By switching up his top two scoring lines, Coach Paul Maurice seems to have found something.
The first unit of Eric Staal
, Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose
scored three goals at even strength last night – putting in a dominant performance at both ends of the ice that hasn’t been seen in this series since Zach Parise’s unit was so good for the Devils in the first three games.
“I can’t complain,” said Staal. “They’re two pretty good players who have a lot of quickness and speed, and they showed it tonight. We were on the puck pretty much the whole game.”
The Canes’ second goal in particular was a perfect example of what all three players bring to the table when they’re on their game. LaRose forced a turnover with his hustle and went straight to the net; Whitney corralled the puck and made a great no-look drop pass (“getting it to the big boy,” as he would surely say); Staal found the back of the net with a quick and powerful release. You really can’t draw it up much better than that.
As good as those three were together, and this may sound a little strange, but it might be wise to not get too attached to them. Besides the obvious factors of playing in your own building in front of your own crowd, home ice advantage has been important in this series due to the fact that the home team controls the individual match-ups.
That being said, Staal will likely go against the Devils’ John Madden in Tuesday’s Game 7, as he has in each game at the Prudential Center thus far. Given the way he played last night it may not matter, but it will certainly be a tougher defensive challenge.
If the game starts and Staal’s unit is limited, it will be up to the team’s other lines to step up. Although no other lines scored at even strength in Game 6, they also played well and Maurice has already said that there probably wouldn’t be adjustments prior to game time. However, he’s never been afraid to switch things up during games if he feels they aren’t working.
In a game that I expect will more closely resemble Game 5 than Game 6 on the score sheet, just one goal from another group would be huge. Amazingly, the players who currently make up the team’s second and third lines – Matt Cullen, Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu, Rod Brind’Amour, Sergei Samsonov and Patrick Eaves – have exactly zero goals between them, even with last night’s complete team effort.
This is where Maurice’s well-placed confidence in his team’s overall chemistry comes in. If Madden and company do the job for the Devils and no one from the aforementioned group breaks through, it may be too many eggs in one basket on a top line featuring the team’s three best offensive performers in this series, and there could be another change as the game goes on to spread things out.
You can’t necessarily plan on that, because if the Canes play the way they are capable of and get a repeat performance from last night, the current combinations will work just fine. If not, it’s nice to know that an on-the-fly change like the one that united Staal, Whitney and LaRose at the end of Game 5 can bring quick and favorable results.
In all the talk about the top three lines, I do want to make sure the fourth unit gets their due. When the Canes are completely healthy, Maurice has been using that group in this series more than he typically had during the regular season. In addition to their typical high-energy play, they role of providing relief for big minute players was very important last night.
“Bayda, Jokinen and Walker tonight were really good,” said Maurice after the game. “What it did is it bought time and energy. Their minutes weren’t high, but because of the intensity level – Staal’s line and Cullen’s line, they had been working – you could feel it on the bench that they needed that fourth line to play.”
Jokinen added a goal last night, although it came on the power play, where I feel he has excelled since joining the team, and not with his usual mates at even strength. Given what he has meant for the team, along with the unexpected production of Bayda (two goals) and Walker (two very good assists), it’s a luxury to have those players in that role.