Thursday, December 15, 2011
A team of contradictions
It's been thirty games and I still can't figure this Devils team out...or maybe I already have. This team has been a total roller-coaster ride from Opening Night, alternately capable of brilliance and hair-pulling stupidity. Multiple times this season they've fought back from two-goal deficits and even came back from three down against Ottawa last week at home. And almost as many times they've shown a propensity for blowing late leads, including a four-goal meltdown in Florida and giving up the tying goal against the Senators with 3.3 seconds remaining in the same game they were down three late in the second. At times our offense looks impressive, like the other night in Tampa when we scored five goals and chased Dwayne Roloson - and at times it's still clueless, like when we let the Canadiens trap us to death after they took an early second period lead last Saturday.
Our penalty kill has been as good as I've ever seen it - even in the glory years. It's not just that they keep teams from scoring, but we've also been extremely agressive and scored several shorthanded goals ourselves. And conversely, our power play has been as bad as I've ever seen it. Granted, it feels like the last five years we can't buy a power play goal (other than the first half two seasons ago where we were strangely the top power play team in the league through 41 games), but this season the Devils have taken the power play of doom to another level - giving up shorthanded goals at an alarming rate...to the tune of nine through the first thirty games.
Even our goaltending has been a mixed bag of chocolates this year, with Johan Hedberg being brilliant for the most part - except at playing the puck, while Martin Brodeur until recently was struggling as bad as he did during the first half last year (when the whole team was in a collective malaise). Granted for the most part, I thought Marty's struggles were due to an inexperienced and shaky defense behind him, but after he got waxed in Colorado it took him a while to get his groove back. Coach Pete DeBoer had to pull the legend twice in a week's time at one point but strong performances against the Canadiens and Panthers show that Marty's coming out of his funk at least...even if the defense is still a question mark.
It's a team whose offensive stars - Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise - have largely underachieved, at least until recently. Yet, role players like David Clarkson (tied for the team lead in goals!) and Danius Zubrus have picked up the slack. Defensively, this team plays very well a man down but has more than its share of goof-ups with a man up and five-on-five. If anyone personifies the Devils' defense right now, it's Adam Larsson. The teen has been impressive enough to garner major minutes from day one, yet made more than enough mistakes to remind us all that he is still a teenage rookie. Derek compared him to countryman Victor Hedman a few days back, and sure Larsson's not as good as Hedman now but he might be better than Hedman was at eighteen - also when he debuted. It's hard to say since I didn't watch him every day like I have Larsson for the most part.
So what does that all lead to? A team a couple games over .500 that frequently is tied after sixty-five minutes, and is only over .500 because of their incredible prowess at the shootout...to the tune of seven victories in the skills competition against only one loss. This is a team that alternates three games winning streaks with three-game losing streaks. And for one reason or another, we've been a .500 team overall since acquiring Kovalchuk two winters ago - although as down as I've been at times on him this year (and early last year), I have to admit he's handling the switch to RW much better this time around. And having captain Parise on his line does seem to provide a good influence for Kovy, a guy who seems like he's one of those star talents that needs someone he respects to follow or look up to, like he did with coach Jacques Lemaire last year.
Does that mean we're going to be stuck in a roller-coaster version of neutral for the rest of the season? I hope not...a lot of Devil fans are hanging their hats on Travis Zajac's imminent return tomorrow night, treating it like Elias's comeback from HepA in 2006 in that it'll be something that propels the team to a great second half. I like Travis but I don't think he's that kind of player and anyway, it's not as if the rest of the team's automatically going to stay healthy throughout either. We found that out when Andy Greene came up with a non-displaced fracture in his toe and is going to be shelved for a month because of it.
At least the rest of the supporting cast other than Greene will be back in the fold tomorrow night, as Anton Volchenkov will return to the lineup and Henrik Tallinder will also play, after being shaken up late in Tuesday's game. GM Lou Lamoriello also made a move to further fortify the defense, acquiring Kurtis Foster from the Ducks to give us a booming right-handed shot from the point we've long been searching for on the power play. Current assistant Adam Oates and former head coach Lemaire each have familiarity with Foster, since he played with the Lightning when Oates was there and the Wild when Lemaire was in Minnesota. Packing their bags (mercifully) were forward Rod Pelley and defenseman Mark Fraser, who the GM had been trying to move since the season started due to their one-way contracts and tenuous position on the depth chart.
Even though I haven't been far from the team (apart from being at a movie and missing Tuesday's game), in some ways I've been chomping at the bit to blog due to my recent computer meltdown. I still won't have a fully functioning desktop until next week in all likelihood, and am only able to blog now by re-typing this post on a library computer after originally typing it on Word and saving it to a floppy disk. Which would have been fine except most new computers - including the ones at the library - don't have a floppy disk drive, and my work computer can't read my disk so I was basically stuck printing out a copy of this at home then retyping it at the library...sheesh! Where the heck have I been that I didn't realize floppys have become obsolete in new computers?! Guess it was time for me to upgrade anyway.
Between the missed penalty shot by Parise in the final minute of last weekend's game against the Habs and the excruciating loss against the Isles where Kovalchuk was booed out of the building, it's been tougher watching the Devils in person than on TV lately. I haven't seen a home win live since my foray into the clubs on the 8th of November. Hopefully it'll be a better atmosphere for Nieds night tomorrow than it has been in recent games, with a better result. If I can I'll post on that early next week, and on Doc Emrick's return to be the emcee for Nieds' ceremony - which will begin around 6:45 and last approximately 40 or so minutes, with warm-ups for the actual game to follow...an 8:08 faceoff against the Stars.