David Clarkson was an unlikely 30-goal scorer last season. He hasn't lost his touch despite not playing in seven months.
Clarkson's goal at 8:17 of the third period gave the New Jersey Devils a 2-1 opening-night victory against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
Clarkson made the NHL because of his abilities as an enforcer. But he's become a key offensive contributor for a team that often struggles to score.
“I told him, ‘If you want to score 30, you've got to score one today,'" goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "He scored, so he told me he's on pace for 48 [goals] now.”
Just 65 seconds after the Islanders tied the game on a power-play goal by Travis Hamonic, Clarkson put the Devils ahead when his screened shot from the right circle ticked the skate of Isles defenseman Brian Strait and floated between the legs of Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
"I see him wind it up and I lost it a little bit at the end," Nabokov said. "Regardless of a deflection or not, I have to battle through that traffic."
Brodeur stopped 18 shots and was rarely tested. Nabokov finished with 26 saves.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer thought Brodeur was "excellent" in his 657th career victory, adding that, "I don't know what he was doing [during the work stoppage]. He said he was golfing. I'm not sure I buy that.”
The Devils, coming off a six-game loss in the Stanley Cup Final last spring, dominated the first two periods, but couldn't break through until 14:01 of the second, when a bad Islanders line change led to a 3-on-1 break for New Jersey. Ilya Kovalchuk stepped around a sliding Mark Streit and put a pass right on the stick of a charging Travis Zajac, who lifted it into a wide-open net.
"We're going to have to score by committee," DeBoer said of a team that lost 31-goal scorer Zach Parise to free agency during the summer. "They're going to be low-scoring games. We're going to have to take care of our own end. I liked the fact that we didn't give up more than 20 shots tonight. That's the kind of hockey we're going to have to play.”
Despite the closeness of the score, the Devils controlled play for most of the night and looked much less ragged than the Islanders after the work stoppage.
"For the first game in five or six months, I thought structurally we were pretty good and we got some big saves from Marty when we needed them," DeBoer said. "I think the work the guys put in while we were off paid off tonight.”
The Islanders, who managed just three shots in the opening period and had only 10 through 40 minutes, tied it at 7:12 of the third period. With New Jersey defenseman Henrik Tallinder in the box for hooking Keith Aucoin, Michael Grabner found Hamonic alone in the slot. Hamonic ripped a shot over Brodeur's catching glove and under the crossbar.
Hamonic also had the Isles' best chance to tie the game, but Brodeur robbed him with 4:14 remaining.
"We can't be making excuses in here," Hamonic said of the Islanders' often-listless play, especially in the first two periods. "Maybe we have in the past. But as far as I'm concerned, that's not going to fly in here this year. Everyone's in the same position to start, and we just have to be more mentally ready to play from the start."
The game drew an announced sellout crowd of 16,170 to the Coliseum, which the Islanders are scheduled to leave after the 2014-15 season for their new home in Brooklyn.
“It was fun,” Brodeur said of the opening-night atmosphere. “There was a lot of speculation about the fans, how they're going to react to us coming back, but you come into a building that's usually empty and it's packed, I think it's great. I thought we had a great game for them. The atmosphere was as good as I've played here. I've played here for a lot of years and this was a fun day to play hockey.”
Islanders coach Jack Capuano missed the game for what the team termed medical reasons. Assistants Doug Weight and Brent Thompson ran the bench in his absence.
"A little jittery," Weight said of the Isles' performance. "That was a little disappointing. There was enough energy, maybe a little too much."