As I said on Twitter postgame, this was an impressive win for a lot of reasons. Yes, the Devils probably should've played like this at some point during their 10-game slide. No, two more wins like this won't drastically change how we look at the season. However, there were bright spots in this game that lend themselves toward a positive look for next season and it's possible missing the playoffs flipped a switch in the psyche of a lot of these players, which is another topic for another day. As for tonight's game, some thoughts...
Fortitude: At least for me, the most impressive part of tonight's win came after the Canadiens scored two unanswered, the second of which came including one in the final minute of the second period. We've seen the Devils melt down multiple times in that scenario, giving up an early goal in the third and going on to lose in regulation or in extra play. It's been one of my biggest criticisms of this Devils team, particularly during their recent slide. This team lacked a strong enough mental edge to their game to rebound from "woe is us" moments. Tonight, though, they didn't need a timeout to correct them and while they struggled to get shots on net in the third, they still kept the Canadiens at bay for long stretches. Also, the Habs came out in the third and tried to bully the Devils, who fought right back. Ilya Kovalchuk, for one, went right at the Canadiens after he got hit from behind. Kovy's response, along with the the energy he's played with and the way he drives the train (so to speak), has me wondering if it should be Kovalchuk with the captain's "C" next season. I know Salvador is respected in the room and a lot of guys like him, but would it kill them to give it to Kovy and have Salvador take an "A?" I think it would be a wise move that would help shape the team's mindset going into next season. Food for thought.
Youth movement: Tonight, we saw what will likely be three games of "auditions" for some of the younger players trying to earn favor ahead of training camp next September. Realistically, it even started a couple games ago, when the Devils started giving Jacob Josefson a real run as the season winds down. I'm not sure if it's the lack of pressure, the AHL demotion or the small sample size, but Josefson has looked like a different player the last couple games. He's been strong on the puck and made a couple of great defensive plays that turned the ice around in his own zone and in the neutral zone. More importantly for his case, though, is Josefson is contributing offensively, which has always been his weak point in the NHL. If Josefson continues this strong play the next two games and into training camp, the Devils are going to have some interesting decisions to make at center with him and Andrei Loktionov battling for that last center spot outside of Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Stephen Gionta. Speaking of Loktionov, boy, what a game he had tonight, eh? He might not have ended up on the scoresheet, but he was all over the ice. Unless he really struggles in camp next season, I find it very difficult to imagine anyone other than Loktionov playing with Kovalchuk to start the year. While we've seen what Loktionov and Josefson can do in stretches this season, we got our first look (this year, at least) at defenseman Alex Urbom. All in all, I thought it was a decent night for him. He made some smart defensive plays early but was one of the primary players at fault for the Habs' second goal, which Pete DeBoer said was partly due to Urbom getting caught in a long shift. I could see him getting another game, although I don't know if I would make it against a Penguins team that got Evgeni Malkin back tonight and could get Sidney Crosby back Thursday.
Where was this: Much like Josefson's sudden consistent solid play, I found myself watching tonight's game and wondering (like everyone else whose watched the majority of this season) WHERE IN THE WORLD THIS CHEMISTRY BETWEEN TRAVIS ZAJAC AND PATRIK ELIAS WAS ALL YEAR?! I'm so confused by what I saw tonight. These two have been searching for each other since about the midway point of the season when Dainius Zubrus' injury forced DeBoer to break up his first and second lines. They played together on and off for the rest of the season but always seemed to be a hair or sometimes a yard from finding each other. Honestly, there were times when it was flat-out ugly between the two of them, mostly due to Zajac's offensive struggles. And then there was the Florida game on Saturday and tonight's effort, when the two of them and David Clarkson played like we haven't seen since, well, never. Make no mistake, a playmaker like Elias is the key to Zajac's success. When Zajac was firing early in the year, it was largely due to playing off Kovalchuk. Since then, he's been strong in his own end but drifted offensively, just missing the net time after time after time. If Elias leaves the Devils this season, Lou Lamoriello will need to find a suitable replacement to play alongside Zajac next season (and Clarkson too, if he returns).
Specials: I can't remember the last game when the power play and the penalty kill played as well as they did collectively tonight. Yes, the Canadiens' first goal was on the power play, but overall the Devils did a very good job killing penalties and the power play -- well, it looked like an actual power play. Not counting the fourth PP (which was cancelled out in seconds by Marek Zidlicky), the Devils scored on two of the three other times they had the man advantage. I'm not saying this was a banner night for the power play or the PK individually, but for the first time in a while, the Devils had both units clicking pretty well and it allowed them to get an early lead and then protect that advantage. Depending on what they do in the offseason, the Devils could have a much stronger power play next season once they have a full training camp to learn Matt Shaw's shoot-shoot-shoot system. For now, I think we'll all settle for consistent play in the final couple of games.
Notes: The Devils came out with a ton of energy and really attacked the Canadiens right off the opening draw. It can't be overstated how important that was. For one, it got the crowd into a basically meaningless game. Also, it put a struggling Habs team on its heels immediately. Montreal never had a chance to get on track offensively until midway through the second period, which is usually what we see out of New Jersey. ... Obligatory note about the CBGB line because the CBGB line is awesome. ... In all seriousness, at least once a game Stephen Gionta makes a play that's just purely out of effort. He doesn't always get a goal or a scoring chance out of it, but six times out of 10, it creates a problem for the other team. ... Ilya Kovalchuk looked MUCH better tonight than he did the last two games. His shots and his passes were both crisper and looked much more in sync with the game tonight. ... Speaking of Kovy, thankfully he slid into his left shoulder during the third period -- who knows what would've happened if he'd hit his right shoulder. ... Great forecheck by Zubrus on the Josefson goal. ... Speaking of great -- how about that pass/shot by Marek Zidlicky and the deflection by Steve Sullivan on the Devils' third goal? That's some beautiful hockey right there. ... Brandon Prust continues to endear himself to Devils fans with every passing game. ... It was a small moment, but Zajac had an awesome stickcheck from behind midway through the third period that stopped a Canadiens player (can't remember who it was) from getting a wide-open shot on net. Those are the little things he does defensively that'll make him so valuable once/if he gets his offensive game on track consistently. ... Finally, I loved how the Devils dominated the puck in the first period. I know I noted it to start this section, but it really was impressive. Every time the Devils got the puck, it seemed like they held it for 30 to 40 seconds at a time, often in the neutral zone or the offensive zone. It's a big reason why they won this game.
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