By Max Herman
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There are a lot of negative things you can say about the way the Devils have started the season. That comes with the territory of being 4-9-1 after your first 14 games. They’ve made crucial mistakes, been ravaged by injuries, and have had seemingly every bounce go against them. So go ahead and write their eulogy if you’d like folks. But allow me to assure you that this team is not dead. Not by a long shot.
Not if the way this team played in the last few games of its recent road swing is any indication of future results. Now certainly no one is going to give the Devils a trophy for going 2-4 during any 6-game stretch, but there was a lot of good to take out of the trip. Say what you will about moral victories, but the fact is when you aren’t getting many real victories, you try to build on what works.
So let’s focus on what went right before we look at what still needs to get better…
- Shots on Goal
Goalies facing the Devils have seen a pretty heavy diet of rubber this season. New Jersey is averaging close to 31 shots a game, including registering 40 against the Kings on Saturday. Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that they are last in the NHL in goals per game.
Now there is certainly something to be said for having the ability to bury quality scoring chances, and the Devils have not been very successful doing that so far. But sometimes even the most harmless looking shot can create chaos if you can get traffic in front of the net. Just keep throwing that thing at the goalie and the hope is that the bounces will start going your way.
- Strong 3rd Periods
If you are looking for the best evidence that this team could be headed in the right direction, look no further than the 3rd period efforts from their last four games. Despite losing two of them, the Devs played well enough to win them all. In fact they outshot the Kings 20-4 in the final period on Saturday, and may have won were it not for the stellar efforts of goalie Johnathan Quick.
In the 3rd against Chicago on Wednesday, they allowed the Blackhawks to tie the game at two on a power play early in the period. This was after the Devils had led 2-0 earlier in the tilt. But for the first time this year, New Jersey showed the resiliency to fight back and win a game that many people probably expected them to let slip away. Instead of a demoralizing loss, they now have a victory over the defending champs that can serve as a huge notch in their belt going forward.
- Youth Growing Up
How about the strong play of the more inexperienced members on the roster? Injuries have forced some of these guys into key roles and they have responded as well as anyone could ask.
The Devils have looked to guys like Tim Sestito, Adam Mair, and Brad Mills to provide energy on the fourth line. And boy do they ever do that. If you’re a guy who plays between 7 and 12 minutes a game, one way to win this particular hockey fan’s heart is to just come out on the ice and bust it harder than anyone else out there. These guys have contributed a lot to what success the Devils have had this year.
Spoiler alert: Look for Mills’ name to come up later in this column. He just might be one of my three stars of the week.
On defense Oliver Magnan-Grenier and Tyler Eckford have both looked liked they belong in the league. Both have played smart and physical. And Matt Taormina may be one of the best two-way players on the team. Raise your hand if you thought before the season started that after 14 games Taormina would have the same number of goals as Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise… Anyone? No?
It’s the one thing you can’t do anything about. It’s never something you want to use as an excuse, but the fact is the injury bug has bitten the Devils hard this season. From Anton Volchenkov to Brian Rolston to Matt Corrente to Jacob Josefson, the hits just keep on coming. But this week came the big one…
Zach Parise said he hadn’t felt quite right at any point so far this season. He had tweaked something in his knee during the preseason and the jump simply was not there in his skating. So this week he had exploratory arthroscopic knee surgery. What the surgery revealed was not news any Devil fan wanted to hear – a torn meniscus. And that puts Engine #9 out of commission until February.
You can’t truly replace a guy like Parise, who has scored 30+ goals every year since his rookie season. But what his absence demands is that everyone on the roster takes their game to another level. No team can lose a proven goal-scorer like Zach and say that they are better off, but sometimes circumstances like these can cause a team to rise to the occasion collectively. For the Devils, they don’t have much of a choice.
- Power Play
This is one of the many things about the Devils’ struggles this year that truly mystifies me. You tell me how it’s possible that a team with the personnel that New Jersey has at its disposal goes 3 for their first 44 opportunities with an extra man on the ice. It’s about as easy to comprehend as Chinese calculus.
Every power play opportunity seems to go the same way. Devils gain the zone. Pass the puck to Kovalchuk at the half boards. He skates in and shoots from outside the faceoff circle. Shot gets blocked. Puck gets cleared out of the zone. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I think it’s time to see something different. I understand the idea of having Kovalchuk carry the puck is that he demands attention and can collapse the box of the penalty kill. But instead of having him be the defense’s focal point, why not try to create chances for him away from the puck?
The Devils have generated a lot of big rebound chances on their power plays, but haven’t had a finisher there to bury them. I think Kovy could be that guy if he wasn’t always shooting from the point. Andy Greene has a wrist shot that is tailor-made to quarterback the power play. I say let Kovalchuk be a bit more organic and roam around a little. Get him chances closer to the net.
- Evolving Chemistry
You are starting to see it, but so far only in glimpses. I’m sure Jason Arnott’s goal on Wednesday night off a feed from Patrik Elias in the corner brought back fond memories of the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals, and that’s the kind of no-hesitation, bing-bang-boom kind of play we’ve seen little of in the early-goings of this season.
It’s hard to put this one on the players. Head coach John MacLean has changed line combinations like most people change their underpants. It seems to me that in an attempt to find a spark on his offense, MacLean may have actually sacrificed one of the most crucial elements of chemistry, and that is consistency. You wouldn’t pick a spouse after one speed date, would you?
It’s a little bit of a catch-22. You need to play with someone consistently to form chemistry, but if you don’t gel right away, then you’re not solving the immediate problem of winning hockey games. Now that the Devils are starting to have games where certain lines are stringing consecutive strong shifts together, look for the structure to become a bit more rigid.
Max’s Three Stars of the Week
Third Star: G Johan Hedberg
It’s not often that a goalie can play for a total of roughly 35 minutes in a four-game stretch and still be considered one of the top three impact players, but Hedberg managed to do just that thanks to some special circumstances. With the Devils ahead 2-0 in Chicago, Martin Brodeur had to leave the game with an injury after being struck with a shot on the right elbow. Hedberg came in to replace him, and it was as if the Blackhawks smelled blood in the water. They assaulted Johan with a barrage of shots within the first few minutes he entered the contest, and Hedberg was equal to the task. He made a highlight-reel save to rob Jack Skille on a breakaway that seemed to elevate his confidence. After that he just made clutch save after clutch save, and in the end, held on to give the Devils a desperately needed win.
Sidenote: X-rays were negative on Brodeur’s elbow. He downplayed its severity after the game. It sounds like he might even be able to play Friday night at home against the Rangers.
Second Star: D Colin White
If you erase the mistake he made that led to Henrik Sedin’s penalty shot goal on Monday, I believe White was the best Devil player this week from a defensive standpoint. He was a +2 in the last 4 games, and saw more than 20 minutes of ice time in each tilt. He is one of the few established veterans on the blue line right now, so it is extremely important that he leads by example. This week he did just that.
First Star: C Brad Mills
Those of you who don’t follow the team religiously probably just read that name and said, “Brad who?” Well Mills had himself a week that he wont soon forget. And it came at a great time for the Devils. He’s a 27-year old rookie, and one of just 447 players in NHL history to come out of the ECHL. Mills played so well and with such energy against Vancouver on Monday, he actually started taking ice time away from Jason Arnott. It culminated Wednesday in Chicago when Brad scored his first NHL goal, breaking a 2-2 tie in the 3rd period of what would be a 5-3 Devils’ win. It was a scrappy play where he knocked the puck out of the air and got a favorable bounce off goalie Marty Turco. But I’m sure when he embellishes the story to his grandkids some day, it’ll sound like he scorched a slap shot by Turco top-shelf. Either way, I’m recognizing him as my first star of the week.
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