Sunday, March 30, 2008

 

So Who Are These Devils?

The Devils broke a five game winless streak on Friday in a rather utilitarian (read: ugly) manner. Up to and including March 15, the Devils were at the top of the Atlantic Division and trading spots with Montreal for first in the conference. Things were good, the team was confident, and the Devils looked to be contenders once again.

Then they proceeded to only pick up 1 point in the next 5 games. No wins. The Devils were not only falling from the top of the conference, but also from the top of the division. In a little more than a week; the Devils found themselves fighting for seeds #4 through #8. Instead of clinching a playoff berth for the 11th season in a row, they remain a few points short. Although, the recent win pretty much ensures the Devils' spot according to James Mirtle's metric, this was terrible. 2 Man Advantage wasn't happy. IPB wasn't happy. I surely wasn't happy. And even with the win, the Devils recognize that they need to step it up and get wins (source: Star Ledger). Prior to the Flyers game, I got a question from long time reader Tim:
You have to help me, sir. You have to help me understand. How the Devils, at the most crucial time of the year, have lost 5 straight, all to divisional rivals. How they fell from 1st in the Conference to 5th and maybe 6th, and maybe 7th or 8th by the time they are through. How a team that could win 11 straight to win the division just a couple years ago can tank and forget how to score goals. How a team that looked legitimately strong and a legitimate Cup contender will once again maybe get past the first round but no further. What kind of team do we have, sir? What kind of team? I thought a true force, I was sadly mistaken.
To be honest, Tim. I really don't know. Pookie and Schnookie addressed the question of whether the team has been overachieving or underachieving this season in a podcast. According to Gulitti's blog - also before the Flyers game - Sutter likes the team as it is. However, I don't know because I don't think we can't even make this decision as it is. Yes, they dropped 5 games at the worst possible point in the season. But they also rose up to snag first place and held onto it in February and for the first half of March. The last time the Devils had first in the Eastern Conference was back in 2001, so that's a huge accomplishment. Even with the recent spell of bad hockey, the Devils still have a very solid record of 43-28-7 and they are at no reasonable risk of missing the playoffs. The Devils accomplished far too much this season for them to be mere pretenders and artful dodgers.

As shown by the stats at NHL.com; the Devils also have excellent resilience. They have the 5th best record in the league when they give up the first goal (16-21-3); the 6th best record in the league when trailing after the first period (6-13-1); and the second best record in the league when trailing after the second period (7-21-2). When you consider those records, you can't seriously say that they are just playing out of their minds. To me, that shows an ability to not be completely discouraged and fight hard to get something out of those games. Teams that underachieve definitely do this, and you don't get to be near the top in those categories by simply overachieving.

Furthermore, consider who this team is built upon. As alerted to me by alert reader Scott, NHL.com points out that Martin Brodeur has literally been the rock at The Rock. Brodeur has played in an absolutely remarkable percentage of the Devils' games. He certainly does keep the Devils in games where they really shouldn't have been. However, that's not because Marty is playing above his level - he does it by playing at just his level. 40+ win seasons are regular for this guy. Brodeur isn't over or under achieving; he's just achieving. Given that, how can we truly determine is the Devils are over/under-achieving? If we say that the team goes as Marty goes, and Marty is just simply Marty, what then?

Lastly, consider the last few seasons. Yes, scoring is at a premium and has been done by committee for the most part, with the Devils not reaching a total of 250 goals for since 2000-2001. Regardless, the team has been a contender despite this. The best example was the 2002-2003 season. The Devils had their best record in terms of points with 108 points. Yet, the Devils didn't even have anyone finish with more than 60 points (Patrik Elias led with 57); no goal scorers with more than 30 (Elias had 28 goals and too many hit the post); a power play; and the fewest amount of goals scored in team history (206, though this season may break that). They won the Stanley Cup that season. That team is proof that reliable, consistent scoring is not a prerequisite for success (although it helps); as long as the team shows up, works hard, plays smart defense, and scores when necessary. Does that sound a little familiar for this season? I'd say so. Did that team overachieve? I am hesitant to say so considering the team still had 100+ point seasons since then with most of the same core of players. Especially last year's team where despite the inconsistent offense, they set a franchise record for wins.

Basically, to sum up my spiel, there are far too many mitigating circumstances to say the team has overachieved. We've seen this before and we've seen both bad streaks and excellent streaks. While the scoring has been inconsistent, the team has consistently remained in the top 8 since November, and ended December at the top of the division. Ultimately it will fall to how the Devils do in the playoffs to say whether the Devils have been playing above or below their capability. Should they unceremoniously flop out of the first round, I'd say they overachieved. Should they look good and go deep, well, nobody can say they overachieved. Right now, I'm just content with what the team has done and so I cannot answer your question Tim. It's all up to what the team does at this point anyhow.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

 

Devils 5 - Philadelphia 4, SO

The New Jersey Devils broke their winless streak and their drop in offense with a 5-4 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Four goals were scored in regulation, and the shootout sealed 2 points for the Devils who really needed them after the last week or so. This has been delayed because I was at this game. Let me tell you, I felt this was definitely an up-and-down game. The recap at NHL.com states that the Devils "bent, but did not break." Overall, yes, they did not break. However, the team - specifically the defense - was broken many times in the run of play.

To give an overall feel of the game, the Flyers were the better team in the first 15 minutes and picked up a goal that Martin Brodeur wished he had another shot at. Then, as the period was dying down and you're thinking whether this is going to be the same old story, the Devils took control of the game. More amazingly, the Devils scored on a power play goal when Johnny Oduya's shot bounced off Zach Parise's body and got in. Most amazingly, a few minutes later, the crowd yelled for Oduya to shoot - he did, and it not only was on target, but it went in. For the first time that I can remember, the crowd actually was right in this case. Oduya with a brace, the Devils leading after the first, things are good. And they continued to be good by controlling the first 10 minutes of the second period, involving a fantastic penalty kill of a stupid penalty by Sheldon Brookbank and Jamie Langenbrunner scoring off of a rebound. Jamie's got his first goal since March 15, the Devils are up 3-1, you're feeling pretty good about this one.

Then things turn for the worse. The Devils take their foot off the pedal; the Flyers roar back with some good pressure and ex-Devil Jim Dowd potting a deflected shot. And there lies my problem with the Devils against Philly. In addition to not finishing off the Flyers when they did, the defense was far too much of the "bend, not break" variety. Coverages were missed; clearances varied between decent and poor; and they ultimately let the other team back into this one. This continued into the third period and nearly doomed New Jersey when Brookbank poorly cleared it along the boards right to one Randy Jones. Jones threw up a floater that found it's way right off the post and in - another goal Brodeur would have liked to have another crack at it. You're feeling real nervous at this point, calling for the Devils to wake up. And they do; with about 6 minutes left, Brian Gionta finally did something of value and easily finished a John Madden pass for goal #4. You're thinking - "OK. This should be it. These are the Devils. If anyone can hold onto a one-goal lead for 6 minutes, it's them. Let's see some defense."

Yet, not tonight. The fabled "hockey-killing, offense-stifiling, stop-getting" defense of the New Jersey Devils hockey club did not appear and with less than a minute, the Flyers got an equalizer. Despite the extra man, the Devils seemingly weren't covering anyone particularly tightly and that allowed Mike Richards to slide a pass to Mike Knuble for a quick one-timer. At this point, you're crushed. You're beside yourself. You're awaiting and dreading overtime. Overtime passes and it goes to a shootout. Where you witness the Devils scoring three times and the Flyers only twice. Parise, Patrik Elias, and Langenbrunner came through and got the win.

And at that point, your mind is racing. That the Devils can't possibly play like this in their last four games. That the Devils took too many stupid penalties including two delay of game calls. That the team has a way of sometimes having a strong, productive offense but only when the defense falters. That you can't fathom why Sheldon Brookbank continues getting minutes given how poor he has played in recent games. Yet, overall, you're just glad it was a win. Tom Gulitti's recap of the game reflect this and you're glad you aren't the only one.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

 

Devils 2 - Rangers 3

A level headed thought about the game would say that despite the 3-2 loss, the Devils played much better than they have been in the last 4 games. Such a thought would point out a more diverse attack, the Devils looking good on the rush and getting odd-man rushes at all, the team getting many more suitable scoring chances, and how close this game really was.

This isn't going to be one of them. The Devils have now squandered their Atlantic Division standing to the point where they are tied with Our Hated Rivals, gave up a lead whilst giving up stupid as hell penalties (Aside #1: Colin White is more than deserving of this criticism), and being punchless in the third period and lost on defense (Aside #2: The Sheldon Brookbank-Vitaly Vishnevski pairing experiment must end).

And so they lost to Nigel Dawes' arm pushing a puck into the net. Thanks to the refs, Toronto, and the NHL for changing the rules of hockey where hand passes aren't allowed, but pushing the puck with the arm while sliding for a goal is absolutely OK. There's questionable calls, but that was absolute garbage. If any of you can find what rule allows that as a goal, I would love to see it. The Devils were felled by a man sliding on the ice who directed the puck in with his arm. An inadvertent deflection? Please. Dawes stretched his arm out like that for a reason; he knew what he was doing.

If tomorrow night doesn't yield a massive win against Philadelphia; I have to seriously question whether the Devils even want to make the playoffs. Because this is not a playoff ready team, this is not a team that wants to win the tough and close games, and this is not a prepared team. This falls on the players, the coaching, and management. Going winless in five games is never good; but it's absolutely horrific when it happens with less than 10 games in the season, and all against division rivals.

Once again, I say this is unacceptable and it needs to change now. Other and similar thoughts are available at IPB.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

 

Changes? What Are These...Changes?

Tom Gulitti is reporting today at Fire & Ice that the Devils do not plan to change their lineup for Thursday's game against Our Hated Rivals.

I struggle to understand this decision, to be honest. Sheldon Brookbank has been actively bad for the past two games and he was clearly the worst player on the ice in last night's game. Given that Pittsburgh regularly has Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi on defense; that's pretty bad. As an aside, I'm amazed Gill and Scuderi played 20 minutes - they just aren't that good. Regardless, while I don't think it would completely spark the offense, giving Karel Rachunek another chance on the blueline wouldn't be a bad idea. He'd have to try real hard to be unconfident with the puck and slow in getting into position at both ends, as Brookbank has been in recent games. Plus, Rachunek has a better shot - something New Jersey could use.

That said, there's something to be said for keeping the same players and having them work through the adversity. On the other hand, I think it's time to stop using Mike Rupp as a featured forward. Patrik Elias is back, Rupp hasn't been taking it to the net as he has been last week, and so I think his resurgence has plateaued. Still, a nice run from Rupp. Of course, should Rupp break out and have a game such that Pierre McGuire would proclaim him to be a MONSTER, I will gladly eat my words.

Anyway, I digress. That something to be said about keeping the team together has been well said by Josh Burnett at 2 Man Advantage. Josh thinks the best way for the team to get scoring again is for the team to relax. I'm inclined to agree. We've seen the Devils put up 35 shots on the Islanders, 25 more shots in a terrible game, and then 31 more on the Penguins last night. While they are missing and getting blocked in a Dikembe Mutumbo-esque manner, they are getting shots. Clearly, it's getting into their head, they're frustrated, and so scoring becomes even more elusive. The old saying of "gripping your stick too tightly," I fear, is holding true. So Josh's advice is apt in that regard. Should the team not freak out and play with too much self-doubt or play with absolute panic, they could find their way to get back into scoring. And not a moment too soon with Our Hated Rivals tomorrow and Our Favorite Punching Bags on Friday. Oh, how I would love to make a post like this again.

Regardless, I'm happy to say that the team recognizes that they miss the net too many times, as Tom Gulitti informs us:

**During one drill in which players curled around a glove to take a shot from between the circles, six of first seven fired wide and had to do pushups. "It tells you they're not hitting the net," Sutter said. "They've been doing that all year. We know we miss the net more than we like. You talk to them about it and yet it's something you have to be better at."

Unfortunately, in the comments, we learn that the Devils are doing a lot of push-ups. The first step to solving a problem is to recognize it, so at least they got that far.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

 

Devils 0 - Pittsburgh 2

The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New Jersey Devils 2-0, on the strength of a power play one-timer from the slot from Mr. Ryan Malone tonight.

The Devils did poorly in the first period, were slightly less bad in the second, and yet they played very well in the third period when they had their best scoring chances.

Yet, the inconsistent effort in addition to the pathetic power play, the multitude of missed passes, the inability to get rebounds on offense, the old standby of a lack of finish, and the horrific shooting accuracy doomed the team. Seriously, 31 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury and 28 that should have hit him (14 missed the net, 14 were blocked). That's bad.

The Penguins held on to win that game and while it wasn't a fantastic win, it was an important one. Their fans should be pleased - as the many away supporters were at tonight's game - with an invaluable 4 point lead on the Atlantic. This could have been the one that would have made the Atlantic Division be decided in April. However, the Devils did not go into it with the full effort and the decision making (e.g. the terribly high number of missed and blocked shots) necessary. So instead of tying the Penguins to make the lead a race again; they're now on the outside looking in.

And the team is officially slumping, now that they are winless in their last 4 games. Hopefully, this was the nadir; because it's entirely possible that Our Hated Rivals could pass the Devils in the standings. Especially if they continue their winning ways on Thursday night. The Devils need to make whatever adjustments necessary, get in the right mindset, and do what needs to be done to get the team scoring, get the team making proper passes and shots, and do all of this quickly. The wins need to come now should New Jersey want to be the contenders that we all know and have seen a few weeks ago.

This is not the right time of the season to have a slump; and it is not the right time of the season to throw all that hard work from November onward away. Tonight's game was very telling; but it will be what happens later this week that determines the direction of this team.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

 

Easter

That guy who died on Friday? He came back. Just like it was written.

Thank God.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

 

Devils 1 - Pittsburgh 7

Pretend you're the Devils for a moment.

You're at Pittsburgh, a place where you've won the last 3 games there this season. You have the exact same record as the Penguins, tied for first place. This is game is important in shaping who will win the division. You had a frustrating night against the Islanders. Clearly, you go out there and make the most of it. Play with fire, with energy, with passion, and with the effort to get two crucial points.

But you aren't the New Jersey Devils. Because tonight, instead of going for glory, they played like this:

Devils vs Pens 3-22-08

I try to write here without any obscenities; so I can't say anything else about the game except for this: 7-1. Everyone better be on the bikes. Including the coaching staff.

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Devils 1 - Islanders 3

On Friday, the New Jersey Devils hosted the New York Islanders with a game in hand over Montreal and Pittsburgh. They proceeded to do their best impersonation of the 1997-1998 Devils with controlling play, stifling defense, and plenty of shots on net.

Unfortunately, they also included in the impersonation an appalling lack of finishing, 2003-esque power play work, and threw in a lot of stupid penalties which ended up burning them.

They lost 3-1. And the loss was more frustrating than horrible. As I said, the Devils really had control for most of the game. But the Islanders got the few chances they needed, the Devils kept floundering on their own power plays while handing the opposition power plays of their own, and so the Devils lost. They had the chances to increase their lead, they didn't, and that ultimately doomed them.

And so, an opportunity to create some tiny yet important space in the division was lost. The next two games against Pittsburgh just became must-win games.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

 

Good Friday

Roughly a little more than 1,925 years ago; somebody important died.

Thank God.

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Sergei Brylin in Recent Seasons

Sergei Brylin is a versatile player. Need to fill in a spot on the top two lines? Brylin wouldn't look out of place. Need someone at right wing along with Jay Pandolfo and John Madden? Brylin can and has been there before. Inject the fourth line with a little more skill and two-way play? Brylin has no complaints doing so. Sarge has been with the team since 1995, present for all three Stanley Cups, and is currently the team's "iron man," with 319 straight games.

However, I find reason to believe that the 34 year old forward is becoming less effective than he usually is this season. I mentioned as such in Sunday's post on the Devils' prospects vis a vis Petr Vrana. In a rarity, someone left a comment - someone by the name anonymous wrote the following:
hey man, interesting post. But, what's this about Brylin's effectiveness dropping from month to month? his current salary may be a little high considering the cap, but the guy is a solid NHLer. No one on the Devils can play every forward like this guy, and doesn't complain when he plays 4th line. That's pretty valuable in itself. seems like every year someone out there says he's not effective.
This comment stuck with me for the past few days (Aside: And yours could to if you leave one! Seriously!). Not just because anonymous is legion and I don't want to cross him/her/them. I largely based that observation on the fact that I haven't noticed Brylin all that much this season. Was I right in my observation? Let's take a look at Sergei Brylin in recent seasons in a detailed (read: long) post. Just for your knowledge, I'm going as far back as the 2000-2001 season because it gives us a good idea of what Brylin was doing in the prime of his career back when he was 27. Also, it's as far back as I can go at NHL.com. Let's look at the numbers with the following table.

Last Seven Seasons of Brylin

The yellow highlights this season. There are two important conclusions that can be made. First, there's the production. Given that Brylin's role of a versatile forward had him play everywhere among the 12 forwards in the past 7 seasons, getting chemistry with a line and getting into a groove has been an issue. Despite this, Brylin has earned at least 10 goals in each of the past 6 seasons, taken at least 80 shots, and has scored 30 points except in the 2002-2003 season. As far as this season goes, it's possible he can crack double digits in goals if he gets hot right now. However, with 9 games left to play, Brylin is not going to pick up 14 points short of a torrid hot streak transforming into a Scoring Machine™. I don't think he is going to pick up 80 shots. A lot of this is due to his time on the fourth line this season; but given that Sutter has been changing the lines so much - even multiple times within the same game - Brylin has seen time with the scoring forwards this season. Even then, Brylin hasn't been a threat in terms of offense. It's one thing to have a down offensive season, when the puck isn't getting in the net. It's another thing when you're taking a lot less shots and therefore you can't come close to meeting past production levels. For this reason, I think it is valid to say he is becoming less effective in terms of production and of offense.

Now, I understand Brylin has largely been used in a checking role over the last few seasons, including this one. He's being used mainly on the third and fourth lines and he doesn't see too much special teams action. However, that leads me to the second important conclusion. Brylin is seeing a lot less of the ice this season than he has in the past 6. His average ice time this season is down 22.16% and his average shifts per game is down 24.74%. Brylin has played on the bottom two lines plenty of times over the past few seasons, but he's always had at least an average 15 minutes of playing time regardless of where he was slotted. These two charts graphically emphasize this point:

Average Ice Time of Brylin

Average Shifts of Brylin

Were Brylin as effective as a checker, he'd be getting more ice time. Yet, he is not. It's not that Brent Sutter has anything against Brylin. Look at Wednesday's game as an example; Brylin got over 15 minutes of ice time along with over 3 and half minutes on the power play. Brylin played fairly well and so he kept getting shifts. However, he has seen fewer shifts this season and less ice time. Even when he was primarily a checking forward in the last two seasons, he had more playing time. That his playing time has been reduced so much this season, it clearly suggests that Brylin is not as useful as he was - including last season. I do not think effective players do not see their average ice time drop 4 minutes compared to the last season. The 2000-2001 season, I'd like to point out, is an interesting one - where Brylin got fewer shifts on average than any season, yet he was incredibly effective with 23 goals and 29 assists. It shows effectiveness (and efficiency) to have not lot of playing time but still be very productive; but it's definitely a display of ineffectiveness if not a lot goes along with reduced minutes and shifts.

What's more is that the Devils have plenty of players who can and has played plenty on the fourth line role: Mike Rupp, Aaron Asham, Rod Pelley, and David Clarkson. The fact that Brylin is willing to play on the fourth line isn't as valuable as it once was. He's not the offensive player he once was, he's not taking nearly as many shots as he once did, and he can't be doing a really great job as a two-way forward otherwise he'd get more shifts and more ice time. It also doesn't favor Brylin when New Jersey can call up anyone from Lowell to play on that fourth line, such as Petr Vrana for example.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not calling for Brylin to leave the team. I do appreciate what he has done for the team and his willingness to take on whatever role he is asked to play. I'm confident that he can still contribute to the team - just not as much as he once did. We must confront the brutal truth that Brylin is not getting any younger, he's not producing like he once was, and he's not getting the ice time and number of shifts he has gotten from the past 6 seasons. Therefore, I think the numbers validates my observation that Brylin's effectiveness is dropping. If you have any further questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to leave a comment.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

 

Devils 1 - Rangers 2, SO

The Devils were so close, yet so far. The Devils lose to Our Hated Rivals in the shootout, 2-1. They manage a point out of it; but the Devils were 5 minutes from the win. The only serious defensive breakdown of the game cost the Devils - Sheldon Brookbank left the slot, Chris Drury had space, Ryan Callahan found him, and that's the tying goal.

However, we can't just focus on that. The Devils had a good first period, Dainius Zubrus capitalized on the power play to get that all-important first goal. The team after that just couldn't generate as much on offense. Mike Rupp played very well and drove to the net - his unit with Zubrus and Sergei Brylin kept doing that. The rest attempted to go high and hit the glass too many times. I can't emphasize enough that Mike Rupp had a great game. Travis Zajac and Zach Parise, not so much. So Lundqvist wasn't as challenged as he should be and that hurt the Devils. The Devils faded in the second and while they looked pretty good in the third, the Rangers kept piling up momentum with extended offensive possession and power plays. To be fair, the Devils penalty killers were great tonight; but it allowed the opposition to get going with confidence. With a one goal lead, the leading team needs to be perfect - but that is rare inofitself.

The Devils tried real hard in overtime, but they couldn't get it through. The shootout happened as it is and that's that. On the bright side, the Devils got a point. They remain in first with 9 games remaining - one more than tonight's opposition. This loss is disappointing. I agree with Steve Stirling - this is not a good way to start the stretch run. Mike Rupp, Dainius Zubrus, Paul Martin (who played with speed and fire all night long), and Martin Brodeur gave excellent efforts; but it wasn't enough. But the Devils are in no position to dwell. No position to wonder, "If only Patrik Elias was healthy," though I'd like to think the result would have been different had he been on the ice. The schedule doesn't allow it and they have a game on Friday to worry about.

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Interperiod Video

It's currently the second period against Our Hated Rivals. So far, the scoreline is favorable.

However, it has occurred to me that in between the second and third periods, there is a distinct possibility you - the viewer and Devils fan - will have to endure Al Trautwig. Might I offer an alternative, watch this video interview with Martin Brodeur from the NY Post.com.



Thanks to a contributor to be named later for this find.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

 

No Elias Tomorrow?

In addition to taking that shot to the kneecap, Elias is also battling the flu according to Gulitti. Fantastic. A game against Our Hated Rivals tomorrow and the team's most creative player is still questionable. Time to step it up again for Travis Zajac and Mike Rupp. I know Rupp has taken it to the next level, but will the sophmore center? I think he'll almost have to against Our Hated Rivals tomorrow. It's a rival, it's at the Rock, it's part of a tight division race, and Zajac really needs to get something going to get his game back on track. Otherwise, the Rangers defense will realize they don't have to worry as much about Zajac and even more of their attention on Parise. Hopefully, another game with Parise and Langenbrunner may return the spark that we saw so much of last season between the three players.

Of course, Sutter is the head coach, so don't be surprised if the line changes at least 3 times during the game regardless.

Fortunately, Colin White and Bryce Salvador will be available for tomorrow. Good. White will definitely beef up the defense and Salvador has been useful in the first few games he's been with New Jersey. Our Hated Rivals have had trouble putting in goals this season, so a strong defense will definitely help continue that; and White and Salvador clearly make the Devils' blueline much stronger. Both physically and positionally.

And in a recent move that just happens spite my uninformed opinion, Guilitti is reporting that the Devils signed Tyler Eckford. He will not return to the CCHA for his senior year. However, this is a very good sign - generally, the Devils are very patient with their prospects and will let them develop. They will sign the prospect out of college if they are ready, and coming out a year early is a promising sign. I still think he'll see significant time in Lowell (starting next season) before going down to New Jersey, if only to continue development on a higher level of hockey. Best of luck to Eckford and good luck on those final exams.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

 

Praise Isn't Just Parise Spelled Wrong

It's absolutely remarkable what the Devils are doing this season. A nearly-brand new defense in front of him that, on paper, isn't much to write home about. An offense that has struggled with inconsistency all season long. Considering that, Rich Chere's column in today's Star Ledger is very poignant. The Devils continue to silence the doubters by still leading the conference, albeit with a thin margin, with 10 games left to play. What's this I see?

"If you looked on paper at our roster and compared it to some other teams in the conference, possibly not," captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "But I think some guys on this team are underrated as far as putting up numbers."

Okay, so rookie coach Brent Sutter turned out to be the right fit behind the bench, the Devils abandoned their plan to give Brodeur more time off and they got another 30-goal season out of Zach Parise.

But first place in the conference?

"I think other people might've been surprised," center Travis Zajac said. "But us, as a team, aren't. We know what we have here."

Looks to me like a little confidence within their team. And why not? While they aren't in a comfortable position in the standings, the Devils are clearly contenders in the Eastern Conference by virtue of leading a very tight conference, much less a division. This year's group is similar to, say, 1995's and 2003's team in that it doesn't matter that it looks like on paper; they're getting it done on the ice.

Of course, a big a reason for their success from 1994 and forward has been Martin Brodeur. And it's not just Devils fans who notice this. Darren Eliot at Sports Illustrated is giving The Man his due. He works hard, he's not a "character," he doesn't sulk after a bad game, and he makes ridiculous saves on a routine basis - especially this season. Thanks to David Puddy at HF Boards for finding this article. Consider this article before thinking that the Devils aren't getting enough respect in the larger hockey press. Maybe you may think there should be more columnists and journalists saying things like this about Marty, but praise is always better than none at all.

Lastly, on Wednesday, the Devils host Our Hated Rivals. What a way to kick off a division-heavy stretch-run. Let's look back at some Devils domination of a deserving squad (originally found at Devils Due, so says the video description at Youtube. Also, is anyone still there at DD?):


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Sunday, March 16, 2008

 

New Devils Prospect Rankings at HF

I know, what a creative title. Jared Ramsden has the new top 20 prospect ranking list at Hockey's Future. As expected, Nicklas Bergfors and Matt Corrente remain at the top; Matt Halischuk breaks into the list thanks to his World Junior Championship experience; and Barry Tallackson bizarrely is still on the list despite being there for nearly 6 years now.

In any case, I'd like to make a fairly uninformed prediction who from this list you will see in New Jersey in the future. If you have any thoughts or opinions about these guys, please let me know. I'm willing to entertain all angles.

Get the Jerseys Ready (Eventually):
  • Petr Vrana - He's leading Lowell in scoring and his versatility likens him to Sergei Brylin. Given that Brylin's effectiveness is dropping from month to month, I'd expect Vrana to step in to replace him within the next few seasons, if not next season.
  • Nicklas Bergfors - Not a lot of production in Lowell; but he did make the team out of training camp and injuries has slowed him down. Still, he's got top 6 forward potential and talent; he'll probably get a longer look next season.
  • Rod Pelley - Uh, wait, he's already played 63 games with New Jersey. And he already has a jersey.
  • Mark Fraser - I know, with 9 d-men on the roster, why another defenseman? He looked fairly good in a call-up last season and he's a big, physical player. If Salvador doesn't re-sign or if the Devils clear out some of the quasi-regulars (e.g. Sheldon Brookbank), Fraser could step in. If not next season than the year after.
  • Nick Palmieri - The Devils are looking to bring him right to Lowell. He did well at camp back in September. But the last prospect the Devils had that was primarily a goal scorer was Pierre Dagenais, so I wouldn't anoint him to be the next goal scoring machine. Regardless, the Devils organization likes him and that's a big positive.
  • Matt Corrente - Lou rates character and discipline highly and those are the only real questions one could have about Corrente (e.g. getting suspended in juniors). Other than that, Corrente is solid.
Probably, But...:
  • Kirill Tulupov - I love what I'm reading about Tulupov...except that he needs work on his defensive coverage. If that means he just needs experience and someone to guide him, great. If that means he has a lot of trouble with decision making, it could make the difference between physical NHL defenseman and physical AHL defenseman.
  • Alexander Vasyunov - I hear about his talent, but he doesn't get a lot of minutes in Russia. If he can use that same talent while getting significant time in Lowell, then we'll see him at the Rock.
  • Matt Hoeffel - Still recovering from injury, the word is that his game is similar to Jay Pandolfo's. That's nice and all; but he's still a project.
  • Matt Halischuk - Great skater, great job at the WJCs for Canada, and he appears to have some solid penalty killing attributes. Too bad the Devils have more of their share of checking forwards, otherwise he'd be more of a sure thing.
Expect Them in Lowell for Quite a Bit:
  • Tyler Eckford - He's doing extremely well for Alaska-Fairbanks and it looks like his conversion to defense was successful. I just wonder how high the ceiling is for Eckford? I think he'll be seeing some significant time in Lowell.
  • T.J. Miller and Mark Fayne - Two defensemen, Miller is in college and Fayne is in juniors. One is developing into an all-around defenseman, the other is developing into a physical defender. Why are they both long shots? Because the Devils have a ton of depth here; they both need to explode to get some serious consideration.
  • Vladamir Zharkov - For someone who can skate real well and have good offensive skills; he got passed over again for the WJCs and like Vasyunov, he doesn't get a lot of time in Russia. At least Alexander was named to the roster.
  • Jeff Frazee - Wow. From USA starter at the WJCs to now becoming the backup at Minnesota. Harsh. Guess the Devils will continue to search for that goalie of the future that they won't need until 2011 or so.
  • Tony Romano - Talk about poor seasons. I know injuries were a factor; but he needs to have an excellent season in 2008-09 to continue being considered as a potential player.
  • Nathan Perkovich - Another big forward prospect. He's done very well at Lake Superior State; but he's still a project more than anything else.
Again, all of these opinions are just gut reactions from what little I know about these guys. If you happen to think otherwise, please let me know. I'm always interested in how the Devils' prospects are doing.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

 

Devils 4 - Avalanche 2

The New Jersey Devils turned it up and defeated the Colorado Avalanche by a score of 4-2. The Devils without Colin White and Patrik Elias played fairly well and had the finishing touch Colorado sorely lacked. Of course, Martin Brodeur ruling the world of goaltending and robbing the opposition blind (seriously, a stick save behind his back?!) was a huge help in today's cause. As a result, the Devils win for the first time at the Pepsi Center since 2001 (hat tip to Guiliti), get an important 3 point lead in the East and Brodeur earns his fortieth win of the season.

Interchangeable Parts has an extensive live-cap of the game (as usual) and notes that while the Devils played pretty well, Brodeur was required to be the hero once again. I'd have to agree. The defense was a bit behind the Avalanche skaters at times today and struggled with their pinching defense. The Avs sure love to do that and as such, they were able to set up the offense more than a few times. That said, the Devils and Brodeur did enough to limit their chances. You know Brodeur is on when you need a one-timer on the opposite side of the goaltender and a shoulder shrug (I hope it was that, otherwise, Bryce Salvador committed an inadvertent own-goal) to beat him. Regardless, I'd like the Devils defense to do a better job in keeping up with the opposition - something that I think will improve when White returns.

The Devils offense surely showed up to put up 4 goals, thanks to a number of players stepping it up their game. Mike Rupp was the second line center today and he was, well, good. I think the last time I saw him do this well was Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, when he scored a brace. IPB in particular praises Rupp and he deserves it. But in my view, the best skater for the Devils was Brian Gionta. Gionta was playing with hustle, motor, pep, burst, dash, wheels, and every other word describing speed and desire you can think of. He was ruthless on the forecheck, causing more than a fair share of turnovers in Colorado's zone. He read the play of the game very well, setting up his linemates (for today) Jay Pandolfo and John Madden for goals. He played like the way you'd expect Gionta to play. It was a very good game for Brian and he earned that third star of the game.

The win gives the Devils 3 wins and 1 loss on the road trip; a good result in my opinion. The Devils remain in first in the division, which is the primary goal. As a bonus, they remain at the top of the Eastern Conference as well. Now with 10 games left, this is the stretch run. Expect Brodeur to continue starting. Brodeur loves to play, he does his best when he's in a groove - I assure you, he's in a groove of James Brownian proportions - and you always play the best players against rivals. Brent Sutter isn't Ted Nolan, you're not going to see Kevin Weekes start against the Rangers just for the coach to prove some kind of point.

And the last 10 games begin with Our Hated Rivals. The time for futility ends now, Devils. Today's win was good. Use it to build the momentum necessary to beat them.

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Catching Up: Devils 4 - Wild 3, SO

OK, OK, OK. I'm behind, the Devils' next game is against Colorado and it starts in less than an hour. Time for a quickly hashed-together update. Why the rushing? I was at an important event last night. Let's just say the aces were high, as I went somewhere back in time.

First, Thursday's game against Minnesota. The Devils won 4-3 in a shootout as the Wild demonstrated how not to win in one. Seriously, Brian Rolston took a slapshot in a must-score situation. A slapshot. He missed. In any case, what was good about it is that the Devils came from behind to tie it up twice, driving to the net resulted in all three goals, and the Devils got 2 points. What was bad was how the team constantly shot itself in the foot and the defense in general. Giving up two goals early, the team responding with little energy, that first period was horrible. The defense was also equally bad. The Wild scored three which Martin Brodeur didn't have much of a chance on as all goals came from players in open ice and from shots taken before Marty saw it coming. The Wild nearly had 5 more, but they were desparately cleared off the line or cleared out before crossing it. In any case, the defense was so bad that Chico Resch noticed the team giving up the slot to the Wild too much six minutes into the slot in the first period. The Wild got many breakouts and odd man rushes throughout the game. I though the Devils supposedly killed hockey with it's suffocating defensive schemes and style of play; they could have used some suffocation that night.

In any case, they won and I do not want Mike Mottau playing today - he in particular was putrid against Minnesota. For a full recap of the game, Tom Gulitti has your hook up as well. And he brings some bad news: in that prior linked story, we learn Colin White will not play today. What's worse? Patrik Elias took a shot to the kneecap late in the third against Minnesota and was pretty much out of the game at that point. He's not playing today either. So the Devils go into Colorado without their most creative forward and their most defensive defensemen. Also, Gulitti brings word of no changes on defense: we will see Mike Mottau today so my desire is immediately squashed. Ah, well. He can't possibly have a worse game today, right? Right?

Let's end on a high note. Prior the Wild game, there was massive praise from Wild head coach, famed Montreal Canadiens defenseman, and the Devils' first Cup-winning coach, Jacques Lemaire. From the Minneapolis-St. Paul Tribune, Kent Youngblood has this:
Lemaire was asked Wednesday where Brodeur ranked among goaltenders he had seen in his time in the league as a player and coach.

No. 1, Lemaire said.

‘’I’m thinking, you know,’’ Lemaire said. ‘’(Ken) Dryden, he was really good for a short time. And I know, at a time, he couldn’t get ready to play and that’s why he stopped. This guy (Brodeur), he’s been doing it for a long time, and he’ll do it ‘till he’s 40. So he’s got to be the one.’’

Better, even, than Patrick Roy? ‘’Patrick was good at a time,’’ Lemaire said. “You’re talking about (Wayne) Gretzky, (Mario) Lemieux, Bobby Orr. Who is the best player? Every opinion is good.’’

...

“A lot of times there are a lot of things said (about an athlete) that aren’t really true,’’ Lemaire said. “Especially when you’re talking about a good player, OK? It is always overflowing of how great he is, how good he is, all this and all that. But with this guy, he’s an exception. Everything they say about him is true.’’

Well, well, well. Sorry for the long excerpt, but that's a thing right there. Good on Lemaire's refreshing honesty and his praise. The Devils will likely rely on Brodeur today at the Pepsi Center. Hopefully, the Devils skaters will give him some help and put at least a player guarding the slot this time. I'm not asking for all 5 to collapse in between the circles; just that they don't leave a gap in coverage in prime territory.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Just Who Are the Wild?

The Devils go to Minnesota to play the Wild tomorrow. Sure, NHL.com already has a preview of tomorrow's game, but let's take a closer look at Minnesota. The game tomorrow is New Jersey's next-to-last game against a Western Conference opponent during the regular season. Unless we're fortunate, and the last games come in June. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's focus on the opposition in standard, long-winded, overly detailed In Lou We Trust fashion.

The Wild are similar to the Devils in some ways. They're built around defense, patience, and a counter-attacking style of play. They have only have one player with over 30 goals so far this season like New Jersey. They're coached by a Lou-preferred man, former Devils coach Jacques Lemaire. They've been drafting fairly well in their short history. Would it be fair to say that Minnesota looks to New Jersey as an influence? I'd say so, and who can blame them? The Devils have been perennially good since 1994, it's not a bad model to follow.

However, the results have been much different. The Wild may be built similarly, but their defense in terms of skaters and goaltenders aren't nearly as effective. While New Jersey's defense is led by Paul Martin and Colin White; Minnesota's is led by Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson. Don't be fooled by the mix of veteran and youth. White is a much better defensemen on defense than Johnsson, and Martin has more experience than Burns despite Burns' production. The proof of difference is clear in the numbers: the Wild has conceded an average of 30.1 shots against per game (21st in the league) and 190 goals this season, a big reason why they're fighting for their playoff lives in a tight race instead of clamping down on the Northwest Division. Compare that to New Jersey's defense and their 27.7 shots against per game average and 163 goals against. It's clear while both teams have some unhearlded/inexperienced defensemen (e.g. Kurtis Foster, Nick Schultz), Sutter's gotten more out of his than Lemaire has gotten out of his own team's. Though, to be fair, goaltending has a part of goals against disparity as well. Don't get me wrong, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding aren't bad; but they aren't goaltenders who can always keep a team in the game like a Martin Brodeur.

On offense, it looks even more similar to the Devils. As mentioned, the Wild has one player who stands out on offense and everyone else seemingly comes and goes in streaks. For New Jersey, that one player is Zach Parise and his 30 goals. For Minnesota, it's Marian Gaborik who has definitely found his scoring form again with 34 goals and 35 assists this season. Behind Gaborik, the biggest threats are dimunitive playmaker Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has 12 goals and a team leading 45 assists, and ex-Devil turned #1 center Brian Rolston, who has 26 goals and 23 assists. Beyond that, you have Pavol Demitra, who is clearly on the downside of his career, and a number hard working skaters but are not scorers. Seriously, the Wild only have 4 players with more than 40 points this season and I just named them. In terms of skill, the Devils forwards have an edge; but in terms of actual results, the teams are very similar. Well, not quite, only 3 Devils have more than 40 points this season: Parise, Patrik Elias, and Brian Gionta. Though Jamie Langenbrunner and John Madden are very close with 39 and 38 points, respectively. Conclusion? A lot of scoring by committee for both squads.

There is one area where Minnesota is clearly the better team between the two: special teams. The Wild have the 10th most effective power play with a 18.3% effectiveness rate, and the 6th best penalty killing success rate with 84.1%. I don't even need to say with probability; when your special team units are doing this well, they can help you win games. This is also in sharp contrast, as the Devils have a much worse power play, with only a 16.3% effectiveness rate - good for 21st in the league. While that may not seem like much, it does matter in terms of actual goals. Minnesota has 53 power play goals, which is good for 12th in the league and the Devils have 46 power play goals, which is good for 27th in the league. With a season as tight as this one, 7 extra power play goals are crucial. The Devils' penalty killing unit is OK with a 82.9% success rate; but it hasn't been as good as Minnesota's. Even if the talent isn't the same; the Wild have the results that prove them to be the better squad. Clearly, the Devils need to keep this game at even strength as much as possible.

Regardless of some lackluster offense and a weaker defense, the Wild has had success. They have a record of 37-26-7 this season. Most seasons, that would be good. Except the Wild are in a tight division race with Calgary and Colorado sitting one point ahead and Vancouver sitting one point behind. What's more is that the Wild are not doing well as of late. The season isn't lost for them and the playoffs are well within reach, but this is the wrong time of the season to go 4 games without a win.

So for the Devils to succeed, they need to continue to pour on the misery. The Wild knows full well that continuing to falter could spell doom, and I'd expect them to feed off the crowd for additional motivation. The Devils are not a stranger to playing in front of hostile crowds; but they need to take them out of it early. That won't be easy; there's a reason why the Wild are called the Team of 18,000. But I think the method is the same to continuing to pour on the misery: take the game right to the Wild, dictate the tempo, and do whatever is necessary to get that first goal. I fear if they don't do that, we could see a repeat of what we saw last night in Montreal. Nobody wants that - except for the Wild. Overall, the goal should be to get 3 goals. Just look at the sidebar at Hitting the Post, a Wild blog; they have a fun stat showing that if the Wild let up three goals or more, their record sinks below .500. Get one first and then continue to attack.

So that's the Wild, as I understand it. Let's go Devils; let's get back on the winning side and make life difficult for Minnesota.

NOTE: Clarification added to difference in the Wild and Devils' power play; but my point remains the same, the Wild's power play is more effective.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

 

Devils 0 - Montreal 4

Tonight on Versus, the Devils fell to the Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-0. Montreal takes over the Eastern Conference (for now) with a perfectly placed, needle-threading shot by Bryan Smolinski, and three goals that Martin Brodeur had no chance on or any help from the defense on those goals. It also helped that the Devils took plenty of shots at Carey Price, got a good chunk of them blocked (, had many shots hit the net - but few off a rebound or a loose puck. The Devils couldn't counter attack, their timing was off on offense all game long, they squandered some early power plays, and by the third, the team was just demoralized.

It's not as if the Devils didn't work hard or took the game off; they just made too many fatal mistakes, the offense couldn't solve Montreal's excellent 3-men-in-the-slot defense scheme or Price, and Sutter changed the lines but not his game plan to adjust to Montreal's ridiculous team speed.

I don't have much else to say, other than that this game sucked. Well, other than that I want Andy Greene riding the pine for the next few games at the least. If you want more grumblings about a bad game like this one, check out IPB. I'm sure 2 Man Advantage, Devils Daily, and Tom Gulitti will have more either later tonight or tomorrow.

SCHAUDENFRUDE UPDATE: At least we can laugh at the Flyers failing again for some solace.

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

 

Devils 2 - Toronto 1

Last night, the Devils went up to Toronto, started Martin Brodeur, and pulled out a late goal to win the game 2-1. This game was very similar to Friday's game against Tampa Bay and Tuesday's win against Toronto. The Devils saw a lot of shots against like they did from Tuesday's game, a lot of those shots weren't particularly great ones, the Devils got the first goal and then conceded and equalizer like in both games, the Devils had trouble putting the puck past the goalie like in Thursday's game despite 30+ shots on net, Martin Brodeur was great (don't take my word for it, take Tom Gulitti's too!), and the Devils won. Regardless of how they looked at times, the Devils broke the tie to get the win and continue to rise in the standings. In fact, last night's win put them back at the top the Eastern Conference.

Now, what was so different? The first key difference was the discipline. Or the lack thereof. The Devils took a lot of calls where they really should have known better. Five power plays were handed to Toronto and the Leafs finally cracked Brodeur the best way possible. Get a guy to stand in front of him so Marty can't even see it and let it rip. Why in the world Mike Mottau didn't go after that Leaf is beyond me. I'm not calling for a cross check or even to knock him down - just move him out of the way. Regardless, if the Devils are having trouble scoring goals, handing the other team man advantage after man advantage

The second big difference, I think, was who the heroes were - well, other than Marty. Yes, the Parise-Elias-Langenbrunner unit got both goals. But despite Elias' 7 shot, 1 assist effort, Jamie Langenbrunner was the one who made both goals happen by driving to the net. Zach Parise applied the finish in both cases to, uh, actualy score the goals; but if Jamie wasn't as aggressive in driving to the net, Parise wouldn't have had anything to finish with. It also helped that the Leafs defense provided some assistance by not picking up Parise for the first goal and for pushing Langenbrunner into their own goaltender, Vesa Toskala, into the net. Not the prettiest brace, but congrats to Parise for hitting 30 goals. Still, a lot of credit should go to Langenbrunner for making those goals possible.

The third difference of significance was the lack of Paul Martin and Colin White due to injury. It's good that the team won with the losses of two players who I think are the best defensemen on the team. Regardless, I hope both of them recover quickly.

Still, outside of all that, the game was very similar. So it makes no sense for me to go much further. Not a great win, but wins are good and crucial at this point of the season. What's more, the Devils now have a little streak having won all three games last week. I'm pleased and so is Joe Betchel at 2 Man Advantage. If you want additional thoughts about the game, I suggest Josh's live-blog at 2MA and Jeremy's recap at Devils Daily.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

 

Devils 2 - Tampa Bay 1, OT

The New Jersey Devils re-take the lead in the Eastern Conference with an overtime win last night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was a bit of an odd game. The Lightning, sitting in last in the East with 59 points prior to last night, had nothing to lose.

Yet, you wouldn't know it from their effort. This game seemed to be a perfect example of why they are so hapless this season. It's not just that Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis - their two remaining studs at forward - were shut down. But they played over 23 minutes each and they only got 4 shots on net between the two of them. St. Louis played 24:38 of last night's game and got only 1 shot on net. Nick Tarnasky was more of a threat on the ice than St. Louis. It's not that the Devils defense was totally dominating; but the Lightning only put 22 on Brodeur, who didn't think he got much of a workout. It's not that the top defenseman, Dan Boyle, did poorly - but he was seriously bad last night. He attempted a slew-foot on Zach Parise, instigated a fight, gave the Devils a 4 minute power play, got a misconduct, and got dispossessed in overtime which led to the play that got the Devils the game winning goal. The only bright spot for Boyle was his pass to Michel Ouellet which led to Tampa Bay's only goal of the game. Still, after that fat contract extension, you'd like your top defenseman to be a lot better than he was.

The Devils put 33 shots on net in comparison. Unfortunately for them, it was against Tampa Bay's back-up Karri Ramo. Ramo did well and the offense wasn't as efficient as I'd like it to be. 11 blocked shots against, 12 missed, and while they threatened on the power play with 10 shots - they couldn't crack the code. Nonetheless, the Devils didn't give up or fall asleep in the game for too long. The only real time was during a penalty kill, which led to Ouellet's goal - something I felt Brodeur should have had. The finishing just wasn't there. They hit the post a number of times, which was unfortunate, but they didn't really break through for great chances except for the two goals.

Nobody told that to Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, or Patrik Elias, however. Parise scored the game's first goal by picking out Elias' pass in the air to just blast it past Ramo's right in the first period. A very nice move. He also got into a fight; but I think he should just stick to producing points. Gionta had 6 shots on the net in the game and helped set up the play that led to the game's first goal. Elias was the star, though. He had a mind-boggling 9 shots on net and scored the game's winning goal by cutting to the middle, shooting at Ramo's left which was hard enough to bounce off him and get in the net. Elias was pretty good and while you can't say the offense was a show-stopper, his performance suggests it's better than what the scoreboard says.

Anyway, it's a win, those are good and now the Devils get to embark on a road trip. First, they go back to Toronto. Then they visit Montreal, Minnesota, and Colorado. If they do well on this road trip, such as getting at least 5 points out of it, then they should be in good shape in the division. If not, then it's going to be another wild end, I think. There is a concern on defense. Gulitti has noted that Colin White was injured last night and Paul Martin is still too hurt to play tonight. Good thing Bryce Salvador is settling in fairly well in New Jersey. Not to mention that the team has more than enough defensemen for some short-term cover.

In any case, tonight's game will be the last one under the network name Fox Sports New York. As of March 10, the channel will be rebranded as MSG Plus. Yep.

For additional thoughts about last night's game, check out IPB's live-blog of the game and Devils Daily's recap.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

 

Quick Rebounds into the Slot

The Devils play tomorrow, so here are some things to check out and ponder in the meantime.

A) The Devils are 33-2-2 when the score 3 or more goals in a game this season. Less than 3 goals? 5-21-2. This stat was provided during the Toronto game on Tuesday. That's not a typo, that's 33 wins. That's 37 total games where the Devils score 3 or more goals. That's approximately 55% of all their games this season. Keep that in mind next time you feel the Devils have trouble scoring.

B) James Mirtle continues his Unofficial Playoff Push standings, wherein it is predicted as to who gets in when a team gets a certain number of points. Detroit, with 94 points of their own, are all but mathematically guaranteed to be present in the second season.

C) Jes Golbez at the Fanhouse recognizes and documents Brodeur's rise this season. That slow October start seems like it happened a long, long time ago. And it seems it didn't mean much, as Brodeur has rose up to his rightful place as Elite NHL Goaltender. Jes isn't short on dap, he gives it to Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks more recently. And he deserves it with 33 goals this season. Yes, 33.

D) I saw this at the On Frozen Blog: OvechKam is coming to a Capitals telecast near you. Specifically, against Calgary on March 12. This will be more exciting than the Beckham Cam or, well, most specialty "cams."

E) Back to Devils news! Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice is reporting that Sutter is trying Travis Zajac out on the right wing. With Mike Rupp at left wing and Dainius Zubrus at center. That's an, uh, interesting mix. Personally, I don't understand the move to Zubrus to the fourth line - I understand that Sutter wants to mix it up, but Zubrus was fairly effective on the second line. He drew calls, got into position, fought well along the boards, and has been improving since the beginning of the season. I know his production is poor, but it will improve as he remains in New Jersey. Anyway, let's get off this Zubrus digression here. Zajac. If he's at right wing, who is at center on the second line? I know Gulitti has the line combos at the end of the post. Wait, this is the second line. Wait, Mike Rupp is on the second line? I am...baffled.

F) Speaking of baffled, that's how I feel about Interchangeable Parts' latest post. It's thought out through in beefy detail, I'll give it that. But uh...yeah.

G) Let's end this with some soothing, smooth music. Now you can understand the latest of a funny series of shorts (not-for-kids warning: language, Jimmy Buffet).

UPDATE: H) Battle of NY has a new design, a new URL, and hopefully some more Devils coverage in the future.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

 

Devils 4 - Toronto 1

Well, so much for the Devils' apparent demise. They roared in spite of being heavily shot against; defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 on the road. Tom Gulitti's headline at Fire & Ice is sort of apt: the offense woke up. It's a good summary of the game. But I have to disagree a bit with the headline.

The Devils were dominated in puck possession, which explains why Toronto compiled 42 shots on Martin Brodeur. Many times, especially in the first period, the Devils would obtain the puck but then either A) needlessly give it away with an errant dump or B) needlessly give it away with an errant pass. The Maple Leafs won the battle of the neutral zone in terms of possession. It made generating offense more than a bit difficult for New Jersey, as evidenced by New Jersey's own 25 shots on net. So how did New Jersey succeed?

Well, as usual, it begins with Brodeur. If I were a goaltender, I'd look to this game as a perfect example of rebound control. The Leafs took many shots from the outside and from bad angles - evidenced by 15 shots coming from Tomas Kaberle, Anton Stralman, and Ian White - and Brodeur did an excellent job in controlling where the rebounds went. In the first period, Brodeur pretty much played all 14 shots perfectly for a Devil skater to easily to get the puck and make a play. Excellent stuff. Brodeur was only beaten on, of all things, a rebound goal from Nik Antropov. There wasn't much Marty or the Devils to do on it. Colin White was right on Antropov and Brodeur did his best with the initial shot. But the puck just bounced right to Antropov, who was just in the right place and right time for the goal. Not a whole lot you can blame. However, despite all the shots, Brodeur put out another great effort. I wish the Devils closed down on the Maple Leafs more to prevent that many shots, also related to the disparity of possession.

Regardless, the Devils got 4 goals. In the beginning of the game, Chico made the point that the Devils should shoot low and shoot hard. This way rebounds would be generated and the Devils can pot one in for some goals. Not a bad idea, especially with the Devils' production dropping as of late. Actually, that appeared to be Toronto's approach on offense - only succeeding once, however. However, they didn't do that and they didn't need to because they finished their chances off the rush. Zach Parise picked up a brace first with a wonderful turnaround shot that fooled both Vesa Toskala and myself. I certainly didn't expect it; I'm sure Toskala didn't either. Parise's second goal was off a wonderful move by Patrik Elias. Three times, Elias had open ice in front of him on the wing with the puck. Three times, he tried to move to the center. The first time, the Leafs defense easily picked it up. The second time, Elias lost control and Gionta made the most of it with a diving shot. The third time, Elias did it with ease, drew Pavel Kubina away from Parise, and dished it to him. Zach was wide open and it was an easy play. David Clarkson also scored, applying the perfect finish from a John Madden pass off an odd-man rush. Of the four goals, only one was scored off the rebound - Brian Gionta picked one up off the power play. Toskala got Sheldon Brookbank's shot, but he could not possibly get to the rebound and Gionta easily put it home.

So much for a listless offense. The difference between tonight and the past few games is that while the Devils could have done better with the puck in terms of possession and applying offensive pressure - seriously, only 25 shots? I know Toronto was hot recently, but come on; the Devils finished the chances they did generate. A good, clear, and more welcome change than getting quite a few shots and being owned by the goalie. Which, interestingly, happened to Toronto. Poor them. Obviously, it's a good win - not perfect - and now the team gets to rest for a bit before Tampa Bay arrives on Friday at The Rock. As far as the Leafs go, well, James Mirtle appeared to think their playoff hopes are done for prior to last night's game. I guess the 4-1 loss provides further evidence. For a different take, check out Interchangeable Parts and Devils Daily.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

 

Meanwhile in the East...

The Washington Capitals de-mol-ished the Boston Bruins 10-2.

Alexander Ovechkin picked up goals 50 through 52 (IN ONE PERIOD) and 2 more assists in his campaign to be the best player this season. A very, very convincing one at that. Nicklas Backstrom and Eric Fehr each racked up 3 assists. Matt Bradley and Brooks Laich both scored braces.

The win moves the Caps to tenth, one point behind idle Buffalo.

If there's a team I'm worried about sneaking into a #7 or #8 spot and playing the spoiler, it's the Capitals. This game is a reason why. No, they won't score 10 a night or 6 in the first period alone. But they got offense, they have some emerging studs on defense, a gamebreaker who is supported by playmakers, and now they have two solid options in net.

I know it's not necessarily Devils-related and it's only one game. But it's symbolic of this NHL season. A team could have a poor start, look poor on paper . Yet, if they make a couple of changes and the right guys start/continue to getting it done on the ice, then they start winning, they move up the ranks, and dropping 10-2 beatdowns on teams in the top 8. Back in November, the Washington fans were despairing. Now, they are ecstatic and hopeful.

I want New Jersey to get as high of a seed as possible, but I want them to avoid the Caps like the plague.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

 

Devils 1 - Montreal 2

The Devils played a closely fought game with the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Center, ultimately falling in the third period to a power play goal and losing 2-1. Compared to their pitiful performance against Washington, the Devils did much better. I'd say that the game was even overall. Montreal had shifts where they were clearly dominating; but the Devils also had stretches where they were in control of the game. Both Martin Brodeur and Carey Price played very well and both teams had many good scoring chances ruined by missing the net. Seriously, the Devils missed 10 times and Montreal failed to find the net 14 times.

The score became as such with Montreal striking twice on the power play and Brian Gionta continuing his surge by literally stealing the puck from Price and putting it into the empty net. With respect to both Montreal's goals, both could have been prevented. On the first one, Mark Streit put home a rebound as he was set up in the slot. Johnny Oduya was also in the slot but he had to decide which player to go after - Saku Koivu or Streit. Unfortunately for Oduya and the Devils, the puck bounced to Streit for the put-back. With the second goal, Andrei Kostitsyn wrapped the puck around after a shot and pushed Brodeur's stick aside to tuck that puck in during a long penalty kill. So the people to point to are Brodeur, Oduya, and the penalty killing units, right? Well, no. The Devils' discipline was atrocious. Knowing that Montreal had the most effective powerplay unit in the league, going into their house and committing infractions is a dangerous game and they got burned twice.

At Fire & Ice, Tom Gulitti has quotes from Sutter after the game complaining about the referees at the game. As with every game in any sport, some calls are bound to be missed. However, the following just smacks of sour grapes.

Head coach Brent Sutter didn't waste any time in his postgame press conference getting to the questionable calls by referees Eric Furlatt and Don Koharski against Mike Rupp and Jamie Langenbrunner, which eventually led to Andrei Kostitsyn's winning power-play goal with 5:43 remaining.

"It's a 1-1 game with seven or eight minutes to go in the hockey game and it was taken out of hands, so what are you going to do," Sutter said.

Rupp was called for crosschecking Andrei Markov, though it appeared he merely collided with him. "I thought he went down pretty easily," Rupp said.

And Langenbrunner is still trying to figure out what he did to warrant his hooking call on Saku Koivu.

"Both teams were battling and you hate to see something like that be the deciding factor," Langenbrunner said. "I have a hard time watching it and finding it. I can't remember doing anthing and usually you can kind of tell when something happens."

Although he faces a possible fine from the NHL for criticizing the officiating, Sutter did not hold back.

"Both calls upset me," he said. "The fact that the first call was called five seconds after the incident happens and because the fans yell. If it's a penalty, call it right away. And I just watched the video and I still don't know where the second call came from. To put a team down two men with seven minutes to go in a game like tonight, that's why I don't get paid the big money to be an official."

Now, I understand emotions run high during and after a game. However, having seen this on TV and with the benefit of instant replay, I can't understand how Sutter can see he doesn't know what the calls are after watching video of it. First, Rupp clearly cross-checked Andrei Markov into the net. It was a textbook cross check: two hands on the stick in the up-right position with Rupp shoving the stick directly at Markov's back. If it wasn't a cross-check, it'd either be an interference call as the play wasn't anywhere near Markov or roughing as it was a hit from behind. That was a legitimate call.

Second, Langenbrunner raised his stick onto the opposition's hands. Just like Mike Mottau and Zach Parise did earlier in the game. There's no excuse for that - that has always been called since the lockout has ended. Earlier in the season, Sutter wrapped around a towel on Clarkson's stick to guide him to keep his stick down. Maybe Sutter needs to do this for other members of the team as they tend to forget that at times. What's more is that Langenbrunner did this as John Madden was clearing the puck during a penalty kill. That makes the move to raise your stick even stupider. Ultimately it led to a long penalty kill that the Devils nearly escaped, except Kostitsyn broke through.

I can't agree with Sutter or the team here in their thinking that they got jobbed by the refs. Yes, the refs missed a few by Les Habs, but they also missed a few Devils ones. Regardless, six of the seven penalties against New Jersey were all legitimate calls. The only one they got messed up on was Elias' roughing minor at the end. What Elias did, I do not know; I'm still trying to figure out how Mike Komisarek only got a roughing for repeatedly punching Langenbrunner in the back of the head with a fellow Canadien. Hell, I don't even know why he even did that. I guess Langenbrunner's crime was skating within a foot of the crease?

Regardless, the Devils got burned by a lack of discipline, which provided the difference in last night's game. The Devils would do well to make more of the chances they do get and try taking it inside more. Gionta got his goal by going to the net and picking up on a loose puck; the Devils could do more of that instead of settling for the long shot. Which I have to note was blocked quite a few times, to the tune of 18 and with Francis Bouillon getting a remarkable 6 blocks. Can't score if you can't get that shot through. Still, after a terrible game against Washington, this was an improvement and the Devils should keep that in mind when they prepare for Toronto on Tuesday. For additional thoughts about the game, please check Josh's live-cap of the game at 2 Man Advantage.

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February in Review & Devil of the Month

I know, this would have made more sense before the Montreal game last night, but that happened in March so it has no effect on this month. Which is good, because February was a great month for the Devils. They compiled a record of 9-3-3, shot up to the top of the Atlantic Division, and became the leader of the Eastern Conference for the last week of the month. That move to first overall in the conference was for the first time since 2001 that New Jersey has reached that high in the standings during the regular season. Also, consider that the losses came on Feb. 1 against Our Hated Rivals, Feb. 8 against the Ducks, and Feb. 29 against the Capitals. Looking at the big picture, that's points from 12 out of 15 games, a total of 21 out of a possible 30. That's very successful and important in a month filled with a lot of games in a tight season.

The highlight was the run from February 9 through February 26. That 4-0 loss to the Capitals at the end of the month was bad; but the Devils had a run of 9 games where they didn't lose in regulation. And even then, they only lost twice after regulation one coming in overtime on Feb. 26 against Carolina, or in the shootout against Atlanta on Feb. 15. Still, the Devils beat the then-number-one Ottawa Senators not once but twice; they blew out Carolina twice at the Rock 6-1 and 5-1; they played their most dominant third period all season against the Islanders in finally defeating a New York City-area opponent; and we got to see Johnny Oduya do this and see Martin Brodeur make amazing saves like this one every night.

As far as the roster goes, the only major change was Lou Lamoriello trading Cam Janssen to St. Louis in exchange for defenseman Bryce Salvador. In short, Lou turned a player who hasn't played for New Jersey this season into St. Louis' #3/#4 defenseman wearing Devils red. Clearly, I loved the move, explained it here and even at the NY Times' hockey blog. Also, I learned that the NY Times had a hockey blog.

Now, who is to say as to who had the best month among the Devils? Zach Parise had a 5 game goal streak throughout the Devils' hot streak. But he didn't produce in the Devils' last four games and he didn't produce much prior to that streak with 1 goal and 3 assists - with 1 goal and 2 assists coming from the Pittsburgh game on Feb. 4. Patrik Elias didn't have as many goals with only 3; but he had plenty of assists - 12 to be precise and had a more consistent month. He also has the Devils' weirdest stat line with 2 assists and 0 shots against San Jose. Paul Martin had an excellent month with 2 goals, 6 assists and only 3 games with a minus rating; leading a Devils defense who looked better and better with every month. However, the true MVP of the month is Martin Brodeur. No, he didn't have any shutouts. All he did was start every game, gave the Devils a chance to win in all of them except for the ones where the rest of the team didn't seem to want to win, and earned his eleventh straight 35+ win season against Carolina - a NHL record that's Marty's own. Marty needs a rest, but I can't fault his performance too much. Brodeur is always a reason for New Jersey's success and he definitely was a big part in this past month. So Martin Brodeur, you are the ILWT Devil of the Month.

This coming month is going to be tough. The Devils have 13 games and only 5 are going to be at The Rock. What's more is that the Devils get to travel to Toronto, come back home to play Tampa Bay, and then travel the next night back to Toronto. And that's their easiest week on paper. They continue to travel to Montreal, and then Minnesota and Colorado shortly thereafter. After that little road trip is over, it's Atlantic Division opponents for the rest of the season save for April 2 against Boston. A lot of tough matchups in a month where anyone who has a chance to make the post season makes their move. The Devils should make the playoffs, but the goal is to remain at the top of the Atlantic. Losing to Montreal doesn't help them that much, but fortunately Pittsburgh lost too. As of now, that's the goal - stay ahead in the Atlantic. This past month showed the Devils to have the talent and work ethic necessary to do that, let's see if they can stay there.

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