Lee Stempniak has been playing a lot of his former teams as of late. His last team was the Winnipeg Jets. Tonight, he probably made a few of their fans wished their favorite team kept him. Stempniak scored two goals in tonight's 3-1 win by the New Jersey Devils. The first was a tap-in off a feed by Michael Cammalleri and a blooper by the Jets skaters. The second was a deflection in front off a wrist shot by Eric Gelinas. When he was on the ice, offense tended to happen (second period aside). His linemates tried to feed him for an empty net goal by the end but to no avail. All the same, Stempniak made an impact in this victory.
The performance itself was better than it seemed on paper. For the second time this month, the Devils put up sixteen shots on net - a season low for a team that just doesn't generate a lot of shots. However, there were differences from their previous game in Arizona. For one, the Devils scored three goals. For another, they scored them on Connor Hellebuyck, who has been performing rather well for the Jets this season. For a third reason, the Devils played a much more disciplined game. Winnipeg really only dominated in the second period when they out-shot the Devils 10-2 and held the Devils to over fifteen shotless minutes. Their first shot, of course, was a power play goal. Yet, the Devils didn't concede many dangerous chances in that period, things didn't go south at all in the first period after Stempniak's first goal, and over the whole game, the Devils only conceded twenty three shots and 46 attempts. There was plenty of one-way hockey, but the difference was that the Devils skaters didn't often look like pylons and the game didn't come down to relying on Cory Schneider coming up big on every shift. While I wanted to see the Devils attack more (and I still do), the Devils weren't pounded on the ice since scoring a goal. Of course, scoring three goals helped in case things went awry - which didn't happen much. And if they did, then this road performance would have been perfect. Instead, it was just very good - which I still appreciate.
It also helps when the team's best players play well. Schneider did have a good game and made a few big stops. The only one he couldn't stop was Dustin Byfuglien freely chipping in a rebound for a power play goal. As much as you'd want a body on Byfuglien, one being there wouldn't have guaranteed that he wouldn't have done that due to his incredibly large frame and high strength. Still, #35 was good. The top pairing of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene has a very good game against the Jets' best players. Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri had good nights. And the unit including Lee Stempniak clearly had a strong night. Among all of the "storylines" with the 2015-16 season, it's still a bit surprising that one of them has been Stempniak's ascendancy. But I will gladly welcome it thanks to nights like this one.
The Opposition Opinion: For the other side of this game, check out Arctic Ice Hockey.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a highlight video of tonight's game.
The Power Play Comeback: After going 2-for-2 against Ottawa, I wanted to see whether the power play was really getting out of it's awful streak or whether they just found a proverbial oasis in the proverbial desert. The referees tonight did not want to call a lot of penalties, but they did call two against the Jets so we got to see the power play go to work.
The first opportunity was great. After an initial clear, the Devils actually gained the zone. More importantly, they maintained possession. And it worked out when Joseph Blandisi picked up a loose puck from a whiff by Palmieri and sent it back to David Schlemko. Schlemko saw Jacob Josefson open in the left circle, pass, one-timer, goal. It would be the Devils' first shot of the second period, Josefson's first goal in seemingly forever (OK, December 3, 2015), and the power play had a goal streak going. It was another good play by the unit that showed off the purpose of the 1-3-1 formation. (Aside: I've got a post planned for Monday that will show that with the two goals from the Ottawa game.)
The second opportunity was not at all great. The Devils didn't start with the Zajac line, they started with Adam Henrique's line instead. They struggled to get in the zone to get set up. When the hot unit came out, Palmieri took a shot from distance, and then proceeded to do nothing but nearly give up a goal the other way. It was similar to many of the power plays during that awful stretch before the Ottawa game. I'm not as disappointed by it because the Devils did succeed on their first power play. And the other team does things too; even bad penalty kills successfully kill their penalties more often than not. Still, it was a reminder that it's not always going to go according to plan.
Discipline Part 2: The game was very physical. Not so much in terms of big checks all over the place, but a lot of checking and positioning to deny offensive opportunities for both teams. It led to a briskly played game even though there weren't a lot of shots on net (Jets led 23-16) or attempts (Jets led 46-41). Again, while referees were loathe to call many penalties, the Devils did a very good job not making it easy for them. In fact, they only took one minor penalty. Eric Gelinas went off for a clearance over the glass. Byfuglien quickly made the team pay for it. Still, after conceding four straight minors to Ottawa, I'm pleased by that portion of the game.
Rough Go: Gelinas had a pretty good game, other than the penalty he took. Not only did he create a goal, but he actually made several solid defensive plays. He had to play quite a bit of defense, but he wasn't getting lost amid the chaos or getting picked on in particular. With Jon Merrill and John Moore out, this positive development is even more valuable.
In contrast, there was the pairing of Damon Severson and Seth Helgeson. I don't want to really pick on Helgeson, as he was called up just yesterday and played tonight. He was clearly asked to keep it simple and he did. He didn't get too crazy with physical play and he wasn't a turnover machine. Severson was all over the place, and not necessarily in a good way. I got the impression that he wanted to do more than he did, but he often hesitated and this got him into trouble more often than not. We've seen this in the past with Larsson and getting over that hesitation was a big factor in becoming the defenseman he is now. For now, an unsure Severson and Helgeson, who's now #9 on the defensive depth chart makes for a less than ideal combination. And we got to see that tonight, especially during the second period. The good news is that it didn't lead to any real damage on the scoreboard. Maybe they'll be better for Tuesday's game. Still, it was a rough game for #28 and not exactly a sterling re-debut for #39, Helgeson's number for the night.
Get Better Soon: Sergey Kalinin was sick and therefore would not play this game. Bobby Farnham was slotted in to play with Reid Boucher and Jacob Josefson. While Farnham had some decent moments in backchecking and Josefson scored a power play goal, this line was easily New Jersey's worst tonight. They did very little at evens. When they got pinned back, it was a big deal. It led to the worst shift of the night for New Jersey with this trio, Severson, and Helgeson getting picked on for over a minute. That was followed by an icing, a timeout for the unit to catch their breath, and a mad dash to the bench after Farnham blocked a shot that sent the puck out of the zone and drifting away. I know Farnham has surprised many - including me - with what he's done on the fourth line. But tonight showed that's where he belongs. Likewise, Boucher was just about invisible. I think he'll stick around for a little while longer but more nights like this one will send him back to Albany. It was a bad night for this line. I hope Kalinin gets better and helps make Tuesday a better one for them.
Another Notable Absence...for Them: Mathieu Perreault left tonight's game early for Winnipeg. He only played 4:37 over seven shifts. He looked pretty good to start, but that did not last. That may have contributed to Winnipeg only putting up 23 shots on net. As well as the Devils did to deny them a lot of clean shots at Schneider, losing one of the team's better forwards hurt the cause. Alexander Burmistrov appeared to pick up the slack and had a decent game. Other than him, much of Winnipeg's offense came from the Little line, Byfuglien being huge, and that one chance by Drew Stafford at the buzzer of the second period that Schneider totally robbed him on.
Streak!: The Devils have now matched their season high of four straight wins with, well, their fourth win in a row tonight. While the weekly Metropolitan Division Snapshot will show that all is not set in stone, going into the All Star Game break with a winning streak would be huge for the Devils' playoff chances.
Blooper: Tobias Enstrom slipped and fell into Blake Wheeler in the first period. This allowed Cammalleri to take a free puck and pass it across to Stempniak for the game's first goal. I wonder if that collision is symbolic for the Jets' season? Hm.
One Final Thought: Blandisi has shown that he's not afraid of the rough stuff. His play has been quite physical given he's on a line with Zajac and Palmieri. He tried to be physical to Byfuglien. This failed. After the seventh cross-check, I'd like to think he learned a lesson.
Your Take: The Devils played a solid road game and won 3-1. I'm pleased with it. How about you? What did you think of the team's performance? Who did you think had a good performance among the Devils players? Who did you think did not have a good performance? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed the site's Twitter account, @AATJerseyBlog, during the game. Thank you for reading.