If the New Jersey Devils need proof they can win without their biggest star, all they need to do is look across the ice tonight.
The Devils will face the surprising Ottawa Senators tonight in the first of a four game road trip at Scotiabank Place. Ottawa lost several key contributors from last year’s playoff team, including Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to a torn Achilles tendon. Also missing are center Jason Spezza (back injury), goaltender Craig Anderson (sprained ankle) and right wing Milan Michalek (right knee surgery).
Spezza, Karlsson and Michalek were the top three scorers on Ottawa’s roster last season. Anderson posted a 1.49 goals-against average and .952 save percentage in 15 starts this season. Despite losing that production, the Senators sit comfortably in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 40 points.
New Jersey will look to replicate that success without Ilya Kovalchuk. The right wing is on injured reserve and will miss two to four weeks after injuring his shoulder in Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. He plays in every situation – even strength, power play and penalty kill – and averages 25:13, the most of any skater on the team and tops among league forwards by a wide margin.
Kovalchuk is second on the Devils in assists (17) and points (27) and is tied for second in goals (10).
“They’re the perfect example,” Devils goalie Johan Hedberg said of the Senators. “They lost all their stars pretty much and they’re still playing great hockey. They’re battling for each other, they have a lot of pride in their game, so we shouldn’t have to look too far to get convinced that it can be done. But we know also that we have enough talent in this room that we could be a very, very good team even though we lose a guy like Kovy.”
One of the reasons Ottawa continues to succeed is the improved play throughout the lineup. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar leads the Senators with 22 points, including a team-high 20 assists. Kyle Turris, Daniel Alfredsson and Jakob Silfverberg are tied for the team lead with eight goals. The tandem of Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner is a combined 9-5-4 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
The Devils enter tonight seventh in the Eastern Conference with 36 points. They lead the eighth-place New York Rangers by two points and sit one point behind the sixth-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ottawa has won four of its last five games, including a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday. The Senators jumped out to a 4-0 lead after the first period, but couldn’t put the game away. Tampa Bay scored three times in the third period to shrink the deficit to one. The Senators held on, and Alfredsson iced the victory with an empty-net goal.
The Senators won the first meeting against the Devils in a shootout on February 18. Stephen Gionta scored 1:19 into regulation to give New Jersey an early 1-0 lead. It lasted until the third period, when Alfredsson beat Martin Brodeur with a backhand shot to tie the game at one.
Silfverberg was the only successful shooter in the shootout, beating Brodeur glove side in the third round.
Bishop stopped 30 of 31 shots in the win, and was a perfect 3-for-3 in the shootout. Brodeur stopped 29 shots through regulation and overtime.
David Clarkson admitted the loss of Kovalchuk will be hard to replace, but knows it can’t be an excuse to derail a push to the playoffs.
“Over the years here we’ve been through a lot,” the Devils right wing told Gulitti. “We’ve lost key guys in the past to injuries and we find a way. That’s what good teams do. That’s definitely a big hole to fill, but we’ve got to come out and find a way for everybody to battle together. This is going to be tight and we’re going to have to play our game. You look at Ottawa and they’re a team that they’re missing some of their top players and they’re finding a way to win every night. There’s no excuse.”