Postgame Thoughts: Devils 3, Sabres 2, SO (3/7/13)

Corey Griffin

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Bounce after bounce after bounce didn’t go the Devils’ way for two-plus periods Thursday night … until they did. A rebound ended up right back on Adam Henrique’s stick, same with Patrik Elias and then Elias had what might have been the biggest goal of the season (albeit a shootout score). Finally, the streak is over, hopefully for the Devils the pressure is off and  they can get back to playing a complete hockey game. Hopefully. Some thoughts…

Best player on the ice: The Devils aren’t anywhere close to being in position to win that game if not for Johan Hedberg. Moose has taken a lot of heat during this losing streak — and deservedly so. But tonight he was everything the Devils needed him to be. Hedberg was calm in the face of pressure, excellent with his positioning and made a couple saves he probably had no right making. He also got a few breaks (and caught a few posts, particularly in OT), but you tend to get those breaks when you’re playing well. One of the more impressive aspects of his game tonight was his puck movement. After a couple early snafus, including one that led to him committing a penalty in the first period, Hedberg settled down with the puck on his stick and directly set up at least two legitimate scoring chances for the Devils. It’s a small thing that Martin Brodeur usually excels at and it helps the Devils’ defensemen move the puck up the ice without asking guys like Bryce Salvador to carry it end to end. Pete DeBoer had no doubt that Hedberg would eventually settle down and reward his patience in the veteran and tonight, DeBoer’s faith paid off. The question now is whether this is a blip in the radar against a team that’s OK at best or whether it’s a sign of things to come. The Devils need it to be the latter because it doesn’t appear that Brodeur is coming back from his back injury anytime soon. Hedberg doesn’t have to win games like he did tonight, but he has to play well enough and not give up bad goals so the Devils are at least in games and have a chance to win.

Part 2: Hedberg may have kept them in it, but Elias saved the day. The Devils’ elder statesman with Brodeur sidelined, Elias did everything he could tonight to get the Devils out of the doldrums. The most important thing he did, though, was finish, which is something this entire Devils team (outside of Adam Henrique) has found basically impossible for the past 10 days. Elias, normally a playmaker content to play Robin to someone else’s (usually David Clarkson’s) Batman, consistently tried to attack the net tonight. He was credited with five shots on goal, which tied Henrique for the team lead and tied Elias’ personal high for this season. It’s something I’ve been preaching here for the better part of the season. The Devils needed to stop trying to set up the perfect play and instead just throw pucks at the net from all angles and makes plays off the rebounds and weird bounces that pucks tend to take when you fire from odd angles. On the game-tying goal, that’s exactly what happened. Clarkson took a simple point shot from just inside the blue line that bounce off Jhonas Enroth and happened to land right on the stick of Elias, who had basically the entire net to shoot at. Elias composed himself, settled the puck and put an easy one in the net to tie the game and earn the Devils at least one point. Also deserving credit on that goal was the often-maligned Marek Zidlicky, who instead of panicking and just dumping the puck from the neutral zone circled back twice and patiently found Andy Greene just over the center-ice line. Greene proceeded with a smooth touch pass to Clarkson and the rest is streak-busting history. And speaking of smooth — Elias’ shooutout goal was so wonderful to watch. I’m fairly certain Ryan Miller left his pads in New Jersey after that deke.

Streak busted: And thanks to Hedberg and Elias, Devils fans can calmly exclaim: It’s over, it’s over, it’s finally over! For a night. The Devils did some things very well tonight. They re-established their forecheck for long stretches and should have had more than two goals if not for some very strong work by Enroth. It will be a huge weight off their shoulders to not only have finally won, but to have finally converted some of the numerous scoring chances they’ve had going back to the final seven minutes of Tuesday’s game. All that said, the Devils have two tough tests coming up this weekend, starting with a trip to Carolina on Saturday and followed by their final meeting with those pesky Jets at The Rock on Sunday. Does DeBoer plan to play Hedberg in both of those games. Recent evidence would say, “Yes,” but I’m wary of starting him in back-to-back games and three times in four days. The Devils will need sharp goaltending, or sharp defensive work, against both the Canes and the Jets. The Devils are already very familiar with the collection of skill players on both of those teams and while it’s nice not to lose seven straight, one win does nothing if they go out and lose the next two.

Oh! Captain: Sarcastic emphasis fully implied and if you pronounce that correctly, you’ll know my meaning right off the bat. Look, I know you can’t bench your captain. It just doesn’t look right. But my lord, Bryce Salvador needs a night off. How many times is he going to get chasing the puck or get stuck in the corner or along the boards and leave his partner or a forward alone in front of the net trying to defend two or three players? It happened three times (leading to three goals) Tuesday and the same kind of play from Salvador was clearly visible before both Buffalo goals tonight. Now, on the first one, it wasn’t just Salvador that got caught. Mark Fayne and Henrique were also caught along the boards and Salvador literally was caught up in the mess of players and tripped while trying to get back to the front of the net — but the end result was the same. The Sabres had a 3-on-1 in front with Elias the only person in between them and Hedberg. As Chico Resch jokingly remarked on the replay of the goal, Elias looked like he had no clue what was going on. The end result was a Thomas Vanek one-timer and the Sabres’ first goal. On the second goal, Salvador had the puck on his backhand below the red line with Zidlicky waiting for a pass on the other side of the net so the Devils could move the puck out of the zone. Instead, he flubbed the pass and Brian Flynn was able to cut to the net for a scoring chance. He didn’t score, but it created a scramble that saw the Sabres continue possession and Flynn eventually batted home a loose puck from the right circle after the puck hopped over Elias’ stick. It looks like Salvador is fighting himself a bit right now and I wonder how much a night in the press box would help him clear his head. If only it were that easy. Maybe he’ll come down with some sort of “upper-body injury” that’ll allow the Devils to give him a night off.

Heating up: Before we get into the notes, I just want to point out that Henrique has goals in three of the Devils’ last four games and he’s looked better each night. He still looks a little off and he might be going through that dreaded sophomore slump-type season, but you can see in the last five days how important he is to the Devils’ offense. If Henrique can return to being a central offensive figure for the Devils, it’s only a matter of time before he and Elias get Clarkson scoring again. If that happens, the Devils will be a dangerous team to play against — the problem being that that is a very big if. While Henrique has found his scoring touch, Clarkson can’t buy a goal. He was absolutely robbed by Enroth during the second period tonight and the look on his face was along the lines of “You gotta be fucking kidding me.” I wonder if Clarkson’s shootout goal, which was almost as pretty as Elias’, will spark him in the next game. I have this feeling that once Clarkson breaks through this slump, the goals will come in bunches.

Notes: Interested to see how this whole Henrik Tallinder lower-body injury came about. The Devils said he was injured in warmups, but none of the writers at the game even saw him on the ice and Fayne, who wasn’t even supposed to play, was fully dressed at nearly the beginning of warmups. Something’s funky here. … The CBGB line got back together in the third period tonight after DeBoer started shortening his bench. I wonder if that’ll be the strategy for the next few games. … Travis Zajac looks like a man with no confidence in his shot. None. That’s gotta change if the Devils are gonna compete for a playoff spot. … How many times are the Devils going to swarm the man with the puck and leave the trailer wide open? It’s killing them and they’ve got to stop it. It’s a horrible, horrible habit. The Devils could’ve been down 1-0 after the first period again just like Tuesday — except unlike Tuesday Hedberg made a big stop he never should’ve had to make. … Kudos to the Devils for settling down midway through the second period. After the Sabres scored, the Devils were running around and panicking on the next two shifts, but DeBoer settled his boys down and got them back to playing their game. … Speaking of DeBoer, after moving Andrei Loktionov to the third line for most of the game, he went back to the Loktionov-Kovyalchuk combo during 4-on-4 play in OT. Really smart move and it resulted in a scoring chance. I think that’s a duo we’ll see on and off for the rest of the season, particularly in 4-on-4 situations.