It was almost a storybook return, but history turned out to be too good to be true for Martin Brodeur. Still, after weathering a hectic first 10 minutes, the Devils responded with an excellent overall effort and have ended their most recent losing streak in impressive fashion. Some thoughts...
Marty: It may not have been history, but it was an excellent return for Brodeur, who single-handedly kept the Devils in the game long enough for them to find their sea legs. Brodeur's performance during the first 10 minutes of the first period was the shining example of what we wrote earlier this week. While Johan Hedberg was good enough, he wasn't Brodeur. He didn't have that extra level. Moose was likely to be beaten on the fifth shot of a rapid-fire barrage. Brodeur, on the other hand, was calm, cool, collected and his usual reliable self. Of course, he was blatantly exhausted at the end of that stretch, but thankfully the rest of the team took over from there, shutting the Hurricanes down so well even Drake would've been impressed. But it wasn't just those saves -- or his goal (yes, his goal) -- that stood out for me. It was all the little things that Brodeur does that make him such an excellent netminder even at the age of 40. One of those examples came during the first period when there was a turnover and Alexander Semin came rushing up the gut toward the puck. Moose might've dove at the puck and he might have disrupted Semin enough to be successful. It's a risky proposition we've seen Hedberg both win and lose this season. Instead, Brodeur stayed calm, stayed upright and came out just far enough that he forced Semin to shoot at one of several tiny windows. Semin, of course, nearly scored, rocketing a shot off the post just over Brodeur's shoulder, but that's a nearly impossible shot to make and it's the only one Brodeur gave him. Marty also made at least two or three excellent decision with the puck on his stick, deftly moving the play away from the net and helping the Devils get out of the zone. Brodeur's return will likely be remembered for his incredibly bizarre goal and those frantic first minutes, but it was the things that went unnoticed, things not seen in the box score that impressed me the most.
First 10, last 50: As alluded to above, it was a schizophrenic game to be certain, although not nearly a half-and-half situation. The Canes came out of the gate pressing the Devils, which only increased once Brodeur scored on that whacky deflection. Carolina threw everything they could at Brodeur over 10 minutes, amassing 11 shots and seemingly coming within a post or a puck bounce of at least a tie game if not a lead. Thankfully for the Devils, Brodeur was there to man the gates, but what happened after that 10 minutes is what really impressed me about this game. The Devils stopped the Hurricanes in their tracks. I mean absolutely stopped them. After those 11 shots, Carolina mustered three more until the midway point of the third period and it had everything to do with the Devils' smart play in the neutral zone and the way they kept the Canes from establishing any sort of presence in the the Devils' zone. This was the style of play that frustrated a lot of teams earlier in the season -- take the other team's top skill players out of the game in the neutral zone and halt their primary method of generating changes. The Hurricanes love to shoot the puck -- like, really, really love to shoot it -- but the Devils wouldn't even give them the chance to dump it at the net from the point until Jeff Skinner's puck deflected off Bryce Salvador's stick and in during the third period. Seeing this style of play return and seeing the Devils sustain it for basically the last 50 minutes of tonight's game was as good of a sign as Brodeur's return.
Answering the bell: Of course, none of that would've mattered if guys like Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac didn't stand up and deliver some offensive hockey tonight. One night after Zajac scored for the first time in 11 games, Henrique scored for just the second time since March 7. While Zajac didn't register a goal tonight, it was his speed into the offensive zone and work on the forecheck that directly led to Peter Harrold's goal in the second. Zajac also played a key part in Andrei Loktionov's game-sealing tally in the fourth, winning an offensive-zone faceoff singlehandedly and deflecting a puck from the point to keep it moving in the offensive end. Tonight was the third game in a row where Zajac was clearly more engaged in the offensive zone and if the Devils can get Henrique going as well, along with the Loktionov-Kovalchuk combination, they could start to be a team that scores more than one or two goals a game. Of course, this is a very small sample size and we'll have to see if the Devils continue to finish their offensive chances in the next couple games, but it was an encouraging sign for a team that has been wondering when Zajac and Henrique would finally turn it on.
The streak, part 2: As noted above, tonight's win ended the Devils' most recent losing streak, a 3-game skid that saw them pick up an overtime point in the first game against Philly. While it certainly wasn't the disastrous slide of two weeks ago, it was enough to temporarily knock the Devils out of the playoff picture. But this isn't about that streak, it's about what the Devils need to do going forward, which is reel off a stretch of four wins in five games or at least rack up points in all of those contests -- say, seven points out of five games. That's not too much to ask, not with the Panthers at home Saturday, an injury-ravaged Ottawa team Monday and a Florida twofer next Friday and Saturday. With the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff pictures so tightly packed (eight points separate fifth place and 13th as of this post), even picking up a charity point can bump you a spot or two on any given tonight. As an example, the Devils moved from ninth to seventh Thursday night thanks to their win and a Rangers loss. It's going to be a crazy few weeks as this season wears down and it's incredibly crucial the Devils use this opportunity to stack points during games against beatable teams.
Notes: I think it's a good thing the action slowed down after that first 11 minutes. Marty was gassed and I'm guessing if the Canes had continued to press eventually the rust and conditioning factors would've gotten to him. ... You could feel a goal coming during the second period. The Devils were getting a lot of chances and Dan Ellis was leaving a lot of loose pucks in front of the net. Ilya Kovalchuk and Ryan Carter each missed or fanned on multiple chances before Henrique scored. ... I think Pete DeBoer really wants to use the CBGB line as much as possible, but it's going to be difficult to do once the Devils are healthy. ... Speaking of "when the Devils are healthy," I wonder what happens to tonight's interesting third line when that's the case. I assumd the Devils will continue to carry Krys Barch for pure intimidation factor and while also assuming Tim Sestito is the first one back to Albany when either Dainius Zubrus or Henrik Tallinder come off the IR. Since DeBoer insists on keeping eight defensemen around, that leaves either Tom Kostopolous or Harri Pesonen on the chopping block. I like Pesonen's game much better, but he doesn't have to pass through waivers, which Kostoplous would if they wanted to send one of them to Albany. ... Good to see Adam Larsson putting the puck on net prior to Henrique's goal, but would've been better if he had kept the shot low. That puck was headed over the net until it hit Kovy in front. ... Andy Greene made another of his underrated but excellent plays at the close of the second period. Greene was dealing with a bouncing puck in his own zone and had two or three Canes bearing down on him while the Devils changed lines. Instead of panicking, Greene settled the puck and calmly dodged all three Canes while skating behind his net and up the other side of the zone before eventually leading a breakout. All while being hit, chipped at and pushed by the Canes. Tremendous play by the Devils' best blueliner. ... Marek Zidlicky, do you know how many scoring chances you would have if your stick was on the ice? ... The calm Loktionov displayed on his goal was fantastic to see and just another example of how his game grows by the day. That backhander was pretty nice, too -- although not as nice as Harrold's.