By Steve Lichtenstein
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The word most associated with the Devils is “defense.”
Long one of the NHL’s stingiest teams, the Devils, under second-year coach John Hynes, have maintained the organization’s tradition of playing tight, disciplined hockey.
However, goals against is only half the equation when it comes to winning games, so when the Devils needed a boost in production for their home-and-home against Buffalo over the weekend, Hynes turned to … his defense.
Four of New Jersey’s six defensemen lit the lamp and Damon Severson registered two assists in the Devils’ sweep of the Sabres. The victories ran their winning streak to four games, and they are 7-1-2 in their last 10 contests in advance of a grueling four-game West Coast road trip.
“This weekend in particular and this week, our defensemen did a nice job of being threatening to play against,” Hynes said. “They were certainly involved in a lot of our offensive chances, and they were a factor.”
Twenty-seven-year old rookie Johann Auvitu’s first NHL marker tied Friday’s game in Buffalo early in the third period before captain Andy Greene could win it, 2-1, with a rare penalty shot goal in overtime.
In Saturday’s 4-2 victory at the sold-out Prudential Center, Kyle Quincey opened the scoring by taking Severson’s skip pass to the left point and slapping one past Sabres goalie Robin Lehner. John Moore put the finishing touches on the night with a goal off a nifty two-on-one rush. Not to be totally forgotten, Ben Lovejoy picked up a secondary assist on Nick Lappin’s second-period goal that put New Jersey ahead for good.
“(The defensemen) need to be involved — that’s the way the game is played today,” said Greene, who received some ribbing from his teammates about upsetting the team’s shootout list after his “five-hole” penalty shot goal beat Anders Nilsson on Friday. “It’s important that we support the rush and get involved and keep pucks alive if we’re going to be a successful team.”
Severson set up the Devils’ third goal on Saturday by doing exactly that — leading a rush from his own end before making a crisp pass across the faceoff circles to a streaking Kyle Palmieri, who wristed the puck top shelf past Lehner in the second period.
It was Severson’s team-leading ninth assist of the season. His 11 points are just one behind left wing Taylor Hall.
“Our D are pretty gifted offensive players when they’re up in the rush, and it gives us numbers on our attack, which help a lot,” Palmieri said. “You see how confident (Severson) is playing, and all the D back there are doing a great job. So hopefully we can continue to do that and take some of this momentum on the road with us.”
Palmieri took extra satisfaction in snapping his personal nine-game goal drought on Military Appreciation Night, the first of 21 “Squad21” games in which the New Jersey native hosted 21 active or veteran service members in Section 21 at the Rock.
“Obviously with all the military members here, it’s nice to give them a win when they came out,” Palmieri said. “It’s my sister’s birthday — she has a husband who is shipping overseas in a week or two — so hopefully she was watching and I got one for her.”
The Devils, who played the last two games without left wing Mike Cammalleri (personal reasons), need Palmieri and his center, Adam Henrique, to get going on a more consistent basis. Each scored 30 goals last season but now have just a combined five tallies and 12 points in 14 games.
“I think for both of us maybe it’s not coming too easy as far as the goals, but hopefully we can build off this last week we’ve had and move forward into this road trip,” said Palmieri, who mostly played on Travis Zajac’s wing last season.
The Zajac-Hall-P.A. Parenteau line had been carrying the bulk of the offensive burden in the early part of the season, but now the Devils are starting to get some contributions across the other trios. Before his absence, Cammalleri broke out of his slump last Sunday with a hat trick in Carolina and 24-year old rookie Lappin now has goals in two of his last three games.
This road trip, which starts Tuesday in Dallas, will tell us a lot about the Devils’ fortitude. Hynes was complimentary of his team’s intelligence and mental toughness Saturday, but it’s one thing to accumulate points over bottom-feeders Buffalo and Carolina and quite another to do it in unfriendly confines against four teams that made the playoffs last season.
Hynes mentioned that he needs to address the Devils’ power play, which has been a mess recently (0-for-20 in their last five games). I believe they need someone more proficient than Palmieri at keeping pucks in the zone at the blue line, and the idea that Jacob Josefson can be effective by never budging from the half-wall is mind-boggling.
Still, this club tends to be in every game thanks to the stellar goaltending of Cory Schneider (and backup Keith Kinkaid every so often) and its attention to details all over the ice. The defensemen, all six of whom have suited up for every game so far this season, are improving in their dirty-area coverage and clearing pucks.
And now they are starting to add a new offensive dimension. The defense doesn’t rest just because the puck has left their own zone.
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