By Steve Lichtenstein
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When you play a game on ice, you are often at the mercy of events out of your control.
Puck luck, it’s sometimes called.
Case in point: Devils defenseman David Schlemko was close to being fitted with goat horns during Tuesday night’s contest against the rival Rangers at Prudential Center.
With the score tied at 2 in the third period, Schlemko made a horrific backhand pass from the point on a New Jersey power play that landed right on the stick of New York defensemen Ryan McDonagh.
The gaffe sent the Rangers’ captain on a shorthanded breakaway. Fortunately for Schlemko, McDonagh’s shot flew wide of Devils goaltender Cory Schneider’s net.
Not only was Schlemko taken off the hook, less than two minutes later on the same power play he played the role of hero by finishing off the game-winner in the Devils’ thrilling 3-2 victory.
Even during that sequence, the Devils were the beneficiaries of a couple of breaks, like the stick that Rangers’ center Derek Brassard snapped after blocking Eric Gelinas’ shot from the point. The ensuing loose puck was picked up at the left half-wall by Devils forward Tyler Kennedy, who then fed Lee Stempniak just below the goal line.
Stempniak’s pass across was partially deflected by McDonagh, but not enough to stop it from reaching a wide-open Schlemko, who wristed the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist from in close.
Now, many an NHL game gets decided by a particular bounce or two, but as a season goes by and you win more than you lose, as the 26-20-5 Devils have done, you’re forced to think back to the old Branch Rickey-ism:
Luck is the residue of design.
Under the direction of general manager Ray Shero and head coach John Hynes, the Devils have constructed a lunch-bucket crew that works its tail off to create the majority of its chances.
The Devils have a habit of making their own puck luck.
The offense on Tuesday — other than Joe Blandisi’s third-period dash down the left wing past a stuck-in-cement Dan Girardi to tie the game — wasn’t exactly flashy.
Win the puck and get it toward the net with guys in front.
No one embodies that approach more than Stempniak, who traversed the NHL in his 10 seasons prior to signing with New Jersey just before training camp, first on a tryout basis and then to a one-year, $850,000 contract.
Stempniak scored his 15th goal of the season (and seventh in 13 games versus his former clubs) in typical fashion, setting up at Lundqvist’s doorstep to screen a Gelinas slapper on a power play and then pouncing on the resulting rebound to even the score at 1 early in the second period.
Schlemko was another bargain-basement pickup by Shero in the offseason. The 28-year-old signed a one-year $625,000 deal after seven years of bouncing between the NHL and minor leagues. Three of Schlemko’s career-high five goals this season have been game-winners.
Though Tuesday’s box score will show that Schlemko was minus-2, I thought he was the Devils’ second-best defensemen after Andy Greene. The two J.T. Miller goals for the Rangers were more the fault of Gelinas, his partner who failed on first-period pinch, creating a 2-on-1 rush the other way, and then in the third period failed to get over to contest Miller’s right-circle blast after tripping over Jesper Fast’s skate in the slot.
Stempniak and Schlemko weren’t the only offseason acquisitions for whom Shero has unearthed terrific value. Kyle Palmieri, the 25-year-old right winger who came over from Anaheim in a trade for draft picks, leads the team with 20 goals, including seven on the power play. Free agent defenseman John Moore was playing a steady two-way game before his mid-January trip to the IR due to the standardly-vague “lower-body injury.”
Hynes has everyone buying into the culture of an unrelenting work ethic. He has to, because there aren’t a lot of “stars” on this roster.
Or any stars for that matter, at least among the skaters.
Schneider, who made his first appearance last weekend, is the only active Devil (39-year-old winger Patrik Elias is on injured reserve) who has ever been selected for an All-Star game.
Hynes has also had to make do without leading scorer Mike Cammalleri, who went back on IR over the break due to an upper-body injury.
Cammalleri’s absence was expected to be felt most on the power play, but the Devils went 2-for-2 on Tuesday to jump into 12th place in the league rankings (19.5 percent efficiency). The Rangers, on the other hand, continued to struggle despite all their talent (minus injured star winger Rick Nash), going 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
Some of the Rangers’ frustration was due to the stinginess of Schneider, who stopped 31 shots to earn his 23rd victory of the season.
But you still have to score to win, and that will continue to be the Devils’ chief variable as they navigate the race for a playoff berth in the tight Eastern Conference.
New Jersey’s 2.29 goals per game ranks third-worst in the league. However, the Devils have lit the lamp 18 times in this current streak of five wins in their last six games.
Have the Devils found their way or will their puck luck run out?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1