Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest this Devil season was at a crossroads after losing four out of their previous five games heading into last night’s contest at the Bell Centre, three of those losses to outside the playoff bubble teams in Calgary, Edmonton and Columbus. Certainly however, this home-and-home with the Canadiens over the previous two nights felt like a bit of a litmus test series, even if all-world goalie Carey Price is on the shelf yet again, their backup goalies have certainly proven capable at different times of getting the job done. Losing Friday night after blowing a 2-0 lead was bad enough, falling behind last night by that same 2-0 score in the third period looked ominous.
However, this Devil team refuses to buckle under and they turned the tables on Montreal with their own two-goal comeback on the road after Kyle Palmeri’s dramatic goal in the final seconds tied the game, and John Moore’s stunning OT winner off a feed from Adam Henrique gave the Devils both points in a 3-2 finish that nearly took away the voice of play-by-play man Steve Cangialosi. If I could still post YouTubes here I would but a still shot of the goal will have to suffice for a highlight for now.
Winning goaltender Cory Schneider was grateful for Moore’s goal and had words of praise for the defenseman afterward:
“I think he’s shown a lot this year. He’s a great skater. He’s got offensive instincts,” Schneider said. “He didn’t hesitate to jump up into the rush and Adam made a great play finding him.
“Johnny has been great for us this year. A lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm. He does all the little dirty things so it’s great to see him get rewarded and to get a big goal for us.”
Moore’s been one of many success stories thus far for GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes with Palmeri being another one after a surprise draft-day trade brought the Jersey native home, and with the promise of a much bigger role than he had in Anaheim. Palmeri’s thrived even beyond expectations so far with eight goals and seventeen points in 23 games including two game-winning goals and last night’s game-saving one with twenty-two seconds remaining and the net empty. Palmeri rifled a one-timer just outside the faceoff circle past Mike Condon that was a bit (dare I say it?) Kovalchukian.
I feel like I’m repeating myself with constantly praising the offseason moves but how can you not, guys like Moore, Palmeri, camp signee Lee Stempniak and bargain basement FA David Schlemko have all been key contributors to the Devils’ surprising start. Ironically Schlemko’s presence was never more missed than in the previous few games with Eric Gelinas’s utter nightmare of a game (two bad penalties, getting torched for a shorthanded chance in OT, losing coverage on the first goal) proving costly on Friday and bringing me to my wit’s end with Gelinas once and for all. It was at one point thought that the Devils’ big four of young guys on defense was Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill and Gelinas but at this point it seems like Moore’s replaced Gelinas in that equation – and Schlemko will no doubt replace Gelinas in the lineup after returning from paternal leave – considering Moore’s barely 25 years old himself.
Of course behind them all (and stabilizing force Andy Greene) is the rock of Cory, who even when he has bad games and bad moments still seldom seems to give up more than two goals a night. Whether it’s keeping the team in the game during the first period on Wednesday night when nobody else showed up, making two highlight-reel robbery saves in the first period on Friday or staying strong in a third game in four nights last night at Montreal becoming the first Devil goalie in seemingly forever to win a game at the Bell Centre not named Brodeur. In the Devils’ first 23 games, only two have been decided by more than two goals – well really three but one of the two-plus goal games was an empty-netter we scored late in a 4-1 win over the Flyers. And another was a 5-1 blowout loss in Edmonton with Keith Kinkaid in net. So literally every game Cory plays with no margin for error, especially with an offense that’s top heavy.
If I’ve said this before too it also bears repeating, there’s a huge dropoff from the top six forwards to everyone else. Palmeri, Stempniak, Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Travis Zajac all have at least fourteen points with Cammalleri pacing the group with 23 in 23 games. After that group of five, the next few high scoring forwards have four points. Essentially the Devils have one borderline first line, a second line and two fourth lines, which is still an improvement from last year when it was a second line, a third line and two fourth lines. Of course Patrik Elias’s return will help and round out the top six quite nicely, and Elias also had a big goal in the third period last night to get the Devils back in the game. If anyone in the top six gets hurt – a distinct possibility – the Devils could be boned unless Reid Boucher’s AHL revival is for real or Joe Blandisi comes up and provides a spark. At least unlike prior season the Devils have viable options to turn to although you have to wonder how long they can go with a non-factor of a third line without calling one or both up?
More scoring from the defense would help too, Moore’s goal was also an outlier considering the defense combined for just eight goals total on the season including that game-winner, and their leading point-getter is Damon Severson with just seven in 22 games. Ironically Greene and Larsson are probably the second and third best offensive defensemen on the team but considering their defensive responsibilities and the fact they start 3/4 of their shifts in the defensive zone while the other four typically get the offensive zone starts, offense isn’t really asked of them.
Still, Hynes and assistant Alain Nasreddine have gotten the most out of a young d-core that has limitations offensively to begin with. And considering our power play has been ranked in the top five for pretty much the whole season you have to give fellow assistant Geoff Ward credit for that too, considering you have guys like Schlemko, Jacob Josefson and Jordin Tootoo playing major minutes on the PP the fact they’re scoring as much as they have certainly shows the staff can max out their assets. Friday’s power play goal was created from such a high-level display of passing it brought back memories of the Kovalchuk PP goal in the first period of Game 6 in 2012 against the Rangers. Having Elias back shouldn’t hurt the man advantage either.
Now comes the one bugaboo this team has had this season – playing up (and down) to the level of competition. Something just doesn’t jive with beating the Hawks twice, taking three points from the Habs and beating the Rangers while losing to the Blue Jackets twice, and losing in Calgary and Edmonton sans Connor McDavid. With a string of bottom-feeders coming up in the next five games there’s an opportunity for the Devils to get a bit of a cushion right now if they don’t struggle against teams they can beat. Albeit it’s still too early for me to look at or even care at the standings but wins in November and December are just as important as the ones in March and April as far as the regular season standings go.