2010-11 NHL season preview: New Jersey Devils

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ilyakovalchuk6.jpgLast season: (48-27-7, 103 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference) The New Jersey Devils won another Atlantic Division title while acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk before the trade deadline only to get pounded by the Flyers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs. Despite winning three Stanley Cups in their history, the post-lockout Devils are starting to earn a reputation as a team that is great in the regular season but can’t get it done when the games matter the most.

Head coach: John MacLean paid his dues by going through the Devils system, so now he’ll get his shot with the big team. Things didn’t go so well in Jacques Lemaire’s second stint with New Jersey and the team recently got burned by Brent Sutter, so the Devils must hope for some stability behind the bench.

Key departures: D Paul Martin, G Yann Danis, F Rob Niedermayer, F Dean McAmmond, F Jay Pandolfo and whoever leaves to clear cap space. The biggest loss was Martin, a player who struggled with injuries last year but was often one of the team’s top two defensemen. The other guys are depth players, but whoever leaves to make room for Ilya Kovalchuk – most likely Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner or a mid-level defenseman – will probably be the second biggest loss.

Key arrivals: F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Anton Volchenkov, F Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, G Johan Hedberg. OK, I know Kovalchuk came over last deadline, but his signing was such a headache that he makes sense here. Volchenkov is a valuable defenseman, but he’s coming at a hefty price and his shot-blocking style might make him a likely candidate for the IR. The trade to land Arnott smells of nostalgia, but he can bring some offense. Tallinder is a solid but quiet defenseman while Hedberg did well as a starter in Atlanta, yet might not be more than adequate as a backup. Overall, the Devils improved themselves.

Under pressure: When you are the focus of two months of tedious contract banter (and receive a $100 million contract), then you better deliver, so Kovalchuk is under big-time scrutiny. Zach Parise is also under quite a bit of pressure to drive up his own price in the last year of his bargain contract, while Martin Brodeur needs to win in the playoffs before people start giving up on him.

In other words, there’s plenty of pressure to go around.

Thumbnail image for martinbrodeurglance.jpgProtecting the house: Brodeur is the all-time leader in wins, shutouts and HEbaG (Hamburgers Eaten by a Goalie) and is about as automatic as death and taxes. He still puts up great stats year in and year out. Chances are the no-brainer Hall of Famer will play his typical ton of games because Hedberg is nothing more than an average backup.

On paper, their defense is uninspiring but the Devils’ system tends to camouflage many flaws. Volchenkov might be an upgrade on Martin as far as pure defense goes while Tallinder is another steady upgrade. If the Devils can keep Bryce Salvador, they have a decent trio along with the occasionally mistake-prone but rugged Colin White. The Devils struggle in the playoffs because they lack a true shutdown defenseman, so maybe Volchenkov will be worth those big bucks.

Top line we’d like to see: Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Parise. Sometimes, you get what you want, which is the case of the “ZIP” line. They’ve been tearing it up in the preseason, so don’t expect to see a lot of this trio in the regular season. Patrik Elias isn’t chopped liver in Zajac’s spot, either.

Oh captain, my captain: Jamie Langenbrunner might end up getting traded from New Jersey, but he’s a solid lead-by-example type who should maintain his captain status if he avoids a swap. Lemaire being out of town is a big plus in keeping him happy.

Street fighting man: Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond – rather than discussing his fighting merits, just watch this two-plus minute bout with Cam Janssen.

Best-case scenario: The “ZIP” line becomes the best scoring line in Devils history while Elias and Arnott are inspired to defend the honor of the Elias-Arnott-Petr Sykora line by putting up great depth offense, too. Volchenkov helps the Devils put together their best defense since they lost Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in rapid succession. Brodeur shakes off his playoff struggles and the Devils win yet another Cup.

Worst-case scenario: The Devils falter in the playoffs while Kovalchuk justifies all the “once a loser, always a loser” fears by putting up empty numbers in the regular season but struggling when it counts. Worse yet, the Devils allow both the Penguins and Flyers to pass them in the Atlantic Division so they don’t even have a division title to heal their wounds. Brodeur shows his age with a below-average season.

Keeping it real: The Devils are a top-heavy team that should be great in the regular season, but what about the playoffs? Arnott and Kovalchuk are one-dimensional players while Volchenkov puts himself into consistent danger by blocking shots (even though that’s just what he does). Brodeur has a lot of mileage, so that whole 70-starts-per-year thing might not be so wise any longer.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and a five being the best, they get a 5. They have some flaws, but every team has its blemishes. The bottom line is that this is the best Devils team in ages, one built to win now or (almost) never.

Sharks finally solve Gibson in OT to defeat rival Ducks

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Talk about perfect timing.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday, doing so in overtime to lift the San Jose Sharks past the goaltending of John Gibson in a 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

Facing off against their California rivals for the first time this season, the Sharks dominated puck possession and on the shot clock. Had it not been for the play of Gibson, this one could’ve been a lopsided win for San Jose.

Gibson replaced Jonathan Bernier to begin the second period. Bernier left the game with an upper-body injury.

In relief, Gibson made 24 saves on 25 shots. Vlasic was the only San Jose player to get the puck past him, but not before the Ducks managed to steal a single point.

The Ducks recorded the single point, but did so faced with a short-handed lineup as the game continued. Not only did Bernier leave the game, but so, too, did Ryan Getzlaf, who didn’t play a shift in the third period.

He left with an upper-body injury, as per the Ducks, who at the time listed his return as questionable.

Elliott backstops Flames to victory in his return to St. Louis

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24: Matt Stajan #18 and Lance Bouma #17 of the Calgary Flames congratulate Brian Elliott #1 after a shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Flames defeated the Blachawks 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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So, it seems Jake Allen was onto something.

The St. Louis Blues goalie noted a few days ago that Calgary Flames fans shouldn’t be worried about Brian Elliott despite his early-season struggles.

Well, Elliott has since put together strong performances in back-to-back games against Central Division opponents from Chicago and then St. Louis.

After earning a shootout win over the Blackhawks on Monday, Elliott was put back in the Calgary net to finish off the back-to-back road set.

Facing his former team, Elliott made 23 saves on 24 shots and the Flames recorded a 4-1 victory. It was a special return to St. Louis for Elliott, who spent five seasons with the Blues.

“I saw that on the schedule from a while ago in the summer,” Elliott told NHL.com. “You want to come back here. I had so much fun playing in front of these fans in this building and wanted to do it again even though it was another team. The guys did a heck of a job in front of me to get that win for me.”

Not a bad trip for the Flames, with a maximum four points against two teams considered to be contenders in the Western Conference.

“I thought we were good in front of him, too,” Flames coach Glen Gulutzan told the Calgary Herald. “I thought we kept a lot of the stuff to the outside, but he made some big saves, especially at the end, when we knew their push was coming.

“I thought that was when he was his best. And that’s what you need — we put ourselves in position to win and then he carried us through.”

Bernier (upper-body injury) gives way to Gibson in Ducks net

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01:  Goaltender Jonathan Bernier #1 of the Anaheim Ducks during the preseason NHL game against Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson began Tuesday’s game on the bench, but was forced into action to begin the second period against the San Jose Sharks.

Jonathan Bernier, who got the start, left the game with an upper-body injury and was doubtful to return, the Ducks stated on Twitter.

Bernier has played in only one other game for Anaheim so far, making 42 saves on 45 shots in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 15.

‘Dig in there with the rest of the guys,’ says Babcock after leaving Andersen in against Bolts

OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 12: In his first game as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen #31 puts his mask on against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on October 12, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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Frederik Andersen‘s difficult start to the season continues.

After an interesting exchange when questioned about his goaltender prior to Tuesday’s game against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning and some guy named Steven Stamkos, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was once again forced to answer inquiries about the play of Andersen, who allowed seven goals on just 24 shots.

Andersen stayed in the crease for the entire game, as the Leafs lost 7-3. He certainly didn’t get much help in the defensive end from his teammates in front of him.

Stamkos started the scoring for Tampa Bay, and continued it with a rocket one-timer past Andersen, before finishing with a four-point night.

But in Toronto, the conversation about the amazing play of rookies like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner seems to have shifted to the play of their goalie, acquired in a blockbuster deal with Anaheim, in which Toronto parted ways with a first- and second-round pick to make it happen. The Leafs then signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal.

Playing on a new team in a hockey-crazed market has likely been an adjustment. His season also started with an injury in Olympic qualifying.

Following the loss Tuesday, Babcock explained his reasoning for leaving Andersen in net for all seven Tampa Bay goals, two of which came late in the third period.

“I want him to play. He’s my guy. I want him to play,” said Babcock, as per Jonas Siegel of The Canadian Press. “So I could pull him and then say, ‘Okay I showed you!’ But what did I show him? To me, dig in there with the rest of the guys, make the next save and give us a chance to come back and win the game. You can’t do that sitting on the bench.”

The Maple Leafs face the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Florida’s goalie Roberto Luongo knows all-too-well about the pressures that come with playing the position in a Canadian market.

It is early in Andersen’s Toronto tenure.

But Babcock will likely be facing a similar line of questioning until his goalie turns it around.