The Devils are already reaping the benefits of getting some injured players back. Penalty killers and defensive forwards Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer both recently returned to the lineup (Pandolfo last Saturday against the Red Wings and Niedermayer last Wednesday against Vancouver).
Sure, the Devils were easily defeated 5-2 by an opportunistic Canucks team in Niedermayer’s first game back, but the next game against Tampa Bay was the first of the club’s current four-game winning streak.
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire explained earlier in the season that getting Niedermayer and Pandolfo back helps keep the offensive-minded players fresher. Case in point, Lemaire was using Zach Parise as a penalty killer when Niedermayer and Pandolfo were out, but now that they have returned Parise is being saved for more offensive situations and will have more energy and won’t become worn down as the season wears on.
Parise played at least 20 minutes in five of the six games prior to Niedermayer’s return, including a season-high 24:15 in New Jersey’s 2-1 shootout win against the Bruins on November 27. Conversely, in the five games since Niedermayer’s return, Parise has played more than 20 minutes just once in the Vancouver game and has played less than 16 minutes in the last two games. It’s no coincidence that a lesser used Parise is more effective, he has four assists and a plus-2 rating in his last three games.
Meanwhile, Pandolfo and Niedermayer’s contributions should not be overlooked because they are a major reason for the Devils recent success, even though the Devils were stacking up the wins without them.
It was clear that Lemaire’s squad wasn’t at its best Wednesday night against the Hurricanes. After building up a 3-0 lead against the Hurricanes, it appeared the game was in the bag, but after a flukey Brandon Sutter goal and a power-play goal by Tuomo Ruutu made the contest an interesting one before the teams headed to their respective dressing rooms for the second intermission.
In the third the Devils looked sluggish and were trapped in their end on multiple occasions. Devils fans at the Prudential Center were having flashbacks to Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs last season. The line of Eric Staal, Erik Cole and Ray Whitney was playing well and the Devils weren’t generating much in Carolina’s zone. New Jersey was still able to hold onto the lead and get the two points because the line of Pandolfo, Niedermayer and captain Jamie Langenbrunner was able to shut down Staal’s line and when then ‘Canes did break through Martin Brodeur was there with a big save.
Langenbrunner, who had been playing with Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston on a more threatening unit, switched places with rookie Vladimir Zharkov for Wednesday’s game. Zharkov earned the promotion by recording three assists in three games before the Carolina game. Lemaire is showing a lot of confidence in using both Zharkov on his second line and fellow rookie Niclas Bergfors on the first line with Parise and Travis Zajac.
Dropping Langenbrunner to a checking line isn’t really a demotion for the captain, but rather a signifier of just how deep the Devils are up front.