By Max Herman
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It’s no secret to anyone who has been following the Devils for the first two weeks of the season that it hasn’t been a pretty start for the red and black. Heading into Thursday’s matchup with the Canadiens in Montreal, New Jersey had accumulated a grand total of 3 points in 6 games. No wins at home, no wins in regulation, no semblance of any sort of chemistry on either end of the ice.
It was so bad, in fact, that toward the conclusion of the 4-1 loss last Saturday against the Bruins, a fan seated five rows behind me could be heard throughout the sparsely populated crowd yelling, “Ladies and gentlemen, your 1986 New Jersey Devils!”
While this season isn’t yet in jeopardy of being THAT bad, it certainly was time for a change. Head coach John MacLean and his team used a desperately needed four-day break in between games to get back to basics in practice. In addition, MacLean split up some of his line combinations in an attempt to find a spark.
After all the preseason excitement about Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk playing together, Kovalchuk was bumped off of the top line and replaced by Dainus Zubrus. Kovy instead played alongside rookie Jacob Josefson and Patrik Elias on the second line.
Elias had previously been playing with Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. MacLean rewarded the recent strong play of Rod Pelley, and now he is teamed up with Arnott and Langenbrunner on the third line.
On defense, MacLean opted to pair his veterans with the rookies. Colin White with Matt Taormina. Henrik Tallinder with Matt Corrente. And Andy Greene with newcomer Olivier Magnan-Grenier, who was called up from Albany to replace the struggling youngster, Alexander Urbom.
All of the reports from those who attended the practices in the three days of work the Devils put in leading up to Thursday’s game reflected a hard-nosed, axe-to-the-grindstone approach by MacLean and his players. They recognized that the product they were putting on the ice was not good enough for their organization or their fan base.
The result of those three days of work was a 3-0 blanking of the Canadiens that provided a glimpse of how good this team can be when they don’t beat themselves.
One of the bigger keys for me was to see how much smarter the Devils played inside their own zone. We didn’t see any of the risky passes toward the center of the ice that have plagued the team so far. Lots of blocked shots and sticks in passing lanes. Just a strong team effort.
Several of the players had their best game of the season in Montreal, including Martin Brodeur. He stopped all 29 Montreal shots en route to his 112th career shutout. Every time Marty blanks another opponent that shutout record looks more and more impressive. Consider that the active goalie closest to him in that category is Roberto Luongo with 51, not even half as many. Needless to say the Devils will need more performances like the one he put forth on Thursday to recover from their sluggish start.
The Devils now look to carry the momentum from Montreal back home with them to the Prudential Center where they are yet to win in four tries. On Saturday they play the only other team they’ve beaten this year, the Buffalo Sabres. That game should provide a better indication of what kind of direction this team is headed in. Will they keep their foot on the gas pedal or revert back to their bad habits? My gut feeling is that now we can look for them to continue to right the ship.
Max’s Three Stars of the Week:
This was a tough week to pick my three stars. The Devils did not play very well at all in the first two games against Colorado and Boston before rebounding with a stellar performance in Montreal after the four-day break. So this week, I reward consistency…
Third Star: C Rod Pelley
Pelley isn’t the kind of player that is going to light up the score sheet. But he brings a tough, blue-collar style to the game and routinely finds himself in the right place at the right time. MacLean has been giving him between 15 and 18 minutes a game and Rod has responded by playing physically, winning faceoffs, and being one of the few Devils to generate a positive plus-minus rating in the last week (+1). Look for him to benefit from the ice time he is getting with the veterans Elias and Arnott.
Second Star: D Matt Taormina
After taking first-star honors in last week’s column, Taormina’s second week in the NHL was statistically even better than his first. He netted 2 goals and added an assist in establishing himself as the Devils’ best offensive defensemen early on this season. But the best compliment you can give Matt is that he is making the guys around him better, as evidenced by Colin White playing his strongest game on Thursday as Taormina’s defensive partner.
First Star: C Dainus Zubrus
MacLean was looking for a spark when he added Dainus to the top line with Zajac and Parise, and that’s exactly what he’s gotten. Zubie had 3 points this past week, including assists on the first two goals in the win over the Canadiens. If he continues to produce, he could find himself on that top unit for quite some time. And if Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias get comfortable together on top of that, it could give this team two lethal scoring lines.
Follow Max on Twitter: @MaxH_WFAN