Thursday, November 24, 2011
Devils set for mass reunion against Isles in this weekend's home-and-home
After approximately one-quarter of the season, it's somewhat surprising that as of this point, the Devils haven't played either of their New York rivals yet this season. That's set to change in a big way this weekend however, as the Devils and Islanders get set for a home-and-home showdown with a weird 3 PM start time on Long Island tomorrow afternoon when some of us (including me) actually do have to work, and a more normal 1 PM start time on Saturday at the Rock. Both teams are going in opposite directions right now, with the Devils off to an 11-8-1 start after winning four of their last six, while the Isles are stuck in the basement once again after a 5-10-3 start and losses in their last three - including a 5-0 loss in Pittsburgh where they served as the props for Sidney Crosby's storybook comeback.
Despite the records, you can always count on a good effort from the Isles against their neighbors. Even if the Isles preceded their loss in Pittsburgh with a 6-0 blanking at the hands of the Cup champs, and followed it by losing a two-goal lead against the Flyers. Three players in particular will want to do well against the Devils this weekend - Mike Mottau, Jay Pandolfo and Brian Rolston. Mottau left the Devils last season as a free agent and became one of the few players to play for all three NY-NJ teams, long-time Devil Pando is attempting a comeback after a year away from the game and two-time Devil Rolston was 'traded' to the Isles for the right to buy out Trent Hunter's contract. Hey, at least we gave Hunter a tour of the building in his week-long tenure as a Devil.
Last season's games, in particular showed the competitiveness between the two teams, as all were memorable in different ways. Eerily, the two teams first met the day after Thanksgiving in an afternoon matinee on Long Island last year, a dubious game that saw the Devils lose 2-0 to an Islander team that came into the game on a fourteen, yes fourteen-game losing streak. Our second matchup at the Rock just before Christmas was even more embarassing, as the Isles whipped us 5-1 in a matchup of the two worst teams in the NHL, sending us to the bottom of the league in Jacques Lemaire's return to the bench.
Eventually things started to improve under Lemaire, and the Devils for a rare time in recent memory actually handled the Isles up in Nassau easily in late January, with even Vladimir Zharkov scoring his first career NHL goal in a 5-2 win. As both teams started to get competitive and make improbable late-season runs, the final three games of the season all took place in March, with the Devils beating the Isles in a stirring shootout win 3-2 on the 6th at Long Island. Rolston of all people 'called his shot' by standing up at the bench, convincing Lemaire to use him and subsequently scoring the winner in the skills competition. Back at the Rock six days later, the two teams went to OT again before Anssi Salmela's winner gave the Devils another 3-2 win and was perhaps Steve Cangelosi's best single goal call at the mike. Finally both teams fell out of it in mid-March but they both played one more spirited game, once again won 3-2 by the Devils at the Rock though this came in regulation on March 30.
As far as this year's teams go, the records may be different right now but the Devils' 11-8-1 start has by no means been easy, with five of those wins coming in the shootout including what was a somewhat ugly game against the Columbus Blue Jackets last night. That game was only the second home contest I've missed all year, as I was uptown at a friend's birthday dinner. When I saw the recap that Martin Brodeur had 36 saves, including 17 in a third period where we were outshot 17-3 I just shook my head. Thank goodness Brodeur, fellow goalie Johan Hedberg (winner of all the previous shootouts) and star wingers Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk have all been money in the skills competition. God knows Parise and Kovalchuk have gotta carry their weight somehow, since they're not scoring much in the first sixty-five minutes of the game.
It didn't occur to me that anyone other than Brodeur would have been the first star of the game but when I got home and saw that Jackets enforcer Jared Boll was somehow named first star, after playing only six minutes plus and 'scoring' the tying goal off his skate, I was dumbfounded. It's like there's a rule in the media voting that the first star must automatically go to the guy who scored the tying goal in a tie hockey game (since the shootouts aren't taken into consideration with the three stars), irrespective of how the game actually went. On the brighter side, Danius Zubrus played in his 1000th NHL game and celebrated by scoring his team's only goal in regulation.
While timely goaltending, penalty killing and shootout scoring is getting the Devils by for now, the Isles are stuck in netural with nearly all the goalies they've stockpiled for depth shelved by injuries. When everyone was healthy, it was an unwieldy mess with Al Montoya (last season's late sensation), vet Evgeni Nabokov after he was forced to report, and the perpetually hurt Rick DiPietro splitting time. That's not even including prospect Kevin Poulin, who played some last year and is also on the shelf. Amusingly DiPietro's the only one who is still standing, at least as of now. It's as if his fragility is a disease that's now become contagious to the other netminders. Faceless Anders Nilsson was thrown to the wolves against the Pens but it's likely DiPietro will get at least one of the two games this weekend.
Despite the invasion of ex-Devils to Long Island, they haven't done much to stop the losing with Rolston having just two goals, two assists and a -6 in 17 games (shocking, I know). Mottau - coming off a serious eye injury last year - has played twelve games without a point and is a -5 himself. And Pando has just one goal with a -5 in 19 games. Then again, the only Isle skater of consequence who isn't a minus something is Frans Nielsen, an E after his 19 games played. With just thirty-eight goals in 19 games, the Isles' scoring woes are even more pronounced than ours, though our scoring and specifically the power play has at least started to improve from awful to merely average-below average.
After playing the last four games and winning three of them, look for Brodeur to sit tomorrow in favor of Hedberg and probably be back in there Saturday at the Rock, the Devils' last home game before yet another four-game trip - at Colorado, Minnesota, Winnipeg and Toronto. In other lineup news, the dissapointing Nick Palmeri (3 G, 3 A, -5 in 19 games) finally got sent down today. Happy Thanksgiving, Nick :P
All in all, the Devils are in the middle of a ten games out of twelve stretch on the road, and not playing in the same rink more than once in a row. Still, there's no excuse for the Devils to not at least split the home and home, which I sort of expect anyway. Yeah, the games will probably be wars but if you're a playoff team you have to beat last-place teams the majority of the time. So far, the Devils have played a very tough schedule, as I'm getting reminded constantly when I'm skeptical about the team's chances. Now's their chance to start making hay against some of the lesser lights.