Remember in school when the kid you most feared was given power by the teachers? How you cringed every time you thought you came into his sight? Well, that is what it is like for opponents when the Devils’ Taylor Hall is on the ice. No, he is not the school’s bad boy, (pa)trolling the halls. But just like the kid you long ago had to watch at all times, Hall will do harm to others if he is ignored.
So, when Hall, the Devils’ best player, returned to the ice last night after missing eight games from a torn meniscus, the Chicago Blackhawks were carefully watching. And although you won’t see his name in last night’s game summary (the Devils lost 4-3 in OT), because he did not post a point in the game, Hall’s presence and the threat of his presence was felt on every shift. Head Coach John Hynes summed it up perfectly, “Taylor did what Taylor does. He impacts the game, he’s got great speed, he’s a tenacious competitor … it was good to have him back in the lineup.”
What Hynes did not say though is that part of what makes Hall so dangerous is that he is now not the only threat in the Devils’ lineup. Gone are the days of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marty Brodeur being the Devils only real weapons. This team has many–three offensive lines worth, in fact. And several on D.
But no player other than Hall is as lethal right now as last year’s Devils’ point/game leader, Mike Cammalleri. Cammalleri missed six games in mid-November because his young daughter was very ill and has been on fire since his return. Named the NHL’s second star last week, Cammalleri led the league with four goals and four assists from his return on November 23rd. Last night, he assisted on one of Travis Zajac’s three goals, and barely missed a game winner in OT when his shot hit the post.
It was Zajac who got the hat trick last night, and Zajac who is getting the well deserved press this morning. Not Hall nor Cammalleri. But make no mistake, it was both Hall and Cammalleri that were key players in making it a competitive game in Chicago. Attention paid to those two allows other players, like Zajac, more space. Which translates into goals.
Before last night, Hall and Cammalleri had not played in a game together since November 8th. But despite them being out for a total of 14 games over the last month (and the team being on the road for eight of 11 games since then), New Jersey’s record is still a very presentable 10-7-6. That record puts the Devils fourth in the wild card race in the Eastern Conference. And even that statistic is deceptive, as New Jersey is only one point behind Tampa Bay for the second wild card spot–with two games in hand.
So, the Devils are well positioned for the rest of the season. Particularly as the schedule becomes more favorable. After a game in Nashville on Saturday, the Devils finally will begin to play at home. Of the 13 games in the next 24 December nights starting Tuesday, six games will be at the Rock. It is only a start though, because it is not until February that New Jersey finally plays most of its games at the Prudential Center (in fact, 17 of the Devils’ 41 home games will be played at the Rock in just February and March). Given how well the team has played at home in its nine home games thus far (7-0-2), that may be a late season blessing.
Late season blessing, or an exhausted team finally sleeping in their own beds? We cannot know at this point, but what we do know is that Hall is back, and opponents had better beware. We also know that this month will be an excellent test of exactly how good this team is–opponents include the Rangers, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. The two consecutive Sundays (the 11th and the 18th) against the Rangers should be barnburners; we should have a much better assessment of this team after those two games.
So, lets hold off until after the 18th to talk the playoff picture for this team, but I will keep watching those Eastern Conference wild card standings. As should you.