It might not have been as thorough or impressive a win as Saturday, but tonight was certainly an important and necessary moment in the Devils' season. A home-and-home sweep of a Penguins team that came in on a five-game winning streak? Yeah. Solid weekend for the Devils. Some thoughts...
Diversify yo' game: David Clarkson goes in the corners. David Clarkson screens the goalie. David Clarkson backchecks and forechecks. David Clarkson beats goalies high glove side from the slot. David Clarkson bangs home rebounds. Seriously, how good is David Clarkson? He absolutely does it all. He is the epitome of what you want in a true power forward in a game devoid of them. He has the skill and the speed to gather a bouncing puck at his own blue line and skate it into the offensive zone, the strength to keep his balance despite a backchecking defenseman and the deft hands to find open net on a goalie's glove side while skating through the slot. The Son of Clark might be the Devils' second-best offensive player behind Ilya Kovalchuk and you better believe that man is going to paid a salary commensurate with that skill set and level of play.
Binky: The Devils' goalies are their safety blanket. When everything is going wrong, when the other team is pressing early, Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg stay calm, cool and collected and weather the storm. Most nights, it's Marty who has to be the rock when the Devils have a bad stretch, but for three games this year, it's been Hedberg. In those three games, Moose has allowed two goals on 74 shots and has secured five out of a possible six points. He's shut out the Islanders, went toe to toe with the Bruins and stood up to a desperate, angry and driven Penguins team. Did I mention he's done it all on the road? Yeah. Tonight, if it weren't for Hedberg's solid to very good saves, the Devils would have been down at least two goals heading into the first intermission. Instead, he allowed the Devils to gather their sea legs after the first period and pad their lead in the second. It is a rare thing to have a backup goalie as trustworthy and reliable as the Devils have in Hedberg. As the season goes on, that will prove to be even more of an ace in the hole for Pete DeBoer, knowing that he can rest Marty against premier teams and still have a shot to win every single night.
Trending leaguewide: After the game tonight, I sarcastically tweeted "How good are these guys?" Well, after 12 games, I think it's fair to try to differentiate between "great start" and "very good team." If you're asking today to pick between the two, I'm going with the latter. After this weekend's sweep, the Devils have won five straight games and finally have a signature road win. Before tonight, the Devils' only road victories were two victories against the Isles, with losses to the Canadiens, Bruins (OT) and Penguins. Now, one game does not a season make, but the more you watch this Devils team play, the more it's evident that we were too quick to brush off their playoff run as a team getting hot. I think we also underestimated how important it was that the Devils were returning almost that entire team, sans Zach Parise, whose absence I think put turnpike-sized blinders on people. The early play of Clarkson and Andy Greene has been absolutely crucial and I believe that to be more of those players taking the next step rather than starting the season off hot. This is a Devils team that is extremely well coached (See: the timeout in the fourth with his fourth line still on the ice after an icing) and goes into almost every single game executing the coaching staff's gameplans. The Devils are still a very shallow team up front, but as long as they're healthy they will be one of the better teams in the East all season long. And maybe we should have seen it coming.
Special K: Look, the Ilya Kovalchuk contract will come back to burn the Devils at some point. It's too long and "circumvents the spirit of the cap" too much for the bill to eventually come due when Kovy is no longer producing or no longer playing here. But there is a reason why Lou Lamoriello was so very willing to go all in on him. Kovalchuk is an awesome -- yes, awesome -- hockey player. He is an absolute star and one of three or four true "snipers" in the league right now. Every time he shoots the puck, something good happens and when he doesn't shoot, he's usually finding his teammates or facilitating a long stretch of puck possession to set up a better chance. His shot tonight was a thing of beauty and similar to the 2-on-1 goal he scored Thursday. It's no coincidence that he began to pick up his game as the Devils began this winning streak. In the past three games, he's been all over the ice and every time he has the puck on his blade, there's a legitimate chance it's going to end up in the back of the net. I cannot say enough about him except: Shoot, Kovy. Shoot.
Notes: As good as Hedberg was in the first, the Devils' ability to keep the high-flying Pens on the outside while in the offensive zone was one one of the keys to keeping them off the board. It's something the Devils did Saturday too and it's crucial against a team like the Penguins that can navigate high-traffic areas so deftly. ... Guess who was on the ice for the last 90 seconds of the game while the Penguins had pulled their goalie? Adam Larsson. Not only was it great experience for him, but DeBoer had the chance to pull him off with about 30 ticks to go and left him out there. ... Boy, that Stephen Gionta incident was a scary one. I was happy to see him come back out and return to the game later, but he looked noticeably dazed and out of it after his head, neck and the back of his shoulders slammed into the boards. Maybe it's the skeptic in me, but it sure feels weird when a player comes back from that in the same game given concussion awareness and everything that goes with it. ... When did the Devils turn it around? When the forecheck got going. ... Kovy shoots and Kovy scores. Just making sure you're paying attention. ... The power play is really starting to come around. I mean, seriously. They were only 2-of-10 on it yesterday, but there was really only two bad power plays in those 10. Today, the Pens got sloppy and frustrated after Kovy's goal, gave the Devils their own power play of the game and the Devils cashed in. If it's 2-1 when James Neal scores that goal to start the third, the rest of the game goes very differently. ... I know I said it yesterday, but man, it is fun to watch the Pens pass the puck, isn't it? The Neal goal was one of the most effortless tic-tac-toe plays I've seen in a while and kudos to Evgeni Malkin for orchestrating it. ... Greene made a subtle, but important play late in the third period. With the Penguins pressing, there was a shot from the point and Sidney Crosby sank to below the goal line while waiting for the rebound. We've seen how many opponents score goals like that against the Devils this year? Well, not this time because Greene knew exactly where Sid was and boxed him as soon as the puck hit Hedberg's pads so Crosby couldn't get to the puck. It was a tremendous play that might've saved a goal with Hedberg down on the ice to make the save.