Hockey is back, and despite all of the bad feelings during the lockout, I’m loving it. Devils win, Flyers lose, Rangers lose.
I watched the Penguins-Flyers game just to bark at the Flyers in a warm up for the Devils home opener on Tuesday.
I’ve made up my first nickname of the season – the Kovulchuk-Zajac-Zubrus line shall be known as the Scrabble Line (total value 63, and only Valeri Zelepukin would be worth more than Zajac, based only consonant placement and not puck control).
It’s great seeing the big fourth line from the playoffs — the CBGB (Carter Bernier and Gionta’s Brother) line — back as the third line, and rookie Stefan Matteau anchoring the fourth line. Marty looks like the rest and late start served him well. Patrik Elias’ “skating age” is much younger than his chronological 36 and change. Zid looks stronger than the beginning of last season. Travis Zajac is still the man.
Everything hockey related is clearly rust-tinted. A line’s worth of Devils making sloppy passes. msg.com website was down for an hour. NHL’s scoreboard didn’t provide any updates for most of the evening. And some things never change – the MSG Network Islanders announcers still cannot pronounce Patrik Elias’ name properly, which is both disrespectful to Patty and their own profession.
Ryan Sutter-Zach Parise are a combined -2 in their Minnesota debut. I guess $194 million doesn’t go as far as it did pre-lockout. Maybe they’ll realize that Heatley isn’t the same kind of playmaker as Zajac or Elias.
#hockeyisback people. Loudness ensues.
It’s time for another list, albeit a shorter one.
The Devils have shown poise, confidence, endurance and and work ethic that has already broken two of the sports medias “facts” – that teams up 3-0 wrap up quickly and that the Kings can’t lose on the road. Both are false. More importantly, successive hockey games in the finals are dependent trials; the results of one most definitely depend on the previous result. It’s called momentum (you can call it luck, or the bounces, or hockey deities, but it’s the result of playing with momentum).
1. The Devils have momentum. It’s simple now: Win one game in LA, then it’s a single game for the Cup. They only have to focus on Monday night.
2. The Kings look tired and are making plays out of frustration or with bad judgement. Salvador’s game-winning goal came when Nolan turned toward the boards, not into the play. Look at the way Henrique blocked shots at the point, and compare to Nolan sliding board-side to give Sal a clean look. Combine with Clarkie’s screen and it was an ugly goal, but a well-played goal. LA has yet to play more than five games in a series, and nothing with this pace. It will catch up to them. The high sticks, late penalties, and bad hits are a sign that there are bad cogs in that previously fine-running machine.
3. The Devils are having fun. You could hear the whooping in the locker room post-game. This is a team that is playing for the pure love of the game, to give 110% every shift. Best comparison: 2004 Red Sox, and Damon’s “we’re just a bunch of idiots having fun” comment.
Look at the fans wearing big moustaches, or the signs in the stands, and the number of people going flat-out nuts for every playoff game. The fans are having fun too, and if it comes down to Game 7, we have the noise advantage.
The bad news: Parise is likely done for the year, Taormina is probably also done after ankle surgery (12 week recovery from that one, been there, done that), Salvador may have suffered a Scott Stevens-like concussion, and the team is still dead last in the NHL.
But there’s good news, for the first time since the Kovulchuk signing: 9 points in 5 games, for a 90% points attainment. Goals by the handful. Production from all lines. Defense that plays to support the wings on the forecheck and move the puck out on the backcheck. A team that doesn’t fall apart in the 2nd period.
There was likely no single cause for the Devils’ first half collapse, nor a singularity pushing them forward with 40 games to go. Clearly, Langenbrunner wasn’t a great fit as captain – not that he’s a bad player, or the team was bad, but there was a mismatch (I quit two jobs for the same reasons; great outfits with smart people and good outputs, but not a good fit for me). Some of my root cause guesses (back in November) about training and conditioning weren’t that far off, according to Lemaire’s assessment of the team when he arrived. And maybe everyone had overly high expectatoins without any statistical evidence to support MacLean. It’s hard to assess his capabilties based on a short tenure in the AHL, especially when several players on that team were developed by his predecessors (Example: Kurt Kleinendorst. He has a great eye for talent and what to do with it, as a coach and a scout).
But I have hope. I’ve changed my deathwatch on the sidebar to an upwardly mobile ticker: points out of 8th place, and less snark in the stats below. With 36 games to go and 23 points, they’re looking at needing to go 28-9 or better down the stretch (figuring the #7-9 teams will play about 0.500 hockey, give or take a few games). In attainment terms, that’s 78% or more of the available points. It’s not impossible, but it’s far from likely. A 90% run rate in the last five games gives snowballs a brief chance in the Devil’s Den.