Much was made in the pregame of coach Jacques Lemaire's return to Minnesota after he coached the Wild for the previous nine seasons, the only coach in franchise history. Lemaire got a nice pregame tribute on the jumbotron from what I heard, unfortunately MSG didn't show any of it. Also, Brian Rolston was playing his first game in Minnesota (where he enjoyed some of his best years, under Lemaire) since leaving the Wild as a free agent last offseason.
Yet it was Minnesota native Jamie Langenbrunner who stole the show with a first-ever hat trick, making the difference in an otherwise shaky 5-3 win for the Devils. Hard to believe that it was Langs' first-ever hatty, considering all the goals he's scored in a long NHL career (especially with his three straight games of two goals last season), but it was well-deserved tonight as the captain was one of the few who came mentally and physically prepared to play a fifth game in eight nights.
Granted, playing five in eight now might actually be a bit harder in a way than the seven in eleven stretch was earlier this year considering the travel to Washington, Chicago and Minnesota during this trip compared to that one which was mostly at home, other than one game in Buffalo. But still, the team looked as bad as I've seen them in weeks. I'm not even going to count the game two nights ago because the Hawks are capable of handing any team their lunch. Tonight however, there were so many forced passes, lazy backchecking and rushed shot attempts that it's remarkable the team won by two instead of losing by the same margin.
So how did we win? Well start with Jamie's hat trick and a very good showing from Martin Brodeur, despite allowing three goals they were pretty much all on shoddy backchecking and defensive coverage. And let's be honest, playing a mediocre (at best) team like the Wild, you can get away with a clunker easier than say, against the Blackhawks as we found out two nights ago. There were a few other good performances tonight, but not that many.
One of them was Dean McAmmond, who looked like he had plenty of life in his skates getting a breakaway in the first period that was stopped by the Wild's Nicklas Backstrom, and then 5:13 into the second period lucking into another partial breakaway when he had to take over for Rob Niedermayer in the middle of a shift after Nieds broke a stick. A pass from Patrik Elias sprung him and he beat Backstrom by roofing a backhander for his fourth goal of the year, giving the Devils a surprising lead considering how much the Wild were outplaying them up to that point.
After McAmmond's goal, the Devils had their best stretch of hockey during the game, drawing a couple of quick penalties and taking advantage of the first one with Elias and Vladimir Zharkov doing nice board work to keep the puck, culminating with Elias making a sweet cross-ice pass to Langenbrunner, who one-timed a shot past Backstrom at 6:57 for his eleventh of the year and first of the night. Just seconds later, another penalty by Nick Schultz of the Wild could have ended the game, but on the ensuing power play Andy Greene had to interfere with Mikko Koivu to prevent him from getting a shorthanded breakwaway. That proved to be wise later on.
Even on the ensuing four-on-four the Devils could have ended the game when Travis Zajac and Zach Parise got sprung for a two-on-one but a slumping Zajac (no goals and four assists in twelve games now) tried to force a pass to Parise that got blocked off and led to a chance the other way, which Eric Belanger put in at 9:08. Instead of 3-0, it was 2-1 and the Wild had the momentum now. That began a terrible period for Zajac, who also couldn't get his stick on an errant Parise pass and was slow getting back in the play which led to another scoring chance.
Brodeur held the rising tide back and late in the period the Devils got one more power play chance, but instead of padding their lead New Jersey wound up losing it when they gave up a three-on-two break shorthanded with Johnny Oduya and Zajac (both targets of my blog last night) looking discombobulated as Koivu eventually beat them with a rebound goal after Brodeur made a great first save on an shot from the point. With just 38 seconds left in the period that could have been a devastating goal, but fortunately the captain saved the day again by getting his second of the night with just four seconds remaining off a rebound in front, restoring the Devils' undeserved lead.
In front again, the Devils momentarily regained their composure early in the third and it looked as if their 20-0 record when leading after two periods would be safe when Niedermayer's excellent board work and pass in front found Jay Pandolfo, who was rewarded for crashing the net with his third of the season at 11:35. That goal gave the Devils a two-goal lead again, and Elias his third assist of the night. However the Wild kept coming, outshooting the Devils in every period and getting a deserved break at 16:09 when a puck bounced off of Eric Belanger's facecage and into the net. A rare (and unintentional) 'header' goal in hockey, as it's far more commonplace in soccer.
Even with the Devils' record when leading, things looked tenuous at best - especially given that without Bryce Salvador for the second straight game and an all-rookie third pairing, the top four got insane minutes again. In fact, Mark Fraser played even less than Matthew Corrente, but Corrente only played 6:16 compared to Fraser's 4:28. I do wish the rookies could have gotten more time with the vets but I understand not wanting to play them with each other or screw around with the parings too much. Even if Oduya-Greene doesn't look like a match made in heaven and White-Mottau is vulnerable to speed.
Not to mention shoddy backchecking by the fowards, which led to some anxious moments in the final seconds and the ever-present Koivu (deservedly a favorite of both of us here) lurking before a tired captain took advantage of a turnover and sprinted to an empty-net goal, giving Jamie his first career hat trick and the Devils a 5-3 win. If I seemed overly harsh in my recap, just read what Lemaire had to say about the team's performance tonight:
“Was that terrible!” Lemaire said after the game. “Just a bad game. No puck
control. No good thinking. We turned the puck over many times. Many times,
many times and many times.”
Oh well, the good news is the Devils are five points ahead of the Sabres and Capitals for first in the conference. And hopefully Salvador and David Clarkson return soon. Though you can't really tell with the Devils.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Jamie Langenbrunner (hat trick, -1, 7 SOG in 19:07)
- Patrik Elias (three assists, +2)
- Mikko Koivu (goal, assist, +1, 5 SOG in 20:48)