As we are now firmly within the holiday season, and roughly about a quarter through the NHL schedule, I figured I’d take some time to look back at the Devils win in Toronto on December 4 that got them off of a five game losing skid and give some thanks, wishing that it leads to bigger things later in December and into the new year. Now, granted, two of the games (the Calgary game on November 22 and the Detroit game on November 28) were games in which the Devils lost in a shootout, so they did pick up one point for each of those games. The problem was that they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory: losing a two goal lead in the Flames game and a one goal lead in the Red Wings game late in the third periods, setting up their shootout losses and ended up losing two games that they could have won against good teams. Limping into Toronto, the Devils were not in a good way (and some of them were literally limping, as the injury bug hit the team hard – as I had mentioned in my post last week).
The Devils came into Toronto having dropped a tough 1-0 decision two days earlier in Pittsburgh. The Leafs had been on the rebound since their disastrous week which culminated with being blown out by Nashville (not that the Predators are a bad team, it’s just that things are… different in Toronto as far as hockey coverage goes and this was certainly fodder for the papers’ “the sky is falling” mentality). The Devils were missing Jaromir Jagr who was supposedly fine after the illegal hit he took from Pittsburgh’s Robert Bortuzzo on Tuesday, but missed due to the flu. Defenseman Adam Larsson also missed due to the flu. Other injuries included: Patrik Elias (lower body), Martin Havlat (lower body), Travis Zajac (lower body). Ryane Clowe (head) and captain Bryce Salvador (lower body). Stephen Gionta was back in the lineup after leaving the Pittsburgh game when he took a puck to his foot. He returned to the ice very briefly in the morning skate and was able to go. Michael Ryder returned after being a healthy scratch against Pittsburgh.
The Devils struck first when Toronto’s Cody Franson was called for interfering with Ryder. Eric Gelinas connected on the ensuing power play (assists to Jon Merrill and Damien Brunner) and the Devils jumped out to a 1-0 lead. The Leafs would tie things up 5:37 into the second period when Mike Santorelli scored from Joffery Lupul and Jake Gardiner.
The Devils would retake the lead just about two and a half minutes later when Gionta buried one from Steve Bernier and Merrill. At 9:42 of the second, Franson took a hooking call against Tuomo Ruutu that put the Devils back on the power play. However, the Maple Leafs again answered back after a New Jersey breakdown in their own zone as Nazem Kadri capitalized and potted a shorthanded goal with assists from Santorelli and Stephane Robidas. The Devils would get things right and regain the lead when Lupul was called for boarding against Andy Greene late in the second and the Devils power play converted. Mike Cammalleri scored a beauty from the left faceoff circle (assists to Gelinas and Ryder) and the Devils went into the final frame with a 3-2 lead.
The third was really all Devils, despite taking two penalties in the period. Bernier scored at 6:12 with helpers from Marek Zidlicky and Dainius Zubrus. Adam Henrique capped the scoring for the Devils, putting them up 5-2 at 11:58 (assists to Ryder and Zidlicky). That was not all for the scoring, as Ruutu was called for tripping against Daniel Winnik, putting the Leafs on the power play at 17:56. Toronto pulled goaltender Jonathan Bernier for the two man advantage, and Phil Kessel was able to get on the scoresheet with a goal with 35 seconds remaining on the clock off a mad scramble in front of the New Jersey net, in which Cory Schneider made the initial save but could not corral the rebound (assists to Tyler Bozak and Middletown, New Jersey native James van Riemsdyk). When the final horn sounded, the Devils had broken their losing streak and had taken the game 5-3.
The good news is that the Devils were able to survive without a lot of their offensive firepower (most notably Jagr, their leading scorer) and played a pretty much complete game. The bad news is the schedule does not get any less forgiving for the team in the next few weeks. Saturday, December 6 sees the Devils faceoff with Alex Ovechkin and the always-dangerous Washington Capitals. Then on Monday, the 8th and Tueday the 9th, the Devils play a back-to-back set with a game in Carolina on Monday and then the high-flying high-octane Chicago Blackhawks visit “the Rock” on Tuesday. A home and away back-to-back is hard enough. When you are returning home with the Blackhawks waiting for you, well, that is just brutal. December also sees the Devils take on teams currently in playoff position including: a game at the Islanders on December 15, which, barring a meeting in the playoffs would be the Devils final appearance at the Nassau Coliseum. A game at home on Friday, December 19 against Tampa Bay, which sets up a weekend back-to-back with the backend against the Capitals. The Devils also face the Rangers at the Garden two days after Christmas and then come home that Monday to face the Penguins. They end the month with a game on New Year’s Eve at Joe Louis Arena against the Red Wings. As you can see, it does not get much easier. December may even be more of a challenge for the Devils than November was. In addition to the meet-up with Chicago (which is a huge test), the Devils will also face Philly on the 11th at Wells Fargo Center, a rivalry game that gets the teams up and the Flyers are a much more improved team than they were at the start of the season when the Devils narrowly escaped with a victory on opening night. Add in a game with Ottawa, who always play the Devils well and you do not exactly have an easy slate through the month.
How the team responds the rest of this month will go a long way in deciding whether or not this is a playoff team. The Devils’ schedule has been very road heavy, including the trip to Western Canada last month and, of course, there have been the injuries. But championship teams are able to win despite roadblocks like that being thrown in their way. Can the Devils capitalize on the success they had in Toronto, or was that just an aberration? Hopefully for Devils fans, this team has a run left in them; otherwise it is going to be another tough spring being on the outside looking in.