The return of Scott Gomez to the New Jersey lineup was not an overly welcome thought for Devils fans. Yes, he left the Devils for the Rangers and has been a below average NHLer ever since (read: karma). But more importantly, it signaled a low point for a team dealing with 4 straight losses, injuries, poor play and requiring inspiration from a thirty-four year old who had scored 13 goals in his last 4 NHL seasons combined. The only reason to be excited by Gomez’s inclusion in the lineup was the guarantee that many references would be made to the Devils’ Cup winning teams of 2000 and 2003.
However, fans were instead treated to perhaps the team’s best effort of the season – a very 2000/2003 effort – allowing 1 goal on 23 shots, albeit in a loss. Even after losing three forwards to injury between the first two periods, the Devils put together a complete game and with a little puck luck, could have easily left Pittsburgh with at least a point. The most optimistic stat to take from the game is that for only the third time this season, they allowed fewer than 25 shots against. A much more Devils-like number than the 30+ they have been averaging.
The game could have easily gone the way of the first matchup of the season when the Penguins scored 7 straight goals against a terrible Devils team. By mid-way in the second period, the Devils were playing without Patrik Elias, Stephen Gionta and Jaromir Jagr. Instead of packing it in, role players like Jordin Tootoo, Steve Bernier and Dainius Zubrus stepped in along side the remaining scoring threats in Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Damien Brunner to keep the Penguins on their heels. Defensemen Andy Greene and Eric Gelinas played well in the offensive zone and Corey Schneider made huge saves on the inevitable odd man rushes stemming from the added offensive pressure.
Another bright spot for the Devils was the continued strong play by Jacob Josefson. While he still hasn’t reached the expectations of a first round draft pick, Josefson is finally contributing on a consistent basis. He tied for the team lead in shots with 3, and also played significantly on the penalty kill, which shut out Pittsburgh’s top ranked unit. He’s been strong on the puck and his speed is a much needed asset in an ever aging and slower moving forward corps. As long as he stays healthy, which has always been a big question mark, he has the potential to make his mark on the team. With the injuries at center, he could have the opportunity to play on a top-two line providing even more of an opportunity for growth.
The effort was certainly reminiscent of teams only expected to be seen in Gomez highlight packages tonight. The game featured a playoff like atmosphere with big hits and hustle plays outshining the razzle dazzle hockey that the Penguins are used to. A pesky Devils forecheck created numerous turnovers and strong play in the neutral zone kept the Penguins at bay for most of the game. Adam Larsson and Marek Zidlicky were strong defensively – the latter getting into the head of Evgeni Malkin enough to earn him a 10 minute misconduct to end the Russian wingers night. Assuming none of the aforementioned injured players are out long term, joining a list that includes Travis Zajac, Marty Havlat, Ryane Clowe and Jon Merrill, the Devils have to be excited about the effort they proved they are capable of. As they get their offensive fire power (relatively speaking) back, there is reason for optimism that this team can start winning games. And if they have any hope of re-creating the success during Gomez’s previous tenure, they need to start winning games fast.