Saturday, January 27, 2007

Devils Off To Quick Start After Break

Well, it didn't take long for the Devils to continue their recent hot play. I believe they were something like 9-1-2 in their last 12 entering the All Star break. Predictably, that trend continued as they shutout the Lightning in Tampa 2-0.

Admittedly, I didn't catch much of this game as I was preoccupied with Jamal Crawford's 52 point performance which included 16 straight makes along with Serena Williams' destruction of Maria Sharapova for the Australian Open. If you saw it, you know how much of a mismatch it was. It's detailed as part of my other blog in which I provided a recap to appear later on NY Sportsday: http://hardhits.blogspot.com/

In regards to the Devil game, as it turned out, I didn't miss much. On the strength of a Brian Gionta goal (team-leading 22nd), the Devils used their usual team formula of stifling defense and Martin Brodeur's goaltending to pickup their 30th victory of the season giving the Atlantic Division leaders 65 points. Combined with Buffalo's 3-2 loss at Columbus, the Devils only trail the Sabres by five points for the conference lead. Remember when Buffalo had an insurmountable double digit lead? It's gone. And the Devils do boast a game at hand. What this will come down to is those three big match-ups the teams will play over the final portion of the season. I believe the Devils host the Sabres in about 10 days. I might try to get out to that one if my schedule permits. That should be a really exciting race where the two teams might also do battle with Western powers Nashville and Anaheim for the President's Trophy.

Brodeur made 28 saves for his league best ninth shutout of the season. I heard that he made one big glove stop of a Vaclav Prospal shot with about 4:00 left. Was that the only decent chance Tampa had? I'll leave that for Steve to answer later if he wants.

With that in mind, I have two schools of thought on the Devils right now. This team has scored the second fewest goals in the East. Only NHL Siberia Philadelphia is worse. What exactly that means I don't know. But if you're even the most diehard Satans' fan, you might be a little concerned about the offense. There have been past Devil teams who used this grind it out formula to perfection in the regular season producing division titles and 100+ points only to fizzle out in the playoffs due to you guessed it:

1.Not scoring enough goals
2.Running into a hot goalie

That's all it will take for Claude Julien's club to fail. Can it happen? Absolutely. When you look at the Devils' goal differential (128 GF, 111 GA for +17), they're playing a lot of tight games. That can take its toll. It also puts a great deal of pressure on everyone to execute the gameplan. One mistake and things can turn around quickly. Come playoff time, most teams tighten up and try to play the same mistake free hockey. But in this new NHL, there is a wrinkle to just playing team D. And that's playing an aggressive forechecking game utilizing team speed. Carolina did it last year. I believe the teams that attack the most will get rewarded. You can't always win every game 1-0 or 2-1. There are going to be some games where the Devils will need to open it up and finish.

Sure, they have guys such as Gionta, team captain Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and super soph Zach Parise who can do that. But it will all depend on one thing. If they're playing from behind. This team is one of the best frontrunners in the sport. Give them a lead and it's like a death trap. They can milk the clock and wait for one of those turnovers in the neutral zone and pounce. But if you put them behind, the game becomes more difficult. It's not like the Devils can't muster up the attack. When behind, they become a lot more aggressive and even will pinch their D. They have proven that late in games, they can rally to tie them and force overtime. So they are very resilient.

Which brings me to my second school of thought. All these one-goal lowscoring games could benefit them this Spring. They have so much experience winning games such as last night's that it might be an advantage in the playoffs. Plus the core is still intact and knows what it takes to win. Which leaves me to conclude two things regarding this team:

1.Either they're going to reach the Cup Finals
2.Or get bounced in the first round

It could depend on who they face. Stay tuned.

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