Friday, March 2, 2012

Devils pound Caps 5-0, ending a four-game losing streak



Okay, everyone that was on the ledge after the Devils' four straight losses put them within six points of the playoff cut line can collectively exhale now. We will not lose every game the rest of the season, and in fact our 5-0 win over the Caps was not only the easiest win of the year, but a meaningful one as it pushes us eight points clear of a spot now - as well as back into sixth place after Ottawa's loss. Tonight was a team effort but the clear star was captain Zach Parise, who had a hat trick by early in the second period, breaking him clear of a three-way tie with Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson for the team goal lead.

Other standouts included Johan Hedberg - who recorded a 23-save shutout in his first game action for nearly three weeks, and Danius Zubrus, whose goal at the end of the first period was punctuated by a backwards roll celebration. As Devils beat writer Tom Gulutti wryly observed, Zubrus probably does a move like that every day in his role as the Devils' official dj. Clearly Zubie (who's played center and wing on different lines this year) will do anything the team asks.

Perhaps the most astonishing play of the night came from Clarkson though, on a Devils' power play opportunity in the first when he whipped an accurate behind-the-back backhand to Parise on the goalline, and he beat Caps goalie Michael Neuvirth from the 'impossible' angle to give the Devils their opening goal. Not only was it a nice pass, it came from someone who normally has trouble completing a five-foot pass to a teammate right next to him. Clearly playing with Patrik Elias has finally rubbed off at least a little, since that play is something you might normally see from the Czech wonder. And Elias did get on the scoresheet later with a shorthanded marker, off a brilliant feed from Zubrus on what turned out to be a two-on-zero for his 21st goal of the season.

Having the quartet of Parise, Kovy, Clarkson and Elias all at 20+ goals for the season, the Devils are remarkably the only team in the league to have the distinction of four 20-goal scorers. That doesn't even include role players like Zubrus, Petr Sykora (who will play in his 1000th NHL game Sunday against the Isles) and Alexei Ponikarovsky - despite his late scratch due to a minor lower body injury suffered in the team's game at Boston last night. Indeed, injuries proved to be the only worry of the night after the Devils jumped out to a 4-0 lead early in the second, and the team for once saw there would be no agida late in the game - although it must be said they were helped out by a Caps team who surprisingly looked disinterested despite their own tenuous playoff position and recent three-game win streak.

One injury nearly did cloud the game, when the Caps' Matt Hendricks and Brooks Laich wound up sandwiching Parise as he was falling down, Laich's stick made contact with Parise's jaw and evidently knocked some of his teeth down his throat. With the captain down on the ice, everyone feared the worst but after mandatory concussion tests revealed nothing, the captain came back on the bench and even played a shift in the third period just to show everyone he was fine. With the score what it was though, Parise sat out much of the second and the rest of the third period and indeed, played fewer than ten minutes. At least he made the most of them with his quick hat trick.

After the Devils suffered four straight one-goal losses, tonight was just what the doctor ordered. Especially with rivalry week coming up, as the Devils have four straight games with the Islanders and Rangers (three with the Isles alone), followed by a home-and-home with the Flyers early next week. Our tour of the tri-state area begins Sunday with a trip to Long Island, ending our four-game road trip - which began at the Garden ironically enough. After home matchups with the Rangers and Isles on Tuesday and Thursday, the Devils go back to Long Island next Saturday before playing the Flyers at home next Sunday and on the road the following Tuesday. Even though the Rangers are too far gone to catch as far as the division goes, and the Isles are looking at another playoff-less season, next week will still be intense no matter the records.

With the schedule not letting up until the end of the regular season, it's important for the Devils to maintain their stride and not let up. True, high seeding isn't exactly important, especially with few true 'easy' matchups in the playoffs but March swoons have cost us before facing teams in the playoffs that had to play their best down the stretch. Not to mention they still have work to do on maintaining a lead, losing a one-goal lead at Boston in the third period being just the latest example of this team's poise problem late in games. Fortunately the Devils haven't let slumps linger. After their other two four-game losing streaks this year, the Devils got hot immediately afterwards. Hopefully this one will boomerang the same way.

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