The New Jersey Devils came into tonight's season closer with the Toronto Maple Leafs with the knowledge the game meant nothing more than positioning for the NHL Draft and four straight losses. They gave up a pretty crummy goal in the first few minutes. There was a reason to be sour. Then the Devils went right to work and made Toronto feel the power of an aggressive attack. They swarmed all over the Maple Leafs to tie it up, they hit back in the second period to take the lead, they never looked back in the third, and they tacked on two pretty big goals to seal the win. The Devils snapped the losing streak and ended their season with a 5-1 win. The Maple Leafs got their thirtieth place spot in the league which means they can draft nowhere lower than fourth overall. The Devils got to end Fan Appreciation Week with a performance worth appreciating (as a fan, I greatly enjoyed this game), a deserved win, and the fans witnessing and lauding a number of achievements. I won, the Devils won, and, in their own way, the Leafs won in their loss.
CJ turned out to be partially right in his post on Friday. He implored you, the reader, to watch this game in the hopes of seeing someone on the Devils hit the 30-goal plateau. Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri were on the cusp. Tonight, both of them did it. Henrique got his 29th when he put home the rebound on a long shot by Adam Larsson early in the second period. Past the halfway mark, John Moore hit Henrique with a long pass and Henrique gained the zone with Tuomo Ruutu supporting him. Henrique dropped it to Ruutu and the two went towards the net. Ruutu (or a defender) knocked the puck across to #14 and he chipped it past Garret Sparks. That was #30, that was the first point of the season for Ruutu (!!!), and the goal upgraded the score to 3-1. Henrique's goals took the game, Palmieri's goal sealed it. After multiple chances not working out for the winger, Palmieri did it with an empty netter. Not that the Maple Leafs were threatening to make a game of it late, it would ensure the win. On a team that has not scored many ENGs - only seven all season - that's not one to ignore. Both of them made their mark on the game for tonight's result. Both of them played quite well. Both of them hit the mark they wanted; their reactions after scoring their thirtieth did not hide their enthusiasm. And it's a small victory for CJ as he looked a little prescient from his post in retrospect.
Of course, the big story for this game involved a legend and the future. Let's begin with the future. Ahead of this game, the Devils assigned Pavel Zacha to Albany and called him up to New Jersey; and they signed Steve Santini and Miles Wood with entry level contracts that meant they could play today. All three young players made their NHL debuts tonight. I'll have a bit more to say about Santini and Wood later on. Good things, mind you. But Zacha looked great. Both played well off each other on the power play and at even strength. Zacha skated well, moved well off the puck, stole some pucks, and got three shots on net. What made him look so good was his passing. Zacha was not just making great reads on offense, but the execution of his passes were also great. Most of his passes did not require the receiver to adjust his body or his stick all that much. Whether it was perfectly weighted back pass or a killer cross-ice pass, Zacha made it all happen. He also picked up his first two NHL points; a faceoff win that led to New Jersey's first goal and a secondary assist on the ENG. He really impressed me and presumably a lot of fans who saw this game. They definitely cheered a little louder for #37 than some other players tonight. I know it's only one game and it was against a Toronto team that doesn't mind holding this the 'L,' but this night could be the start of a fine NHL career for Pavel Zacha. I'm hoping that is the case.
Then there's the legend. And on Zacha's line was the legendary Devils forward, Patrik Elias. The other winger moved around a bit on some shifts, but it was mostly Devante Smith-Pelly. Elias did return to action this week. As a 39-year old pending UFA with knee issues, it would be fair to think tonight could have been his last game. It's looked that way for months. If this was Elias' last game with the Devils, then he made his mark in it. It would be a fine way to say "goodbye." That mark turned out to be three shots on net, a drawn penalty, two assists, and blasting a one-timer past Sparks in the final seconds of the game (sweet pass by Palmieri to set him up). It wasn't perfect, I wasn't a fan of the penalty he took and his backchecking wasn't exactly on point. Still, he did plenty more good than bad and he played well with Zacha - both on special teams and at even strength. After being named the first star of the game and during his interview with Deb Placey, he got a rousing "One More Year" chant. With this kind of performance it's hard to say no to that.
I cannot stress enough how happy the fans were by the end of this game. Most knew the season would be over regardless of result after this game. My belief is that most wanted a good performance to close out the season. They got more than that. They got a Devils team that out-shot the Leafs 19-2 in the first period. That's as many shots as they had in the entire game against Buffalo on Tuesday. Garrett Sparks was forced to be great as the Devils just kept coming at the Leafs, who had no answer for the aggression, in waves. The shots were more even in the second period, but the Devils hit back to really put the Leafs in a hole. While there were some poor possession shifts in the third, the Devils busted out of a cycle of concession and controlled most of the third period on their way to seal the win. They out-shot, out-attempted, out-passed, out-disciplined (six PP's for NJ, three for Toronto), and out-controlled Toronto. They were decisively better than their opponents for the first time in weeks and the score reflects that. Yes, Toronto is a bad hockey team and had plenty of reason to not win this one; but that's a positive for the Devils. They played a lesser team and beat them like they were a lesser team. Anyway, the Devils played great to close out a less-than-great season. By the noise made during the game and the ovation at the end of the game, the sold out crowd loved this game. The definitely appreciated it. I know I did.
Essentially, if you're going to end a season where they both overachieved and met a number of expectations at the same time, then end it on a high note. The Devils did that. Check that out, yo.
The Opposition Opinion: JP Nikota has this recap up at Pension Plan Puppets.
Let's Talk About Santini: Steve Stantini made his debut and showed off what he's about. He looked good in motion with smooth strides on and off the puck. Santini moved briskly as well, both are pluses. He appeared comfortable when he had the puck in his own end of the rink, which was also a plus. He had to play plenty of defense along with David Schlemko; from what I saw, he didn't seem completely out of his depth. He's also big and strong. While he did not throw a lot of big checks, he made a strong one on Andrew Campbell early in the game. He got a roughing call for it, which I thought that was kind of weak as I saw it live. It seemed legal to me, but I'll leave that opinion to those who had the benefit of slow motion replay on TV. Unfortunately, it knocked Campbell out of the game; he didn't return. That aside, I was pleased with what Santini showed in his first game. I get why the Devils wanted to bring him out of college before his senior year. He's definitely someone the Devils will hope turns out to be more superlative defender in time.
Let's Talk About Wood: Miles Wood was a surprising signing in my eyes. The 20-year old just finished his freshman year at Boston College; I would not have minded if he stayed in college for another year. Tonight, I got to see why the Devils signed him right after that first year with the Eagles. Like Santini, Wood has a NHL-sized body and he skates rather well. He moved fast and even beat some defenders to loose pucks. Perhaps it was partially because of who he was playing with (Tyler Kennedy and Henrique, mostly), but he was crashing, banging, and going hard for pucks. It worked out fairly well. He nearly came close to scoring a blooper in the first period where a shot he blocked nearly got put into Toronto's own net by a second player touching it. Alas, it dropped wide. Overall, it was a decent debut for Wood. Like Santini and Zacha, we'll need to see many more games before figuring out what they'll become, but tonight was a good first step to show that they could be NHL players one day - even considering the opposition.
Back on the Board: I want to highlight Devante Smith-Pelly as he scored his first goal since March 20. That's an eight game goalless streak. That ended when he slipped a puck won by Zacha off a faceoff between the legs of Sparks. It tied up the game and the Devils just kept rolling from there. It was good to see DSP back on the scoresheet. Amid the milestones and the debuts and Elias putting up a three point game in the face of an uncertain future, Smith-Pelly deserves some attention. He played a good game. Sparks robbed him (and Zacha) of another appearance on the scoresheet with a robbery on a killer one timer at the left post in the third. It was a final punctuation mark on a short eighteen game run where he put up eight goals and five assists. Stefan who?
The Criticisms: I know it's moot to look at issues with one game now that the season is over and the analysis will shortly shift to full-season analyses. Still, it wouldn't be a recap without them. Let's get to it.
I was not a fan of the goal the Devils allowed. Schlemko made a pass into the neutral zone to Ruutu. Ruutu had the puck knocked away from him by Campbell. This caught the Devils in some kind of change, which led to Brooks Laich being in behind the Devils all alone with Cory Schneider. Laich beat Schneider but hit the post. Meanwhile, Gionta and Ruutu were trying to get back. Gionta misses the rebound and neither is really on or necessarily aware of P-A Parenteau unless it was too late. Schneider oddly turned around after it hit the post, which made it easier for Parenteau to score. It was a bad play, a bad goal allowed, and I was fearful that was going to set the tone for the game. Thankfully, the Devils more than responded.
That's really my main criticism. I wasn't a huge fan of the two tripping calls the Devils took as they were in the offensive zone. The Devils killed them and expecting a perfectly disciplined game is too high of an expectation. I wasn't a huge fan of some bad shifts in the second and third; but the Leafs are allowed to play the game as well. Besides, the Devils would hit back with offense of their own and Cory Schneider made some excellent saves as usual. The Leafs never got close to getting back into the game, so I could deal with it. Having a lead helped, of course. The power play didn't score, but DSP's goal came a second after one ended and the team put up ten shots. It's not the units' fault that Sparks made a lot of tough saves to rob multiple Devils of a PPG. It helped a lot that the Devils just pounced on Toronto being short a defenseman and not being all that good in their own end and in the neutral zone to begin with. But the Devils' issues paled in comparison to Toronto's issues tonight. They were made paler by the Devils' successes.
Milestone Recap: Let's see if I can remember the ones achieved tonight off of the top of my head. First NHL games for Zacha, Wood, and Santini. First NHL assist and point for Zacha. Thirtieth goal for Palmieri and Henrique, making this season the first time the team had two thirty-plus goal scorers since 2011-12. Both are career highs in goals for each. Career high in wins achieved by Schneider with 27. I think that's it.
One Final Thought for the Game: Ruutu's assist was his first and only point of the season. In a way, that's more impressive than Henrique and Palmieri scoring their thirtieth goals. OK, not really, but it's still shocking he even got one tonight. So here's some trivia: the Devils end the season with only four players without a point this season. They are O'Brien (four games), Mozik (seven games and a defenseman), Gragnani (three games and a defenseman), and Thompson (three games).
Final Position: 20th with a record of 38-36-8.
This Is Not a Goodbye, This is See You Later: I'm very glad this game was a great game by the Devils. The result was great as was the performance. They beat up on a team that wanted last place and they got it. These recaps are a bit sad, though, as it's the last one until September. Once again, it'll be a long offseason.
So I'd like to take the time to thank many people. I first thank those who are close to me in my life. You've supported me and this site, both directly and indirectly. You know who you are.
I thank all of the writers on the site. Brian, Mike, CJ, Gerard, Alex, Chris, Steve, Nate, Matt, Shane, and Nicholas have all helped out in this season. Some for multiple seasons. Without them, this site would not be this site. They helped it make it what it is today. As with previous writers like (I hope to get them all, sorry if I didn't): Tibbs, Steve, Tom, Kevin, Matt V., Matt E., Jerry, Karen, Josh, Ryan, and all of the rest.
I thank all of the people who have sat in Section 1 at the Rock all season long for at least putting up with me for a game, multiple games, or a whole season. As you probably guess from this site and Twitter, I have a lot to say - and that includes live during a game. And I'm not a quiet one; let's just say I belong in the South Ward at Red Bulls games (although I try to keep it clean at the Devils game - like this site).
I thank SBNation / Vox Media for continuing to host the site and providing an easy-to-use platform for posts to get up and get eyeballs on them. Travis and Tyler were instrumental in guiding me in how to change the name of this site at the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign. They've been very helpful in not trying to force content or drive me or the other writers (I hope not at least, they haven't said anything) to write about certain things in a certain way. In this day and age of clickbait and TV-news style of attention grabbing, that's big. Thanks.
I thank the New Jersey Devils. As bad as they have been at times in this season, I love them. As good as they have been at times in this season, I love them. Following them is my passion. In a season loaded with big changes, they're still the Devils. The passion has not wavered. Do I criticize them? You bet. But I do it because I want them to be better as an organization. I want them to return to being contenders and get some more Cups. Will they do it? We'll see. But I still want to follow them even amid the bad times, the significant changes, and more.
Most of all, I thank all of you, the reader. What really drives me to do this site are two things: One, I have a lot to say about the Devils. Two, people are interested in what I have to say. Whether it's one post or every day, knowing that someone cares enough to read it, comment on it, complain about it, agree with it, disagree with it, and share it. That's always motivating. It helps justify what the site is about and how we approach it. I'd like to think we don't dumb things down or condescend to any Devils fan. Yeah, there are rules. Yeah, I run the site with an iron fist. Yeah, I'm longwinded and my writing is fraught with errors. Yeah, not everyone is going to love, like, or even get what we sometimes post. But this proves that there are people who like this way and want to see it continue. And so I do. For you.
In this day and age, it's a bit sad I have to specify this, but I will anyway. If you're a fan, then I do this for you. Whether you're in New Jersey and attend every game, or you only go to some games, or you travel or you live somewhere else, if you support the Devils, then I do this for you. Whether you're a hardcore, diehard, bleed-Devils'-red-until-death fan or someone just getting into the game or someone entirely casual in supporting New Jersey, then I do this for you. Whether you're among a lot of Devils fans or you're the only one who likes the Devils or even hockey, then I do this for you. Whether you're reading just this site or just the news blogs or going to the forums on NJDevs and/or Hockey's Future or visiting r/Devils (is it time for another AMA?) or just liking Tweets on Twitter, then I do this for you. Whether you're a fan that your peers think you're the scum of the Earth or a fan that your peers think you're a paragon of virtue, then I do this for you. What I said back on September 15 still applies. This is a site for Devils fans and you readers are largely the fans I do this for. And so I thank you all again for making that true every single day.
And So...: Allow me to plead to you to not leave the site entirely for the offseason. We will have plenty of content here at the site. We have a draft lottery to look forward to. We have the playoffs to wish Our Hated Rivals and the Second Rate Rivals absolutely and utterly fail in. We have the AHL playoffs to live vicariously through Albany supporters ahead. There's the World Championships and, much later, the World Cup of Hockey in the future. Plenty of prospect profiles for the draft; posts on free agents; plenty of analysis now that the 2015-16 season is complete; and maybe even some new stuff we haven't done before. All that and the NHL Draft and July 1, 2016. The 2015-16 season is over, but hockey does not stop at All About the Jersey.
Your Take: What did you think of this game? What did you like the most? Will you stick around for the offseason?
March & April in Review will be up tomorrow. Our awards for the season will be up on Monday. I wasn't kidding when I said the hockey never stops. For the last time until September, thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread; thanks to those who followed the site's account on Twitter, @AATJerseyBlog, and thanks again to you for reading.