Devils prep for the homestretch after another big OT win against the Isles

Maybe some of you were wondering where I’d gone this weekend, since I hadn’t yet recapped another big Devils win against the rival Isles. Turns out I missed most of the game unfortunately, due to a previous commitment (being uptown with friends during the local St. Patrick’s day weekend). As is with the case of most Devil games though, you almost only need to tune into the last five minutes and OT to see what happens. It sounds like I’m talking about an NBA game too but really all of these games in the last month have been like fifteen-round Rocky vs. Drago wars.

Sure enough, I got home just in time to see most of the OT, including Anssi Salmela‘s goal with 1:51 remaining in the extra session (and Ken Daneyko‘s priceless taped reaction on Hockey Night Live afterwards). Like Dano, I was shocked that it was Salmela who ended up being the hero that night but it is nice to see a good kid get rewarded, especially since his own story mirrors that of the team. Put on waivers in early January, he – like teammate Brian Rolston – went unclaimed and only got a second chance in the lineup when injuries hit soon after and has made the most of it with solid two-way play. Even coach Jacques Lemaire‘s been surprised:

“That is crazy,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said of Salmela’s season. “He was not among the regulars. He was not even dressing. Then we had injuries. He got back in and has played well. He’s capable of playing like this. At a certain time, he was losing it, making it more complicated, and he got in trouble. When he keeps it simple, he’s got great mobility, good puck control, a good shot and he can play well defensively.”

Even when he first came up, it was obvious Salmela had talent and for a brief stint after he came back last year as the throw-in to the Ilya Kovalchuk deal he looked like he was ready to harness it…before Jeff Carter rudely said hello after Salmela’s third NHL goal, and Salmela wasn’t the same player after that concussion. Coming back from two major injuries this offseason didn’t help and he looked really bad at first, but since the end of January he’s suddenly become another guy you can at least look at as a reliable #6 or #7 next year.

Not that Salmela was the only unexpected goal-scorer of the night. With just seven goals in an eleven-game stretch prior to Friday’s win over the Thrashers, I thought it was time for Lemaire to do a little line-switching, something he did way too much last year but when the offense struggles that much for that long you need to shuffle the deck a bit. And he responded by putting David Clarkson on a line with rookies Jacob Josefson and Matthis Tedenby. Surprisingly, that line turned out to be our best line of the night, with Josefson and Clarkson each scoring goals and Tedenby getting increased icetime for a second straight game, showing he’s finally earning the coach’s trust.

Josefson’s goal came just 1:57 into the hockey game and was his first in the NHL. It was a nice little play too, as he was being tightly checked behind the net but somehow managed to flip the puck towards the side of Al Montoya , and it bounced off the unsuspecting goaltender’s skate into the net. Clarkson (who retrieved the puck for his teammate) and Anton Volchenkov got assists on the goal, which got the Devils off to a flying start. And they would maintain that focus throughout the first period.

However as Lemaire wryly observed afterward, he said he made a mistake by telling the team they were playing well in the opening twenty minutes. During the middle twenty, it looked more like the early-season version of the Devils, as they gave up a shorthanded goal after a Kovy shot got blocked and Blake Comeau made a nice play at 1:13 – making a good deke and slipping the puck under a diving Martin Brodeur. Just minutes later, the Devils suddenly found themselves behind when John Tavares deflected a Matt Moulson point shot past Brodeur to give the Isles the lead.

Going into the third, the Devils needed another Houdini escape, and Clarkson provided that at 5:42 with his tenth goal of the season after swatting home a rebound in front to tie the game. Linemates Josefson and Tedenby added to their strong games with an assist each on that goal. Despite what were supposedly a few contreversial penalty calls against the Isles (more on that in a second), they nearly took advantage of our uneven power play later in the period when Michael Grabner got a shorthanded breakaway but was stopped cold by Brodeur. In his seventh straight start since returning to the net, the future Hall of Famer was again Johnny on the Spot, despite only having to make fifteen saves overall.

Admittedly I didn’t see all the calls for or against us since I didn’t watch the entire tape but I’m sorry, Jack Capuano really needs to stop whining about how we have veteran players and apparently get the calls over his rookie players and rookie staff. It’s one thing to be jobbed but when you’re in the process of getting outshot 35-15 in the game, that usually means you are going to get a lot of penalties against and not a lot for, since the shot advantage told the story of puck possession and offensive-zone time for the most part.

And for the NHL to say they’re now investigating this game when most complaints about the officiating are met with a swift and immediate fine tells me one of two things…either we’re not allowed to have multiple power play chances in a game, or more likely they’re taking every precaution because the contreversial Stephane Auger (he of the Alex Burrows incident last year) was one of the linesmen. Whatever the case I really don’t want to hear anyone else whining about how we get all the calls considering for 95% of the season we seem to only get one or two power play chances a night, even in games we dominate.

Be that as it may, the game reached a familiar conclusion – overtime, and Salmela’s goal gave the Devils their seventh overtime win of the season…ten if you count shootouts. Incidentally, Salmela’s goal was his first since Carter nearly took his head off last year, and young Tedenby got another assist on the OT winner. Amazingly, the result of Saturday’s game not only put us back at NHL .500 (32-32-4) but cut our playoff deficit to a mere six points. True, it’s back to eight now after the Rangers’ win in San Jose later that night and Buffalo’s win against Ottawa yesterday but we do have a game or two in hand with both teams and still get a game against each down the stretch.

With a tough four-game road trip looming next week, the Devils really need to keep the roll going through this week with games against Atlanta and at Ottawa on Tuesday and Thursday, along with Retro Night against the Caps and old buddy Jason Arnott on Friday.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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