Devils Try To Raze the Brick Wall They’ve Hit
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When the New Jersey Devils went on a 15-game winning streak that culminated in a four-game sweep of the Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs, it was hard to find fault with Lou Lamoriello’s club. The power play was scoring at will, the members of the dismantled EGG line (Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta) were spreading their offensive wealth throughout the lineup, and goaltender Martin Brodeur was again playing at an elite level.
But on Saturday the Devils ran into a similarly hot Carolina Hurricanes team, and Game 1 of their secondround series went about as poorly as could have been imagined. Brodeur gave up six goals and the Hurricanes’ forwards crashed the crease at will. Suddenly, the Devils had reverted back to the team that was given up for dead in December.
To say that things improved in Monday night’s Game 2 would be a huge understatement. Though the Devils squandered a one-goal lead with three seconds left and absorbed a crushing defeat in overtime, they demonstrated that they have what it takes to beat Carolina. In order to get back on the winning track tonight at the Meadowlands, they’ll need to build upon the positives from Monday’s loss.
Much as they did in the Rangers series, New Jersey controlled the puck extremely well on Monday,most notably on the play that led to their first goal.After taking possession of the puck in the Carolina zone and completing five gorgeous tape-to-tape passes, Jamie Langenbrunner buried a wrist shot past Hurricanes rookie Cam Ward. Later, with less than a minute to go in regulation, Langenbrunner carried the puck out of the defensive zone and delivered a crisp pass to Gomez, who started the rush that led to the apparent game-winning goal.
Langenbrunner has been one of the brightest spots for the Devils in these playoffs, tallying 10 points and compiling a +6 rating in six games. Always one of the team’s hardest workers, Langenbrunner has gradually cultivated a reputation as a prime-time performer, and Monday night’s game was no different. Both Devils’ goals in the 3-2 loss came as a result of his hard work along the boards. If New Jersey is to get back into this series, it will need Langenbrunner to keep playing hard-nosed, throwback hockey.
What’s still in doubt for the Devils is whether they have the necessary mental makeup to win this series. Eric Staal’s game-tying goal (scored with only three seconds left in regulation) and Niclas Wallin’s overtime game-win ner each came as a result of missed defensive assignments, an anomaly for a Devils team that has built its reputation on an iron-clad defense.
On the game-tying goal,Staal was left alone just outside Brodeur’s crease, proving that defenseman Brad Lukowich is not up to the task of neutralizing the Hurricanes’ best player. That Lukowich was out there – while Richard Matvichuk was nailed to the bench – was a rare case of Lamoriello putting the wrong players on the ice. Containing Staal should have been a much bigger priority for the Devils in the game’s closing seconds.
Later, on the game-winner in overtime, Devils defenseman Paul Martin dove in a vain attempt to knock the puck off Wallin’s stick. By making the ill-advised choice not to remain on his feet to check Wallin, Martin took himself out of the play and gave the ‘Canes’ defenseman an unobstructed path to the goal. Wallin capitalized on the opportunity and gave Carolina the dramatic comefrom-behind victory.
The other problem for the Devils in this series is the Hurricanes’ significant advantage at center. By far the league’s best faceoff man, Rod Brind’Amour has proven to be at least the equal of the Devils’ John Madden, which neutralizes what is often one of New Jersey’s biggest advantages. Meanwhile the rest of the Carolina pivots (Staal, Doug Weight, Kevyn Adams, and Matt Cullen) match up favorably against their New Jersey counterparts, and have combined for a 75-50 edge in the faceoff circle. If that trend continues, the Devils are unlikely to regain control of the series.
When Weight was acquired by Carolina just prior to the Olympic break,critics wondered whether the move would negatively impact Staal and Brind’Amour. As it turned out, head coach Peter Laviolette’s solution has been to dress seven defensemen (rather than the usual six) and double-shift the seemingly tireless Staal. Staal plays half his even-strength shifts centering the ‘Canes’ first line and the other half playing wing on Weight’s line,making the Hurricanes’ offense that much more formidable while the wellrested defense still has its legs even when the games reach overtime. Wallin’s goal serves as a perfect proof that Laviolette’s strategy is working.
To win tonight and stop the bleeding, the Devils must find a way to shut down Staal. Colin White would be the natural choice to match up against the Hurricanes’ finest forward, but he’s been suffering from a strained groin and has missed all but a few minutes of the team’s first playoff game against the Rangers. So instead, the task should be delegated to Matvichuk, a stay-at-home blueliner who has the size and experience needed to keep Staal in check.
While it’s clear that the Devils are not quite as good as they looked during their stunning winning streak, it’s also clear that they’re nowhere near as bad as they were in Saturday’s 6-0 shellacking. Look for this playoff-savvy group to rebound with a strong performance in front of the home crowd tonight. If Lamoriello gets the match-ups he desires, the Devils should come away with a victory and get themselves back into this extremely tough second-round series.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.