Thursday, December 22, 2011
Nieds night and other Devil thoughts
Hello everyone, I'm back...finally with my computer up and running. Still sick, to be sure but after sweating off a fever I'm at least up to writing now. Even if I'll be a scratch for the game tomorrow (planned to go see the boys play against the Caps but sold my tickets when I got sick, so I'll be watching the broadcast). Over the last couple of weeks there's been plenty good and bad to write about. Derek took the bad - though not from his perspective - the other night so I'll start with the good and look back on Nieds night.
Regrettably I wasn't able to be around to write on this one at the time but I did attend the game of course...and had a bird's eye view of them raising Scott Niedermayer's jersey up from 120 since they did it behind the net. Admittedly when it was first announced, I was a little lukewarm about it and thought they should have waited a while since a lot of the fanbase is still (unreasonably) bitter about him leaving, but you can't really deny he deserves the honor on merit. His winning has been chronicled a hundred different ways, including emcee Doc Emrick using props to do so, bringing out the record books for all the different levels of hockey Nieds has played on.
Certainly you have to look at Nieds' level of play and say it was no accident he won so much on all levels. If you were only allowed to give the Conn Smythe to a player on a winning team in a Stanley Cup final, you could have made a compelling argument for Nieds winning it in 2003 when he led the Devils in points during the playoffs and was a force defensively. Derided for much of his career for inconsistency - including by myself - I felt Nieds turned it up another level in 2003 and 2004 under the late Pat Burns. He had become the dominant player his talent had always predicted, starting with his end-to-end goal in Game 2 of the 1995 Stanley Cup finals. Even with a bit of a mercurial early part of his career, Nieds was always a very good player, and a difference-maker (as the Devils' mediocre record in the first twenty games of 2001 attested to when both he and Cup hero Jason Arnott were holdouts).
After winning the Norris trophy in 2004 and being named captain once Scott Stevens was forced to retire, it appeared as if he'd cement his legacy as an all-time Devil that much more...but it turned out Nieds had a higher calling. In a rarity of modern professional sports, he left the highest offer on the table (ours) to go to Anaheim and be closer to home, including having his brother on the same team. At the time I felt that playing with his brother was the only reason he left, that he wasn't looking to actually win since the Ducks weren't particularly a great team at the time and he'd already accomplished everything championship-wise here. However, in his first year the Ducks got to the Conference Finals and after GM Brian Burke added Chris Pronger in the offseason, Anaheim went all the way the next year with Nieds getting his Conn Smythe, and Rob finally getting to hold the Cup with his brother.
Even with Nieds' Disney-like finish to his career, his number still had to be retired by the Devils. Even if the immortal Mike Mottau wore it for us after Nieds left (but while he was still playing in the league), and Nieds never actually wore a Devils uniform on the Prudential Center ice until last Friday. All three retired numbers the Devils have raised to the rafters have been of defensemen that played on each of the Devils' three Cup-winning teams. The only other players to have that distinction are Martin Brodeur, who'll surely join them in the rafters someday soon, and utility forward Sergei Brylin - still playing in the KHL and thus unable to attend the ceremony.
Perhaps the most uplifting thing about the night was the return of Doc himself, kept secret until just a couple of days before the ceremony. Really, it would have been a shame if anyone else had done it since Doc called practically every one of Nieds' games as a Devil before he started branching off to VERSUS and NBC post-lockout. It had been kind of puzzling that Doc hadn't done one of our VERSUS telecasts yet but apparently he was scheduled to do the game in Buffalo a few weeks ago except that he had a hernia situation that needed to be taken care of. He will do one of the Devils-Boston games in January apparently, according to one of the Devils fans who heard him speak at the fan club meeting.
In his return to the Prudential Center ice, Doc played to the crowd, reminding people that one of his favorite Nieds moments was a rare fight against a certain Ranger (I think Valeri Kamensky) where the Ranger jersey came off and Nieds threw it into the crowd. Funny I seem to have forgotten about it, for all I know it could have been a preseason game but Doc sure knows his audience! Nieds was his usual understated self, thanking everyone who he needed to thank and keeping his poise throughout, before he and his family went to the net right in front of me and started raising the banner. I got at least one or two good pictures of it on my phone, after it had been raised since the lighting was too dim throughout most of the ceremony to get a decent picture otherwise.
Keeping up their perfect record on retirement ceremony nights, the Devils whipped the Stars 6-3 in an uplifting performance for several reasons. First, the fact that it was Travis Zajac's first game back after his offseason achilles injury that ended the Devils' all-time iron-man streak. Then there's current captain Zach Parise's recent resurgence...which crested last Friday with a goal and three assists, a performance and effort that screamed 'ZACH'S BACK!'. His signature play from that game was when he terrorized the Dallas defenders shorthanded for about thirty seconds, before stripping the puck from Stephan Robidas and laying up a perfect pass to Adam Henrique for the game-tying goal in the second period.
That shorthanded goal turned the game around, as the Devils turned a 2-1 deficit into a 6-3 win with six different goalscorers lighting the lamp. Yet, despite the six goals one of the three stars of the game turned out to be Bryce Salvador, who didn't register a single point...but what he did do was put up a +4, play a team-leading 26:20 with defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene on the shelf, and save an automatic goal with a brilliant sweep of the puck from the crease early in the second period. I was really wondering about how getting rid of Colin White to make room for Salvador (coming off a year on the shelf, thanks to a concussion caused by inner-ear symptoms) was going to work, but after a slow start Sal's turned back the clock and looked like the defenseman he was when he first got here.
Finally, it felt like beating Dallas at home buried one of our recent ghosts, for it was against the Stars last year on Opening Night where the John MacLean era got off to a flying start - for the first ten minutes - before the Devils melted down for a devastating defeat. Speaking of MacLean, I was kind of relieved he wasn't booed when he appeared on the jumbotron to make comments about his former teammate Nieds. Even Bobby Holik didn't get booed though I didn't hear a lot of cheering either...but Scott Gomez got booed so loudly I bet he heard it in Montreal. The team's really gotta stop putting him on the board until he retires at least.
Winning on Nieds night was the Devils' third straight win, in a streak that would go to four in a row the next day after Patrik Elias broke MacLean's team record for goals by scoring two against the Habs in a come-from-behind win at Montreal. To start the streak, the Devils swept the Florida road trip, beating Tampa in a 5-4 game that wasn't as close as the score indicated, and then getting revenge on the Panthers for a horrendous meltdown earlier in the season in Florida by turning the tables and rallying form a multi-goal deficit in Sunrise to win in - guess what? - a shootout.
After scoring eleven goals in two games, of course Henrik Lundqvist only allowed the Devils one first-period tally - Zajac's first since March of last season - and as usual since the lockout won in his home away from home, after Brodeur again allowed a back-breaking soft second goal and couldn't rise to the challenge against his biggest tri-state rival. Even with that defeat, the Devils still have a respectable 18-14-1 record and currently are holding a playoff spot. Even if almost half of those wins have come via the shootout...as the Flyers proved a couple of years ago, all you have to do is get in the playoffs and you can do something in them.
Our last game before the holiday is tomorrow night against a Caps team that is surprisingly still sitting outside a playoff spot. Even after firing last year's 24/7 celebrity Bruce Boudreau, it doesn't seem like it's done much to pick up the team's play or revive Alexander Ovechkin's career. It's amazing that the NHL built most of its marketing around Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin not that long ago, and now one's on the shelf yet again with a concussion and the other's turned into a rather ordinary (and moody) player overnight. I won't be in attendance because of a virus, but perhaps that's a good thing since the Devils are 3-0 at home when I'm not in the stands and 4-6-1 when I am, with my only home win since early November coming on Nieds night.
Hopefully they keep that split going for one more game tomorrow, then keep winning when I do plan on going to both home games the next week :P