Heading into Arizona yesterday afternoon, the Devils’ season was at a crossroads after going 1-5 in their previous six games with the injury bug suddenly making its way through the lineup, particularly up front with leading scorer Mike Cammaleri still out, Patrik Elias recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery with his future even more cloudy than ever and Jordin Tootoo also out with a whatever body injury to go along with Bobby Farnham’s suspension. Although John Moore would make it back for the game against the Coyotes at least putting the Devils at full strength on D, he only played about fifteen minutes in the game – perhaps a concession to easing him back in the lineup, not to mention the fact that the Devils contreversially went with an 11 forward, 7 defenseman lineup for the second straight game despite it not going very well in a 3-0 loss in Colorado. That game the Devils iced a non-competitive lineup that featured recent callup Joe Blandisi with role players Sergey Kalinin and Tyler Kennedy as their only left wings with Reid Boucher still tearing up Albany.
Finally after the lifeless shutout in Denver, the Devils recalled Boucher and restored Eric Gelinas to the lineup, looking for a jumpstart to a lineup that had only scored six goals in their six-game skid out of a playoff spot and onto the bubble. With Boucher and Blandisi in the top six yesterday and both contributing, the Devils’ eventual 2-0 win may have meant just as much to the team down the road as it did for keeping the team’s fading playoff chances alive for another day. Leaving aside the fact the Devils were dominated by and large, being outshot 38-16 (inlcuding 28-8 in the final two periods) last night’s game was a showcase for several players including Boucher, who got the first goal less than four minutes into the game firing a wrister past Anders Lindback after a nice give-and-go with Lee Stempniak. Boucher had scored fourteen goals in thirty AHL games this year, producing nearly a point a game but last night’s goal was just his fourth in 38 NHL games. Then again Boucher rarely if ever had the chance to actually succeed he did last night, placed on a top line practically out of neccesity. His goal and nearly sixteen minutes of icetime yesterday hopefully ensures him a longer look in the top six.
After a fairly even first period most of the rest of the night was the Cory Schneider show, as he put on an extraordinary show-stopping (not to mention puck-stopping) performance with a 38-save shutout, holding the fort in the final forty minutes as the play was almost all one-way. One of the exceptions was Kyle Palmeri who earned special notice being physical, blocking shots and coming back into the game twice after getting banged up. Between Palmeri and Schneider, they refused to allow the Devils to lose yesterday and Palmeri’s efforts were rewarded on the scoresheet just eighteen seconds into the third when Blandisi won a race to a loose puck – with the help of Adam Henrique finishing off a check – then trickled a pass toward the front that Palmeri stuffed home past Lindback for his eighteenth goal of the season. Palmeri’s already exceeded his career high in both goals and points as his breakout season continues to pay dividends, and he’s almost assuredly a part of the future I was alluding to before as he won’t be 25 years old until February. Blandisi’s assist was his second and with any luck he’d already have a goal or two on his ledger after a terrific performance in St. Louis went unrewarded.
Certainly the 2-0 win wasn’t artistic, but it was critical. Heading into the season this was supposed to be a look toward the future year for GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes as they figured out who was going to be a part of the team’s future, but a funny thing happened and this team kept staying in the playoff race. At times management’s seemed to serve cross purposes, professing development in keeping Boucher down in the AHL for half the season and Gelinas off the power play saying he needed to work on his overall game, but being short-sighted enough to scratch Gelinas for AHL defenseman Marc-Andre Gragniani and scratching Stefan Matteau for any number of unimpressive vet forwards including AHL’er Paul Thompson. Another weird decision came yesterday when they recalled forward Brian O’Neill and put him on the flight from Newark to Arizona, only to scratch him. New Jersey’s next home game is back in Newark Tuesday, it would have made infinitely more sense to keep O’Neill down for the weekend then recall him Tuesday without needing to get him on a plane.
While the present still looks bleak vis-a-vis the injury report and the playoff hunt (where even the Hurricanes and Flyers have caught and passed us in recent days leaving us only clear of last-place Columbus in the Metro), perhaps the future is now for Boucher and Blandisi though, as each has earned the opportunity to crack a thin and banged-up Devils lineup and get a chance to succeed. Not only is the more immediate future getting brighter but the distant future is as well with first and second-rounders Pavel Zacha (center/wing) and Mackenzie Blackwood (goalie) tearing up the OHL, though in Blackwood’s case he definitely has some edginess he needs to polish, as he’s been suspended twice this season…once for protecting the crease Billy Smith-style and more recently for shooting a puck into the stands after allowing a goal. Recent first-rounder John Quenneville is also having a good season in the WHL and made the Canadian WJC team in December, even getting some top-line duty. Another darkhorse to watch is 2013 fourth-rounder Miles Wood – son of former NHL’er Randy – who’s still 20 years old but doing well in his first college season.