Monday night’s New Jersey Devils game saw them face-off with the Montreal Canadiens in a match-up that had playoff implications for one team. With the Devils either looking to play spoiler or improve their draft position, it was the former result that came about, as they beat Montreal 2-1. On paper, it wasn’t necessarily the prettiest game: the Canadiens out-shot and out-attempted New Jersey while controlling a lot of the pace. With less NHL talent than many teams (due to both injury and prospects not progressing as needed in some cases) the question could be asked: is this the type of game the Devils need to play more often to be able to return to dominance?
Now this isn’t going to be an in-depth stats article, but it is going to speak about moments of the past two games, and how the Devils need to continue putting forth similar efforts if they would like to be a winning franchise once again. Obviously, they will need more talent going forward as well, but a high draft pick this year, and a good amount of cash to throw around in free agency can address that.
The first thing that stood out both on Monday and last night was a strong effort in net; while Cory Schneider had a bit of a stinker against Our Hated Rivals, the other four of his most recent five performances saw him stop either every shot he faces, or all but one of them. Similarly, MacKenzie Blackwood only allowed one bad goal last night (the puck deflection off of Sami Vatanen’s skate was a fluke) while stopping 33 of 35 shots overall. Quality net minding has started to return to New Jersey, and if this trend continues, the Devils should already have a shot at marked improvement next year.
The motto of the Hynes/Shero era has been “fast, supportive, attacking” and it had some success when the Devils had the personnel for it. Right now, they barely have any NHL caliber forwards, let alone ones that fit the mantra. Yet, they were still able to deny Montreal a win on Monday; maybe some will attribute that to the factor that any team can beat any other in the NHL on a given night. I think it was more the team’s positioning; there were fewer breakdowns (shorthanded goal aside) and guys were responsible enough to close down lanes. Having players who take the body when necessary isn’t hurting either; at the start of the season, I didn’t think Kurtis Gabriel was anything more than a pseudo-goon, but he has shown that he can play disciplined while being a serviceable, physical presence.
Also, he scored the game winning goal on Monday.
For anyone who didn’t watch, or hasn’t been able to keep up with the team lately, I’m sure Gabriel would be pretty low on the list of guys to put the puck behind Carey Price, but it happened. The first goal also deserves some mention, as it was the first NHL goal for Nathan Bastian. Both tallies on Monday exemplified an element that the Devils need in their lineup and one that was missing since Brian Boyle was traded to Nashville: garbage goals.
Garbage goals are players going to the dirty areas and cleaning up while putting the puck in the net. It could be due to hard work in the corners with a puck being sent in front of the net (Stephen Gionta to Ryan Carter, Game 5 of the 2012 Conference Finals anyone?) or even just getting in position to screen the goalie while deflecting the puck in or batting in a rebound. Both Bastian and Gabriel’s goals fit this bill; Bastian did an incredible job of moving the puck to his defensemen before crossing in front of the net and beating his man to tip the puck between Price’s pads and in. Gabriel got in front of the net and roofed a backhander over Price when a point shot deflected over to him. A successful Devils team needs more than just skill goals; they need to be able to out-muscle their opponents and clean up in front.
Now I’m not saying let’s get away from skill completely; a team with Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt in the ranks should never just change their strategy to trying to chip in rebounds and deflections all the time. However, the team does need to tailor their play strategy based on which line goes out; a combination of Hall/Hischier/Bratt/Palmieri can do very different things than a Gabriel/Rooney/Stafford line could. If the John Hynes era Devils are able to adapt and add more strategies to their arsenal, and if they continue to get quality goaltending, they could be a force again in the East as soon as next season.
What are your thoughts on the Devils adding more physicality and “dirty goals” to their play? Will playing a more positionally sound game help them to avoid breakdowns and blowout games? Can the quality of goaltending that the team has had over the past couple of weeks from Schneider and Blackwood last? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!