Petr Mrazek's stock soars, Red Wings blank Devils
Newark, N.J. — Little in Petr Mrazek’s career suggested he would be down and out for long.
His second consecutive shutout, 3-0, over the Devils on Monday at the Prudential Center is more evidence that is the case. Mrazek stopped all 37 shots he faced.
The Red Wings relied on their goalie, a suddenly resurgent penalty kill and an early shift by Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Jonathan Ericsson and Joe Hicketts that turned the tide on a slow start, slowing down an improved Devils’ team and establishing an early lead.
The 21-year-old, diminutive Hicketts debuted and put big smiles on all of his new teammates' faces with a strong performance that may make it difficult for the Wings to put him back on I-96 towards Grand Rapids anytime soon.
Bertuzzi opened the scoring, with his second of the season and career. David Booth, placed on waivers in the morning, scored his fourth goal of the year, a booming slap shot from the left wing that deflected off defenseman Sami Vatanen’s stick and over the shoulder of goalie Cory Schneider.
Larkin added the insurance goal in the third period, his eight of the season.
The win ended a two-game losing skid for the Red Wings (19-20-7).
The Devils (24-14-8) played without top scorer Taylor Hall (17 goals, 48 points), who suffered a hand injury in the previous game. His absence helped the Red Wings kill five Devils’ penalties.
But that discounted Mrazek’s ministrations hardly at all.
“Lots of times for your kill to be good, your goalie’s got to be great,” said Jeff Blashill. “And he was.
“Certainly, on the penalty kill was where I thought we gave up the most chances. He was excellent on that.”
Asked if it might mean more playing time for Mrazek, after a clear decision to ride the hot goalie, Jimmy Howard, most of the first 45 games of the season, Blashill quickly answered, “Oh, without question.
“When you play to the level that he’s played, you push for ice time. You know, we talk lots about earning ice time. You’ve got to do it over and over and over again, and he’s done that here the last couple of games,” Blashill said.
Mrazek made several great stops, especially shorthanded.
His blazing lateral speed in the crease toed the line but did not exceed the limits of control. Quick, he remained in position almost without exception.
A save on Brian Boyle in the third period astonished and left the big Devils’ center shaking his head as he looked back at Mrazek.
“I felt pretty good before the game tonight,” Mrazek said. “I tried to build on the game I played in Chicago (4-0 win, Jan. 14).
“And, you know, I tried to stay focused. The first period was important on the road, and we were up 1-0, so that was a big one.”
Vowing to get off to a better start than against the Hurricanes Saturday, the Wings were failing. The Devils outshot them 7-3 early, and tilted the ice towards Mrazek.
But then came just the sort of shift they sought.
Larkin, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, Ericsson and Hicketts hit the ice and suddenly the Devils were hard-pressed.
Hicketts got it going with a well-timed pinch that kept the puck in the Devils' zone and established some offensive gravity.
Ericsson helped, grabbing the puck near the blue line and maintaining possession until the forwards could array. And the quintet won at least three puck battles.
On the last one, Athanasiou emerged from a scrum along the left wing sideboards with the puck and deftly shifted it to Larkin’s stick with a short pass. Larkin headed directly towards the net and got off a good shot that Schneider stopped. But Bertuzzi was there.
Bertuzzi swept the rebound past Schneider.
“The big key to that was our forecheck, and Hicks’ pinch there,” Bertuzzi said. “That makes it a lot easier on our forwards to gear up.
“And then we went around and Doubles (Athanasiou) was hard on the forecheck there and got it to Larks. Just a simple shot off the pad and we were all going towards the net, and it happened to bounce in.”
Booth scored at 18:12 of the second on a shot that looked, at first, like something out of a Bobby Hull highlight reel.
Forwards seldom score on a slap shot from the wing anymore. And it looked like Booth had picked a top corner with his, until replays showed the puck deflecting off Vatanen’s poorly placed stick.
“I was just trying to get the puck on net,” Booth said. “Coach has been saying that, just to get shots through, and I think over the course of the year some go in that maybe the goalie should have saved.
“It was nice to see it go in.”
Asked about the irony of being placed on waivers, which he would clear at noon Tuesday, if unclaimed, before scoring an important goal, Booth remained sanguine.
“That’s fine,” Booth said. “You know, at the start of the year I would have taken it. I’ve just made the most of it. I’ve enjoyed every day.
“Through the course of a year, you usually have your ups and downs. But, man, I’ve been trying to make the most of every day and really capitalizing on these ups.”
Larkin added his eighth of the season in the third, a blistering shot so quickly in-and-out of the net that the referee waved it off, before video determined, in moments, it was in.
After the game, Larkin ended his session with the media by asking for a moment longer with them.
He delivered a compassionate statement about the significant impact USA Hockey GM Jim Johannson had on his career.
Johansson, 53, died suddenly over the weekend, within three weeks of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, for which he gathered and selected the American team from non-NHL players.
“I do want to say one, thing,” Larkin said. “The tribute to Jim Johannson before the game, the New Jersey Devils did a great job with that.
“I know (GM) Ray Shero and (Coach) John Hynes and there’s a lot of USA Hockey guys over there, and to hear the anthem after that, it hit home.
“J.J. was an awesome guy who did a lot for every player who’s ever put a USA hockey jersey on, and every hockey player in the United States whoever put a jersey on.
“He’s going to be missed, and I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for my hockey career.”
Hicketts performed at a high level, blocking three shots to tie Nick Jensen for the team lead, and making at least two plays on significantly larger Devils forwards down low in front of Mrazek.
One of his bodychecks stopped Boyle in his tracks behind Mrazek and to his right, just before a shot arrived that Boyle might easily have tipped.
“It was awesome. It was everything I ever dreamed of,” Hicketts said. “The guys really helped me out.
“It was definitely special to have my family here, as well.”
Blashill said he thought Hicketts played well. Other than some mistakes on pinches at the offensive blue line, when a more judicious approach was called for, he had a fine night, the coach said.
As for the team, the coach professed satisfaction.
“I thought the key was the way we played, in general,” Blashill said. “I thought we played a real good hockey game, especially in the first and especially in the third.
“I thought our compete level was high. I thought we skated well. I thought we were on top of them.
“I didn’t think we gave up lots of space,” he said. “I thought we got pucks behind them.
“That’s the recipe for success.”