Several hours ago I was sharpening the knives for the rip job I knew I was going to post after the Devils were behind 4-1 in Nashville for what would have been their twelfth loss in fifteen road games this year, including another o-fer trip after OT losses at Pittsburgh and Chicago sandwiched a no-show in Winnipeg. It didn’t help my mood I was already agitated with a headache I’ve had all day. Actually I hadn’t even watched much of the first two periods mercifully trying to sleep off the headache and almost forgot the Devils had a real early matinee game. When I finally did turn it on, I turned it on to Ken Daneyko of all people ripping the team and saying the compete level wasn’t there in the second period. I knew if Kenny was ripping them it must have been bad. Sure enough I saw it was 4-1 and already chalked up another loss, which would have been disasterous with the Devils already spiraling out of the playoff race.
Yes I said would have…because suddenly the Devils roared to life in the third period with two quick goals that got them back in the game, and got my interest back in watching the game. Even though the Devils managed just four shots in the third period and were dominated territorially in the last 45 minutes of the game they still managed to tie the game with an Adam Henrique goal and send it to OT. There again the Predators controlled play but could not put it away, in part thanks to another inspired performance by the Devils’ top goalie Keith Kinkaid. Okay I’m actually being sarcastic but if you only started watching hockey this year you would think Kinkaid was the franchise goalie and struggling Cory Schneider the middling backup whose roster spot wasn’t assured going into the season. More on that later though.
Just when this game looked doomed for another dreaded shootout, one piece of Taylor Hall magic gave the Devils a magic ending when he threaded the needle through P.K.Subban on a two-on-one to Mike Cammalleri for the game-winning goal in a wild 5-4 finish that snapped the Devils’ four-game losing streak and gave them just their fourth win on the road all season. Part of my rant that I had to scrap once the Devils started scoring goals is that the Devils had only won three times away from the Prudential Center all season, and only once in regulation. While today’s win wasn’t in regulation either, it was neccesary on a lot of levels – both from a timing aspect (breaking a losing streak) and an emotional aspect (with the great comeback culminating with their best player making a winning play).
While I don’t want to dwell on the beginning of the road trip much, the fact is there were and are a lot of concerning signs with this team that a couple of pond hockey wins and loser points can’t sweep under the rug just yet. After their defense was its usual leaky self in Pittsburgh last weekend, the team went to Canada and laid a dud in Winnipeg on Tuesday. To be fair the Jets’ home/road splits are about as stark as ours, but still the compete level hasn’t been there in an alarming number of games away from Prudential Center this season. It seems from time to time as if this team’s effort level rises and falls based on the level of competition and it was that way again on Thursday as they put forth a better performance in Chicago, but a nightmare second period and an ill-timed OT breakdown led to a 4-3 defeat, though to an extent it was one they did well to salvage a point after a shockingly resurgent Travis Zajac posted a hat trick and single-handedly dragged the team into OT. After years of being middling offensively, Zajac is starting to look like the 2009 version that actually could put up 55-60 point seasons in addition to his good defensive work.
So far this team’s needed Zajac to turn back the clock because a couple of its other leading guns in Henrique and Kyle Palmieri have shown up on the back of milk cartons after too many games this season. It’s been Zajac and fellow vet Cammalleri who’ve carried the offense since Camm’s return after his daughter’s pneumonia was thankfully dealt with. Before his hiatus Camm looked a step slow and perhaps over the hill but since, he’s looked even better than vintage version. All of the points from #13 and #19 are masking the other ills on the team, including a horrendous defense that yes, does miss Adam Larsson tremendously. While clearly this Devil team needed a gamebreaker like Hall, even Larsson backers like me couldn’t have seen just how much the defense would suffer without him this year. With our shot totals against increasing seemingly by the game, the Devils’ style has changed overnight from the ‘boring trap’ team to a pond hockey circus – although it’ll take some time for the perception to follow.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this season so far has been a negative though. If Henrique’s been the most dissapointing Devil from an effort standpoint, Cory’s been the most dissapointing one from a performance standpoint. While it’s obvious the defense has been more leaky than in past seasons, that doesn’t excuse the kind of goals a normally unflappable Schneider’s been giving up lately. Dribblers, weak rebounds, unscreened wristers…too often the red light’s gone on during the last two weeks and there are signs it’s starting to get to Cory. Some of his puckhandling snafus recently have been scary even for him, to the point where you can tell he’s pressing. Not to mention breaking his stick over the crossbar after the OT losing goal in Chicago on Thursday. You can blame the defense for some of the woes but considering Kinkaid’s playing better in front of the same defense, the franchise goalie has to shoulder some blame too. When your save percentage is in the low .910’s and your career norm is high .920’s that shows there are issues there.
Still there are things to be encouraged about too. In years past the Devils wouldn’t have been able to survive a leaky defense, slumping goaltending or a couple of key forwards going cold but this team’s come up with seven out of twelve points since coming back from the West Coast. Considering they have exactly zero regulation wins in that time, it’s taken a lot of extra work to get those seven points. Fourteen OT games out of their first twenty-four contests to be exact. At least the Devils usually give you your entertainment’s worth, but if they’re going to have any hope of getting back into and maintaining a playoff position they’re going to need to shore up their rough edges this week when they return to the Rock for a pair of games.