The Devils have reached the mandatory Christmas break in their National Hockey League season and the question now has been “are they for real?” Well, after a pretty convincing 4-1 win over a Chicago Blackhawk team that is still one of the best in the league, the answer to that question is inching closer and closer to “yes.”
With 30 of 31 teams in action across the NHL tonight, the Devils could also, with a loss by Washington (who were playing Vegas tonight), be in first place in the Metropolitan Division by the end of play this evening. More on that later.
The Devils got some good news from a roster perspective tonight. Jesper Bratt was back in the lineup after missing just one game. Unfortunately, by the end of the night, the Devils would be without both Brian Boyle and Kyle Palmieri. The two, who both scored goals tonight, left the game with injuries. Palmieri began the night playing primarily on the top line with Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall. New Jersey would be down to ten forwards for the game by the end of the night. The healthy scratches were Jimmy Hayes, Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout and Drew Stafford.
Goaltending tonight saw Cory Schneider make another start for the Devils. He made 39 saves on 40 Chicago shots and was named the game’s first star. On the other side of the coin was the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford got the start for Hawks, making four saves on seven shots faced. He was chased for only the second time this season (the other time was November 12 against the Devils when New Jersey had that big comeback at United Center) in the first period and gave way to Anton Forsberg. Forsberg made 21 saves on 22 shots faced.
Devils coach John Hynes was hoping that the team settled down following their emotional win over the Rangers on Thursday. That was a big win and the team did not want to get too far ahead of themselves before the holiday break.
Their answer? Come out strong in the first period and bombard the Blackhawks. It started just 2:48 into the game when Boyle notched his tenth of the year unassisted. That came when Boyle intercepted a Hawks clearing attempt at the blue line and fired on net. Blake Coleman was acting as a screen in front and the shot found the back of the net to make it 1-0 Devils just like that.
The next goal was a bit of an odd one and turned out to be the game winner. It also came on the power play being set up when Hawks captain Jonathan Toews was called for slashing at 9:13 of the first. On the man advantage, Travis Zajac won the first faceoff in the Hawks’ zone back to pointman Will Butcher. He went to the other point (Taylor Hall), who passed down low to Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri looked like he was going to fake a shot and slap pass to Boyle, who was open on the other side of the net. However, Palmieri’s pass banked in off of the Chicago defenseman’s skate and in, giving the Devils a 2-0 lead at the 9:20 mark. It was Palmieri’s first goal since November 11 – but he has been injured a lot this season.
On the power play for the evening, the Devils were perfect, 1-for-1 with one shot. Their power play shooting percentage was a perfect 100-percent. Chicago was 0-for-2 with three shots. But that is little surprise as they are also 1-for-31 as a team in their last handful of games.
So Palmieri was able to get a goal, ending a long drought for him, but there was a longer drought on the team that needed to end. Pavel Zacha put that to rest when he scored at the 13:22 mark of the first to make it 3-0. It came when Butcher passed out of the Devils’ zone to Zacha. Zacha skated the puck through the neutral zone and dropped for Miles Wood at the far end of the blue line. Wood passed across to Butcher at the near point. He hit Stefan Noesen coming down through the slot. Noesen went wide, drawing Crawford out, as he had to respect Noesen’s shot. Noesen then passed back into the slot to Zacha, who ripped a shot stick side by Crawford to make triple the Devils lead.
The period ended with a scrap between John Hayden, who was trying to spark something for the Hawks and Steven Santini, who was more than happy to oblige. It was won by Hayden and was the first of two fights on the night. The other was between Ryan Hartman and Damon Severson that ended in a draw.
New Jersey had played a picture perfect first period, but were in for a bit of a shock in the second period. Chicago would come roaring out of the gate. In the end, they unloaded a single-period season high 22 shots on Cory and were able to cut the lead to 3-1 Devils when Patrick Kane scored at 17:18 of the second from Jan Rutta and Gustav Forsling. It was Kane’s 300th NHL goal, a great milestone for him and seemed to be setting up a Blackhawks comeback, as the shoe was on the other foot from their meeting last month in Chicago.
But it was not to be for the Hawks. The Devils had weathered the storm of the second period and were ready for the third. Just 2:02 in, Hall was sprung by Wood on a breakaway and used an inside out move to beat Forsberg to make it 4-1. The Wood pass was set up by a great poke check by Butcher just inside the Devils blue line.
Jesper Bratt had the chance to give the Devils a 5-1 lead when he was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down on a partial break by Jordan Oesterle at the 12:38 mark of the third. He was stopped, however.
With a minute left in the game, Sami Vatanen was called for delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass, giving Chicago a power play to end the game, but it would not matter. The Devils came away with the two points and would wind up in first place by the end of the night in the Metro Division, as the Captials lost to the Golden Knights in Vegas. The Rangers also lost to the Maple Leafs, giving the Devils some breathing room there, however the Islanders did beat the Jets, so there are always teams keeping pace.
Cory Schneider was the game’s first star, as mentioned. Butcher was the second star and Hall the third. Andy Greene led the team in ice time with 22:02 while Noesen led the team in shots with five. Santini led in hits with four and Greene also led in blocked shots with five. The Devils, who played a good first period, a lousy second and a good third, won 51-percent of the game’s faceoffs.
So the Devils, who are on a five game home winning streak will continue their homestand on Wednesday, December 27 against the Detroit Red Wings. In the meantime is the Christmas holiday break as the Devils get three days to rest and recoup. Hopefully they will be able to keep their good play intact coming out of the break.
Happy holidays and a very merry Christmas to everyone!