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Zach Parise Breakaway Leads NJ Devils Over Montreal Canadiens, 2-1, in OT Thriller

On December 16, 2009, the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens played each other in a sloppy game where neither team looked all interested of winning the game outright.  Yet, Patrik Elias put home a Brian Rolston-made rebound to make it a win for New Jersey on that night. Tonight's game was the opposite of that one in terms of the run of play.   Both teams played with a fire in their bellies all night long.  Montreal and New Jersey battled at nearly every part of the rink for the puck, and with every loose puck or fortunate pass, a scoring chance came up.  Martin Brodeur and Jaroslav Halak made impressive save after impressive save to keep the game tied up.  Yet, the end result was the same as the last time - the Devils did win.  Only it came in overtime and from Zach Parise on a breakaway.

I cannot empahsize how energetic this game was.  While the game featured 10 minor penalties, 8 non-coincidental ones in the first two periods, most of the action was up-and-down hockey.   Even when the teams struggled to penetrate the defense on offense, the puck was immediately moved up and the other team moved ahead.  As far as 1-1 games go, you really couldn't ask for much more.  Both teams created excellent chances and the defenses had to be big to clean out pucks in the slot and block shots (21 by both teams) when Brodeur and Halak did make a huge save.   

The winning goal was fitting for such an intense and dramatic game.  Andrei Markov, who is such a dominating presence at the point, decides to drive to the net with the puck.   Zach Parise's stick gets broken and as he goes to the bench, Markov is being closed off and driven wide by Travis Zajac.   Zajac wins the puck in the corner and sees Parise behind all four Montreal players.  He smartly fires a long pass, Parise snagged it and did what he is expected to do.  He beats Halak with a backhand and that's game.  Poor Halak, he was frozen on that play after stopping the Devils so many times earlier tonight.  On a night where both teams could have had 4-5 goals a piece, the goalies kept it close.   The Devils, however, did break through to win.  Just like the last time these two teams played.

Read on for my further thoughts on the game and video of the highlights via  Check out Habs Inside/Out for a quick recap and Habs Eyes on the Prize for any big-picture Canadiens info.

For the first two periods of the game, I would have described the game as being controlled by the New Jersey Devils except on special teams.  Montreal, who has the best power play conversion rate in the league going into tonight's game (24.5%) and the eighth best penalty killing rate, were superior on special teams.  In even strength play, the Devils were able to move the puck up ice well and get a few good shots on net.  In fact, Jamie Langenbrunner stretched Montreal with a long pass to Parise, who spun around to lay it off towards the net, and Zajac crashed the net to score the game's first goal. 

Yet, it was on special teams where the Canadiens really shown.  The first power play didn't score, but they just dumped shot after shot on Brodeur.  Montreal went on to out-shoot the Devils 11-7 in the first and it wouldn't surprise me if 5 of those were from that power play.  Mike Cammalleri was absolutely robbed on it too.   Exactly what you'd expect from the top PP in the league, I suppose.  Fortunately, the Devils' penalty kill stood up well after that one and only once were they beaten.

I can't even really fault the PK for the goal against.  Roman Hamrlik's shot from the post hit Brodeur, went through him to hit the bottom of the left post, and slid right across to Scott Gomez who was just standing there to begin with. Gomez scored one of the easiest goals of his career and I'm not sure what else could have been done.  Brodeur had no chance, the PK wasn't going to be able to block that shot, and because it was a shorthanded situation Gomez was going to be alone anyhow. I can only think that this could have been avoided by not taking the call. Rob Niedermayer's high stick was a dumb one, a stray one struck a Canadien in the helmet as he had the puck along the boards.  

Come to think of it, some of the penalties by both teams were simply not smart calls. For example: Travis Zajac's hook was only because he was beaten in the neutral zone; Maxim Lapierre boarded Colin White; and Brian Gionta picked Jamie Langenbrunner at the blueline.  If there's anything both coaches aren't happy about, it's those kinds of penalties.  I'm sure they're also not happy by that either team didn't do much with either power play.  OK, Montreal's first one was a bombardment and they scored on their third one, but the others could have put the game away but simply did not.  The Devils weren't setting up as many strong shots or as many shots; only 4 hit Halak, and many attempts involved using traffic in front, leading to more wide shots and deflections going wide than anything else.  The man advantage could have been used to blow the game wide open for either team, but instead it was lost opportunity.

I'm sure both coaches aren't happy with the accuracy with each team: 21 blocked shots and over 10 missed (12 for NJ, 13 for Montreal).  Though with the quantity of shots that did hit the net, it speaks to how both team's decided to focus on reactive defense as opposed to preventative defense.  There was a lot of bending (Hal Gill ingloriously led the game with 5 giveaways, Jaroslav Spacek created a 3-on-1 for NJ with a bad clearance, the Devils PK unit on Montreal's first power play kept it in their end for nearly all two minutes) but no breaking except for the overtime winner.

Still, both teams really turned it up in the third period.  They stopped doing dumb infractions - or the refs swallowed their whistles, if you're so inclined to think that way - and just played "helter skelter" hockey.  Passes weren't sharp but the desire to try and put something past Brodeur/Halak was off the charts.  I'd say the performances were generally even, though the Devils had more shots on net and by extension more big saves from Halak - leading Montreal in shots 11-7.

That the Devils won the game the way they did in overtime - their first win in overtime this season - is fitting.  One offensive surge by Montreal failed and the Devils hit back immediately and due to the nature of the play, you can't really fault Halak for being frozen.  Parise was all alone with Halak.  Sure, Halak stopped some 3-on-1s from NJ, cross-ice one timers (poor Elias, he was robbed on a PP), and some point-blank rebounds; but you can't fault him for being hung out there like that. If it happened to Brodeur, I'd say the same thing for the big stops he made on Mike Cammalleri (4 shots), Tomas Plekanec (4 shots), and Scott Gomez (5 shots).

In general, the ZZ Pops line had a great night.  Travis Zajac scored the game's first goal, set up the overtime winner, had 5 shots on net, and was the only Devil to have a positive winning record on faceoffs tonight (9 for 15).  He had a great night.  Jamie Langenbrunner set up the game's first goal - it wasn't at all a cheap secondary assist - and was noticeable in the 20:39 he played tonight.  In a game where the game flowed like a raging waterfall at times, Parise thrived with 3 shots, 3 takeaways, 3 hits, and an important goal and assist.   Outside of those three, I liked what I saw from the third line on offense, they handled themselves well against Montreal's third line. While the defense gave up 30 shots, I did think Colin White looked solid in his own zone with 4 blocked shots and 3 hits among his 23:31 tonight.

For the opposition, I can see why Canadiens fans love Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Markov.  Markov is a beast on the point and his only errors were being beaten in his own zone on the first goal and going too deep just before the second one.   That said, he is an important part of that team.  Cammalleri was robbed twice by Martin Brodeur and was threatening every time he stepped on the ice, signing him was a smart move for Montreal.  Gomez may not be loved, but as mentioned earlier, he was heavily involved in the high-energy attack that the Canadiens brought tonight.

Of course the big stars tonight were Brodeur and Halak and here's a highlight video from that proves it:

I'm glad that the Devils went out, played hard for all 65 minutes, and came out with the win in a goaltender's duel.  How this will affect tomorrow's completion (that is the term, I believe) will be interesting.  The team is sure to be tired, Brodeur deserves a bit of a rest, and now they have to go make up 3 goals in less than 30 minutes with less than 24 hours rest.   Since that may very well be a loss, the win tonight is, I think, important for the team's confidence. 

Thanks for reading and please leave your thoughts and questions about tonight's game in the comments.