Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Devils continue winning ways through Canada

On a mini two-game road trip that saw the Devils swing through Montreal Sunday and Toronto Tuesday, the Devils put another four points in the bank as stunningly, a playoff berth that looked iffy at best going into the All-Star break is becoming all but a fait accompli weeks after it. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of work for the Devils to do, specifically navigating a brutal March schedule where the team will play seventeen games in thirty-one days at one point. Before that however, come important home games against Vancouver on Friday and a suddenly resurgent Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon, the Devils' last two games before Monday's trade deadline.

Even with twenty-three games left to play and having key pieces still on the shelf, the Devils' consistency (23-8-2 over their last 33 games) has put them in a promising position to play in the postseason once again after their first April without playoff hockey in fifteen seasons last year. Not only are the Devils sitting in fourth place a point ahead of division rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but they're nine points and three games in hand clear of ninth-place Winnipeg - who happens to be tied for first with current third seed Florida in the usually interesting Southeast division. With teams like Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Washington far closer to their division lead than the Devils it seems unlikely enough teams will pass them at this point. What a change from just before the All-Star break where the Devils were sitting on the bubble in eighth place after losing four in a row!

Very little has come easy for the team this year however. Even in the Devils' relatively comfortable 3-1 win over the Canadiens on Sunday came reminders of this, when Anton Volchenkov took a puck to the face in the first period but even a deep gash wasn't enough to take out the Russian shot-blocking dynamo. However, fellow defenseman Bryce Salvador faced a much more formidable foe - a bug that caused Sal to miss the final twenty-five minutes and coach Pete DeBoer to remark later that 'He (Salvador) would have needed a Port-a-potty on the bench to play in the third'. That's about as graphic as I need to know! Without Salvador, the Devils had to go with five defensemen in the final minutes, including Peter Harrold - playing only his second game with the Devils after Kurtis Foster developed back problems and was a scratch.

As usual, Martin Brodeur had another outstanding game in his hometown. But the absence of his father (a Canadiens photographer) led to the revelation that Denis Brodeur was in fact recovering from brain surgery - a fact that had been known only by close friends and teammates for the last couple of weeks after Marty's brother texted him with the bad news that his dad had a brain tumor just hours before he was to play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps then it was oddly fitting that Brodeur came up with a stirring 31-save performance and his first shutout of the season. Unlike all the other pucks from his previous 110+ shutouts however, this one wasn't going in a glass case but straight to his father's bedside. Sometimes it's amazing just how much an elite athlete is able to focus despite a potentially devastating distraction. Thankfully, it seems as if the elder Brodeur came through the surgery well.

After the Devils' trip to Montreal over the weekend came last night's game in Toronto, another back-and-forth affair where the Devils took a quick 2-0 lead, then the Leafs tied it up with goals in the first and second before Alexei Ponikarovsky burned his former team with a late second-period goal. Ponikarovsky has been nothing short of a revelation since GM Lou Lamoriello acquired him from the Hurricanes in exchange for a third-round pick, contributing four goals and six assists in just thirteen games. Ponikarovsky, Steve Bernier and Danius Zubrus have at last given the Devils a third line that can score for the first time in seemingly forever. Zubrus had been part of a successful line earlier in the season with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora but has played just as well since getting matched with the Devils' two most recent additions. Bernier was a camp tryout and former first-round pick who didn't make the team and was riding the buses in Albany for the better part of the season before finally being promoted.

It was at this point in the game that I wound up having to go out to a late movie. While the movie (Hugo) was kind of sappy, the Devils as it turned out were writing their own improbable script. After blowing yet another lead in the final minute, a knucklepuck by Mark Fayne in overtime somehow skipped past Jonas Gustavsson in goal when it looked for all the world like it was going wide, to give the Devils a 4-3 win barely a minute into the extra period, further damaging the Leafs' already fading playoff chances while putting the Devils back into fourth place in the East.

With the deadline now less than five days away, speculation is high on whether the Devils will do anything else to fortify their team, specifically a defense which has suffered key injuries to Henrik Tallinder and Adam Larsson. Even power-play specialist Foster has had to sit out the last couple of games. Although a guy like the Caps' Dennis Wideman (if the Caps do decide to break up the team and cash it in for this year) intrigues me, the prices for defensemen now are through the roof. Especially after a middling guy like Kyle Quincey goes for a #1 - granted, a low #1 but still.

Can the Devils really afford to give up a first-round pick - which is what it would take to acquire a real difference-maker on the blueline, since we will have to surrender one to the league in the next three years to finish off the penalty for our Ilya Kovalchuk cap-changing contract? Giving up less for a role player like Marek Zidlicky may still be the path Lou chooses. Or...can they afford not to trade a first-rounder and make a move for a difference maker? After all, this may be the Devils' best chance to win for the next little while if Zach Parise walks at the end of the season and Martin Brodeur retires (for the record, he's given no indication that this will be his last season yet).

Decisions, decisions. At least one that we know will not be made involves Parise, as the GM and coach have both vehemently denied that the captain is on the block, nor should he be. You don't trade your captain and a key player when you're fifteen games above .500 and may just be a contender after all. Teams usually look to acquire UFA's to be in that situation, not give them up. Although the opposite may be happening in Washington where it seems obvious they're tired of the dissapointing core and may look to break up the team despite having every chance to win their division.

In the end, I think Lou decides that getting players such as Tallinder, Larsson and center Travis Zajac (assuming he's not in witness protection) back into the lineup will do more than any acquisition could. Maybe he'll try and shop at Wal-Mart for a defenseman as opposed to Neiman Marcus, but hey the Devils' last Cup run in 2003 was fortified by Wal-Mart pieces like Grant Marshall and Pascal Rheaume. Nothing wrong with shopping at Wal-Mart if you have a good enough team to win. Whether the Devils are good enough to win in April and beyond still remains to be seen, and won't be answered until then. After all, only eight players including Zajac remain in the lineup from the Devils' last playoff team not even two years ago, and only Brodeur and Elias remain from 2003.

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