When the Flyers came into the Prudential Center last night, there was a little dread in the air. Officially a sell-out, the stands were far from full, and it was hard to blame the fans. The Devils had lost seven in a row, and not much was expected against a top team like Philadelphia. Well, you never know, and as they say in sports circles, “that’s why they play the game.”
The game contained 46 minutes of penalties in the first period, and an eventual 4-0 shutout for New Jersey. It was a game not to be missed. A game that wound up being very noisy, even with fewer than 13,000 people in the stands. A game that portends things to come between the two teams. Fans, think twice before you decide to skip the next Devils/Flyers game, especially if you love old-time hockey.
The Devils came out flying last night–playing very aggressive, disciplined hockey. Skating hard, pounding along the boards, driving to the net, and generally closing off all the lanes–this was an inspired group of hockey players. What New Jersey did was play Flyers hockey, turned on an unsuspecting Philadelphia team. And by the time Phillie realized what was happening, they were already down 2-0.
But, here is the very interesting thing, even when the Flyers adjusted, the Devils outplayed them at their own game. PA Parenteau, Miles Wood, Adam Henrique, and Kyle Palmieri all scored. It was a sight for sore eyes–eyes that had seen lackluster play for weeks on end. And it was not just the fans that were tired of all this. It was clear that management was about to do something drastic to shake up the team. What is not clear is what was threatened by Ray Shero and comapny the other day, but whatever it was, it seems to have worked. At least for now.
This is just my opinion, but last night was fun hockey to watch–the kind where scuffles break out all over the ice and no one gets hurt, but the on-ice officials struggle to keep control. It is not the kind of hockey anyone wants to see all the time (the beautiful skill game is a wonder to behold), but, as Head Coach John Hynes commented in his post-game presser, “it’s the type of game we are going to have to play to win.”
And Hynes is right. It is the kind of hockey that the Devils must play until there is more high-end talent on the team. Because, lets be honest, although there is no question that Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider are top players, after that there is a big drop off in talent. And, with all the other talent in the league, you just can’t win consistently without at least one top player on the blueline. This is nothing against Andy Greene (whose bobblehead night it was last night), but he is not a top defenseman in the NHL, and should not be a number one D-man on any team.
The problem for awhile had been the talent level in the organization, and until the players in the system develop (and more are drafted), New Jersey needs to be gritty and play with heart. If they do it, just as they showed last night, several ugly goals will likely go in the net and games will go into the win column. How many games is uncertain, especially when you play in the Metropolitan Division, but certainly some games.
The bigger question arises out of Hynes’s own, “it was only one game” caveat last night. Can the Devils do this consistently?
We will begin to see tonight, when New Jersey meets the Penguins in Pittsburgh (in the second half of a home and away back-to-back). Will the same snarly Devils team show up? Hynes says that he will employ the same strategy against the Pens as he did against the Flyers. But, expect to see a more uptempo, less physical, opponent tonight, which will make speed extremely important when the Devils take the ice at PPG Paint Arena. That will be tough, as New Jersey is generally nowhere near as fast as Pittsburgh. So, a more clog-up the neutral zone (ie, boring) approach seems best. Can the Devils do that and then defend against what likely will be a dump and chase strategy of one of the best teams in hockey?
Plus, mixing it up will not work against Pittsburgh. Physicality when the other team does not engage often results in a steady march to the penalty box–and if there is one thing you do not want to do against the Penguins, it is to take penalties. The Pens draw the most penalties in the league, and, even with the Devils’ 83% penalty kill success rate, Pittsburgh’s power play success percentage of 21.8% can and will be deadly to a low-scoring opponent.
So, the Devils will have their hands full tonight. It will be a good test of adversity for the newly rejuvenated New Jersey team. The second night of a back-to-back, away from home, at a speed disadvantage, against a top team. It’s a tall order, but not an impossible one.