This latest homestand for the Devils – especially the last two games – is a classic glass half full or half empty study. Do you as a fan harp on the fact that hey the Devils are 10-4-2, are still exceeding the modest expectations for the season and got the (bare minimum) three points they needed out of these last two games on the homestand? Or do you harp on the fact they blew another yet late lead against the Oilers on Wednesday and then had to rely on a great performance from Cory Schneider and a lucky bounce on Damon Severson’s first period goal to scratch out a horribly tough 2-1 win against a bad Panther team who really dominated the Devils at times last night, especially outshooting us 17-4 in the third period of a back-to-back on the road for them?!
I guess you can tell which side I’m leaning judging by the tone of the lead, despite getting a much-needed win last night, the last few games have still been very troubling for the Devils. Sure shot signs of a mediocre (at best) team are when you play down to the level of competition – see last night – and when you never seem to click in all three phases of the game at once. When the offense was doing better earlier in the season, the goaltending and defense struggled, frequently both in the same game. When the goaltending did well last night, the team struggled both offensively and defensively. And the team’s struggled to establish any kind of home-ice advantage in Newark, although the home record of 5-3-1 is just okay, the games themselves have all been a struggle except for Opening Night, even games against the lowly Coyotes and Panthers went down to the death.
One of the few Devils not struggling is Brian Boyle, who scored the opening goal Wednesday and had an unusually emotional reaction (see YT above) although not surprising given everything involved – it was Boyle’s first goal since his leukemia diagnosis, not to mention his first goal with a new team at home. Yet the end of last night’s game proved to be just as important for him and the team in many ways, when Boyle won two key faceoffs in the defensive end during the final, tense moments. Before the final faceoff with 1.5 seconds to go I had visions of the astonishing Bruins/Kings OT finish from earlier in the season dancing in my head but then calmed myself with the knowledge that it’s Boyle in the dot, and he’ll know what to do. Sure enough he won the faceoff away from traffic and the final buzzer mercifully sounded.
Speaking of faceoff-winning centers, perhaps the best Devils news all week is that Travis Zajac was cleared to play and is just days away from a return to the lineup after it was once thought he’d be out through December. His return can’t come too soon given the concussion to Marcus Johansson and the slump/benching of Pavel Zacha pushing the Devils back down to a two-line team with two fourth lines. Really a one and a half line team since after a good first few games to start the season Adam Henrique is once again on the back of a milk carton. If you could just combine Blake Coleman’s grit and brains with Henrique’s talent you’d have an even better version of Kyle Palmieri. But it’s not a good thing when an 18-year old kid who’s done well enough in general (but scored his only two goals in one game this season) is your #1 center.
And while I do blame Henrique and Zacha for not playing well enough to take some pressure of Hischier, in the case of Zacha it seems to me as if his recent two-game benching was excessive and unneccesarily put the team in peril in games they flat needed to do well in. If you’re going to bench Zacha two games for not being assertive enough or whatever fine, then bench John Moore for the utter stupidity he showed last night unneccesarily playing a hand pass that led to the Panthers’ goal, and whiffing on a puck that forced a Cory attempt to clear it himself to prevent a breakaway, predictably leading to near disaster. The argument they need Moore in the lineup doesn’t wash when they’ve also sat Damon Severson and Mirco Mueller, plus this current team needs Zacha in the lineup too. Playing the likes of Jimmy Hayes and Stefan Noesen over Zacha is further hamstringing an already injury-weakened lineup and turning one of the strengths of the team early (team speed) into a weakness.
You also wonder what happens with the lineup once Zajac comes back now that Zacha’s in the doghouse. The natural solution would be to shift Zacha or Henrique to LW then perhaps move Brian Gibbons over to RW. Will Zacha play over Hayes and Noesen once Zajac gets back (or even tonight in Chicago for that matter)? If not they’d just better send him to
Albany Binghamton right now and let him play big minutes and hopefully learn the way they want him to play. Defensively they played the six guys you generally want them to play last night although like I said I’d sit Moore a game for being a dumb schlep, and it’s not like the best six or most ideal six man configuration was all that great against the Panthers last night, with the exception of Steven Santini who’s basically taken on the Adam Larsson role of a couple seasons ago, being on the shutdown pairing with Andy Greene. But none of Larsson’s thirteen ‘hits’ in the game against us at Edmonton last week were anywhere near as eye-popping as Santini’s ice-clearing takeout of Alexander Barkov last night.
That hit fired up the home crowd so much they not only gave Santini an ovation for that, but again afterward when the Jumbotron merely showed a shot of him on the bench. Other than Santini evoking the memory of Scott Stevens and Palmieri’s laser of a power play one-timer goal in the second period, there was really very little memorable about last night’s game other than a few of Cory’s saves including one astonishing leg stretch to keep a loose puck in the crease out when Mueller coughed up the puck with a lousy turnover late in the second period. And though the win might give the team some temporary relief they go right from the frying pan into the oven facing the Blackhawks in Chicago on a short turnaround tonight. Granted the Hawks haven’t been playing well either but they still have more than enough talent to roll us with another ‘effort’ like last night.
Yes the team’s still in good position to begin this road trip, remarkably still in first place though more tenously by the day. However, the problems of the last two weeks need to get ironed out soon or things will get a lot worse before they get better.