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Pretty Score, Ugly Game: New Jersey Devils Bounce Dallas Stars, 5-2

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It was not pretty. It was not smooth. It was very choppy and sloppy. But the New Jersey Devils made the most of their bounces to beat the Dallas Stars, 5-2. This recap goes over an ugly performance with some standouts among other observations.

NHL: Dallas Stars at New Jersey Devils
Brian Boyle and Cory Schneider were big tonight in a 5-2 win over Dallas.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A 5-2 win always look good at a distance. More than just a victorious score, it shows that a substantial lead was built in some way. So it was for the New Jersey Devils, who broke a 2-2 deadlock against the Dallas Stars in the second period, put up an insurance goal in the third period, and sealed the game with an elusive empty net goal. Yet, a closer look at this game - or even asking anyone who saw the whole thing - would show that this was one really, really, really ugly game.

Sure, the game had a lot of events involved. There were penalties! There were hits! There were beefs! There were a whole bunch of “why I outtas” after that eventual game winning goal and at the end of the second period that yielded fouls! Oh, and seven total goals scored.

What it did not have was a whole lot of actual attempts as both teams combined for just 59 shooting attempts in 5-on-5 play. (And New Jersey definitely did not win in this regard; they were out-attempted 24-35.) What it did not have was a whole lot of free play as both teams had stretches without a single shot on goal for minutes at a time. What it did not have was a whole lot of consecutive hockey as there were 14 icings, 9 icings, and 9 pucks hitting the netting amid the seven goals and eleven total penalties assessed. Most of all, what it did not have was a whole lot of solid puck movement - especially for the Devils. Passes were an adventure, pucks bounced every which way against the Devils, and even when the Stars would turn over the puck, the Devils rarely were able to capitalize. Watching the Devils try and fail to attack even when Dallas gifted them a puck was like to eating a raw onion like an apple. And while the Stars were able to string a few passes together from time to time, they weren’t exactly super-sharp all night either. This game had no alibi, it was ugly.

To that end, there are reasons to be happy about the result. Despite fumbling and bumbling on the puck tens of times on offense, the Devils managed to score three even strength goals out of fourteen even strength shots. Despite a power play dumping away entries like they were going out of style, the Devils did cash in on a double-minor for a goal and their entire second period offense - nine shots - came on their three power plays. Despite having played the night before, the Devils went aggressive on their forecheck, their pinching, and with physical play. They did not appear to be notably tired despite having played over sixty minutes last night. Despite how so much could have gone wrong, Cory Schneider was great in net again, the penalty kill was on point (save for one fluky bounce), and the Devils skaters were able to find three bounces to pull away from the Stars. It was a difficult game to watch and the performance was lacking given all of the missed passes and decisions on the puck going awry. But the Devils did pull through - and, again, while missing three notable forwards - and made it a win with a very pretty scoreline.

The cliche is that good teams find ways to win sloppy games as well as winning games when they are sharp. They did the latter against LA. They did the former tonight. Let’s see if the Devils can keep it up in their next five games, which are all at the Rock.

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 Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Micah Turman has this recap up at Defending Big D, calling it an “absolute battle.” Indeed, the tempers flared up as the game went on and with the puck bouncing the way it did, a lot of plays were just up for grabs.

The Highlights: From NHL.com:

The Snowy Start: Snow fell on New Jersey this evening and combined with rush hour traffic, it resulted in a late arriving crowd. Eventually, a decent crowd did arrive and had plenty to cheer for. Or get frustrated at, depending on what point of the game they came in.

I do feel a bit bad for those arriving a bit late beyond battling some really heavy traffic. Even though the Stars hit the post on their first shooting attempt, the start of the game was heavily in New Jersey’s favor. The Devils were hitting their passes, they were keeping attacks going, they drew an early penalty (Tyler Pitlick interfered with Brian Gibbons), and Gibbons set up Steve Santini for a lovely shot from the point for an early goal. It was a good, mostly clean start from the Devils. Alas, that kind of play would not really return for the Devils. Once Dallas had their power play, the game was all about battles, bounces, and botched opportunities to make something happen.

The Big Star: Brian Boyle had a standout game. He was ultimately positive at the dot, with nine wins out of sixteen draws. He drew a cross-check from Klingberg for a second period power play that was later extended thanks to Stephen Johns high-sticking Miles Wood and drawing blood. Boyle escaped John Klingberg’s tie-up in front and cashed in on a rebound from a Will Butcher shot near the end of a four-minute power play for a goal. That goal broke the 2-2 tie and it was his 100th career goal. In the third period, a dropped stick slowed down a dump-in, which allowed Boyle to pick it up. (Shoutout to the dropped stick for helping on this play.) His feed to Nick Lappin in the slot was knocked away by Kari Lehtonen, but Lappin cycled with Jimmy Hayes. Hayes had a shot, Lehtonen saved it, the puck laid on Jason Spezza’s stick, Lappin poked it away and chipped in the puck for a goal to make it 4-2. That gave Boyle a secondary assist; your mileage may vary about how legit the assist was but he has it. When the Stars pulled Lehtonen early and after two icings, Boyle won a draw, eventually received the puck, and launched a long shot into an empty net to seal the win. That’s a three-point night for a man who plays about ten minutes at even strength. That’s big stuff.

What’s more is that he displayed the “rougher” side of his game. He and Klingberg must have had words or something happened on the ice. After Boyle’s first goal, he was jawjacking with Klingberg and then beefed with him and Greg Pateryn. Boyle received two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct and a ten minute misconduct. Not exactly what you want to see after breaking a tie in a not so good looking second period. But the fans absolutely appreciated his stance. When he returned to the game (and at 11:11), Boyle’s name was chanted. So it was again when he was announced as the first star of tonight’s game. Clearly, the fans have taken to the big center. Tonight, he was a star against the Stars.

Other Notably Good Performances: In general, starting goaltenders on consecutive nights tend to not go so well for the second game. But Cory Schneider was quite good tonight. He made a number of tough saves. While his diving stop on Jamie Benn near the end of the game will and should be on highlight reels all over the world; Schneider was just as important at denying Alexander Radulov on a backdoor play during a 3-on-5 penalty kill. Schneider was helped by the post on his first piece of action, but he was alert for most everything else. When the Stars broke free and had open shots, Schneider came up big. He was only beaten twice. The first can be forgiven: an odd bounce after a shot that went off Martin Hanzal and then off Andy Greene’s skates and into the net. The second was Radulov going five-hole after making a power move to get past Will Butcher. That was a star-move by Radulov and not such a great goal to allow for Schneider. But the goaltender more than stepped up; that goal against did not seemingly affect his approach to the game. Schneider was great in Montreal and he was great tonight.

I really liked what I saw out of Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons. I liked their energy in motion and they were not struggling a whole lot in their own end. The duo were quite good on the penalty kill, even if they did not generate a shorthanded scoring chance. Coleman did not do so many negative things like he did on Thursday night and, in fact, scored a goal late in the first period to put the Devils up despite how they played for the last fifteen minutes of the period. Gibbons was involved in the creation of two goals, including Coleman’s goal. Gibbons set up Santini for his strike; and Gibbons won the faceoff that led to Andy Greene’s shot. Coleman tipped that shot away from him and the puck just dropped in the crease past Lehtonen. Coleman tapped it in for a score. They were not just good on the scoresheet, they were doing their jobs well in the run of play and on the PK.

Defensively, the Damon Severson and Will Butcher pairing did well. While Butcher was made to look small on Radulov’s goal and he had plenty of power play quarterbacking issues, he was not picked on too much on defense. Severson was better in the run of play as he was New Jersey’s sole positive CF%, FF%, and SF% player in 5-on-5. Granted, this pairing did not see a lot of Spezza, Tyler Seguin, Benn, and Radulov regularly. But they won their matchup and were not contentious outside of one goal against Butcher.

Zacha and 20:00: Pavel Zacha picked up an assist on Boyle’s power play goal. He was a tenth of a second away from a goal himself, though. In the dying seconds of the first period, Dallas coughed up the puck to Drew Stafford. Stafford saw Zacha open to his left and passed it forward. As Lehtonen slid across, Zacha tucked in a shot just inside the right post. A goal at the end of the period! Except the puck did not cross the line at the zero-second mark. Just a bit too late. Alas, that would’ve been Zacha’s only shot of the game in addition to a goal.

At the end of the second period, he was upset with Esa Lindell over contact. Zacha went for him, a big scrum ensued, and at the end of it, he was assessed two minutes for roughing. So his actions in anger - regardless of how right it was - led to the Devils having to kill a penalty right at the start of a period.

In the run of play, Zacha did not have a good night with Wood and Stefan Noesen. They played quite a bit of defense and they were pinned back for a very, very long time thanks to two icings to extend their shifts. Not something you want to see from offensive players. He was notable on the power play, which really only got going in small bursts - and he helped create its one success. Zacha was also quite good at the dot with eight wins out of eleven draws.

Some Not So Good Performances: While I understand that Sami Vatanen has received plenty of criticism - the montreal game does not help - I continue to think that John Moore is the issue here on this pairing. Moore has consistently been a shot sieve in his time in New Jersey and his one-on-one defending has been lacking. In this game, Dallas went for some long passes that required some quick defending by the Devils. Severson was great at it, using his body as well as his stick to end the threat. Moore? Moore hesitated or took the wrong angle and while the one-on-one did not happen, Dallas was able to get some good attack time. Moore taking that high-sticking call during the Zacha penalty kill really put the Devils in a bad spot in a one-goal game. The Devils survived it, but it further showed how Moore was not positive tonight.

I was also not a huge fan of Jesper Bratt tonight. I understand he’s a young player and he’s filling in a role that he’s probably not ready for. But if the idea is that he can provide a spark, then he did not do so. He had no shots on net. He had no attempts. And he didn’t turn around the run of play. I suspect that he is just not much of a fit with Nico Hischier and Drew Stafford like he has been with Hischier and Taylor Hall. In the long run, it’s whatever. But tonight, he was not much of a factor.

Drew Stafford had six shots on net and yet I found him somewhat anonymous tonight. I couldn’t name you any of those six shots. Maybe that’s not so much bad as it is weird to me.

Fix Your Power Play, Geoff: The Devils had a near six-minute straight run of 5-on-4 time followed by a two-minute 4-on-3 in the second period. This did generate the only shots of the period for the Devils, which was nine, and a goal. From that standpoint, good job PP. From the standpoint of how many blown entries, failed dump-ins, miscommunication at the blueline, and concessions of the puck to the Dallas defense the Devils had before they got that one successful play, this was not a good job. The Devils need to get away from their neutral zone dump-in, have some better ideas about how to move when the entry is carried or passed in, and if there are supposed to be pucks moving around the boards, then ensure that Devils are there to get it. I noticed Butcher had issues with this quite a bit, but Vatanen and Severson were not much better. Up front, again, the lack of Hall, Johansson, and Palmieri really shined as Bratt did not contribute much and there’s only so much you would get from the others. I’m glad Butcher did get a shot through to the net and Boyle piled it in. But this process needs to be improved and as quickly should the Devils not want to squander power plays.

The Bigger Picture: While I was not pleased with aspects of this performance, I am pleased that the Devils gutted out a win in a game where not a whole lot went right for them save for the bounces they did score on. Without Hall, Johansson, and Palmieri; with Dallas having not played the night before; and with the same lineup as the one in Montreal with Schneider in net, the Devils won in regulation. That’s a big two points to make it three out of a back-to-back set. This keeps the Devils near the top of a crowded Metropolitan Division, which is where they want to be.

A Wide World of a Reference: I enjoyed Lappin knocking the puck away from Spezza for his goal. Lappin looked elated and banged the glass in the ecstasy of victory. The agony of defeat was seen in Spezza smashing his stick against the post in frustration.

One Last Thought: May you all have a wonderful holiday. I will be away for the next two weeks. My last non-gamethread will be the snapshot on Sunday. CJ, Mike, Gerard, Alex, Brian, Jeff, Devin, Chris, Ryan, Matt, Nick, Steve, and Alicia will take care of thing as they usually do when I’m not around. Hopefully, the Devils take care of business at home for the next two weeks as they have five games at the Rock. I thank you all for your continued readership of this Devils blog and I hope you have a happy holiday and a lovely new year’s eve. I’ll see you in 2018.

(Admittedly, I’d rather have seen something like the LA game than this one, but it is what it is. Wins are wins.)

Your Take: The Devils won 5-2 in a game that was definitely not easy or pleasing to the eye. If you like your games gritty with loads of broken plays, then you got it. Anyway, it’s still a win. What did you think of it? What did you make of the performance? Who were good in your eyes? Who were bad in your eyes? What should the Devils learn from this game ahead of their next game against Anaheim? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.

Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.