By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
For a team hell-bent since training camp on establishing “an identity,” the Devils were coming awfully close to a multiple-personality diagnosis.
After their worst game of the season on Saturday in Arizona, I didn’t know who they were any more. They certainly were not the aggressive dervishes that opened the season 9-2.
I liked that team. Sure, they allowed as many or more scoring chances than they created, but every line featured players that had you on the edge of your seat. They were fun.
What we have often seen from the Devils during their current 6-5-4 stretch since bore little resemblance to that persona. In many games, they had been trying to play more like the group from two seasons ago, a group for which this organization has a puzzling affinity.
That team embodied work ethic up and down the lineup. Every shift was a structured scrum.
The 2015-16 Devils also weren’t very good. They held their own into the All-Star break, but quickly fell apart when the rest of the league caught up to their intensity.
In today’s NHL, and especially in the Metropolitan Division, where five other teams can legitimately claim they are playoff-ready, the best teams find ways to create offense off the rush while also being disciplined defensively and hard on pucks all over the ice.
New Jersey may have stumbled upon such a sustainable identity on Tuesday night in Columbus. In a battle for first place, the Devils outskated and outworked the Blue Jackets in a 4-1 victory. Considering the circumstances, opponent and venue, I would call it their most impressive win of the season.
New Jersey opened the scoring the old-fashioned way, with center Travis Zajac ending a nine-game pointless streak since returning from preseason pectoral surgery by jamming in a loose puck in the blue paint. The goal was set up by Stefan Noesen, who chipped the puck forward after winning a battle in the left faceoff circle.
The go-ahead goal, however, was gorgeous, concocted by the puckhandling wizardry of Nico Hischier. The rookie center led a rush from the Devils’ blue line down the right wing, cut to the middle of the ice at the faceoff circle, and fed a perfect pass to a streaking Taylor Hall, who buried the puck past helpless Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Up 2-1, thanks to one goal through grit and another through speed and creativity, the Devils needed both to break the game open. Noesen and Jesper Bratt then deposited rebounds from in close after quick end-to-end transitions.
Columbus coach John Tortorella was impressed with the way New Jersey fearlessly went to the net, claiming in his postgame press conference that the Devils (unofficially) had 11 rebound shots while his club had none.
That’s because the Devils’ beleaguered defense had one of its better nights protecting goalie Cory Schneider, Columbus’ 42 shots on goal notwithstanding.
Captain Andy Greene played a hard 24:27, including 5:54 during the Devils’ six successful penalty kills (Columbus’ lone goal came on a deflected screen shot two seconds after a Zajac penalty expired). Sophomore Steven Santini responded from a pair of healthy scratches to record a plus-2 rating in 18:10, including 5:05 on the PK.
The Devils mostly kept the Blue Jackets to the outside and had fewer shifts where they were pinned in their own zone.
Coach John Hynes deserves credit for the Devils’ preparation for the first game of the home-and-home set with the mighty Blue Jackets, who had won five in a row at Nationwide Arena before Tuesday. Columbus visits the Prudential Center on Friday night.
According to the club’s beat reporters, Hynes challenged his veteran leaders after the 5-0 debacle in Arizona on Saturday. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Devils’ recent inconsistencies cannot be traced solely to their youth and inexperience. It hasn’t all been Pavel Zacha’s fault, even if it sometimes seems that way because the 20-year-old former sixth overall draft choice has been Hynes’ whipping boy for whenever the team’s effort hasn’t met his expectations.
Hynes at least recognized that his kids have been leading the charge for most of the season, with teenagers Hischier and Bratt gelling to form a deadly top line with Hall in the absence of right wing Kyle Palmieri, the team’s leading goal-scorer the past two seasons. Palmieri has been out with a broken foot after blocking a shot in Minnesota on Nov. 20.
“We need more from that (veteran) group, whether that’s in how we want to play or how hard we need to play, production-wise,” Hynes said on Monday.
As Hynes finished that sentence, he should have been staring at Zajac.
The 32-year-old forward is so reliable in many facets — he’s far and away the Devils’ top face-off artist — but you can’t have a second-line center who at best plays to stalemates.
To jump-start Zajac, Hynes threw linemates onto his white board. Marcus Johansson and Noesen stuck. Voila, “The Slumpbuster Line” — Noesen’s goal was his first since Game 2 and Johansson was on a five-game pointless streak (that was broken up by missing all of November with a concussion) before being credited with an assist on Zajac’s marker.
Hynes’ next trick — and it will be one of increasing difficulty — will be to get his players to finally stick with this identity.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1