tootoo got an secondary assist on it. That's his first assist with the Devils.
Your Take: The Devils won and it was at least more entertaining than the last Devils-Maple Leafs game. I'll have a goal breakdown of Elias' 400th goal this weekend. In the meantime, I want to know what you think. What did you think of the Devils' performance? Was it better in your eyes than the last three or four games? Who do you think was the best Devil skater tonight? How about the Leafs, think they'll win a game anytime soon? How did you react when you saw Elias score his 400th goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.